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Grown-up stories in games

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Ally McLean is Product Director at game design studio 3RD SENSE and Director of Working Lunch, a mentoring initiative for entry-level women in the games industry. Assistant Curator Jim Fishwick spoke to her about her current work, her future plans, and her previous role as gamerunner on point-and-clean adventure Rumu (Robot House 2017), which was recently added to our games lab.

JF: You used to work at Robot House - how did you get started there?

AM: I was hired to work for Hammerfall Publishing as a producer on Warhammer 40,000: Regicide, mainly doing marketing, social media and community management. There were a bunch of us working at Hammerfall who all had ideas about games we wanted to make outside of the licensed IP fare. We were fortunate in that we put together a pitch to the executive team and they were really supportive, particularly Dane Maddams, who’s passionate about storytelling and exploring the possibilities of narrative in games. They backed us up with support and with resources, and we were able to spend a year making Rumu.

JF: As gamerunner, was Rumu your concept that you originally pitched?

AM: Initially I pitched a game about a robot vacuum cleaner who’s a detective. I pitched it as a bit of a joke, thinking no-one would go along with it, even though I secretly really wanted everyone to. And I was really lucky that everyone on the team took ownership over it and turned it into what it was. So while it was my pitch, I feel like it was everyone’s idea.

JF: There’s a dark but caring tone to Rumu. It has a gentle pace, but still waters run deep. How far into development did you realise that's what it was going to be?

AM: Rumu as a character himself informed the process a lot. His innocence and naïvety made you love him, but also inherently as creators made us want to make him suffer. A really important part of it was Rumu emerging. It was one of those things where the character tells you what the story’s going to be.

We were really lucky that we brought on Daniel McMahon (writer on L.A. Noire, Forza Horizon 3). When we initially brought him on, Rumu was going to have all these branching narratives. It was going to go off into different tonal palettes, and change the colour scheme of the game depending on the story. We were very ambitious. Dan was the one who convinced us to tell the best version of the story as one linear story. That was the best thing anyone could have done. We have to credit him massively for that decision, and for being able to convince a bunch of very stubborn people that our idea was wrong. It was his work and his commitment to perfecting the best version of the story that really brought out what became the tone of the narrative.

JF: Rumu uses branching dialogue in a very smart way for a reasonably linear narrative. The player chooses between options like “I love David, Cecily and Sabrina” and “I love Sabrina, David and Cecily”. It’s almost branching subtext. There are influences there from games like Firewatch and Gone Home.

AM: Those were the two games on our moodboard. We just… [smooshing hand gestures].

JF: It also has a strong cinematic feel.

AM: There were significantly more films in our reference than there were games, which I think speaks to a lot of what we were trying to do: push beyond the limitations of being a game, specifically a point and click game. We wanted to be neo-point-and-click, but also push into cinematic storytelling.

It’s really hard when you have an isometric camera to make something feel cinematic. I hate it when people say this in interviews, but we had to think about the house as its own character. 98% of the time in the game you’re seeing the entire room that Rumu is in, so we don’t get to use camera position to manipulate your emotions. We had to think about the colour palettes of the house, the way the house could come alive.

JF: Would you like to see more games explore blurring the distinctions between game, film, television?

AM: I’m interested in really grown-up stories in games. Mature themes, characters who are flawed, relatable, broken and that make you cry. That’s the kind of stuff that I want to explore more with games as a storytelling medium, because I don’t think we’ve seen enough of it. Moving away from thinking about games as mechanic-based or play-centric. I want to care less about the player, really. I want to care less about who they are and just believe in their capacity to have empathy for someone who’s completely different to them. Trusting that they’re mature enough to handle that. Trusting that players have evolved beyond needing a narrative wrapped around fun game mechanics.

JF: Your job title on Rumu was gamerunner. People will be familiar with the role of showrunner on a TV show, but what’s the day-to-day life of being a gamerunner?

AM: It’s a hard one to lock down. Morgan Jaffit from Defiant wrote a really great article called What The F*&K is a ‘Gamerunner’? which I would encourage everyone to read because it answers a lot of those questions. For me, being a gamerunner came about because ‘producer’ or ‘project lead’ didn’t make any sense for my role, because my role was significantly more creative. I was hands-on involved in most aspects of the game, from writing pages of the script to getting in and lighting rooms, to directing the voice actors, and then doing the production side of things as well. I was the only person doing any production on the project. You just have to immerse yourself in every aspect of creating the game.

JF: Speaking of showrunners, you have an Aaron Sorkin-inspired ‘What’s Next’ tattoo. And what’s next is you’ve moved on from Robot House to be Product Director at 3RD SENSE.

AM: I’ve always been really excited about games as a medium and what they can do beyond being fun. Being fun is important, but what can they do beyond that. And I was really excited to meet the team at 3RD SENSE because they specialise in what games can do. Not only in creating games for education, health, rehabilitation, solving business problems, and entertainment, but also educating other industries on the power of games, mythbusting around who plays games and how big games are. As Product Director I’m in charge of shepherding projects from start to finish, from design, through development, to deployment, from workshopping with the clients through to community management.

JF: Another small role then.

AM: Yeah, I just wanted to take it easy for a bit.

JF: Because at the same time you’re also the Director of Working Lunch. When do you sleep?

AM: I’m actually more relaxed than I’ve been in a long time, even though I’m doing a lot of work. I’m fortunate to have a lot of support from IGEA on Working Lunch, and from Raelene Knowles in particular, who’s an angel. She does a lot of the day-to-day administrative work on Working Lunch while also somehow managing to coordinate the schedules of some of the busiest women in games. If not for her, I would probably be dead.

At the moment I’m also trying to get off the ground an exhibition of games made by underrepresented developers, to be shown at PAX Australia, to show people the power of what games are and who’s making them, beyond what their perceptions might be at a consumer level. I’m doing that with Liam Esler (GX Australia), who’s well known for his work as a diversity advocate.

JF: One of the great things about Working Lunch is that it’s across the whole smorgasbord of roles in games, not just how to become a developer. That speaks to your sensibility in a way, as you’ve been across lots of different aspects of the game community and industry.

AM: I think it’s really important. I would like it to be more like that, which can only really happen with more funding and more mentors. Right now, we can only afford to take ten mentees and pair them with mentors. If we could take a class of thirty then we might scratch the surface of the full range of roles in games.

JF: What’s the result been like so far?

AM: So special. We created a handbook, which has lots of really incredible contributors like Siobhan Reddy, Robin Hunicke, Rhianna Pratchett, Brenda Romero. A lot of amazing people wrote these beautiful pieces for the handbook. It’s full of really powerful, concrete advice that I wish I had had when I started in the industry, and now these women will have.

We’ve had our first two mentees get jobs in the industry, as of the last workshop, which is really special. Sheree Fiala, who is one to watch because she’s such an incredible artist but also just a really beautiful person, just got a job as a concept artist at Blowfish Studios. And my mentee Stephanie Panecasio, who is a bomb journalist, she’s a weapon, she just got a job at Pedestrian, where she’ll be working with Bethesda and other huge gaming brands across Pedestrian’s whole gaming portfolio.

Those are two concrete things. The other big outcomes are that we want our mentees to come away with a professional network of all these mentors, speakers and anyone we can introduce them to to help their career. We also want them to come away with each other and to have a strong friendship group and support network of people who are going through the same experiences as they are, which is a really powerful thing to have when you’re entering the industry as a young woman.

When I looked around the room at the last workshop, first of all, it was a boardroom full of awesome women, which is such a powerful thing to see. But also seeing all these experienced women who are so excited to be there to help, and just want to give as much wisdom as they can. Their mouths can hardly catch up with their brains, because they just want to share everything. It’s just beautiful. It’s the best.

Rumu is available on Steam, and in our Screen Worlds Games Lab.

This interview has been edited for length.