Some Thoughts with … Lorraine Wilson
Game developer and writer, whose work in X4: Foundations and Wolves in the Westwind are certainly remarkable. She’s also planning to self-publish some novels based in the world of Vampire: the Masquerade, so it seemed a great excuse to give a spotlight to a person that deserves it.
Today we have a special interview for this section. We are with Lorraine Wilson.
Let’s dive in!
1.- First of all, could you introduce yourself to the non-habituals here?
My name is Lorraine Wilson, but many people also know me as Lothari. I am a video game writer and narrative designer, so it’s basically my job to develop storylines and characters for video games, make sure they are engaging to the player and make sure that a game’s story matches the general tone of the game, the mechanics and the gameplay itself. I’ll also pitch in with lore and canon and help write tutorials and hint texts; help get the player as immersed into a game as they want to be.
2.- If I’m correct, your first experience in videogame design was on Egosoft’s X4 Foundations. What did you exactly do there?
My first experience was working on X4: Foundation’s predecessor, X Rebirth. I joined Egosoft after release, so first I was on post-release content and then worked on the DLCs for that game, and X4 came later. To start with, I worked solely on mission development, effectively designing and implementing quests that would be given to the player on a bulletin board so they could earn money and see more of the universe. When we started work on the first DLC, The Teladi Outpost, was when I started embedding myself more in working on lore and backstory, writing history for the player to discover and read in-game. I really enjoyed that part of the job.
For X4, I remember back then Egosoft was a really small team, so even though we all had these set roles, a lot of people ended up pitching in on a lot of things they weren’t necessarily experts in. For me that was a lot of new experiences; building the scripting systems that initiated the universe when the player started a new game, making sure the in-game economy was up and running (because a lot of the X series is about the player buying and selling products, trying to make a profit), and then balancing it. I worked a little bit on scripting non-player character animation and behaviours, I wrote many of the character voice lines, I helped balance what weapons the spaceships would have on them, and on top of all of that be building the new narrative systems we wanted to build for X4. It was a lot, at an already very stressful time in my life, but really, really good experience and mostly fun.
3.- Wolves on the Westwind was such an interesting project (and let me add, for me, a really good game). How did all of that start?
I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a very quick and strange couple of months in 2019 and 2020. I’d moved back to the UK from Germany in 2018, left Egosoft and while I was trying to find my feet again, had been trying to find my feet working in esports. Of course, that’s how we met – through Gwent. Things weren’t going very well and honestly by the end of 2019 I was thinking of either trying to go really ambitious and start my own esports company or leave the gaming industry entirely and do something else with my life.
Then, over Christmas in 2019, Michael Tisler, known in Gwent as GreenCricket, contacted me with this proposal for a text-based adventure game set in the world of a tabletop role-playing game, sold as taking the experience from the RPG group table and giving it to players as a single-player experience. He did a very good job convincing me to come on board as the writer and we started bouncing ideas around. It changed a reasonable amount since the initial pitch, but what became Wolves on the Westwind was the strongest idea we had on the table, so I started writing in… March 2020, I think. Just over two years later, we found ourselves with this great little game that everyone had poured their heart and soul into, and I’m really happy and proud of it.
4.- What challenges in the industry have you faced as a trans woman? And as a woman, how do you feel about the videogame industry being massively men catered?
I always want to answer this question with a positive first. I count myself very lucky to have worked for three game development studios that have all been really supportive of what I need and what I struggle with. Egosoft, Owned by Gravity and stillalive are all great places where I know I have a tonne of support and feel respected. Can I guarantee any other trans person that they will stumble across the same experience the way I did? Of course not, but I think it’s always important to let people know that good experiences can be found out there. We all hear horror stories about development studios being toxic work environments or gamers being a largely toxic community in and of themselves, so it is easy to become disillusioned and just want to do something else, but there are good people out there and not uncommonly. That’s really important to hold onto.
That said, I think the biggest challenge I came across was when I was trying to get into esports. My stream faced a massive bot attack on two separate occasions, I had a well-known and well-respected member of the community make… uneasy comments about the way I looked publicly on my stream. To be fair to them, they apologised when I called them out on it, which made them infinitely better than others I interacted with. It just seemed like a constant barrage of everything from complete ignorance to outright hate and abuse. Over the time I spent in content creation, I saw trans woman after trans woman drops out of Gwent because they, rightly, didn’t want to put up with it anymore. And back then I didn’t really feel like there was support. I complained, more than once, to people who should have been in a position to affect change and they chose to do nothing. In fact, later on, I spoke directly to one of Gwent’s lead developers about my experience and they told me they wanted to start dealing with issues like that in the community better, but when the next public incident occurred the word coming from inside the team was still, “We don’t want to go anywhere near this.” It felt like a betrayal. And it kind of sucks that after all the stuff that all of us who gave up went through, it might still happen to someone else because there aren’t enough people willing to help.
That kind of leads me into the second part of that question. Things are, slowly, getting better for women in the gaming industry. Studios that have had horrific environments for years and years are starting to be called out on it, we have seen that a number of times over recent years. Even if it isn’t the right people, yet, developers are starting to pay attention and work towards significant change, and as I said already there are studios out there that are amazing to work with. But it does still feel as though large parts of the industry are still catering predominantly to men, and specifically to cis, straight, white men, even though they should know by now that the audience is far more diverse than that and always has been. It can be pretty tiring at times, because, in order to get things to change, as well as do your day job, you have to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to make things better for yourself and other people. Right now, the onus is still on us, the marginalised, to make a difference, because not enough of the majority (and especially not in positions of influence and power) are pulling their weight. But no matter how tiring and how grim it seems sometimes, I still have a lot of hope that we can make things better. If I didn’t have that hope, I might struggle a lot more to keep doing the job.
5.- How does it feel to get nominated as Designer of the Year on the GameHERs Awards? How does one vote?
That’s right! I was nominated for the GameHERs Awards. The GameHERs are a great community for women and other people from marginalised communities, and allies too, inside the gaming industry. It’s a great way to find support resources and advice, a great way to connect with other people from those communities, and generally really fun!
Being nominated for Designer of the Year is really special to me. It’s vindication, really, after coming so close to leaving the entire industry behind. It feels like my hard work is starting to pay off, starting to be recognised. It is confirmation too that, though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, the gaming industry can be a really inclusive place. In another industry, in another community, I might not even have been recognised as a woman because I’m trans. Being nominated for an award recognising and celebrating women’s success is a great win not just for me personally but for intersectional feminism.
You can vote for a lot of different, very talented people right here: https://thegamehers.com/vote
6.- Coming back to Wolves on the Westwind, why did you choose that universe in concrete for that game?
As I wrote above, we knew going in that we wanted the game to feel a bit like a tabletop RPG experience, and Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) was a system we both knew and a system that has a very tightly designed universe. Though Dungeons and Dragons has a lore and a canon, people use the system with their own universes at their own table all the time. That’s the same with most systems. The Dark Eye is The Dark Eye. It might not be very well known outside of the German-speaking world but those who do know it love it, very passionately, it was a universe we could really sink our teeth into but still had lots of room for us to explore and create something new. It was really the strongest fit for what we wanted to build.
7.-To a certain extent, WotW feels like an interactive novel, a kind of choose-your-own-adventure. Was that the intention?
Absolutely! It wasn’t quite part of the original pitch but it is something Michael and I talked about very early on – taking great inspiration from the Fighting Fantasy series by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos, Starship Traveller. I loved those books growing up, though I was never very good at them! It’s a bit of a tired trope in the industry now but we really wanted the player to feel like their decisions mattered, and if they wanted to, they could track things all the way back through to the first decision they made. Those kind of experiences are the closest you get to a single-player tabletop RPG; they were exactly the kind of experience we wanted to build, while still making a fun video game too.
8.- Of all the characters, which one became your favourite and why?
There are a couple of answers to this question. I loved writing all of them, obviously, but Estrid’s story was my favourite story, which gave her a special place in my heart. Obviously what she does at the end of the game may vary, depending on what you do, but I loved writing and exploring a character who was so deeply conflicted by the expectations put on her by her own society and still chose to act within them, to a certain degree, because she felt it was the right thing to do, not because it was easy or convenient or because she was content with it but because whether she likes it or not, people depend on her and she wants to do right by them. The question in the game is how she consolidates that against what she actually wants, which is, ultimately, freedom.
I can’t answer this question without also mentioning the Elf – Darksong – though. Darksong was a challenging character for me to write because her story hit very close to home for me at points. While I was writing Wolves on the Westwind, I was still working through some very long-standing mental health issues particularly focused on things I did the past that I am not proud of, people I hurt and the way I kind of locked myself away when I realised I had hurt them. Anyone who has played Darksong’s storyline in Wolves on the Westwind probably already knows where this is going :D! A question that I have struggled with for a very long time is how free are we from our past, which is a really important theme in Wolves on the Westwind, and Darksong’s story is the incredible extreme of being held hostage by it. Her finally chapter is… not even an analogy, I don’t think, because it’s not subtle enough: It can very easily be read as her choice to end her life – at least the life she has grown to despise – because she has become too much of a monster to ever get the life she wants back while she has her current life. That is an unresolvable conflict for her. Every time I see that chapter again, I still feel how raw it is, even if it isn’t raw for anyone else, because I took it as a much-needed opportunity to vent a lot of thoughts I held to myself for a very long time.
Darksong is also my favourite character not only because I think I did her story justice in the end, but also because I am really proud of myself for finally doing something with that part of my life other than just stewing in it, you know? I have absolutely no regrets over those narrative choices, and regardless of what happens to Darksong in your playthrough(s) of Wolves on the Westwind, I hope the audience felt some of that catharsis too.
9.- Seeing your career, you had to write/create a lot. Which challenges that you faced would you say are the most difficult?
Again, there are a couple of things.
Every writer needs to learn to kill their darlings, and generally I don’t have a big problem with that anymore. For any aspiring writers out there, I can safely say it does get easier with time and experience, I promise. Having a friendly editor helps a lot. But in video games, there is another dimension to this. You’re not just writing a story, you are writing a story that is supposed to support a certain set of mechanics and technical limitations that can change incredibly quickly. Design is very fluid, as game development moves on and the different departments involved figure out what is actually possible, what is too time-consuming, and what is too expensive, if your story depends on that, you have to be able to adapt to something new, quickly, with no promise that that will work out either. And it’s not like you can wait for everything to be stable because that usually happens weeks before release. That is a challenge I still struggle with. There isn’t really a solution other than being on top of communication, being open to change and learning to think of storytelling in building blocks instead of puzzle pieces. Building blocks go together any which way (mostly, sometimes), puzzle pieces can’t be recut. It’s really hard
Secondly, you can never forget that the audience of a game is the same as the subject of the story you are telling. In most books, films, TV series there is a layer between the audience and the story and that is the characters. The audience can scream, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” to a character when that character chooses to do something that doesn’t make sense to them and that can even be a fun experience later. It’s safe because it’s happening to someone else. If a game player feels like they are being forced into a choice that doesn’t make sense or isn’t fun, there is no escaping it. Ultimately, the player needs to feel like they are in control of the story, otherwise, there’s no difference between a game and any other kind of storytelling medium. That’s hard to manage sometimes.
10.- Can you tell us some books that you would say defined you as person or that changed your life?
Life-changing books… I think it’s got to be Lord of the Rings, first and foremost. It’s the story that made me want to become a writer, not just because of the depth of the universe but because of the messages I took from it, whether or not Tolkien left them there deliberately. Fundamentally, it is a story about hope and finding strength from each other to overcome overwhelming odds. It’s about overcoming differences to fight a greater evil. It promotes kindness and gentle nature, it promotes fierce defense of what is good in the world. To me, it is emotive and powerful and I can always escape into it, no matter how I am feeling. If my mum hadn’t introduced me to Lord of the Rings (via The Hobbit – a bit easier to read as a young child), I definitely don’t think I would be the person I am today.
What also springs to mind are Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They don’t necessarily define me as a person, but they did help shape the kind of writer I wanted to be. Very strongly. I read them all as part of a Gothic Horror module I took at school and that was what started shifting me away from straight fantasy into dark fantasy and thrillers. Again, they are so moving and so powerful in the emotions they draw out of the reader that it really shaped what writing is about to me. If I don’t leave some kind of emotional impact on my reader, that’s when I usually think I can do better. I think those are three of the books that really ingrained that for me.
11.- Would you want to shout out any author that might have been an inspiration for you?
Outside of Tolkien and Mary Shelley, another author that really inspired me as a young writer was an Irish writer, Darren O’Shaughnessy – known to many as Darren Shan. He wrote two series of YA fantasy horror books, The Saga of Darren Shan and The Demonata, which blended a lot of things I really enjoy together and really inspired me to experiment with the genre as a writing toolset, rather than just categorisation.
A lot of my more recent inspiration though has actually come out of tabletop roleplaying games rather than books, and if it’s okay I would like to shout out a couple of game runners as their roles fulfill many of the same tasks as an author does.
The first is a fellow game designer currently working as the Game Design Manager for Riot’s R&D team – Steven Lumpkin (https://twitter.com/Silent0siris). He was one of the first dungeon masters I watched on a liveplay and has served as great inspiration to me not just in game design but in storytelling for most of my career. The wide variety of characters he creates, the vastness and scale of the worlds he’s created in the two live play series I have enjoyed from start to finish (RollPlay: The West Marches – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-oTJHKXHicSxKhs57c2hYuoPcayPoBJc, The Sunfall Cycle – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFx-KViPXIkEGOQDx0GQnETLmw4Fowktb), the really great way he bends systems to match the stories he wants to tell and the experience he wants to give his players… It’s incredible, and I think that if/when I can do all of that, I really would have made it.
The second is the Storyteller for LA By Night (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7atuZxmT957CplbNHCN5JAGp9SoZhyUH), Jason Carl. He a massive part of why I decided to start writing my own Vampire: The Masquerade stories because of the way in which he tells his own. He is again a storyteller with a seemingly perfect sense of how to switch things up as necessary from comedy, to drama, to action, to horror and thriller. His pacing. His characterisation. I genuinely think a lot of writers could learn a lot from watching TTRPG live plays because of the element of improvisation it brings to storytelling and how that relates to letting a story write itself and not planning everything out beforehand, and I really think that Jason Carl embodies that skill really, really well.
12.- Outside of video games, you’ve also written fair a bit. What could you tell us about it?
I have written a fair bit. I started writing stories when I was very small and never really stopped. Before I started transitioning, I did publish a book. I am not going to go into it too much because it wasn’t very good and I should have done a lot better, even then, but it’s important to note because ever since I have had aspirations of publishing again and doing a better job this time.
In that vein, I am currently working on the first book in what I hope will be a series set in World of Darkness’ Vampire: The Masquerade. Last October was the company’s 30th anniversary and to celebrate, every day of the month they released a creative prompt. I decided to write a piece of short fiction every day, which was… certainly a challenge, but it was so much fun that after the month ended I kept going. By the end of the year I had a series of very short stories that were starting to build into a much bigger narrative so I decided, you know what? This is as good a time as any! In January I started working towards filling in some of the gaps and turning them into something comprehensible. I finished the first version of the manuscript in July and now I am editing and adjusting to flesh it out after some issues were raised in the beta reading.
Tell you what, working in the gaming industry – getting used to working with alphas and betas, early access, and post-release – turns out it is really good exercise for how to produce and iterate over a book. I am way more confident and way less nervous about edits and rewrites and new versions now then I was when I tried to do this at 18
13.- Why did you choose that concrete universe?
Short answer: I love vampires. I love the mythology behind them, I love exploring the stories about addiction and the corrupting power of power and holding onto humanity. About what it means to be human. I loved Dracula, I love the character of Mina Harker. I just feel like I can explore everything I have ever wanted to explore with vampires.
Vampire: the Masquerade itself though. Funnily enough, when I first came across it, I wasn’t a massive fan. I was going to try out an older edition of the tabletop RPG with some friends I met through Gwent, took one look at the rulebook and didn’t quite get what it was trying to do. I didn’t really see a good entry point and that made it difficult for me to get into it. I tried VtM Bloodlines, which has always been lauded as such a good game, and did not enjoy some of the creative decisions that were made. I just thought: Maybe not these vampires.
But early last year, somehow, and I don’t even remember how anymore, I got drawn into watching LA By Night, which is a VtM liveplay on YouTube whose Storyteller (like a dungeon master, but for VtM) works on the game, and which was using the latest edition of the rules which had just come out when the liveplay started. It was not only so well acted by every single member of the cast, the storyteller, and all the guests over the years that it inspired me as someone who considers herself, chiefly, a thriller writer, but also made the rules of the game so much clearer to me that suddenly everything made sense. I fell in love with it. I bought all the rulebooks, I started diving deep into the lore and the history, and I played some of the more recent games, which were amazing. And when that October 2021 came around and those creative prompts came up, I thought to myself… why not? I get it now. I could give it a go. Now, it seems I’m committed
14.- What can we expect from Lorraine Wilson in the future?
Well, a lot, hopefully! I am working on two video games at the moment. The first is with an awesome studio called Owned By Gravity, helping them make SpellForce: Conquest of Eo with THQ Nordic. That is a turn-based strategy game, which is unlike anything else I have ever done and has been very challenging. I hope that we’ve been able to breathe a lot of life into the world and characters that the fans know and love and am excited for them to explore that when it comes out.
I am also working with another awesome studio called Stillalive studios. You may know them as the company behind Bus Simulator, but that’s not what I’m working on. In May they announced they were developing a game called Garden Life with Nacon. It’s a gardening sandbox game that I am the Narrative Designer for and, though it might not seem like much of a game for storytelling, I hope people will be pleasantly surprised by what they find…
That doesn’t leave a lot of creative energy for my own project, I admit, but I am continuing to work hard on my VtM stories and I hope that early next year I will be in a position to release the first book of… a number. But that is very loose. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself because, first and foremost, writing should be fun. If it’s not fun for you, chances are it won’t be fun for anyone else.
After that… honestly, I don’t know. I do feel like I have unfinished business with esports, but right now I am really loving what I am doing. Considering where I was in 2019, that is a massive win for me. I’ll keep doing what I am doing for as long as I still find joy in it.
From our side, we can only thank Lorraine Wilson for taking the time to answer all these questions, allowing us to make some really incisive ones, touching themes that could have been really difficult. Again, in case you haven’t done it, you can follow her on Twitter, and in case you want to vote, here is the link (also, check in general the Awards, cause women in the videogames industry deserve all the recognisance they can get).