It was obvious from a young age that Kaitlin Tremblay was meant to be a writer. As a child sitting in the crowd at her brother's baseball games, she would spend her time reading and writing Star Wars, X-Men, and Dungeons & Dragons movie fanfiction. As dedicated as she was to writing, videogames also played a formative role in Tremblay's life, as they were often the best way for her to spend time with her brothers.
Photo Credit: Max Lander
With an undergraduate degree in English literature and creative writing, and a Masters in film and English, Tremblay began to pursue a career in book publishing. In 2011, she began looking for a way to incorporate her love of writing with her passion for videogames, and started writing games criticism and reviews for her friend's blog. Soon after, Tremblay came across an independent multimedia studio called Pop Sandbox, which was making its first videogame and needed a marketing intern. Tremblay's writing and game expertise made her an excellent fit, and the job kicked off her professional career in videogames.
While at Pop Sandbox, one of Tremblay's colleagues encouraged her to get involved with Dames Making Games, a non-profit organization in Toronto that provides workshops for women and marginalized people to learn how to make games. During this time, Tremblay was working full-time for a publishing house, while also making her own games and working as a freelance writer for outlets like Vice and Playboy in her free time. In 2016, she decided to pursue videogames full time, working as a freelance writer and narrative designer for mobile games, indie studios (she was lead writer on A Mortician's Tale), VR, ARGs (alternate reality games), and escape rooms. In 2017, Tremblay joined Ubisoft Toronto as a narrative designer, working on an unannounced project.
What made you decide to finally pursue a full-time career in videogames?
Kaitlin Tremblay: I used to think that as a writer, I'd only be able to support the videogame development process. But when I went to Dames Making Games, I learned how to make my own games in Twine. Once I learned how, I started voraciously writing, designing, and programming my own games. As soon as I figured out how to do it, I just couldn't stop. I was working full-time in publishing, and coming home every night and making games in my spare time. It's where my heart was, and it gave me this immediate form of expression. I could have an idea, or have a creative problem I wanted to solve, and I could build it out in Twine, publish it, and have people's opinions on it immediately. I love publishing books, but the process is so slow. There's something much more satisfying and immediate in making games. I still make some games in Twine to this day.
I started making games about mental health, and they became an avenue for me to express how I was navigating my mental health recovery. They became big tools of empowerment for me, and gave me a way to talk about things that I was experiencing in a way that I could form into a coherent narrative, and help structure my own path around my healing. They helped me build a bridge to a community, because I would make these games about really difficult issues, and people would play them, and then reach out to me with words and messages like, "Hey, I didn't know other people felt this way!" It felt good to be immersed in this passionate, supportive, and caring community.
How did you come to join Ubisoft?
KT: Actually, Liz England had reached out to me. I had just worked as lead writer on A Mortician's Tale, which we just launched. I had also just released my book on Borderlands, which examines the ways in which stories can be told in videogames. After that, Liz said, "Hey, we're looking to hire for this team, would you be interested in interviewing?" I really admire and respect a lot of the work that Liz and Ubisoft do, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me. I wanted the chance to join and learn from a team, instead of moving from project to project as I was doing as a freelancer.
Photo Credit: Jordan Probst Photography
Can you tell us a little more about your fanfiction?
KT: A lot of them were just pen and paper that I would do with my cousin, but when I got a little older, I got really into wrestling, and my friend and I started writing WWE fanfiction. We put it out on forums and built a whole blog around it. I think writing WWE fanfiction actually has a lot in common with writing videogames. It's a lot of really high-drama action, and high-drama plot and quick character development. Looking back, I clearly see the trajectory for me from writing WWE fanfiction to writing videogames.
Why has writing always appealed to you?
KT: I've always loved books. I always had a book on me as a kid. I think that I very naturally fell into writing. I don't exactly remember what the inception moment was for me. But I do remember one day in grade school, I was really bummed out because my friends had left me out of something, because I wasn't good at it. And I remember having this distinct thought that it was OK, because I was really good at something else: writing.
How does writing for a videogame differ from the other types of writing you've done?
KT: They're all so different from each other. There are general rules for writing that stick no matter what you're writing, like characterization, but each genre has its own rules and considerations to make sure you're telling a good story. Writing straight prose is such a different beast, because you have to do so much to set up a visual for the reader that they can't get anywhere else. Whereas in film and videogames, they have a visual given to them. In videogames, the priority for me is to figure out how best to reinforce actions that players are doing. For me, it's all about the connection between interactivity and story, and how they fit together, that you don't really have in other genres.
The best example I can think of for this is from What Remains of Edith Finch. There's a segment in that game where you're playing as a kid on a swing, and his brother is talking about the day he dies in an accident. You're sitting there using the two thumbsticks to rock your legs back and forth on the swing, and there's a moment where you know that this kid is about to jump off the swing set and die, but you have to walk him through it yourself. That interactively reinforced the narrative so much, really brought home the sadness of the story and also the inevitability of that brother's death. It's these moments of, "How can what the player is doing bolster the story, and how can what the story is telling bolster what they're doing?"
"If you hear others make racist, sexist, transphobic, or ableist jokes, call them out. Don't let other people get away with it."
Why didn't you pursue a career in videogames from the beginning?
KT: I honestly didn't know that games were an option. The idea that you could write videogames as a living was never exposed to me as a child. I've always loved stories and loved writing, so literature was an easy option for me. When I was 17 and applying to university, I knew I wanted to get my Masters; I knew I wanted to go as far down the literature line as I could, and learn the craft of storytelling.
There's a lot of politics in book publishing and academia, and I think I started to burn out on all that stuff. I was realizing that how I wanted to tell stories, and the things I wanted to do, weren't possible in academia or book publishing. Videogames were so DIY and grassroots; they were everything those other two weren't for me. It was exciting. It was a way of storytelling I hadn't really been exposed to before. It's still new; we're still figuring out what the art of games writing is, what makes it distinct, and what the good rules are for it. It felt like fertile ground that was ripe to explore.
How does working on a AAA game differ from making your own Twine game?
KT: It's different in terms of subject matter. My Twine games were intensely personal, and I put a lot of myself into them. They became kind of problem spaces for me to explore certain design challenges, or to explore certain experiences I was going through. They were much more bespoke. If I was interested in a certain design challenge, I would make a Twine game all around that, or if I wanted to talk about a certain experience, I would make a game all around it.
Writing for AAA games is similar, but ultimately different. You still have these problem spaces of, "this is my story," "these are my constraints," "these are the things I'm trying to hit on." It's all just different kinds of problem solving. Obviously the scale is also way different [laughs].
You recently hosted a panel at Ubisoft Toronto for International Women's Day, can you tell us a bit about it?
KT: I actually became a co-director of Dames Making Games. I got really passionate about making sure that the videogame industry is safe and welcoming towards marginalized people, and I became really invested in the community around it to support and empower everyone. The panel was the culmination of a lot of the work I had done. We were able to gather people from different companies to come together, who each have their own expertise in diversity and inclusion.
What I wanted to do was drive a conversation that wasn't just about why diversity matters, but to highlight what people are actually doing to make games more inclusive and safer. I wanted people to be able to take away actionable strategies, to have learned from our lived experience and have tools to walk away from our event and really do something.
Photo Credit: Jordan Probst Photography
So what can people who are already in the industry do to make it a more inclusive space?
KT: Strategies for making your company, your space inclusive, are dependent on that space and the people in that space. What that looks like is always different. But what stays the same is it's not an easy fight. It's long, and it's going to take a while. Changing culture and changing attitudes takes a long time. Just make sure you're taking care of yourself while doing it, because if you don't, you'll burn out and won't be able to help anyone. It's important to be able to nurture yourself while you're also empowering people in the industry. You can't effect change if you're burning yourself out. It's important to support each other as well. I think being a woman, or being marginalized, there's this false sense of competition. There's this myth with women that there can only be one, and other people are competition. But we're all each other's support system, and we should all be fighting to uplift each other.
What can people who aren't marginalized do to make the industry a better place?
KT: They can listen. Actually listen. If someone is trying to explain an experience, don't try to relate, just try to listen. They can also call other people out. If you hear others make racist, sexist, transphobic, or ableist jokes, call them out. Don't let other people get away with it. It's safer for allies to call people out than it is for marginalized people to call them out. And the marginalized people are just exhausted; it helps take some of the load off of them, so they don't have to continuously do it.
Photo Credit: Jordan Probst Photography
What inspired the panel? Why did Ubisoft want to host it?
KT: Our external communications manager reached out to me and asked me if I had any thoughts or opinions about what a good ‘Women in Games' topic might be. I thought about how the industry as a whole has a lot of events focused on how to get women into games, but I thought it would be cool if we had something directed at people who are mid-career. "We're in games, so now what? How do we keep the fight going? How can we learn from people who are doing this work?" For me, it's not enough to just get women and marginalized people into the games industry. We need to do that, but then we need to also take care of them while they're here. And that's kind of what the panel became about, how we can we learn from industry people about how to continually support women and marginalized people in this industry. What are the tools, the strategies? They really liked that idea, so we ran with that idea and made it happen.
Why is the representation of marginalized groups important to you?
KT: It just makes sense. Videogames are one of the biggest forms of entertainment now. Videogames have been so important to so many people in my life that are diverse and are marginalized, and to be met with bias and toxic attitudes by people who are uninformed or don't understand the climate is really frustrating to me. I've always been really interested in trying to help people as much as I can. There's always been this bone in my body that I have to fight for myself and other people. Representation matters in our media. It means so much to see yourself reflected in the mainstream media that we're all consuming, because it makes you feel accepted, and makes you feel like you belong. I can't image not fighting for it, because it's so essential to who I am, and who my friends are, and to how I engage with my media.