Sword Fights & Sea Sponges: Chatting Game Narratives with Ed Stern

“In your honour, I bought the unicorns humping mug!”, I yell with glee. I’ve known Ed for coming up to a decade now, courtesy of his Heroic Wife. I know him first and foremost as the king of fancy dress, excellent fried rice recipes, and evenings of playing Pandemic (when it was still just a board game and not a depressing reality). 

But why am I chatting with Ed here, in Unicorn, instead of playing board games with him in the privacy of my own Zoom? Well, despite the fact that I know zilch apart from it’s ‘gamey’ and ‘involves microphones’, my partner’s constant fan-girling informs me that Ed’s job is the coolest thing on the planet. So I take a gulp of tea from my epic humping unicorns mug, and ask him to explain. 

“I’m a narrative designer. I make video games for a development studio at the ‘Triple-A end of the games industry: biggish budget games with fancy graphics, cool animations, motion captured CGI cinematics, proper voice actors and so on. It’s pretty standard Big Video Game stuff, hopefully with some extra cool, clevers bits in there.

One of the things I do is write game dialogue, which involves the setting, the backstory, worldbuilding, production design, concept artists, that sort of thing. Sometimes it’s ‘Oh, I have an idea about how this world works, it affects how these should look’; and other times, it’s ‘look, this thing needs to be in the game – come up with a reason why it’s there.’

Everything from ‘we need forty weapon names’ to ‘do all this game’s characters really have to be male and white? And straight?’

Ed compares some of what he does to writing ‘in-house fanfiction for cosplay online paintball’, which has got to be the queerest description for gaming I’ve ever heard (NB: any developers out there, if you want to make that game, I’m in.) “In any genre writing, there are expectations you need to satisfy and boxes you need to tick before you do anything fancier. Sometimes it’s a bit like writing the school play: you don’t want anyone to laugh for the wrong reasons, if they laugh for the right reasons it’s a win, and

if the fencing team want there to be five sword fights… there’s gonna be five sword fights.” 

I sheepishly admit that I’m one of those horrendous people who skips every cutscene in every game ever, because I can’t stand just watching stuff in a doing thing. “You’ve hit the nail on the head, you know. You don’t interrupt a movie to try and make the characters do something else. But games are inherently interactive. So how do you have an immersive, interesting, entertaining story, one that doesn’t feel like something you’re being forced to consume to get to the stuff you actually want to…? 

It’s really tough to get right. Game writers can actually write now. We’re trained, or train ourselves: we study prose, we study screenwriting. Great. But now you’re in a game, and you’ve given up all control over timing to the player. And if they’re just gonna skip your thing… What about the environment, can you tell the story through the environment? They can’t skip that, surely? Can you do subtext? At all? Can you have a character saying one thing and their body language actually shows that they don’t quite believe it? 

It means you and the animators better be on the same page. The great game designer Frank Lantz once said ‘games are basically operas made out of bridges’. There are so many ways for things to go wrong or weird or both – it’s such a complex issue.”

I ask Ed about queerness and gaming: I’ve always got the impression it’s always been one of those fields that’s been a safehaven for the queer community. “Hmmm. I don’t know if game dev has always been that way, it’s certainly less bad than it was. It’s definitely… less un-queer, less un-diverse?

There’s still a long way to go.

The people who get paid to make games still don’t look as different as the people who play them. 

Certainly there are lots of out queer game developers – I don’t know if maybe the internet allows more and different kinds of people to contribute and make stuff, there are fewer barriers to entry and expression? Although… it’s on the internet. So how welcoming and non-abusive could it ever be?”

He smirks wryly, and I laugh at the idea of  Ed ‘Tweet-a-lot’ Stern disliking the internet. It was only when he decided to put that he was bi and had ADHD in his Twitter bio that I eventually (after nearly a decade) found out about his sexuality – not because he’d ever hidden the fact, but simply because it hadn’t come up in conversation between us.

“Well why would you know that? I’m straight-married, and not giving off any standard bi signs. I mean, I’m too old to be able to sit wrong in a chair, my back won’t allow it.

Oh wait, is there a bi accent? Did I miss that e-mail?

What signals have I been missing all this time?”  

I giggle, and remind him it’s courtesy of the dreaded internet that I noticed and roped him into chatting with Unicorn, even if he did take some convincing… “I felt like focus on me is focus taken away from someone with a harder life and a more interesting story. But the one thing that really persuaded me is I was asking around and I just don’t know any older bi guys. I thought it could be useful to show being bi wasn’t invented in a lab in 2007 or something!

I was born in 1972. My parents were tolerant and open-minded but back then, being bi didn’t seem like a feasible… way of living? Maybe bohemian artists got to be bi, but regular joes and josephines, not so much. You had a couple of licensed ‘camp’ entertainers but there were so few out queer people, and the ones that were were marginalised and urgent and had to be loud to survive. 

It made not being straight seem like an odd, extreme, exhausting way to be, and I wasn’t an energetic enough person to carry that off. I thought ‘I’m not extreme or edgy, I’m a fairly low-key straight-passing person.’ But I eventually realised that you can just be… everyday bi. Boring bi. Busy and unspectacular bi. There’s bisexuality for older, plumper, middle-aged people too. As you get older, eventually you’ve got no choice but to try and be… authentic? You’ve got fewer illusions about yourself.” 

I ask him what his authentic self is like and he gives me a cheeky response with a glint in his eye. “In terms of attraction? Oh, just indiscriminate. Is mentally slutty a thing? Seriously, anything with a spinal column, maybe not even that fussy?

Come on sea sponges, let’s be having you…

We both laugh, and Ed points out it’s hard to find the time these days to think in depth about sexuality, given he’s the proud father of little ‘Babbo’ (who is a 3-year-old with a heart of gold and lungs to match).

“The thing about being a parent of a young kid is that it’s mainly utterly wonderful, but you really don’t get to do or be anything else. I’m just an exhausted, snot-smeared lump these days, which really isn’t my kink. Like,  ‘how does your sexual attraction vary?’ feels like such an abstract concept. I’m a husband, I’m a dad, mainly I’m exhausted. I identify mainly as Pan-Tired: equally underslept to people of all genders and persuasions. Yes, I am too tired for you, and too tired for you!” 

After a brief game of ‘who’s feeling the tiredest’ (spoilers: pitch someone with lupus against a parent with a toddler and everyone’s a loser), we loop back round to the topic of queer developers, and I ask Ed to share some queer developers who are out there, paving the way. 

“Oh, ah, um, Liz Ryerson! Amazing game developer who happens to be trans. She did this amazing game called ‘Problem Attic’ – it looks like a really retro platform jumper, but it goes wonderfully weird really quickly. It’s not obvious what you can jump on, or even stand on, or pass behind or in front of. You think you’re going to make the jump… and you don’t, or it’s not solid, or you fall through it.” 

Screenshot from ‘Problem Attic’ by Liz Ryerson

“For me, it’s a game about trying to fit in, trying to work out what the rules are but never being able to relax. Even though the graphics are deliberately basic, to me it’s one of the most evocative, meaningful games ever made. That kind of social awkwardness, how

you can’t be sure how any interaction is going to go – even with gravity.

That was eloquent and startling and totally immersive. It’s a brilliant experimental game.” 

It’s nearing Babbo’s bedtime so we start wrapping up the conversation, but not before Ed tells me he’s got something to show me he knows I’ll love: AI-generated chat-up lines.

It all sounds a bit dystopian, and I tell him I worry about the day the computer gets better than the humans are. 

Ed deadpans. “How would we know when that point had already passed?” I snort loudly while he searches around a bit, then finds Janelle Shane’s AI Weirdness and hits me with the first ones to come up.

“You look like a thing, and I love you.”

It’s cute, but I can’t say I rate it more than a 5/10. 

“It is urgent that you become a professional athlete.”

Both a definite no, and erm, confused face?

I’m losing my voice from all the screaming your hotness is causing me to do.”

Suffice to say, I think we’ll be safe from the machines for a while yet…

Ed Stern

He / Him | Twitter

Ed is standing in front of a funky burgundy and egg-yolk yellow chevron background. He's soaking up the sun with his funky red and yellow patterned shades and leafy blue sumer shirt, the sun striking his glasses in a way that leaves shadows on his face and beard.

Interviewed by Maddie Jones
Illustration by Harry Thory

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