‘If anyone”s ever said that playing video games won”t help you get a first rate education, they’re probably right—mindlessly twiddling your fingers and thumbs to the latest hit from (insert game developer here) isn”t exactly going to teach you how to read Shakespeare. That being said, if you can tolerate supplementing your addiction with a spot of reading here and there you might find that books can become valuable companions to your preferred digital pastime. Certainly for Jakub Szamałek, one thing didn’t preclude the other, although that might’ve been because he strove for academia in the first place.
Jakub is a former Oxbridge student with a PhD in “Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology”. If that doesn”t sound impressive enough, he has authored two (soon to be three I hear) critically acclaimed novels, while also writing for developer CD Projekt Red on a small project called The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. With all of those credentials under his belt you could suppose that he”d be doing something like lecturing at universities or researching the origins of mankind. The reality is that he predominantly writes for video games—a pretty great profession if you ask me. In a medium where storytelling and immersion are such significant qualities, it’s only logical that competent writing needs to follow suit, and if the success of The Witcher 3 is anything to go by, the proof is in the pudding. For Jakub, I had to wonder how the roles of writing for books and games intertwine, so we took a short trip to Warsaw to find out in person.
We were accommodated in Old Town, not far from CD Projekt Red”s studio which sat parallel to us, just across the Vistula River. Old Town itself is the historic centre of Warsaw and the most architecturally traditional district of the city. Aesthetically speaking, there is a distinct veneer of cultural heritage and authenticity about the place. I don”t claim to have a doctorate in the history of Polish architecture but had I envisaged it prior to my visit, the neighbouring structures, towers and squares would”ve fitted the bill nicely. In fact, for all I knew it could have been 19th century Warsaw if it weren”t for the diverse array of tourists and street performers (of the exotic kind) frolicking around—nothing says Poland quite like two African men beating on their bongos, while you sit at the foot of Sigismund”s Column to dig in to some Polish pierogi.
Myself and Charlie had arranged to meet Jakub at CD Projekt Red”s headquarters and turned up fashionably early, gawking at the wall of trophies on display next to the reception. After a period of loitering around the lobby and conversing with someone who mistook us for company applicants, Jakub showed up to give us a tour of the building. We were shown several different floors filled with a fitting mix of Witcher memorabilia, collectibles and posters before being handily escorted into the vegetarian only canteen. The recently renovated and rather shiny looking interior was telling; the success of CD Projekt”s current critical darling The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was evident in everything apart from my decidedly English earl grey tea.
”We show people in Poland that it”s a serious business, that you can produce works of culture that are a hit globally… this is something that up until now has been very difficult, there are a lot of books and films that are written or produced in Eastern Europe but they usually don”t become terribly popular in the west. I think video games are the only medium in which we have been able to produce something that has been appreciated on a global scale. It”s very satisfying.’ Being able to transcend gaming topography and stimulate western sensibilities is no small feat. Admittedly romping around a fantastical world as a sword-wielding monster slayer might sound all-encompassing for the average gaming crowd, but it’s plain to see that CD Projekt have created something much more than your average role playing experience to resonate with such a large audience.
After taking a final swig of our respective beverages, Jakub decided to show us a slice of the city, and we were happy to oblige. We opted to hop on a tram to take in some of the urban scenery before situating ourselves downtown in a small cafe next to Łazienki Park. Warsaw is a sight to behold on a summer”s afternoon; at least it is today. According to Jakub the city has changed a lot since his childhood years. Warsaw in the nineties was a very different place wrought against politically turbulent times, extending from Poland”s transition away from communism. ”I lived in a massive block of flats, one day my parents didn”t take me back home because there was a bomb planted in the apartment next to us by a neighbouring gang who decided to blow up the guy living there. There was also a shootout that happened around the same time. It wasn”t a very safe place… At the same time I don”t want to overplay that experience. I wasn”t a traumatized child from a warzone; it was just a dodgy neighbourhood.”
Dodgy neighbourhoods aside, having your own home turned to rubble has got to have some kind of effect on just about anyone, let alone a young child. Then again you don’t get to Jakub’s position by letting the local mob get the better of you.
I mentioned earlier that Jakub took somewhat of a collegiate approach towards education. I would imagine reading a lot of books probably accounts for a large portion of that. Somewhere along the line, however, he grew tired of academic practices and started to write his own fiction. Studying antiquity clearly has it’s pros but sticking to facts and statistics was never going to be the most creative outlet. With that considered Jakub appropriated his degree to write historical crime novels and that seems to of worked out quite nicely for him.
When it comes to starting up at CD Projekt Red, Jakub has his own gaming habits to thank for it. Ironically it was while playing The Witcher 2 that he landed himself the job. In short he spotted a writing position for himself on their website while searching for game updates, and the rest is history. It’s hard for me to fathom how Jakub possibly finds the hours to work full time at CD Projekt and write award winning novels on the side, but he reckons you can make time for pretty much anything as long as you have enough passion for it.
It’s safe to say that writing for both novels and video games affords Jakub the chance to get out his creative chops, yet the connection between the two likely isn’t transparent for some people. It’s pure creativity that tethers them together; more specifically it is the inventiveness to create compelling stories that trigger the imagination. However writing stories in the video game medium is a vastly different process to writing stories for literature, as Jakub assured me.
‘What most people don”t realise is that we as the writers don”t see the game until it is almost ready, imagine if you were to construct a house and you had to order all the furniture, tiles, flooring etc. without being able to change anything… That”s essentially what our experience was. We didn”t know how everything would come together until the very end.’
For me it’s rather hard to comprehend writing a huge open world game where you are frequently making decisions with branching paths and consequences. Particularly when constructing The Witcher it’s probably akin to playing a giant game of Jenga with words. Yet despite all the stress it’s worth it for Jakub.
‘It”s very gratifying to see how people get invested in the game, the other day I saw I giant thread on Reddit about a quest that I wrote and people were discussing what they did and why they did it… something that I think is unique to video games is that people identify more strongly with characters because they assume the role of that character while they are playing. The decisions that you face in a game touch you more profoundly than choices you read about in a book for instance; in a video game it’s more personal to you.’
Looking at a game like the Witcher, it’s hard not to be impressed at how far video game writing and storytelling have come over the years. Attitudes have shifted greatly (for the most part) in accordance with more mature narratives. You only have to look back to 2003 when John Carmack so eloquently stated: ‘Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It”s expected to be there, but it”s not that important.’ Equating video games and porn is rather antiquated by today’s standards; if you attempted to sell that philosophy to the modern demographic you’d be more than likely to rattle a few cages. Obviously writing for them is something that deserves a great deal of respect; gone are the days when it was acceptable to have the entirety of a games’ dialogue amount to ‘our princess is in another castle’. That’s not to say there aren’t limitations but you’d be hard pressed to argue that making a game is any kind of justification for coming up with a lacklustre story.
Jakub tells me that video game writing still has its quirks; gameplay mechanics dictate that dialogue sometimes has to enter slightly ‘hammy’ territory in order to permit player agency and freedom. For example talking to a merchant five times in a row just because you can is only going to remain convincing for so long.
Crossing the uncanny valley is something that games have yet to conquer, the obvious solution would be to restrict player control, but allowing for complete player freedom is likely the lesser of two evils. Naturally games have their own narrative hurdles but Jakub is doing his part to ensure the advancements in ludonarrative technique aren’t for naught. On a personal level I could sing the praises of The Witcher 3’s writing all day, then again I might be biased.
For more on Jakub or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt check out…
<a href=”http://jakubszamalek.pl”>Jakub”s Website</a><a href=”http://www.thewitcher.com”>The Witcher</a>
Also be sure to check out our video with Jakub…
Five video game fans from South East London take a trip along the west coast of North America, visiting people and places connected to the medium.
From founding figures and academics, to journalists, museums and new frontiers, this issue looks at video games in their variety of manifestations and reaching influences.