Friday, February 27, 2015

Character Development and writing: A Conversation with Ashton Raze

Ashton Raze
Not too long ago, I talked with Ashton Raze about character design, writing, applications in Game Development, and other highly unrelated topics. She was willing to answer some questions I had for her, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to her.  It's amazing what random conversations on Twitter can turn into! Our conversation started on Twitter before moving to a more formal interview.  Those 140 character limits tend to really cramp what one can say.  Our initial conversation was how easy it is to add a token character to the plot for little reason than to check off a box on the diversity checklist.  I got to thinking about solutions to this problem when I started talking to Raze.

Admittedly, I had a bit of an agenda to push when I first reached out to Raze.  I set out to rant about game characters and how developers don't spend enough time fleshing the character beyond a few simple traits/tropes. While talking with Raze, the conversation quickly changed and went an entirely different direction.  The conversation changed to writing and character development, and as such, I've had to rethink how I would write this article.

Raze didn't start in game writing.  "Before I was writing for games," Raze said, "I always aspired to be a prose fiction writer."  A few years ago, she wrote a book of short horror stories, which she thoroughly enjoyed writing.  Moving into game writing was not an intended path, but one that arose because of the possibilities the design space afforded.

"The possibility of the stories we can tell in video games has always fascinated me," Raze said.  "I played a LOT of adventure games, point and click adventures have always been my favorite genre, so it made sense to start out by writing them, and I've kinda stuck with it!"

Raze grew up with a disability that affected her posture, amongst other things.  The toll of multiple reconstructive surgeries on her spine affected her mental health and well being.  Writing became a cathartic outlet that helped her cope, as well as become a way to channel her talents into something greater.

"It definitely influenced me to want to write horror," she said.  "I'm one of those people who turns to dark, unpleasant stuff as escapism rather than cheery things.  Horror's always been my go-to outlet for escapism, so I've always aspired to create things in the genre.  Games particularly, because I've always found them to be a great way of living out experiences that I can't."

Talking about mental health can be difficult in the "real world" but games can be an opportunity to explore someone's experiences without the stigma associated with a condition.  It's freeing for the writer, too. Raze feels that it helps portray mental health issues in a way that's honest and free of political correctness.  In a sense, I agree with her.  It's much easier to explore schizophrenia through the eyes of someone who doesn't exist than to talk to someone affected by the condition.  In a way, it can also help heal the internal scars of traumatic events.  There's probably room for therapy-oriented simulations, moreso than the current PTSD applications right now.  It would be interesting to see what people come up with.  For Raze, writing horror has become a form of therapy itself.

Richard, Alice, and Barney
Raze has chosen a fascinating way of bringing her personal experiences in life and applying them to her characters.  Alice, from "Richard & Alice" was almost autobiographical.  Alice drew upon multiple memories that Raze had from her life.  "it's kinda funny," Raze said, "cos [sic] one of the biggest critiques towards Alice that I see is that she's cold and dislikeable [sic], which is actually... pretty flattering, because that's what I wanted to get across with her."

Creating Alice was difficult, however.  Raze had to be careful that players didn't outright hate Alice.  "People still need to care about her, after all," Raze said. "I think we hopefully struck a good balance there with the introduction of Barney; you sort of warm to Alice vicariously through him, since she's his mother and caregiver."

After talking about the characters that Raze has written, we came back to talking about character development and what can be done to fix the less than stellar characters out there.  I asked her about characters she thinks hit the mark in terms of being well written, and she had quite a bit to say on the topic. "In terms of characters that hit the mark," she said, "you can't find a better example than the Blackwell series I think. One of the best, most nuanced, most well-written female protagonists in video games, for my money."

She also pointed out The Cat Lady and The Samaritan Paradox as other examples of fantastic characterization in writing.  We also talked about Goichi Suda's Killer 7 as an example of a person living with a mental illness, told in a way that fascinates her.

Alex, from an as yet unreleased game
As we talked, Raze realized something.  "I think it's pretty clear that I value narratives that are willing to delve into taboo subjects, and run with unflinching portrayals of something, even if it's to the detriment of a protagonist or character being a 'nice' or likeable person.  I'm a big supporter of the fact that games, like any other medium conductive to narrative, should tackle any and every subject; the end result should, of course, be critiqued as to whether it does it well or not, but I believe that anything a movie or book could be about, a game can potentially be about as well."

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Raze if she had any advice for aspiring writers.  She had this to say:

For aspiring writers, the biggest piece of advice I'd give is; write.  Write a s***load. Don't discard trash or anything you write. Don't care about writing crap.  Just do it.  A lot. Write samples, snippets, random bits of dialogue, anything.  Then write things just for yourself.
Wise words.  She also had advice about designing for games.  Don't pitch your idea to someone else to make, make it yourself.  Between Twine, Game Maker, Construct2, and all the other game design engines out there, it's very, very possible to make a game and show it off in your portfolio.  She also said that it's okay to start small, working on something that's not your magnum opus.  "It's super hard to set our writing that Elder Scrolls-rivalling RPG or that super ambitious sandbox game," Raze said, "but write a piece of interactive fiction and you can have something for your portfolio within a week."

Raze brought up something that I've felt has been overlooked over the years, and I commend her for saying what she did.  Her goal in making games is to make games that complement existing games.  She wants them to sit next to Elder Scrolls, Call of Duty, and Barney's Hide & Seek.  She doesn't want her games to replace those that are already out there.  She believes this is a healthy way to promote diversity in the industry, rather than shoehorn a token role just to make someone somewhere happy.  "I care hugely about narrative diversity and accessibility and options," Raze said, "but I still value being able to sit down with a mindless shooter, or a super glossy beatemup or something."

She's on to something.  There's room for everyone at this table, with everyone getting something different.  The dudebros get their Call of Duty, the JRPG fans will get their Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts, and the sports fans will get their annual installments.  And Raze will continue making games for her fans, who love what she does. And perhaps, that's the most important part of all.

I want to thank Ashton Raze for taking the time to talk to me, admittedly rather suddenly.  You can find her games here, and you can read some of her very not safe for work short story work here

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