Last week, I reviewed the amazing 80 Days from Inkle Studios. Today, I have an interview with writer Meg Jayanth! I really appreciate Meg taking the time to answer my questions.
How did you get into the games industry?
Probably I got into the games industry because I just couldn’t manage to keep my professional life and my hobbies separate! I’ve always loved games and interactive stories, and made my own games alongside working as a producer. I started out interning with the lovely folks at Six to Start (who are now making the excellent Zombies Run! games) after I asked them for advice on an interactive webseries / alternate reality game I was trying to make in my bedroom just after university. Then I worked at the BBC for a few years until I went freelance. I love being a freelancer – there’s more choice in the projects you work on, and more time for your own work. I think it’s really valuable to have your own work when you work in a creative profession – it’s a space for experimentation, where you don’t have to make compromises. And every so often that turns into professional opportunities as well.
Do you have any stories related to being a woman in the industry – good or bad?
I have mostly had a really positive experience in the industry. But you know, I’m not a public figure, and I’m not in AAA, and this is my personal experience – the vitriol faced by women making, playing, and writing about games is very real, and utterly horrifying. And this should not be business as usual.
It can be hard to call out though – behind my “mostly” positive experience are a good number of uncomfortable interactions and strange moments. A recent review of 80 Days had a mention of my physical appearance, which was bizarre to say the least. What does that have to do with my writing? This isn’t a tendency limited to games though – it’s part of a prevailing culture where women’s appearances are routinely scrutinised and given disproportionate value as compared to, say, professional achievements. “You don’t look like a geek” is something I’ve heard a lot, usually said as a sort of compliment. I honestly wonder: what the hell does a geek look like to you? I was in various fandoms as a teenager, online, and those “geek spaces” were overwhelmingly female, and that was what I was used to – it was a bracing experience to enter a “geeky” professional world where women are vastly in the minority.
Honestly the biggest issue, in my opinion, isn’t so much *overt* sexism – or overt racism for that matter – the problem is structural, and that’s reflected in how unrepresentative the games industry is. That’s what we have to change. The games industry, even much of the indie scene, is still overwhelmingly white, male, and cisgendered. It can be a bit daunting to walk into a professional conference and be one of the few women, and one of the even fewer women of colour. It can be even harder to volunteer to speak or network – there’s an insidious pressure there, to prove that you have a right to be there, to be nice, not to speak out of turn. Or to assimilate to the prevailing culture. The lack of representation in the AAA industry reflects in its output and its atmosphere, I think.
How did you tackle writing 80 Days? (and how many times have you read Around the World in 80 Days?)
I had read Around the World in 80 Days a couple of times when I started working on the project, and then reread it as a way to start thinking about the process of adaptation. I reread and picked apart various sections as I wrote 80 Days as well, especially when I wrote the cities and the journeys that appear in the books – the Suez crossing, the Aouda encounter, the encounter with Fix in Hong Kong. Verne has this really understated, dry irony that I wanted to capture – though Passepartout is a less reticent focal character than Phileas Fogg!
I was brought onto 80 Days early by the fantastic inkle, who really understand writing and interactive fiction, so I had a lot of time to think about how to approach the project as a whole. I spent a lot of time researching – not just into the historical period, but also into multicultural approaches to steampunk, and airship manuals and steam technologies. It’s a very culturally and historically grounded fantasy. I started out by sketching out the politics and structure of the world of 80 Days as a whole – the game is a heap of interconnected stories rather than one sweeping narrative. The stories come out of the world, rather than the other way round.
What’s your favorite part of 80 Days? I really loved encountering Death in New Orleans, along with the diversity I found around every corner!
It’s really great to be able to write an alternate history that is full of women and marginalised people, and have non-Western cultures invent wondrous technologies and have agency. I think that’s probably my favourite part – people like me don’t often get to be heroes, they don’t often get to captain airships and lead automaton armies and incite rebellions in games, and in historical or steampunk stories – even though there were plenty of us doing incredible things in history. We’re usually written out and ignored, so it was liberating and wonderful to put us back in the story. To give us power and politics and agendas.
What are some of your gaming inspirations and/or your favorite games?
There is so much fantastic stuff happening in Twine and interactive fiction, exploring ideas and perspectives largely ignored by mainstream games: Merrit Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator, Lillian Behrendt’s Anne Hathaway Erotic Mouthscape, Cara Ellison’s Sacrilege, to name but a few. (You can probably tell I was on a panel on Sex in Games recently – all of those are about sex and intimacy!) I can’t get enough of the lyricism and neon wildness of Porpentine’s work (howling dogs is a classic, but my personal favourite is Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha). Emily Short‘s work is a touchstone of IF in general, and Christine Love‘s work is incredible too. The political games of mollieindustria. All of these people, and people like them, are expanding the horizons of what games can talk about.
I’m a sucker for a good turn-based strategy game, and for dating and management sims. RPGs too – I play and replay Bioware’s games, and I have Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s launch date pencilled in my calendar. I’m really enjoying playing Divinity: Original Sin with my partner at the moment. I love tabletop games – people telling stories to each other, within a framework. That give and take can be really powerful, and it informs the way I write games.
Where can fans find you on the internet?
My blog is at http://megjayanth.com, and I’m @BetterTheMask on Twitter – feel free to follow me!
What’s your next project?
I’ve got a couple of short stories that are burning to be completed on my hard drive, and some games ideas that I’ve been throwing around with my partner (who is also a games writer), but I can’t tell you much more just yet. You’ll just have to wait and see!
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