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A Cup of Ambition: The Video Game Writer

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into his/her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

Introducing Mademoiselle...
Emilie Poissenot. I’m also known as Aheïla on the web. I work as a video game designer at Sarbakan, a renowned independent game studio specializing in global cross-platform development services and original game creations. A studio born here, in Quebec city, a little over 12 years ago. I also teach narrative structure for games part time. And when I’m not doing either of those things, I’m an aspiring author posting fiction on The Writeaholic’s Blog.

Game Designer huh, what about it?
The game designer’s job is a little challenging to explain. I don’t program and I don’t produce art. In a way, I write games but not just (and often not even) in a narrative way. I create the rules by which the game is played, the controls, the characters (if any), the scoring system, and the game levels that contain all that. The documentation I write contains the guidelines the team of programmers and artists need to turn an idea into a playable experience. In huge studios, game designer, level designer and game writer are different jobs. Sarbakan falling somewhere between large studio and indie developer, I’m more a jack-of-all-trade.

Getting Started

I’ve always dwelled in artsy things. I took acting classes from 5 and a half to 15, I wrote stories for the local newspaper when I was 10, I dance, I sing, and I studied cinema in college. When my college classes taught me to be a critic instead of a creator, I decided to take a step back from my education. I needed time to figure out the best route to something that would satisfy my urge for creation whilst reassuring the Taurus in me who likes job security. I worked a few very random, non-creative and outright weird jobs before I stumbled upon the idea of developing games. I took a 13 months intensive class to become a game designer. Now, I work in the business and I occasionally teach it. Suffice to say I fell in love with game creation.

Good Stuff

Everything!? Okay, I’ll narrow it down. In the course of my career, which is about to reach the 3 years mark, I have worked mostly on free online Flash projects. These projects are for clients such as Disney, Nickelodeon, Hasbro, MTV, Fisher Price, and others. I designed games for SpongeBob, Transformers, Hot Wheels, etc. There is an undeniable thrill to work with franchises that influenced a generation, brands that made, and are still making, childhood magical. It’s nice to become part of the magic. Moreover, though we do have crunch times and hard days, making game is all about fun. Plus, it’s ever-changing so I don’t get bored!

Bad Stuff

Games have yet to develop their language for storytelling. We rely on cinema’s language or plain text. Since games are interactive in nature, unlike any other medium, it’s not working quite right. Ultimately, we cannot/should not control elements of the story writers usually perceive as the key to storytelling, like pacing or even the main character’s actions for that matter. Since it’s partially charted territory, we’re often required to avoid stories or make them as short as possible. While it’s a great way to learn how to shorten dialog and make it snappy, it also means the depth of stories is limited. As someone who is obsessed with fiction and the way various mediums convey emotions, my biggest challenge at work also is my greatest motivation. One of my career goals would be to broaden the very limited emotional range of games by one emotion.

Something weird, something cool, or something surprising
Writing games allowed me to realize the weight of my words. They convince clients to invest anywhere from five to seven digits sums in our projects. They launch a journey of 2 months to over a year for a team of five to over a hundred people towards the realization of an outstanding product. And yet my words are worth very little. Without the trust of the client, without the budget, time, and technology, or the synergy of the whole team, my words aren’t a game; they’re a silly idea on paper. Who would read twice the story of a plumber jumping on turtles and eating mushrooms on his way to save a princess? A person might have the best idea in the world, if it is not expressed properly, no one will care. When games are concerned, “expressing properly” means molding ideas to constraints and realizing them with a team.

Cool Story, let's hear it
Just one? How am I supposed to pull that off? The working environment in games is prone to anecdotes. How can I choose between Formal Fridays, guys jealous of the Transformer RPM race track Hasbro sent me or chasing the boss with a Super Soaker during the summer party? I’ll use something that has nothing to do with the social aspect of my work. I’ll tell the story of a task I actually had to perform. MTV premiered a new comedy last June entitled The Hard Times of RJ Berger. The lead game designer (aka my immediate superior) worked on a game called Chain of Thoughts to accompany the premiere. One morning, he dropped by my desk to delegate the dialogs of the game to me. “You have to write a few scenes of an awkward teenager flirting with the most beautiful girl in school,” he said. I already had ideas bubbling in my head and a wide grin. “Those will be the good lines. Then change one word to turn the lines into sexual innuendos, dorkish/geekish references or, you know, wrong things to say when you’re flirting.” So I worked for a couple of days on the awkward teenager’s line and the messed up versions of said lines. Both were a lot of fun to write. I even did some extra ones so the lead game designer could choose his favorites. But, you know, my job is very serious.

The Key to Game Designing
The core traits are an interest for games, creativity that can work within specific constraints, teamwork capability, and the capacity to express ideas clearly (written and spoken). Humility is always a plus: people might be working on your idea but they know things that you don’t and you should listen when they speak. Besides that, lots of skills are useful and make each designer unique. I talk “programmer-speak” but I don’t code. Some of my coworkers do. I can devise the flowchart of the behavioral pattern of an artificial intelligence but I don’t enjoy it. My desk neighbor does. So I might drop my flowcharts on his desk and he’ll give me the storytelling required for his game. We work as a team whenever possible to play on everyone’s strength.

Advice for the people of tomorrow
A lot of people think they can be game designers because they have ideas and they play a lot of games. It is not enough. Your creative horizon needs to be wide so you can draw inspiration from an array of things. Expressing yourself clearly is key and learning to let other people alter your ideas is a must. Because like a movie, game development involves a multi-disciplinary team. You should also be prepared to work for it. There aren’t a whole lot of game designers within a company. I’m one of the few of my class who got hired; I went the extra mile during my formation and networked whenever I had the chance.

Thoughts for those people who write poetry or non-fiction
The job itself teaches a few skills that are useful for people who want to pursue publishing. I alter my ideas on a daily basis which is a good trial run for the editing process. I create according to a target audience which contributes to the marketability of any oeuvre. I write proposals to convince people my ideas are worth investing large amounts of money in (query letter, anyone?). As I said before, game stories also teach concision which is something I, personally, constantly need to work on. The work schedule itself being somewhat flexible, except during crunch times, I can find time to work on my blog.

Outside work and the Job, how is that going?
Because storytelling in games is fairly limited, my blog and my other writing projects channel my need to explore emotionally complex narratives but I started them for other reasons too. The primary goals of my blog are to work on my writing flaws and build my confidence in storytelling in English (my first language is French). Unforeseen Dives, my first blog novel, has a rigid structure that forces me to be concise and write steadily. The readers comment right away which gives me instant feedback. Since its inception, my blog has grown to serve other purposes as well, such as giving writing tips and networking to help my attempts at publication. Good writing comes with practice so the time I spend blogging is never lost.

Aheïla wants anyone who has any questions to go to her blog. She is ready and willing to answer.
KafiyahA Cup of Ambition, Jobs