Cheyenne Native Gets Prestigious “Nebula Award” Nomination For Science Fiction Writing; Top Award In Industry

Cheyenne native Steve Lerner has been nominated for a prestigious Nebula Award for science fiction writing for his work in the creation of the video game "Stray" which tells the story of a stray cat making its way through a dystopian underworld.

Leo Wolfson

March 12, 20235 min read

Steve Lerner stray 3 11 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A Wyoming man has been nominated for one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction writing for his role in telling the story of a stray cat making its way through a dystopian underworld.

Cheyenne native Steve Lerner is up for a Nebula Award in the category of game writing for the video game “Stray,” which is available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 and Windows for PC gaming.

“It’s one of two major awards for science fiction and fantasy,” Lerner said of the nomination, announced Tuesday.

The Nebula Awards are handed out each year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. The award Lerner is nominated for is in the category of sci-fi video game writing.

Lerner did a significant amount of the writing support for the game, helping shape its overall narrative and character arcs. 

A Cat’s Journey

“Stray” was released last year by BlueTwelve Studio. 

The game follows the story of a stray cat that falls into a post-apocalyptic city populated by anthropomorphized sentient robots, along with other machines and mutant bacteria. The cat sets out to return to the surface and his fellow stray cats with the help of a drone companion named B-12. 

“In general, it’s a game about family and about finding your people and reconvening with them,” Lerner said. 

Lerner said he drew inspiration for the cat’s adventures and mannerisms from his own feline buddy Dennis, but only to a certain extent.

“You can’t be necessarily as nihilistic or as narcissistic as a cat might normally,” Lerner said. 

Lerner said the game’s developers were adamant that the cat would not be a cartoon character that can speak or walk on two legs.

“This is a cat cat,” Lerner said.

How To Write A Cat

But Lerner said this also made writing a personality for the cat difficult. Through the cat’s interactions with the robots, he and the other writers were able to give it a dynamic persona that stays true to the character’s core cat-ness.

Gameplay features a third-person viewpoint with the player controlling all actions of the cat. Lerner said there is a certain amount of flexibility as to how mischievous the player can make the cat behave. 

“That’s kind of the fun of it,” he said. “That’s kind of the collaborative nature between the game creators and the players themselves. You can tell a lot about a person the way they have their cat behave.”

Lerner credited his co-workers for helping develop these nuances. Two of his “Stray” co-writers also are part of the award nomination, and the game also has been nominated for a British video game award. Lerner views the award as more of a team honor.

“All writing is collaborative, but I think video game writing is especially collaborative,” he said. “It’s really an honor to be recognized by my peers, but I know this is more than most even. Very much a shared honor.”

Lerner said there is a lot more “push-pull” with video game writing than a typical film or television production, with the player needing to be considered at all times. Although a video game’s writers aren’t likely the first thing someone thinks about when playing it, these staff members play a critical role in shaping a player’s journey and experience.

“The player has to interact with and feel a sense of agency with the game,” Lerner said. “That’s kind of the unseen writer.”

Unexpected Turn

Lerner, 34, who now lives in Los Angeles, started working on the project unexpectedly in 2020 while looking for work in Hollywood during the COVID-19 pandemic. He previously worked as a production assistant in television, but there were very few live-action productions being held during the pandemic. 

“In that time, a friend of mine reached out and said they needed some writing work done on a video game, and a video game doesn’t have any COVID protocols,” Lerner said. “I got into that and really fell in love with it.”

Lerner, the son of longtime Cheyenne television anchor Dave Lerner, studied TV and film writing at the University of Southern California. 

Although Lerner plays video games “a good deal,” he said his father plays them even more. This shared love is a bonding point for the two.

Now seven games deep into his video game writing resumé, Lerner says he’s grateful to write for a living, and he likes the story challenges that writing for video games brings. He’s keeping his future open for all opportunities. 

“I would love to continue to write video games,” he said. “I want to go back into TV, I want to write movies, I want to stay busy, I want to tell more stories. Video games have been a really great way of letting me do that.”

The Nebula Awards will be presented May 14 in Anaheim, California.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter