Interview with Faculty Chris Bateman »
- How long have you worked in the video game industry?
Perfect Entertainment in London hired me in 1996. How long ago was that? 21 years. Wow, the time has really flown by! I was working on point-and-click adventures, and I got to work very closely with Sir Terry Pratchett (although he wasn’t knighted then), who was far and away the best script editor I ever worked with.
- Where did you get your education?
Books, mainly, but if you mean where I studied I went to University of Manchester to study Astrophysics and ended up jumping ship to Computer Science along with a dozen other students over a dispute about access to computing facilities. Actually, that situation was all about the MUDs—the games that were the forerunners to games like World of Warcraft—and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Peter Crowther’s UglyMUG changed my life in that regard. After the undergraduate degree, a Masters degree with the unwieldy title of “Advanced Computer Science with a Specialization in Artificial Intelligence.” Later, I used all the books that I had published as a means of getting a PhD by Publication from University of Bolton.
- How long have you taught classes on game narrative?
Well, my friend and colleague Richard Boon and I have been teaching workshops on game narrative for the BBC and Sony and other clients since the early 2000s. I didn’t start teaching at universities until 2012, though.
- At which other schools do you teach?
Anywhere that will have me! But I am a Senior Lecturer at University of Bolton in the UK, and a Visiting Professor at LCAD. It’s fun working for two campuses that are 5,000 miles apart. That’s one hell of a commute!
- For how long have you worked at LCAD, and what class or classes have you taught?
This is my third year teaching Game Narrative for LCAD’s MFA program in Art of Game Design. It’s a truly brilliant course, a mixture of the best of industry and the best academic instructors giving an incredibly broad education at the highest level. A true honor to be part of the faculty for that masters degree.
- Which of your current projects are you able to discuss?
I am currently working on ten videogame projects with my consultancy, International Hobo, and also on two book projects. Most of the videogames are under non-disclosure agreement, but I have permission from Kalypso over in Germany to announce our involvement in Tropico 6, which has been a really challenging—and highly rewarding!—project to work on. I’m also working on a really inventive education game series called Variant with Triseum over in Texas—the head of that company, Andre Thomas, was one of my first students at LCAD, actually. Other than that, there are some RPGs, a VR game, some mobile games, and a retro strategy project. Really, I’ve never been busier than I am now, which is nice to say.
As for the books, well, I have one at proposal stage with MIT Books, and another coming up in Spring 2018 with Squint Books in London entitled The Virtuous Cyborg. It starts from the idea that with your smartphone you are already as much of a cyborg as you could ever be, and then challenges us to ask the question: how would you know if you were a good cyborg? It’s short and accessible, but it also gets deep into the question of our relationship with technology, both as videogames and as social media and the Internet in general. I’ve been working in philosophy for a while now, and I feel like I’m really hitting my stride. I’m looking forward to sharing The Virtuous Cyborg with everyone, and to opening up new conversations about what kind of cyborgs we want to be.
- In which capacities are you working in relationship to your current projects?
I run International Hobo Ltd, so I’m effectively managing director, but my main jobs are as narrative designer, script writer, and game designer. I mostly get hired to work on narrative, but actually my core skills are in game design. It just turns out that to be a great narrative designer, you have to make stories and games work together. You just can’t do one without tackling the other.
- How many books have you written about the study of game narratives?
Just the one so far, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, with the IGDA’s Game Writing Special Interest Group, which I set up and won an MVP award for. That said, my first philosophy book, Imaginary Games, does deal with questions that directly relate to the role of fiction in games and artworks, and so I might also count that.
I am hoping to write a new book on game narrative within the next decade, but right now I am focused on securing a new publisher for Game Writing, since the original publisher has let the paperback edition go out of print. I’m a bit of a paper loyalist, so I’m in talks with a major publisher to take over publication duties… but it’s a slow process!
- What directed you toward video game narratives as a career focus?
Well, it wasn’t really the plan, I have to say! My background was always as a game designer, but I had a lot of experience in developing fiction both for tabletop role-playing games (I designed several before starting in videogames) and a few novels too. When I started at Perfect Entertainment, they wanted me to script Discworld Noir, a wonderful mash up of fantasy and Film Noir. That was my first at-bat in game narrative.
When I set up International Hobo in 1999, I knew there was a gap in the market for bringing game design and story skills together, so that was the core of the business model. But I always saw myself as coming in on the game design side. It’s just that, over the years, I got more and more work in game narrative because there was a real need for those services. So, I became a narrative designer because that was where the money was, to be honest. If it had been up to me, I would have stayed in tabletop role-playing game design, but, then I would have struggled to stay fed! Whereas game narrative has been very good to me, and I feel like I’ve given quite a lot back to the community too.
- How do companies need to introduce their writers into game production for a cohesive story?
Well, a standard method that the industry has tended to use is to hire a Hollywood or a TV writer and try to slam them into the game development process. And what tends to result is a game that is half screenplay, half game. There’s a place for that, but it’s usually a pretty weak game narrative that results. If you want to get the most out of storytelling in games, you need to understand that stories are themselves a kind of game, and so game narrative is about making different kinds of games work together. That’s how I teach game narrative at LCAD, and honestly, for companies that know they need their staff to work with stories in their games, sending someone to study the Art of Game Design MFA at LCAD is a winning move, especially since the degree can be pursued part time while they continue to work.
- (optional) Do you have any thoughts on the concepts of the ludology vs narratology?
Well, Espen Aarseth has rather taken all the fun out of this one by pointing out that all the ‘ludologists’ were trained as narratologists, and he’s right, certainly for him and Jesper Juul who are key figures in that fight. I have made the point that this ‘fight’ was not so much a boundary dispute as it was sparks flying as game studies tried to assert itself as its own field, and that was important, as without that, and without journals like the one Espen publishers, we wouldn’t have had game studies.
But I’m kind of sad that the legendary conflict here has now been deflated, as it is emblematic for a very tangible and ongoing dispute about how to understand games: to understand them as systems (ludology) or as narrative artefacts (narratology). And we still have a problem here, because understanding them primarily as systems results in what I’ve called “fiction denial,” a kind of failure to recognize the role of imagination in games that Imaginary Games focuses upon. But you can’t just understand them using the tools of classic narratology either, because (to be frank) the player ruins everything. And they’re entitled to. That’s what the role of player grants! So I fear the gulf remains even if its historical basis is now being brushed under the carpet.
- In your opinion, in terms of early games or board games that inform current game narratives, what are the major sources of influence in the game sphere right now?
Everything hinges upon Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It needn’t have been, but as a simple matter of fact it was this game (and the other tabletop RPGs) that set up the key patterns of game narrative—even entirely conflicting patterns emerge from this same influence. Now partly that’s because D&D was a revolutionary new concept of game, and partly that’s because early videogame makers played D&D (or played games that had been made by people who had played D&D) But I can’t summarize this very easily. You can find the complete argument in Imaginary Games, and of course it’s part of my Game Narrative module at LCAD too.
It’s not that early arcade videogames didn’t have an influence on the way games developed—they certainly did!—but their influence was not fundamentally narrative, because the arcade was tightly constrained in terms of its narrative pretentions by the demand to get more coin drops. It was at home that games had the time to expand into narrative spaces. The tabletop role-playing games were the exemplars of this. If you look at all of the biggest games today, only Candy Crush Saga stands out as owing a bigger debt to the arcade than to the tabletop, and, of course, it’s very light on narrative. But World of Warcraft, all the many gun games, Minecraft, Pokémon GO, Clash Royale, these are all games with vast debts to Dungeons & Dragons.
- When you work with a team what are important factors you take into account to make sure the project will “succeed”? (depending on your opinion of what “success” entails)
Communication first and foremost. You can tell which projects are going to fail because they’re the ones where communication breaks down, or was never established in the first place. Communication is what gets you to the end of the project, and that’s the first measure of “success.” The second measure of success is critical success, and that depends upon giving enough space for the game vision to be executed. Meetings sand down rough edges, but if you sand down too far you’ve got nothing but sawdust. So you need to get that balance between empowering creative individuals to excel and checks-and-balances to make sure they don’t go off the deep end. The third and final measure of success is commercial success, and although marketing and luck are important factors here, an absolutely crucial element in attaining market success is matching the game to its players. It’s not enough to make the game you want and hope it succeeds. I’ve learned to my peril that this is a colossal gamble. You have to understand that games have communities of players, and that without marketing spend you aren’t going to making a new community, on the contrary, you’re going to come into an existing community. So, you better know what that community enjoys (and asking them usually isn’t enough).
- What practices do you wish the current industry leads would implement to create more meaningful narrative experiences?
Well, it’s tempting to say they should just bring in International Hobo to consult, but honestly there’s only so much one company can do. If I could make three changes to the standard practices for game narrative it would be the following:
Firstly, bring in narrative design during pre-development. Don’t try to bolt on your script later. It’s too late to make good game narrative once the production design is complete. Get it early, and get it right.
Secondly, hire narrative designers to work out the story, not TV or film screenwriters. Narrative design is the magic bullet that makes meaningful narrative experiences. A good scriptwriter can be a great asset, but a game story has already failed if it didn’t get quality narrative design. There’s a place for anyone who can write a decent line of dialogue, but the game narrative battle is already won or lost long before the first line is written.
Lastly, learn from the theatre not the movies. When games ape film, they produce thrilling action sequences in vacuous narratives. Theatre is the medium that has to work with the same kind of tight constraints as videogames. Novels have too few constraints, movies are now so high budget that they too have too few constraints. But constraint is design, and good narrative design comes from a good understanding of constraints.
- What are the most evocative game narratives in the current play space? (Or, perhaps more simply, what game narratives do you like?)
I am surprisingly ungenerous about game narrative. Nothing is good enough, and I include my own games in that statement. Maybe I’m too demanding. In terms of high agency games like open world games, I fear that we hit a peak in 1984 and ’85 with titles like Elite, Lords of Midnight and Paradroid, and it’s all been downhill since then. Production values have shot up, but nothing has matched the high point of these early experiments (although Elite Dangerous is a more than worthy successor of the original). For all the love that the GTAs and Elder Scrolls games get, I remain dissatisfied with the direction that these open world games have gone, although now isn’t the time to explain why. They’re great commercial products, don’t get me wrong. I just want more out of these high agency games than I’ve seen anyone try.
In terms of authorial intent, the videogame’s industry’s grandest folly, Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, remains rather astonishing, for all that it is horrifically over-engineered and utterly ill-conceived as a commercial project. The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther is an impeccable ghost story, and although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Konami’s Silent Hill 2 is something of a flawed masterpiece of horror narrative (even though the original Silent Hill is arguably a better game). Tale of Tales’ Sunset doesn’t quite work in terms of its explicit narrative, but it’s a triumph of authorial intentions. It’s a gallery game, quite the most original artistically motivated videogame I’ve encountered, although Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus is also quite astonishing, and probably my favorite game of this century. Notice how non-commercial these authorial intent games are, though. The artistic achievements in games are quite disjunctive from the marketplace. I think this is perhaps true of many other media as well.
So what is it that I’m looking for that I’m not finding in game narrative? I’m looking for someone to take the essence of what makes the greatness of a Shakespeare play, or a Jane Austin novel, or a Charles Dickens serial novel, or an Akira Kurasawa film, and to work out how to wed that intensely crafted authorial intent with the agency that is a key element of why videogames are an exciting medium. But it needs to happen without resorting to production-heavy techniques like branches in narrative that anyway don’t add as much as they ought to (given the immense costs and limitations involved). We’re too heavily invested right now in either ‘decisions with consequences’ or ‘player freedom’ (which is anything of the kind), both of which are basically means of player appeasement. It’s good to have happy players, of course, but it’s stopping us from pushing the medium to its limits.
I sometimes hope that one of my students will find a new approach to game narrative. Nothing would please me more than to have played some small role in finding a path forward from where we are now. We have great games, and some have good stories. But we still haven’t created a truly great game narrative. But we keep edging closer, and that in itself is exciting.