Sure. My name's Kathryn Greenbaum, I am 26, I live in Los Angeles, California.
And for the last three years, I worked as a screen-capture artist for Rockstar Games, and that is the only -- well, I guess, professionally, that is my experience in the game industry. I played games for a long time. I don't really anymore. Strangely enough, I wasn't allowed to play games as a child and really only started sort of playing them properly, like, console games, at least, when I was in college, when I bought my first console, which was PS2. [Laughs.] Like, 10 years after PS2 came out.
That was my gaming.
You said "strangely enough." Why weren't you allowed to play growing up?
[Laughs.] I think -- not I think. My parents were very "go outside and play" kind of parents, which I did a lot of, but they I think somehow innately knew that if I got my hands on a videogame, I'm the kind of obsessive person that I would sit and play for hours and hours and hours, which, of course, ended up happening when I became an adult and could buy videogames for myself and just would get really, really deep into things and they wouldn't be able to pry me away from them.
So they just decided to let me not do this.
I mean, I had computer games I used to play. Like, I used to play the demo level of Doom that came with our computer over and over and over again. [Laughs.] I didn't really understand at that point. 'Cause that was a long time ago. I was pretty young. I was, like, 10, I'm guessing. I didn't understand the concept of playing through games. So as a treat sometimes if we'd been really good, my sister and I, my parents would let us rent a console from Blockbuster when you used to be able to do that. So we'd rent an N64 for, like, three days and my sister would get to pick one game and I would pick one game. And because we never had them longer than three days and my parents would be like, "Okay, you've been playing for three hours, you need to stop and do some things outside," I just didn't really understand really the concept of playing through a game level by level for a really long time. Just because I had never access to games long enough to be able to do that.
So I would just run around playing Legend of Zelda and collecting whatever the hell you collect. So I would play what I thought was how one played a videogame to my 10 or 12-year-old brain because as far as I knew, having only experienced three days at a time of having videogames. Or, I would, like, make friends who I knew had consoles. Specifically people who had Grand Theft AutoIII, I think. I would befriend people and then be like, "Hey, let's hang out. I'll come to your house." And then would show up and just be like, "Yeah, I'm just gonna, like, use your videogame situation right now." [Laughs.]
They'd be like, "You -- what? But this is a single-player game!" And I'd be like,"It's cool, don't worry." [Laughs.]
Which, in hindsight, was pretty rude, but I didn't have any concept of playing a game and progressing through it as either a story or as a mission or anything that wasn't just, like, running around doing random shit.
So that sort of -- and I'm not sure when I realized that, like, that's kind of what they were intended for. Maybe when I was, like -- oh, I don't know, maybe 13 or 14 and my parents finally conceded and got me a PC version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 -- because I was, like, super into skater shit -- and then I was like, "Oh, you, like, play through levels?" But even then, it's like you're unlocking levels. There's no story.
So, that was sort of my background of games for a long time until -- and then eventually I realized as I got older, I figured it out, that the way I had played games when I was younger or had access to them is not generally how they tend to be played or are necessarily designed to be played.
You said you were looking forward to talking to me for this because it's a different context than you're usually painted. What's the normal context that people have talked to you in before -- in other words, where you were before you went to Rockstar?
I did a couple things before Rockstar. I was mostly in fashion photography.
Prior to working at Rockstar, I was an assistant studio manager at a small retouching studio in New York that does all of the work for Victoria's Secret PINK. Clearly a very different environment than Rockstar. [Laughs.]
How so? As someone who has never been in either place.
I guess that exists very much in the culture of Rockstar, too, historically.
Just, girls in their underwear.
But prior to that, I was working. I was in school studying photography and was working at, like, a large commercial photo studio that was also mostly fashion photography-based, and I was like a studio coordinator.
So my entry into games was pretty unorthodox and really out of left field, I think, just because I essentially just showed up. I didn't show up, I wrote an email to them and said, "Hey, I wanna come work for you guys." [Laughs.] "I don't know what I would do for you, but here's what I've done."
And it was kind of a case of right place, right time. And they happened to be looking for a screen-capture artist and I happened to have a degree in photography. [Laughs.] So.
How much of a stretch was it? Like, how much do you feel like you were pokerfacing when you first got there?
Oh, I wasn't at all. That's the funny thing, is that I literally sent off this email that -- I happened to have a friend of a friend who had the email for somebody there and I just wrote this thing that was like -- I think I probably said something about how when I was in sixth grade I used to make friends with kids I knew had GTA so that I could go to their house and play it even if I didn't want to be friends with them.
And, like, that I've really liked Rockstar's titles - Red Dead Redemption is my favorite, and that I was looking to sort of get out of the fashion thing that I was doing and I had no idea what I could possibly do for them, but I'd love to talk to them, and I wanna work there.
I honestly did not expect them to respond, let alone be like, literally half an hour after I sent the initial email be like, "Do you wanna come in today and talk to us?"
[Laughs.] I was like, "Yeah, I do. Okay. Sure."
I mean, it was, like, literally, within a week. I sent the email in the morning, had an interview at, like, 4 that afternoon after being asked via email a couple of questions about my interest in gaming and my background with games.
I have some other female friends who work in games and they tell me that they get asked repeatedly, "Do you like games?" Every stage of the interview process, even if it goes on for months, as if they would slip up and not realize they were applying to work at a game company.
[Shudders.] Yeah. That did not happen to me at all because I think partially in my initial email it was so clear that I was very familiar with all of the Rockstar franchises, had paid attention to what was in their developmental pipeline that was accessible to me. I talked about the GTA V trailer that I had seen and I think was part of what ignited me to be like, "Oh yeah! That's crazy-looking." I forgot about how much I had loved GTA when I was younger and seeing the new trailer and this was -- I think the trailer had come out a year before I was trying to talk to them. And so I talked about all that stuff, and the email I sent them was not just a cursory, "Hi! I'd love to talk to you about employment." It was long. It was a long email.
So I sort of never had that called into question. The response back was like, "All right. You sound cool. What are the last five games that you played?" And that point I wasn't doing a whole lot, so I was playing a lot of games because it being New York you can't walk out the door without spending money. So I was like, "All right, well, I'll just stay home and play a ton of games because I have a lot of free time." So, all right, I'm like, "Well, I've played this, this, this, this, and this."
And they're like, "Okay, cool. Now we can talk to you." So, yeah.
You had told me you realized people in fashion were "boring as hell."
How did you find people in videogames? And now to be clear for the transcript -- you do know other people in the industry not at Rockstar. So your answer will not necessarily just reflect the people you worked with. Now you can say whatever the hell you want. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You know, I think -- look, to be fair on all levels, there are people in fashion that are interesting. Fashion is a pretty shallow stream, if you will.
I think people in games are interesting in a very different way, and a lot of times because I am not -- I have never identified as a gamer, and I think that was really confusing for a lot of people, that I, like, showed up and was this chick, number one, and I sorta just rolled in like, "Hey guys, what's going on?" And they were like, "Hi, where did you come from?" And I was like, "Victoria's Secret." And they were like, "We don't know how to talk to you at all!"
And, you know, because they have so many people trying to come and do that kind of work that are so obsessed with all of this stuff, to have somebody be able to lock down a job that isn't that kind of a person, I think, put everybody in a space like, "Woah. Like, hi, okay. That's cool."
Honestly, I really enjoyed almost everybody that I worked with and everybody that I worked with directly. I think that everybody sort of had a really interesting background. A lot of people came from, like, a cinematography background, or from a filmmaking or a film editing background, and I think part of was nice about Rockstar is that they specifically hire people that are not necessarily these, like, über gamers. People that have interests and a life and a career that exists prior to, you know, them working there that has existed in something completely different than games.
Yeah. What seemed weird or unique to games that took some adjusting to, working in that world?
I mean, it's definitely, like -- it's sort of hard to say because that job was my first really serious job out of school. The retouching studio was more of an administrative position. And that ended up sort of petering out because they realized that they needed a secretary and not somebody with a photography degree.
[Laughs.] Which, would've been nice if they had realized it sooner, but whatever.
It probably got you noticed by Rockstar, regardless of what you were doing.
Yeah, in a certain way, and I definitely learned a lot more about that industry and sort of furthered my thinking that it wasn't the way that I wanted to go.
The games industry, and this is something that gets talked about a fair amount -- I mean, there was an article about it in Kotaku pretty recently. The existence of crunch, which was something I of course had never have heard of because I didn't know anyone in the industry and that sort of was like, "Oh, yeah, you make videogames and it's a thing."
But the way that game cycles work are very specific.
And the way that sort of your work changes and consequently, the amount of free time that you have, or all of that jazz, is directly linked to where you sit in the game cycle and what you're responsible for in relation to that.
I do want to ask you about crunch a little bit. But for just an understanding: What was your day-to-day like in your time at Rockstar?
I played -- my day-to-day was playing the game everyday.
What were your hours?
10 to 7 or 8. Regularly.
In crunch, later than that: 11, 12, 1.
And then back 10 the next day?
Did you have weekends?
It would depend. They sort of tried to have us on a schedule for, like, who was on call for weekends, but a lot of time that sort of didn't apply. Which sort of lead to not really knowing if you were going to be free for the weekend or not until Friday at 6 o'clock.
So it's like working retail?
[Laughs.] Yeah. Little bit.
I mean, I've never worked retail, so I don't know. Just restaurants. Lots of restaurants.
I hear people talk about crunch and it reminds me of places I've worked where, by necessity, I was doing basically three people's jobs simultaneously. I've worked in the media, so I'm sure you've heard it's a field that's not going all that great.
But I would be working Sunday through Saturday, go to the office early around 8 or 9, just to have a couple hours to catch up on email, field pitches, look for stuff to pitch myself, and then I would do the normal 10 to 6, and then I would have to stay 'til 7 to do stuff I felt would be unfair to ask of my interns. But then I'd go home, make dinner, and do a little bit more work.
Is that what crunch is like?
No. It's not.
Crunch is like --
And I'm not trying to compare or say, "Hey, one of us had it worse!" That's all I have to compare it to.
Crunch is like -- and I get the sense talking to other people that have been through crunch in the games industry that this is not exclusive to any specific company, that this is sort of how it works when you have games that cost a massive amount of money to make.
I think this is how games work when you have projects that are hard to manage and you have people who don't know how to manage.
Yeah. I think that's occasionally problematic, too.
Crunch was -- [Sighs.]
Especially in a job where you're doing literally the same thing day in and day out, like, I would run through about the world and create these crazy set-ups that you see on the back of the box or in Game Informer or whatever. All these stills.
For three years?
For three years. Yeah. I worked on separate games.
That sounds like an existential --
It's an interesting test of creativity, because at a certain point, yeah, these games are huge worlds with massive -- and the tools available, you can do these crazy things.
But at a certain point, you -- it's every day trying to come up with something new. And that's all you're doing. In the same world. In the same context. With the same vibe. Trying to -- I mean, it's like being asked to draw something related to one very specific thing everyday for two years.
I mean, are you given an objective? Like, "You have to go to this area and get this type of shot?"
This is like, unless there was a very specific marketing request where they needed, like, an asset for a particular thing, this was -- I mean, what we did was shape the aesthetic of the game prior to it being released because it was entirely from our imaginations or from some kind of cinema experience that we had had that we could somehow channel into creating an image of. Like, seeing if you could even, one, make the image work, which is, like -- that's half the battle. If you have an idea, then you have to actually execute it, which is this total other thing.
And then, you know, but doing that everyday but from 10 to 10 or 11 or 12, six, sometimes seven days a week for -- you know, crunch is like a six-month period, depending.
How do you not go insane?
I had a lot of friends that when I sort of came out of it and started seeing people again were like, "Oh, we thought you had just moved to LA and hadn't told anyone." Like, a lot of people thought I had just moved because I had just disappeared.
Were you under NDA, anyway? Could you have talked about what you were doing anyway?
Oh, yeah. I mean, people knew what I did. People knew --
But you just, like, dropped off the face of the earth.
Right. Because it was like eating, sleeping, working.
I remember hearing stories about people working on games in the '90s and the aughts saying they live at the office. And I think sometimes you hear stuff like that and are like, "Oh, that's just an expression." But I also do know people who literally sleep on the floor at their work.
But you were going home.
Oh yeah, I was going home. You know, it was to sleep.
That was it.
I mean, I was eating at the office everyday. Yeah. I mean -- have you read Masters of Doom? There's a part in Masters of Doom-- and to be fair, I haven't played any of Doom --
You said you played --
Okay, I played the first, like, demo.
Don't sell yourself short, here.
[Laughs.] It was interesting, curious background once I started working in the industry. And there's a description of a scene of them sitting in their, like, new offices just in the dark, coding the game and just piles of junk-food wrappers around them and all of this stuff. It wasn't quite like that. It certainly was maybe healthier eating options. [Laughs.]
But there were a lot of late nights to be had and I, myself and my team were not necessarily even the ones that were there the latest.
Yeah, because, I mean, you're creating stuff, but you're spooling off what other people are creating to support your work.
Yeah. And that's not even being in the same building as the developers.
I was going to ask, like, I've talked to people who say they've worked they were in QA for eight years and never felt like they were part of the industry or part of a company. How big was your team?
There were four of us. Three? Between three and four.
Three and a half?
It depended. Certain periods of time, there were only three of us and sometimes there were four.
Would they ever bring contractors in for work that your team does?
Do you feel like you had camaraderie with other teams or you were part of a greater whole? Or did you feel like you were fairly siloed?
The production team, for sure. Guys that do video, research, the like. The camera guys. Most of the production team is housed in the same place, so you consequently get to know them as part of everyday life in the office.
It didn't feel super-siloed.
It was a very chill office environment. You know, we used to play soccer every Wednesday afternoon, competitive soccer, because there's a lot of English guys who are heads of the company. So, go out for a couple of hours in the afternoon and go and beat each other up playing soccer. [Laughs.]
Did you hear -- did you get the feeling or perception that other game companies valued the role that you had more or treated them differently?
No, the opposite. A lot of other game companies don't even have that role.
I mean, I think oftentimes the work you're talking about is actually contracted out.
Yeah, contracted out, rendered. It's not really a position that most game companies have.
Let alone a team of people doing it.
I know you said you were just sort of sitting around playing games and fashion people were boring, but what did you think or hope that that job in Rockstar would be a path to?
I think at that point I wasn't really thinking like that. [Laughs.] At that point --
You were in a position where you just wanted a job.
Right. I wanted a job. I wanted to do something cool. Something interesting. Something I was going to like. I was 23, so. Or I had just turned 23. No, I was 22. I was young. I was, like, yeah.
[Laughs.] You're so old, 26.
Point being, I wasn't really thinking about the long game necessarily. I was more kinda like, "These people are cool, they want me to work for them. I'm not doing anything else, so. This allows me to, like, use some of the skills that I have. I get to be creative. I get to play, like, bomb-ass games." What's not to love about that?
So why did you decide to leave?
Sort of over time, a large part of it was that I really needed to get out of New York. I lived there starting when I was 18. I went to school there, and in the last three years that I was there it really became a place that I didn't like. And, you know, it's one of those inertia-related things where it's like, "Oh, I went to school here so all my friends are here and now I have a job here and all my friends are still here and they all have jobs and we're still here and we're all working and having friends and we're here."
That made sense to me for a long time. And at a certain point, it stopped being enough.
And I also sort of realized that -- I never sort of thought that games would be, like, a long-term thing for me anyways. You know, it was always more something like, "Oh, I have this really cool opportunity. I'm just gonna run with it and see what happens."
I think part of it was more, as I got a little bit older and sort of started thinking about what I wanted to do and what my long-term goals were in terms of career, because I'm that kind of person that's very thinking down the line, like, "What do I want to be doing so I can sort of try to somehow angle myself in that general direction?"
And after realizing that, like, I love photography and I studied photography and I realized right before I graduated with a degree in photography that I did not want to be a professional photographer.
I understand. I got my degree in music business while Napster was happening.
I like photography, just not as a professional photographer. So, you know, I've sort of gone through my career thinking more about, like, "Well, what have I figured out that I don't want to do long-term?"
Rather than, like, "Well, what do I want to do long-term?" I mean, it's easier to just eliminate things rather than try to grasp at out of the ether, like, the specific title. I guess I sort of started to think about, like, what that next move was gonna be and I knew it had to be outside of New York because I really, really, really was miserable in the city in general.
I sort of got the idea that having been somebody that created assets for, like, a larger thing for lack of a better word, I sort of started to realize that my interests were more in the ideas behind all of this stuff. Like, the aesthetic ideas, rather than the actual execution of those ideas.
So, like, you know, I happen to be a -- not to toot my own horn kind of thing -- but I happen to be a pretty talented photographer. But, you know, when it comes to a lot of things, I don't -- you know, graphic design or films, maybe. I haven't really tried that. We're gonna see where that goes, too. But with a lot of things, I sort of started to feel that I had these visions for specific things but I didn't feel the need to necessarily be the person to execute them and to, like, bring them to life because there are more people out there in the world that are far more talented in their various creative capacities and could sort of achieve whatever look I had going on in my head far better than I could ever sort of try to.
So I started thinking about creative direction and in what context that sort of was the next step. And I figured that production and, you know, a producer role is a good step out of what I was doing in games but into whether it's advertising or the film industry. Something like that. That's sort of a good place for me to try to go next and see if that felt like a good fit.
Did you think about going to the other coast but staying in the same industry?
I did. I actually tried to make that happen with Rockstar, and it just wasn't -- the timing wasn't good.
Yeah. You just wanted to get out of there.
Yeah. I mean, you know. And I sometimes think about it, like, if they had an office here and the timing had worked, would that be a thing? I have no idea.
I'm not trying to haunt you with coulda-beens.
No, I occasionally wonder. And I think that, you know, in a weird way it's maybe a good thing, being out here and having to figure out the next step. It has maybe clarified a few things for me, and I think is ever-slowly getting me closer to a place where I can say, "Yeah, this is actually what I want to be doing." Or at least, attempting something else and then being able to say, "Well, no, that's not what I want to do." [Laughs.]
But at a lot of game companies, when you leave, you leave. And they get you out of there fast because then you become a liability.
By way of contrast, there's another developer I've come to be friends with over the course of doing this. They told me a bit about this and that's the impression I got, which is once you're gone, you're gone.
Oftentimes, at least in the cases people have told me about, there's a policy you don't know about: You won't be coming back.
Like if you leave, you won't be coming back? Or if you quit there's never coming back?
Whenever there were staffing changes, an email just would go out saying, "Whoever is no longer with the company."
And sometimes it would be like, "We wish them the best." And sometimes it wouldn't.
What were the perks like at Rockstar? What were the nice things or what is the "thank you" like for enduring crunch?
I think I got an extra week of vacation, which was chill. I got a very nice bonus. [Laughs.] It's something that I'm still sort of like, "How the fuck did that happen? Like, woah."
What about the non-monetary perks?
I really liked Wednesday soccers. Wednesday soccer was great. I was pretty active in that for a while. I wish I had been active in it longer. Unfortunately I had a shoulder surgery that required quite a bit of healing time, midway.
We got a gym stipend that covered, you know, if you went to the gym six times a month they'd cover a good chunk of your membership fees. I had trained in Thai boxing, so those specialty gyms tend to not be inexpensive, so it was really nice that not only did they help cover the cost of that.
So the other nice thing was because our finishing hours were pretty unscheduled -- you sort of never knew when you were gonna be getting out of the office, it was totally cool to, like, take a longer lunch and go to the gym for your lunch hour. So, I went to a boxing gym that was two blocks away from the office and I would go to the noon class everyday.
Which was sort of a really nice -- because God knows, at the end of the day, even now when I'm not working that late, sort of the last thing I want to do after work is go to the gym. I do it anyways, but it was really sort of nice to be able to -- especially when you're doing something that's a very repetitive job, to be able to break it up with a little bit of activity was nice. If you were gone a little bit longer than an hour, it was not a problem.
I was going to ask, yeah, if the schedule you had permitted you to ever go.
In super-crunch, if there was a heavy deadline, yeah, you don't go to the gym that day. But, like, I think that that's sort of an understood. It was also just a chill work environment. The fridge full of pretty much every soda you can imagine and tons of snacks and fresh fruit and, you know, occasional other fun snacks would get there or dinner sometimes. On Thanksgiving, we got this thing called Thanksgiving in a bucket once that was just these massive buckets, and they had layered, like, all of the things one would eat on Thanksgiving into the bucket. [Laughs.] So you would, like, serve yourself a ladle full of this glop. It was kind of both tasty and nasty at the same time.
It was, like, a fun office. Chill office environment. Everybody brought their dogs everyday, so there's always a pack of dogs running around.
And what were the perks for the dogs like?
Mostly just getting to hang out with everybody and getting free snacks and belly rubs whenever they wanted.
Do they do Thai boxing also?
I tried to get Ace to do it but his legs are really short. He can't quite reach. His reach is really bad.
[Laughs.] Well, to shift gears, unless you want to talk more about your dog --
I talk enough about him.
You were saying in your emails that "content in games is really dumbed down." You had mentioned that in "some games, their stories are fairly generic and formulaic." Why do you think that is?
You know, it's really timely that we're having this conversation because I met somebody this morning who I think that you should talk to as another ex-games industry person on the writing side of things. The world works in mysterious ways.
You had said, "I think it's very much within the realm of possibility to strike a balance between the need to appeal to the masses and to create content that's not centered around flimsy storytelling."
Ah, yes. So eloquent, the way I write.
It is something that I sort of grappled with for a while and because videogames, to me -- this is something that you and I had sort of gone back and forth about via email about, too -- the possibilities for storytelling with games is insane. I mean, it's awe-inspiring and sort of mind-boggling how much one could do with games just because you have already this, like, in terms of technology and graphics, these incredible, super-detailed worlds that are just hyper-cinematic. That, coupled with being able to move through them independently and experience them in a very dynamic way through gameplay, like, those two elements in themselves are huge in terms of storytelling ability.
But for some reason, and I can't tell whether it's a case of too many cooks in the kitchen or they don't care or they don't think that a sort of more solid storyline is gonna be interesting or worth it to the kind of people that they're trying to market the games to?
You know, I'm really not sure why there's that disconnect because you've got this trifecta that could make these incredible -- and it occasionally happens, these games come out that have really, really well-done stories in addition to the other two elements. But more often than not, you don't have them.
And, you know, I'm really not sure why that happens. I'm inclined to think it's sort of a combination of those things that I just said in that I think it's very hard when you have several hundred people working on a game and even probably just in -- and this is not something that I was privy to in my professional experience, but who is in charge of deciding that kind of thing and how many people are involved with those decisions? And how many people are writing the scripts for these games?
What does that look like?
I guess if I had a better understanding of that facet, then maybe I could say one way or another whether or not it's a case of just there being too many people wanting to throw their ideas in there and it just becoming a lackluster thing because there's not enough focus.
I know that it’s these huge teams of people doing this stuff and I'm sure that some of them are talented writers, but -- and I think that this happens in other facets of games, too, where they almost can't get out of their own way with certain things because they have become these behemoth projects. This is where project management comes in and crunch and all these things can sort of get tied into the fact that the process of making a AAA game now is a thousand-person endeavor.
How do you mean they "can't get out of their own way?"
I suppose what I mean is that when you’ve got so many people working on a game, especially a AAA game, that maybe, somewhere along the lines, the true thread of a story gets lost, because there’s just too many people touching it, and maybe too many egos needing to be soothed. Or maybe there’s just too much diplomacy and back and forth between the players, the people writing I mean, and decision makers and eventually the story just becomes this watered down thing. Like they’re trying so hard to make a killer game and they just end up with these piddly little storylines because they’re almost trying working too hard at it or just giving too many people’s ideas merit and it all sort of just becomes a mess.
Can you tell me a bit about project management, what does that actually look like on the ground working on a team on a game?
To be honest I don’t really know much about what the project management looks like - each team has their own producer or lead who is basically in charge of the team and making sure shit gets delivered on time and is what they’re looking for, in my case, what the marketing team was looking for. As for the rest of it, I really have no idea. I just knew who I needed to talk to when I had questions, and if that person couldn’t answer, who I needed to talk to next.
But, I mean, the thousand-person endeavor you're talking about is a continuation of a tradition that was started how many years ago now? I mean, earlier you were talking about how you were playing Zelda growing up, and was it really "wrong?"
But, you know the dots I’m charting here, right?
Can't we rethink what those big games are?
Like, I ran into a colleague at E3 who's working on a big game, he's writing on it. It's a big game. And he's enjoying it but he said part of the job to come in as a mercenary on a big game like that is generating dialog for people out in the world that you may hear if you hold still. And they run it through people who do dialect coaching and they make sure it's culturally accurate and that it makes sense people would be talking about -- and these are things people will probably never hear.
Ped dialog. It's ped dialog.
Like, you know, the sort of people that exist within the world that are --
Oh, right. Excuse me, of all people, yes, you would know a lot about.
[Laughs.] The official term for that, in my experience, is "ped dialog," which I myself have not written but have known people who are not in writing positions who have been asked to write for specific parts of various games.
Is this, like, secret sauce stuff we can't talk about?
Well, I don't know. [Laughs.] I don't know what is and what isn't at this point, to be totally honest.
Like, this is, I think, my 85th interview for this project. Or I passed that milestone a while ago, but this comes up a lot. I never know what's unreasonable to ask someone when it comes to how big-budget games are made, and I love that we're both like, "Can we even talk about the stuff that people will probably never even hear? Is that okay?"
I voiced some of that stuff. Like, for a couple games. [Laughs.] If you play the street-racing element of GTA, the flag girl? That's me.
What did you do to get into character for that?
I put on, like, a real ditzy voice.
Let the transcript reflect, I think you did just slip into character there. I hope so. I hope I didn't just insult you there.
Yeah, I mean, these are things one doesn't really have to think about with something like writing for film because, you know, an extra -- you say to the extras, "Create a general crowd noise."
But in games, and, like, Uncharted being in other countries, having people speak in very specific ways based on where you are and, like, all that stuff -- a lot of dialog for GTA, even, has to be very specific.
That tangent makes this next question I was gonna ask seem fairly obvious, but I mean this in a more general sense and more about the audience, but why do you think people take videogames so seriously?
Intonation there is important.
[Laughs.] I know.
I think people -- I mean, there's gotta be a lot of reasons. Everybody has their own reason that they get, you know, super-into games. I can preface all of this by saying that I personally find, like, gamers on a whole as pretty abhorrent individuals.
Tell me more.
Okay, so, for a couple very specific reasons. One -- and this is the only time that I'm gonna bring this up at all in this whole situation.
The Gamergate thing really makes me want to vomit everywhere. It's really upsetting to me, just because it's such a vile, violent reaction to something that absolutely deserves nothing anywhere near -- I mean, it doesn't deserve any of that. It just -- it's like a child whose toy has been taken away.
and laying on the ground, kicking and screaming. That's how I feel like what Gamergate is for adults who like videogames. Like, men who think that women don't have any place in videogames. That's what that feels like.
On a completely different level, my experience as somebody who has worked on videogames -- and as I have said earlier, worked quite hard -- and on games that people really love, there have been times where, and I've had to teach myself to stop reading, like, Facebook comments when new content was released, like, DLC stuff, because while a lot of people would be excited about it -- and this is a cult game, but not a cult game, but a game people are obsessed with, people who don't know anything about videogames know about this game. You know?
It's a religion.
It's a religion. It really is. For better or for worse, but for every person that was excited about whatever content was released, there were five people that they didn't like some aspect of it or that they wanted something else or, like, they had all these demands. And it was like, "Yo, look. Okay, No. 1: You're not paying for this. This is free. This is for free. Nobody owes you this."
There is such a level of ungratefulness. [Laughs.]
It was, like, really surprising because it was one of those things where, like, one day we would release something that people were really stoked on. And of course there would always be some kind of detractor. But, like, as a whole, these are people who are busy commenting on the game's Facebook page. They're clearly super-into the game, they play it all the time, they're really into it, and then one thing that they don't like or that they wanted that they didn't get, and bite the hands that feed.
Immediate, 360 complaining, "Fuck you guys." That kind of thing.
It was like, "Woah, woah, woah, woah. We don't have to give you any of this."
That, I mean -- that experience in itself was -- [Shudders.] Like, okay. You can complain, fine. Sure. But, like, why are you complaining? Why does this matter so much that you feel the need to publicly bitch and moan about it? That's something I'll never understand. [Laughs.]
Oftentimes in conversations and in these conversations, I ask a bit about that and people explain the technology that enables it. They explain the hardware, the infrastructure, social media, and the way they work.
It doesn't answer the real question that I am wondering and that you asked. You said you don't know, and I'm sorry to flip this back to you, but why is there so much entitlement in videogames?
[Sighs.] The feminist in me wants to say that it's a lot of bratty men. [Laughs.]
But I don't know whether that's founded or not.
I mean, you're allowed to have feelings about stuff.
Yeah. I know, I know. [Laughs.]
I mean, the point is: Okay, $60. Maybe that's a lot for an entertainment thing. It's actually sorta cheap if you think about --
Yeah, but, I mean, if you think about expensive concert tickets or if you're into the opera or --
[Laughs.] If you're into the opera?
I don't know! It's in the same arena. But $60 may also be a lot for some people. But, I mean, you've been on the receiving end. Like, where do you think it's coming from?
I think it has to do with the way that people engage with games and that for them games feel very, very personal. And, you know, I don't have the stats on how many people are playing online with their friends versus how many people are just playing single-player games. Like, I don't know what those numbers look like.
But I think, like, for me and my experience, yeah, I get attached to things like films or books or -- and occasionally games, when I find one that really strikes my fancy. And there are things that you get very deep into and you sorta don't want them to end because you're really like into that storyline or experiencing things sort of as the main character is experiencing them and you're going along and whatever. Out of all of these media, you can, I think delve quite deeply into games because it's not just watching something and it's not just reading something. You're sort of playing quite an active role.
And even if it's not, you know, what I think of as necessarily being super-thought provoking storyline, whatever, people invest huge number of hours playing games. Specific games.
You know, like, Skyrim, I think, is like a 200-hour game or something insane like that. I don't even know. That's a huge game.
So people get very, very attached, I think, to what they've experienced as the game and how they want to continue to experience it. So, you know, it's like if for lack of a better example in my mind -- I don't know why this is the one that's just popped in -- but, like, people reading Harry Potter and then seeing the films, and feeling let down or feeling like it wasn't necessarily in line with how they had envisioned things in the books because those are such fantastical worlds that when you're reading about them, they're very descriptive but you're always going to bring your own flavor of what that description is in your own head. And then when you see it as brought to life by Hollywood, of course that's not going to be the exact same vision that you had when you were reading the book. And so in certain ways it's going to feel like it impinged a little bit upon your, like, experience of Harry Potter.
Truth be told, I am not the world's biggest Harry Potter fan. I'm sort of neither here nor there about Harry Potter. But I know that there are people who felt deeply betrayed by the movies.
And I think that that's one thing where you're taking a book that has no universal visual element and then giving it one versus something like a game where, like, everybody's playing that game and seeing that game pretty much the same way.
But people drawing different things from it and having different interests within these sort of larger, like, and specifically sandbox-style games. I think that maybe that is part of the thing is, like, there are so many different options of what one can do in a game like that where you just sort of can run around and do whatever you want, there's like a 100-plus things that could interest people. So, you know, somebody who's really into street racing or whatever is gonna be like, "Oh, you didn't release more races." They're gonna be bummed about that.
Versus somebody who's, like, really into collecting weaponry or whatever is bummed about there not being any new weapons, you know?
I think that's sort of a large part of why people get so ornery about when new content comes out it's not exactly what they wanted, but for some reason the way that gamers react is, like, so much more volatile and offensive and just sort of like, "Fuck you," than anything else where I've seen people just being sort of, like, disappointed about it.
Like, there's a difference between people being disappointed in, like, the Harry Potter movies not fulfilling their vision of what they thought Harry Potter should look like brought to life versus gamers being fucking pissed about the DLC not having the shit that they wanted in it and then being, like, really disgruntled and bitchy about it on the Internet.
So you got a chance to work on your favorite game series, which I can relate to a bit in my career -- getting to work at places I was a fan of before I was even ready to start thinking about having a career, period. I'm curious, like, what was it you loved so much about Grand Theft Auto and what was it like working on it? I'm not asking you in the Access Hollywood way. Really, what was surprising or weird or exciting about working on it?
It was pretty surreal actually -- but not, at the same time.
When I first started working at Rockstar I worked on Max Payne 3, and I hadn’t played any of the other Max Payne games, so I was coming at it with no pre-existing notions about it. That’s another franchise that people really love, because they’ve been around for a while. But when people started to work on V in the office, I got pretty excited, mostly because I’d seen the first trailer, at that point, two years prior and was just so totally blown away by it and was sort of just waiting with bated breath to get my hands on it myself. But of course when you start working on a game it never works properly, especially so early in development -- early dev builds, no matter where you are or what you’re working on, are always by nature, buggy as hell. So you’d be trying to get work done and the game would crash or elements wouldn’t work or your tools wouldn’t work or it wouldn’t stop raining, loads of tiny hiccups and you’re like trying to slog through that and get your work done for the day.
So at a certain point, there was this initial excitement about seeing what the story was and what it looked like, but that pretty quickly gives way to trying to figure out how to work around the developmental issues of a game that’s not going to be released for like, two years.
What I had loved about the game as a kid, and to be fair, I played GTA III, some of Vice City, never played San Andreas and never, until working at Rockstar, played Liberty City, was that, you know, as a 10 year old, I could run around cutting people down with a samurai sword or a chainsaw or just like blowing shit up and creating general havoc in a golf cart or a stolen Porsche or a tank! What’s not to love about that, right? Or the golf club!
I don’t know if this is was like an indicator of something but I used to really get a kick out of whacking people with the golf club in Vice City. So I guess what I really loved about the game was that it was this seemingly massive space where I could basically do whatever the fuck I wanted, especially because I used a lot of cheats to keep my wanted level down. I remember it was a "thing" to get yourself to five stars and see how long you lasted once the tanks started rolling in. But ultimately I was fascinated with the idea that I was in this open world, and no one was telling me I had to follow any specific mission, or any real rules, or do anything I didn’t want to do, which was pretty much unheard of in games and was exactly how I had played games as a kid, a sort of aimless wandering.
So, you were working at a game company last year. Was there discussion about what was going on last summer and whether someone should react or do anything?
Yeah. Doesn't it seem like a media company, something that interfaces with the public, should stick its neck out for its people?
Sorry to ask a big philosophical question and then bookend it with a yes/no question.
I mean -- [Sighs.]
I'm just curious, like, internally, what were companies talking about at that time? What did they seem to be thinking?
Nothing. I never once talked about it with anyone.
Did you hear anyone talk about it?
Did you know other people at other companies?
No, not really.
What do you think about that?
Like, look. On one hand, yes, it is really bad.
And on the other, I also weirdly understand the need to just put your head down and pretend like it's not happening. Especially when you make a game like we made.
Which, look, it's a game that I love. I'm really proud of it. It's sort of like -- in terms of the work that I will have done in the industry, that's the crowning jewel. You can really not ask for more. [Laughs.]
I mean, it's the household games. People may remember it now before they remember Mario.
Right. Based on the age of people these days and who's playing games and who's paying attention to this stuff. But I think that as a company and as a company owned by a publicly traded company, that's a pretty rock and a hard place kind of situation because for me, on one hand, as you may have noticed, I'm pretty vocal about this kind of shit. Not necessarily from the perspective of games, just in life in general.
The games stuff, I feel like I almost can't touch because it disturbs me on such a high level, but also because it scares me. It makes me not even want to talk about it.
And it was not something that I wanted to engage my colleagues on because I come from a super, like, pretty academic, queer theory, gender theory background.
That's not the place that a lot of people that I work with come from.
So, my politics on stuff like that are -- I would not necessarily say super-radical, but for people who don't come from that background, they find it very hard to engage with.
I don't know, you seem fine me.
[Laughs.] Yeah, no.
Believe me, though, I know what you mean.
You could just -- strangely enough, it didn't feel like the appropriate place to be having that discussion. Which is kinda weird, right?
But on the other hand, I'm also somebody that did not experience any of that shit on a firsthand basis. I mean, yeah, working in an office mostly with, like, fairly large percentage of dudes you're bound to hear a bad dick joke every now and then. [Laughs.]
That's sort of par for the course.
But it was never -- like, and there were a couple times that I overheard conversations where I was like, "That's pretty gross." But it never had anything to do with me and it was never to a point where I was really like, "I need to say something about this."
Like, it was always a personal conversation about a personal experience that I would walk into the kitchen and overhear and just be like, "Yuck, I don't need to hear what you did with your date on Friday night." [Laughs.] You know?
That could happen in the office. It's happened in pretty much every office I've ever worked in. It's like, not a games-exclusive thing.
So on one hand, I feel like, yes, I am capable about talking about this kind of stuff because I am a woman who worked in games. But on the other hand, I feel like there are so many more people who have far more of a bone to pick because they did have absolutely atrocious shit said to them or people acting really grossly around them in a professional environment. And I didn't have any of that at all.
Can you tell me a little bit more about why the office didn't feel like an appropriate place to talk about this stuff?
I guess a lot of it had to do with the fact that I mostly worked with men, and that I felt like a lot of them wouldn’t be able to relate to what I was talking about.
Of course many of them would agree that Gamergate was absolutely abhorrent, they’re good guys, but I feel like it’s a very hard conversation to have with men in general because a lot of the time they get defensive even if it’s not them that are causing problems and even if they feel like the whole situation is really terrible. I also feel like guys sometimes, unless they’re really taking the time to inform themselves, wouldn’t necessarily get why it’s such a big deal and so scary for a lot of women in games. I guess part of it is also that my way of talking about something like Gamergate, as I’d mentioned earlier, comes from a very academic standpoint and is for some, considered pretty radical feminism. A lot of people can’t relate to that or don’t have the background to or just read it as being sort of like being an angry woman type thing, and that’s not to say that that’s how I feel my colleagues would have reacted, but just as a general way that people tend to react when it’s brought up.
So it was one of those things where I felt like I might not be heard, or if I was, that my way of discussing it would be disparate with how my colleagues would be interested in discussing it, if they were even interested at all. Or that they’d just not be as receptive to it because they weren’t particularly informed, not because they didn’t want to be but because maybe it just didn’t really read on their radar for whatever reason.
Do you find it difficult to stay emotionally connected to videogames?
Yeah. Well, hmm.
Yeah, I do.
Although, to clarify or add another dimension to this, you did work in the industry and that can tend to just destroy the magic as well.
Right, I mean, and that's part of it. A lot of times now, I'll play games -- and when I say "a lot of times," it's like, to be perfectly honest, I haven't properly played a game in the three years since I started working in the industry.
With the exception of, like, one or two. And when I play them now, it's kind of funny because I'll notice things that only people who work in games would notice like, "Oh, there's a texture breaking over there." [Laughs.] Little graphic detail things, or gameplay glitches.
Actually, there was a time I was playing -- and I won't say the game, because it doesn't really matter -- a game that had just come out. I played through a level -- it was a game I worked on -- that I knew was supposed to have bad guys in a certain location. And I was running through the level and there was no bad guys. And it was a consumer copy of the game.
I immediately got on the bug report website and was like, "There's a problem with this specific level!" [Laughs.]
Is there really any difference you see -- comments on a videogame site versus comments on a political blog? As far as the way people are engaging with each other or whatever?
I mean, people have told me Donald Trump is the perfect example of what's happening in videogames. And at the same time, you know, people hated Skyler White.
Like, where do you think this stuff is coming from?
I mean, I think that, like, of course it's all gonna be sorta connected. And as somebody who should know better than to sort of lump gamers as a whole into men age 18 to 27 who are, like, kinda douchebags.
That is not necessarily all of the people who are playing games. But I feel like maybe it's the most vocal group of people that are playing games.
And that, probably in terms of tying it together with a political stance, I mean, look: For the most part, big games -- I feel like games right now, almost all of them involve guns in some persuasion. So, we're dealing with people who are very comfortable with the idea of running around in a virtual space and gunning people down.
Which, when I first started doing this job, I was really proud of myself and was getting stuff published and would send my published shots to my parents, to be like, "Look what I did! This one got approved!"
I was going to ask about that, because you mentioned they weren't crazy about you being around games growing up.
And I don't think it was from a violence standpoint. I was allowed to watch, like, violent movies. They were not the kind of parents that were like like -- I mean, they didn't want me to have toy guns because we're from Massachusetts. Guns and Massachusetts are just not really a thing. [Laughs.] But, like, I don't think it was as much about violent content as much as they really -- we were allowed to watch TV for an hour a day. It's just a continuation of that kind of vibe rather than about nailing people with an AK. [Laughs.]
So what'd they make of the work you sent them?
So, my dad is pretty tech-savvy and follows gaming but does not game himself. But especially when I started working in the industry started paying attention to it. So he was sort of like, "Oh, that's a cool shot." Whatever.
And I'd send them to my mom and at one point she emailed me back, and I think it was because -- and as you know, having played Max Payne 3, when you do a bullet-time headshot, it's pretty graphic. So, I had sent her a shot that I had taken that got published that was a dude getting the side of his head blown off. And she emailed me back and was like, "Um, are you okay?" [Laughs.]
I was like, "What do you mean, am I okay?"
And she's like, "That's a really violent image."
I was like, "Yeah, I'm fine."
She's like, "So is all of the stuff that you're doing at work, though, is basically blowing people's heads off?"
And I was like, "Well, yeah, that's sorta what the game is."
And she was like, "But you are okay?"
And I was like, "Yeah. I'm fine."
And then I sent her a study that there's no proven link between violence in children and playing videogames or whatever. [Laughs.]
But I think that for a minute because for somebody who has no -- not that my mom's not the -- she's not the world's most tech-savvy person, but she knows how to use a computer and use the Internet and shit, but for somebody who hadn't at that point had any sort of way to judge what videogame content was like now or before, just somebody who wasn't engaged with videogames at all, to have that be, "Oh, here's what I'm working on," was kind of shocking.
It was like, "Woah! This is pretty gory shit."
But it never was. To me, I mean, this is work.
We're being asked to make super-cinematic things based on a specific set of parameters. Like, this is the game. Here's us showing off how good the game looks. The content of it only reflects the content of the game, not what I would like to be doing in my spare time. You know?
But I think that for a lot of people, the ability to go online and play Call of Duty or whatever gives them some sense of macho, you know, "I can go and shoot a bunch of Nazis." Or whatever.
To go and play war games without ever leaving the safety of your own home is both a powerful thing and I think says a lot about the kind of people that are interested in doing that.
To me, those kinds of games are, like, beyond boring because it's mission-based strategy shoot 'em up, but without a whole lot of story. And people that are interested in just going out and running and gunning and -- something about the fact that these guys, the way that those games are played is, like, the opposite of the way war is actually conducted, and the fact that, like, if these guys were to go and use those tactics in reality, they'd die instantly. You know?
So I feel like there's a certain political climate that lends itself well to the sort of first-person shooter element of the game industry specifically. But then you have, like, the sort of fantasy games that are a very different subset.
So, politically speaking, I think it's sort of hard to -- pin the tail on the donkey is the only thing that I just wanted to say. [Laughs.]
Do you think people are actually being desensitized? Do you ever think maybe you have been?
Yeah, but I don't think it's just because of games. I think it's because of everything.
I mean, and I'm somebody who watches a huge amount of film and TV and who have friends who are not Americans who -- like, in France, it's more scandalous for there to be really raw violence than having a huge amount of nudity in a film.
And I think that says a lot, and that's pretty scary to me.
We can watch somebody get blown to bits and not bat an eye, and while I'm sure sort of globally this is also somewhat of an issue somewhat culturally -- like, European countries have a much sort of higher bar set for censoring violence versus something like nudity. And here, it's the exact opposite.
And that scares me.
You can't even acknowledge you've ever had sex.
Right. A hint of a nipple? X-rating.
Not quite, but you know what I mean.
I do know.
Blown up and shot and decapitated and it's just -- there's no -- and I watch and I'm like, "Blech, that was decidedly unpleasant." But also I'm at a point where if it's particularly grotesque I might be like, "Wow, I wish I had closed my eyes for that one."
But maybe that's not the reaction I should be having.
I mean, why are there shootings in movie theaters? Why are people threatening each other over videogames? Is this even actually about the mediums or is this about the audience?
I don't know. Look, this is something I have been thinking about a lot recently, too, and I don't fucking know. The thing about people getting mass murdered in movie theaters is so strange to me.
It makes no sense other than that it's a captive group of people in an enclosed space.
Like, that is the only thing that comes to mind when it's like, "Okay, if I was gonna, you know, fucking plot one of these awful things."
Nowhere to go.
Right. One big room, not that many exits.
Why are we so angry?
Yeah. That's the other thing. Also, what's up with all these white dudes who supposedly have mental health issues that one, either don't actually have mental health issues and are just fucked up, nasty awful people, or have terrible mental health issues and aren't getting any help?
What do you think the games industry or games media could be doing to combat the toxicity and entitlement and, honestly, the lack of empathy? Is there anything?
No. I don't think there is, really. But it is something that is troubling to me. I feel like it's something where it's so far gone that there's not a road to recovery.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I think -- you know, despite all the sort of flaws that are inherent in an industry that has really made its mark in terms of violence, the not nice portrayals of women -- there's a lot of sort of grotesque elements of the games industry and the games that get made. But I think that some of the really incredible things that have been accomplished are on an immersive and graphical level.
Sometimes I'll see a game and just be like, "Holy shit, how did they do that?" Stunning -- and it's not just because the graphics are very high-quality. Sometimes they're stylized. Like, Borderlands is a crazy-looking game. The most recent one, that's in a very specific style that's not necessarily, like, photo real. And then of course you get into breaking the fourth wall kind of situation, but just the tremendous accomplishment in terms of art and sort of cinematographic content -- I mean, people, and because I know some of them, but the people who do cutscene camera control and programming game cameras and stuff like that? There's so much finesse and skill required in stuff like that, and that's shit that people don't think about.
People are like, "Oh yeah, the texture artist is really good,"... maybe they're thinking about that.
I was gonna say, the fact that people are complaining about, "Well, why isn't this in there?" or, "Why isn't that in there?" means that the work that was put into all the stuff that they didn't notice, it liberates them almost to be that entitled.
Right. And I think that the people that are complaining about this kind of shit have absolutely zero sense of what kind of skill or time or technology or innovation has to go into making a small game, let alone a really big one.
So, just in terms of the level of art that has been achieved. And while, yeah, it's not necessarily high art, but it doesn't have to be. It's not masquerading as such.
On that level, I think that games -- I mean, look, the original GTA was a top-down pixelated thing. You go from that to -- the fact that they've managed to get that game to look so good on a console that was almost 10 years old is just, like, somebody was a magician with that.
And I say that as somebody who's a very aesthetically based person. That's what I do. It's what I love. It's what interests me, the visual components to a lot of this, and the story too, of course. The accomplishments that have been made with that are just stunning and absolutely phenomenal to me. But it's sort of, like, at what cost?
Also, yeah, you can have these absolutely breathtaking pieces and worlds but have the content of them be pretty sinister still. And not in an exciting, "ooh, it's a crime noir sinister" sense of the word.
Just in, like, "maybe it's not doing such great things for us as a society" sense of the word.