Chella Ramanan has been a writer for more than 18 years, the majority of which was spent as a journalist covering the videogame industry. With bylines at the Guardian and the BBC in addition to numerous speaking roles, the London native's work has often focused on diversity in games and the lack of representation of people of color within the space. Three years ago, she got her first taste of game development when she started building her own game along with artist and programmer Claire Morley and a small team of art, music, and audio contributors. The indie, self-published game, titled Before I Forget – a narrative exploration centered on a character with dementia, is set to launch next year.
Ever an advocate for diversity, Ramanan this year co-founded POC in Play, an independent diversity organization built to increase the visibility and representation of people of color in the videogame industry. Her experience in development and years as a writer, allowed her to meet other industry professionals and eventually led her to her role at Ubisoft as a narrative designer working at Massive Entertainment.
Was getting into game writing always a goal for you while you were a journalist?
Chella Ramanan: No, it wasn't, actually. I always wanted to write fiction, so I was always writing on the side, and I ran a creative writing group in Somerset, where I lived before moving to Sweden. I was always writing fiction or working on a novel. About five years ago, I took a course called Writing for Games. I don't know why it wasn't apparent that it was a thing I could do until then; I have no idea why I never thought of combining those two facets of myself, but then this course came up, and it was a really formative experience. After that course, I realized that successful game writers hone their craft within different writing disciplines, so that became my focus. The writing tutors on that course had tons of experience in theater, journalism, and games, as well as straight prose. After that, I took a course writing radio dramas and wrote and produced my own radio play that year.
After that, I attended a game jam in Bristol. That's where I met Claire, and that's where Before I Forget was born. We won the audience choice award, as the game that people most wanted to see finished. It was at that point that we thought, "Oh, maybe we've got something here, maybe we should carry on." So here we are now, carrying on (laughs).
What did you study in school?
CR: I studied English literature, and then did a post-grad in journalism.
What made you gravitate toward writing about games?
CR: I had a friend in the videogame industry while I was doing my post-grad. He was a friend from university, and he'd come home and talk about the industry and all the machinations behind the games, and I just thought it was quite interesting: how fast paced it is, how small it is, and how games are connected in so many ways because people move around a lot and exercise different aspects of their creativity.
Did you grow up playing games?
CR: Not as a kid, no. It was something we couldn't afford when I was young. It wasn't until I went to university and I played games on people's Amigas. Once I had a friend in the industry, that's when I started really getting into playing games on consoles. I was always a nerd, though. I was into comic books and movies, so it wasn't a far leap.
What is your day-to-day like as a narrative designer now?
CR: No two days are alike, which is really great. We have a stand-up meeting every day where we check in with each other about what we're working on, or see if we have any problems that we can help each other with. Then I could be writing outlines for characters, or working on pitches for questlines. Pitches are like very top-level outlines for quests; once that goes through approvals, then you can write a more in-depth overview for a quest before you get to the stage of writing the dialogue or setting up the quest in the quest editor. There is a bit of a learning curve for me to learn the technical side of the quest editor and understanding nodes and such. That's the difference between being a narrative designer and a writer: designers need to be able to marry the technical and the creative-writing sides of a game. We also work with really talented artists, audio, level designers, and programmers, helping to realize our quest ideas, which is really inspiring.
Outside of the material itself, how does writing nonfiction differ from writing fiction?
CR: I think being a journalist and a copywriter teaches you to write to deadlines and write under pressure. I find that when I have a deadline now, I get quite excited [laughs]. It forces me to write, which can be hard at times as a fiction writer because it's quite solitary. I really like the team aspect of working here, however. Every day I get to go to work and be in a writing group, which is a dream. It's great to have that kind of support and to be able to bounce ideas off each other.
At the end of the day, it's still all writing, fiction or non-fiction. Journalism and non-fiction can be very disciplining, which helps in fiction and can feed into it when it comes to world-building or environmental storytelling. Being a copywriter helps you learn how to adopt other people's voices as well, so you become quite adaptable as a writer, which is obviously useful in fiction. I do like the more creative writing for sure; this is a dream job so far.
What's it like working on a big AAA game, versus working on an indie game?
CR: I think it's the amount of support and space you have here to grow, and make mistakes, and learn your craft. You have more people to draw experience from at Massive. There are people here with tons of wisdom that can give you critical feedback. When you're on a tiny team and there's one person in every discipline, you can't really get help with your particular specialization. It's really nice to have a support system in place so I don't need to go to my outside contacts or friends for feedback. Here, I just have great writers sitting right next to me.
How did you start writing about diversity and representation in videogames?
CR: When I left my job as a journalist to join Massive, I did a little retrospective on my weekly columns for my readers as sort of a send-off. I was surprised, actually, at how early I had started talking about the representation of women and people of color in games and the way they are marketed. In the 2000s, it was just horrendous. I always felt like the industry wasn't that aware of it or talking about it that much, but I seemed to be. It is kind of heartwarming in some ways, but also quite depressing, because the day that I wrote my retrospective, there was a Twitter storm where people were upset that a videogame character was going to have smaller breasts. I had been writing about the representation of women for 13 years, and we're still having the same discussion, so it was a bit upsetting. We feel like we've come so far, but there are some people we haven't dragged with us.
Have you felt like it's gotten any better in this industry?
CR: Yeah, I have. I can walk into a room and not be the only woman. I can sometimes still be the only person of color, and definitely the only Black person, which is why we founded POC in Play. Things are definitely better; my team here at Massive is incredible. We have representation across all different aspects of identity. I feel kind of spoiled here [laughs]. It's come some way, but there's still a long way to go.
Do you think it's an issue that's endemic just in the games industry?
CR: I think it's clear that it's not just our industry. You see these same conversations happening in a wide variety of fields. I think in terms of representation, because I am a woman of color, we talk about women too much when we talk about diversity. We focus on women because it's an easy metric to measure and try to fix, but we're often focusing on white women, and that's not real diversity and inclusivity. I gave a talk and wrote an article called "Games So White," which spawned from #OscarsSoWhite because I realized it was a conversation we weren't having in this industry. We like to talk about women in games, but in the same breath we are not broadening our idea of diversity and inclusivity.
Can you tell us a little bit more about POC in Play?
CR: We founded in February of this year. We have monthly meetups, which are open to anyone in games, or who wants to be in games. It's a free event, and we also have a travel budget for folks who want to come to events but can't afford it, because the UK games scene is so London-centric, so we're able to bring in people of color from around the country. This week, we just announced that we now have a representative in the north of England, so POC in Play North is kicking off, making our events more accessible to folks in Scotland and Wales. This was one of our major goals for 2019 and I'm so pleased the awesome POC in Play team has made it happen because we want to be able to reach as many people of color as possible.
We're currently working on a stock photography project, which will include people of color in games-industry and gaming scenarios for media and marketing people to use, so they can have inclusive stock photography for games professionals. We're also working to get different voices of people on panels and at events because people tend to fall on the one Black or Asian person they know, and always ask those people, which turns them into token spokespeople for all POC.
Speaking of tokenization, do you ever feel pressure being the only Black woman in rooms?
CR: I felt that a lot as a journalist. I wrote a response to a certain incident, and I felt an enormous pressure to represent the games industry and Black people. It was one of the biggest asks of my life to turn around a piece like that in only a couple of hours. I do feel that pressure sometimes, emotionally. Minorities from any community have to face that.
Have you learned ways to cope with it or make it easier?
CR: I think it was easier earlier in my career because the industry wasn't really thinking about it. It was just so default "white male," and now people are more aware and have more conversations around diversity and inclusivity, and it can add more pressure. But now, there's a tendency for these conversations to go around in circles without provoking real change. It's a bit strange how it's gotten harder the more "woke" the industry has become.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write for games?
CR: Make sure you're writing. Even if it's just tiny games in Twine or Ink, make sure you're doing that and try to finish them. Those are things you can show people, even if you think they're crap, to say that you can finish things. Try to find your game dev community to swap knowledge and experience. It's a good way to network with people in the industry. Get involved in game jams as well; that's how I got started. You never know who you'll meet or what's going to come out of it. Be on Twitter [laughs]. The games industry lives on Twitter, or at least the industry and network that I know. Lots of jobs are shared on Twitter; it's a good way to pick up free knowledge and advice.