“Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Jana Sloan van Geest, a narrative designer at Ludia and founder/coordinator of the Pixelles Game Writing Incubator.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Jana: I fell into games by accident, and then discovered that this was exactly where I wanted to be. After earning a BFA in theatre studies, I worked as a director, stage manager, and fundraiser for seven years. Then I decided I wanted to hang out my shingle as a freelance editor. One fine May evening, I reconnected with a former colleague at a barbecue, and he shared a posting for a localization editor at Gameloft Montreal on Facebook a week later. Thanks to his referral, I got the job. That was in 2011, and earlier this year, I began working as a game writer and narrative designer at Ludia.
Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?
Jana: My earliest memory of games is centered on isolation. I was plucked from my first-grade class to be the guinea pig for my Northern Ontario school’s brand new computer lab, which they were very proud of, but which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t anything to write home about. This was in the four-color monitor era.
As I recall, I was sat in front of a computer in a very large room full of computers, of which I was the only occupant; told, “You’re a smart kid! Figure this computer thing out!”; and then left alone forever (I am not completely certain that this recounting accurately represents the reality of the situation).
I ended up playing two games on the school computer that day: a typing game, and one that I remember looking a little like the “Mystify Your Mind” Windows screensaver. It stirs my heart to think back to that moment, aware of my complete ignorance of the wild and beautiful trajectory the industry would follow from that point, and of my own eventual participation in that trajectory.
Miss N: What has the transition been like from initially being involved within games to now when you’re writing for games within a studio setting?
Jana: It’s been an interesting transition from tester to developer. One of my tasks as a member of the Gameloft localization team was to bug placeholder text in the games, and now, when I see a placeholder bug from our QA team, my initial reaction is something like, “Yeah, I freakin’ know already! I just haven’t had time to write it yet!”
However, I try to remain patient and work closely with the testers to give them the information they need. I also solicit their feedback on my work, because I know from being on the other side that QA is an undervalued—and often underpaid—profession. Without QA, you don’t have a saleable product. QA testers can sometimes be resentful of developers; I think that comes from a sense of powerlessness and from lack of knowledge of what’s happening on the development side. The industry can only benefit from packaging quality assurance as an appealing career option.
Miss N: Has your theatre experience shaped you as a game maker?
Jana: It absolutely has. Studying theatre gave me a strong knowledge of classical storytelling structure and terminology, i.e., a great rule set to abandon when writing for games. 😀
I believe that dialogue is my strongest suit as a writer, and that definitely originates from having read so many lines of text that were intended to be spoken aloud, hearing them recited by other people, and even performing them myself.
I think I have a pretty good understanding of the ways in which the disparate elements of a game, like sound and level design, come together to create a holistic player experience (or sometimes don’t). That stems from my training in theatre as well.
Miss N: What’s your creative process like, especially when you’re writing for games and dealing with so many other collaborators?
Jana: Frequently interrupted. 😉
Seriously, though, I’m a very social person. I worked from home for a grand total of six weeks out of the past year, and was miserable with no one but my cats to talk to. I need a collaborative environment in order to thrive. On my current project, some of the best story ideas have come out of brainstorming sessions with other team members, and I love it when someone outside my discipline offers a perspective that helps me solve a narrative problem.
Of course, I have moments of frustration when it feels like my teammates just don’t understand what I’m trying to accomplish as a storyteller, but I’m sure they experience similar frustrations as a result of my incomplete knowledge of their fields.
Miss N: Has making games changed you as a writer and as an artist?
Jana: Game making has pushed me toward greater economy in my writing. Most writers are prone to effusiveness, but extra words dilute the message. Choose the right words over more words. Embrace the power of brevity. FEWER WORDS!
Being a full-time writer has helped instill in me the discipline that is the foundation of a successful artistic practice. There are lots of days where I get out of bed not wanting to write. But nobody cares that I don’t feel like it, so I pour myself an extra cup of coffee and bang it out. That’s what a professional has to do.
Miss N: In your own games or those you’ve made with others, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Jana: All of the people I’ve made games with so far have been wonderful. My biggest challenge has been getting over myself: my fears, my innate laziness, my impostor syndrome. I feel a lot of pressure to live up to the high standards set by my collaborators. I get through it by making myself accountable to other people for what I produce.
Miss N: What do you think are the most common pitfalls that beginning game makers (especially writers) make when they’re just starting out?
Jana: I’m running an incubator for aspiring game writers right now, and to refer back to what I said earlier, many of them have had difficulty respecting the given maximum word count in their pieces. A lot of creatives are “color-outside-the-lines” types, but as a game writer, you have to balance creativity and flexibility against the necessity of operating within strict limits.
I think that we as writers fear that if we don’t explain everything completely, our readers won’t get what we’re trying to say, and then no one will understand us or love us, and we’ll be alone forever. But when my UI designer tells me that my dialogue boxes have a 140-character limit, he’s not making a suggestion. Ignoring him means that my lovingly crafted quips will have their tails chopped off, and I want people to be able to read everything I
Miss N: Are there any games that you’ve felt have pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Jana: A lot of games push boundaries in some way. Hackneyed storytelling can be accompanied by dazzling animated sequences. A simple 2D platformer can take place in a setting that’s never been seen in a game before. The many clone games out there are the result of financial interests, not lack of ideas. I don’t think there are many game developers with no desire to innovate, and the boundaries of the medium are in such constant flux that I’m not sure I’ll ever know where they lie.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do much better than other mediums?
Jana: More than any other artistic medium, games offer the participant agency and the illusion of control … for good or for ill. I think that games attract the best aspects of us—the moments where our frustrations with the constraints of the real world inspire us to create new ones that others can enjoy—and the worst of us—the moments where games are a poor substitute for normal, healthy human interactions.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you really admire?
Jana: I add new ones to my list constantly. I recently had the opportunity to attend the Montreal International Games Summit, and I saw Amy Hennig in the bathroom washing her hands just before a talk she was giving. I wanted to tell her, “We’re all really looking forward to hearing you speak!” but instead I told myself, “Don’t be a dork,” and ran out of the bathroom without saying anything.
Tanya Short and Rebecca Cohen-Palacios of Pixelles will always and forever remain high in my esteem.
Miss N: If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were just starting in your game making adventures, what would it be?
Jana: Keep doing what you’re doing. No need to be so scared.
Miss N: Thank you, Jana!
If you’re interested in following Jana, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @janamakesgames. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.