As a fiction novelist, I work alone. I draft, I edit, I polish. If I get stuck I might spend the day working through a plot issue with a colleague, but the majority of my writing time is solitary, and I like that.
Yet… I’ve always been drawn to the idea of working in computer gaming, which I know is a highly collaborative industry. So when QUT (Queensland University of Technology) advertised for artists to be part of the [imi] (Interactive Media Innovation) project, where the outcome could be a residency with a computer game company, I thought, Here’s my shot.
I completed the creative task that came with the application, and was excited to win through to the workshop round where “…artists and interactive entertainment company representatives … meet and engage in professional development and creative play.” Workshops were conducted in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and at the Brisbane one I was joined by 8 other artists – another author, visual artists, circus and performance artists, producer/directors and interdisciplinary artists – and 10 ‘industry partners’ from a handful of Brisbane based computer gaming and interactive media companies. We spent the day working together on a variety of different creative problems in constantly changing groups so the industry partners could scope out how we artists worked, with an eye to engaging us in a residency. It sounds like a job interview, but it was one of the most fun, rewarding and exciting working days I’ve ever spent. So many clever creative people working together. Apparently the Sydney and Melbourne workshops had a similar experience.
Six of us across Australia were selected by interactive media companies for a month-long residency, and when I was selected by two internationally recognized companies, Defiant Development and Hoodlum Entertainment, I was pretty darned thrilled. The residencies came with a healthy stipend funded through the Australia Council for the Arts, and while I can’t talk about the actual games I worked on, because I signed a confidentiality agreement, I would like to share my experience of translating across from fiction to gaming.
At the first residency, the game was in the initial concept stage and the parameters around what it could be were quite loose, so I was able to have an exciting amount of input into world-building, characterization and plot. I don’t play computer games myself but the companies liked that. I came with no preconceived notions. The downside was that I didn’t know the structure of a game the way I know the structure of a fiction plot. So when the honeymoon period of coming up with amazing ideas (which I’m really good at) was over and it was time to put those ideas into a format, I struggled.
I also had to unlearn Show, Don’t Tell and get it into my head that computer games were Do, Don’t Show. But the guys were awesomely patient with me so it was a super-positive experience. I could see where my fantasy world-building background benefited them, and my manuscript assessment practice allowed me to easily pull component pieces of the story apart and look critically at conflict, motivation, and goals. I particularly liked the collaboration aspect – bouncing ideas back and forth – and the other bonus was that I didn’t have ownership of the story, so there was no pressure to get it ‘right’. It was their story to tell. I was just working on a part of it, and that was very liberating.
The second residency was completely different. I was working on an already established game structure, but taking it into a different genre. The structure was immediately evident and I thoroughly enjoyed populating it with characters, plots, dialogue and action. My collaborators were experienced scriptwriters, so the quality of dialogue was particularly important, and the conflicts were on steroids! I also had to ditch my training in withholding information to create tension, and tell back story up front. It was such a different way of storytelling, my head hurt at times, but the challenge was so rewarding – a real feeling of I can do hard things!
Background to all is this is that I live outside Bundaberg, 4 hours drive from Brisbane where the companies were based, so 90 percent of my interaction with them was via phone, skype or email. QUT liked the idea of researching how I worked remotely, but personally I’d have preferred more face-to-face time. The bouncing of ideas doesn’t work half as well over the phone. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to be completely in-house. My normal 8hr working day ranges across 14 hours with watering gardens, hanging out washing, eating and gazing at the view as important down-times when my subconscious gnaws things over. So if I was to work for a game company again I’d know so much more about the work required, and how I could maximize my own productivity.
It also bears mentioning that I was part of the QUT [imi] project research into how artists and interactive media companies collaborate. I’m not a student, I’m an industry professional, so I found some of the uni admin processes frustrating. Facilitator Justin Brow really smoothed the way between myself, the game companies and the QUT researchers, so the end result was two months of exhilarating work and the realization that I’d stopped both residencies just at the point where I was experienced enough to really get my teeth into them!
With a bit of luck, I’ll get that chance again.
(Article first published in WQ, November issue)