Ian Thomas on kirjoittaja, narratiivisuunnittelija, ohjaaja ja ohjelmoija, jolla on yli 20 vuoden kokemuksella monia saavutuksia pelien parissa. Ian on ollut tekemässä yli 60 peliä eri sarjoihin kuten mm. LittleBigPlanet ja LEGO, ja viimeisimpänä hänen kädenjälkensä näkyy mm. Frictional Gamesin Amnesia: Rebirth -pelissä. Yhdessä puolisonsa Rachel Thomasin kanssa Ian on myös toteuttanut paljon immersiivisiä larppeja perustamansa Crooked House -tapahtumatuotantoryhmän kanssa. Tällä hetkellä Ian työskentelee Ubisoft Tukholmalla kertomussuunnittelijana (‘narrative director’).
Rachel oli mukana perustamassa Glasgow’n yliopiston Cuckoo’s Nest -larp-järjestöä, ja pyöritti briteissä suosittuja Lorien Trustin pelejä (esim. The Gathering) pitkään. Vuodesta 2002 Rachel on järjestänyt tapahtumia miehensä Ianin kanssa perustamassaan Crooked House -tapahtumatuotantoryhmässä. Rachel on intohimoinen tapahtumakehittämisen puolestapuhuja, ja hänen ajatuksiaan voi lukea lisää Medium-blogista.
Kysyimme kunniavierailta muutaman kysymyksen pelialalla työskentelystä.
Did you always want to work with games, or did a hobby turn into a business? What did your career path look like?
Ian: I wanted to work in games ever since I first played them on an Atari 2600; and then I got into programming on a ZX81. I had a bunch of diversions along the way, though, and despite having worked on a few titles from the early 90s onwards, I only made games my full-time career from 2010. In between, I’ve run a larp prop-making company, worked for a cartoon studio, been chief technical architect of an interactive TV company, and run a company that makes educational games for young children, among many other things.
Rachel: For me games have always been a hobby rather than a career. I knew from the age of three that I wanted to become a veterinary surgeon and even when you are at school and university, that’s a career path that demands that a huge amount of your free time is funnelled into working for experience at farms, stables, veterinary surgeries, abattoirs etc. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for hobbies, but tabletop and live-roleplaying was something that I always made time for, as a student and whilst working.
I considered a career change into the games industry in 2019, which would probably have involved a producer role, or event management but I didn’t find the right opportunity. Instead I challenged myself by moving back into veterinary work but in a different country.
You have worked with digital games and big companies such as Ubisoft and LEGO as well as with traditional RPG games and larps. How does the storytelling and narrative work differ in these mediums? What are the biggest similarities or differences?
Ian: There’s a surprising amount of crossover between larp, tabletop, and computer game design. A lot of the principles I learned as a GM and larp organiser – about how to evoke specific emotions from players, adjust to their input, make their choices feel like they have agency – are things that I try to emulate in computer game design. The biggest difference is that computer games make it much more difficult for a player to contribute to the storytelling. It’s by no means impossible – you just need to approach it in a slightly different way.
Rachel: I haven’t done a lot of work in the computer industry, but I have consulted on a commercial project marrying digital games and live action, which was an interesting experience and showed that the difference between the two mediums is gradually eroding away.
The awareness of narrative and approach to storytelling which I learned from larp have proved useful skills in many other mainstream entertainments such as murder mysteries, zombie-run type games, dining experiences, and street games. Roleplaying and event organising give you a great awareness of the flow of a story and what is likely to work for players (or members of the public). Giving people an experience which they didn’t even suspect could be possible is such a thrill.
Do you prefer working with digital games or RPG and larp? Can you name some of your favourite projects and tell us what made them so dear to you?
Ian: Every project is different, and I find things to enjoy in any medium, and love mixing things up between different mediums. Amongst my favourite projects are:
- Amnesia: Rebirth, a narrative horror that I was Story Lead for at Frictional Games, which I love because of the protagonist Tasi, a unique and very deeply realised character – I was really proud of her
- All for One, the Musketeers Larp that we ran with LarpX, which I love because we managed to do a whole load of ridiculous tricks – real horses! Black powder weapons! Adventures through the streets of Paris, on a boat in the North Sea, in the Vatican talking to the pope! Bar fights! Falling chandeliers! A siege! Cannon! We put so much into that game!
- Flotsam, an RPG that I recorded as a podcast with some voice-actor friends, and really enjoyed the worldbuilding, atmosphere, and the editing process
- And Where’s My Shoggoth?, a kid’s rhyming book that I wrote with Adam Bolton where he brought my silly ideas to life with amazingly intricate art.
We also both contributed heavily to the fest system Empire in the UK, leading a writing team that created several of the nations of the Empire and laid down history and geography for the gameworld. It was great to work with a fest system that took game design and player experience so seriously and took such care in their world crafting.
Rachel: Favourite moments from larps we have created include the players coming up a hill and being face-to-muzzle with a tank with shells exploding around them in Captain Dick Britton and The Voice of the Seraph, and finally getting real horses at a live-roleplay event after twenty-five years of trying at All for One.
God Rest Ye Merry was probably our most immersive event and I’m incredibly proud of having created it, but it was the event that nearly broke us due to the amount of creative effort we put into it. We gave the players all their character information and intertwined family relationships in the form of individual documents and between the two of us created 533 unique items sent out to the players before the event. I photographed and took videos of players and NPCs (some of whom only appeared at the event in virtual form). We created sound effects, wrote audio software, animated videos, built puppets, created false walls, planned stunts, and even worked out authentic 1950s meal plans, all with a very small team and budget.
I’d also have to mention Wing and a Prayer, which was a WAAF world war two event which I played and which Ian was heavily involved in running. That was such a valuable experience to play and I feel really privileged to have such an emotional link with a group of women who performed such amazing and important work.
You work together as a couple. Is there a story behind the birth of your company Storyworlds, and what are your respective roles in the business?
Rachel & Ian: We’re not a married couple! We just have the same surname – names are in short supply in Wales.
To decode all our companies – Crooked House is the LARP organisation that we started back in 2002. Talespinners is the games writing cooperative that Ian started in 2016. Storyworlds is the company that we started in 2019 to work on a variety of non-computer-games projects, including some RPG work and writing.
We have recently published two books, Where’s My Shoggoth? – which Ian mentioned earlier – and My Worst Words, a silly illustrated vocabulary book where the child has to say what they see and the parents have to keep a straight face! We also have a free audio adventure set in the Where’s My Shoggoth? universe, which you can play online.
We are currently working on other writing, photography, and roleplaying projects within Storyworlds.
Our roles within the business are varied and overlapping. We are both involved in creative projects, individually and collaboratively. Ian deals with the tech side and Rachel handles the financial and the majority of administrative side.
Ian also works full-time as Narrative Director at Ubisoft Stockholm, and Rachel works full time as a veterinary surgeon.
Are there any challenges or advantages in working together as a couple?
Ian: Not really! We work very well together, and have never – in nearly 30 years of organising events – argued with each other. Each of us is very conscious that the other is someone we can absolutely rely on to get things right, in their own specialities.
Rachel: There’s no one else that I would rather run an event with. We have complementary strengths and are happy to trust the other to do a fantastic job of their part of the creation process. We both know that the other can be relied upon, will complete a task and produce an end result we can be proud of. Perhaps it’s easier to put other aspects of our life on hold to create a project if you’re a couple because you can be quite selfish about the amount of time you dedicate to it. Having run events with other people, we’ve discovered that it’s easy to be disappointed when others are not as dedicated to the project.
There’s also something wonderful about the creative part of story-writing, when the ideas are flowing, the plot seems to be almost writing itself and you get a tingle as the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because the story creation feels right. Sharing that flow-state with other people is just the best feeling and moments like that make us feel great about working together.
In addition to Storyworlds you have also co-founded and work together in Crooked House, which concentrates on large scale larping events. Can you tell us a little about the idea and story behind Crooked House?
Ian: We had both been larping for more than 10 years when we started Crooked House – we previously co-founded the Cuckoo’s Nest roleplaying society in Glasgow in Scotland, when we were at University together, and it’s still going today. Crooked House was an entity we created to be able to run one-off high-concept larp events. The core of the group are myself and Rachel; my brother Bill who used to be a film special effects model maker and art director, and is now a TV & film director; my sister-in-law Kiera who is trained as a stuntwoman; and our friends Dan and Damian who act as our referees and who we’ve worked with for a very long time. We run events with a reputation for over-the-top special effects and stunts, deep immersion, and lots of mood and atmosphere – and our key tenet is to always give the players at least one thing that they have never seen before.
Rachel: The first Crooked House event was a low-fantasy horror loosely set in the gameworld of the Lorien Trust, where we allowed players to take their existing characters into a more immersive and intense live roleplay experience. After that, we wanted to tackle other genres, and since then have run our own independent one-off events in a variety of different settings. Our events are highly immersive, high-concept, full of ridiculous special effects and stunts, and all the team really put their hearts and souls into them.
You have both worked with a wide variety of themes from horror to history. Are there some themes or time periods which you are especially fond of? What makes a good narrative setting for a game?
Ian: I like stories and settings where the world isn’t quite what you expect it to be. Magical realism, folk horror, urban fantasy – call it what you will, but the main feature is to take the real world and just twist it very slightly. I don’t mind what the time period is, but enjoy historical settings or alternate futures. Probably my least favourite setting would be modern warfare – I find the modern fascination with guns and shooting deeply uninteresting.
As to what makes a good narrative setting – almost anything, but the key question is to think about how the player will engage with it. It is a lot easier to rely on a player’s inherent knowledge of and assumptions about a genre or setting and to use that as a platform for the story you are going to tell them, than to place them as an existing character within a completely new setting, where that character will know a lot more than the player themselves. Aligning the character and the player is super-important to the player experience for me.
Rachel: There are historical periods which are generally associated with certain genres of games, but this is not a good reason to automatically combine them. You wouldn’t think of the 1950s as being a headline setting for an atmospheric ghost story, but it worked brilliantly in God Rest Ye Merry, perhaps better than the more traditional Victorian ghost story.
We work with a variety of periods and settings. In part this was a reaction to early larp in the UK being almost exclusively high or low fantasy and we wanted to move away from that. In recent years larp has become more varied in settings and themes, which is fantastic for the hobby.
Our themes depend on the game we are writing at the time. Once we have the idea for the theme, we do try very hard to weave it through all aspects of the design to ensure game consistency and that we can foreshadow future events.
One setting which I would love to explore, but haven’t had the chance to work with is a Dangerous Liasons-type political game in pre-revolutionary France.
We live during a weird time. How has COVID-19 impacted your work? Do you have any insights as to how it may impact the game industry in general?
Ian: Covid hasn’t affected me much, as I’ve worked from home for the last 10 years. The wider games industry has so far coped very well with working remotely; the only real issues I’ve personally had are that we could no longer have voice actors in the studio; we had to direct voice actors as they hid in their own cupboards at home surrounded by blankets to muffle the noise!
Rachel: I’ve been lucky to continue working full-time in my day job during the pandemic. In fact the veterinary clinic has been even busier than normal. COVID-19 has meant that we haven’t considered running a larp since we moved to Stockholm in 2019, due to the difficulty mixing a group of players in a covid safe way. I think larp will begin to open up, but I’ve seen interesting discussions about insisting on vaccination and/or testing of players, in order to make the experience safer for everyone involved.
Do you have any tips for people who dream about working in the game industry or perhaps even founding their own company?
Ian: Whether it’s computer games, board games, roleplaying games, or larp, the answer is simply – make games! All the tools are out there for free, all the learning materials, everything you need. Don’t wait to be asked. At the worst you’ll gain a lot of experience and have good portfolio pieces – at the best you’ll maybe end up with a company! And this is important – collaborate with other people, as all of these industries only work through collaboration and you will make better games as a result of it.
Rachel: Start working at a small scale and expand from there. It’s much easier to run a weekly larp for a university club for ten players than to run a weekend larp for 100 players. Get involved with others who are working on projects you are interested in – you’ll learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Think carefully about the people you choose to work with and how committed they are to the project- don’t end up being the one of the team who does all the work! Keep examples or photographs of your work- you never know when you might be asked to talk about it!
If you want to make a business out of this do your sums carefully. I know finances are not a sexy subject, but you will only make a living if your finances are sound. Can you work on your projects as a side hustle and gradually move it into a part time or full time job once you know it is viable?
Crooked House – http://crookedhouse.org/
Storyworlds – https://storyworlds.co.uk
Talespinners – https://talespinners.co.uk
Ubisoft Stockholm – https://stockholm.ubisoft.com/
Where’s My Shoggoth (Book and free Audiobook) – https://wheresmyshoggoth.com
Where’s My Shoggoth (Free Audio Adventure) – https://dungeon.wheresmyshoggoth.com/
My Worst Words (Book) – http://worstwords.storyworlds.co.uk/