Game Changer: Ann Lemay Divulges Day to Day Life as BioWare Writer, Building a Diverse Games Industry, & Finding Your Support Unit
Welcome to the latest installment of our Game Changer series! Because it’s important to signal boost the work of women in the games industry (especially lately), we’ll be interviewing the awesome, brave, and talented women who bring their voices to indie and mainstream game development.
This week we sat down with Ann Lemay (@annlemay) who currently works for BioWare as a writer and has worked for companies like Ubisoft as a Narrative Designer & Scriptwriter. Lemay and three others (Jennifer Hepler, Tobias Heussner, & Toiya Kristen Finley) recently released The Game Narrative Toolbox, a book that focuses on what it’s really like to work as a writer and narrative designer in the games industry, which is available now from Focal Press, or Amazon, among many other retailers.
Emma Fissenden (TMS): Can you tell me a bit about your journey? What was your initial entry into the games industry, and what prompted it? How did you end up where you are today?
Ann Lemay: It was a circuitous, interesting, challenging and often amazing road to where I am today.
The first console I ever played on was the Intellivision II. My dad just walked in with it one day when I was 10 (or something like that), and gave me the box because apparently a friend of his had told him his kids loved their console. I did the set up all on my own and never looked back. I could spend hours playing Night Stalker in particular, but I also loved Frogger and Burger Time too!
It didn’t take long for me to move on to the NES, where Legend of Zelda became my one true love. I spent so many hours on that game. I was always a quiet child and my mother was used to finding me somewhere in the house buried in a book—she’d joke that at least with the console, she knew I’d be set up in my room and easy to find! My time playing Legend of Zelda might have been when I discovered my desire to collect every item and map out every pixel of a game. This served me very well when I first got a PC and began playing RPGs and adventure games. I have very fond memories of Eye of the Beholder, Menzoberranzan, Bloodnet, the King’s Quest series, Gabriel Knight and yeah, I’ll stop here as this could get to be an awfully long list.
(Side-note: the funny thing is, my mother always thought I’d end up being an artist of some kind. Pretty sure she was rooting for painter. For some reason, that thought actually never occurred to me. As much as I liked art, I always knew I’d be doing something with computers, ever since the day I conned (um, provided a valid and totally legit reason) my parents into buying me a PC. That was back in the days of DOS (disk operating system) based computers. Oh, that command line, how I remember it.)
After conning my parents getting my first PC, I indulged in every RPG and adventure game out there, while going through school, all the way through earning two B.A.s. My first B.A. ended up being Art History, and the second was Design Art. Lots of art, yeah. What I did during my own time at home though was teach myself html and Photoshop, and thus when I finished my second B.A. I ended up with an internship in a web design company. My time at University wasn’t time lost though. I acquired a lot of research, writing and creative skills during those years which still serve me well to this day.
While I was at the web design company, Ubisoft founded their first studio in Montreal and like many of the video game fans in the city, I applied when they sent out their first hiring call in the city. I remember being on a show ground when I got my interview call (I used to compete in horseback riding). I had my portfolio in the car and luckily I wasn’t competing that day, so I just hopped in the car and drove back to town to be interviewed that very afternoon. If I smelled of horse of the interview room, no one ever mentioned it to me.
Lemay: I started in the online department as a community moderator for one of their drawing tutorial games, eventually graduated to web site artist, and from there went on to help rehaul the UI of one of the games as they were lacking folk to do it. I did the work entirely on overtime—80 hours in two weeks, if I remember correctly. And I insisted on being paid for the overtime, which they were happy to agree with if it meant getting the rehaul done. A few months after that I was offered a position on the design team for as a UI game designer.
Eventually I stepped out of the industry, working UX in the telecom industry, which is where I picked up wireframing as a skill (which I use to this day!). I went back to the industry as a game designer after roughly a year and a half in telecom. I eventually ended up back at Ubisoft, where they offered me a level design position after purchasing the studio I’d been a game designer at. While I did my best to teach myself level design on my own in the span of a month, the creative director (CD) of my project saw me edit our producer’s presentation document for a greenlight milestone (he and I knew each other from my first stint at Ubisoft). Our CD asked me what I really wanted to do, and I told him that while I was okay with teaching myself level design, I didn’t feel I was needed in that position on the project. We worked out that writing would be a thing that he thought I could help with—and more importantly, that I wanted to do. He took a chance on me and my enthusiasm for writing, and so I ended up a writer at Ubisoft.
I haven’t changed roles on a project since, though I do firmly believe my years as a game designer have added a lot to what I bring as a writer on a project. Being able to understand how to support gameplay, and how uniquely interactive games are as a media, not just as a participant but also as a developer, before getting into writing is, I believe, a valuable perspective. And if you get into writing first, working on developing that additional perspective is incredibly important. The best game writer, in my personal opinion, is also a narrative designer.
TMS: Can you describe what your role as a Writer & Narrative Designer at BioWare involves? What’s an average kind of day for you?
Lemay: A day as a writer at BioWare really, really depends on where in the production process we are. In pre-production, the team is smaller (sometimes it’s just the lead writer), and the core leads work at figuring out what the game will be like. As the team builds up, more writers are welcomed onboard, and this is usually when lore building begins. Sometimes you’re handed a concept for a character, sometimes you get to concept squadmates yourself. During production we tend to have several tasks on our plate with varying priorities. The further the project moves along, the more we interact with other disciplines and establish processes and pipelines for actual production.
If the team is new once you hit production, the first mission team to get up and running tests and establishes what the production processes are. (It’s a lot of work, that.) If the team is already established and/or already has a game in that IP under their belt, then the processes are more familiar, and you can hit the ground running.
Either way, there’s eventually a point where you’re handling 1 or 2 bigger missions (usually one critpath and then a loyalty or side-mission) from pitch to various approval phases which require iteration, working out lore and codex entries that need handling as the mission writing progresses (also requires iteration), writing some smaller missions, figuring out the voice of your squadmate or NPCs (non-player characters), etc. That’s where you see iteration again. There’s a lot of iteration in our work. There’s a lot of having to let go of ideas you really wanted to run with, there’s trying to make something that needs to be in the game fit, and then there are the times when a plan comes together and you just giggle at yourself and hold your breath while hoping it won’t be need to be cut.
On top of that you’ll have several role-playing plots, have to work out banter for your squadmate (and interactions with other squadmates), help on other minor missions or exploration type content, help with various systems (soundsets, bark, gameplay systems that are tied into narrative, item naming and descriptions, codex entries, etc.) and in general, keep an eye out to find good ways to naturally weave everyone’s work together into a cohesive whole.
Some days I get to put on my noise cancelling headset, and just write. But most days will involve some kind of meeting, usually cross-disciplinary, where folk need to make sure all their ducks are in a row. We’re a multi-geographic location studio at BioWare (Austin, Montreal, Edmonton), so we video conference a lot too, either at our desks or in meeting rooms. We have peer reviews for our mission early on, then various gating stages. Teams for missions meet up by themselves with a team manager to help manage their timelines. Writers responsible for a hub have meetings for those too. Systemic narrative systems also have a writer as point of contact. We’re rarely just working on one thing, at any stage of production, and rarely in the same way.
While we may be writing a lot of dialog mid-to-end of production, we tend to work on lore more at the start and help write up codex entries and last minute banter and all the non-VO items towards the end (think datapads, emails, missions texts, etc). We coordinate with the level design and art teams during production, but more with editors and voice-over and localisation at the end.
A typical day at THIS stage of production would have some of the following elements:
- Do final changes based on edits on the current mission (<3 my editor)
- Listen to voice auditions
- Sit with my level designer to do a pass on the banter and barks as they fire through the level
- Take notes to make sure I am providing the banter/barks needed to fill out quieter spaces or support the combat pacing and events the level designer is setting up
- Write extra banter as needed
- Watch mocap from the cine designer
- Check the level art to make sure the writing matches art details by my awesome level artist
- Prep voice pass for the other writers/coordinate with editing after the voice pass
- Start working on the mission assigned to me with another level designer
- Decide to do the work for a peer review tomorrow rather than today (block out time in calendar for that so I don’t get a meeting booked)
- Talk with folk from my mission teams, confer with my DD (Development Director), answer questions from folk in Montreal or Edmonton as they come in, touch base with other writers to make sure we’re on the same wavelength for things [redacted] and [redacted].
And if I have time:
- Check my list of things to do on our task tracking software
- Research more weapon names for gameplay (that’s one of my system responsibilities atm)
- Update our task tracking software as to where current tasks are standing
- Work on lore/science for the IP (right now I have two one-pagers in my bucket)
- Oh crap, I had names for this other thing to turn in today but didn’t have time (ping my point of contact on this and push it back a few days)
- Hey, I have that NPC to work on too!
- Add a few our task tracking software tasks of my own, tagged to myself.
TMS: Do you have any advice for those, especially women, who might be considering pursuing a similar career? What’s one thing you wished the younger you would have known?
Lemay: There’s a lot going on in our industry right now. It would be ridiculous to pretend it ain’t so. So if you’re planning to get into games, here’s what I think is important. Having a mentor, someone to connect to, who believes in the things you do and who can help you get a sense of how to deal with things both good and bad as you settle into an industry role—you need that. Someone who can anchor you when needed. Someone who can cheer you on, remind you of your goals, or help you figure out new ones
I try to mentor as much as I can. I try to help and advise as much as I can. And I have an amazing, wonderful support network of my own to rely on. So yeah, don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to get that sanity check. Remember that there are games and companies for every kind of gamer—and more just waiting to be made. Build yourself a support network, some in the industry who can understand what you’re going through, and some not in the industry who will offer unconditional support. There are amazing people in our industry, so many of them. Look for them. Find them. When you hit the right fit, it’s the best thing ever.
TMS: Can you comment on any plans for your own future, and where you hope the future of the gaming industry might be headed?
Lemay: I hope to be at BioWare until the heat death of the universe, so honestly I haven’t thought far beyond that in terms of my own future in games.
The game industry itself is still growing. And has a lot of growing left to do—and by that I mean, as an art form, it’s basically never ending. We’re seeing a lot of new platforms and technologies that allow people easier and easier ways to create games, to put their own personal experiences out there. There are exciting new projects—big and small—heard about on a regular basis. And what we’re seeing happen right now are positive choices being made to expand the kinds of games we make to be more inclusive, to show more diversity. And this topic is one that is tremendously important to me and I am so very fortunate to be working at a company that also believes, at its core, that diversity is essential.
We just … we need more, and to be more. We need to make games that are cultural, that are just plain fun, that challenge our perception of things, that let us be superheroes or race car drivers (or space marines/fantasy heroes!), that allow us to explore the human psyche, what depression means, to step into other people’s shoes for a moment, to learn about other cultures… and we’re seeing those games. That gives me hope. We can have all kinds of games for all kinds of people, and we can become so much more as we grow and embrace the richness of our player base. I think that’s going to continue to trend, so long as we work hard to support that. It’s my honest belief that it is essential to our industry’s continued growth to do so.
TMS: How do you work through writing a really difficult sequence/scene?
Lemay: Write it. Write utter crap if you must, purple prose it, bang your head on the keyboard for each line—but just write it. Bulldoze your way through, use action figures on your desk to act it out if you must, and get the damn scene out. You’ll be rewriting the thing anyway. Heck, you may scrap the whole scene and do it over more than once. But getting into the act of writing is all that matters.
Alternately, if you really need to step away from the Thing you are working on, have someone give you three words and do a basic writing exercise (I taught this to my students at Champlain College).
- Get three words.
- Write five sentences, with each sentence making use of the three words you were given.
- To add complexity: the five sentences should cover an entire story. The sentences should be the start of a story, the end of a story, etc.
If you use this as a daily writing exercise, you’ll find that you’ll be adding your own challenges as time goes and you’ll master each phase of the exercise. It’s pretty fun.
And if you ever want to torment your editor, you can just keep the original head banging on keyboard scene and send it to them for laughs someday.
TMS: You co-wrote The Game Narrative Toolbox with three other narrative designers in the industry. Without spoiling the contents of the book, what was the most surprising thing you realized on looking back at how much you’ve grown as a games writer?
Lemay: I’ve no “formal” training in games writing. Everything I learned was from playing and then making games. (Ok, I did some work on a B.A. in writing/literature, but that was while I was in the industry and eventually I had to stop because we were crunching on a project and I had scenes to re-write and, well… yeah. Work called.)
When I sat down to work on the book, I was a bit intimidated. I don’t have the traditional background many writers have—but I know games and I know a good game story. And I know HOW to make games. It was a good positive reality check for me to sit down and go “yeah, okay, this is how stuff goes DOWN at this phase and this is what REALLY happens and ahahaha just throw that theory out the window and you should totally do this” for the parts I was writing. I focused on practical experience for my parts of the chapter, and really pushed on the interdisciplinary communication skills ones needs, the realities of being a junior writer on a project, and who one will end up working with (hi localization, editing and geops!), and many more similar topics. And that’s when I realized I had a LOT to say. I think it’s pretty useful, too.
Also I edited out a lot of swearing. Some of the writing may have been a bit cathartic. Heh.
TMS: Okay, time for some quick fire questions! Favorite game you’ve worked on?
Lemay: Published: ME3 and ME3 Omega.
TMS: Three favourite games of the past year?
Lemay: WHY CAN I ONLY PICK THREE? WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?
TMS: I’ve taken lessons from BioWare in inflicting pain.
Lemay: Um. Um. Grim Fandango Remastered (it totally counts, the remaster is new!). Pillars of Eternity. I’m old school, what can I say. (Is this only 2015 or can I count a full twelve months back?)
TMS: Full twelve months is fine!
Lemay: Dragon Age: Inquisition. Wait is that cheating because I’m in the credits? I only did under the hood processes work on it, I think only a bit of my writing made it to the end. Hrm. Guess I’ll add in another just in case. It should have been first really: Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna). If you haven’t played that yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s beautiful.
TMS: Of all time?
Lemay: Legend of Zelda.
TMS: That was easy! Most frustrating sequence you’ve ever played in a game?
Lemay: Any scene where you should be able to nail the sumbitch you’re aiming at but they put you on rails and won’t let you headshot and ARG LET ME TELL YOU HOW I REALLY FEEL.
TMS: Favorite character?
Lemay: MY Shepard. Hey, I was a fan before I was on the team.
TMS: Favourite character you’ve written for and why?
Lemay: Nyreen Kandros. I’ve written for a lot of characters (and games) and in a LOT of genres. But Nyreen was the first character that I had a direct hand in creating from the very start, in an IP that I feel privileged to be a part of, and one that means the world to me. The character team did an amazing job with her concept to model process, and then Sumalee Montano brought her to life in all sorts of amazing ways. Seeing all of that happen is pretty much magic.
TMS: First game you ever played?
Lemay: Pac-man I think. Or Pong? I’m not sure. I’m old, that was ages ago, y’all.
TMS: And, finally, coffee or tea?
Lemay: Coffee is the devil. HISS. Tea, thank you very much. To the folk who took the time to read this—thank you. Emma was amazingly patient as we put this together, so give her a cheer, too!
Emma Fissenden is a writer of all trades. When she’s not pushing through her next rewrite, she’s playing too many games and working as the Editor in Chief at @noblegasqrtly. You can find her on Twitter @efissenden, or check out her other series for TMS: Bad Gamer.
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