Kim Belair, part twoComplications Ensue
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Sunday, September 06, 2020

Alex: What phase of game development are you in currently? What what do you actually do in a given day?

Kim Belair

Kim: So at any given time, we're working on between eight and twelve projects, mostly for clients, some for ourselves. And the way that I work is every day is a couple projects.

For example, in the morning, I would log in and talk to the team at Rocksteady when we're working on Suicide Squad and that would be like a writers room, sit down, talk through a script. Talk about characters, write scenes or barks or whatever.

And then in the afternoon, now I'm going to work on Goodbye Volcano High. I've got a meeting with KO-OP.

And then I might have a meeting with Square Enix or Panic. And then I will end the day with a check in with everybody else, OK, what's tomorrow look like? What kind of deadlines do we have coming up? What's the most urgent need? Who's going to do what? So every day is a little bit different, but it's very rare for me at this point to have any full day that I work on one thing.

Alex: What are the hardest battles you fight?

Kim: I guess I can talk about this with Rocksteady. At the beginning, I was like, oh, there's some information that I'm missing, because, one, they're five hours ahead, they're in London. But two, they're in an office together. So they're having a lot of conversations I can't be a part of.

But now that most more people are working from home, everything has to be intentional. So I can be more part of the conversation.

Alex: Lisa remarked to me she is more aware of what's going on in the company since we started working remotely because absolutely everything's on Slack. She doesn't have to worry that somebody was in the break room with somebody else and had a conversation and decided something she doesn’t even know about. She just has to read Slack.

Kim: What really makes me happy about it is that we can now more freely hire people who don't live in the big cities, who might not be able to afford it, who might have life situations that don't allow them to work outside the home. It used to be more like, well, you can either take care of your kids or work. And obviously there are still immense challenges for any parent or any caregiver, but if there’s one thing to be grateful for about this terrible pandemic, it's that it's allowed people to work in a way that works for them.

Alex: So do you think that’s going to help the sort of bro culture that we are sometimes dealing with?

Kim: I think it is. I think that a lot of our culture needs to change because it has been, you know, granted to the most privileged people, to people who are creating these boys clubs that are inaccessible to other people. And, slowly but surely, we're untangling that. Both because of the ways that we work and because of the information that we're now sharing.

Alex: Now we don't have, “We're all gonna go to the bar and get drunk! Yeah!” Nobody’s going to the bar. I hope.

Kim: No bar. And the other thing, the pandemic created a situation where now if you're a victim of abuse, you no longer have to go into the office and have to avoid certain people. And I think that and the current push for like Black Lives Matter and equality and social justice, have turned this industry into something that realizes, no, we can be different.

Alex: Any guesses on where this is going to lead when, at some point in the 2030s, we can actually go back to the office?

Kim: I don't want that to happen. I don't want to just to be like, OK, pandemic's done, we have a vaccine, everybody get back to the office.

What I'd like to see is, OK, let's look at what worked here. What part of working from home was helpful? Did it improve the lifestyle for some people? For so long in games, we've been told, ‘No working from home, we can't manage that.’ And then all of a sudden the pandemic made it clear that we can. And I hope that we do become more open to saying, oh, this marginalized person from a small town who can't move here, we're gonna give them a job because it can be done remotely.

Alex: So how did you get into game writing? Your B.A. is in commerce?

Kim: Yes, I have a marketing degree. I ended up getting into games via community development at Ubisoft. I’d been doing branding for different companies and a lot of copywriting, for a company called Territorial.

And I was approached to help with media development on Far Cry 4. The community developer's job was to create content based on the world of the game. So everything from interviews with the developers and podcasts and stuff like that, to in-character interviews and blogs. I wrote this character called Divya Kandala, and she was a journalist going into the fictional world of Far Cry 4. And she eventually interviewed the game's villain.

And the narrative director, Mark Thompson was like, oh, you should put some of this into the game itself. And he connected me with the level designers. And we put in, just tiny details, little notes here and there. Like one house that had her suitcase in it.

And after that, he asked me, do you want to do this? Start doing narrative? And Lucien Soulban and Corey May had already encouraged me to get into that. Honestly, it was something that I hadn't really considered as a path. It wasn't necessarily where I saw myself.

I finally made the switch on to Assassin's Creed syndicate. And that was my first official writing gig.

And after that, I worked on For Honor and then two canceled projects. And then I got Brie Code who had left Ubisoft and started her own company, Tru Luv. [“We work with artists, psychologists, game designers and AI programmers to bring life to AI companions.”] She asked me if I wanted to do a little bit of contract work on the side. And then I started getting people more interested in working with me. Eventually it got to the point where I knew that Ubisoft wasn't going to allow me to just keep working on other stuff. So I said, OK, I'm going to go out and try my luck.

Alex: So they wouldn’t allow you to work on other stuff if you're working for them. But they will hire you if you’re a company!

Kim: Exactly. Yes.

Alex: It’s funny how just framing it differently makes it OK.

Kim: It is funny because I have now done more finalized, out-in-the-world writing for Ubisoft not as an employee than I ever did as an employee. My impact on Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is greater than my impact on Syndicate or Far Cry or For Honor.

Alex: How do you find writers for your company? What do you look for in a writer? How do you judge how good a writer is going to be? Because it sounds like the people you're talking to, they can't say, “Here's a stack of AAA games I’ve shipped.”

Kim: I don't look for experience. I look just for a sample. I don't really believe in writing tests. I want to see, what's your sensibility? I look for basic skills. Are you a competent and good writer? But then I want to sit down in a room and see, are you fun to work with? Are you engaging? Are you kind? Are you funny?

Because on a game project, I'm working with you for anywhere between a month and four years. So I want to really feel like we're going to vibe. I can teach you the skills, but I can't teach a really skilled jerk to be a nicer person. So I'm looking for a combination of talent and personality that is fun and compassionate.

Alex: Does the medium of the sample matter? Because when I was looking for a writer recently, I would get prose samples sometimes. And I have a lot of trouble guessing from a prose sample if you can write games. I can guess from a screenplay sample. But prose is like, well you know, these are a lot of words and they're great words and they're in the right order. In prose you can do all these things that you can’t do in a game or a screenplay. You can say what people are thinking. In most adventure games you’re mostly restricted to what people are saying and doing.

Kim: Yeah, I skip to dialog a lot when I read prose samples. One of the games that we're working on right now, Sable, is a little bit prose-ish. So those skills do apply. But more globally, I'm looking for how are you using the words? Is it fun to read? Is it taking me on a journey? And then I will usually look at the dialog to make sure it's natural and it's snappy and interesting.

Alex: But prose dialog is a different beast. It prose dialog has to make up for not having an actor there who can really think through what this line means and then inhabit that character. The text has to do all the heavy lifting by itself.

Kim: Yes, but I think that if you can write a scene in prose that's really compelling, that translates well enough to a game later.

I used to write almost exclusively prose. And when I had to do screen writing for games, that process was just, how can I give the dialog a little bit more weight? It's a muscle. And if I think the person is really talented and willing to learn, engaged and interesting, I'm always willing to help develop that skill. Because writing in games means different things on every project. I’ve been on projects where writing meant only going over someone else’s dialog and making it shine. And I've also had game projects where, OK, we need you to give us a story on top of these five mechanics that we already have. So it’s not just dialog, there's a huge range of skills needed.

Alex: And there are games that are all prose. Mostly indie ones. Fallen London. 84 Days.

What I look for is voice. Do you have a voice? I can’t teach you to find your voice. I mean I could, but not on the schedule of a video game production.

You have to come to the party with an ability to put yourself in a fictional world. If you’re just writing the fictional world, that’s okay, but I’m looking for someone who can imagine themself into that world, and come out and show me what it means to them to live in it. If you have that, I can teach you tips and tricks to develop your voice.

Kim: We don't spend enough time on developing that kind of talent. There’s a lot of people that we don't see at first blush. When I look to women and other marginalized groups, screenplays are not where they begin. Especially for young writers, short stories and fan fiction is their place to shine. So I'm going to try to going to try to bend that by giving them training.

Alex: You’re a for-profit Pixelles!

Kim: Yes, exactly. And speaking of Pixelles, we have hired a couple of their people. Back in the day when events existed, we went to at least one showcase a month. And I read someone's stuff and I was like, oh, she's fantastic. I want her. And I kept it around for about a year. And then recently on Goodbye Volcano High, we hired them to write their first game. And it's going great so far.

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