Macro and Micro Narrative Storytelling with Chella Ramanan - Episode 196

I think it’s hard to create a satisfying story experience in an open world, you know that’s a real challenge. I think it’s one that narrative designers are having a good go at it, It’s one of the things that really sets us apart from film, to give the player this open world where they can do whatever they want while also making it feel satisfying with a narrative that isn’t packed on.
— Chella Ramanan (Writer)

 
 

EPISODE 196

We love telling stories here on Game Dev Unchained, so much so we do it each week rain or shine with a new guest but this week was special. We got the opportunity to interview Chella Ramanan about character and story for games both on the micro level and macro level and just general ways that the literary arts is helping deliver the goods in the game industry and also touched on diversity issues in development as well. Chella had just a brief time off before her new gig at Ubisoft starts so we were ecstatic to get the chance to work with her for this week’s podcast. Here are some of the notable excerpts from the episode.

Chella:My name is Chella Ramanan on I'm a videogames journalist but not for much longer but I've been writing about videogames as a journalist for about 18 years. I’ve written stuff for the Guardian, the game section and I write, well I’ve just written my last colum for gameindustry.com who are based in the US but I'm co-founder of POC in Play which is a diversity organization which focuses on improving the representation and visibility of people of color in the games industry. We’re based in the UK but hopefully one day we’ll be international. I’m a game developer as well. I’m working on a game called before I forget, which is a narrative adventure game about a woman with dementia with my partner Claire Morley and together we’re Threefold games, a little micro studio and I’m also working on another game called Windrush Tales, which is about the Windrush generation… And last year was the 70th anniversary, my dad was part of that generation so I wanted to celebrate it but then last year we found out that our government was trying to send / deport some of that generation under the hostile immigration policy that our government currently employs so yea it just made that game even more worthwhile to make.”

Larry and I have been in the game industry for a long time, and I’ve looked primarily at the design discipline and the writing team as the main example of how the game will come out and it is very much a referral type of image, ‘We hire the kind of people that we know and that we’ve worked with before, they have similar mindsets as ours”. Those two disciplines in particular I feel have the most influence on how the game shapes and forms because as an artist, we get our directions from those two teams, so I’m talking to a writer and designer. I would love to know your perspective and your experiences.

“Well I mean I haven't really worked in big teams, but that’s about to change as I’m about to join Ubisoft. But in terms of my teams I was thrown together with the people on Before I forget, though there were three of us and I was the only person of color we were all women so yeah I said oh I just quite like her to be Asian, to be Indian and they were just like ‘Ok, fine cool’... So that was nice, but I know from peers who are from indie and still in small teams that they have sometimes struggled to get their voice heard or, their perspective is important and is sometimes overlooked. So that is a bit sad and sort of dispiriting and wearing that person you know there’s a lot of emotional labor in that being the lone voice that perhaps isn’t listened to.”

Well, an 18 year career in games journalism and also being involved in two simultanious game development projects…

Chella: Yeah DON’T EVER DO THAT (Laughs).


Ha, well as the designer of the group when did you see that transition in your life occur. Were you always interested in game development or maybe because during the journalism you’re like ‘Oh, I actually want to try my hand at it now” Tell me the story of how you got into game development yourself and how great it’s been?

So I’ve always been writing fiction on the side, I mean that was my first love was the goal to be a novelist I mean what journalist I mean, if you had a penny for every journalist that wants to be a novelist, we’d all be rich. So yea I was always attending either writing classes in the evenings, I was writing something, I think at that point I was running a writing group and seriously working on a novel, I think about draft 3 of a novel and I saw this ad. I think it was gameindustry.biz did an article about writing for games course in with an organization called the Argonne Foundation which is a really highly respected writing foundation that does writing courses across all sorts of disciplines, playwriting, radio writing, biographies all sorts of things. So I was at the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath house which is up in Yorkshire and the Tutors were David Varela and John Ingold and guest tutor Rhianna Pratchett, so I saw that and I like going on writing retreats and I write about games, so I was like “Oh this is a cool intersection of things I enjoy” so I signed up for that and it kind of changed everything. It changed my perspective and my focus because I thought oh this is something I can REALLY do, and I enjoyed it. It was a week residential and from listening to the tutors and their journeys I picked out the common threads that they’ve done all different types of writing, so I went home and I wa slike “Ok I’m going to start looking at interactive fiction and write a game”.

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I feel like games writing you have to write a lot more dialogue than other mediums because of options that players can take and different scenarios you have to think about and a lot of writing that players may not even get to and I feel like more recently a lot of other AAA developers (sans Sony) are moving away from that and are more in line with player choice driving story, what’s your thoughts on it?

“Well I think there’s space for both, for all the, you know those… I suppose you have Telltale, tightly written stories but are very good at giving the illusion of choice and getting the player emotional investment through the sheer craft of the choices they give you. But in my personal choice, I mean yea, I do like the Uncharted games. So beautifully written, they give that… We’ve always been searching for that game that feels like a movie and Naughty Dog gives us that. It’s a sheer joy to play in that respect, it’s that dream of being able to sit on your couch and play a game that feels like a movie and they did it perfectly. I do prefer that to more open world games, I think it’s hard to create a satisfying story experience in an open world, you know that’s a real challenge. I think it’s one that narrative designers are having a good go at it, It’s one of the things that really sets us apart from film, to give the player this open world where they can do whatever they want while also making it feel satisfying with a narrative that isn't packed on. It’s a challenge but what’s great about games is there’s space for all of those things.”

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It’s fair to say the game sizes 10 years ago, super small. It’s like going from one writer at that time to now like, with you bringing up Uncharted, Assassins Creed you have macro story and micro story, you have sidequests, additional content… There’s narrative designers who’re like ‘yeah I just do dialogue’ then there’s ‘I’m doing the overall story, there’s ‘I just build lore that goes on the website’... Oh my god we’ve grown so much, I’m proud but I imagine it’s hard to do… A micro story that’s just as fine tuned and hand crafted as the overall or macro story.

Do you have any successful techniques or suggestions for people who may be in the scenario where they’re like ‘I’m going to be writing somebody (culturally) unfamiliar to me? Tips for writing the other?

“Well I suppose the thing that’s good that we have now is the internet and social media, so you know there’s “Black Twitter” and you know those from the Irish Twitter, Jewish Twitter and so that’s a good place to start to see what conversations those communities are having, what their concerns are, who they’re listening to, who their spokespeople are, the media that they go to and then following that and immersing yourselves and writers and filmmakers and I suppose theorists from that group and marginalized voice wherever they may be. And then consulting with people, especially if it’s a commercial product. Pay a consultant to look over what you’ve done to help you get it right. But yea just try and immerse yourself and I think don’t take… Because the thing that lots of people do with people of color, when they’re writing people of color is they use movies, and they think the black people on movies or tv are like real black people, but they’re not they tend to be stereotyped and they tend to be from a very small pool of what that community is like. Don’t use Hollywood shorthand to inform you think a group is, I think that’s the biggest, BIGGEST mistake.”

 
 
 
 

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