Ask Anna Questions 2015

I answered all my questions for 2014, so I'm starting a new list for 2015. I'm starting the list with a few questions I was asked over on Tumblr. Please feel free to comment or contact me with more.

  • How do i get a dollar from you without the processing fee and conversion fee?
  • okay thats good and what if the dollar was with me all along and i was just checking if I had earned it?
  • okay yes, we are both sure that dollar isn't yours, so now you are going to keep the dollar I wanted in one of your pockets either your pants(front or back left or right) or if you are wearing a Tee a pocket(so tell me how many pockets you have), and if i tell you in which pocket you have kept it(in your mind), i get a dollar from you without the processing fee and conversion fee.
  • Okay thats nice, so now i know how much that dollar means to you and you and you protect it with pride and wouldn't like to share it with anyone, how old is the cat and does it like to play with wool?
  • Do you know where the bathroom is? Does a bar have a bathroom? or was the bartender a Woman?

Ask Anna #12: Odds and Orts

This post is a grab bag of the remaining Ask Anna questions. I'm answering them all at once so that I can start fresh with new ones next year. What a journey it's been answering these! I completely trashed my original plan of answering them every other week, so I tried to provide longer responses to make up for it. I'm glad to finally clear the list, though.

Let's do this!

  • What is a "game"?

Everything is a game, if you’re doing it right. Taking out the trash: How many bags can you carry at once without dropping anything? A physics-based game. Eating dinner: How can I consume each of these food items so that my last bite is lasagna and not brussels sprouts? Resource management game. Shopping: How can I find the perfect gift in an under an hour? A quest game. If games are a series of interesting decisions, as Sid Meier says, then you can gamify anything.

Well, almost anything.

  • What do you do all day besides tweet?

 I should probably be insulted by this question. I’m not, though, and that worries me. Anyway, I’ll let you in on a little secret: writers never stop working. Everything we do, everyone we meet, every detail of every day has the potential to be material for our work. We are constantly noting the way people phrase things, how they react, what the subtext of any situation is. If you know a writer, odds are that something of yours ended up in their work. Your laugh, your catchphrases, your family troubles—all raw material for writers. So just because I’m trying out ideas 140 characters at a time doesn’t mean I’m not working.

A busy day at the office.

A busy day at the office.

That brings me to…

  •  When writing for games, what kind of things do you take inspiration from? How much of those really shape your work? I mean, how many of those are highly-influential on your writing?

I look at other games for ideas about how other writers are conveying story information. How are they getting around awkward game mechanics? Have they hit upon an elegant way to deliver information without a lot of text? What are they doing to develop character within the constraints they have? I read for similar reasons. How did this author play with tropes? What literary devices can I transfer to my own work? Same for movies, theater, music, etc. I look at other people’s creative endeavors to see how they told a story within their medium and to find ways around constraints. In terms of subject matter, I take inspiration from the world around me. Not just the media I consume, although I’m often inspired by the work of others, but people and their interactions with the world. And of course, I look at nature, history, and mythology for creative inspiration. I absorb it all. Everything goes in. Everything is raw material. How much weight I give to a particular source depends on what I’m writing. 

Inspiration. I absorb it all. Everything goes in.

Inspiration. I absorb it all. Everything goes in.

  • What’s your favorite color?

Not telling.

  • Well, now I'm curious. What is your favorite color?

Shhhh. No.

  • What IS your favorite color?

The color of secrets.

  • Kirk or Picard?
  • Or Janeway? She's got the coffee.

 Confession time: I’m not a fan of any Star Trek series. Please don’t assassinate me. My brother is a big enough fan for both of us. Thanks to him, I’ve seen a big chunk of all the show’s incarnations. I like them all for different reasons, but none of them gripped me enough to make me a true fan. As far as captains go, I like Janeway. Apparently, she’s got the coffee.

  • How can you love K-Pop when J-Pop is so obviously superior? 

I'm planning a long post to outline in painful detail EXACTLY why Kpop is better. I’ll link it here when it’s up.


UPDATE: After tweeting this post out, I received the following response:

So…yeah. That's all that needs to be said about that. 

  • Who is your favorite bus commute buddy? 

No question about it, my smartphone. ♥

  • What was your all-time most awkward bus commute moment?

Wow, there are so many to choose from. Maybe it was the time that I got thrown into some young Microsoft guy’s lap and it wasn’t remotely the romantic moment that manga and Kdramas have taught me it should be.  Or maybe the time the bus got stuck on the highway for hours and someone pulled out snack fruit. I thought the angry mob would kill him after he banana-stanked up the bus. Or maybe it was how the only two times I saw my Seattle crush on the bus were when I was returning from having dental surgery and my face was numb. Nothing says, “I think you’re cool and I’d like to date you” like uncontrolled drooling from novacained lips. Those are only a few highlights. Riding the bus was a daily adventure. That I don’t miss at all.

  • When will there be a Hudson Hawk 2?
  • Who is your favorite minion?

 I love all my minions equally. Which is to say, in a cruel and offhand manner. Over time, however, some minions have distinguished themselves with remarkable feats of devotion. I have to single out Loremasterkaae,  Archaes8, and Crimson342 as examples of minioning done right. Thanks for your service! You’ve earned one less lashing next year.

I swear, I spoil them.


And that's it. If you 'd like to ask me a question, please submit it through my website or ask me on Twitter (at #AskAnna). Please make sure I haven't already answered it, though.  Question List Here

Ask Anna #11: GTAV, Female Characters, and Feminism

I put off answering these questions for a long time because some are baldly antagonistic. Some are arguing points I never made. And because I've discussed these exact issues many times before. But let's knock them out once and for all, shall we?

  • You've tweeted about how GTAV isn't as satirical as people think it is. What would a satirical GTA look like from your PoV? 

More like Saints Row, maybe? Here's my question for everyone who says that GTA is satire: What point is it making? The purpose of satire is “to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” The intent is usually to change or improve society by skewering behavior or beliefs. I’m open to hearing about the ways GTA satirizes the lifestyles it depicts, because from where I’m standing, it looks much more like straightforward representation and wish-fulfillment. 

These questions are thematically related, so I'll answer them all together:

  • What do you have against GTA? It's not for you, so get over yourself and let gamers enjoy it. 
  • [Thinking about what happened with GTA V], how far do you think it is acceptable to go in the search for a more equal 'playing field'? Surely forcing [creators] to do something they aren't ready to do would create something hated across the board, and slammed for portraying the gender wrongly?
  • If we make the "feminist" changes you want to video games, aren't they just going to be sexist toward men?
  • Don't you know that girls like shooters too? Stop trying to speak for all women.

(It’s obvious when I did the open call for Ask Anna. :p)

I’m not giving detailed answers here. Recent events in the industry have raised these exact issues, and there’s been much debate about who games are for and who should have a voice.  My view, and I’ve only ever spoken for myself, is that games should reflect the diversity of their audience. Women make up half of gamers now—and I mean gamer in its broadest sense of people who play games—and I'd like to see that better reflected in media. I’m well aware that women play shooters, which is why I’d love to see more game companies acknowledge that. That’s really what my “feminist changes” come down to: better representation and inclusion for people who aren’t straight white men. That doesn’t mean banning skimpy costumes for female characters. It means giving players a choice about what they wear. And that includes letting men wear sexy costumes if they want. “Feminist changes” don’t mean banning women as sex objects. It means having a variety of well-rounded characters who aren’t just sex objects to balance out the equation. And it means letting men be sex objects too. It means more female lead characters, so women can feel what it's like to save the day. I don’t see how it’s sexist toward men to give them more options than the cookie-cutter masculinity that you see in games now. And having a wide range of female characters in games means that getting them "right" is less important. There's less weight put on one example. One character doesn’t have to be all things to all people. 

I’m also amazed by this idea that current games are an expression of unfettered creativity. I’ll tell you right now that creators are already compromising their “artistic vision” to match what marketing thinks will sell or what budget demands they cut. I know many creative people who are bored with the same old hero’s journey of the typical stubble-jawed, white male hero. There are so many other interesting stories out there that creators aren’t allowed to explore in games right now. Trust me, there are many creators who aren’t afraid of making female characters and who would love the chance to present their stories. Nobody is saying that every game has to have a female protagonist. But when there’s a missed opportunity to tell a unique story, like there was with GTAV, people are right to point that out. Critiquing is not issuing a mandate.

Ask Anna #10: What Education Do I Need For Games?

Here’s another student interview, this time about what education I recommend for aspiring game devs. As always, I’m posting the answers here in case they’re helpful to, uh…anybody at all. This advice works as a companion piece to Ask Anna #7: What About You, Anna?
1. What, if any, high school courses do you think prepared you in ways other than just education for getting your foot into the game writing industry?

When I was in high school, making games never crossed my mind as a possible career. I played video games, but it was just one of many hobbies. I was far more passionate about reading, writing, and drawing back then. I knew I’d be something impractical—like a writer or an artist—but I didn’t imagine a career in games. I simply wanted to get paid for doing something I loved. Like reading. I dreamed of getting paid to read books all day long.

So when my school required that we follow someone around at their job for a day to see what it was like, I spent the day with a copy editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. She was kind, but confused. “This is your dream job?” she asked, over and over again, as she showed me how to mark up manuscripts. Shy, 15-year-old Anna nodded. “Yes.” Well, it was my dream job until I saw how tedious it was. No dream could survive the fifth reading of a dense text about flywheels.

Read this text five times and you can actually hear your soul’s death rattle.

Read this text five times and you can actually hear your soul’s death rattle.

And that's how I became a bartender. 

In all seriousness, writers draw on everything they have learned to create stories. Obviously, English classes are useful for me as a writer. But I’ve drawn on my studies of history, politics, science, and, yes, even bartending to make convincing, well-rounded characters. Maybe someday I’ll be able to use my extensive flywheel knowledge in a game. You never know. That's the beauty of writing.

Anyway, advice: Study great literature. Read as much as you can. Take some basic programming classes if your school offers them. Having tech skills to back up your writing talent will give you an advantage and qualify you for a wider variety of roles in the industry. Study video games. That's not a parent-friendly euphemism for "playing when you should be doing real homework," either. Examine video games the way you would a text in English class. Play with a critical eye. Veteran gamewriter Richard Dansky goes into detail on that subject here: On Becoming A Game Writer


2. Have there been any connections (teachers, relatives, friends, colleagues, etc.) that provided you with specific tips or stories that impacted your decision to become a writer? If so and if you remember, could you share them?

 I can’t recall anyone helping me make the decision to become a game writer. I had the epiphany on my own while playing a game with terrible writing. “I could write better crap than this,” I thought. Then a lightbulb flickered on in my mind. “I really COULD write better crap.” The dream was born.

After I started studying English literature in school, people shared tips with me. It consisted mostly of links to terrible game dialogue with “LOL this is you” comments.

“Jill, here’s a lockpick. It might be handy if you, the Master of Unlocking, take it with you.”

Or they linked to long lists of writing tips that read like literary Highlights magazines. “Goofus gives every character a verbal tic so you can tell them apart. Gallant lets the substance of their speech differentiate them.”

(That’s an old-timey reference, so here’s what I’m talking about: My dentist had dusty stacks of those old magazines perched around his waiting room.)

As my education progressed, the greatest tips I got from teachers were about letting ideas take you where they wanted to go. When you first sit down to write, just write. Turn off the editor in your brain and let the words flow out. Don’t try to direct the path of the words, let your mind wander down whatever path it wants to go. This is the raw material that you will later craft into an elegant work. But don’t worry about making it pretty when you start. Get the ideas out there. Learning to let go and not be afraid of what your brain coughs onto the page can be the hardest part. Be fearless. Don’t censor your thoughts. There’ll be plenty of time to blot the blood off the page later on.

 3. Could you offer tips for success in the game industry for people that have not begun their journey into the field, relating to their goals and desires?

I refer you to my long-winded Gamewriting FAQ for information about getting a foot in the door. While my advice is tailored to aspiring writers and designers, any game industry hopeful should be networking their butts off. Start long before you enter the industry. Follow people whose work you admire on Twitter and Facebook. Ask for advice. Find out what their inspirations are. Let them know you’re a fan. However, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t stalk them. To all of you out there who silently added “There’s a fine line between devoted following and stalking”: NO. There’s not. The line is highway-wide and clearly drawn. But here are a few helpful tips to tell the difference.

  • Good: I’m a big fan of your games. 
  • Bad: You’re the hottest dev at that entire game company.
  • NO!: Thanks for the add!
  • Good: Can you recommend any good Twine games?
  • Bad: I sent you my game script. Can I get some feedback? I need it by Tuesday.
  • NO!: I wrote a story. It’s very special. It’s about…us. Here, take a look.
  • Good: I saw your tweet about reading Lumberjanes. How did you like it?
  • Bad: I was digging through your tweet history and saw you mentioned a comic 2 years ago…
  • NO!: I can see you reading Lumberjanes right now. I like that color on you.

 I hope we’ve all learned something today. I know I have.

Okay, I’m obviously being a bit tongue in cheek with this advice generally, but I’m serious about this issue. Also, be mindful of your online presence. Future employers will google you. Curate your search results so that you’re projecting the image you want. To that end, put work out there that will show up with a web search. Write interesting, game-related blog posts. Create some Twine or Inform7 games. Create an online portfolio. Get your work out there where people can see it. And keep adding to it. It’s good practice, in every sense.


4. I have notice that many jobs listed for game writing are looking for Senior Game Writers (5+ years in Game Writing). I am wondering if there are exceptions to this that you have experienced/noticed? And how does one get to this level of recognized experience in this specific area? Unless it means doing QA testing or game reviews for a magazine?

Ahhh. Welcome to old catch-22 of the industry: you can't get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. The brutal truth is you’re unlikely to get a senior game writing position without experience as a writer in some field: games, film, TV, something. They're not going to look at your Twine game, say, "This kid's a star!" and put you in charge of a multi-million dollar project. People in senior positions have demonstrated on other major projects that they can handle the stress and know what they're doing. The traditional route to that role is to work your way up from inside. And yes, QA is a reasonable starting point. That’s where I started out.

Companies often prefer to hire from within because they know what they’re getting. Candidates are familiar with the game and the development pipeline and can usually be brought up to speed quickly. Many of these low-level writing jobs are never advertised because it’s so easy to find qualified candidates already on payroll. Or the writers tell their friends who are also writers. Right this very moment, I know of three writing jobs that are not advertised on the game companies’ websites. And they will be filled without the general gaming public ever knowing the slots were open. That’s why networking is so critical. You need someone on the inside.

Some writers (heatedly) dispute my next suggestion, but I recommend sending out inquiry letters to companies you want to work for. Let them know you’re interested, maybe include a link to your website or resume, and see what happens. I know many people who got jobs that way. You might never hear back. You might hear back months later. You might hear, “We’ve got nothing now, but we’ll keep your resume on file.” It’s worth a shot.

As for required experience, look closely at one of those ads. Here’s a currently available writing position at Bungie: 

When you say "scribe," you mean in the real world and not a game, right? 

When you say "scribe," you mean in the real world and not a game, right? 

Let’s translate their required skills:

  • Someone must like your writing enough to have paid you for it. For years.
  • Must be able to kill your darlings and keep creating.
  • Must like video games. Must know this genre.
  • Must play well with others.
  • Must show proof that you know storytelling basics and have time management skills.

Pretty simple, right? The ad weeds out unqualified candidates. That’s its purpose. But keep in mind that they’ll want writing samples, too. That’s your chance to show them what you can do. And if they like your samples, they’ll have you take a writing test.  Another chance to dazzle them. All of those advertised requirements are negotiable if you can write well. Talent and skill trump everything. 

Many companies will accept comparable experience. Maybe you don't have three years' experience in the games industry, but you were managing editor of a high-traffic review site. That helps a lot. It shows you worked with writing content and deadlines, understand digital media, and successfully managed a team of people to get your product out the door. That's very close to the game development process. So when companies ask for experience, think of how the jobs you've had would translate to games. At the end of the day, the company wants someone who can do the job. Period.
5. As my final question, what has been the most personally satisfying decision that you have made in the past five years for this career? Has this decision affected other parts of your life other than just your work?

This question, oh my. I’m smack in the middle of fallout from a major career change this very second. I’ve spent the last ten years slowly working my way up the AAA ladder. I started out doing QA on small titles and gradually worked my way up to my dream job of writer on major AAA titles. I’ve moved all over the continental US for jobs and uprooted my life several times—with three transcontinental moves in 2014 alone. It was worth it. I‘ve had fun, made friends, and faced challenges enough to keep my brain in shape. But my experiences along the way, combined with the recent industry turbulence, changed my dream. I realized that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do anymore. So I left AAA and decided to work on smaller titles. Or even to create my own game. And now I’m pitching games to studios and trying to figure out what my next step will be. It’s terrifying. But it’s exhilarating. I’m closer than I’ve ever been to creating games for my chosen audience. That’s satisfying. That’s every writer’s dream. Well, that and a built-in donut dispenser for their desk. 

No, I meant a machine that dispenses donuts, not a donut that…ah, forget it.

To translate my recent personal decision into general advice, I'd say that you should always remember why you got into the industry and make that your true north. If you got into the industry to make games, then do whatever it takes to keep making games. Even if that means moving at the end of every project or working on games that you wouldn't want to play. If you got into the industry to make your own games, then do what you have to do for that. You might end up working for indies. Or learning to code so you can create a game from scratch. Or launching a Kickstarter. Go wherever that dream takes you. 

Ask Anna #9: Anna's Cooking Tips

Incredibly, you guys asked for this. So here's an entire blog post to answer all the food and cooking questions you sent me.

No cooking advice I assume? :p

Ha ha ha. You assume wrong. I have a lot to say on this subject. And some strong words for cookbook authors about clarity.

That title isn't saying what you think it is…

That title isn't saying what you think it is…

As people who follow me on Twitter know, my cooking skills are legendary. I am a beginner, so any recipe I use has to spell things out. Recipes can't assume any knowledge on my part, no matter how obvious it seems. How many times have I been diligently following a recipe only to discover glaring omissions about the next step? Answer: EVERY TIME.  Do I peel the potatoes or not? What size pan do I need? How much of "one leek" do I use? What's the difference between dicing and cubing? No matter how "beginner" a recipe claims to be, there's always something they didn't make clear. And those grey areas are where people like me go wrong. Horribly, terrifyingly wrong. I mean, I screwed up THIS recipe:

Two ingredients: ice cream and flour. How could anyone mess that up?

Two ingredients: ice cream and flour. How could anyone mess that up?

The bread I created from that recipe was so dense that its gravity sucked in all my kitchen appliances. NASA has it now. So my cooking advice is for the people writing recipes: QA your work, dammit. If you say it's for novices, have a genuine beginner try to make it. Otherwise, this is how it reads to people like me:

Sounds legit.

Sounds legit.

What is your favorite food?

This can't be a serious question. I can't even decide who my favorite Hitachiin twin is and you want me to pick one food from all the food in the universe? Oh wait. Unless you mean a food category. In that case, I like desserts best. But savory foods are also delicious. And cheese is the only thing standing between me and true veganism. Also, fresh fruit is the ♥best.♥ 

So, I cheated and googled this question. Apparently, most people say pizza. Pizza is good, but not my favorite. The popular runner-up is chocolate. Also an excellent choice, but there are so many different kinds of chocolate that it becomes its own competition.

Chocolat Movie Clip. Yes, I know they're not just talking about chocolate. 

In the interest of finishing this Ask Anna post today, let's move on to the next question.

Can I have your pancake recipe?

Of course! Here's my simple ten-step process:

  1. Decide to make pancakes.
  2. Remember how badly pancakes turned out last time.
  3. Tell yourself the problem was the recipe.
  4. Google a new recipe.
  5. Follow the new recipe.
  6. Sing Kpop into your spatula.
  7. Ruin the pancakes somehow.
  8. Eat them anyway while watching the rain and sobbing.
  9. Resolve to never make pancakes again.
  10. Repeat steps 1-10.

This infallible recipe in action.

How do you turn the litmus paper blue?

Ah, science! This question assumes a far more advanced level of cooking than I'm at. You're talking molecular gastronomy, right? Well, ask yourself this: Could you sleep at night knowing I was messing around with matter on a molecular level? I didn't think so.

My culinary skills aside, molecular gastronomy is brilliant. Check out the recipes on this website:  You can make Disappearing Transparent Ravioli, Honey Handkerchiefs, and Edible Wood. Magic. I'm fascinated by this style of cooking. It's like modern-day alchemy. Or witchcraft.

And speaking of witchcraft…


Have you tried cooking a snake yet? I hear they are capable of breaking hexes if prepared correctly.

I've had such a long and painful run of bad luck recently that I almost considered measures this drastic to break my hex. Only a few things stopped me: 

  1. I'm a vegetarian and strongly opposed to animal cruelty in any form. For snakes, too. Even for spiders.
  2. We all know by now that I'd mess up any snake-hex recipe and probably make things worse. I sure don't need double bad luck hexes. Or to have a ghost snake haunting my sleep with hissed reproaches
  3. Oh yeah, I don't believe in hexes. 

So rest easy, snakes! You're safe from my culinary depredations.

(PS: DO NOT google "snake cooking" under any circumstances. Don't do it, folks. It will either horrify you or make you sad.)

And this goes out to the person I'm pretty sure sent me that question: I'm telling ya, the snake emoticon market is wide open.


I was afraid to ask this but what's your favorite vege burger?

I understand your fear. This is a loaded question. I have been in some heated debates with other vegetarians about which veggie burger brand tastes best. Alcohol may have been involved. But still! People have strong opinions about it. For example, while I hold the reasonable opinion that anyone who likes Dr. Praeger's burgers should go on an EatPrayLove-style retreat to think hard about their flawed life choices, some people like them. 

All these choices of  edible  burgers and they picked Praeger's. 

All these choices of edible burgers and they picked Praeger's. 

We can only conjecture what that says about their taste in general. Favorite movie? The Room. Favorite color? Taupe. Favorite band? None! They prefer the sound of single raindrops plinking into a metal bowl. Over and over and over and over…

But I digress.

Regardless of brand, black bean burgers get the most love from vegetarians I know. I was always a fan of those MorningStar Farms black bean burgers until they changed the recipe and made them all…leathery. And we all know that the best burgers are the ones you make at home from fresh ingredients. So one day I thought, "How hard can it be to make those from scratch?" I was on a cleanse at the time, so I went with a super-healthy recipe: Spicy Black Bean Burgers  I was excited to make them, because I had just purchased a new immersion blender and wanted to try it out.

[sustained screaming offscreen  ]

[sustained screaming offscreen]

Long story short, I learned that you should always check to make sure the blender is unplugged before cleaning the blades and that redheads have an unusually high tolerance for local anesthetics. (EXTREMELY GRAPHIC picture of my injury here for those who like gore.) When I think of homemade veggie burgers now, I think of human blood. And pain. 

So, uh…I guess any kind of store-bought veggie burger is fine.

Made from vegetarian cows on Abbatoir Road.

Made from vegetarian cows on Abbatoir Road.

Spit or swallow? (on the topic of wine-tasting, of course)

Okay, ordinarily I don't answer questions like this because of the whole double-entendre thing. I shake my once-mutilated finger in the face of the naughty person who asked this. Tsk! But as a former bartender, I have strong feelings about wasting alcohol, so let me say this: give me wine and I will drink it. Feel free to send me bottles of good wine so that I can demonstrate my willingness to drink it.

In conclusion

So there you have it. My answers to your burning (har har) questions about cooking. Although nobody asked for it, I want to offer a final piece of advice to other novice chefs: be adventurous, but don't be stupid. Whatever the recipe, odds are you can find a better version of it at a nearby restaurant or online. Or one of your more talented, generous friends who love you—don't they love you? Prove it.—can make the dish for you. Experimentation is fun, but know your limits. After all, we've only got ten fingers.

Click the pic and know you're not alone.

Click the pic and know you're not alone.

Twitter user NeoNugget suggested a brilliant title for my cookbook. I might have to make this happen now.

Ask Anna #8: What Writing Program Should I Use for Scripts?

A short one, but I think it'll be useful.

i saw ur game script u posted in game writers group

am using ms-word to write my game story, i want to know if there are any other writing package that will b better for game writing than microsoft word package thanx..........

I know many writers who use Word and get along fine with it. They use the style presets for script formatting. Game studios usually have proprietary software that you'll only have access to once you're hired, and you likely won't know ahead of time what it is. Or have access to it. If you want a tool that automatically formats text into a script, you could try Final Draft or Scrivener. I use Scrivener, because it combines a bunch of other programs into one. But it's $40., so maybe stick with Word if you're on a budget. 


Brianna Wu responded to my post with her recommendation:

Brianna's right. It's a beautiful UI. In fact, it's much cleaner than anything I've ever seen in a game studio. I'm afraid it might spoil writers for the real thing.

Ask Anna #7: What About You, Anna?

A student and Guild Wars 2 fan asked several ArenaNet devs to answer some questions about game development for a project he's working on. I thought it would be easiest to treat the questions as one Ask Anna post. So here it is:


What is your position?

I write for video games. That makes me a writer, a game writer, a scriptwriter, or a narrative designer, depending on where I’m working. I was a writer at ArenaNet, a narrative designer at Airtight Games, and now I’m a scriptwriter for Ubisoft. The work involved is all very similar, though, no matter what my title.

Artwork by  Shelldragon

Artwork by Shelldragon

How long have you worked for ArenaNet and how long in the gaming industry?

I started work in the games industry in 2004, which—wow, I just realized that means I’ve been working in games for ten years now. How did that happen? I must be crazy. I worked at Arena Net for almost three years while Guild Wars 2 was in development. After the game was released, I left for another project with Airtight Games/Square Enix. Then Ubisoft. And now I'm working on a personal project.


What has been your greatest challenge? What is the most challenging part of your job?

I've had some personal challenges that stem from being a woman in tech. Our industry is starting to grow up and become more welcoming to women, but the road here has been…rough.  Sexual harassment, biased reward systems, stolen credit—I've had trouble with all these things. Fortunately, the games industry is home to some wonderful people, too, and they've supported me through all of it. I think the main reason I've lasted this long in the industry is because of the amazing, creative people it attracts.

Every writer I know uses this system.

Every writer I know uses this system.

As for the work itself, the hardest part for me is letting go. Games are an iterative process. You can spend months creating solid content, with writing that sparkles and characters you love, and then come in to work one day and learn it’s all being scrapped. The game concept has changed, or there’s no budget for your missions, or it simply doesn't work. Letting go of what you've created and buying in to the new direction is difficult. But that’s the nature of game development. Games are collaborative and iterative. You simply don’t have the same amount of control over your work in games as you would over a novel or a screenplay of your own. That’s not a bad thing. Collaborating with creative people who feed off each other’s ideas can elevate your work, making it better and more imaginative than anything you could have realized alone. But to get there, you have to relinquish control and embrace a communal process. And that’s the hardest part for me.


Best advice when attempting to become a game developer?

Cultivate patience. Seriously. Games are a competitive industry. It’s hard to get that first break. Be patient, keep trying, keep building your resume with related work or content, network your butt off, and you’ll make it. I wrote an FAQ for game writers that has a lot of general industry advice it. You should check it out.

Shameless self-promotion also helps.

Shameless self-promotion also helps.

 What made you want to get into gaming/gaming industry?

I've always played video games, but I never thought of myself as a gamer until recently. I'm a writer. It never crossed my mind that there was a place for someone like me in the industry. Even when I played games like Myst, which drew clear parallels between game worlds and literature, it never occurred to me that I could be part of that. 

Myst wasn't exactly subtle about the link between games and literature. ( source )

Myst wasn't exactly subtle about the link between games and literature. (source)

In 2003, I was bartending. I enjoyed the work, but the service industry will burn you out right quick. Looking at my future, I wanted more for myself than slinging drinks until I was old and bitter. I tried to imagine what else would make me happy. What work could I stand to do every day for the next forty years or so? And making games popped to mind. I didn’t even know for sure that “game writer” was a real job. When I told people I wanted to write video games, they looked at me doubtfully and said, “I think you mean design them.” Which was a fair point back then. Game writing opportunities have grown tremendously in the past decade as the industry has recognized the power of good narrative, but back then designers wrote most of the story. At some studios, they still do. But I persevered and went back to school to get the right education for my goal. I started out as a QA tester and worked my way up until I was a writer. And now I can’t imagine doing any other kind of work. I love it.


How long did you go to school for this and what degree did you get/pursue?

My college career is not typical, so I don’t want to hold it up as an example. I was in school for seven years at three colleges, and I’ll be paying off those student loans until time ends. I don’t want to encourage others to take that path. You don’t need a fancy degree to get a game writing job. You need to know how to write. Definitely get your BA. Get an MA if you want, but it’s not a requirement. Read. Write. Get your writing out on the web where people can see it. Play games. But don’t think education is the magic wand that will open all doors for you. You’ll submit samples or take a test (sometimes both) for most jobs, so what you can do is the most important thing.


What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The fans, the fans, the fans. There are few media forms that allow you to experience your creation along with your audience the way games do. When we opened the gates to Shaemoor Village in Guild Wars 2 for the first demo, and players rushed in to the world we’d created and started interacting with it…wow. It was one of the high points of my career so far.  Seeing players react to dialog, comment on it in chat, write about it on the forums…amazing. And getting to play along with them in an event I had written? To watch as they experienced a moment I’d hand-crafted for them? It doesn't get better than that for me.

A typical fan letter.

A typical fan letter.

 What is a typical day like?

Well, it varies a lot, depending on where I am in the production process. My typical day could involve brainstorming missions for a map or talking to designers and artists about how best to realize a story element. I could be writing a script for the mission. Painstakingly tweaking UI text. Entering VO lines into a spreadsheet. (Game writers spend more time in spreadsheets than people realize.) Or I could be gathering feedback from a playtest. Or mapping dialog trees. Or I could be in the recording studio with our VO talent, explaining the story to help them deliver their best performances. Or I could spend the entire day in a meeting to debate a tricky story element. Even the smallest details take time. It took the writing team two hours to name Tequatl. And it took weeks to name Ronan O’Connor. But, then again, I once rewrote an entire AAA-game script in under a week. (I don’t recommend this.) You never know what details will need your attention on any given day. Variety makes the job more interesting to me, but I see how it could drive some people crazy. I get bored with routines, so I like the kaleidoscopic nature of game development schedules.

I might also spend a little time on Twitter, talking to fans. It's been known to happen.

The Murdered writing team reenacts the game's explosive introductory fight scene. All in a day's work.

 What attributes does someone need to have in order to be really successful in this field?

Patience. Persistence. Passion. You spend most of your time doing un-fun tasks. Updating docs and spreadsheets. Writing UI text and objectives. Revising and revising and revising. If you can’t look past the day-to-day drudgery of the job and see the grand vision, you’ll be miserable. You have to love games. Obviously, creativity and a good work ethic are also critical.

Knowing when not to panic is also good. This was an actual entry on our assignment whiteboard.

Knowing when not to panic is also good. This was an actual entry on our assignment whiteboard.

 What is your favorite aspect/thing/event/whatever about Guild Wars 2?

Funny, I was just talking about this the other day. What I like as a writer is different from what I like as a player. As a writer, I enjoy the more challenging assignments. Like the skritt. Because the skritt have a hive mind, their intelligence level varies depending upon how many of them are together. When you’re writing a skritt character, you always have to be conscious of where they are in relation to other groups of skritt in the game. There’s an event I wrote where the player encounters a lone skritt in a remote village. The creature begs for help, and the player accompanies it back to a major scratch (skritt village). So the skritt starts off pretty stupid when you first meet it, but gradually grows in intelligence as you draw closer to the scratch. Soon, it’s so smart that it almost doesn’t need your help anymore. Trying to convey that mental transformation convincingly, while keeping the skritt in character was not an easy task. But it was a lot of fun to imagine and to write.

My favorite element of GW2 as a player is the sheer beauty of the world. One of my favorite things to do as a player is just walk around, drinking in the sights. I like standing on the clifftop by the treehouse in Shaemoor and watching the sun set. Or watching The Grove glow in the twilight. Or finding little hidden details, like a cat stretching on a bed in the mill. Or a conversation in a far corner of the world that only happens at a certain time of day. It’s a gorgeous game, a real labor of love, and I enjoy seeing the personal touches that everyone folded in as we were making it. Seeing how everybody’s ideas come together to create a living, breathing world—that’s what making games is all about, for me.

A fan made video about how pretty the world is. 

Some timelapse video of the living world. Breathtaking.


Ask Anna #4: How Do You Set Up Characters?

Q: I've been thinking about character development a lot recently and was curious about your thoughts on the subject. How do you go about setting up your character? how do you infuse them with particular traits and ideals? 

A: Oh, wow. I could talk all day and not fully answer this question. So today I'll talk about initial character setup, and follow up in the future with a discussion of character evolution.

I have two different approaches to character creation, depending on what stage of the creation process I'm at. With gamewriting, you're often asked to flesh out a mission or story that was started by somebody else. For example, on Guild Wars 2, the designers would often create events and then hand them off to the writers. So you'd be given something like this:

Three Pact soldiers are holding a waypoint against waves of Risen troops. If they fail, the waypoint is overrun by enemies and the soldiers return to starting base. If they succeed, they secure the waypoint and players can progress along the road to the next event series.

So you have a basic plot for how this event will play out. You also have a lot of larger concerns to consider: What's the mood of the map? What's appropriate behavior for this stage of the story? How much room for individuality is there? And of course, you have game considerations, too: What race should the soldiers be? What professions? What gender? Does it matter? What can I gain or lose with each of these choices? How much information do I have to relay? What will make it more interesting? Most of all, how can I make players care?

This is the point where I start building individual stories into the event. For example, maybe one of the soldiers is on her first mission. She's trying hard to be brave in front of her comrades, but she's not quite sure what she's doing and is terrified of letting them down.  Maybe her comrades know this. Maybe one of them is trying to give her advice without being obvious about it. Maybe another soldier is sick to death of fighting and wants to go home. Maybe all three are on their last legs. I try to think of as many possibilities for these soldiers as I can. I consider all the combinations of these roles and how they will play out during the mission. Then I check them all with an eye for cliches and tropes. How many times have I seen this particular dynamic before? Is the green soldier just another "Kansas"-type? Does the relationship between them all feel tired, overdone? Is there any way to twist the tropes to make them fresh? Most important of all, does using a cliche here help in any way? Sometimes if an event is extremely complex or filled with unique lore elements, known character types can help ground the player. They provide a familiar framework into which the novel ideas and lore fit. An example of this is GW2's sylvari race. Their alien appearance and unusual story are rooted in Arthurian legends. The familiar and unfamiliar intertwined.

Once I know what my characters are, I work on who they are. The newbie soldier, for example, could express herself in a variety of ways. Some people show fear through fidgeting. Some are vocal. Some are paralyzed. What would she say? How would the others react? The conversation starts to form in my mind. 

Once I have the basic character interactions down, I check them for two key points: information and entertainment. Am I conveying all the information the player needs to complete this mission and progress in the game? Am I conveying it in an interesting way? If I've done my job well, players care about what's at stake for the individual characters and want to help them win. Success!

However, this process is different if you're writing on a higher narrative level. When I am at an early stage of writing and still structuring the narrative. I write up a quick bio for essential characters. It contains basic information about their background, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, and how those traits might affect the story I'm trying to tell. For example, here are two NPC sketches for Murdered: Soul Suspect.

murdered there was a witness.JPG

Themes: Rebirth and Redemption

Story Needs: Characters with some kind of vested interest in Ronan's death. They pursue the case through physical evidence and traditional methods as a foil to Ronan's supernatural research methods. One of them has interactions with Ronan that act as exposition for puzzles and solutions. One provides a source of conflict/obstacles to the investigation.


Detective assigned to Ronan's case. Early forties. Fit. A giant of a man, towering over everybody, impactful presence. NOT a gentle giant. He’s used to people judging him for his brawn, not his brains, and uses that to his advantage. Smart, but not book smart. Amicably divorced, but he still thinks romantically about his ex-wife. He’s been (work) partners with Rachel for two years.

Tom’s recently begun to question the work he’s doing. He joined the force to make a difference, but doesn’t feel like he does. He has strong ideals; there’s a way he thinks the world should be, but he’s seen enough to know that it’s not actually that way. He’s losing faith: “The bad guys are winning.” His doubts have affected his job performance; he’s been passed over for promotions. He often sticks Rachel with the drudgery of the investigation while he hares off after leads. The “leads” usually involve liquor, but Tom doesn’t have a drinking problem. Not yet. But Rachel is getting fed up.

With Ronan’s death, Tom finds his passion again. The investigation becomes his lifeline—his redemption—and he starts caring too much. His need to make things right with this investigation leads him into some ethical gray areas. He’s essentially a good guy, but he’s the kind of guy willing to do wrong if it’s for the right reasons. This makes him fight with Rachel.

His persistence with the case helps provide Ronan with vital clues when things would otherwise stall. By the end of the game, Tom must come to terms with his own inner darkness and moral ambiguity. He is “reborn,” becomes a whole man. He is able to make peace with his choices—personally and professionally. He’s able to get over his ex-wife and to accept more responsibility at work.

 Personality beats: Dogged. Idealistic. Conflicted. Passionate.



Detective assigned to Ronan's case. Thirties. Average height, but seems tiny next to Tom. Ponytail. Two kids. Husband teaches high-school. His mom babysits the kids while they work, which causes great stress and guilt for Rachel. She’s bright, with a good sense of humor. Rachel became a cop because she loves solving puzzles, loves the details of the investigation. She can’t imagine any other career.

Rachel is objectively interested in Ronan’s case because of the challenge, but has no personal stake in it. She argues with Tom about his passion for the case and tries to talk him down from what she sees as an unhealthy and unproductive obsession. She ends up obstructing Tom’s investigation, and they have a falling out. She acts out of concern for him, though, and eventually that same concern brings her around to his point of view. She must choose whether or not to reveal some key evidence. Her decision to trust her partner and his instincts is a critical point in the storyline. The investigation would never reach its conclusion without her decision.

By the end of the game, she’s become more personally involved with the case—something she has always been afraid to do before. She’s always kept the victims at arm’s length and focused on the nuts and bolts of the investigation. Eventually, Rachel must confront the emotions she has suppressed about the cases she has handled and about her choices in life. She is able to let go of her guilt in both areas. Her willingness to give more of herself makes her a better cop. Her openness helps bring her family together, too, so they can start healing.

 Personality beats: Guarded. Pragmatic. Efficient. Compassionate.


These rough outlines were never refined and never made it into the game, but you can see how they worked with the narrative themes and how they would affect (and be affected by) certain plot points. A character sketch like this is a jumping-off place. Many more traits will be added or changed as the story (or feedback) dictates.

One final note: I think it's fun to throw in unexpected details about the character, but they should be relevant. I know a designer who wrote up pointlessly elaborate bios for all his NPCS. Here's one: "Born in Shanghai to a prostitute mother. Inveterate gambler. Hates dogs. Speaks 7 languages." The NPC's role? Only one line: "Bad idea." None of that backstory is put to use. It's a waste.

The most important thing to remember when creating characters is that they need to be purposeful. They must serve the narrative in some way. Maybe they drive the plot forward; maybe they entertain during a low-point in the action. Maybe they help the game world feel more alive or provide background lore. Your characters drive your story. 

Next time I'll talk about how to develop characters and what to do when they start conflicting with your narrative.

Ask Anna #3: How About Those Skimpy Lady-costumes?

Q: How can you talk about feminism when you worked on a Playboy game? And Guild Wars has skimpy girl costumes!

A: You know how some people have a disclaimer on their Twitter accounts? Like these:

twitter opinion1.JPG
twitter opinion2.JPG
twitter opinion3.JPG
twitter opinion4.JPG

They're not making disclaimers to imply that they have controversial opinions (necessarily). They're being upfront about their opinions varying from those of their employers. And possibly cats. It surprises me that I need to say this, but here goes: game companies are not hive minds. People from all walks of life come together to work on games. I have worked with people from all over the world, with wildly different political views and personal tastes. I have worked with people who think female game characters should wear clothes appropriate for their roles, and with people who think women should wear as little as possible whenever possible. ("If a mission isn't working right, throw in a half-naked girl and nobody will notice."—a designer I know.) I've worked with people who think it's cool to sexualize little girls. I've worked with Republicans and Anarchists. With alcoholics and AA members. With people who will actually put snickerdoodles in their mouths. Everybody contributes to the game; everybody leaves their mark on it. But the game has its own set of principles and aesthetics that are independent of what each individual wants. The vision for the game comes from the creators: the worldbuilders, the loremasters, the lead designers. Their task is to keep all these individual creative minds pointed in the direction of their vision for the game. A good lead designer or world-builder finds ways to incorporate individual ideas into the overarching vision. A bad one micromanages every detail into frustrating sterility.

Games are about compromise. I have worked on many games that didn't align with my personal philosophies. In those cases, it was my job to understand the creative director's vision and help them realize it. Wherever possible, I made a case for changing elements that I considered problematic, but stood down immediately if the director felt it was important. Many people don't realize how much a game changes during development. How many battles for features or content are waged silently behind the scenes. When a project begins, it's pure possibility, and you think optimistically of all the wonderful innovations you're going to include. Then the game falls behind schedule, or the budget dries up, or the vision drastically alters, and suddenly you're trimming features, cutting corners, and scrambling to get even half of the content in that you'd hoped to have. Making games can be a process of letting go. Sometimes this process is healthy: streamlining features down to the essential and integral. Sometimes it's wrenching: cutting a character or gutting a storyline you love because there's no time or resources for it. You have to be willing to let go and keep your eye on the greater vision.

So, to answer the question, the project has nothing to do with my personal views. It might surprise you to learn that I'm not philosophically opposed to the Playboy game. I'm not anti-sexy, by any means, but I have strong opinions about appropriateness and choice. That's not the question being asked here, though. As for Guild Wars 2, there was a hard-fought war behind the scenes at ArenaNet to make sure that players were getting what they wanted. We wanted them to have enough options that everyone could find comfortable armor. We wanted players to start out with a neutral look. We wanted faces that could be customized for any race or age. We lobbied hard for those features. At the end of the day, though, all those decisions were made by the creative director and the character design teams. And it's up to individual players to decide if they were the right decisions or not. I'm flattered that people think I have enough influence on these project teams to dictate elements like character models, but the truth is I don't. Perhaps someday. Some glorious, despotic day.

Ask Anna #2: Why Are You Slacking on the Q&A?

Sorry, guys. I admit I've been slacking and have not answered a question every weekend as I said I would. I apologize. Between GGC13 and trying to finish things up at work, I haven't had a lot of time for writing fun stuff.  

(Yet I somehow found time to make a new Twitter banner…)

sloth twitter profile.JPG

My last day at work is this coming Thursday. After that, I'll scribble away furiously all November, documenting my descent into molepersondom. I promise I'll answer a bunch of questions then. STAY TUNED.

Ask Anna #1: Can I Have a Dollar?

This first Ask Anna is a quick one. I've been fielding questions about my hiatus all day, so I'm almost answer-ed out.  The questions were:

  • Can I have a dollar?
  • Wait, why does HE get a dollar? 
  • Can I also have the dollar you would have given to Matthew?

The answers are:

  • YES. You can have a dollar. But the processing fee for that dollar is five dollars. 
  • Because he's special. But you can have one, too.
  • Yes, for an additional two-dollar conversion fee.

By my calculations, I just made ten dollars by answering a few questions. And you guys were worried that I couldn't afford to take the time off.  ^^  

Ask Anna—Coming Soon!

I've decided this is a good place to answer the questions that people ask me—and to passive-aggressively respond to my critics in the comments sections of various sites. If you have any questions, especially about games, gamewriting, or diversity, please submit them through this site or Twitter. I'll pick one or two to answer each weekend. And…let's keep this clean, okay?

Josh: You can see the questions here. ;) 

Submissions so far:

  • How can you talk about feminism when you worked on a Playboy game? And Guild Wars has skimpy girl costumes!

  • When writing for games, what kind of things do you take inspiration from? How much of those really shape your work? I mean, how many of those are highly-influential on your writing?

  • What is a "game"?

  • No cooking advice I assume? :p

  • You've tweeted a lot about how GTAV isn't as satirical as people think it is. What would a satirical GTA look like from your PoV?

  • Can I have your pancake recipe?

  • If we make the "feminist" changes you want to video games, aren't they just going to be sexist toward men?

  • Don't you know that girls like shooters too? Stop trying to speak for all women.

  • How do you turn the litmus paper blue?

  • Can I have a dollar?

  • Wait, why does HE get a dollar? 

  • Can I also have the dollar you would have given to Matthew?

  • I've been thinking about character development a lot recently and was curious about your thoughts on the subject. How do you go about setting up your character? how do you infuse them with particular traits and ideals? 

  • [Thinking about what happened with GTA V], how far do you think it is acceptable to go in the search for a more equal 'playing field'? Surely forcing [creators] to do something they aren't ready to do would create something hated across the board, and slammed for portraying the gender wrongly?

  • Well, now I'm curious. What is your favorite color?

  • What IS your favorite color?

  • Spit or swallow? (on the topic of wine-tasting, of course)

  • What is your favorite food ?

  • Who is your all-time favorite k-pop band?

  • Bonus points for naming her kpop bias?

  • I just enjoy zoning into Malchor's Leap and hearing this anguished "DWAYNA" across the zone. =3 Did you also work on the skill challenge up above the event location where the Sylvari is talking about Malchor?

  • I was afraid to ask this but what's your favorite vege burger?

  • Have you tried cooking a snake yet? I hear they are capable of breaking hexes if prepared correctly.

  • What was your all-time most awkward bus commute moment?

  • Who is your favorite bus commute buddy?

  • What do you have against GTA? It's not for you, so get over yourself and let gamers enjoy it. 

  • Kirk or Picard?

  • Or Janeway? She's got the coffee.

  • What do you do all day besides tweet?

  • How can you love K-Pop when J-Pop is so obviously superior? 

  • Also, when will there be a Hudson Hawk 2?

  • Who is your favorite minion?