Tuesday, February 08, 2022

In Which I Chat with Mary Kenney

Mary Kenney is a veteran games writer who has written on Marvel’s Wolverine, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and The Walking Dead: The Final Season, among other games. Profiled in Forbes’s 30 Under 30 in 2020, she also teaches and writes books and comics. She kindly agreed to an interview.

Alex: You studied journalism and psychology at university?

Mary: Yeah, I went to Indiana University. They didn't have a game design program yet. I majored in journalism. I minored in psych. Then I was a working journalist for about 2 1/2 years before I went to grad school.

Alex: What do you think that brings to your writing?

Mary: Definitely an attention to detail.

I think it helped me get a good sense of the distinct ways that people speak. I wrote stories in India and Florida and California and New York. That’s really helpful in game writing, 'cause you write so much dialogue from different people. Also I think having a good sense of how to hook somebody into a story and then pace it so they don't drop off. I did long form journalism, like 5000 words, and that gave me that sense of making sure somebody's interested at all times.

Alex: Talking about keeping people hooked: theoretically, video games should be always emotionally involving because the player is the player character. But games don't always succeed at that. What do you think is the most important thing for keeping a video game story emotionally involving? And when it doesn't succeed, what's missing, typically?

Mary: I think it's a connection with other characters or even the main character. You often have a problem of a main character who is pretty blank on purpose, so that the player can project onto them. Which is fine, but in that case they need other characters to latch onto and bond with and talk with, to stay emotionally invested. Worrying about those people, caring about those people, wanting to see what happens next to those people.

If you do have a main character who doesn't need to be blank, then don't make them blank. I see that happen all the time where you're playing a single player game, with a strong central linear narrative, and they still wrote the protagonist [without a personality]. Why? I already know this person is not me. Make this person a character with a strong personality that I find interesting.

Alex: I have no trouble identifying with a main character who’s compelling and distinct. I don’t need the player character to be a blank. I mean, we watch movies and identify with a specific character all the time.

Mary: But sometimes games still go the blank route. I think that can really hamper the player’s ability to get invested in the story.

And this is something I talked about when I was interviewing at Insomniac because I think the first Spider-Man game did the opposite of what I'm talking about. They did such a good job of, like, Peter Parker isn't me, but he's someone I care about and relate to. Plus swinging is awesome. I want to see what happens to him next, right?

Alex: So for something like Miles Morales, or Wolverine, how does the story get developed? Those are obviously intellectual properties that Marvel protects fiercely.

Mary: I've always worked in IPs [intellectual properties]; even at Telltale I was on Batman: The Enemy Within. So for me it's kind of the norm. So first the team gets a really good handle on the character. What does this character represent? What is their moral compass? What kind of themes do we usually see in their stories?

In my opinion, the biggest difference is the amount of research you have to do. But even before Telltale, I worked on a historical fiction game. It's still just research. Either I'm looking up 6th Century Vikings or I'm reading all of the Spider-Man comics.

Alex: To get back to blank characters, how do we get the player invested in them? Is it their relationships with other characters? Is it just that NPCs seem to care about our character, so we are primed to do so too? What triggers a human response of, “I care what happens to this character.”

Mary: I think it's a mixture of both. The player needs to care about them -- that doesn't necessarily mean like them, hating someone works too, but we need to have an emotional response. But then that needs to be expressed through the gameplay. You need something, a dialog wheel, or through combat. In Hades, being able to give the NPCs gifts. Being able to lean into the way I'm feeling about other characters will help me stay more emotionally invested in my own character.

Alex: You might have conditional dialogue, even though it's not affecting the story, but it allows the player to decide how they feel about the person they’re talking to.

Mary: I love conditional dialogue. I want to use it forever and always. Letting the game acknowledge that you have feelings. Versus, like, the player character is charging ahead regardless. I also think sliding scales of relationships can be helpful.

Alex: Let’s talk about the illusion of player agency. How do you sucker the player into feeling that they have agency even though it's a linear narrative and they don't actually have agency?

Mary: I think it's different for every player and that's why it's difficult to just say they have agency or not, because for some players it's going to be about upgrading my loot, getting new armor; and for other people it's going to be building relationships with other characters. And for other people it's going to be making choices that lead to one of 12 endings. Every player sees their agency differently. So the short answer is, as often as possible, put the story beats into gameplay.

Let's say I'm still at Telltale. If there's a tricky conversation, it has to be on a dialogue wheel.

If we need to have a tricky, heartfelt conversation, can we have that conversation over combat? Can we do it while I'm doing something else? Can we express this using our mechanics, not just in cinematics? Although they are also great and have their place.

Alex: What are some stories that only games could tell and why? Games that you played where you're like, OK, that really that could only have been a game and it really did something special because it's a game.

Mary: The first answer that comes to mind, and I know it's pretty popular one, but I stand by it, is The Last of Us. It really hit me because of the way they told the story through the mechanics. You know, the ways in which you call on Ellie for help, and switching to Ellie, all of these things that they did mechanically that make you empathize with the characters. And the other answer that comes to mind is Hades. Because my goodness does that story lean in so hard into its genre, it's so great. I've never enjoyed a roguelike in my life until that game, and I was suddenly like this, this is awesome. I think any game where the storytelling really supports and leans into the mechanics. I'm not saying that story shouldn't be early in the development process. It absolutely should. But when those two things work together, it feels so much better. It has to be a video game.

Alex: What, specifically about the way that the mechanics relate to the story in Hades?

Mary: His whole story is about trying to escape, and you're playing through repeatable loops trying to escape Hell. It just works perfectly, like you understand the player character’s frustration and his desperation because you're feeling it too, because you've tried to get out of Elysium 12 times.

Alex: You teach narrative design?

Mary: I taught narrative design at Indiana University last semester. I'm not teaching this semester.

Alex: How do you manage that with a full-time job?

Mary: The good thing about having kind of flexible hours with Insomniac is on the days I was teaching I could just get into work earlier, so I taught my class from 3:30 to 5:30 two days a week. Those days I would start work at 7 in the morning at Insomniac. Get all my stuff done for the day and then sign off. And prepping and grading and all that fun stuff, either after work or weekends.

Alex: What would you say were your students’ worst preconceptions coming in? And what was the most important thing for them to take away?

Mary: It’s going to sound a little pat but I think it's true: I don't think they realized how much writing they would have to do. I think they had the idea that oh, I'll just throw out ideas for games and ideas for mechanics and ideas for scenes. But when it came time to turn their outline into scene work, make a gameplay script, they were kind of like, “What? Why would I want to do that?”

Alex: It’s funny because at Compulsion, I’ve had the opposite misconception, where people are asking, “How long will it take you to write all the dialog.” But the dialog is not the hard thing. The hard thing is, what are five objects I can put in this room to tell the story of what happened here. That could take all day, and what you turn in is just a list of five items. To me, that’s what takes the time. Dialog, just put the two characters in the room and let them argue with each other

Mary: Yeah no, I think that's spot on, 'cause people I've worked with have been like oh, writers are just there to fulfill dialogue requests. We [designers] will have all the ideas and you'll just make it good with your dialogue. And dialog is not going to solve every story problem on planet Earth.

But with a lot of people who haven't been in the industry at all, the idea is oh, writers get to have all the ideas and no. No, no. No, we don’t. We get to have some of the ideas, and pitch things alongside other departments, but we don’t do it solo

I think the biggest takeaway for my students was how important rewriting is. We rewrote a lot in that class. They’d hand in first drafts, I would give them extensive feedback, and then they had like 4 days to make revisions. Learning to be constantly revising and making it better.

Alex: Writing is rewriting.

Mary: Right, yeah, exactly.

Alex: Talking about rewriting, when you get notes that you might disagree with, do you have strategies for dealing with them? What are the tips and tricks?

Mary: The first thing to do is ask for clarity.

Did the person say exactly what they meant, or was it phrased in an unclear way, and they meant something else? If it turns out, yes, this is what the note means and I still disagree with it, my usual method, I take a walk and think.

I give myself a little time to think it through. And then I can go to design leads and art leads and creative director and other writers and lead writer and say, hey I got this note I don't agree with it. Do you see merit in it? And maybe they do, and maybe they don't, and we figure out the solution together.

Typically, in my experience, the notes I don't agree with, there's something behind the note that is probably a good note, but maybe the solution they proposed isn't going to work. So OK, we set aside the proposed solution and get to, what are they not getting, or what’s not hitting correctly? What's missing? And then we can find the actual solution that will work for everybody.

Alex: I should ask you the flip side. What are your tips and tricks for giving notes?

Mary: The way I do it, when I'm reading through a script, I read through the whole script and jot down all my notes as I go. Just kind of the first blush notes. Then I go back, and I usually delete about a third of my notes, because maybe I was being too nitpicky. Nobody needs all this. And then I go back up to the top of the script or outline or whatever, and I give my overall feedback. My overall feedback always opens with all of the things I liked. Here's all the stuff that you just, you nailed it. You knocked it out the park. That’s important, because if you don't tell the people the things that you like, they could cut all of the great things while they're hitting all your other notes.

Then, in the overall feedback, here are some things that I either wasn't understanding or wasn't feeling emotionally, and then my line notes are below. I think it's really important no matter the level of experience of the person you're talking to, to remind them that I'm here to help you make your work better. I'm not tearing apart your thing because that gives me my jollies, I want to help you make this as good as it can be.

Alex: I I notice also that you're saying I'm confused. I'm not feeling it. Your personal reaction, as opposed to, This is confusing or there’s no feeling here.

Mary: Yes. What we do is very subjective. Someone sitting next to me might have a different reaction. You give 12 writers with the same amount of experience and same, I don't know, gravitas in the industry, the same script, and they'll all give different notes.

Alex: You also write comics and tv pitches, and on top of that, you have also written a book, Gamer Girls, which is coming out from Hachette. It’s mini-biographies of twenty-five women who have had stellar careers in games. Obviously they faced some barriers. What would you say is the common thread of how the very successful women in your book surmounted those barriers?

Mary: First of all, we hear about the barriers constantly. There are articles about harassment and sexism, and there should be. We need to report on these things so that they will stop.

But part of my goal in the book was to say: that's not all there is. There are a lot of women who work in this industry who love it. Some of them have had to leave studios or leave toxic cultures, but they're still in the industry, and they have found places that are good, and they have found success.

I didn’t just want to write a book that was like hey, everything is hard and terrible, but if you grit your teeth, you’ll get there.

The idea for the book came out of, I was speaking to a coding camp for young women in high school, and all of their questions for me boiled down to, how have they not driven you out yet? All we hear about is Gamergate and all these sexist, horrible people.

I wanted to write a book about the good parts. Women who got to work on that they love. They got to be passionate. Their colleagues did praise them. Their colleagues did support them. I certainly don't want to minimize all the horrible things that have happened to marginalized people in this industry. But at the same time, it’s not all a trash fire.

Alex: And we’re certainly not going to get more women in the industry if we start by telling them it’s a horror show.

Mary: I really don’t think it is, either. I love my colleagues, and I love my work. And that's also part of the story. So, that’s the book. Now to answer your question, what are some of the things that women have overcome?

Everybody has a unique story ‘cause it’s also spread out over – one of the chapters is about a woman who worked in the 60s, and others are in the ‘80s and‘'90s.

But the biggest common thread is that when women started speaking up, saying why aren't there more women at this company? Why aren't we designing games for women? Why aren't we ever considering that the player might be a woman? That’s when they started to get the cold shoulder from their colleagues.

How they overcame it was by finding allies who would help them. Who would speak up for them. Finding other women, creating safe spaces and groups where women could come together and speak about these topics without fearing reprisal. So, it’s not just any individual working to make a better community. It is communities coming together to make the industry better.

Alex: So what keeps women in games? What kind of environment?

Mary: It’s what keeps anybody in games: being respected and treated like a professional. And the way to drive out anybody is to not do those things. I think that the extra thing to consider, let's say if you're a manager, is, when a woman on your team is talked down to or is noted to death or whatever, in addition to all of the questions that anybody would ask themselves, they also have to wonder, Is it because I'm a woman? That’s true of any marginalized group when your leadership is homogenous: they’re asking, is this how feedback happens at this studio, or am I being treated differently and singled out because I’m different? And that's an extra stressor.

Women tend to stay in studios with more women. They tend to go to studios with more women in leadership. You can’t just recruit diversely in entry-level positions: you have to look for ways to fill your senior positions with diverse talent, too.

Who's in the room when you're interviewing? If I’m interviewing with nine people, and they’re all middle-aged white dudes, I ask myself, is that the only type of person who gets promoted at this company? Now, I’ll ask that question of the interviewers. I didn’t when I was young because I was too nervous.

One of the reasons I decided to go to Insomniac was, there was a woman in my interview, and I could ask her, Hey, what's it like? How do people treat you?

Alex: Would you say that you have a significant social media presence?

Mary: (Laughing.) Yeah, yeah.

Alex: Would you call it just an outlet? Is it a strategy? Is it a necessary strategy?

Mary: The only thing I use regularly is Twitter. I had it as a journalist, and I got the blue checkmark, and I kept it as a game developer because it turns out, luckily enough, that a lot of game developers are on Twitter.

I like it. I like getting to meet and talk to people I otherwise wouldn't get to. I guess the strategy part is, I've gotten several writing contracts through Twitter. I met my book agent through Twitter. I've met a lot of people in my career, as well. I found several job postings on Twitter. Being in the social media space where your industry tends to hang out is pretty good for your career.


  1. Great interview Alex, love these!

    1. Just found your blog and I’m going to dive in. Looks like an amazing resource. Thank you.