Interview: Escaping narrative orthodoxies with Jen Coster
When you’ve read enough stories, watched enough movies, and played enough video games, you’ll quickly become familiar and exhausted by The Hero’s Journey – otherwise known as the monomyth. From The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Legend of Zelda, it’s a trope that has been passed down several narrative generations and is the bedrock of what is considered a good, well structured story… or is it?
Jen Coster (she/her) takes a sledgehammer to that bedrock. As a Narrative Designer and Writer at game studio Butterscotch Shenanigans, she’s hard at work envisioning how story becomes central to game experiences and how it can be reframed outside of harmful, tired defaults and biases. After a fiery panel at this year’s Game Devs of Color Expo (GDoC), she sat down with us to discuss the inner machinations of Narrative Design, a particularly good sports anime, and the best Asian fiction writers who are next on your reading list.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you get in touch with GDoC? What are your reactions after being there this year?
I went to GDoC for the first time last year. I attended virtually. I had sort of known tangentially about them because I’ve seen some of their YouTube videos from past years. I think that it’s a really fun and exciting and welcoming space to be in. It’s cool to see what people are doing and hear them talk about all of their different projects. The level of enthusiasm is really great. That’s a thing that I feel like people aren’t enough of, just enthusiastic.
For this year, I saw when they put out a call for [talk proposals], and I had kind of been thinking about a couple of things that I rant about. It’s one of those things where if you meet people, and they ask, “Do you have a set of topics that you can do a five minute rant about?” I’ve been thinking about a couple of those things. I felt like this would probably be relevant to this audience. So I wrote up a proposal, hoping for the best, and then just waited… and then was surprised that they accepted it because I feel like my talk is a little bit less technical than other talks at GDoC are. And so that’s how I ended up doing it, which is surprising, but was really fun.
I’m not a technical person at all, so I really got a lot personally out of your talk. Could you describe your journey into a career in the gaming space?
In a word, circuitous, I guess. So I’ve kind of been writing and reading a lot and playing video games my entire life. They’re a hugely important part of my life and figuring out my likes, my dislikes, my identity, and things that I think are important. But I was raised to think that they weren’t really realistic as a career path. I went to a huge nerd school, University of Chicago. And while I was there, I was like, “Okay, well, if those things aren’t realistic, I also really like science. I like talking to people and helping them with difficult times.” And so I ended up going the medicine route, and actually did my residency in pediatrics, and then started a fellowship, which is subspecialty training. I basically burned out on how much bureaucracy there is in medicine and then left. After I left, there was a period of time where I was like, “What am I going to do?” But really, I think I was always going to come back to writing and storytelling, because that’s always been kind of the closest thing to my heart.
Speculative fiction tends to be the place that I work because you get to explore a lot of real life stuff almost at a distance, which allows it to be felt more directly. The things that stop people from really relating to stories in real life get removed in a way, and through speculative, people can internalize the messages better. That’s how I feel anyway. So I figured that’s what I wanted to do. I started writing a lot, I read a lot of books about story construction, structure, took a bunch of classes, and started to find some community in that space. I figured out that editing is actually the part of the writing process that I enjoy the most. So I started to do more of that work freelancing. I ended up doing some Associate Editor work for Escape Pod, which is a science fiction magazine. And then I also do freelance editing and process consulting assistant stuff for a few authors in the speculative fiction space.
So I wasn’t actually specifically looking at game writing as the thing that I was going to do. But then when Butterscotch Shenanigans, which was started by my husband and his two brothers, decided that they needed a writer/narrative person for their current projects, I basically had the right skill set, and then also the most context for working with them.
I think it gives people hope for pivoting careers. A lot of the time people really don’t start in games.
Yeah, it’s similar in the publishing industry and the speculative fiction spaces where I’ve talked to people. There’s a specific pressure that we have societally about figuring out what you want to do literally when you’re like 18 to 22 and then just doing that, for the rest of your life. That’s the messaging at least, I was told, growing up about what you were supposed to do. So the idea of doing something completely different is not just terrifying, but goes against literally every instinct that you’ve been conditioned to believe is the correct way to live your life. But I think that ultimately, you end up with a lot of experiences that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and knowledge from other fields that all ends up being transferable that you can bring to whatever you ultimately want to work on.
It’s a disservice to think that you’re locked in one thing forever, because that’s a sunk cost kind of thing. But then the uncertainty, I think, is actually the stuff that helps you really figure out what you want if you lean into it, right? I think people stay where they are because they’re afraid of not knowing. And so then it’s like, “I’d rather be here because I know it, even if I hate it, than be somewhere else, because I don’t know what that’s gonna look like.” Some people can go a long time, and then sometimes you just reach a threshold where you’re like, “I can’t anymore. I can’t do that anymore. This trade off is too much.”
One of your titles is Narrative Designer, and also writer at Butterscotch Shenanigans. Could you unpack the role of a Narrative Designer?
Yes. And I will say that this is one of those things that I feel is a perennial debate in all Game Dev spaces. So I feel like everyone kind of has a general sense of what a Narrative Designer is, and then simultaneously, in every studio that role looks different. But the way that I think about it is actually based off of the thing that I heard about called Delta Theory from the 2008 GDC Portal post-mortem talk, which was given by Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw. And basically, they describe Delta Theory as games telling two stories simultaneously. You have the story story, which is basically writing, and then you have gameplay story, which is mechanics. And so if you want to create a satisfying, cohesive player experience, you want to decrease the delta between those two things, the distance between those two things, as much as possible. So to me, a narrative designer’s primary purpose is to integrate those things as much as you can.
At Butterscotch, our team is extremely small. So every department is like one person, basically. And so I’m the Narrative Designer and Writer for Crashlands 2, which is our current project. And practically, what that means is that I am in close collaboration with our Game Designer, Artist, and then our Games Programmer to define and shape what those systems and structures are going to be in that game. When we’re discussing things like how they’re going to be implemented, or how they’re going to be framed, my job is to basically advocate for the perspective of narrative for the things that we’re talking about. So they might be more concerned about “What is the technical implementation of this?” or “How does this feel to the player to do?” And I’m like, “What is this telling the player about this world? And what can we do to make sure that it’s in line with what we want to tell the player about what this world is?” And then I write the vast majority of the words going into this game.
That’s so fascinating, because I’ve heard very similar things with songwriting. Does the music come first or the lyrics? And with game design it’s like, do the mechanics come first or the story? Is it idiosyncratic? In a good game, typically, we don’t even notice that those are separate things going on at the same time.
Ideally, right? This is what people mean when they say ludonarrative dissonance, right, which is like… everybody loves that. You know, when you experience that, as a player, unless you’ve looked into game design and thought about this and etc, you’re not going to experience it as “Oh, this game is telling me a specific story. And that’s not what I’m experiencing.” That’s not what you feel. What you feel is either boredom, or confusion, or you stop paying attention to one aspect of something you only pay attention to a different thing. And it doesn’t even mean that you aren’t necessarily having fun, right? It just means that it’s not quite hitting what the intention was of the story. And you aren’t actually getting the experience that it was supposed to give you because those things don’t reconcile.
I feel like all of these things like what you said with songwriting are kind of fractal and transferable across all of creative media, essentially. Sometimes you’re watching a movie, or you’re reading a book, and you have a reaction where you’re just “Why did that happen?” You don’t believe it, or you’re confused and it’s because something didn’t integrate correctly, so that you were thrown out for a second. You lost immersion for a moment. And you can experience that as a variety of different feelings. But usually, it’s because something isn’t cohesive there.
I loved your talk at GDoC this year. It was titled “It’s Not About You: Beyond The Hero’s Journey.” Could you share with us what specifically inspired this talk?
I spend a lot of time, and probably have, retrospectively, for my entire life, thinking about the concept of “should” and the concept of defaults. Because I think that all of us operate under a particular set of rules, whether or not we are aware of them. Rules that were given to us by people outside of ourselves, because that’s how you teach kids things, right? When you’re growing up, kids don’t pop out just knowing how things work. So people tell them what things are, or at least they should. But instead, they tell them what you should do and what you shouldn’t do… which again, is actually kind of related to the feedback thing, because that is solutions focused instead of describing what the problem is. So you’re telling people how to behave in order to solve a different problem. I think we just carry that forward, usually, because it just becomes ingrained behavior, that you don’t really need to analyze very much because on average, it’s gonna get you through your day, and it’s fine.
But I think that anytime you have any kind of marginalization, you are going to run into where “shoulds” stop serving you. Because you’re going to follow the rules that people tell you to follow, and you’re going to do all the things that people tell you, and you will not get what is promised to you at the end of being a good little rule-following model citizen because things aren’t designed that way for you. And so I think about that kind of tension a lot, because it’s something I’ve experienced along multiple different dimensions throughout my entire life. And I think that crystallized when I read Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, which is about fiction writing and workshopping specifically, but the question of the core of that book is actually, “Who gets to decide what is good?”
When you’re taught how to write stories, when you’re taught about what stories are, what good stories are, people tend to pull from the same pool of things. They tend to give you a bunch of rules about stuff. And the rules become stuff that people say they don’t even fully know what they mean… but if you ask for writing advice, it comes up, and it’s stuff like, “Don’t use adverbs, start in the middle of the action.” It’s all of those kinds of things that you just start doing, because that’s what makes a good story, right? That’s what people are telling you. And then you’re kind of like, “What is a good story? Who defines what a good story actually is?”
That’s what Matthew Salesses asks in this book. He talks about experiences in fiction workshops. An unfortunately common experience for marginalized people is, you have a piece that is informed by your cultural identity, and the response that you get from the oftentimes predominantly white feedback group is “I don’t get it. Can you define all of these terms for me? I don’t understand why this person has to do X, Y, and Z, etc.” And it’s not helpful for a variety of reasons, but the primary one is the narrative that we’ve been told is the important, valid good one is a narrative that has a particular viewpoint. It’s easy to forget that that is actually the case, because everybody says that that is the viewpoint. It’s kind of like when you talk about literary canon and people cite a handful of old white authors, who tend to be really sexist and racist, but you have to read them, because that’s how you understand the field. “Who decided that that was canon,” should be the follow up question and not, “Okay, let me let me do that, and just use that to inform all of my work.”
That was the thing that made me really think about the “shoulds” as it applies to stories. And that tied into what I think about in terms of representation in media which was what led to this. I know that when I was younger, even when I was writing short stories when I was in middle school, most of the protagonists that I wrote were white, and I didn’t actually think that there was anything wrong with that. That didn’t strike me as odd because all of the protagonists that I read were white, and all of the protagonists that I saw in movies were white. And so if that is the thing that you are told, and that you see all the time as being the “correct” way to tell a story, of course, all my protagonists are white. It didn’t even occur to me that I could write someone who looked like me or anybody else, and have them be the main character. That’s not who those stories were for, exactly. You just make them for you as much as you can. But they’re still ultimately not actually designed for you.
What narratives that buck The Hero’s Journey stand out to you?
This one is hard, because simultaneously there’s a lot, but also it’s hard to pick out the things that have stuck with me recently. Also, I read a lot. So it’s one of those things where it’s also just pulling up what I read is difficult. I think the two big ones I think that stood out to me recently are This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. It’s a couple years old. It is about two time traveling spies from opposite factions, who are actually secretly in love with each other and they leave each other. It’s epistolary, so they leave each other notes across timelines for the other person to find. Amal El-Mohtar has some of the most beautiful writing. It’s a beautiful book. And it’s short. It’s like a novella. So it won’t take very long to read, but I think everybody should because it’s just beautiful.
So that one and then in a completely opposite and different vein, I just finished watching Kuroko’s Basketball on Netflix. It’s an anime. I watched it a lot when I was younger, and then I’ve recently started picking it up again. One of my friends recommended this one to me and I was a little bit like, “Sports anime? I don’t know.” But it’s actually a really good example of what I think about when it comes to a narrative lens or a theme that you want to portray to the audience and how you have the elements of your story support that.
Kuroko’s Basketball is about a basketball team. And on that basketball team is this kid named Kuroko, who in middle school was part of what was called the generation of miracles, which is a collection of five middle school kids who were basketball prodigies. And so this series picks up when they all go to high school, and they all go to a different school. There’s a whole thing between Kuroko and this kid who spent some time in America named Kagami who is also part of this basketball team. It’s about them functionally going and playing games against each of these teams that has one of Kuroko’s previous teammates on it, defeat them and go to some kind of nationals. I think the thing about this that is actually really fascinating is frequently sports movies are a hero’s journey or a lone hero kind of thing.
What Kuroko’s Basketball subverts about that is that you would think based on the setup, that Kuroko is going to be the star of this series, and it’s gonna be about him figuring out his shit. And instead, it’s actually very much about the importance of teamwork, the importance of everybody understanding their role in a team. And then with each subsequent match, the rival team also becomes more cohesive, because they recognize how much you can’t just rely on a singular person to carry a team and that everybody actually needs to be a part of it.
Even if you have somebody who is more skillful at something than you are that you might want to build a strategy around, they still can’t do it by themselves. They need everybody to work together, they need people and community and to be supported in order to function at their best. And this message just gets reinforced the entire time through this entire series up until the final showdown basketball match. I finished this a couple of days ago and this was actually a perfect answer for this question.
Asian America is constantly in a state of defining itself or resisting becoming a monolith. I was wondering if you had any experiences that you’d like to share that kind of inform your perspectives a little bit more specifically.
The stories that I tell as a Chinese American are inextricable from who I am as a person. It can’t be separate. It has to actually be a part of it. How you navigate that tension is what shapes your perspectives. For me, that’s changed over time, right? The bulk of my childhood was in the 90s. During that time, my neighborhood was predominantly white, my schools were predominantly white, etc.
At that time, it was very much about assimilation and trying to be white, even though that’s impossible. That’s just not how that works. The dissonance between the fact that I was just living my life and didn’t feel Chinese, because of the whole Third Culture diaspora situation, but then was never actually American, because I’m not white, fundamentally shaped the interest I have in where society and societal rules intersect. That tension is always really fascinating to me. That’s a tension that you carry when you’re a marginalized person in a space. I say it’s specific and general because it’s something that a lot of people also have a story about that impacts them.
It’s dumpling stories, right? It’s going to school with dumplings packed for lunch, and then getting told that your food is weird and stuff like that. Everybody that I know that is Asian American has that story or a variation of that story. And then how your identity relates to the setting you are in at large. Those ended up being the stories that I like to read. It tends to be one of the themes that my work deals with a lot of.
What other Asian or Asian American artists and stories in gaming or otherwise, would you love to amplify?
Okay, so this one I had to think about a little bit because there’s several things that spring to mind. Shing Yin Khor (they/them), who is a cartoonist, artist, and keepsake game designer. So they do tangible, physical games that are often epistolary, with the idea being that once you’ve played this game–which is often very reflective and explores concepts of strangeness and identity and Americana and ghosts–you have something to hold on to at the end to remind yourself of your experience. I think the first time that I really experienced their work was their comics in Catapult. One is called “I Do Not Want to Write Today.” And the other is called “Stone Fruit Season.” Both of them are just really beautiful. And again it speaks to that idea of how identity is inextricable from your experiences. Recently, they had an art show of these little Baba Yaga type houses with little feet. So they do a lot of physical art and comics.
Cassandra Khaw (they/them) is an author and a game writer, who I really, really like. Their language is so visceral and physical. It’s really incredible to read. There’s a short story of theirs… it’s one of my favorite short stories. It’s called “And In Our Daughters, We Find a Voice” which is like a Little Mermaid retelling, but very dark. It’s a nightmare dark version, it’s really fun. Alyssa Wong is the last person. They’re another writer who also works in a lot of different media. They’ve done comics, they’re currently writing for the Dr. Aphra Star Wars comic series. They also write a lot of fiction. One of their short stories that I really love is called “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers.“
Any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?
The big one we’re working on currently at Butterscotch is Crashlands 2. No actual release date or anything, but it’s in heavy, active development. And it is a follow up to Crashlands. It’s about Flux, who’s the main character of Crashlands. She is a courier for an interstellar, intergalactic shipping company called the Bureau of Shipping. After saving Woanope, which was the planet she was stranded on in Crashlands 1, she goes on a publicity tour funded by the Bureau of Shipping, and then ends up wanting to go back to visit her friends on Woanope to see how everyone is doing and finds out that something weird is going on.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, virtually on September 28th, 2022 as part of our coverage on the Game Devs of Color Expo 2022.
Artist pages: Twitter