Jill Murray on Forging Your Own Path as a Game Writer

Jill Murray is an award winning writer, novelist and playwright, probably best known for her work on the Assassin’s Creed franchise. In 2013 she won the Writer’s Guild of America award for Outstanding Video Game Writing for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, the first Assassin’s Creed game to feature a female protagonist, and a female protagonist of color at that.

In 2014 Murray left Ubisoft and founded her own company, Discoglobe Interactive, where she works with a mix of AAA and indie studios on writing and narrative design for games. “Many factors led me to found Discoglobe Interactive,” she says. “I had always run my own business before I worked in games, and it seemed natural that I would again. I learned a lot at AAA studios, but often found myself at odds with aspects of the work culture. Some of these are industry-wide and I continue to confront them now even as an indie with mainly indie clients. But overall, running my own business gives me more flexibility to choose how I engage with the industry, when, and on what terms. The most immediate issue I’ve tackled is overwork.”

A hard worker since she was a as a child who craved self-sufficiency, Murray was still shocked at the expectations she felt working in the mainstream games industry. “At one point when I was working a full-time AAA job,” she says, “I was scheduled on paper to work 7 days a week. We were distant enough from launch that it wasn’t a moment when you’d normally expect crunch, and I thought, wow, we are all really not handling this well together. I felt that by continuing to show up, and making my overtime reliable, I was complicit in never improving this process.”

“I asked for help, and was eventually told by an individual in HR that she expected women to work harder than men, so this was normal. The writing was on the wall; things were not looking good for me in that job.

Many people lack alternatives and must simply endure situations like this. I have certain privileges in place-no student debt, reasonable savings, low rent, a family that will feed me if things get dire, a robust network, and brute faith in my ability to outrun trouble. Looking at my situation, I felt I’d be serving both myself and the industry better by at least taking a break to try to figure out how to establish a different kind of business, with different ideals and rhythms. So when the moment came that I really had no choice but to leave, I was mentally primed for the next step.”

But, even if she is the master of her own destiny now, Murray sees work-life balance as a process that needs continual practice. “Trying to do better is my full time job now,” she says. “If I can figure out how to keep a sustainable rhythm going for myself, then I can evolve my business to bring in other people to work sustainably with me. Much of this is counter-intuitive. The better things are going, the more momentum there is, the harder I have to try not to overwork.

But there will always be deadlines, and pressures and expectations; crunch doesn’t stay at bay naturally, with our whole surrounding culture pushing always for more, more, more. Crunch is a knee-jerk reaction. Not-crunch is a process.”

But even an award winning writer needs to fight for work and the right to be heard.

“When we won the Writer’s Guild of America Award in 2013,” she says, “it was for Assassin’s Creed Liberation, a game set in Louisiana during the American revolution, featuring a black woman protagonist with a family history of slavery. It was up against a much bigger Assassin’s Creed game, whose creative director had given interviews to the effect that the revolution was a ‘time of men,’ where women wouldn’t be able to do much. Every page of that script was hard-won.

‘Coasting,’ to me, would mean ‘graduating’ to making games of that scale or bigger, without having to battle every time for compelling representation of women, people of colour, of non-binary gender, of every orientation, of a variety perspectives, and stories. It would mean practically tripping over game projects with diversity of storytelling techniques, of dynamics and mechanics, in pursuit of a panoply of player feelings and reactions, beyond the simple fun we associate with adrenaline. It would mean being able to show up at any studio and expect to never receive feedback like my opinion has to be weighted lightly because I am female, or that ‘the guys’ want to know when ‘they’ll see some testosterone on the writing team.’”

If I was coasting, then right now you’d already be playing a AAA game with a 48 year old woman protagonist with a complex character, a history of ingenuity and survival, and a personality you don’t always like. (Incidentally, if anyone does actually want to make that game, ring me up.) If there’s an award you can win that guarantees that, I’d love to know what it is.”

In the meantime, though, “I look for projects with interesting values, and teams with warmth and grit and punctuality. Whether it’s for games or other media, I particularly enjoy character-driven things that get deep into motivations and feelings,” she says. “This is what makes LongStory (Bloom Digital), a middle-school dating sim, so much fun to write for. I’m also working on Mainlining (Rebelelephant Games), a hacking text adventure that has a tongue-in-cheek tone, and taps into my primal love of snooping. Finally, I’ve got a couple of projects where I’m managing another writer, and I’m really enjoying that, along with a couple of lighter consulting gigs where I get to just swoop in, make some recommendations, and swoop out again. Swooping is always fun.”

But, despite the drive to hustle and keep a steady stream of clients, Murray does turn down work. “I turn down work constantly,” she says. “In the last year, opportunities I’ve backed away from include two chances to develop my own work, four AAA games, three big mobile projects, and one ‘empathy’ project.

When I turn down work it’s because I do the math and find the financial terms unfavorable, or because I believe the production schedule will unfairly result in crunch for me or a writer who works for me, or because I sense that the studio culture will ultimately not accept me and I won’t be able to be a positive influence, or because the game employs tokenism in the place of real diversity, or very rarely because I can’t find a way to identify with the project.

I want to work. It bums me out to say no. It’s entirely possible I’ve said no too much. But I know that saying no creates space for better opportunities.”

As an independent contractor, Murray takes advantage of the perks of the burgeoning indie scene in Montreal by keeping a desk at Gameplay Space, a coworking office specifically created for independent game developers. “That gives me everything I liked about bigger studios,” she says, “lots of people to talk to, coffee breaks, fun events, occasional drama over dishes in the kitchen sink… All the other game dev stuff, I do with my clients every day, they’re just not there with me. I wouldn’t mind at this point, taking on a longer project where I was knitted more into the fabric of the team, so I’m keeping an eye out for that kind of opportunity, and also working to develop one for myself.”

For right now, though, Murray is focused on enjoying the summer. “I’m a seasonal creature,” she says, “so I’m currently playing outside. There are so dreadfully few months in Montreal when the air itself is not trying to kill you, so I’m running, biking, rollerblading, tending to my balcony vegetables, sitting on teraces, then going to bed overtired and high on fresh air. Some mornings over coffee, I still manage a little Stardew Valley, which I’ve yet to tire of.

Come fall, at the first sign of cold, I’ll catch up on summer’s gaming bounty, and a whole lot of reading, too. The last book I read for fun was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterpiece novel, Amerikanah, which I would suggest to, if not push on, everyone.”

You can check out more of Murray’s own work in July when episode 6 of LongStory is released.

Mariko McDonald
Mariko McDonald is a freelance writer and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. She likes writing about video games, playing co-op games (badly) with her husband and obsessing over her cats. Follow her on Twitter.

Mariko McDonald
Mariko McDonald is a freelance writer and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. She likes writing about video games, playing co-op games (badly) with her husband and obsessing over her cats. Follow her on Twitter.

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