Alex:So last question. How do you not overwork yourself?
Kelsey: You tell me. I will say, as much as I loved working on Outer Wilds, Möbius does not need a full time writer. I was only ever part time with them. Like you asked earlier, why my brother and I didn't end up as a designer writer team, and it's just he's employed by a studio that does not need a writer full time.
Outer Wilds started as a passion project. And it kept being a passion project. We were in development for so, so long. What was it like eight years? At the time when I started doing that, even just for fun, let alone professionally, I was still working a day job. It made my day jobs a lot more tolerable because I was getting to do something creative on the side.
Alex: The dreary mundane job you're referring to is The Onion?
Kelsey: It was the Cryogenics Society to begin with. And while it was really cool to get to talk about particle accelerators, at the end of the day, that was very much about the scientific information needed to be conveyed. Not having a creative, whimsical experience, you know, so to go home and work on a game was a lot of fun.
And then at The Onion, I was in editorial operations and there's a fairly strict divide. The writers are who are allowed to create content. I got to head up the Instagram team when it started. We were pulling old stories and repackaging that content. It was fun, but it was not super creatively fulfilling for me.
As an editor you are trying to make the piece better. Remaining in the author's original voice. You cannot insert your own voice. That's rule number one. Right. I've been writing creatively my whole life, just like short stories. And I think I wrote a novel in high school, but nothing published. So then the big shift for me coming into games full time was realizing that [even though games are creative, it is still] a bad idea to rely on that for your sole source of creative fulfillment. At one point working at Insomniac I was trying to put in just everything I had into this game. And I kept getting these chest pains and my partner eventually was like, you have to go check these out. I had to go to the hospital. It ended up just being stress. And there is nothing like the face an E.R. doctor will make at you when he's like, oh, you must have a stressful job? And you're like, I write games.
Oh, I thought this and that moment, honestly, has been one of the biggest for me. I'm not an E.R. doctor. Nobody's life depends on how good this dialog is or how can I revamp this quest to make more logical sense. It's fine. And it's also coming to accept that you are given a set amount of resources and a set amount of time, and it's a business. And your goal is to do the best you can. It is not take it home and obsess over it in all of your free time and try to push all of these new ideas.
Alex: You mentioned not making your job your only source of creative fulfillment. Do you write short stories on the side or... ?
Kelsey: Oh, yeah, I'm working on one now that I might actually -- I've never sent anything around for publishing, and now I'm finally getting around to considering it, now that writing for games is not my hobby anymore. I have time to do other things. Also, I do a ton of hands-on physical crafting. You can see my sewing machine in the background. I just taught myself how to knit in November. I knitted a bunch of hats, now I'm making mittens. That's fun. I do a ton of paper crafting. I stained the desk that I'm sitting at. I've been doing some woodworking. I cartoon, I doodle a lot. I kind of explode creatively sometimes. I'm trying to teach myself some things that will be useful for game dev as well. A little bit of very basic animation or some art assets. I'll never be doing that professionally. But it is a fun thing to be able to do. I'm working on a comic just for fun. I make a lot of things that other people are never going to see. I'm making myself a standup notebook. Bookbinding is really fun.
Alex: I've never had a hobby. I've been told by doctors to have a hobby and I've never, I mean, writing this book about game writing, that's the closest I have to a hobby.
Kelsey: That is kind of my shower time. A lot of people have those aha moments in the shower. My brain works in very particular ways. I have OCD and I tend to obsess over particular ideas and it's really missing the forest for the trees, getting closer and closer to a single tree, being like, tell me your secrets, which is insane. And I know I need to back out of the forest. I am getting closer to that one stupid tree. And if I'm not careful, I'm going to cut it down. So this is using my hands to make something that doesn't require a ton of thought. OK, I'm cutting the paper this size now. We're going to puncture this with the awl. Now we're going to thread it with blah, blah, blah. That's kind of the thing that gets my mind to disengage enough to actually have ideas. The short story that I'm working on right now is something that came up as a result of making this notebook and I had that kind of aha moment. And it's an idea that I've been kind of wrestling with for a long time that I wasn't sure how to commit to paper. And now I think I have kind of an in for it.
Alex: What would you say is the most valuable creative lesson you learned from anything that isn't a game or a TV show or some fictional linear narrative?
Kelsey: So that rules out books.
Alex: Yeah, because obviously you learn a lot about storytelling from books.
Kelsey: I shouldn't tell you how much of a giant nerd I am, but I will.
Alex: We're all nerds. We're in the game industry, for God's sake.
Kelsey: Oh, it's true. But every now and then, I have to dial the enthusiasm back because what it comes across as is intensity. I get really intense.
One of the most rewarding things is when you're working with a dev that does not think that they are really connected to storytelling and they don't see how their discipline would be related. And they're like, well, I don't really have story ideas. And you get to the point through encouragement and chatting and brainstorming and just being interested in their work and finding ways that narrative can support their work in fun and interesting and novel ways to then have them come up to you later and be like, hey, I was thinking about this gameplay mechanic and I think maybe it could tie into this narrative thing. Oh, my God, dude. The first time that happened to me, I heard angels. So that was, sorry, completely off topic. But a thing that happens that I just was overjoyed.
So the thing that -- Empathy, I think. Can I answer that long of a question with one word? I think that's just a life thing, but it is very easy, I think, to assume that you are being empathetic, but it's shockingly difficult to actually get to that point. And I think the more people care about your protagonist or your character, the more that they are allowed to care, the more that they are allowed that space [in which] to be kind of emotionally vulnerable -- really makes one of the greatest impacts on the success or ability of a story.
Alex: I think that's right, and I think that ties back in with why you don't want logic breaking moments. Because, yeah, you will get away with it, but you will also subtract from how much players care about your character. You are chipping away the players connection to the character and at a certain point they stop caring. Like, whatever, I don't trust you, you're just doing whatever you feel like, and I'm just along for the ride and I don't care anymore. So, yeah, I like to define game narrative is just "whatever answers the question, ‘why do I care?’"
Kelsey: Yeah, that's a great way to put it. That's the thing that I get. You know, make me go get your bread for you, sir, but make me care. You can't just tell the player, hey, you should care. And--
Alex: --that's not how that works.
Kelsey: I think we get distracted by what's cool and shiny and oh, look, at this jump, or, look at this item. We're oh, it'll be so cool to have the sequence with these enemies. And I'm like, yeah, but those enemies are all the villagers. Can we not -- should we be killing them?
Alex: There's a powerful sequence in the Witcher series, where Geralt, in the town of Blaviken, is set upon by half of the village. And he kills everybody. Totally righteously, they're trying to kill him. But for the rest of his life he is known as the Butcher of Blaviken. It doesn't make him evil, but it does add weight, credibility to the narrative. Games rarely acknowledge the death toll you leave in your wake. And maybe we would care more if they did, in some cases.
Kelsey: We have to do an amount of convincing people that this is in fact a story that is happening, because a lot of people do not, I think, view games as stories. And I one hundred percent do even from the lens of a player experience.
Kelsey: The thing I was looking for, the answer to your original question, is someone once gave me a piece of advice that was, An artist's number one job is fighting despair. I've talked a lot about joy in these situations--
Alex: So whose despair are we fighting? Our own, or other people's?
Kelsey: I think it was meant to be our own. But I don't know if my despair is necessarily productive to actively battle. So it. It is just the idea of it came at a time where I was really struggling on a particular project and I felt I just was not making any kind of forward progress, and this person told me, you are becoming a better game dev and writer every day, even if it doesn't feel like it. I think there's a lot to be said for that. I'm very impatient. I try really hard. I'm not blessed with patience.
I think acknowledging that you are making progress, even if you're not seeing a lot of it yet. That it does crystallize later. I've learned that some of my ideas just need a little more time in the oven. It's important to be able to to go, OK, I'm going to put this down now and come back to it.
Labels: making games, writing games