Characters Welcome: Jill Murray on Narrative Design in 'Assassin's Creed'
Ubisoft Quebec’s director of narrative design on how the studio creates compelling characters, and the gameplay to match.
It started with a confiscated passport. While researching her upcoming novel—a story about rival coffee traders on a mission through Ethiopia—Canadian author Jill Murray took a research trip to the African country. It didn’t go quite as planned.
“I had my passport confiscated and they wanted to, for some reason, arrest me for being in the country illegally to work in the construction industry,” she says. “Instead of touring the mountains and meeting farmers and doing all this wonderful earthy farmer-y stuff, I stayed in [capital city] Addis Ababa and reported to immigration with new documents every day for a couple of weeks.”
The trip left her tired, research-bereft, and in desperate need of regrouping. Without a plan, Murray spent the next few weeks sitting on her couch playing video games and trying to figure out the next step.
“I guess I was about halfway into the Mass Effect series when I realized, ‘Hey, someone is writing these,’” Murray says. “I was living in Montreal, so I knew that someone was probably writing them down the street. I started investigating the video game industry, which I hadn’t really ever considered as a thing that I can work in.”
Murray began connecting to those working in the game industry through local events and through Twitter. When she heard that Ubisoft was looking for a game writer to work on an upcoming fitness game, she used sections in her novel that featured dance and movement writing as a way to get her foot in the door.
That was three years ago. Since 2011, Murray has moved up to director of narrative design for Ubisoft Quebec where she’s worked on several AAA titles including four in the Assassin’s Creed series. The key, she says, is working closely with the design team to ensure that game mechanics and environment match the story you’re trying to tell.
Jill Murray: It starts with research. Some of our characters are compelling because they were compelling in life. Oftentimes it’s a question of finding their most identifiable qualities and bringing them out for today’s audience. Sometimes we come across characters that were so interesting in history that they would read almost unbelievably in the game, so then it’s a question of how to render them believable. Any of the techniques that you would use in any other medium for developing characters applies equally to games. Then also if you can find sort of gameplay gestures that relate to characters, that can also be a helpful way of communicating character without adding a lot of dialogue.
JM: You have to have a really good relationship between your narrative people and your other game designers because you can imagine if they wanted to put in some other mechanics like … for example, if [lead character] Aveline was able to kill civilians. If that was OK, that would really change who she was. Now she’s not a noble assassin; now she’s just a blood-thirsty killer. You need to be able to have an open dialogue between designers and writers so that everybody understands what the mechanics are saying. … Writers can actually play a huge role of being the ambassadors for helping people understand what impact even small gestures have on character and on story.
JM: It can vary widely from game to game. … You can start with themes and narrative ideas and those can inspire mechanics. At the same time, you can start with mechanics and those can inspire narrative ideas. The way you would ideally approach that would be to start with the game design basics and then build up from that. Then depending on what kind of game you’re making, if it’s a game that has a world then you’re kind of building a world in which those kind of mechanics can be expressed. If it’s a game that has levels, you’re going to build missions and levels again based on those themes and using those mechanics. …
You do what sounds like really nebulous design work and it starts to suggest more and more story ideas. … As you get those basic ideas nailed down and you start to move into production, my job becomes something probably more like a showrunner in television. At that point, I’m hiring writers and I’m organizing a team and I’m getting everybody writing sections of the game. We’re reading it, editing each other’s work, and trying to get the script in top shape. If it’s a game that has voice acting or motion captures, you’ll go through that process with your cinematics and animation people. When the script is finally locked, the work is still not over. At that point we become more like continuity people. We’ll be playing the builds of the game as often as possible, making sure that everything is integrated the way we imagined it or, if it can’t be, that we’re looking for other solutions…
JM: Traditionally, on Assassin’s Creed, the writers get a say in casting and attend the motion capture rehearsals and some audio and mo-cap sessions. We do get to meet our actors and talk to them. Sometimes we’ll even be able to make small modifications to fit the actors’ natural delivery in the studio. A good example would be someone like Tristan D. Lalla whose background was Trinidadian. His character adapted to fit that. He gave us a lot of tips on Trinidadian slang that would feel natural.
We go through that process and often you can tell in the mo-cap studio right away if a scene is working or not. Casting is often 75 percent of that battle. Of course, our cinematics and animation people are extremely talented and can bring all kinds of things out of a script that we never even thought of. We work with them and then even once everything’s captured, when it starts going into the game, then at that point we’ll be playing it and making sure that lines are integrated where they’re supposed to be and that everything is coming off the way that it’s supposed to, because the balance between the narrative and the design is important and it often needs a lot of tweaking and polishing to make sure it really flows the way you intended.
It can be tough with a large team working in multiple disciplines for everyone to have exactly the same mental image of how a scene is supposed to play, and you’re never fully aware of how differently someone else sees it until you see it in the game. You’re like, “Oh, I totally missed that because I interpreted it that way,” and then you work together to get it delivering the right emotion or method or understanding to the player.
JM: We’re really lucky. We get to hire a historian and that historian will go to whichever libraries are most important. They will travel to the locations featured in the game. The writers tend to start with the Internet as a source of research, but we don’t end there. We’ll use it to find leads on where the interesting information is and we’ll sort of set the historian on that information like a hungry dog and they’ll come back to us with obscure books and cool stuff to look through.
JM: I guess the most important thing is just to not overlook it and to not look at things like collectibles or the way the world works as trivial. For example, in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, you can collect pages of diary entries from Aveline’s mother, Jeanne, and they tell an important story about her that rounds out, not just practical backstory that can be important to the player, but also illustrates, I think, an important perspective in history. It can be tempting for some writers to feel like if they’re not writing what their game calls the “main story,” to feel like what they’re working on might be lesser, but I feel like with those diary entries, those are some of the best work we did in the game. Not to take away from the dialogue, but I’m proud of the fact that we didn’t let go and we pushed even the collectibles as far as we could to squeeze every last drop of story out that was there.
JM: Well, the basic thing that you need to do for any kind of writing is of course write and read. Get feedback on your work from reliable sources, so not your best friend or your mom. Find some good, critical people that can help you out with really constructive criticism. You should be playing games and with the technology, the tools that are available, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be making games. The easiest target for this conversation is always Twine. You could get an idea and be building it ten minutes in Twine later, including the time it takes to download it. That would really be my suggestion, just start developing your own ideas and keep developing your skills. There’s one more thing, which is just as important. Talk to people. It’s a really, really friendly industry, lots of people, when you tell them you want to be in the industry, they’ll be excited to have you, especially if you’re good, which you’re going to be if you develop your skills. Definitely talk to people both online and off.
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