Kim Belair, Part FourComplications Ensue
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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Alex: If you have a team of say four or five writers, what specialties would you be looking for? What's your handful of writers?

Kim Belair with wallpaper

Kim: I think if I'm assembling a narrative team, I'd be looking for diverse experiences. And I want to make sure that it's representative of the characters that we have, of the attitudes and ideas and cultures that we want to represent.

There's this idea that, like, we can cohese around our skill in writing.

Alex: "We're imaginative, we can write anything!"

Kim: But that's obviously insufficient.

It's important to me to have someone who can really get the systems and the mechanics working alongside the story, someone whose best form of expression of story is in the country of mechanics. I worked in the past with a narrative director who is by no means a writer. But his vision of story was so different from mine and allowed me to see a different perspective and really structure things differently.

Then I always want someone who's an expert in voice, in punch up, in cleverness on almost everything. Someone with a good sense of humor. Even if the game is not funny. The construction of a joke is very hard to do when it's a natural dialog.

Someone with a strong sense of place, of worldbuilding, someone who can really give a sense of lore. I don't like world bibles. I'd rather have people who can get across a sense of the economy of the world.

Then I also want someone who can take on a variety of different kinds of writing and who is really, really adept at it. Someone who can write a couple hundred lines of barks and enjoy that process. And who's going to be able to give quantity while maintaining quality. … But I do want someone [else] who's a little bit slower who can think about things.

Overall, team composition for me is just: generosity, collaboration, and free discussion in between people.

I think that if you could assemble a team that has those components, then, you know, one person might have a super full week while the other was supporting them. And someone else the next week is gonna take the lead. When the workhorse writer is through and just needs someone to punch it up.

Alex: Have you worked with videogame narrative editors?

Kim: I worked with a woman named Paula Rogers. She's also the lead writer on Goodbye Volcano High and was also, I think, head of story on Neo Cab. She has fantastic editing skills. I think that we don't use editors enough. Like we almost wait until QA gets a hold of it. Working with editors is really, really nice, especially when they're external and coming in on a project and saying, What do you need? What do you not?

We worked with a script coordinator on Suicide Squad and that is so helpful. Someone who's going to make sure that we're keeping the tone right, that we're staying consistent with what we've already said. Yeah, I would always advocate for editors.

Alex: Kim McCaskill was saying she's really good at continuity. Like, waitasecond, the character met that person last week and now she's saying she met that person two years ago.

Kim: Yes, exactly.

I know that if I'm on an open world game and I'm writing a cinematic and then a year later I'm writing a bunch of combat barks and one contradicts something I wrote a year ago, there's no one else to check on that until it hits QA. And then finally, when we play it, we go, oh, no. It's already been recorded.

Alex: So talking about toxic work environments, which is always fun. Obviously they suck and nobody should have to deal with them. What do they do to the game?

Kim:  We have this assumption that if it's toxic, it doesn't show up in the game.

But it does it in ways that we can't immediately quantify, even if the game is successful.

Because if I am in a toxic workspace where I don't feel I can express myself as a woman of color, then when I'm in a creative meeting and someone says, OK, well, this character is a woman of color, she does this thing. In an environment where I am being fostered, I might have the courage and the strength to say, hey, I don't think is a good idea. Let me explain to you why. But in an environment that's toxic, where I have been treated like I don't matter, where I've been desolate, where I've been made to feel small, I'm not going to say that. And so even if it's not something offensive, even if it's not something particularly awful, the reality is that if I had been empowered to say something, we could have had a better game. That works across the board. Anyone who is stuck, who is oppressed, is going to be limited in what they can express creatively.

And I think that we don't pay attention to that, because even with studios, if you have a studio where everyone's treated super, super well, but the game has like a deeply racist, sexist, homophobia, transphobia, whatever it is, someone at that studio now feels unsafe. Even if they're treated well, even if they're not, you know, being actively harmed or harassed. There's this now sense of microaggression. I was actually in a meeting earlier today talking about a similar thing. And I was saying that, if you go to a social worker, and they're really, really fantastic. And you walk in there and there's like, Playboy centerfolds. And maybe to that person, they're like, "no, I just like the art. This is not a problem." But I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to speak to this person without being objectified

So it's about creating a space where I feel comfortable enough to contribute to the game.

There's so many games that, they might not be offensive, they might not be obviously bad. But you can tell that no one said, what can we do to represent these people more? It's being additive, and that's what you lose out on.

Alex: On we happy few, we had a thing in the story where some of the women in the office said, "thaaat's a l'il rapey." So we changed it. And it wasn't obvious to me, as a guy, how it was rapey?

Kim: A lot of the time you will say something like, OK, well, in this scene we're going to really show how bad sexual assault is. We want to make sure that it's evil. But who are you showing that to?

Alex: You're putting your women players through that.

Kim: Yeah. Exactly. This is a thing that she has to think about when she walks home every day.

Alex: OK, so last question, how do you stay sane?

Kim: Oh. Who says I do?

I think that for me, it's always working with people who I like, which is what Sweet Baby allows.

If I end up on a project where I am encountering a problem, I can still go back to the same group of people who I trust and love. I'm kept sane by the people around me. If I'm in a meeting where someone treats me with some disrespect, I always have people around me to do a sanity check. Was I crazy? That is the biggest difference from working in a studio: you don't know.

Alex: Do you want people to hit you up like, Hey, I love the idea of Sweet Baby, can I get you a sample?

Kim: Yeah. Folks are welcome to. I'm always looking for, especially, marginalized developers from all disciplines. Obviously we're a narrative agency, but we often encounter projects that go, hey, we're looking for a programmer. Hey, we're looking for an artist. So just having a roster of people who we can offer up is nice. And frankly, we're also here for people who need to vent about something. It might take me longer to answer those emails, but I do want to hear what people are dealing with and help in whatever way I can.

So should people just e-mail you?

We actually have an email setup for that, And beyond that, I'm on Twitter and on everything as @bagelofdeath.

Alex: So why @bagelofdeath?

Kim: When I was 15 or 16 years old, I did a comic and the villain of the comic was threatening the hero with this thing that was going to absolutely kill him. And he holds up a bagel. And the protagonist is like, is that just a bagel?

And he's like, it's a Bagel of DEATH.

And he's like, OK. And so he takes a bite of it and goes like, are these raisins?

And he goes "raisins ... of DEATH!".

And then he's like, no, these are just raisins.

And so the villain goes like, wait, these ARE just raisins.

And then the last panel is like a Frenchman in a bistro about to bite into this bagel that's like glowing green, full of needles, broken glass and scorpions.

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