Interview: Elizabeth LaPensee, Game Writer and Designer

lapenseeheadshotlightElizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. expresses herself through writing, design, and art in games, comics, experimental animation, and other interactive media. She is Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish, currently living in Minnesota. Most recently, she created We Sing for Healing (2015), a musical text adventure game. She also designed The Gift of Food (2014), a board game for the Northwest Indian College about Northwest Native traditional foods. Continuing her work with communities, she co-designed Tulalip Tribes: Connected to the Land: Gathering Native Foods (2014), a suite of games about Tulalip traditional foods for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Her dissertation in Interactive Arts and Technology from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia shares experiences from the Indigenous social impact game Survivance (2011), which encourages ongoing healing through storytelling and creating art.

This interview will be one of many with amazing writers in my upcoming sequel to Creative Writing Career.

Justin Sloan: You approach games from a very different angle than many of the writers and designers interviewed in this book, in that much of what you have done has a social approach. Can you elaborate on this and tell us where your passion for this topic comes from?

Elizabeth LaPensée: Since I’m an Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish gamer, it was a given for me that I was looking for something to identify with in games. I wanted to play more games with Indigenous worldviews, right down to the way the game is designed and what the mechanics are. That put me on a path of creating mods and writing for games, collaborating with communities to develop games, as well as uplifting other Indigenous game developers whenever I can.

JS: You have a PhD in Interactive Arts and Technology. Tell us about the motivation for getting this PhD.

EL: All I know is that my mom was working on a dissertation when I was young and when nookomis called and asked me what I wanted for my fourth birthday, I said, “A ‘issertation.” Ha ha ha!

I pursued a Ph.D. with the hopes of grant funding games so that our communities don’t always need to put in funding that could be going to other needs. I understood what I was walking into and it was an adventure as someone who was merging Indigenous Studies and Game Studies, which is rare at best. I had to wait for more peer-reviewed articles to be published to have enough to develop what would be considered valid research. It was a long and important process that involved designing, developing, and gathering an understanding of the experience of the social impact game Survivance.

JS: Were you writing games before or after the degree? Did one influence the other?

EL: Andy Schatz gave me one of my first game writing contracts through Pocketwatch Games for Venture Arctic. Before then, my first game writing job involved coordinating the Advocates for Collaborative Writing on America Online, which was basically a text role-playing community but with ongoing storylines. We were special because we used paragraphs. Ha! We were hosted at Keyword: Red Dragon’s Inn but existed as a free form group that could jump to any storyline. In that phase of my career, I coined the term Story Line Role Playing (SLRP), which became a common tag in character profiles across AOL.

The social impact game Survivance definitely builds on my work as a game writer, since I adapted the Native hero’s journey which was also used as a structure for the Discovering Our Story project that inspired the game. The game involves quests guided by the stories of elders and storytellers that can be played in a non-linear way, identified by phases of the Native hero’s journey—The Orphan, The Wanderer, The Caretaker, The Warrior, and The Changer.

Before I designed Survivance alongside storytellers including Haida elder Woodrow Morrison Jr., I researched traditional storytelling structures and techniques to consider how to adapt them into gameplay that would be representative and honor teachings and protocol. This research, which started when I was very young listening to stories, influences all of my writing in every form.

JS: Where did your interest in games come from? Were you always passionate for gaming?

EL: Bows. I like bows. I like shooting stuff with bows.

For real though, games like Diablo and Ultima Online were spot on. Nothing will ever be as good as UO. Ever. Don’t even talk to me about it. The flexibility and ability to express myself as a player in UO is something I’m always striving for and have achieved in social impact games and alternate reality games and hope to see soon in video games I’m currently working on.

As Anishinaabe and Métis, I intend to make intergenerational games to continue to tell our stories, to revitalize language (Anishinaabemowin in my work), to reinforce scientific literacies, and to reconnect people with teachings of water, land, rocks, sky, plants, animals, and stars. Games should never replace community though, which is why so far I’ve emphasized working on games that merge game realities with our reality to get players on the land and recognizing and appreciating the space/time they contribute to. There are many possibilities, and that’s the beauty of games.

JS: How did you break into games, and was there a moment where you knew you had made it?

EL: I started off as a game journalist specializing in event coverage and interviews, which gave me access to places and people that I really wouldn’t have been able to afford. From there, I picked up game writing contracts. Since then, my work expanded to game design.

I’m not sure I feel I’ve actually made it, and I’m not sure I ever will. There’s no other place to go but to continue to be passionate about the work. I’m very project-based, so the moment a project is finished, I’m already onto the next one (or more). I tend to jump from games to stop motion animations to comics and around and around again. I live for creating and I’m happiest when I’m in a workflow on a project.

JS: How has your work in writing and design overlapped? In your experience is it usually one position does both, or you are hired to do one or the other?

EL: In wider industry, I get hired for only one role. When I collaborate with communities or work on my own games, writing and design are understood as more related and reciprocal, so I’m given more space to just be me. I appreciate both ways, depending on the game.

JS: What is your advice for someone interested in getting into games, whether as a writer or designer?

EL: Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. Oh and, make a portfolio. You’re only as good as what you’re able to show other people while you’re on the ground level at a conference or while linking people to your work online. You can start anywhere using current free tools for interactive stories or games. You can even paper prototype using cardboard and other materials at home. Just have a good sense of what you want to share and then share that first with close family and friends, then with a wider community, and then with people who are new to you. You don’t need to take all of the advice. The reactions will simply tell you where to refine and the kind of players who will be interested in your games, which helps inform the next game and the next. We are all always iterating.

JS: What about for someone that wants to promote a message through games, should their approach be different?

EL: Gameplay is most important. Always start there. Messages can be inspiration, but to recall important teachings by Brenda Romero and Ian Schrieber—the mechanic is the message.

JS: For you personally, what makes writing in a game stand out? What serves as examples of this?

EL: I admire writers like Richard Dansky, Susan O’Connor, Toiya Kristen Finley, Wendy Despain, and Chris Avellone. They have their own style that they bring to each game, yet they also meet the needs of each game uniquely. All are very involved in the collaborative aspect of game development and recognize and stand for the importance of involving game writers ideally from the start of a game. They also all have experience in the reality that game writers are often brought into projects later in development and they’re very adaptable and capable of working through these situations.

JS: How have you found your gigs over the years, and how would you recommend aspiring writers or early-career writers find writing jobs?

EL: I’ve gotten all my gigs from attending conferences or word of mouth passed on by people I’ve met at conferences. Networking is vital. However, it’s important to remember that networking isn’t about constantly looking for work or being self-serving. As Darius Kazemi recommends, networking should be about meeting many different types of people and helping other people make relevant connections for gigs too. This is about community.

JS: Having studied writing, do you feel it’s a necessity? What other resources (books, websites, etc.) do you feel aspiring game writers and designers should definitely be aware of?

EL: Studying in a community setting has benefits because of interacting with other people. Books, websites, and simply putting yourself to practice are all helpful, but nothing compares to sharing your work with other people or learning how to write collaboratively, especially to be prepared for writing for games where the emphasis is often on a team. It’s possible to do this without a formal studying structure, such as making a game or script and releasing it online for feedback, but my belief is that we are always learning and always growing. Studying is something that should be delightful, as long as you look to the writers you are inspired by and trace out their work and style as you develop your own.

JS: If you had to start your career over, is there anything different you would do today?

EL: Just make games. I made a Native Mario mod that was supposed to be in an art exhibit in Seattle, and I backed out because I was under 21 and I was worried people would find out my age if I went. If I could go back, I’d take that risk and just stay on a path of making and showing games. I’m grateful for the experience I’ve had and the range in my work, but I’m still in the process of transitioning from freelance contracts to my own work. I believe there’s a way to make a living and purely work on my own games, and the journey getting to that point is still underway.

JS: Thank you, Elizabeth. Before we sign off, do you have one last piece of advice for us?

EL: Follow your heartbeat home.



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