Talking adventure games with Olivia Wood

Olivia Wood is a video game writer, narrative designer, and editor, specializing in interactive narrative. She works for Failbetter Games in London, UK. Her credits include Sunless Skies (writer, narrative designer and editor), Sunless Sea: Zubmariner (writer, narrative designer and editor), Sunless Sea (writer and editor), Fallen London (writer, narrative designer and editor), Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (contributing writer), The Mystery of Kalkomey Isle (design consultant and editor), Cheaper than Therapy (writer, designer and developer), and Lethophobia (writer and designer). She first worked in the video game industry at the age of 18 as a quality assurance technician for games including Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and Timesplitters 2.  Her work in writing and editing (narrative) in the video game industry was recognised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2017. She strives to share her knowledge of video game writing, narrative design and interactive narrative through giving talks and interviews and also via narrative consultancy and writing services.

This interview features conversation about her favorite adventure games, narrative, and writing.

Jeffery Klaehn: What about adventure games most interests you, as a writer and also as a player?

Olivia Wood: There's been a history of puzzles in adventure games feeling at odds with the narrative. I actually don't love calling them 'puzzles' in this context. Puzzles to me are more about something with its own set of internal constraints and rules that gets progressively complicated and iterated upon. I prefer to think of what are traditionally called 'puzzles' in adventure games as 'problems.' 

Any story has problems to overcome. In most narrative mediums, how a character overcomes a particular problem tells you something about that character and their place in the world. In adventure games, there's often a gulf between the types of agency the character (not the player) can exercise in-world and the types of agency the player thinks they should be afforded. Sometimes, overcoming these problems in adventure games can too often become a matter of logical contortion. (Take the monkey-wrench in Monkey Island, which is a leap of logic even if you have the cultural reference, and basically impossible for UK English speaking players, as we call a spanner.) 

I actually love what Unavowed does here. You will solve certain problems differently depending on which companions you've brought with you into a particular segment. This has a bunch of neat design effects, but it also makes a lot of these solutions feel narratively resonant. They stem from very comprehensible things about the characters and how they can interact with the world. And that doesn't always mean the solutions are always obvious, either, but it at least gives you a 'hook' into understanding what you're trying to achieve.

JK: What are some of your own favorite classic adventure games and why?

Olivia Wood: I started writing a list and there's a lot of LucasArts games on there. The Monkey Island games – ridiculous, genuinely funny, and taught me a lot of the way I think about problem solving in games (for good and for bad!). In the same line, Day of the Tentacle; Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Loom – god, that game! I haven't played it for literally decades. I'd have to replay it to remember what happens, but I remember clearly how it made me feel. It was one of the games that revealed that gaming wasn't just about fun and satisfying problem solving, but could be emotionally profound. 

I played several of the King's Quest games – but couldn't complete them without walkthroughs (harder to get back then!). I think I was too young for them, really. I looked at the Wikipedia entry for them recently, and saw that Roberta Williams mentions being inspired by the Colored Fairy Books – sun-bleached copies of which are still at my parents' house. I still go back to those books – I'm a sucker for Fairy Tales, and how the originals are often actually horror stories, if occasionally horror-stories-with-hope.

I am particularly fond of the Broken Sword series, for personal, nerdy reasons. I find it hard to resist saying 'George' in the accent of Nicole.

JK: Do you have a favorite character from among these games [and why]?

Olivia Wood: Stan S. Stanman … because I couldn't resist giving that as an answer. Also, because of his improbable coat. (The S stands for Stan, right?)

JK: What about modern adventure games?  Do you have time to play games?

Olivia Wood: I do play games, yes, but I have to strike a balance between 'games for fun' and 'games for professional interest', though they often overlap. It does mean that I really only get to play recent adventure games, and can't go back to fill in the gaps left by classics I never got around to at the time. 

JK: Did you ever play The Longest Journey? 

Olivia Wood: Not yet. I own it, keep planning on starting it, but haven't yet had a chance. The difficulty of playing old adventure games is exacerbated by the fact that many had a logical language that made sense if you were immersed in them, but which is difficult to get your head into if you haven't played many recently. It can mean that some old adventure games are basically impenetrable without a walkthrough, and definitely take longer than the puzzles within them justify.

JK: There are so many truly amazing adventure options available to new players.  What guides your decision-making regarding new games you decide to play, invest in, spend time with?

Olivia Wood: Recently becoming a BAFTA member has made this a lot more difficult. I already had far too many games, causing decision paralysis whenever I sat down at my computer. Needing to vote on the Games for BAFTA meant I suddenly had more than a hundred added to my account…  (I've got 473 games in my Steam account alone. That is a despairing comment, not a brag!) At that point I played as many as I could of the beginnings of the new ones, quit the second I felt frustrated or bored, and stuck with the games that kept me enthralled.

When it's not award season, I go for games that friends have worked on, games that people I trust from previous recommendations rave about, or games that I've heard mention of on Twitter and like the sound of. Or, y'know, I go with what I feel like! Which is nebulous and ill-defined, but it's more like picking something off a menu at a restaurant. You probably don't have that well-defined a logical reason for choosing something as much as trying to satisfy a mood of the moment. But I'm a big fan of games that have an actual ending!

JK: Please tell me about Lethophobia and its place within the context of your career development.

Olivia Wood: Lethophobia was developed over the course of several years as it had to be slotted in the gaps between my full-time and freelance work. I was a professional editor then, but in Science-Fiction and Fantasy publishing, not videogames. 

I wrote it with Jessica Mersky, a friend I made through Twitter (back in those days when that still happened). We'd started talking because her tweets were surreal,  compassionate and entertaining, and it turned out that she was a skilled writer who shared my interest in writing for games, and adventure games in particular. 

We created the game partly to see whether we could. We wanted to build something that the StoryNexus engine wasn't designed for – but it was also the engine we were both most familiar with, being regular players of Fallen London. 

We pushed against some of the constraints of the engine (but in the process I learned a lot that would help me in my work with Failbetter Games), but created something I'm still proud of. The game explores memory, and the discovery of and reconciliation with trauma (particularly childhood trauma) – but I think it's a loving game. Not just because I wanted to build in an encouragement towards self-forgiveness, but because of the nostalgia towards all the games that came before it – the games that drove me and Jessica towards games writing and design, and taught us what we knew about them up to that point. There are obvious homages to adventure gaming, and straight callouts to D&D and parser games. These weren't just inserted at whim, or because we are geeks (although we are). We wanted the space to feel familiar, to remind the player of things they might once have loved, and of their childhood.

Lethophobia was actually released a while after I'd started work at Failbetter, but we began working on it years before. Work had meant we'd not been able to dedicate enough time to it to finish, and – like so many games – we had had to rework designs that hadn't worked on playtest, and had to cut scope. Nevertheless, I'm still proud of how well it stands up.

JK: A quick question unrelated to adventure games … you worked on Time Splitters 2 … do you think that game will ever be rereleased on PC? 

Olivia Wood: I have no more insight than you. Honestly, I think it's unlikely – but enough people remember it fondly that there's a slim chance. I do wonder how much of its long-standing appeal is because people view it with nostalgia, and don't get to see how it stands against current games… na, it's genuinely a great game. I'm still (jokingly) sore about how one QA 'friend' actually entered a bug that was: 'Olivia can complete it on Easy without dying: the game is not hard enough.' 

JK: Looking at your own career to date, do you have a favorite piece of writing you've done, or a favorite scene or sequence you've created within a game?  Is it possible to choose just one?

Olivia Wood: It's very difficult to choose – I have favourites of each type of writing content I've done in games, but I can't pick between them. My favourite character is the Fortunate Navigator in Sunless Skies – I just had so much fun writing him, and I stole some of the personality quirks from a good friend. It's nice to see him in the game, and cherished by players. The Navigator is also a character filled with joy, which wasn't always the case with my Sunless Skies writing. 

Take the port I'm most proud of in the game – Brabazon Workworld. Not only is it drawing from Victorian poorhouses (vile institutions), but I pitched it soon after the Brexit vote, and was writing it during the interminable negotiation time after that. I was both furious and deeply sad about the outcome, and how I saw it changing my country, and I poured a great deal of that into my work. Some players dislike the port, but that is largely the point. Sometimes, against the vastness of an entrenched political system, you can push hard to only make miniscule changes. But were the whole game like this, no one would play it. So it was important that it be only one note among many in the game.

As is often the way with writing, I'm generally most fond of my most recent stuff, as it represents the culmination of my experience up to that point. But, irritatingly, most of my newest work is protected by the NDA-enforcing orbital railguns pointed at my house at all times. 

I've created a narrative bible that involved deeply personal research, and opened my eyes to life in the UK in the years after WW2 and before I was born. For the same project, I've directed voice actors for scripts I've written – and just hearing your words come to life is incredible. I'm not sure whether it was the brilliance of the voice actor (probably) or my work (not so much!), but what emerged was throat-catchingly powerful.

Jeffery Klaehn holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde.  His fields of expertise are media and communication, comics and graphic novels, social theory, the political economy of media, propaganda, digital storytelling and game design, and interactive media.  He has published interviews with the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, Loading: the Journal of the Canadian Gaming Studies Association, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, the International Journal of Comic Art, Horror Studies, Media Theory, Synaesthesia: Communication across Cultures and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. More information about his research can be found at: