Interview with Jakub Szamalek by Michael Greer
For podcast release Monday, February 6, 2017
This weekend in Portland, Oregon, as part of the annual PubWest 2017 Conference, Michael Greer joins CCC’s Chris Kenneally for a special presentation on “The Future of Storytelling.” Our guests – by way of video recordings – are Jakub Szamalek, an award-winning video game writer and novelist, born in Warsaw, Poland, and Karla Zimonja, co-founder of Fullbright, an independent video game studio in Portland.
As a special preview of the PubWest program, Beyond the Book is delighted to share a portion of Michael Greer’s interview with Jakub Szamalek. In 2012, Jakub joined CD PROJEKT RED, the Polish game developer behind the critically-acclaimed international bestseller Witcher franchise. He is also the author of a series of crime novels set in ancient Greece. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and holds a Ph.D. classical archaeology.
GREER: In an interview at Book Expo America last year, you said something that offers a good place to start a discussion about narrative and storytelling in print and digital media. And what you said is this – no amount of bells and whistles will help you if your story’s not good enough. (laughter) So what makes a story good enough to transform into a successful game?
SZAMALEK: Well, I think the rules are the same and apply to all media. So a good story has to have believable characters and clear motivations for the characters, and it has to have some suspense and surprise the reader, and it has to have a satisfying closure. So I think that, even though games are an exciting new field and it’s a very young medium that’s only dozens of years old as opposed to books or movies that have been around for much, much longer, I think the rules are very similar.
And even though games are very impressive visually and it’s easy for us – or easier – to appeal to your senses, to your visual senses, to impress you with special effects and explosions and whatnot, if you aim to tell a story, it has to be a good story, and you cannot mask a bad story with cutting-edge graphics or anything of the sort. A good story has to stand on its own.
GREER: And what do you think – what makes The Witcher novels – what makes them good source material for a game, kind of following up on that idea?
SZAMALEK: Yeah, so I think that adapting books into games is very difficult, because games are to be played, and so game play is a very important part of experience. And you cannot have a good game without having a good game. So even when you have a good story, you tell a good story, if you do not weave it together with a satisfying experience in terms of game play, it will not click.
So the synergy between game play and the story is very important. And some books are much easier to retell or show with using the language of the games than others. And Witcher is a good example of a book that really worked very well, because witchers are traveling monster slayers, so you roam the world and you fight monsters for pay. And there’s always a story behind it, and it’s always more complex than that, but the basic premise of what a witcher is and what he does in the universe is he travels around and kills monsters.
And this is very easy to translate into a game. It’s easy for us to create a game play experience around that. And actually there’s way more in terms of little things that define the Witcher universe or witchers that are ideal for showing in a game. So for example, witchers use simple magic, so they have six signs, and each of them does a slightly different thing.
And this is ready to be shown in a game. It’s very easy to show in our medium, whereas other great books would be very hard to turn into a satisfying game play experience. So I know I love books by Ursula Le Guin, but I think they would be very hard to turn into a game and retain what’s characteristic for them and for them to be good games. The Lord of the Rings books are fantastic books, but they are hard to transform into good games.
So I think part of our recipe for success was to pick a good book for turning into a game, so we identified a good source material.
GREER: Yeah. So I definitely think so. And one of the things about Witcher is he goes around slaying monsters but people have this habit of wanting to tell him stories, and he becomes almost a psychologist in a lot of these situations. And as a result of that, he gets involved in all these moral dilemmas. He faces an incredible number of different choices.
But where I think The Witcher goes beyond many of the games that I’ve played and experienced is those choices are never clear cut. It’s never obvious that one answer – oh, this is the good guy answer and this is the evil guy answer. It’s always shades of gray. And oftentimes the witcher will be drawn into a story or a situation, and later he’ll find out he’s been played. Somebody has lied to him to get him to do something that he probably wouldn’t do if they told him the truth. And so you realize that you’ve made a decision based on false information.
So one of the things, I think, from the standpoint of narrative and story – I mean how do you write and compose a story that can have so many different endings? As a player, you are in effect writing the story. You can choose A, B or C. What kinds of plot problems does that cause for you, as a writer?
SZAMALEK: Well, we have to be very well organized and very systematic. That’s for sure because, as you said, the story has many branchings, and I think the main storyline of The Witcher has 36 different possible outcomes, so there are three different playable epilogues, and each of the three versions shows consequences of your major decisions. So there are 36 different permutations, and that’s without counting hundreds of small quests, which also have their own nonlinearity. So we have to make sure that we stay on top of all that and that we remember about all the possibilities and it’s all written up somewhere and people can consult it and not get lost.
So we have to keep in mind the branching tree of the story line at all times, and it is difficult, especially since games are made by a lot of people. Like when you’re writing a book, you are the sole owner of the book and it’s your responsibility to remember everything of importance about your characters and you don’t have to make sure to keep someone else informed, whereas we have to make sure that the whole rest of the studio knows what’s going on and what they’re doing does not contradict the story.
GREER: You mean you’ve been talking about some of the structural issues and the plot forks, but it’s also the writing and the characterization, and a lot of the stories – yes, there are dragons in this world and there are monsters and there are slaying. (sic) But at their core, so many of the stories are so human. They’re about life and death and addiction and sexuality and loss and mourning. Do you think about that when you’re working on these stories – that at their core, there’s little short stories –
SZAMALEK: Absolutely. So I think when you’re working in a fantasy universe or you create a fantasy universe, there is this temptation, or maybe even a trap, to throw in something amazing or outrageous or very appealing just because you can. So you can use magic and you can have dragons and you can throw in a nice giant or fire-breathing unicorn, because in this universe you can do whatever you want. But in the end, it might be appealing at first glance but it’s flat. And what we always try to do is to keep in mind that, even though our world is made up, we have to make sure that it looks as if it could exist somewhere else – an alternative universe, another dimension – it could be real – when we write.
GREER: And that’s a really wonderful answer and I think makes a nice kind of transition. I think many people would look at novels and games as such different experiences. In a novel, you’re reading. It’s somewhat passive. And in a game, you’re playing it and you have more control of the story, but so we’ve been talking in some ways about the differences, but I’d like to twist that around and look at in what ways novels and games are actually similar.
And there’s a game theorist named Brian Upton. Are you familiar with Brian Upton’s work? He has a book called The Aesthetic of Play, and he develops this framework for understanding game play that can help analyze why some games succeed and others don’t. And he talks about there’s a deep structure to play that transcends cultural boundaries. And he looks at this concept that he calls narrative play, and he ends up arguing that novels are actually more like games than we might think, because what he’s saying is, if you turn it around and look at a novel from the standpoint of game design, good novels are often open ended.
And here’s a quote. He says,“the potential for divergent interpretation is the very thing that makes stories interesting. If everything within a story is obvious and explicit, there’s very little play for the reader. Instead of reading like a work of fiction, such a story will read like an owner’s manual – full of information but not terribly entertaining.”
So what do you think of that? I mean do you think there’s some way – having worked in both worlds, to what extent is reading a novel similar to playing a game?
SZAMALEK: Well, I definitely see similarities between good stories told in games and in books. And I am absolutely 100% positive that a good story has the same features respectively of the medium in which it’s told. For me games are defined by interactivity, so by the fact that the player is engaged and has to have an active input in order to progress the story.
And, well, books lack that – at least in a very physical sense. The only way in which you interact with a book is by turning the pages. And of course there is a lot going in your head, and obviously in a way you interact with a story because you interpret it, you wonder what will happen next, you think about motivations of the characters. When you are reading a crime novel, you are constantly trying to guess who’s the killer, so obviously you are engaged in the story. But for me this isn’t true interaction because, whatever you might think and whatever you come up with, the book does not respond to that.
So it certainly engages you and it provokes you in thinking about the story it tells, but there is no feedback loop. So I think that, as interesting as it sounds, I think that this is something that books lack – and then what truly defines games for me. So I would say that for me this interpretation is just going a little bit too far.
GREER: A lot of people these days see books and games as competitors for readers’ and consumers’ attention and money. And one of the interesting stories about The Witcher is the way the games actually had a synergistic effect and promoted sales of the books. And in fact my understanding is that the books were popular in Poland but not elsewhere until the game came out, and now they’re translated into 20 different languages. Do you know – can you tell a little bit about that history?
SZAMALEK: Well, it’s a little bit more complicated, because Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of The Witcher saga, was very successful even before the games, and the book was translated into a number of languages – into Spanish, French, Czech, Russian and so on. But he was mostly popular in Europe, but with the exclusion – very important exclusion – of England. This is a market that he could not crack. And so while his books were on the bestselling lists elsewhere in Europe, the Anglophone market for some reason wasn’t as enthusiastic about his book as others.
But after our games, which were hugely successful in the Anglophone world, the books really picked up. And actually after The Witcher 3 was released, Andrzej Sapkowski’s books were featured very highly on The New York Times Bestselling List. So obviously there is a correlation, and I think it’s mutually beneficial. So our books actually give a boost to – sorry – our games give a boost to the book sales, and I’m sure that it also works the other way around, where people read the amazing books by Andrzej Sapkowski and then, when they hear that there is a game, they decide to pick it up.
And I’m absolutely convinced that books and games are not competitors and that people are likely to do both. And I’m not sure how it looks in the U.S., but in Poland there were studies which – shown that people who consume a lot of media consumed various media. So if you watch movies, if you watch TV series, if you watch newspapers – if you’re engaged with the world of culture and you like learning or getting to know new stories, you will also read books. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a similar correlation in the U.S.
I think, for book people, it might be difficult to find an immediate way in which to benefit from it, because in case of The Witcher, it’s very simple, because we adopted a book and turn it into a videogame – and it was successful. But in many cases, turning a book into a videogame is not as easy and it’s hard to achieve a similar degree of success because books are very difficult to transform into a game, one to one, without changing anything.
So for example, even though we have the amazing foundation in The Witcher books, we do not retell the story of The Witcher saga. We take the world, the characters, the lore, but we write a new story, because games are interactive and if you played an interactive story but a story you knew and it already had a defined ending, which was linear in fact, you would find it frustrating, because it would mean that your actions have no effect, so what’s the point of interactivity? So in a sense, when you adapt a book, you have to get rid of its most important component – the story. You can take everything else, but retelling the story already known from books won’t work, in most cases at least.
So I think there might be a temptation to think that adapting a comic book and a videogame into a book or into a movie is very similar because they are both like new, trendy, hippie, young people’s media, but it’s not so, because comic books, when you focus on the very basics, are structurally identical to books. They are linear experiences, so they can be told in a movie or a book – in other linear media – without that much work. But games are interactive, and this is a game changer. It really, really changes a lot.
So it’s hard to take a book and turn it into a game, and it’s also – for the same reason, it’s very hard to turn a game into a good book, because when you focus on the game play aspects of the game and try to turn that into a story, you will come up with a very boring, very flat, uninteresting, repetitive story. So you have to identify things that are characteristic of a game that convey its overall feel, but you cannot translate it literally. So you cannot take The Witcher game and turn it back into a book and have a good book out of it, because it would have way too many combat scenes, way too much action and the proportions would be off.
So I think the challenge is in finding the recipe for successfully transforming or adapting games into books and books into games. And I think it’s just something that we have to work out. It’s a new market. We are still experimenting and finding out why it’s hard by doing it. But I think, in the end, we will find a way to connect the two media more closely and maybe work to our mutual benefit with more ease.