Snow Crash author on the state of storytelling in games

GDC Online 2011: Neal Stephenson details weekly workouts on Halo 3, the appeal of John Marston, and why Dungeons & Dragons is the future of storytelling in games.

Who was there: Neal Stephenson, author of science fiction classics like Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, answering questions posed by GameTrailers TV's Geoff Keighley.

Neal Stephenson

What they talked about: Given Stephenson's tangential relation to gaming, the first question was about the author's relationship to games. Stephenson called it "slightly unusual," saying he binged on Halo for a while and noticed that he'd have problems losing track of time. He said it was incompatible with certain aspects of his life (and a desire for physical fitness), so he compromised. He built an elliptical trainer with an Xbox 360 rig in front of it, and now, he plays Halo 3 single-player for 45-minute stretches a few times a week as a way of getting his exercise and enjoying games to boot. More recently, he played through Portal 2, and "I've looked over the shoulder of a large number of teenage boys who inhabit my house, and I've been able to vicariously play BioShock and Red Dead Redemption." While he's tried other games, Halo 3 is "the most cracklike" game he's found, and he doesn't need to learn anything new to play it. Currently he's about two-thirds of the way through the campaign on the legendary difficulty.

Despite being a storyteller, Stephenson said he actually prefers an earlier style of game that was lighter on the narrative. However, he's followed the emergence of fiction set in game universes with interest because he said science fiction writers create worlds. Books can do a fairly good job of creating the impression of a world beyond the one in the story itself (he pointed to maps, family trees, and timelines included in books), but Stephenson said games are better situated than a paper medium to convey the richness of that world beyond the core narrative.

As for games with branching narratives, Stephenson said it's a very hard thing to make work because the author winds up with an abundance of possible outcomes; too many to make it practical. "Where we need to get is where you actually tell the story as you go along, which is what happens in the old-school pen-and-paper style Dungeons & Dragons game," Stephenson said, "then the story can go wherever you want it to go."

Stephenson said he played a fair amount of Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption, and he was struck by the contrast in character setup between the two games. Fallout gives players options to customize their characters at the outset, with their decisions having ramifications in the game proper. However, in Red Dead Redemption, "you're always the same dude." On an abstract level, Stephenson said he expected character customization to be a cool thing, but he didn't miss it at all when he played Red Dead Redemption because Rockstar did a good job developing the character of John Marston.

When asked if he would want to get involved in game development, Stephenson admitted that right now, he's able to sit on his butt at home and be paid for writing from there. So anything that requires him to get up and go some place--like "embedding" within a developer to work closely on a game--is a tough proposition.

When he plays games, Stephenson doesn't normally notice or bother himself with bad dialogue unless it's repeated over and over, he said. He called it a "forgiving medium" because the bad stuff is usually easy to ignore in the midst of the gameplay, while the good writing is warmly appreciated.

Looking ahead, Stephenson said he'd love it if the industry got to the place where game worlds were simulated to the point where players had the freedom to act out whatever story they want. On the other hand, he said if he had been told 20 years ago about the graphics technology present today, he would have found it very difficult to believe. Ultimately, he said it's a matter of solving the engineering problem.

By definition, writers are laying out a series of events that are unchangeable, Stephenson noted, which makes for an interesting contradiction with interactive games. However, the world-building process won't change, and Stephenson said writers can still be crucial to creating a "more fertile starting point," putting the raw material out there for players to take the story where they want.

Stephenson's latest book, Reamde, is set in the world of gaming, a decision Stephenson said he made because of gold farming. He called the practice "one of those things that makes you want to quit writing science fiction because you could never think of something that weird." He put that together with a story idea he'd had for years about a young hacker who must deal with fallout when a virus he writes seriously inconveniences a very powerful person. Stephenson has dabbled in the world of massively multiplayer online games, saying he played some World of Warcraft on the elliptical trainer with his laptop, but had to stop when he hit the point where advancing meant having to dedicate serious time to the title.

As for whether his own books would lend themselves to game adaptations, Stephenson said there are action-focused moments in books that lend themselves well to games, but there's a lot of stuff that doesn't. He recalled playing a realistic World War II U-boat warfare simulation, and he noted that being on a U-boat was "very boring, most of the time." The trick then is to pick out the moments in the books that lend themselves to gaming and then figure out what to do with the rest of the material in there. Stephenson said there was some work on a Snow Crash game from Viacom in the early '90s, and there are discussions from time to time about projects like that, but there's been no serious effort to bring his work to games.

In a bit of audience Q&A convention crossover, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell said he loved Reamde, and he asked Stephenson about whether he'd travelled to many of the far-off locations depicted in the novel. Stephenson said some of it was seen with his own eyes, but he admitted other pieces were seen through pictures and Google. There's a calibration process involved in his research because he needs to see the place, but if he stays in one place too long, he feels compelled to put too much of the research into the story and, sometimes, at the expense of readability.

Quote: "I think we're coming out of an earlier phase of the writer's relationship to the game."--On the switch from having backstory fleshed out after the fact to having writers on staff building out the world of the game from the start.

"It's one of those 'Be careful what you wish for' things, with movies and with games."--On why he hasn't aggressively pursued adaptations of his work.

Takeaway: Neal Stephenson likes games and wants to see how their storytelling potential is fulfilled, but he's too successful writing his own projects right now to make the jump from a consumer of games to an author of them.

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