vol. 7 Construction

Credit: Chella Ramanan

02 / 02

Chella Ramanan:
"That's the beauty of writing games—going to work is like going to a writing group every day."

Narrative Designer & Journalist

A conversation about craft, the joys of collaboration, and the importance of representation


Feb 22, 2022 | As told to Cherie Yang & edited by Aidan McGrath

Craft is something that is always on Chella’s mind—whether she’s writing for games, live-Tweeting about her favourite TV shows, or championing representation in the industry.

Originally a games journalist, Chella had previously never considered narrative design as a career—despite being immersed in the industry! It was only through a chance writing retreat that she discovered the profession—and found a way to combine her dual loves: creative writing (particularly when using fountain pens…) and video games.

In our chat, we talk about the joys of collaboration, the importance of honing your craft, and how Chella serendipitously discovered the career that combined her two sides—in her words, ‘making her whole’.

Find Chella on Twitter . Learn more about 3-Fold Games on their website, and more about Windrush Tales on their Steam page.

Listen to Chella's episode on our Podcast here.

  • For some reason I never thought about rating games. It’s weird to think now that I could write about games for so long and know so much about the industry, but not think about the people who wrote them.
  • &: Let’s dive straight in. I know that you studied English literature at university and journalism as a post-grad. I'm curious to know how your journey into the game design world came about?

    CR:

    I wrote about video games as a journalist for a really long time, several console cycles, which is how you measure the games industry really—in the life of PlayStations and Nintendos and Xboxes.

    I was always writing fiction on the side, even before I was a journalist—just when I was doing my first jobs, whether it was a receptionist or whatever, I was always writing fiction. That was the aim—because, ‘if you write fiction, you write novels’, was the connection that I made in my head. I was quite focused on getting better at writing. I was constantly writing fiction. For some reason I never thought about rating games. It’s weird to think now that I could write about games for so long and know so much about the industry, but not think about the people who wrote them.

  • It was a week focused on learning how to write games, and it was intense and inspiring and energising. That week changed everything.
  • &: What was stopping you from getting into game writing, and how did that journey come about?

    CR:

    It was so male dominated, that was one of the things. Also there was a technical barrier that created some hurdles. I saw an advert for a writing retreat called Writing for Games and it had really great people as the tutors, David Varela and John Ingold who's from Inkle Games and Rihanna Pratchett was a guest tutor—she was there for one evening to answer questions and things.

    It was a week focused on learning how to write games, and it was intense and inspiring and energising. That week changed everything.

    I was still writing the book, but I immediately started focusing on writing a game, and then I went to a workshop for radio drama. I noticed that the tutors on the workshop they'd all had different disciplines within writing—two, three had come through journalism as well, but David had written a radio drama that was on Radio 4. It seemed to be a pattern to follow to improve my craft.

    I wrote and self produced a radio play with a couple of friends. Then I went to a game jam—and that’s where we made Before I Forget. It was that accidental domino effect of happy events.

  • It was a sudden realisation that I could combine these two aspects of myself.
  • &: When you signed up for the retreat, what did you think that would bring you?

    CR:

    It was a sudden realisation that I could combine these two aspects of myself. I was a games journalist and I was a writer. I wanted to do creative writing, but I had fallen into this commercial side of writing.

    So all of a sudden I was like, oh wow—of course people write video games, and I can combine these two things. I didn't know what would come of it. I suppose my attitude was, ‘you always have something to learn’. So, even if it was just a greater understanding of games as a games journalist, then that's worth it.

  • When you have a craft, you can always get better at it or be more experimental or challenge yourself or collaborate in different ways—and especially in games, because it's young as a medium.
  • &: You used the word ‘craft’ a lot—could you expand more on that? What does craftsmanship mean to you in a context of designing games?

    CR:

    For me, that means that it's something that you hone. You never say, ‘I'm finished becoming a narrative designer.’

    When you have a craft, you can always get better at it or be more experimental or challenge yourself or collaborate in different ways—and especially in games, because it's young as a medium. And now, games can be a hundred hours long. How do you make sure the player still knows what's going on?

    There are all those questions. So you can never be complete.

  • &: I love that perspective. What do you consider yourself? A writer first or a designer first?

    CR:

    It depends on the project and the structure of the team. For 3-Fold Games, I don't think you can really extrapolate those things. If you are writing without thinking about game design, that means that the story is not going to support the game design or that the systems within the game—you have to think of those things in tandem.

  • &: How would you describe the role of a narrative designer to someone who is not familiar with game design?

    CR:

    As a narrative designer, you're given a set tools and constraints—and you're trying to tell a story using these tools.

    For example, you may have ‘tools’ like you can run, climb, shoot, and solve puzzles in a game. Then, maybe the goal is for you to find the treasure in the cave at the top of the mountain. As a narrative designer, you're thinking about how best to break up that experience.

    So it might be that you interact with a non-playable character and maybe that goes into a cut scene—and then maybe there's a traversal puzzle to get up the mountain. Then you might be rewarded with a big, luscious cinematic moment.

    Narrative design is about how to tell the story best using the tools that are within the constraints of your game.

  • Say with Before I Forget, for instance, one of the first things we did was build the house that our character lives in. So you have this three-dimensional space that you can see and walk through.
  • &: Do you think in visuals, or do you think in terms of words?

    CR:

    I do think visually. When I'm writing I do have to be able to visualise it—I guess direct the scene in my head a bit. I think cinematically quite often.

    Say with Before I Forget, for instance, one of the first things we did was build the house that our character lives in. So you have this three-dimensional space that you can see and walk through.

    We had a whole Pinterest board for our Sunita—our main character—and for the house. There’s lots of environmental storytelling that informs character and vice versa. Sunita has a hobby of pottery, which I'm sure nobody has noticed ever, because there's some poetry books on the shelf—that's an aspect of her that we created.

  • I was always writing or drawing or sewing or living in imaginary worlds—literally being two people, and all my teddies had different voices and things like that.
  • &: I love that. Were you creative as a child?

    CR:

    Yeah. I was always writing or drawing or sewing or living in imaginary worlds—literally being two people, and all my teddies had different voices and things like that. [laughs]

  • &: Do you remember what you wanted to be?

    CR:

    I did like the idea of being a writer. I wanted to be a newscaster. At one point I also wanted to be David Attenborough—I wanted to be a zoologist, but I'm not very scientifically minded. [laughs]

    I really loved animals and I'd get animal encyclopaedias for birthdays and Christmas—that's all I ever wanted, and then I'd draw them. I also wanted to be a comic book artist. There were several phases. [laughs]

  • I had a game-makers hub around my dining table, just with friends who were games-adjacent or interested in games.
  • &: Tell me a little bit more about the different side hustles and passion projects that you have.

    CR:

    When I was in the UK, there was a lot going on. I had a game-makers hub around my dining table, just with friends who were games-adjacent or interested in games. At the moment, my side hustles are 3-Fold Games, where we have our next project, which is in very early stages—embryonic stages—and then there's Windrush Tales, which is further along, and is separate from 3-Fold Games. It was started by me independently, to celebrate my Caribbean heritage. It’s a narrative illustrated game about the immigration of people from the Caribbean to Great Britain in the 1950s. It's a branching narrative that charts three different characters travelling from their respective islands going to the UK and navigating a less than welcoming society.

    My other side hustle is POC In Play, which is an organisation focused on improving the representation and visibility of people of colour in games, as well as in the games industry.

  • &: Amazing. You mentioned earlier that you're really into films—where does this love for film and TV come from?

    CR:

    That comes from my mom and my brother. We'd watch films together a lot, and we all have an appreciation of cinema. My mum lived in India when she was younger, so we'd watch Indian TV and cinema as well. It was a broad range of films.

  • Windrush tales came about because of my own heritage and a lack of representation in films or TV or anywhere—so part of what drives me is representing those unheard voices and experiences.
  • &: In terms of your various passions, do you see them as buckets of separate things? Or do you see them in a way in which everything is melded together?

    CR:

    That's interesting. I do look for ways that they can inform each other.

    Windrush tales came about because of my own heritage and a lack of representation in films or TV or anywhere—so part of what drives me is representing those unheard voices and experiences.

    In terms of cinema, screenwriting and game writing, they definitely intersect. They’re all facets of me. I don't see them as separate entities, but they use separate energy pools.

  • In terms of POC In Play, that's emotionally draining—it’s emotional labour that you're doing for the industry. It’s important for us to be really conscious of each other's energy levels as a team.
  • &: What do you mean by that—separate energy pools?

    CR:

    It's one of those things that people say in the games industry—once you become a game developer, you don't play games anymore.

    Playing games uses a separate energy pool because it feels like work a little bit. You’ll always be looking at ways to inform what you're doing in your own creative space.

    In terms of POC In Play, that's emotionally draining—it’s emotional labour that you're doing for the industry. It’s important for us to be really conscious of each other's energy levels as a team.

  • &: You mentioned that playing games sometimes feels like work because there's that part of your brain that doesn't switch off. What about when you're watching film or TV?

    CR:

    All the time. That's one of my hobbies—live tweeting when I watch films. Because it's a different craft and I'm really interested in it and love it, I don't find it draining. I find it more relaxing. I'm always analysing, ‘why is this good? Why do people like this? How did they do that?’ It’s inspiring.

  • But if I do get stuck, I will go back to pen and paper—there's immediate brain to hand connection. Even if you can't write anything, you can still make a mark—whereas on screen you have that blinking cursor!
  • &: When you write, do you write on pen and paper or on a screen?

    CR:

    I have three fountain pens with different colour inks, so my first instinct is pen and paper. I really like writing long-hand. At work sometimes, the pace is so frantic, I don't tend to do that anymore, I tend to write straight into the editor—because you have to rate at pace.

    But if I do get stuck, I will go back to pen and paper—there's immediate brain to hand connection. Even if you can't write anything, you can still make a mark—whereas on screen you have that blinking cursor!

  • You can get all these beautiful coloured inks, and when I got home from that writing retreat I immediately ordered a pen and some ink.
  • &: I love hearing about this process, and I'm really curious about your three fountain pens—you said they're in three different colours, could you tell me more about that?

    CR:

    I went on a writing retreat, which was a week in this beautiful Georgian cottage in Devon just down the road from me, and I met a woman—she had a fountain pen and we hit it off and chatted and sat and wrote together.

    The brand of her pen was LAMY, and I'd been looking at getting a LAMY—so we got talking about fountain pens and then she asked if I wanted to borrow one. She told me it was a limited edition, because they release an ink every year. I was sold after trying it.

    You can get all these beautiful coloured inks, and when I got home from that writing retreat I immediately ordered a pen and some ink.

  • &: I love that. So you've got three different colours. Do you use them for specific things?

    CR:

    So that was the other thing this woman did—she wrote in a different colour every day, so she could see what she'd rested.

    I just pick depending on what my mood is. Usually it's just like, I haven't used ‘November Rain’ for awhile or whatever the name of the ink is.

    I haven't written with a normal pen for so long. I feel bad when anyone comes around and they're like, ‘have you got a pen?’ [laughs]

    I think they make my handwriting look nicer—it makes a ceremony of writing.

  • &: Do you have a routine to write? Do you need to sit in a specific place or use a specific pen?

    CR:

    Generally, no—because with side project stuff, you're grabbing moments to do it. I think if I had to have some ritual attached, it would never get done.

    When I lived in my house in Somerset and I had a garden, I'd like writing in the garden or in the shed because I had a home office then—so the home office was very much a workspace. I wasn't doing creative writing then, I was a journalist and a copywriter, so I couldn't really write in that space because it felt very work oriented in a non-creative way. I suppose I had that kind of ritual then in terms of space, but then I liked writing in cafes as well.

  • That's the beauty of writing games—going to work is like going to a writing group every day.
  • &: Do you still have that creative community of sitting with people, talking to people, writing with people now, with COVID?

    CR:

    That's the beauty of writing games—going to work is like going to a writing group every day. You’re collaborating not just with writers, but with all sorts of incredibly talented people from all sorts of disciplines.

    I'd worked from home for twenty years prior to moving to Sweden. With the pandemic, it was kind of depressing because I'd made this mental switch.

    Before I’d moved here, I’d told myself that I was not working from home anymore—I’d be working in an office. I thought, ‘This could be a disaster.’ I could have had a huge culture shock. Then six months in, I had to work from home. And I was like, what? I don't even have a desk! [laughs]

  • I feel like it’s a perfect mash of the two sides of me. I'm now complete.
  • &: You mentioned earlier wanting to combine two aspects of yourself with game design—the writing side and the games journalism side. Do you think those two sides have effectively mashed into one now?

    CR:

    Yeah. By the time I left games journalism, I was ready to leave. I’d been doing it for a really long time, and it’s cyclical—the PlayStation 5 was announced and I was like, I can't do another. I could just imagine what the articles were going to be. “What are the games going to be at launch? What's the price point going to be? What's the processing power?” I was just like, I can't do it. [laughs]

    I was really ready to leave—and it was in the middle of production on Before I Forget, and it had gotten really positive feedback, so it was a whole new adventure. Moving away from journalism was weird, and sad in some ways. I sometimes miss having that platform I had as a journalist, but mostly I'm fine with not being a journalist anymore. I feel like it’s a perfect mash of the two sides of me. I'm now complete. [laughs]

On the Feed

Keep swiping

01 / 05
Loading...
Ampersand Next up

01 / 02

Aditi Veena

Songwriting... It’s a tool to be able to sublimate, to be able to communicate these ideas with the larger world, and to stand up for myself, in many ways

Ampersand logo
0