Game Changer: Dishonored 2’s Cara Ellison on Experimenting with Narrative Design, Owning Your Talent & the Importance of Self-Care

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This week, we sat down with Cara Ellison (@caraellison) narrative designer, columnist, and writer who currently works for Arkane Studios on Dishonored 2 among other projects. Embed With Games, a book following Ellison’s journey from game developer couch to game developer couch across the world is also slated for release in November from Polygon Books.

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Emma Fissenden (TMS): Can you tell me a bit about your journey?

Ellison: Somewhere around 11pm on a Sunday just after Ne’er Day 2014, I felt like a failure as I looked at my housemate’s rent money sitting in my bank account. My half of the rent wasn’t there. I’d co-written a television programme about video games the previous year and the last of the decent amount of money I’d gotten from it had trickled away.

At some point, I thought, you will have to admit it. Maybe writing about video games on the internet isn’t for you.

Except then I got drunk and defiant and made fists about it. I put up a Patreon, a kind of internet subscription service, saying I’d pack the essential possessions into two bags, give up having any kind of home, and go and live with a bunch of different game developers for a whole year if people just subscribed money to read about it. If I got to $1000 a month, I said, I’d really do it, I’d go and write weird essays about gamemakers.

I don’t know if it was generosity or voyeurism or a combination of both, but the internet obliged. In a few hours the dollar count was way over 1000 and I was starting to sober up considerably. Perhaps ‘panicking’ is not the word, but I didn’t tell my mother about it for over a week.

If you’ve ever read Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland With A Fridge, it was a similar kind of bet to that, only I’d made it with the internet, and instead of with a fridge it was a year-old Macbook Pro and instead of Ireland it was the whole world. It was Tony Hawks’ book that was a salve whenever I came across people who heard about my project and did the equivalent of spitting the word ‘Millennial’, ‘get a real job’, because Tony Hawks is a southern English dude who has made a career of creeping by on cleverly constructed sentences and whimsical ideas and is concertedly not a ‘Millennial’. Only people are probably quite impressed by him. He’s tall and wears a suit and is not a five foot seven Scottish writer woman with glasses designed to hide half of her face.

In any case, I did go all around the world in 2014 and I wrote about the gamemakers I stayed with. Instead of the pledges going down each month, they went up, so I must have done something right. I did it for as long as I could bear, about twelve months before the lack of personal space really messed with me and I had to stop before I admitted myself to The Priory in Glasgow.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Keep an eye on Cara’s website and twitter for updates on Embed With Games!)]

TMS: How did you end up where you are today?

Ellison: I think it’s not really to do with talent, although I do believe I have some … rather I think it’s a combination of

  1. Privilege, in that I was born in Scotland where I had a free university education and healthcare and inherited other societal privileges that are afforded to idiosyncratic white girls in a literary world.
  2. Real, hard-headed, fuck-you resilience—which isn’t the same as hunger or cut-throat behaviour—I think what’s really valuable is the ability to get metaphorically stabbed in the gut a hundred times and still get back up, look around, and choose another way to get where you want to be.
  3. Genuine affection and warmth towards other people, an interest in their work, a curiosity about humans and a willingness to pitch in.
  4. Practice, just churning writing out and letting people loose on your body of work (sometimes a bloody affair).
  5. The ability to know when a valuable opportunity is being offered and taking it. I think over everything, never sneer at someone you think is less creative than you, because chances are they’ll learn in time and you’ll work alongside them one day or they might even end up commissioning you. Talent is a fragile thing and it’s way too fragile to live only in one type of person and there absolutely is enough of it to go around.

TMS: What was your initial entry into the games industry, and what prompted it?

Ellison: I left university with an English Literature degree (aka a degree in how to tell humorous anecdotes at parties) despairing because I didn’t think I could get that job in a publishing house editing William Gibson novels all day, and I thought I’d end up being a teacher which didn’t appeal. I always loved video games and I saw Rockstar North were advertising for QA testers. I applied and after checking my favourite GTA was Vice City, they let me in and I worked there on GTA IV for a year before going on to do other things in media in and around games.

Anyone who lives in Edinburgh Scotland and likes video games ends up in the Rockstar North office at some point. It’s just a matter of time. I think primarily what North looked for in a tester was critical analysis and an ability to communicate clearly, which arts degrees are incredibly good at teaching. QA testers are just the internal game critics of the studio, really. They are very valuable.

TMS: Can you describe what your role writing for Dishonored 2 at Arkane involves? What’s an average kind of day for you?

Ellison: I’m contract so I only go into the office when Harvey [Smith] tells me to! I also work for other studios too (the projects are unannounced as yet). I’ve done dialogue and in-game texts so far. I’m part of a large narrative team that are all working on it—Austin Grossman, Sachka Duval, Harvey Smith, and Terri Brosius, the famous voice of SHODAN. It’s kind of a privilege to be on the team. When I was in studio I mostly just made myself a coffee, started up Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, and wrote all day! It’s a dream job for someone who likes living in the minds of imaginary people.

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?

Ellison: I guess if you want to work in games development in any meaningful way, you have to be making games and be interested in the process of making games. It’s not really enough to play them or have encyclopaedic knowledge of them. Even when I got a job in QA we were encouraged to take part in the process of creating the game by giving ideas and feedback, by giving advice about where collectibles would be best placed, and many QAers do go on to work in level design if you show interest. As far as I know the first time Harvey thought I’d be good on the narrative design team of his game was when he played a game I made called Sacrilege, and then I did writing tests and a really long interview in which I basically crapped it the entire way through because all these talented people were asking me very hard design questions.

As for a career in games criticism, which is the thing I am most known for I guess, I’m not sure there is any meaningful career in it—though maybe there was one back in the golden age of print magazines, maybe like Charlie Brooker or Kieron Gillen had. The staff writer jobs also don’t usually support the kind of work I scraped by on freelance—features work and irreverent reviews and such, unless you get very lucky. If you really want to land a job in writing about games don’t become a critic—become a reporter or news writer. Websites are starved of journalists, particularly women journalists, that want to sift through press releases and do investigative work for very little salary. You could probably do a day job and write a feature a week maybe, if you wanted to make your name as a critic. You get time to think over your thoughts so you knock it out of the park every time. Brendan Caldwell over at Rock Paper Shotgun is one of my favourite people who does that. He’s a really talented writer.

But on being a writer: I think if I had some advice for a young me, it would be to try not to be ashamed of being a writer. At school kids used to make fun of my complete inability to be able to be near paper without writing a piece of fiction about imaginary people on it. The humiliation of it was so bad that I wrote in private for the rest of my life. I never showed anyone my writing until I was 27 (although I guess when I did show it to someone it was Kieron Gillen and he told me to pitch websites with it) and people wanted to pay me money for it. I’d been good all along, really, and I’d wasted all my youth thinking I was total shit. But I never knew because I never showed anyone it. SHOW YOUR WORK TO PEOPLE YOU RESPECT, is my point.

If you’re a woman in games criticism on the internet, I only have sympathy for the extra layer of shit you have to wade through if you ever want to describe your point of view. I used to just go to the pub with friends after an article went up just to stop myself reading the comments. Ellie Gibson had a really good attitude about it: ‘fuck ’em’, she’d say.

TMS: Can you comment on any plans for your own future, and where you hope the future of the gaming industry might be headed?

Ellison: I think I’d like to stick with narrative design for a while. I’ve got a few indie games in mind to make and I want to work on some big blockbusters too. I want to go big or go home. And then maybe I’ll put out a novel or two or maybe go back to radio or TV. I want games to become more welcome to women, of course, in future, and I also want to see some really cool playable women characters happen, particularly women of colour. I saw Tacoma‘s concept art for their main character the other day and it’s so rad.

TMS: Do you have any advice for those, especially women, who might be considering a career in games? What’s one thing you wished the younger you would have known?

Ellison: I absolutely never considered that I could have a career in games when I was a kid. That’s not even a gendered thing, I don’t think. UKIE did a survey into what UK kids think about games and across the board they thought games were made in the US. Even though the biggest game franchise in the world is made in Edinburgh Scotland, they had no idea they could just rock up and apply to work there, and they feared that they didn’t have the skills to make games—but they thought you had to go to university for this sort of thing. Most of our games deities never studied games at university!

That’s a new idea. They just picked up tools and made their own games. So I wished I’d known where to look on the internet for gamemaking tools or at least had some classes in Unity at school (even though it didn’t exist then). My advice is go to some Unity classes, I think, and learn the basics of how to script. You could do what I did and pick up a simple text game engine like Twine to play around with narrative design—I think the people over at Telltale prototype narrative in Twine too. Also: find a mentor and a gamemaking partner! Ask questions! Mess around. Experiment. If you start making games with other people it’s a better experience and problems are solved so much quicker.

TMS: Can you talk about anything really difficult you’ve had to overcome as both a writer and woman in the games industry?

Ellison: Though women are more common across the industry than ever before it sometimes isn’t obvious where they are all hiding, since everyone stays quiet. Popping your head above the precipice always for some reason invites scrutiny. It can be a little lonely and often you can feel like you are only competing against other women for a ‘slot’ in a job when really you’re competing against men too. The added scrutiny you get for being a woman is exhausting and irritating, particularly if you’ve had years of it. The very fact that programmer and producer Jade Raymond was pretty in pictures, at one point, was enough to have pornographic comics made of her and have her harassed out of ever appearing in studio photographs again. Jade is a badass and she deserved to be proud of what she had achieved. I don’t believe she should have been punished for being visible and doing good work.

I feel like I haven’t really experienced anything as bad as that, and I don’t spend much time on forums looking for people who hate me, but I know the kinds of attitudes that form this behaviour as I always see it in comments everywhere. I really admire the work that Anita Sarkeesian does, for example, because although I don’t always see completely eye to eye with some of her analyses, she really is doing some good groundwork in looking at one angle of a neglected lens on games—and it’s all in the face of some of the grossest responses I’ve ever seen towards a woman on the internet.

Her work is a really good starting point for a lot of thoughts I have about how stereotypes can form and be used and I really like how wide-ranging her selection of games is. I think I’m more lenient towards sexualised bodies than she is—I think of it more as a character’s personal self-expression and if it fits with who they are then they can definitely be dressed ‘sexily’—for example like Isabella in Dragon Age II or Bayonetta. And of course I’d love to have male characters occasionally go out of their way to be sexy too. But because Anita brought this stuff up I feel like I can understand my own opinions on things better, if that makes sense. It clarifies my choices as a game designer. She’s doing a good job in starting conversations between designers, I think.

TMS: Embed With Games (slated to release November this year) chronicles your travels across the world staying on game devs’ couches. Has writing about the games industry in this project and others helped to somewhat prepare you for what goes on behind the scenes?

Ellison: I don’t know if it’s helped in a very explicit way, but it has prepared me to look after myself more! I think people often overwork themselves in games, and I’ve seen how hard it is when that overwork takes its toll. I think Brendon Chung (Blendo Games) and Teddy Diefenbach (Heart Machine) have a really good outlook on taking care of themselves when it comes to lifestyle—they try to go home on time, they take regular breaks, they review each others’ work—Teddy sometimes even institutes group push ups with the rest of the Glitch City office as a way of getting some exercise. Everyone at Glitch City in LA is really chilled out and I think they have the right idea about development—taking care of yourself is really important and I don’t think you should punish yourself just to finish your game.

TMS: Okay, time for some quick fire questions! Favourite game you’ve worked on?


TMS: Three favourite games of the past year?

Ellison: Increpare’s Cooking, For Lovers, Alien: Isolation, Jazzpunk

TMS: Of all time?

Ellison: UGH. Thirty Flights Of Loving, maybe?

TMS: Most frustrating sequence you’ve ever played in a game?

Ellison: You should check out my Ride To Hell: Retribution review. It involves a combine harvester.

TMS: Favourite character?

Ellison: Mo Corley from Full Throttle.

TMS: Favourite character you’ve written for and why?

Ellison: Emily from Dishonored 2 because she is a cool-ass lady and ruthless assassin who doesn’t take any shit from anyone.

TMS: First game you ever played?

Ellison: Elite, on the BBC Micro. (After I interviewed David Braben I called my dad to tell him)

TMS: And, finally, coffee or tea?

Ellison: I love tea because you aren’t allowed not to as a Brit, but coffee is my love and I intend to buy an espresso machine when I finally get somewhere to live.

Emma Fissenden is a writer of all trades. When she’s not pushing through her next rewrite, she’s playing too many games and editing fiction as the Editor in Chief at@noblegasqrtly. You can find her on Twitter @efissenden, or check out her other series for TMS, Game Changer.

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