Interview by Laura Hudson
Jane Ng makes videogames. Over the years she's worked as an environment artist creating games like Spore, Return of the King, The Godfather, Brutal Legend, Stacking, and The Cave. Most recently, Ng joined a small band of developers to form a new studio called Campo Santo, and few weeks ago, they released the hit independent game Firewatch. It's a bittersweet adventure about a man who escapes a personal tragedy by working as a fire lookout in a remote Wyoming forest, and the mysterious woman he meets on the other end of his walkie talkie.
Ng talked to FREQ about building universes, being brave, and the difference that diversity makes for the people who make the games.
FREQ: So you're a 3D environmental artist. What does that mean exactly?
Jane Ng: I like to compare it to theater or fashion. In a play, there's someone who sketches out the stage design, but someone still has to build the set. In fashion, someone designs a dress, and then there's a seamstress who has to make it out of fabric. I take the two-dimensional concept art for a video game and turn it into a three-dimensional space. I really love it. I mean, who gets to just make a universe?
FREQ: How did you become a video game artist? Is there a specific path you have to take?
JN: Well, when I graduated from college in 2001 there was no official way of getting into the game industry. I was originally interested in theater art, and I took enough engineering to minor in it, but I eventually decided to major in visual arts. I found a mentor in visual effects, and after I graduated I just moved out to [California] naively thinking it would just work out. And it did! [laughs] But that's not a plan I would recommend to anyone.
FREQ: You left a comfortable job at a good company to strike out on your own with Campo Santo and make Firewatch. What was it about the game that seemed special to you?
JN: When they pitched Firewatch to me in the beginning, it was obvious that it was going to be an adult game. Not in terms of sexy stuff, but rather—it's about solitude and the things that happen to you when you get older. I knew it was going to be a heavy game, and I really wanted to try my hand at doing that as a 3D artist. Storytelling is not just about the words on the screen; especially for a game about solitude, a lot of it is about how you relate to the space around you when you're alone. Your relationship to your surroundings becomes really important, like the way you feel walking through a certain space. It's like architecture. There were a lot of opportunities for me to learn and explore.
FREQ: Do you feel like you've had extra hurdles to deal with as a woman working in games?
JN: Well, a lot of the time it's been subtle stuff. There were times when people just wouldn't take me seriously, or they'd get really annoyed when I pointed out a mistake, or they'd say I had an attitude problem. This was at a place where the leadership was all men, and I don't think anyone was intentionally sexist—everybody was actually really nice. But that was when I felt like I lost a lot of my enthusiasm, and I got depressed and disillusioned and angry. It changed me a lot as a woman developer, to realize that maybe I didn't like that kind of environment, to constantly have those moments of, "did this happen to me because I'm a woman?" You end up going home crying because you're being doubted in this way you can't articulate, and that's so draining. Not because of the work, but because you can't explain why people won't take you seriously. Then you get into the cycle of: am I being a bitch, am I being a victim, am I oversensitive? And all that mental calibration takes so much time and energy.
FREQ: What made you stick with it even after you lost some of that enthusiasm?
JN: Well, I'm kind of a fighter, I think. It's just my personality. If someone tries to screw me, I'll double down on not letting them screw me. But I know that's not everybody. A big turning point for me was when I approached by this woman, [executive producer] Lucy Bradshaw, to work on the game Spore. She told me it was really important for her to have a diverse team, because she wanted Spore to appeal to everyone. And that was so amazing, especially after what I'd been through, to have a confident woman leader say, "I value you, and having different kinds of people is important!"
FREQ: Did having a more diverse team change things for you?
JN: It made such a big difference in the environment around the game. I think games that are trying to appeal to young men can have kind of a macho thing going on, and it can create this culture where even the development team is kind of bro-y. A lot of it is determined by leadership. But with Spore we had Lucy and she wanted the game to appeal to everyone, so the team didn't have that attitude at all. There were women everywhere. I don't think I had a single "did that happen because I'm not a dude" moment the entire time I was there. It was just about the work.
FREQ: You got some attention in the gaming press recently for a thoughtful response to a player who wanted a refund after finishing the game. What made you decide to speak up, especially in a forum that can often be really toxic?
JN: It was 1 AM when I read that post, and I just thought, screw it. He seems like he's curious, so if he wants to hear different perspectives, then here's my perspective. A lot of developers have written me since to say, "thank you for saying that, thank you for being so brave." Most of them have been guys. But brave is not the adjective I would have used. I think that also says a lot about how afraid a lot of developers are. Compared to me still being here, after fifteen years in this industry, this is nothing. [laughs] That's why i never thought of it as a brave thing to do. It's just how I've always handled things.
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