Last Saturday I had the pleasure of sitting in on Sweet Baby Inc’s Q&A with Kim Belair. If you’re not familiar with Sweet Baby, they’re a narrative development company based in Montreal. Kim, who was taking questions via Zoom, is one of the co-founders of the company, and has worked with many others, including Ubisoft, Rocksteady, Square Enix, KO_OP, Valve, and JuVee Productions.
What went on for just over an hour, was an exciting amalgamation of questions from people in all different corners and stages of the games industry. Kim, and the Sweet Baby Inc team (who kept the chat lively and the questions organized) created a quick-paced but engaging event for all different levels and kinds of writers.
Kim is a game writing veteran with so much quality knowledge. it’s hard to narrow down what WASN’T worth knowing, however, here’s me trying my darndest to recap three takeaways from this event:
1. Don’t assume we care about a character
I’m sure you’re familiar with games, films and books that use the trope of avenging or mourning the death of a loved one. Kim’s biggest bone to pick was that the gamer, or us, more often than not, feel little to no care for this character that supposedly meant so much to the main character before they passed.
I don’t think there’s an easy equation to make us care about characters, especially when that character is no longer alive. However, I will bring forward the example of God of War (2018), where fifteen minutes in I started to bawl my eyes out like a baby.
All we get in those first few minutes of gameplay is the beautifully rendered atmosphere, the growing sounds of strings, and Kratos’ expressions as he leans against a tree in deep thought. After a long pause, he chops it down, crying out in anguish while doing so. We watch Kratos struggle to keep himself together in front of a young boy, his son, Atreus. As Kratos and his son make their way back home, there is an exchange of simple, almost cold dialogue. This exchange serves the purpose of helping you realize these two have an estranged relationship.
Then, at the 5 minute mark, God of War sucks the air out of your lungs; the player witnesses Atreus entering a darkly lit, rustic cabin, where the only light visible comes from the ceiling and illuminates the wrapped body of what we now realize is his deceased mother. Heart strings? Pulled.
Without even having met Atreus’ mother, the sympathy and sadness we feel for him and Kratos sits heavy on our chest with so little dialogue or information! THAT is some excellent writing. Someone hand me a tissue, please.
2. Be creative with your portfolio
When it comes to portfolios, many writers who have never worked on a game before may be uncertain where to start. As an example, Kim presented a poster she had made for her portfolio--it resembled a 1900s newspaper clipping, with events and reviews scrawled across it in big block-like, black font. This, among some other pieces of writing like prose written in-character, or an old photo with a letter attached, help show one is capable of world-building.
For myself, I include a horror film script I wrote after I graduated from film school, select poems from my chapbook, an interactive Twine piece I created and comedic listicles I’ve written for some online magazines. Show your range and don’t be afraid to try something different.
3. Look for the applause moment
If you’re not familiar with Sleep No More, it’s an interactive theatre piece, based off of Macbeth, created by the production company McKittrick Hotel. Kim, who worked on a collaborative project with the McKittrick Hotel folks, described the experience of working with theatre people as eye-opening. One of the questions asked at the Q&A was if there were any differences or pieces of advice she could share about her collaboration with theatre; She spoke first to the differences between the mediums: how dialogue may read, how movement performs differently in video games, etc. However, what stood out to me was her newfound search for “an applause moment”. "An applause moment", according to Kim, is something that can only really occur during live theatre, in which the audience is so taken aback by an element of the writing, the acting or perhaps the set-up, that they applaud. While applause moments don't transcend to games (typically), she wishes to make those kinds of moments in any project she works on.
As far as I know, there is no right or wrong way to achieve an applause moment, but it’s an awesome goal to strive for with each new thing you create. In fact, on a more broad level, it's important to know that no medium, or past experience of yours is counterintuitive to your game writing goals, they can all contribute to the kind of stories you build.
If you enjoyed this blog, please feel free to check out the first blog we have on breaking into indie studio game writing!