Engineers of Opera – How Video Games Are Made: An Interview with Piotr Kubiński
#technology & innovation
default, Piotr Kubiński, photo: Digital Cultures press materials, center, piotr_kubinski_dc.jpg
Is there room for artists in the world of video games? How is the digital entertainment market changing? Can video games take over the role of literature and what part does AI play in their creation? Finally, can the Polish project Narra revolutionise the world of virtual entertainment? Bartosz Staszczyszyn talks with Dr Piotr Kubiński, the head of Narra.
Born in 1986, Piotr Kubiński is assistant professor at the Institute of Polish Literature in the Polish Studies Department of the University of Warsaw. He is a video game scholar, reviewer and journalist, and a finalist of the Polityka science award. He is also author of the book Gry Wideo: Zarys Poetyki (Video Games: An Outline of Poetics). But it is his project Narra that is most likely to bring Kubiński recognition from a worldwide audience.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn: What is Narra?
Dr Piotr Kubiński: It’s a tool aimed at aiding video game developers – by accelerating their work and by making it easier at the same time.
BS: By creating their video games for them?
PK: No. Narra won’t write the game instead of the writer, but it’ll make it easier for the writer’s creativity to achieve its full potential. For large development studios, this also means saving a lot of money.
PK: Game development takes a long time and people cost the most. If we allow them to work more quickly, we help the developers save time and money. This also allows them to improve the quality of their products. When you can afford to support the programmers for longer, they’re able to perfect the product.
BS: How much in savings are we talking about here?
PK: I like to compare Narra to one of the members of the team working on the game. When a junior developer joins the team, they are not yet able to accomplish tasks on their own. But by assisting other employees, they accelerate those employees’ work by 20%.
Narra’s something more than a junior developer, helping all of the departments of a game development company. Our tool helps the writers, level designers, quest designers and even the programmers writing the game’s code.
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BS: How did a Polish studies expert end up in the world of game development?
PK: To be honest, I ended up there long before I become a scholar of Polish studies. I’ve been playing games ever since I was a kid, and I even started writing reviews for one of the online outlets when I was 13. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d already had some journalistic experience and after graduating from university, I worked, amongst other things, on preparing TV programmes for Hyper, the first Polish TV channel devoted to video games.
BS: Then why Polish studies?
PK: I was always fascinated by narration –something common for both video games and literature. I wrote my master’s thesis on narration in video games and my PhD was devoted to their poetics. Video games always accompanied me as a research topic.
At one point, there arose an opportunity to turn my existing research into a creative practice and to conduct research that could enable the creation of a tool aiding game developers.
In February 2017, I was invited to collaborate with Walkabout, a video game publisher that supports developers and creates optimal conditions for their work. It quickly turned out that many development studios need a tool accelerating and facilitating game development. That’s how Narra was born.
After conducting market research, it turned out that there are no such tools anywhere in the world. We then realised that our idea could have great business potential and attract interest from the world’s important players.
BS: How does an academic scholar undertake the development of such tool?
PK: During the first part of development, I was able to assemble a team of great narratologists. We analysed together how the best games on the market are made. We looked at their plots and at the narrative devices they employed. This allowed us to create a design language for these plots, a kind of a blueprint that can be used to design events and complex stories.
BS: When did the academic project turn into a business one?
PK: We merged these two types of project into one at the very beginning. We analysed video games, but we conducted dozens of interviews with their creators to understand their needs and to create solutions that’d be good for them.
Contrary to the stereotype of a scientist locked down in the ivory tower of academia, I want to be constantly in touch with our potential users. At the end of every stage of development, we immediately tested the usefulness of specific solutions together with our development studio partners.
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BS: How is a game’s script made?
PK: I’m sceptical of the term ‘script’ when it comes to games. In my view, something like that doesn’t exist. We should rather talk about a set of documents, descriptions and plans created at various stages of the project. Part of what we’d like to call the script is created during the development.
In this sense, games are very different from movies. In a movie, the screenplay is a point of departure and the director works on it and, to put it simply, translates it to the screen. In games, ‘the screenplay’ is created during the entire development period – from the first iteration of the game, through the stage of translating the imagined stories and events to the language of the game engine. Somebody has an idea, somebody else makes it work with the help of the programming language, another person looks for bugs, and yet another fixes them. The ‘screenplay’ gets born through many cycles of work.
BS: How many people work on a game’s story?
PK: It depends on the size of the project. With large projects, like The Witcher, the story and the structure could be the work of a group, let’s say of seven people. With smaller projects, it’s often just a single person – in reality, it all depends not on the size of the studio, but on the complexity of the story. But there are more people responsible for the plotline. The ideas of the group or person mentioned earlier are later elaborated by quest designers or level designers. They’re also creating the plot.
BS: Who is the game’s author then?
PK: I don’t want to parrot Barthes, declare the death of the author and convince you that the author doesn’t exist in games, but it is a fact that the authorship is particularly diffused in games. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on individualism. We’ve a need to see the face that endorses the game and to know who deserves our gratitude. But in the case of games, it’s difficult to say who’s the author. And that’s the biggest challenge we’re facing as the creators of Narra.
PK: It’s often said that ‘making a game combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera’. It’s a saying that is very dear to me.
The difficulty of this work comes from combining great artistic craft with the newest technologies and engineering knowledge. We need to be IT specialists and artists at the same time. So we need people with different competencies and ways of thinking.
It’s extremely difficult to find a language common to every member of the team. We translate the artistic vision into the language of engineering. And I believe that Narra is a great tool for that, one that can connect opera composers with bridge builders.
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BS: How much room is there for personal creations in the world of video games?
PK: It’s similar to movies. On the one hand, there are the small, auteur projects, and on the other, enormous mainstream productions that are aimed at specific audiences and where everything is planned at the very beginning, including the financial results.
Games are also a business that needs to make money. Sometimes room for real innovation is limited. But there are very artistic projects that have no financial ambitions. They’re a fulfilment of a vision of an artist who chose this medium, not some other one.
BS: Is there field for experimentation in this business?
PK: The narrative potential of games is still very underutilised. Many storytelling techniques and ways of engaging the player are yet to be invented, so the field for experimenting will only grow larger. The industry is maturing very quickly and today’s games need to satisfy the varied needs of a very diverse group of users. This forces growth.
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BS: If there’s no single author, then perhaps there’s a chance that AI could become one in the future?
PK: AI helps game developers even today, but not in the field of writing. It’ll certainly also find its uses there in the future, but at this point, speaking of games made by AI is still an exercise in futurology.
BS: Let’s get back to present then. Are games a generational phenomenon today? Do they integrate certain age or social groups?
PK: For now, games are losing out to literature in this sense, as literature is full of generational works that bring certain groups together. Firstly, the skill of reading is common in our cultural circle. Secondly, the literary canon is something that everybody’s forced to learn at school.
It’s difficult to speak of a canon within the context of video games. If I said ‘You must gather your party before venturing forth’, fans of Baldur’s Gate will surely recognise the phrase. But even this title, though very popular, even cult, doesn’t bring all video game fans together. But I believe that there are and that there will be games that’ll bring certain peer or social groups together and that in twenty years, today’s kids will reminisce about Fortnite and Minecraft with the same kind of nostalgia with which our generation, raised in the 1990s, speaks about Baldur’s Gate.
Interview conducted in Polish in Warsaw, Sept 2019; translated by MW, Sept 2019
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