When it comes to video games, the art of storytelling comes with its own special set of subtleties and refinements.
The voice of the narrator is often completely lost in this very particular mode of self-expression, and the gamer is at times left to fill in the blank spaces themselves.
For Adrienne Law, Writer and Narrative Designer at INT./NIGHT, and BAFTA Breakthrough UK 2018 finalist, playing video games is all about having an immersive experience. Every title that she has worked on so far, creates this special sense of nostalgia and familiarity which makes the players try and fill up the blank spaces with their own voices.
In an exclusive interview with Abhishek Mallick of Sportskeeda Esports, Adrienne opens up about the hurdles of storytelling in video games, and how broadening one’s creative influences is necessary in creating an immersive narrative.
Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
Q. Ma’am, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? What got you into video game production, and how has your journey been in the industry so far?
Adrienne Law: I ended up in video games almost by chance. I'd always played games growing up and into adulthood, but was mostly unaware of how they were made, and assumed that they all came from the USA or Japan. It was actually while looking for production work in film and TV that I stumbled across an entry level role at Ustwo Games, which was my first step into the industry.
I'd always ultimately been drawn to stories and storytelling, in just about any medium, and in games I found an amazing blend of technical and creative challenge in figuring out how to communicate those stories with an audience. I was hooked.
My career so far has been a whirlwind, to say the least. Having started out in production, I ended up becoming more creatively involved in Assemble with Care as a writer, and have now made the transition over to being a Narrative Designer and Writer with Interior Night. So already in six years I've worked in three different disciplines!
Q. Your tenure with Ustwo games saw you play a major part in the production of Monument Valley 2 and Assemble with Care, with the former being your very first gig as a producer with the studio. What were some of the things you were expected to do at the time? What role did you play in bringing Monument Valley 2 to life?
Adrienne Law: Monument Valley 2 was a high-stakes project in many ways. Not only was it the follow-up to a commercial and creative hit, but we were also dealing with big changes internally as the games team formally became its own company, and the creative team expanded.
For me, stepping up as the main producer on the project, this meant taking on as much as possible to do with the day-to-day management of the project. Mapping out work with the team, planning for milestones, reacting to changes in the schedule, handling logistics for outsourced work, and providing a practical point of contact for the various marketing and platform releases.
I was also able to help outline the narrative aspects of the game along with the Lead Designer and Lead Artist, and as the level design tools were so intuitive, I even managed to contribute some mechanics aspects for one of the levels as well.
Q. The Monument Valley series was primarily focused on elegance, design, and artistry, which provided a meaningful narrative experience to mobile gamers. And though both games were thematically quite similar in evoking emotions, the second title departs in terms of gameplay by introducing a mother-daughter duo. What were some of the thought processes that went behind this new gameplay aspect?
Adrienne Law: Relatively early on, we felt that the storytelling was a new and interesting creative angle to explore in the sequel. We explored lots of different angles for what that story might be, and initially were drawn to the idea of a collection of short stories, rather than a single narrative. These included ideas based around both single and multiple-character levels, and themes such as a young person's search for an identity, or the reunion of two lovers. And, of course, a mother and child.
As we refined the game's vision and became more practical about its scope, we decided to unify the narrative around a single set of characters. The characters of the mother and child stood out to all of us. Theirs was the story we most wanted to tell, and the two player mechanic not only allowed us to represent this bond between a mother and child, but it also meant that the single character sections (where mother and child are separated) gained a whole new significance.
Once we knew this, we could design levels around the narrative, reusing and adapting levels from our earlier development, and creating new puzzles and ideas to fill the gaps when needed. Story informed gameplay, and gameplay informed story, until we had the shape of the whole game. Then, we polished!
Q. Assemble with Care is often praised for its accessibility. It is a title that evokes nostalgic sensibilities and gameplay, which follows a traveling repair woman who arrives in a small town and sets about repairing not only people’s things but their personal relationships as well. Creating an immersive experience in Assemble with Care must have been a herculean task. Can you shed some light on some of the biggest hurdles you faced during its production?
Adrienne Law: We knew from the outset that we wanted to try and take Assemble with Care from prototype to release in a maximum of 18 months, so throughout development we were having to carefully balance our creative ambitions for the project with a realistic scope. This often meant we had to be prepared to pivot quickly and carefully if elements of the game weren't working, or fell out of scope.
For example, an earlier iteration of the game's narrative intended the interactions with characters to be far more conversational, and to take place during the act of repairing the objects. However testing showed us that players weren't able to split their attention between the game's mechanics and story, and still follow the story clearly. So we instead focused our narrative content into the 'bookends' that begin and end each chapter, and only included mid-level storytelling that involved the objects directly, or was ultimately incidental. While it was initially disappointing not to continue with that conversational style, it was this pivot that led us towards the game's cosy, picturebook-meets-radio-drama atmosphere, something that became one of the game's biggest selling points. So it worked out for the best!
Technically, the biggest challenge for us was launching the game on multiple platforms simultaneously. Being a launch title for Apple Arcade was incredibly exciting, but meant that we could no longer simply consider the game simply as 'mobile-first'. We had to take a step back and consider how that dedication to accessibility transferred to Apple TV and Mac, which took a lot of effort and refinement from the code team. A lot of time was spent refining the mechanics of the Apple TV remote, even down to the difference between trackpad and mouse-based inputs.
Added on top was the fact that the game also needed to be adapted to landscape, when it was originally intended to be portrait. But thanks to a fantastic effort by the whole team, I think we pulled it off.
Q. Your latest project, As Dusk Falls, with INTERIOR/NIGHT, promises a very immersive narrative experience that “explores the entangled lives of two families across thirty years.” What were some of the influences and ideas going behind this? And as the game is set to release for the PC and XBOX, what prompted your sudden shift in platforms?
Adrienne Law: I joined INTERIOR/NIGHT when the project was already well underway, so the vision of the project was really something I was introduced to, and hooked on, via conversations with Caroline Marchal, the company's CEO and Creative Director.
As Dusk Falls is inspired by a love of prestige crime dramas, shows like True Detective and Fargo, and movies like No Country for Old Men. Stories like these not only capture the tension and thrill of high-stakes, life-or-death situations, but they also turn their gaze towards the fundamental humanity of their characters. They show them at their best, and their worst. They show their reactions to extreme circumstances, and their choices in the smaller, personal moments that ultimately give them real substance.
We want to bring this genre into a new medium, crafting an interactive drama that offers the excitement and intrigue of TV dramas, but in a format that both gamers and drama fans can enjoy. It's a story about family, the resilience it takes to fight for what you believe in, and how the choices of one generation can have devastating consequences for the next. These themes are really meaty to work with as a creative team, and we think it makes for a riveting interactive experience in As Dusk Falls.
With that in mind, my jump was really less to do with the shift in platform, and more to do with a change in the kind of work I wanted to do. The chance to work with Caroline, and focus on the craft of writing and design, was too good to turn down. Ultimately, my heart has always been in storytelling, so working on a narrative game which plays to the storytelling strengths of the platform was a perfect fit.
Q. You were nominated as the BAFTA Breakthrough finalist in 2018. Was the selection something you anticipated?
Adrienne Law: It was certainly something I'd hoped for! I was pushed to apply by my boss (and friend) at Ustwo Games, Dan Gray, who'd himself been a part of the scheme a few years earlier. He'd been my production mentor throughout Monument Valley 2, and felt I would get a lot out of the scheme. When I found out I'd been selected, I was ecstatic. It was an incredible year, where I met some amazing mentors and creative experts who I never would have been introduced to otherwise.
One of these mentors was Caroline Marchal, and after my writing experience on Assemble with Care, she invited me to join INTERIOR/NIGHT and make the leap into design and narrative work. Throughout the scheme I'd been trying to figure out what my longer term goals were, and how I could go about pursuing them, and in an unexpected way, it provided the answer!
Q. What word of advice will you give someone who is still starting out in the video game industry?
Adrienne Law: Learn as much as you can, and from as many people as you can. Every project throws up new challenges, and every stage of a project feels different and asks you to work in a different way, so the more open you are to learning, feedback and improvement, the quicker you'll find your feet and start to build your confidence.
It's great to have a solid frame of reference from other games, but make sure you seek out inspiration and influence from other mediums. Whether it's novels, film, theatre, museums - broadening your creative influences will help you come back to creative challenges within games and find new ways to approach them.