Interview with Dan Pinchbeck: Literature and Videogames

(This article is cross-posted from Coventry Words.)

Dan Pinchbeck

Dr. Dan Pinchbeck is a former lecturer of Video Game Theory at Portsmouth University. He and his wife, composer Jessica Curry, head British videogame developing studio The Chinese Room. His writing is best known from the rather literary Dear Esther (2012) and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (2013).
I’ve interviewed him to find out what he has to say about creative writing in videogames.

-We understand you studied Drama. Was this due to a preference for scriptwriting? Did video game writing present itself as a natural progression or was it your plan from the start?

It was a progression really – I was a stage manager and fight choreographer mainly, but always really interested in technology and performance, and given I’ve been playing games since the late 70s, it was a natural one as soon as the chance came up.

-From your experience, how does writing for video games differ from traditional scriptwriting?

Well, I’ve not written professional for other media, but it’s definitely very different. It’s much more collaborative and iterative, you need to be really aware of all of the other factors, particularly what the player brings to the mix. We don’t work with traditional cutscenes, everything happens without a break of the player’s ability to act, so that’s quite challenging. And you don’t usually have a lot of time for things to unfold, you have to get used to delivering information and emotional beats in a really short space of time. But I love all of those things, I wouldn’t want to write for anything else at the moment.

-Do you feel that video gaming and storytelling are intrinsically linked? Are there upper or lower limits to how literary a game should be?

There’s lots of games where writing and story is less relevant or not needed at all, so it really depends on what you are doing. In any game that does have a story though, it’s really important to see it as central to the process, not an afterthought. Writing can help with overall pace and the unfolding of events and action, and can be used as a design tool to help signposting, framing action, contextualising what the player is doing. It’s not just about slapping some plot on afterwards, it’s a really powerful too. And no, I don’t think there should be limits. You’ve always got to push things forwards, see where you can get to.

-How do you respond to criticism against the development of ‘high-brow’ games?

It’s not like there’s a shortage of non high-brow games, so it doesn’t worry me at all. The fact we’ve got such an amazingly diverse medium now is amazing and should be celebrated. If there was only one type of game out there it’d be a pretty dull place to be. So I think if you don’t like high-brow games, the answer is simple, don’t play them. No-one’s going to force you to. And there’s no sign that they are dominating the market or reducing the quality or number of other games in any way, so it’s kind of a non argument really.

Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

-Do you feel artists and writers could benefit from exploring video games as a medium? Should an artist learn how to program to do this?

That’s a big question. I think like any other medium, it’s a craft that requires time, skill and dedication to really get right. It would very much depend on the artist or writer, what they want to do, etc. It’s more important that we have a body of really talented specialists making games who don’t feel like they have to ape other mediums and understand the very unique things that games can be and do. Understanding the technical aspects of game development is always important if you are going to do it though – you wouldn’t write a film without understanding what the constraints and opportunities in cinema are, or knowing at least a bit about the design history. And games are complicated, really complicated, to build. Lots of people who don’t know games don’t have any idea about how complicated and difficult it is.

-You have a high opinion of Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver’s Doom novels, even though in popular opinion they’re somewhat pulpy. Could you explain why they’re important?

Ha, well, yep, they are more than a little pulpy, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pulp. I don’t know how important they are in terms of literature, but what’s important about them is as early examples of game stories crossing into another format. That’s a good thing, it means it’s not just a one-way thing of stories coming into games, but games generating stories that can find life in other forms.

Doom novel

-Your writing often uses dysphoria as a form of complicating action. Do you feel sadness is important for storytelling?

Again, it really depends on the story. It seems to be something that we do well and are naturally drawn to. You’re really looking for a range of emotions in a well put together story, not something that’s one dimensional. Dear Esther is pretty flat in terms of emotional range I guess, but [A Machine for] Pigs and certainly [Everybody’s Gone to the] Rapture expand on that. Sometimes you have to just understand that you are wired a certain way, or tend to produce things with a particular tone. I’m naturally quite a dark writer.

Concept art for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

-To an extent, it’s possible to extract a formula from your writing. Did you invent the mechanism of combining extended metaphors, or were you inspired by other writers? If so, which ones?

That’s fantastic! Yeah, I love a bit of symbolism and imagery in writing, I like the idea that the emotional sense you get is as important as understanding a plot or literal interpretation. So few game scripts have anything resembling poetic use of language in them, it tends to be very descriptive and surface level. It’s not something I invented, but I think our games are usual in how much freedom the language has.


-If you didn’t mention any authors in the previous response, can you list us some you feel resonate with your style?

I can tell you my major influences, I wouldn’t want to suggest what I do is in anyway on a comparable level of quality! Novelists I really love include the Strugatsky brothers, Philip K Dick, Margaret Atwood, J. G. Ballard, Iain M Banks, China Mieville. I tend to mainline science-fiction and am definitely drawn to sprawling, idea heavy stuff. Rapture is very inspired by British apocalyptic sci-fi of the 60s and 70s – Ballard, John Wyndham, John Christopher. And I’ve always loved William Burroughs. He and Sam Shepard were definitely defining influences. And poetry. I love Galway Kinnell and Andrew Greig.

-What academic paths would you recommend for someone looking to work in a similar career to yours?

I really don’t know if I could answer that. A good creative writing course is useful for honing your skills, and there are definite skills to sculpting a good dramatic script that shouldn’t be overlooked. Actually getting into the industry is difficult for writers and is more about contacts than courses. Like most jobs in the industry, a portfolio is crucial, having some visibility for your work, even if it’s a free title or a mod.

-Are there different writing roles within video game development? Should a writer be flexible, or is it better for different writers to work in segments such as narration, plotting, dialogue, etc?

It depends on the size of the studio and the project. Large AAA titles usually have a team of writers, mainly focusing on scenes and dialogue, under the management of a Narrative Director who will work at a high level with the design and production teams to sculpt the overall story. They will do things like engaging with the Art Direction – even more than film, in a game, the storytelling is delivered via visuals and audio outside dialogue. That can be challenging for a traditional writer.

-Your new game, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, will début shortly on the PS4. What kind of writing can we expect to see in it?

That’d be telling. Good writing I hope.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

-Despite the success of Dear Esther, you haven’t published any non-academic literary fiction we know of. Do you plan to do so in the future?

It’s a question of time as much as anything else. I write our games, but I also design them and run the studio with Jessica Curry, our composer and studio head. We’re involved in every aspect of production and it’s a more than full time job. Maybe one day, but I love writing and designing games and I don’t feel any great urge to expand into other media just yet.

It was wonderful to get the chance to interview Dr. Pinchbeck, and I hope a lot can be learned from his responses. Maybe in the future I’ll get the chance to work with him again.


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