Sylvari. Mostly green humanoid figures in a variety of armour types standing before an ethereal forest background.

Imagine All the People: An Interview With ArenaNet Writer Angel Leigh McCoy

Sylvari. Mostly green humanoid figures in a variety of armour types standing before an ethereal forest background.

This past year at Geek Girl Con 2011 I had the distinct pleasure of having lunch with Angel Leigh McCoy, one of the writers at ArenaNet working on Guild Wars 2. Bonding over pizza rarely, if ever, fails and so it was that day. In meeting someone whose philosophy on games– that they were important and could change the world for the better– so perfectly matched with mine, I proposed an interview where we could explore some of these issues. The following two articles are the product of that discussion.

In the wake of the recent disaster surrounding Jennifer Hepler, this interview– which was in the works before that story broke– underscores the importance of game writing and the love that often goes into it. Via email, I asked Angel McCoy many questions about the significance of game writing, what she personally hoped to accomplish, and the Sylvari in particular. I was interested in the latter– a species of plant people without biological sex as we understand it– because they go well beyond the stock figures of fantasy. The writers at ArenaNet do seem to be striving for something new and different, to tell new kinds of stories that include a wider range of sexualities and bodily configurations, which can only be good for gaming as a whole.

This interview with Ms. McCoy is broken up into two parts since I did not want to pare back her extensive answers too much. Though towards the end she is self-effacing about the copious nature of her replies, I think the depth of detail she goes into is both fascinating and inspiring.

Tell me about your history as a writer and game designer; what got you into writing stories for games?

I was born a writer, but I stumbled drunkenly into game design. My history as a game writer and designer goes back twenty years. I’d always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I found the opportunity to write for tabletop RPGs (TRPGs) after a few friends and I opened a games and comic store in Blacksburg, Virginia. I plugged into the games industry by attending conventions and meeting other professionals. Writing game reviews led to a freelance gig working on a game supplement.

It’s been a long adventure, bouncing from freelancing for numerous game companies to being fully employed by some of gaming’s most renowned studios: Wizards of the Coast, Microsoft Game Studios, and now ArenaNet. Along the way, I’ve met fascinating, intelligent, playful, and darkly mysterious people. I’ve followed my bliss, and it has brought me great rewards.

Tell me a little about how the sylvari came into being, with some reference to how the cultural construction of their sexuality developed.

I wasn’t there in the earliest days of development when the sylvari were initially conceived, but I know that the core design group at that stage included Ree Soesbee, Jeff Grubb, Eric Flannum, and Colin Johanson, among others. They had developed a basic outline of the race when I joined the team. They planted the seed, so to speak.

From that point on, it’s been an organic process. The sylvari received the same design consideration we give all our races. We’ve had many discussions about the mechanics of their existence, their lifestyles, and their personalities. They have changed through the years as ideas emerged and were either rejected or embraced.

I remember one particular, undoubtedly rainy, day here in 2008, when we were having “Story Time with Aunt Ree and Uncle Jeff.” These were special meetings when we’d begun working on a particular part of the game, and we needed a lore dump from our loremasters so we could do it justice. The subject of having a gay pair of sylvari came up. Ree looked at me and said, “Absolutely, why not?” That began discussions about how to do it tastefully, how not to do it, and why we wanted to do it. Those discussions continue today.

Sylvari sexuality evolved from the fact that they awakened fully grown from a mystical Dream. Their experience of the world will be nothing like what a human experiences, and we wanted to make sure it all made sense. When we started imagining what a sylvari’s life would be like, it followed that they wouldn’t have any of the relationship biases and social stereotypes that humans have. They know about human society, but they also know that they’re not like humans.

As we began writing for the sylvari, we put ourselves into their minds and began to imagine our way through their thought processes; we realized that they wouldn’t have the same socio-sexual taboos as a human society.

First of all, they awaken wide-eyed to a world they’ve never experienced. Ree wanted them to have a foundation of innocence and curiosity, and it fit perfectly. We took that an extra step by giving them a strong sense of right and wrong, taught to them by the Ventari Tablet. This led to the all-important question: If a society’s moral codes are reduced to a half-dozen simple and wise tenets, how would they behave? What would they value? In the spirit of true nobility, we found that the good sylvari value love, play, dignity, and respect. I think of sylvari whenever I hear John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” The sylvari are what we imagined.

A more updated form for the Sylvari that emphasises their more plant-y features, including leaf-like hair and seed-pod baubles

 

Walk us through the creation of a fantasy society.

Creating a fantasy society is similar to building a house. You start with land. You have to know the world in which society lives. What’s it like physically? (Jungle, dangerous, etc.) Once you know that, you can build a firm foundation for the house. You decide the basic nature of the race, the most broadly sweeping elements that all members of the society share and that inform all later decisions about what will go into making the house. (Plant people, born from a mystical process.)

With the foundation built and reinforced as needed, you then turn to the walls and roof. You build boundaries on your society, put in windows and decide which rooms have none. You put in doors, thresholds of ingress to and exit from the society. Are they welcoming at all? Do they have secrets? What organizations occupy the rooms? Do they let only certain types of people in through the front door? Do they let anyone—or no one—leave? (Honorable, curious, brave, anti-dragon, gregarious, etc.)

To continue the metaphor, the next stage is to decorate the rooms. If each room represents an element of society, then it becomes necessary to find decor that fits without clashing with all the other rooms. This is where the design begins to get complicated, and you just have to feel your way, trusting that the walls, roof, and foundation will keep you from straying outside the society’s natural limitations. (Wyld Hunt, Firstborn, saplings, Nightmare Court, etc.)

You continue to add more and more detail as time goes on, as situations and questions arise, and as you get to know your society better. Logic will dictate much of what should go where, but creativity also plays a role. Not every room has to be beige, unless you choose it to be.

It takes a lot of time and thought to create a believable fantasy society, and it’s very easy to fall into “human” habits, assigning human thoughts and feelings to a non-human society. That’s the sinkhole that will bring your whole house down around your ears if you’re not vigilant.

Guild Wars 2 appears to be abandoning a lot of old tropes that have dominated RPGs since time immemorial, like the Holy Trinity for instance. Would you say this experimentation has had any effect on the writing and the character of the game itself?

From the moment design began on Guild Wars 2, every single decision about the game has gone under scrutiny with an eye toward innovation. We reevaluated everything from the tiniest UI element to the combat philosophy of the game and asked ourselves how we could do it better. We avoided doing anything simply because “that’s how we did it before” or “that’s how it’s always been done.” Sometimes, the old way proved to be the best way, but often, it didn’t.

In addition, choice has always been important. We want to provide our players with as much choice as possible. If a group of players want to build a Holy Trinity, then they can!

I like to think this philosophy of providing choice has filtered throughout the game and into other areas. The atmosphere at ArenaNet, in general, is one of inclusion and respect. I count my blessings every day that I work with a group of such intelligent, innovative, and caring individuals.

In writing for a fantasy RPG, how do you tell a new story, and do you think that opening up the field to highly visible and positive portrayals of traditionally excluded/stereotyped groups helps you to do so?

This is the dilemma of every fiction writer. You never want to tell the same story someone else has already told, but the reality is that there is a finite list of stories you can tell. You keep these stories interesting by recombining elements and characters.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen an increase in the number of traditionally excluded/stereotyped groups in all media—often positively portrayed. This is a trend that is not unique to games and may even have come to games a bit later than other media. It allows us to tell richer stories, it’s true. I’m all for it! These groups are part of the human condition, and therefore, they have a place in any writer’s toolbox.

Look for Part II in the coming days!

12 thoughts on “Imagine All the People: An Interview With ArenaNet Writer Angel Leigh McCoy”

  1. good questions, good answers.

    great interview, one of the better interviews i’ve read up on guild wars 2, great job.

  2. I definitely enjoyed the interview, but do sorely wish that a more relevant screenshot/example of concept art had been attached. Also looking forward to part two. c:

    1. Yeah, it’s disappointing to see such an old image of their obsolete design being used when there are much better images available of what they actually look like now.

      1. Addressing the concerns of those here, I’ve added a new image to the article that should better reflect the current stage of Sylvari design.

  3. Thank you for this great interview, I’m looking forward to Part II. As a female gamer who is also interested in the sociological aspects of games, I found this interview to be rather insightful.

  4. I enjoyed the interview and can’t wait for the next part. But one thing, that picture is with old Caithe before they did the Sylvari redesign. :)

    1. It’s really amazing when you compare the original version of her (the white haired woman on the far right of the top picture) with her finalized appearance in the second screenshot. It goes to show how radically designs can change as a game develops!

  5. This is awesome! The Sylvari are so interesting to me, and I love hearing more about what went into creating them. Can’t wait for part 2!

  6. The Sylvari are a fascinating race, one which I’m really looking forward to playing when Guild Wars 2 is released. Thanks to Angel Leigh McCoy and Quinnae for combining their talents in this illuminating interview :)

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