Sponsored By

Saber's new chief narrative officer discusses good game storytelling

Evil Dead: The Game developer Saber Interactive has a new chief narrative officer: Craig Sherman. We discussed why studios might need this kind of role.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

December 7, 2022

7 Min Read
A headshot of Craig Sherman

World War Z: Aftermath and Evil Dead: The Game developer Saber Interactive has announced it's promoting longtime game writer Craig Sherman to the role of "chief of narrative at the studio." The move is a particularly noteworthy one for Fort Lauderdale-headquartered studio, which is now owned by Embracer Group.

Sherman's role isn't just to be head writer on one particular game—he'll be overseeing the many different titles the studio has in production.

In an exclusive interview discussing the announcement, Sherman dropped in to chat with Game Developer about his game writing philosophy and what the role of "chief of narrative" means in a studio producing games across different interactive genres.

Why do studios need a "chief of narrative?"

Sherman's relationship with Saber Interactive only goes back 12 years, but his friendship with CEO and co-founder Matthew Karch goes back even further—the pair had been friends since the age of four, and even though they took different paths as they started their adult careers, they reconnected after Karch helped found the studio that would produce Will Rock and TimeShift.

Sherman himself had gone out to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter, and at first treated his gigs with Saber Interactive as a rewarding side job. He'd be later joined by writer Oliver Hollis-Leick (now creative director on Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine 2), but with seven to eight games in production, the company realized it needed a bigger strategy for telling great game stories.

What does that strategy entail? First and foremost, Sherman explained that it's important for each of the games Saber is developing to "have its own voice." "We want the writer or writers [working on the game] to have ownership over it," he explained. It doesn't serve the developer if Evil Dead: The Game or Space Marine 2 feel like their characters could pop from one game into another (especially with different licensed properties on the line).

A promotional screenshot for Evil Dead: The Game, featuring Ash and another character.

To make different voices manifest, Sherman said it's important for narrative leads like himself to be open to strong choices from the writers in the games' trenches. "If we have a writer on a game, and they're doing something that I wouldn't do, but it's working out—I encourage them to keep going in that direction," he explained.

On the flip side of that coin, Sherman said it's also important in the hiring process to look for writers won't be "super sensitive" about their work. "It's pretty different than movies," he explained. "You're encouraged to have your own voice—but on video games, there are so many people involved and you have to make room for that. You have to be okay with that because we're not making the entire thing on our own."

A challenge for narrative leads of all stripes is that that logic has to flow back up the chain of command as well. "I'm constantly trying to show that I'm okay with people doubting what I'm doing and telling me that they would prefer something else," Sherman said. By encouraging his colleagues to question his work as hard as they would anyone else's, he said that it "opens the door" for other writers on the team to take criticism way less personally.

Game narrative for non-narrative games

Sherman's ascension to "chief of narrative" has a particular poignancy given the games he's worked on. If you look at his resumé, some titles stand out as story-driven games (like Circus Electrique), but others are gameplay-first titles that happen to have the trappings of narrative (he's written on World War Z: Aftermath, and games outside of Saber like NBA 2K Playgrounds 2).

It's an aspect of games writing that sometimes goes under-discussed: though our industry often discusses narrative in games as this big central design pillar that requires intense iteration and experimentation, lots of games just need narrative trappings to prop up an already-fun experience.

If you take NBA 2K Playgrounds as an example, Sherman pointed out that there are plenty of mechanics in the game that require in-depth explanation. So he's involved in writing the tutorials there. He also had to write the hundreds of lines for the color commentators. In a game like NBA 2K, those barks will be firing on a constant basis, so it takes lots of effort to account for what the game state might be and how a professional TV broadcaster would respond to that.

A screenshot from NBA2K Playgrounds 2. A player goes in for a big dunk.

"I'm not tracking a story through there, but it is certainly an equal amount of work," he noted with some exhaustion. "I've enjoyed the variety to be honest—being able to switch from games where people go 'there's a writer on that game,' to ones where they go 'is there a writer on that game?'"

"Because somebody has to write something, otherwise it's not going to be spoken or [displayed]," he noted.

In the world of co-op action games, there's a finer line to walk because these games have a forward narrative, but players are more likely to miss key details from it because they're constantly chatting with friends. "You have to be really conscious of the fact that people are playing these games together cooperatively, and that means they're going to be speaking to each other," he noted. "You have to be really efficient about the way you tell the story and you have to be really careful not to try to communicate story in times where they [might] not want to be hearing it."

Sherman noted that he favors fewer cinematics in these games, and that custom character "barks" are much more efficient tool to grab the players' attention.

But one challenge in this kind of game is that you can have an entire team of people (even programmers, designers, artists, etc.) who think a scene needs more "narrative"—more sense of character, a certain "je ne sais quoi," whatever—and yet nothing you throw into the space works. "And sometimes it just doesn't work" he noted.

The co-op multiplayer action game holds a special spot in Sherman's heart, because he noted that it's a storytelling experience that lies so far from any other medium—even when compared to other games. "You're not watching a movie with three other people, [you're] interacting with it, right?" he quipped.

What's the future of game narrative?

Even after fifty years of video game history, Sherman still thinks that it's a young medium. "Games are allowing writers and narrative people to take risks that other genres aren't—people are really trying new things in games a lot," he observed.

In a year that gave us Pentinent, Roadwarden, Norco, Citizen Sleeper, Elden Ring, and Horizon Forbidden West, Sherman's comment really stands out. Sherman's old colleagues in the film and television business have definitely taken notice, with adaptations of video game properties being announced on what sometimes feels like a weekly basis.

Since Sherman spent some time in the Hollywood writing grinder (he described a workflow where he wouldn't meet with executives for "months" while working on some scripts), he had some interesting observations about that trend as well. He said that lots of film and television producers think think you can just "make a movie as a game," or that "people who are fans of a game want to see that movie."

A screenshot from Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine 2

But there are inherent problems with that philosophy. "If a game has given me X amount of hours of me playing that character and exploring this world...why do I want to see your two-hour version that's already been plotted out for me?"

For those kinds of partnerships and adaptations, Sherman seemed to think that doing more "universe expanding" would be a better exercise (the managers of the Cyberpunk 2077 brand seem to think so—the Netflix animated show Edgerunners served as a prequel to the game).

Sherman's promotion and view of video game narrative really captures the sense of craftsmanship that goes into great games writing. Though our industry deservedly elevates great story experiences that feel wholly unique and interactive, lots of writers know that the day-to-day work sometimes means writing 20 different versions of a goon shouting "I'm reloading!"

And that grindy, sometimes repetitive work becomes a part of great games too. If you want players to have a good experience—there are a thousand storytelling tools that can make every game sing just a little.

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like