Interview: Olivia Wood

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Jeffery Klaehn holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde. His fields of expertise are media and communication, comics and graphic novels, social theory, the political economy of media, propaganda, digital storytelling and game design, and interactive media. He has published interviews with the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, Loading: the Journal of the Canadian Gaming Studies Association, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, the International Journal of Comic Art, Horror Studies, Media Theory, Synaesthesia: Communication across Cultures and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.  More about the author

Olivia Wood is a video game writer, narrative designer, and editor, specializing in interactive narrative. She works for Failbetter Games in London, UK. Her credits include Sunless Skies (2019, writer, narrative designer and editor), Sunless Sea: Zubmariner (2016, writer, narrative designer and editor), Sunless Sea (2015, writer and editor), Fallen London (2009, writer, narrative designer and editor), Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (Dimbulb Games/Serenity Forge, 2018, contributing writer), The Mystery of Kalkomey Isle (Kalkomey, 2018, design consultant and editor), Cheaper than Therapy (sub-Q, 2019, writer, designer and developer), and Lethophobia (2016, writer and designer). She first worked in the video game industry at the age of 18 as a quality assurance technician for games including Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (Crystal Dynamics, 1999) and Timesplitters 2 (Crytek UK, 2002). Her work in writing and editing (narrative) in the video game industry was recognised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2017. She strives to share her knowledge of video game writing, narrative design and interactive narrative through giving talks and interviews and also via narrative consultancy and writing services.

This interview explores her career to date, including discussion of her inspirations, writing, and work in the field of digital games as a writer, narrative designer, editor, and content manager; her work on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Sunless Skies, Fallen London, and Lethophobia; her current role at Failbetter Games; future projects; as well as practical advice for those hoping to pursue careers in game writing, narrative design and editing.

Source: BAFTA/Charlie Clift

Source: BAFTA/Charlie Clift

Jeffery Klaehn: What do you enjoy most about writing and working in the field of digital games and narrative design?

Olivia Wood: I can’t pick between two ‘mosts,’ so you’re going to get both.

At a practical, craft level, videogames offer challenges and opportunities very different to writing for other media. A film can break your heart; a game can make you complicit in the breaking. By reacting to player choices, a game can force the player to live with the consequences of their actions. It is possible to surprise the player with consequences. This can produce startling, funny, or touching moments – narrative rewards for pushing the bounds of the game, exploring the world and the relationships of characters within it. This is made even sweeter by the popularity of streaming – sometimes you get to sit back and watch someone discover a moment you’re particularly proud of, and really get it. I love that feeling.

That’s the work itself. My other ‘most’ are my peers in the profession. Apparently, I’m in competition with other writers. In practice, they are the most welcoming bunch I’ve ever encountered. Even writers and designers at the ‘celebrity’ level are open to teaching and mentoring, or at least signal boost other’s work.

Almost everyone I’ve encountered appreciates the need for a multitude of writing voices in the industry and raises each other up. Games writing and design would be worse without this, and, as gamers ourselves, we want to see it at its best… but it’s nice to see this generosity in action.

J: What initially inspired you to want to become a writer?

O: I was less ‘inspired’ to write as ‘yearned’ to write. I’ve always been a reader. I looked up to writing heroes – Terry Pratchett in particular – not just for their worlds, but for how they changed people who’ve experienced them.

In Pratchett’s case, it was his moral strength, and how his anger at injustice infused his work without poisoning its core of goodness. It’s not nihilistic, or overly cynical – it is uncompromising and real in a way that makes people strive rather than despair or reject the ability to improve. His work, in particular, made me think: I want to do this; I never could.

But I couldn’t keep away from stories. I became an editor, specialising in science fiction and fantasy, and worked on numerous books for several years, building writing-adjacent muscles as I did. But I’d also always been a gamer. Asheron’s Call (Turbine, 1999) got me hooked on writing in games, whether it be quests or world-building, and interested by how the narrative linked into the systems.

So, while I was working as a fiction editor, I was looking for editing work in games – a way to combine two things I loved. I found a bewildering gap. At the time I entered the games industry there were almost no other professional [narrative] editors. This role was, if performed at all, done by someone with an entirely different specialism. Note – even at this point, I still wasn’t ‘inspired’ to write – I still believed that it was a mystic art, bestowed on others.

But I joined a small company. While I was primarily an editor, I was also doing QA, design, support, and … writing. And the more I wrote, and with feedback from exceptional writers and narrative designers — in particular, Chris Gardiner (Dragon Age: The Last Court; Tales of Fallen London: The Silver Tree) and Emily Short (Sunless Sea; Galatea; Savoir-Faire; Counterfeit Monkey; Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) — the more I improved. I got good.

J: What was it like writing for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine?

O: Fun, challenging and affirming. I wrote some of the game’s vignettes – the small, self-contained stories the player collects as they travel. In part, the fun came from working alongside so many other skilled writers. It was playfully competitive – I (at least) wanted to match others’ ideas, occasionally one-up the others’ with humour, or creepiness. But we were always pulling for the same game, so it was always a joyful sort of competition, inspiring each other.

The fun also came from how we worked. The vignettes were allocated between the writers simply by us choosing images from a folder of artwork, and researching (or creating from scratch) a branching scene that fitted the image. So long as it suited the picture, we could take an idea and run with it, making it as horrific, or playful, or romantic as we desired. Because the vignettes were so short, I got to play with a large number of ideas, which avoids the general harsh realities of writing where you have to pick only one out of many beloved ideas.

But this wasn’t always easy. Of course we picked the most inspiring images first, and towards the end, when only a few were left to have vignettes written for, I was left facing a sheep. I had to rework several ideas before I came up with something satisfying about a sheep. At the time I became frustrated, afterwards I was more proud of it than I was of the ideas that had come easily.

Finally, it was very affirming. Johnnemann, the creator and developer trusted us absolutely. Having conveyed his vision for the game, he gave us the lightest steer and then let us run. It is a rare privilege to be trusted like this – and few studios are small enough that they can be run like this. But it was a pleasure to work in such a way.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, Source: Johnnemann Nordhagen

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, Source: Johnnemann Nordhagen

J: What about Sunless Skies? What possibilities did the game and its world offer you as a writer?

O: Sunless Skies is based in the Fallen London universe, but is a step away into entirely new territory. This gave us a familiar base of lore, writing style and design. At the same time, by taking previous characters into a whole new setting, we could choose when to create new lore, when to break away from what we’d done in the past. It created space for new ideas, while being reassuring.

The space for new ideas was not only crucial for creative refreshment (Fallen London has just had its 10 year anniversary, and it’s sometimes hard to find something new to write that doesn’t contradict extant content!), but it gave an opportunity for the content team to take responsibility for huge chunks of the game. While every piece of content had many eyes on it, there are pieces writers will hold in their hearts as ‘theirs.’ I’m particularly proud of the ‘Fortunate Navigator’ and his companion quest. I got to explore Victorian workhouses and colonialist cruelty in Brabazon Workworld, and in a major Revolutionary questline. These are only examples – all the writers got to contribute major ideas and designs, often exploring areas rarely touched on in video games. And each piece was an opportunity to develop as a writer and designer in a collaborative environment with positive feedback. I feel immensely privileged for that.

J: What does work as an editor and content manager involve?

O: As an editor, I have a short-term goal, which is to ensure that specific writing is consistent with that elsewhere in the game. This includes consistency of standard, of lore, of style, even of formatting and idiom. But in giving feedback that achieves this, I aim to raise the writing overall and give the writer the tools to need less editing, or at least different editing in the future. In a game that has many writers, this can require a deft touch – making writing fit, and mesh together, so the player never encounters lurches between writing styles, but also maintaining the writer’s personal voice, the reason that we want them writing for the game in the first place.

As content manager, I keep an eye on the content pipeline. For a game like Sunless Skies, this meant checking when particular quests had to be completed by, and ensuring that someone (internal or freelance) was available to write, edit, review and test each piece of content before the date it would be released. This means liaising with the producer, who tracks (among many other things) public deadlines and the final launch date.

The process is similar for a continuous, free-to-play game like Fallen London, except there is no final deadline. It always wants more content.

J: How do you approach narrative choice, as a game writer and designer?

O: I could write a whole essay on this subject, but it would only paraphrase a blog post by Emily Short.

But aside from: ‘make it as hard as possible for the player to finish your game without understanding your story,’ I like to consider:
• What would a player like to do in a game that they might not expect to be able to do?
• How can I surprise them with the inevitable? (Making something obvious with hindsight.)
• How can I make a choice difficult by making each option tempting for wildly different reasons? How can I make an obviously-bad-decision alluring?
• What choices will make players want to compare, to draw out narrative threads (and not to work out what was the ‘best’ decision)?

J: What advice might you give to those hoping to develop careers in the game industry as writers and designers?

O: You’ve got to write. You’ve got to design. And you’ve got to put completed work out there, no matter how short the piece. There are jobs out there for juniors, but they are relentlessly competitive.

For freelancers, I’m far less interested in a CV than I am in a person’s work – and will go to websites, or itch.io, to play what people have done. Short pieces (10-20min of playing) are best. I want to see that a person can complete something. Starting is easy. I need people who can produce a finished idea.

You can self-teach by participating in game jams, or by working on designs for your own creative pleasure. Tools like Twine and Ink (by Inkle, who did Heaven’s Vault and 80 Days) are free and used by professionals at every level. Emily Short’s blog is a massive resource, but this post contains vital links to information from other professionals:

Look on YouTube for videos from GDC – many are available free. Sub-Q is a good place to see what people can do with short pieces of Interactive Fiction, and also a place to submit work. And do submit work – you have to get used to rejection, and feedback that might ask you to change the work you value the most. People who are good to work with get work. Precious geniuses are avoided.

J: What have you enjoyed most in terms of your career to date?

O: I was pretty damn chuffed when I was recognised by BAFTA as a Breakthrough Brit for my work in video games. But on a day-to-day level, I’m a notorious lurker on fan forums. When something I wrote and designed impacts a player in a profound way, it’s incredible. That’s what I’m here for.

J: What are you most looking forward to, looking toward the future?

O: I’m really excited about the next projects Failbetter Games are planning. As a company, it’s a collaborative one, and a pleasure to work for, and, well, I think people are going to love what we’re scheming. I’m certainly looking forward to doing the work.
Outside Failbetter’s work, I’m working with George Lockett, consulting with several indies. As is often the way in games, everything is hidden behind NDAs, but it’s giving us a chance to get in right at the beginning, and get our fingerprints on some personal, and, hopefully, powerful works. I’m looking forward to getting to shout about them.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, Source: Johnnemann Nordhagen

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, Source: Johnnemann Nordhagen