An Interview With Video Game Designer Sarah Northway

I’ve got a pretty cool interview for you guys this week. In December, a friend asked why I’ve been focusing so heavily on novelists for these interviews. I thought that they had a good point. Writers are active in a number of different mediums, and while I’ve interviewed authors active in a whole bunch of different genres, non-novelists have a good deal to bring to the table as well.

I made a New Year’s resolution of sorts to seek out writers from different mediums this year, such as comic book artists, screenwriters, and pretty much anyone else whose job it is to make people care about fictional people and universes. Video game designer Sarah Northway agreed to be the first participant. Sarah is a globetrotting, freelance game designer whose Rebuild series of games contain all of the ingredients to make a great story.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever watched a zombie movie and wondered why the characters were making the choices they were and thought that you could do better? The Rebuild games let you take command of a growing (hopefully) crew of post-apocalyptic survivor types and reclaim a city block by block, dealing with rival gangs, supply shortages, seasons, and of course, hordes of zombies as you do so. The characters all have names, bios, and a lot to say which, coupled with the ten or so ways to win the game, leads to a very story-driven experience. The first time I played through the game, I felt like I was in a book or a movie.

Sarah is also a pioneer in the indie game-design field which is experiencing many of the same changes that are taking place in publishing right now thanks to advances in technology and a general “flattening” of the industry’s overall profile.

So enjoy the interview.

-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional game developer?

I’ve always loved playing games, but grew up in the 90s thinking the games industry meant long hours, no weekends, doing a lot of math, and working on a tiny piece of some sports franchise or superhero game. I became a web programmer instead and made games in my spare time for fun, until the games industry started to change thanks to online distribution. Smaller companies could suddenly make games too, and were doing much cooler, weirder stuff. They also had better work/life balances. I used the hobby games I’d made as a resume and got a job at one of those companies. A few years later I left to travel and make my own games like the Rebuild series.

-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your games, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

I want my players to tell their own story in my games. I’ve found procedural generation is useful for this, and in Rebuild nearly everything’s generated and events happens in (semi) random order. The gameplay also becomes a part of the story, and if I’m doing it right players will change how they play based on this story they’re telling themselves.

-How would you describe your design process?

I go through ideas phases where I write down all kinds of things I’d like to add to the game, organization phases where I prioritize and cull the ideas, then implementation phases. Rebuild is built of layers and layers of going around through these phases, starting with general stuff (add children) to more specific (event where a child wants to learn to shoot zombies).

-What do you do to make sure that your games have a compelling storyline?

I try to make the world feel consistent through everything. I want the minor events, the scarcity of resources, the zombie attacks to all reflect that same post-apocalyptic universe so you feel like you’re still in the story at all times.

-What are some common pitfalls that you see when it comes to storytelling in games?

If we’re talking beefs, I’m bored by long non-interactive cutscenes and linear storylines that are presented as if the player has some sort of agency to change things. I personally found it too easy to get carried away with storylines that sound good until I realize the player never makes a meaningful decision in them and are just witnessing the events.

-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?

Not yet! I’m planning to spend a year prototyping once Rebuild 3 is finished, so stay tuned for some weird random stuff. If any of it turns out, that’ll be my next game.

– What do you know now about storytelling in games that you wish you knew starting out?

I just wish I was a better writer back then in general. I still wish I was a better writer. It’d be faster if I didn’t struggle so much to find the words or figure out how to get the plot from A to B while staying in the realm of plausible. The words still sometimes get in the way and hamper the flow of my ideas… but I’m getting better with practice.

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to email me with suggestions regarding questions or potential interviewees.

Sarah’s Website

The Original Rebuild Game

More Interviews

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