The art of storytelling

  • December 19, 2023
The art of storytelling

Jakub Szamałek talks about how he pivoted from studying Classics to becoming a popular author and video games storyteller

I felt I was back stage at a theatre surrounded by fascinating props, but, while I could describe them, I was unable to use them. I had to deal with hard facts and not explore other things.

Jakub Szamałek

When Jakub Szamałek started writing the first in a series of crime novels set in ancient times while he was doing his PhD in Classics he can little have imagined the success the novels would have and how his writing career would develop.  He has not only had critical success in Poland as a fiction writer, but has become a leading figure in the world of video games storytelling.

Jakub [2009] grew up in Poland and came to the UK to do his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Oxford in Classical, Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology. He had long been interested in antiquity and became fascinated by the difference between how it was studied in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe, with the political divide shaping scholarly approaches to archaeology and how the past is viewed. In the West, the focus is more on questioning the theoretical framework being used while in the East it is more on what is being excavated. Jakub wanted to combine the two worlds and bridge those differences.

His then girlfriend, now wife, Maria Pawlowska, was doing her PhD at the University of Cambridge funded by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The two were keen to be in the same place after years of enduring a long-distance relationship. Maria suggested Jakub applied to Cambridge and for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He was accepted. For his PhD Jakub studied the material remains of Greek settlements in the Black Sea area. His interest was in how we interpret the past when two different cultures come into contact. “There is a tendency to see the Greeks as the dominant world and to view them as a civilising force, but I found a similar process was going on in the other direction. There is a lot of colonial thinking in how we interpret the past,” he says.

Fiction

Halfway through doing his PhD Jakub began to tire a little of writing in a fact-oriented, dry, academic way. He wanted an outlet to explore the grey areas which couldn’t be 100% backed up by evidence and could be more open to interpretation.  “I felt I was back stage at a theatre surrounded by fascinating props, but, while I could describe them, I was unable to use them. I had to deal with hard facts and not explore other things,” he says. 

In his second year, he wrote a short story about ancient Greece to give his imagination a creative outlet. “It was very gratifying and people were very encouraging,” he says. He went on to write his first novel in Polish while he was still at Cambridge. He says: “I enjoy writing and showing what a wonderfully fascinating place the ancient world really was. I wanted to write a book which had both a good storyline and allowed the reader to learn a few facts about antiquity along the way.”

The crime series, which he wrote between 2011 and 2015, was a critical success, with its final instalment winning the Best Polish Crime Novel award at the International Crime and Mystery Festival in Wroclaw.

Video games writer

When his PhD came to an end both Jakub and Maria were keen to settle somewhere and they wanted to move on from academia. They returned to Poland after Jakub got a job as a writer for the CD Projekt Red games development company. It was an abrupt switch from academia to games writing, but he says the amount of writing he had to do in academia was good training for writing efficiently and absorbing new information. 

The job not only provided him with a steady income on which to build his literary endeavours, but also a new and emerging story-telling platform. When he started Jakub only knew a little about video games, but he found himself working on the company’s Witcher series, an award-winning dark fantasy series of role-playing games which follows the adventures of professional monster slayer Geralt of Rivia. He stayed with Projekt Red for nine years, also working on the Cyberpunk 2077 game, which is described as a story-driven, open world role playing game about the dark future. From there he started freelancing and was narrative consultant at the Incredible Dream Studio before moving to Canada with his family and joining Rebel Wolves as Narrative Director in 2022. Rebel Wolves is run by veterans of The Witcher series and others who are working on the next generation of role playing games.

Jakub says the complexity of games writing has developed apace in the last years and he has been at the centre of that change. The video games field was very new and young when he started and there was no bank of knowledge to learn from so he had to learn by doing. “It was exciting. You could be very experimental,” he says. “Books have been around for a long time so it is harder to write a novel in a new way or in a better way than what has gone before. With video games that was not the case. Every time I wrote for one I was learning something new and I was encouraged to find new ways to tell stories. I felt I was blazing a new trail.”

He adds: “The big difference with books and film scripts is the interactive element. You are completely involved in a video game. The consumer is making the story unfold and deciding where and how it happens. That creates interesting paradoxes.”

Jakub adds that the tools used in traditional narrative arcs can lead to frustration in video games, for instance, a hero trying something and failing and then trying again. In video games that failure just frustrates players. “It changes how you structure the story,” says Jakub. “Video games are a collaborative process between developers and players.”

Game writers study the data on how players interact with the games. Sometimes this is different from what they anticipated so they are always learning. Moreover, the technology is ever-evolving. “The playing field changes every year,” says Jakub. “You have to keep up with the technology. There is never a boring moment. You never produce the same game twice.”

Ethics

The technology also throws up ethical issues, for instance, over Artificial Intelligence’s ability to copy voices or write music in the style of a particular music group. Jakub loves seeing how actors interpret the scripts he writes for them, but says there is a huge temptation for games makers to cut out the actors and use audio generation programmes instead since they cost much less. “I feel very uneasy about taking work from actors and hope there will be some guidelines and legal frameworks soon,” he says. “I’m very aware of what games can give, but also what they can take away.”

His concerns extend from games’ addictive qualities and worries about the virtual world substituting for the real one. “As a games developer I am adamant that the games I work on do not rob people of their time and attention,” says Jakub. “I hope our lives will not be gamefied and that we  have the space to be off screen when we want to be. We need to shape technology and look at it critically. We live at a very exciting time period when technology is changing how we live our lives, but it may change our lives in ways we are not happy with. I was happy the US writers went on strike. As a writer I also worry about being replaced by an algorithm. We have to be curious about technology while being collectively on top of what is changing around us.”

Jakub says he is very grateful for his time at Cambridge, mostly because it gave him the time to figure out what he wanted to do. “So often we are rushed to choose a career very early,” he says, “before we know what we want to do. To have a period to be just curious and read things that are interesting is vital. At Cambridge I could just go to the library and read. It was beautiful. Even though I left academia that experience at Cambridge was very formative. It gave me the skills to orient myself in a new field and find the right career for me.”

Jakub is still very close to several Gates Cambridge Scholars, including, of course, his wife. “I formed lifelong friendships through Gates Cambridge,” he says, “and they exposed me to different places and academic interests and perspectives. It was eye-opening and exhilarating. Gates Cambridge Scholars are very smart, interesting people and I learned a lot from them.”

*Picture credit: Julia Knap.

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