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Game Changer: Writer and Narrative Designer Jill Murray Talks Making Personal Games, the Importance of Communication and Researching Coffee

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Welcome to our new series, Game Changer! 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 Jill Murray (@codejill) who works with companies like Ubisoft, as well as indie and mobile game developers, through her writing and narrative design firm, Discoglobe Interactive.

Emma Fissenden (TMS): Can you tell me a bit about your journey? How did you end up where you are today? What prompted your entry into the gaming industry?

Jill Murray: I’m going to give you a more complete history than usual because I want to highlight how circuitous the path into gaming can be, especially if your background is unconventional, and how there’s no one right or wrong way to do it.

I was born in the late ’70s and growing up, my access to tech and games was spotty. We had a Commodore 64 for a few months. We had a Super Nintendo, but only one TV. We had a 386 PC with a gold-on-black monitor for schoolwork and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. There was a secondhand Amiga that ran for a few months. Access was shared, negotiated, and vigorously defended.

This probably helped to nurture my passion for lower-conflict, high-engagement activities like reading, drawing, playing music—and working. As a kid I was constantly looking for ways to make money—lemonade stands, paper routes, babysitting—which I’d save and use to fuel my hobbies. I craved self-sufficiency.

In my teens I dreamed of being a production designer for theater, so I spent a lot of time reading plays and trade magazines, designing scenery and costumes for imaginary productions, and sewing. Games were stolen time. I loved them but felt guilty for the way I could lose myself in them. I heard all the warnings about starving artists, and my creative ambitions felt close to impossible to achieve. I pushed myself to work.

I went away to theatre school, and while I was there the Internet happened. I finally had my own PC, and the “world wide web,” as it was adorably called at the time, seemed to arrive out of the blue one day in the late ‘90s, like a whole library landed on my desk—a dream come true. Bowled over by the potential this represented, I taught myself to design and code websites, and found a new calling that would carry me through the next decade… more or less.

The more interested I became in my role as a facilitator in human-machine communication, the more clients seemed to be interested only in flash-in-the-pan trends that blocked accessibility and ignored the user. Ho hum. My mind began to cast about, searching for something new to do.

I settled on creative writing. I’m lucky to come from a highly verbal family that prized reading and drilled me in writing well. In school I’d always enjoyed writing essays, and although I wrote a musical once in my theatre days, I’d never really concentrated on creative writing. So I signed up for short story, novel, and magazine writing classes that helped me figure out what I wanted to work on.

Over two years, I wrote a novel. This is really the only way to learn: do it. Show up every day. Sit down. Mind your butt-to-chair ratio. Turn down invitations to hang out when you haven’t done your writing for the day. Become a monk. Finish.

This was still in the days of dial-up internet access, so today’s social distractions weren’t an issue. But my games were a problem. I realized on a profound level that I could either be a novelist, or I could have Civilization on my PC. I stripped it bare. I uninstalled every game, even Solitaire and Minesweeper and that old Pinball FX demo. (It’s telling that I still remember every last game I removed.

I finished the novel and it found me an agent. But when the agent sent the novel out to publishers, the feedback consistently came back that they liked the writing but hated the story.

Back to the drawing board. For another two years, I wrote another novel, Break on Through. It was a YA story about breakdancing girls. That one found a home at Random House Canada, along with a sequel, Rhythm and Blues. They came out in 2008 and 2010. I earned a healthy advance, but it still only represented a fraction of a year’s living expenses.

So I was writing, and still developing web sites (with the love fading fast) and now I had a new challenge. Much as the internet had changed everything for me around 2000, now it was changing everything for literary publishing. Friends who’d been publishing for years were seeing their advances shrink, and self-publishing wasn’t even as solid an option as it is now, particularly for YA.

I did what you do, which is keep working. I sent myself on research trips to Panama and Ethiopia for a story I still want to write, about rival coffee traders on a mission to find and steal a rare plant. But I encountered a complication in Addis Ababa: I had my passport confiscated, on the suspicion that I was in the country to work illegally in the construction industry. (I like to pause here and imagine a canned laugh track.)

So instead of following the country’s best and only woman coffee exporter around remote mountain farms, I reported to Immigration every day to plead my case. I was completely and totally neurotic throughout every moment of this experience, but I did eventually get my passport back. I ran down the long concrete staircase out front, grabbed my things from the Oasis hotel and somehow got on a bus straight to Yirgacheffe, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen at breakneck pace through the open window of a speeding Jeep.

One of the best things about doing research in Africa is that you are guaranteed to learn a lot, but probably nothing of whatever you were foolish enough to think you would learn before going. I returned to Canada with a spinning head, no money in the bank, research in no condition to start working on a new novel. I was overwhelmed and tired.

I sat on the couch.

And because there was now a TV with an Xbox directly in front of the couch, I began to play games. I tried every game installed. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel guilty about it. I just played and played and played, and didn’t think too hard about how I was going to prod my life back into the shape of a livelihood. I didn’t have it in me.

I was about halfway through Mass Effect 2 when suddenly it dawned on me: this is a lot of text. Someone must be writing these! I was living in Montreal, a place known for its game industry. Someone might be writing these down the street. Could I be writing these?

It was a revelation. I didn’t expect I’d ever get another reveal in my life as big as The Internet, but this one was huge. It sounds silly now, but it had never occurred to me, or been suggested, that there were jobs in the game industry that aren’t programming. It makes sense though—it’s not like a guidance counsellor in 1994 could have recommended it. In an epic sense, the games industry is still new.

It turned out I was right. Bioware Montreal was literally making Mass Effect 3 a few Metro stops from my apartment. I learned this and so many other things by going out to IGDA events and Mount Royal Game Society meetups, and following industry people on Twitter and listening and reading to get a sense of how the industry worked. I also began designing personal games right away, and learning as much as I could from developer posts on sites like Gamasutra. Once I announced my intention to work in the industry, developers were enthusiastic and helpful.

In particular, I met game writer, Ann Lemay, and convinced her I wasn’t crazy, and she helped me get my first contract at Ubisoft Montreal, working with a really fun team on Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012. I was able to draw a connection from the dance writing I did for my novels to the Kinect.

The next game I worked on was Assassin’s Creed Liberation, with Richard Farresse, and a team in Bulgaria. That game remains one of my favourite projects ever, in any medium or genre. It set my sights really high, in terms of what types of work I want to devote myself to, and what games can achieve.

TMS: Can you describe what your current role is? What does an average day consist of for you?

Murray: This January, I founded my own firm, Discoglobe Interactive, through which I provide writing and narrative design to a mix of AAA and indie game clients. I also teach and design game writing courses for colleges and writing groups.

An average day for me starts with a coffee on the way to a client meeting. Then we’ll break out and work for several hours. For part of the day I’ll tend to my business— bookkeeping, research, media, and the quest for new clients. I love the hustle! Evenings are for relaxing or attending industry event. Weekends I’ll work on personal projects like writing or designing board games, but at a much more relaxed pace than the go, go, go of the week. And I’m a mentor with the Pixelles in Montreal.

TMS: What are your plans for the future (if you can discuss any!)? Is there a subject, story, setting or character you’re aching to tackle?

Murray: My clients are amazing, and an endless source of inspiration, but their projects are top secret!

My personal projects have been really satisfying lately. I’ve become obsessed with a Twine story I started, during a workshop I lead at the National Theatre School of Canada. It’s all about perspective, and dogs. I have an RPG in the works where you play as a parent trying to get their kid to go to sleep. And I’m working on a board game called House Rules, where you claim a room and can literally starve the rest of your family to death over something as simple as a remote control left in the wrong place.

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

Murray: Two things: 1) the game industry needs a really wide variety of skills (don’t assume every job is programming!). 2) If you’re like me, fight the compulsion to feel guilty for the time you spend playing… Especially if you can make it part of your job! 3) Start making personal games now. There are so many tools available, I think it’s easier than ever to start where you are, with what you already know, and make your game, even if you’ve never tried before. I’ve already mentioned Twine, RPG Maker and board games, and those are all good entry options.

TMS: You’ve worked on AC: Black Flag and Liberation and various other games as a writer; can you talk about difficulties you came across, if any, you had working as part of a large team?

Murray: Is there anything in our lives that has a more important impact than communication? There should probably be a lot more games built around communication mechanics, like Spaceteam or Animal Crossing are. In any kind of creative work, the bigger a team is, the more potential there is for misunderstanding. Introduce differences of time, geography or culture, and communication challenges multiply. It takes a lot of work to keep everyone on track and reaching for a common goal.

TMS: Judging from your twitter feed, you’re working with students to create their own board games and running workshops; when I train new people or teach I find my students end up teaching me more than I knew before. Is there anything specific you’ll be taking with you from these sessions?

Murray: I recently ran a weeklong workshop with the playwriting students of the National Theatre School of Canada. These were six of the best young writers around– students, but already consummate professionals, all with different relationships with games. They sat right down and produced. None had ever made a game before, and working in Twine, they came out with adventure games, survival games, surreal and personal stories, and capers. I’m sure it was uncomfortable, staring down the barrel of an unfamiliar medium, with a tight deadline at the end of the week, but they all did it, and it was spectacular. Takeaways: 1) writers can make extraordinary game designers. 2) Sit down and do the work now; there will be time to worry about it later.

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

Murray: Assassin’s Creed Liberation; no contest. I loved Aveline from the moment I first heard her name, and working with Richard Farrese and our localization team was a pleasure.

TMS: Three favourite games so far this year?

Murray: It’s still early this year! Framed, This War of Mine, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

TMS: Of all time?

Murray: Threes, now and forever. I played it all the way to Australia last year, and I still play most days. Also 80 Days, Half Life 2, Civilization… This is not remotely a fair question, but I will stop there.

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

Murray: One of the vaults in Assassin’s Creed II took me about a thousand tries to get right, but I did it anyway because I liked the vaults. I can’t remember which one it was; maybe the one with the kraken Easter egg.

TMS: Favourite character?

Murray: All this favouritism is stressing me out. This month, Sera in Dragon Age is making me giggle. I bring her along specifically to make her talk more.

TMS: Favourite character of yours from a game you worked on and why?

Murray: Bastienne Josèphe in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry deserves more attention. She’s a historical character we reconstructed based on just her name, and the knowledge that she was a successful free black business woman who owned a bordello in French-occupied Saint-Domingue in the 18th century. Performed by the extraordinary Mariah Inger, she’s a clever, feeling, complex woman with a strong sense of purpose, whose values often seem to be at cross purposes with each other. I would play a strategy game about her day-to-day life.

TMS: First video game you played?

Murray: Jump Man on Commodore 64.

TMS: Coffee or Tea?

Murray: As you may have guessed from the end my first answer, coffee to an extreme. Although I drink both, I have traveled to coffee producing countries, and taken a farming workshop, and worried about leaf fungus. I’ve been to co-ops and testing labs. I have a certificate in the basic barista arts. Before I went to GDC, I went to the Specialty Coffee Association of America Conference. I roast my own coffee at home. There is overboard, and then there is the time I have invested in coffee. I almost don’t need to write the book I did all this research for now; I’m happy just having lived it.

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 at @noblegasqrtly

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