In a galaxy far, far away: An interview with @Joanna_Berry from 2012

Republished from the Games Britannia 2012 newspaper:

Jo Berry (@Joanna_Berry)  is a former student at Sheffield Hallam University and works at Bioware in Austin, Texas, as a writer on Star Wars: The Old Republic – a massively multiplayer game with over a million players worldwide.

Jo studied a postgraduate course in creative writing, graduating in 2008. She recently returned to Sheffield to give an insight into her career at a public master class at the University.

Why did you choose creative writing? I was ready to do a second degree and was considering several options, including an English PhD. But I’d already studied English literature as part of my BA and I didn’t want to teach, so I didn’t think a PhD would take me where I wanted to go. I knew that I wanted to write as a career, so I decided to stay focused on that goal. A creative writing degree seemed like the best course – as it were.

Were you always interested in games/interactive fiction? I’ve been interested in games since I was small. Actually, at first, my older brother was the gamer (I think we started with an Amiga 500) and I’d sit and watch as he played games like Shadow of the Beast and Blood Money. I was an avid reader but I was fascinated by what computer games could do that books couldn’t. Later I came to enjoy Jackson and Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books, because they were a happy medium: a story that involved me in how it unfolded.

Did you make a decision at any point that you wanted to write for games? What steps did you take? I think my interest in writing for games first came from playing point-and-click adventure games like Zork: Nemesis and The Longest Journey. It wasn’t the writing specifically that drew me at first – it was the idea of creating an actual world that you could explore, and characters and puzzles that you could interact with. One of the clinching moments came when I played Mass Effect – the kind of epic space adventure I’d always wanted to have as a huge science fiction fan. I was standing on Luna in-game, looking up, and I suddenly saw Earth overhead. Going into space has always been a dream of mine, and this was a taste of it, which was surprisingly effective and affecting. I decided that this was something I wanted to make. I was still finishing my MA at the time, and I was looking at game companies known for their narrative and characters. When I saw soon after that BioWare was looking for writers, I jumped in and applied.

How different is writing for games compared to writing for film and TV? What challenges are there? The challenges of game writing match its strengths. Interacting with a world and its people are incredible experiences for players, but challenging to manage for developers precisely because the player has so much control. The story can’t ignore the game mechanics: having a player threatened by a couple of guards and thrown in a dungeon, for example, becomes ridiculous if the player is a mighty warrior who killed a dozen monsters just minutes before. Equally, you don’t want to hamstring the player’s fun just because it impacts your story. You have to strike a balance between the player’s willingness to go along with the story, and their desire to make their own choices and react to the world you’ve created in their own way.

How diverse is the videogames industry now? It has a very male-focused image – is this something you’ve seen change at all? Science and technology industries in general are perceived as having a male-focused image, but there have been prominent female developers in the game industry for years: Amy Hennig (writer-director of the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted games), Rhianna Pratchett (writer on Overlord and Mirror’s Edge), Jade Raymond (producer on the Assassin’s Creed series), Jane Jensen (creator of the Gabriel Knight games) to name just a few.

How do you see your career panning out? Do you want to do anything other than games script-writing? I still write in my own time outside of work. It’s been fascinating to see how writing for games, and learning from the rest of the team here, has improved how I approach my own writing, even down to basic planning and character development. In the future I’d definitely be interested in publishing novels or short stories, but for now there’s still plenty for me to learn as a games writer.


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