Talk to enough game developers (and trust me, I’ve talked to plenty of them), and you begin to realize that many of them never considered making games to be an option. That doesn’t apply to Nuha Alkadi, a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto. For Alkadi, game development was the goal from the moment she booted up Guild Wars on her PC when she was in middle school, and realized the potential for videogames to tell stories. When her high school art class assigned her a project to research and present on an artistic profession, she chose to learn about game designers. We spoke to her about how she joined Ubisoft Toronto, the power of narrative, and the importance of representation.
How did you get into working in games?
Nuha Alkadi: I went to Sheridan College and studied art for a year to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to work in games but didn’t know how to get in. While I was in college, my school opened up a Bachelor of Game Design program that was brand new. I immediately applied, and luckily got in. I was part of the first cohort so my classmates and I kind of felt like guinea pigs, but I learned most of what I know now thanks to that program. I learned so many different aspects of game development: game design, programming, UI design, art, modeling, tons of fields. It helped to learn all the different roles of game development; it makes it easier to work with the designers, artists and programmers if you understand their job. It taught us the empathic side of game development.
In my first year, we had writing classes and narrative design classes, and that’s when I realized that narrative was the aspect of development I really loved and wanted to stick to. The only problem was the program didn’t offer it as a major, so I decided to take writing classes outside of my school. I took part in workshops like TV spec writing, and I even took sketch comedy writing classes at The Second City. I just wanted to write stuff; it didn’t have to be game-related. Games don’t necessarily have a specific or traditional story structure, so I wanted to learn as much as I could from other mediums as well.
How did you make your way to Ubisoft?
NA: After I graduated, Ubisoft started a program called the iPRENTICESHIP with industry organization Interactive Ontario. It was a one-week opportunity to help women get their foot into game development industry by having selected participants visit the studio for a week. Ubisoft Toronto let me come into the studio, and we had meetings with all the different teams. I got to meet the narrative teams, and it was super-informative hearing their experiences face to face. I got to ask any questions I had and learned so much about AAA game development. Afterwards, I kept in contact with some of the people I met during that week, and about a year later, they contacted me about joining the team.
What was it about writing that appealed to you?
NA: I’ve always loved stories. I love immersing myself into them. They can be relatable, and tackle themes and topics that can resonate with you in the long run. I love characters, and writing dialogue for characters is one of my favorite things to do. I read a lot of film and TV scripts in high school, and I just love stories of any medium: film, TV, comics, games, you name it. I think storytelling has a lot of power; it’s escapism, and in games you get to actually be the character. You get to tell the story, because you’re a part of it.
How can videogames tell stories differently from film and television?
NA: It’s a lot more immersive. You get to actually play as someone you want to role-play as. In non-linear storytelling, you can decide who you want to be; do you want to make the safe choice? Or see what happens if you don’t? Games can also be variable. You can replay them and have different storytelling experiences, discover different things. Little things can have massive ripple effects in games, and can leave you wondering, “what if?”
You’re definitely focused on player feeling, motivation, and progression the most when it comes to design stories for games. Film, television, and theater tend to focus on themes and leaving the viewer with some sort of underlying message. Games do that too, but in games, you’re also trying to provoke a certain feeling in the player as the participant rather than an observer. I think that’s the biggest difference, and it’s a powerful difference.
What is the difference between a writer and a narrative designer?
NA: As a writer, you’re writing dialogue, characters, outlines, settings; you’re working within a certain tone and tackling themes you want to explore in the story. In narrative design, you’re supporting the writers by unifying the story and making sure everything is coherent with all the tools you have. You’re trying to tell the writer’s story through the player’s perspective in the best possible way. You’re always trying to think of the themes we want to embrace, what the player is thinking, and help them progress through levels. “Maybe we need to put a line of dialogue here, to help them understand this.”
It’s tricky to define narrative design, because it’s different on every project and every studio. Some narrative designers write, but the narrative design I do here is mainly designing the systems and mechanics that can help tell our stories. I setup up script structures and scenes for the writers, which behind-the-scenes have tons of excel sheets I work on to help track and balance it all. I also review and iterate our content with the writers and level designers to make sure the player can understand what to do and where to go, and what sort of narrative topics we can explore. I also dabble into the technical implementation side by managing our scenes within the engine’s database.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
NA: I think it’s the people I work with! They’re all so good at what they do, and we all collaborate really well together so we can tell the best story possible. The best part is getting to see the content we’ve worked on implemented into the game. I really enjoy the moment we see all our hard work functioning in the game and can judge if it’s working or not, or if it needs tweaks. When it works, it’s like magic. Narrative can take a long time to be implemented, especially because finalizing scripts and voice-over recording takes time, so actually hearing what you’ve been working on for so long is such a cool and rewarding feeling.
Did you have any game-developer role models?
NA: Honestly, I didn’t really have any role models. I actually noticed that when I was in college. A lot of my classmates had certain developers they looked up to or aspired to be, but I never really knew who to look up to, because there weren’t many women, and especially not many women of color in higher up roles. I hope that I can be a role model to someone else in the future; that would be nice. I just wanted to do it, and thought that if I liked doing it, then it shouldn’t be that hard.
You mentioned that you saw so few women of color in this industry. Do you ever feel like an outsider because you’re a woman of color?
NA: I’m Syrian and Muslim, and there’s really not many of us in the industry. There seem to be lots of diversity initiatives for different minority groups in gaming, but I’ve rarely seen any for Arabs or Middle Easterners. There’s so few of us that we haven’t spoken up about it. But over the years I’ve found other Muslim developers on Twitter and at GDC, and we get together and hang out whenever we can. Recently, a few of us at Ubisoft Toronto started a group called The SAME Pros, which is for South Asian Middle Eastern Game Professionals, and with this we’re hoping to finally build our international community of developers to give us a better sense of belonging in the industry, and encourage those aspiring to join it.
I never really felt like an outsider in my day-to-day. Maybe it’s because I live in a very multicultural city like Toronto, so I rarely noticed any biases. Most people in Toronto don’t even ask, “Where are you from?” because people are from everywhere here (laughs). It feels like people don’t care about that here.
But I also think a lot of that is thanks to Dames Making Games, which is a not-for-profit organization here in Toronto that helps women, LGBTQ+, and non-binary people create games. I spent a lot of my time there being surrounded by other marginalized developers who are super supportive, friendly and welcoming to every single person they meet. Even though I would spend most of my time there, as a precaution I would also mentally prepare myself for any sort of discrimination I could potentially face outside of that space, so I tried really hard and practiced my confidence so that people would look past my identity. From my personal experience, I found people can look past that when they see that you’re serious about the work you do and your willingness to share and help others within the community and industry.
Does that type of diversity help out when it comes to designing the narrative?
NA: Oh yeah, definitely. We have people, even outside the narrative team, of different ethnicities, genders, and sexualities that we can actually go and talk to for consulting, and they’re super open to sharing their perspectives and offering feedback. Our writers are really respectful, so when they have to write a character of a different background or identity, they’ll go out and do the research to find out and learn more about them and make sure the content they write is portrayed in a respectful and thoughtful manner.
Have you ever felt strongly represented in a game?
NA: Rarely, but when I discover myself or my background presented in a positive way, it’s amazing. I will say that the first Assassin’s Creed takes place partially in Damascus, which is where my family is from. I remember playing the game and grabbing my parents and showing them places that we had actually been to. That was something that I remember showing off to my friends when I was in high school. It got me super excited and at the time made me proud to be Arab.
In terms of characters, there was a Muslim character in Tacoma. She’s a doctor and she’s super badass and one of the main characters on the ship. You go into her room and learn about her and see a card from her parents that says “Ramadan Kareem” and it says something along the lines of, “hopefully your month of fasting is going well in outer space.” You can even find a framed Surah from the Quran in her room. I was freaking out; this could’ve been my room. You notice when you find her ID that she wears a hijab, and she’s one of the most respected people on the crew. That was so cool seeing a Muslima character that is highly respected and recognized in the narrative, as opposed to the typical stereotypes we unfortunately see.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become a narrative designer?
NA: Just make games. No matter how tiny they are, especially for narrative. Make Twine games; people love those. It’s the easiest way to make games with little to no programming experience. Do what you love to do, and be confident in it. When I started off, I made A LOT of shitty games, and it was fun. Before you make a good game, you have to make a lot of bad ones, and be proud of what you’ve learned or created throughout the process. You learn a lot from all your experiences and failures so you can make something better in the future.
What advice would you give to someone that could help them make a better game?
NA: Definitely scale down. Keep the scope really small; that way, you don’t overwhelm yourself and finish feeling good about what you made. The bigger the scope, the harder it is to keep everything clear and coherent. Things don’t go as planned most of the time, so if you just focus on one mechanic and focus your story around that, it will make a much smoother experience than trying to incorporate all sorts of different mechanics and themes. The smaller the game is, the better it’s going to be.
They have a children’s mentorship program here in Toronto called Youth Fusion that teaches kids how to create videogames. Some of us at Ubisoft Toronto help out by being guest mentors: we offer feedback, test their prototypes, and see their final games at the end of the program. These are like fourth and fifth graders that are already making games, and we try to just get them to focus on one mechanic, one small idea so that they finish the program with something playable and fun. It’s crazy seeing that they’re already so far ahead of where we were at their age.
For more interviews like this, check out our other Women of Ubisoft stories.