Most designers tell us that they can’t recall a time when they weren’t playing games with one eye on how to design them, but your road into the industry seems more circuitous than that. How did you first get started?
I must have been 12 or 13, and all the other kids were getting their Atari 2800s and Intellivisions, and I was the kid who got a Vic20. I had to teach myself how to code in BASIC so I could make text adventure games.
So the creation of games was of immediate interest?
For sure, and the Vic 20 wasn’t a particularly amazing machine, but it was a cartridge-based system so it did have some good games on it. I had Loderunner on the Vic 20 and it came with a level editor, which was unbelievable. This was back when you had to back up your data on a cassette tape, and I must have made about 100 Loderunner levels. You had to know from the number on the cassette tape drive where your levels were saved, and get it to the right place and press play. It was wild.
But the early part of your life was dominated by writing, and you’ve contributed to the script on every game you’ve worked on. Has writing always been tied to game design in your head?
No, they were separate things. Once I got a bit older, I started picking up writing courses in high school, and then I went into visual fine arts. At that point, it was my goal to be a writer. I wasn’t doing a lot of gaming, and I wasn’t super-wealthy so I didn’t have a PC or anything like that. I’d play games at friends’ places, but whatever PC I had was always something we got third-hand from someone – a glorified typewriter, you know?
I went into visual fine arts because I wanted to learn how to receive criticism and give criticism, and to be critical about art. But I didn’t want to expose my writing to that. I was over-confident about it, and I knew that wouldn’t work with my personality, even from an early age. The goal was to be a writer, and if I went into writing school I’d just be confrontational and a dick and I wouldn’t learn anything.
So I went into visual fine arts, which I suck at, but I was aware of that. These people are telling me my stuff isn’t good, and I agree with them. I never did become a good visual artist, but I did learn a lot about how to be self-critical and how to improve. After that, I went into creative writing – once I’d developed the beginnings of those skills – but it wasn’t out of an interest in games.
We’re into the mid-Nineties now, and I’m playing games like Duke Nukem at friends’ places and being floored by the technology and the potential of what you could do with it. At the same time, I’m struggling at the edges of what you can do with a written story. I’m fighting against the idea of traditional, linear, authored narratives. The stories I’m writing are meant to be read in different orders. They’re as interactive as a written story can be.
Did you get the sense that, in terms of written linear narratives, everything had already been done? Even with more experimental approaches to written narrative, there’s normally a very clear path back to someone who did the same thing, and did it first. But with games, it’s more of a new frontier…
Absolutely. There is a pioneer mentality about games that was attractive to me. I remember I wrote one piece at university for my experimental fiction course, which was a class that really helped me a lot. It was written as a series of newspaper articles about Batman, right, so the idea was that there was a real Gotham city where Batman was just fiction, but there was someone potentially pretending to be Batman. There were articles from the New York Times and GQ and so on, and I used some of my fine arts skills to lay them out and paste them up and photocopy them onto newsprint, so they were like newspaper forgeries. I handed it into the class, and a lot of people thought it was me just cutting out newspaper articles and submitting them as a story – the forgery was pretty authentic.
I suppose that’s something of a compliment.
Yeah, it was great, and people were really interested in the story, but they asked if I’d read Griffin And Sabine – you know, the postcard novel? And you’re right; it was like someone has kind of done this before. It was interesting, and I found it very fun and creative…but that was when I felt that there wasn’t much I could contribute. I wanted to do something that was really new.
Cliff Bleszinski told us that a modern designer has to be a Renaissance man in a sense, and your background seems to reflect that – you have experience of fine art, writing, filmmaking, web production, and so on. Do you agree?
Yeah, and more than anything, our ‘art’ right now is in creating a medium of expression, and for the want of a better term, a Renaissance man is someone who does that. It’s about being able to understand all the paths of these different media and where they’re converging and where they’re different, and being able to express old things in new ways. That’s a really beautiful thing. It’s a great time.