Xalavier Nelson Jr talks about getting started in narrative design

Although only 20, Xalavier Nelson Jr has already accomplished a scary amount during his freelance career, including narrative work on indie titles like Dead End Job and Hypnospace Outlaw, in addition to work on his own varied selection of releases.

How did you break into games?

It actually happened just as I was going to leave! I saw too many people I respected and admired burn out or drop off the face of the Earth when I was a hobbyist. 

So, I was going to give a talk at AlterConf Paris about how the working practices in games ignored the humanity of the people who made them, and churned through some of the greatest potential talent in our industry as a result. However, I decided it was worth developing and releasing a video game to really put a cap on that stage of my life. I downloaded Twine, and…I was hooked. The process of building a narrative experience was intoxicating.

I ended up doing that AlterConf talk on how I wanted to stay in games, and fight for a better, more visible future for their creators

What is your proudest achievement so far?

When you plan a vacation, you think about sand and sun and landmarks, but never the occasional lulls in-between. I was on vacation with my family when they hit one of those lulls and I was ready. I pulled out the prototype version of a role-playing ruleset I had been working on in my spare time, called Ellipses RPG. It’s accessible, setting-agnostic, and features expandable systems that encourage improvisation and inhabiting a character over rote statistics…At least, that’s what I hoped it would be. I had only tested the game on other developers at the time.

My parents ended up creating their first role-playing characters ever within fifteen minutes, and then Mom rolled a cannon down the stairs of Dracula’s castle and shot Dad in the face. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Limitations, without a single doubt. Boundaries, and the caprices of technical frameworks, often define what a project will be moreso than a game design document, so discovering the best way to tell a story or evoke feelings within the arbitrary set of diverse rules you have to work around in narrative design is incredibly exciting. Using a given set of boundaries for creative effect can often result in a more emotive experience for a player as well. The first thing I do when I join a project is find out where the lines are – because working inside them is an enormous advantage, when you don’t see them as a hindrance.

What’s your big ambition in games?

Creative leadership. I love writing, and making the small decisions that come together and make a project what it will become. However, high-level problem solving and empowering others to do their best work in a creatively healthy environment is my ultimate goal.

 Many disciplines in game development seem to speak entirely different languages. Learning about the workflows of other departments is a priority in every job I take, which has resulted in my researching or directly contributing to everything from the video rendering pipeline to audio production and implementation.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into narrative design and writing for games?

Finish projects and release them. On a portfolio level, it shows that you can bring a project to completion – an all too rare skill. On a personal level, actually releasing something into the world is a draining, rewarding, educational experience that a creator really can’t do without. The gulf between what you learn simply developing a project, and launching it, is vast, and you only realise how large this gulf is once you’ve come out on the other side. You grow a lot, and you’ll be a better person for it.


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