The Big Idea: Gard Skinner


One of my favorite video games of all time was Unreal Tournament 2004, in part because the game had a bunch of “bots” — artificial intelligence players — who were good enough to make the game really enjoyable. Why is this comment relevant in relation to Game Slaves, the novel by Gard Skinner? Just you wait.


The best thing about science fiction is that it’s a brutally honest way to examine what it means to be human, but do it through the eyes of revolting, evil non-humans. We get to see what makes Earthlings tick from the perspective of robots, monsters, alien conquerors, dark lords, magic high school students or busty Amazon royalty from lush beach planets.

borderlands1Game Slaves – as a Big Idea – seemed obvious. I was playing (I believe it was Jak 2 or 3) and I couldn’t beat the last boss. To get to him, right after the save point, I had to shoot a few of his minions. I’d killed them dozens of times, then I’d lose again.

While I was thinking how I was tired of shooting those idiots, I realized that they were thinking how tired they were of getting sniped by a bigger idiot who couldn’t defeat their boss. Maybe hoping they could bring bigger guns or hide in different places the next time I respawned.

The quality of the AI used to be a huge element in video game reviews. It was always mentioned. The original NPC, such as ghosts in Pac-Man, were mostly just proximity detectors who followed or shot you if you got close. In 90s, the enemy kept getting smarter, and designers were trying to find ways to make their game interesting on a second playthrough.

The core challenge is making game experience variable. Once any narrative becomes predictable, it becomes easy, and the player puts it down. AI has stagnated, and this led to the popularity of online shooters, because at least when you play another human or squad of humans, you never know what they might do.


What I got to do in the book – and this advance is, realistically, thirty years in the future for game AI – was to assemble a group of programmed, self-aware, elite game combatants with almost zero life experience.

I got to make them live and love and solve puzzles at a video game pace.

And, I got to make them want things.

They get to be the ones who examine what it really means to be human. From our frailties to our strengths, our motivations to our passions, NPC “extras” became the lens.

And not only do the characters make their decisions through the limited experience they have, but also through the experience they lack: What if you never learned to lie? Or to cheat? What if you had not been exposed to greed?

It was a great journey, and they surprised me along the way.

What’s been fascinating so far is the feedback on those characters – whether they are deep or shallow. I suspect that’s an indicator of each reader’s familiarity with modern games. Did they recognize the influence of Master Chief? Fenix? John Marston? Brick?

If readers do, that’s cool – if not, that’s cool too. Game Slaves is a world built on top of dozens of great game worlds. It doesn’t matter how you got there.

Gamers, like readers, have spent a lot of time running around in certain environments. We know Pandora and Sera, but couldn’t tell you which Sea that Old Man was fishing. We understand that rocket launchers take a long time to reload, and what ragdoll physics can add to laying traps with remote detonators.

borderlands3Pew Research reports that 97% of teens play games. That’s a sit-up-and-take-notice number. Games are now where they’re learning about characters, world building, pacing, conflict and all the rest of the nuance that our generation learned from movies, comic books, and groundbreaking novels. I had a blast mimicking that pace, the puzzle solving, and those decision points.

I think it’s a good idea to learn how the next generation now experiences science fiction. Many games tell as great a story as any other media. And, they’re so much fun. The worlds are captivating. I just wish they were that way the second time through.

(The game character screenshots are from Gearbox Software’s BORDERLANDS)


Game Slaves: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Books A Million | iBookstore  | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Gard Skinner”

  1. i’m not a gamer (played all the Nintendo classics, never finished FF7, play the Sims once in a while). I am emphatically not an FPS gamer. Yet I married a gamer, and our daughters are all gamers of various stripes, so I’m familiar with the concepts.

    This is where you got me: “While I was thinking how I was tired of shooting those idiots, I realized that they were thinking how tired they were of getting sniped by a bigger idiot who couldn’t defeat their boss.” That is a damn fine idea.

    So I read the excerpt and the reviews, and you’ve got my ten bucks. I think it’ll be fun to spend the day in your world.

  2. Your statistic from the Pew Research group is interesting, but doesn’t directly imply what you are suggesting, at least as you’ve stated it. I love games, and play lots of them, but they don’t usually meet your description. Solitaire is a game, but it doesn’t have any worldbuilding or characters. Settlers of Catan is another game, but it doesn’t have characters. Consider also Fluxx, Anomia, Wise and Otherwise, Cranium, Phase 10, SkipBo, Set, Wits & Wagers. In short, I think you mean some games, such as perhaps D&D and certain video games, provide such characters, worldbuilding, and so on. And the percentage of teens who play that more limited set of games is probably much, much lower.

  3. Back in the 90’s there was a Saturday morning cartoon called ReBoot, It was about computer program “Guardians” who fought the Users when a game cube dropped on their heads. The Guardians had their own lives inside the mainframe. It was brilliant and different and ran for many years. Those of us who were sucked in are still fans (clearly).

  4. @zia, most of the games you reference (at least, the ones I recognize) are board games. Now, I don’t have statistical data, only anecdotes, but the teenagers I know rarely play board games. They play Disgaea, The Walking Dead, The Sims, Amnesia … all video games.

    One of my kids played The Walking Dead video games before she started watching the TV show, and laments that the (game) character Clementine doesn’t appear in the show. The reason she wants to see that character again is that she was as fully developed, in a game, as a TV character would be.

    I adore board games, but the current young generation is more involved in video games, and they are demanding consumers. It’s not a novelty to them – something simple like Pac-Man won’t suit. The teenagers that I know want their game characters to be as real as book characters, and will quit playing when they see simple stereotype nonsense.

  5. Hello Zia and Lumi – source: The numbers are right, they may have grown since the survey.

    Understanding game narrative is an opportunity. Every generation there are new gateways through which kids and adults discover science fiction.

    How many kids, tonight, will take their first trip to space with Mario Galaxy 3D? They’re going to want more trips. We all need to think past Pac-Man.

    When GTA5 launched in Sept. it made $1 billion in 3 days. It was the largest release of any media product ever. The script is 10-times longer than any movie, and in the first 4 months it sold 30 million copies. It has 3 main characters with fully realized histories, skills, intertwining story arcs, families, flaws, and you get to make their life decisions.

    Games are epic adventures that take dozens, sometimes hundreds of hours to flesh out. Plus we get to drive fast cars we can’t afford. And fly ships. And defeat the bad guy ourselves.

  6. I like the premise. Also, a clever touch with the cover looking like the box art to a game (is that the HALO font used in the title?).

    Speaking of GTA5, earlier today I thought up a neat idea for a story solely from thinking about that particular game and the potential future of VR applications. I suppose I am someone who is influenced by video games and the basic structure and design elements of modern as well as old school games. But that’ll happen to just about anyone who grows up starting with an NES and classics such as Super Mario Bros. and Contra.

  7. I’m slightly dissapointed that Mass Effect didn’t get any reference or mention here at all. :P

    In all seriousness, though, video games are the new storytelling medium. They’re (somewhat) interactive storytelling, though. I know that things like ME or the Halo games have probably had as much impact on my writing as classics like Dune or Ringworld have had. That will probably continue to grow in the future.

  8. I’m slightly dissapointed that Mass Effect didn’t get any reference or mention here at all. :P

    I’m sure it was a near mass on the part of the author, Manny!

  9. Craig, right on the Halo font, nice pickup.

    John & Manny: near mass, well played. That’s a game that might be studied by our great-grandchildren the way they made us study that Twain guy. Fallout, Skyrim, Monkey Island, I left out a few greats. Thanks guys.

  10. “AI has stagnated, and this led to the popularity of online shooters, because at least when you play another human or squad of humans, you never know what they might do.”

    I play “World of Tanks” pretty much every day and truer words have never been spoken.

    What frightening is when you’re playing a specific vehicle and your win rate is less than the median; trying can make you do worse!

  11. I’m a geek, but not a gamer. I have, however, read another book inspired by the idea of the beings inside games having minds of their own, namely Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind. It’s an awesome premise, but his aliens were derived from fairly simple games. When your source material already has a complex AI, adding hopes and dreams to the characters must be a different trick to Pratchett’s.


  12. Mad compliments to your cover designer — I was convinced for several seconds that this was a video game. Really nicely done. If what’s inside is half as good as what’s outside, I’m really excited.

  13. Heh heh.

    Pew research. Pew pew pew! Boom. Heh. Thanks for letting us all know about this, John and Gard. A few swift thumb-taps and I have something more interesting than my nth playthrough of Borderlands 2 to do with my next few evenings… :D I’ve been playing computer games since I was six or so, and hit 40 in a couple of months.

    I’ll be intrigued where you take this.

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