Interview: Toiya Kristen Finley, Video Game Writer and GDC Presenter

FinleyAuthorPhotoNashville native Toiya Kristen Finley is a writer, editor, game designer, and narrative designer/game writer. She holds a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from Binghamton University. With nearly 70 published works, she has 20 years of experience writing in a range of genres, tones, styles, and voices. She gained editorial experience interning at Henry Holt’s imprint, Owl Books. At Binghamton, she founded the literary journal Harpur Palate and served as its managing/fiction editor. She has been a writing center tutor, writing mentor, English tutor, and an instructor in both traditional and online classrooms. In 2011, she co-founded the Game Writing Tutorial at GDC Online with Tobias Heussner and served as an instructor in 2011 and 2012.

In videogames, she has worked as a game designer, narrative designer, and game writer (or some combination of the three) on several unreleased indie, social, and mobile games for children and general audiences. Some of these games’ existence shall remain forever a secret (hey, that’s the game industry for ya). Published games include Academagia: The Making of Mages (Black Chicken Studios) and Fat Chicken (Relevant Games). She is currently a member of the IGDA Game Writing Special Interest Group’s Executive Board. The Game Narrative Toolbox (Focal Press), a book on narrative design she’s co-authoring with Jennifer Brandes Hepler, Ann Lemay, and Tobias Heussner, will be out in June 2015.

Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts on writing for games, and for your insightful article on networking included at the end of this book. How did you get started in games, and what keeps you going?

Toiya Kristen Finley: About ten years ago, I had an idea for a game I wanted to make. It dawned on me that somebody had to write the stories for games. I had an extensive background in writing and editing prose, and I loved games, so I figured I could try writing for games. At that point in time, I thought game writers and game designers were the same because, you know, writers wrote down how to play the game and all of the rules. (As you can see, I knew nothing about game development back then!)

I was playing Shenmue II, which has a huge world and lots of things to do in it, and I thought, “Hey, maybe this game idea I have is possible!” So, I started researching how to become a game writer. I found a post from Black Chicken Studios on a job board for writers. They were looking for lore writers (which I also did not know existed at the time), so I applied. They took me on as a lore writer for Academagia: The Making of Mages. They liked my work, and they made me an assistant designer (and this is when I discovered game designers were a thing). I also wrote several DLC for them.

I like being able to tell different kinds of stories in different kinds of media. I’ve had the pleasure of working with clients on very different kinds of games, from mobile and social, children’s games, and satirical games. It’s the collaborative process of coming up with a concept and working with a team that I enjoy. Somebody makes a comment to tweak your idea, or you tweak somebody else’s. Suddenly, everything works as it should. It’s definitely different than working on my own projects.

JS: What else do you write? What do you see as the main differences between the process of this other writing and game writing?

TKF: I write prose (both fiction and creative nonfiction), and academic writing, and I’m venturing into manga writing. Prose—whether short stories, novels or nonfiction—allows me to get more into the inner worlds of the characters. With games, the player must always be at the heart of the story, even if the player-character is fixed with a definitive background, and/or the story is linear. While prose allows me to get into characters’ heads, I have to use the world around player-characters to give players a sense of who they are–or who they want their players to become. Manga is similar to games in that it’s visual and relies less on text, but the reader’s passively interacting with the characters and the world. Games get to engage players and invite them to interact. That’s the biggest difference people usually talk about; videogames are interactive, while the other storytelling media are passive experiences.

But I think it’s important to look at how game writing is different in how it can improve upon the passive experiences in other media. Engage all of the senses—it’s advice prose writers often receive, but I think we can be more mindful of this in games, especially when games are more interactive. With game writing, engaging the senses can feel a lot more palpable than simply reading about them or visualizing them in art. Players literally can hear sounds. If they see smoke rising from garbage piles, they know what that smells like. If they’re landing a punch, they have a sense of what that feels like—and how good it feels—because their interaction with something physical (the controller, keyboard, or mouse) caused that punch, and that enemy crumples to the ground, explodes, or anything else the animators, artists, and I can come up with. So, with game writing, I want to keep that sensory experience in mind and focus on the game’s narrative design and how both player-characters and NPCs behave in and react to the spaces they’re inhabiting.

JS: Can you tell us more about the “Game Narrative Toolbox” and what aspiring game writers can hope to gain from this book that they may not from the other books available?

TKF: There’s a bunny on the cover, a writerly rabbit abandoning pages of story in the forest. How many videogame books can make that claim?

This was a really fun project, and I believe it’s an important one. The industry is still figuring out what narrative design is. We define narrative design and its relationship to game design and writing. Jennifer Brandes Hepler, Ann Lemay, Tobias Heussner, and I have worked on very different kinds of games in both traditional and non-traditional environments in game development. We have almost 50 years of experience between us. All four of us include our different perspectives of working in games and cover areas where we have expertise. Whether you are employed or a freelancer, working in a studio or telecommuting, you can find a place in games, and a successful one at that. We cover the storytelling aspects of narrative design in a variety of genres and understanding your limitations from creative, collaborative, and technical standpoints. We also discuss the importance of including the entire team in the game’s narrative design and how to accomplish that, whether you’re with them in an office or thousands of miles away. We break down how to communicate with designers, artists, programmers, sound designers, etc. The success of a game’s narrative design—and the game itself—is dependent upon that communication.

Two areas I highlight are story in mobile and social games and working as a freelancer in a non-traditional environment. We don’t often discuss narrative design or writing in mobile and social games, and we can certainly talk about being a freelancer in the industry a lot more than we do.

Chapters have exercises at the end. So, whether it’s coming up with a character bio or writing more technical documentation, writers can work on portfolio pieces or develop documentation for their own game’s narrative design. By the time they finish the book, they’ll have a variety of new portfolio pieces. Also, we’re hoping that the book is helpful for developers and individuals/companies who aren’t developers and want to make a game, whether they want to understand how to integrate narrative designers into what they do, or they want to work on their game’s storytelling.

But, seriously, there’s a bunny on the cover.

JS: Can you tell us more about your decision to establish the Game Writing Tutorial that you and Tobias Heussner established? What hole did this hope to fill and was this accomplished?

TKF: The year before the first Game Writing Tutorial, Tobias had taught a workshop on developing effective workflows for character creation at GDC Online (may it RIP). But sessions were only one hour. People who had attended the session enjoyed it, but they wanted more time for group work. Tobias and I were talking about this with Tom Abernathy, who’s on the Narrative Summit Advisory Board. The three of us agreed that we needed longer workshop sessions, and we needed to cover other aspects of narrative design and game writing. Attendees needed hands-on, practical teaching in a creative environment. Tobias and I pitched the Game Writing Tutorial for the next GDC Online.

The two years of the Game Writing Tutorial, we had attendees who were established writers, writers looking to get into the industry, students, and individuals interested in interactive storytelling. We discovered that people were becoming more and more interested in game writing and narrative design. They wanted that workshop environment that gave them a chance to learn and experiment.

JS: That sounds like a great experience. Moving to this year’s GDC, did you have any main takeaways that you would like to share with us? Have you seen a change in GDC over the years, and did anything strike you as unique this year?

TKF: Getting back to freelancing, I talked about it… a lot. I had a session devoted to it that Wednesday, but I had discussions about freelancing and all the possibilities it offered every day. I’ve moderated “It’s Not in the Writer’s Manual: A Q&A Session for New Writers” since 2009. This GDC was the first time we got several freelance-related questions. I’ve always been a freelancer in the industry. I’ve talked about freelancing here and there before, but this year, there was a great deal of interest.

I think people are discovering that there are viable ways to work as a freelancer in games. No matter the industry, a lot of people are trying to freelance because of the economy and lack of job security. But they’re also discovering how difficult it is to find good work. We don’t talk enough about how to establish our rates, establish best business practices, or find good clients. So, now that people know they have opportunities to freelance, or they’ve tried it, they’re thirsty for knowledge.

And, for obvious reasons, people made a point to support and celebrate women devs and focus on issues of diversity. We need more of that.

A lot more.

And not just at a mega conference once a year.

JS: Have you found GDC to be the amazing networking event that many say it is? As our readers can read your article on networking at the GDC, there is no point getting too into the details here, but what would be your main piece of advice for getting the most out of GDC in terms of networking?

TKF: What you get out of GDC will depend upon how much energy you’re willing to spend during the week. If you’re looking for freelance work, you have to network. You have to bounce from party to party every night. You have to pace yourself. The success you have in finding work largely depends on whom you happen to meet. You are highly unlikely to sign any contracts during the week, which I think is extremely important to remember. Not coming away with work does not mean you’ve failed. Focus on marketing who you are and what you’re capable of; keep in contact with prospective clients who’ve shown an interest in you. The same applies if you’re looking for employment. Keep in mind that there are more jobs available than the ones you hear about at the Career Pavilion. Many jobs, whether for freelancers or employees, are “hidden.” They’re not going to be advertised. Developers (and non-developers looking to make games!) are going to look to fill positions through referrals and people they meet. The great thing about hidden jobs? There’s a lot less competition.

If not for GDC (and GDC Austin and GDC Online), I would not have been introduced to the writing community. I would not have had the opportunities to speak at GDC and other conferences, serve on the IGDA Game Writing SIG’s Executive Board, or co-write The Game Narrative Toolbox. The book came into being because our publisher had an interest in one of Tobias’s sessions for the Game Writing Tutorial.

JS: Have any of your other projects you’ve been involved in been direct results from networking at GDC?

TKF: It depends on how you define “direct.” The Game Narrative Toolbox was a direct result of the Game Writing Tutorial at GDC Online. After GDC Online one year, I was referred for a job and got it.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, the relationships I’ve built through networking year after year didn’t lead to immediate work, but they bore fruit. People have gotten to know me, how I think about narrative design and game design, how I approach storytelling in general. Through those relationships, I’ve been invited to other conferences and workshops. One relationship that started at GDC back in 2009 led to attending a workshop in 2013. That workshop in 2013 led to a repeat client through a referral. That same workshop in 2014 led to a new client in 2015 through another referral. If that awesome relationship hadn’t started in 2009, I would not be where I am right now.

Work coming directly from networking at GDC does happen, but I think it’s important to see networking at GDC as an investment. You have to put your mental and physical energy into it (and your money, of course).

I did meet some prospective clients at GDC this year, too. It’s possible I might get some more direct results. 🙂

JS: Having been on both the writing and design side of game development, what do you see as the main concerns of each role? How does a narrative designer differ from a strict design or writer role?

TKF: As a game designer, I always focus on what kind of experience my client wants the player to have first. That experience is going to influence the mechanics and gameplay. Theme is important to consider here. A soon-to-be-released game is whimsical and silly. Looking at the game’s genre, I wanted to come up with mechanics that were whimsical and silly, while making sure the gameplay fit within the genre and the client’s scope. Those technical constraints define and influence how the story can be implemented, not the other way around.  I’ve designed exclusively for mobile and social, and I’ve been mindful of the technical constraints of those platforms.

Oddly enough, I’m in more of a visual mode when working on game design, even though I provide artist references for story elements or visualize certain parts of the story and characters. As a game designer, I put lots of visual references of screenshots and gameplay videos into game design documents. Not everyone wants to spend a lot of time reading, and those references can communicate concepts better than words. I design a lot of mockups–screens upon screens of mockups. I think about UI design, what information needs to be on the screen, and where to deliver that information on the screen. I’m not a UI designer, but the games I’ve worked on haven’t had large teams. So, I’ve had to take on several roles that might be spread among several individuals on a design team.

Narrative design ensures that the gameplay/game mechanics and story elements are working together. It keeps the pacing right. (Missions in mobile games are going to be short, as they are meant to be played in shorter sessions. Missions in an RPG can take an hour or more, since RPGs are meant to be immersive experiences.) In what ways can the gameplay be reflected in the story and world? How can the story and world embody the gameplay? What are the best ways to deliver story (only through environmental narrative, text boxes, voice-over, cutscenes, etc.)? How do you develop characters beyond dialogue (animation, art, etc.)? In the whimsical game I mentioned, you want the player-character to soar as high as possible. That earns you more points. So, when the player-character’s really soaring, he makes an ecstatic noise. This is story married to gameplay. The player-character wants to soar (characterization), and the player is given positive feedback when that desire is met through the gameplay (happy sound effect). Narrative design can be implemented in many ways. Games in science-fictional or futuristic settings have futuristic UI design and use futuristic fonts. Spec Ops: The Line has interesting narrative design in its loading screens. The text goes from giving players gameplay tips to talking about the player-character and giving meta-commentary about the player’s in-game experience. So, narrative design is going to be unique to every game, but it must always keep gameplay and story working together.

Narrative design lays the foundation for story implementation. Game writing fills in all of the details. For example, the narrative designer (or team of narrative designers) works on major concepts for the game’s world. Game writers will develop the lore based on those concepts. The narrative designer may lay out the basic story and plot progression, and game writers work on the mission writing. Game writers may take the characters narrative designers have created and write side-quests for them. And sometimes game writers have some of the same roles as narrative designers. Some studios consider narrative designers and writers to be interchangeable, and some studios have narrative designers, but they have completely different names for them,

JS: It sounds chaotic! What advice do you have for aspiring video game writers? Do you have any favorite books or resources on the subject?

TKF: The IGDA Game Writing SIG has a couple of books: Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG and Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing. Both are edited by Wendy Despain. These were recommended to me when I was first introduced to the writing and narrative design community. They helped me to understand the development process, certain types of documentation, and how writing differs from genre to genre.

An important resource I think writers overlook is their own analytical skills. You can learn a lot just from analyzing stories in the games you play, or the games you watch others play. If something in the game isn’t working for you, why is that? If lots of people really enjoy a game’s story, but you don’t, figure out why it’s popular. Pay attention to dialogue. What information does the dialogue deliver? How does a game make sure that characters have unique characterizations and personalities? How do different types of games use environmental narrative to deliver story and tell players about the world? If you’re not already, approach the games you’re playing from a more analytical perspective. Use the resources you’re reading to supplement the insights you’re getting from your own analysis. For example, you notice how sound design is used in a location to alert players about an enemy. In the resources you’re reading, how do they say you can work with sound designers and write up this kind of information so that it makes it into a game?

JS: How about writers that have started to see their career take off. Do you have any thoughts on how they should best ensure it actually becomes a career and not just a one-off?

TKF: The advice I can give probably relates more to freelancers and contractors who are brought on for one project and let go after their work is done. There have been times where I’ve had several jobs line up or even been working several jobs at once. Then… nothing. Nothing for a long, long, long, long time. It’s difficult to persevere through dry times because you have no idea when you’ll get another job, and you might have to move on to another career if nothing happens soon.

So, don’t limit your work to games. Ghostwrite books and comics. Consult with first-time script writers. Edit. I’ve done all sorts of writing jobs when I’m not working on a game: ghostwriting children’s books, writing a bible for a YouTube series, helping publishers outline YA series… I’m using the exact same skills I would be using in game writing, I’m still being creative, and I’m picking up techniques that I can apply to game projects. (Children’s writing, especially, helps me in the narrative design and writing for children’s games.) Prospective clients and employers like seeing that game writers have backgrounds in other media, too. Working in other media will make you more attractive, not less. Also, you never know when a non-game job will give you the experience that makes you the perfect candidate for a project. You might research and write on a particular subject that’s the focus of a game’s story. Or you might write a novel for a certain demographic, and now you have insight into developing the story for a game targeting that same audience.

JS: Thank you again for agreeing to this interview. Before we sign off, do you have any one last bit of advice for aspiring writers? Maybe something I forgot to ask about or a summary of your points above?

TKF: Thanks for these excellent questions. It was nice to be able to talk about GDC Online and the Game Writing Tutorial again!

I do want to give a shout out to all of the editors out there. We need more editors in game development. Editors quickly assess strengths and weaknesses in writing, from high-level concepts to fine details. They’re good at identifying continuity problems because their work demands they develop this skill. If you’re a writer who has editing experience, it’s good to discuss how your editing experience makes you a better writer or why you’re a good person to work with a writing/narrative design team.

And I have an interesting relationship with the word “aspiring.” 🙂 I’ve met a lot of people who refer to themselves as “aspiring,” but they’re already making Twine games. They’re working on worldbuilding documents. They’re in small teams helping with the game writing. At this point, they’re not “aspiring”; they’re doing it. I see aspiring writers, or novices, or amateurs (all words I’ve seen people use to characterize themselves) as people who think about wanting to be writers, but for whatever reason, they’re not yet writing or working on improving their skills.

I think it’s important to know when to drop certain ways of characterizing ourselves. We can put up invisible barriers, and they influence how we see ourselves, our skills, and our qualifications. When I was a teenager, I wondered when I’d be a real writer, even after I’d been writing for years and had finally been published. I carried this same thought process into writing for games. I did all of my work on these games by telecommuting. That’s not how real game development worked, right? All I ever heard about was developers working in studios. When was I going to be a real game writer, even though I had worked on projects as a game writer? I can’t apply for that particular job—I’m not a real game writer yet. However, I was just as qualified as anyone else.

If you’re doing it, you’re it. Work on your confidence, not just your skills. That goes a long way in helping you market yourself, so you can get the jobs you want.


 For other interviews like this, see my Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)

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