At the college’s annual event, dedicated to spotlighting new trends in gaming and digital media design, game designer Seth Smith and Emmy Award-winning art director Lauren Brown discussed their love of video games and desire to foster greater storytelling diversity in their industry.
For game designer Seth Smith and Emmy Award-winning art director and illustrator Lauren Brown, Pokémon was a major source of inspiration not only for their love of video games and storytelling, but also for their future efforts to foster a diverse community in their industry.
“Growing up, I didn't get to see characters that looked like me at all,” says Brown, remembering her early years as a young gamer. “It was something that I thought I would have to live with. But I remember the first time I played a Pokémon game where I could have a character with a darker skin tone. I was so excited and seeing that, for the first time, felt so meaningful to me because I was able to see and immerse myself even further into the game. I want people to have that experience without thinking that they have to wait for it, or that they’d be excluded.”
Smith, who wanted to be a game designer since he was five, had a similar realization, spawned from Pokémon.
“As a kid, I was really into certain types of games – like Pokémon – but couldn’t always afford to buy them outright, so I always appreciated when there were extended ways to get into that story experience, whether it was through a manga, comic book, TV show, and things like that,” he says. “Those different access points allowed me to hop into that experience. Because I had that from so many different games growing up, this is what I want to do with anything I ever create.”
Smith and Brown both served as guest speakers at The Savannah College of Art and Design’s annual GamingFest, an event dedicated to spotlighting new trends in gaming and digital media design as well as giving SCAD students the latest scoop on the future of gaming and interactive entertainment through hosted events with industry insiders.
“What I really want to see in the future, and help build, is a shared experiential universe across mediums to where, when you play a game, that is a part of the same storyline that also was connected to a previous comic book, which was connected to a film, and so on,” explains Smith, who is currently working at Riot Games as a senior game designer on Valorant’s Social and Player Dynamics team. “My overall dream is to create a shared experiential universe that tells stories for diverse people across multiple mediums. I want a story universe that fosters diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”
Smith also refers to this as a “connected story experience,” the topic of his GamingFest panel presentation.
“There's a lot of examples of having the relative shared storylines, but not so much of the connected,” he explains. “You’ve got The Witcher TV show and games, Star Wars games and films, Pokémon games, anime, and manga. And there are plenty of adaptations. But having a situation where the storylines are connected, we haven't really seen that executed at a very broad level yet. That is something that we as an industry, or any future artist who is inclined, get the pleasure and opportunity to build towards and start creating.”
DreamWorks’ Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous is an example of Smith’s dream on a smaller scale, where the storyline of the Jurassic World live-action films – made for older audiences – directly affects the events taking place in the animated kids series Camp Cretaceous. Both storylines take place in the same universe and help widen the range of Jurassic Park’s fanbase. Smith’s goal is to establish a universe that works similarly on a much larger scale.
“If you were developing a story where mankind had to travel across different dimensions, maybe one of the mediums for that story is a game that is more of a management SIM, or a TV series about the people who make the vehicles or vessels that travel,” notes Smith. “Then there might be a game or a movie about people who meet on that voyage and fall in love. Maybe there is someone who needs to rescue somebody from one vessel to other, so it's like a heist film. In that one story that we just like randomly came up with, there are so many different executions that can appeal to different audience members across all avenues of entertainment.”
He adds, “When you think about the idea of combining film franchises and having crossovers, that's effectively what we're talking about, having one IP cross over with another IP, and I want a narrative to connect that. We've seen that happen within film, within some games, within TV shows with combination episodes where all the heroes from these separate TV shows in this one episode come together. But we haven’t seen it across all those mediums together.”
In his presentation, Smith noted that this kind of story building would require game developers, filmmakers, animators, writers, and illustrators to deconstruct the way they’ve always been taught to think about storytelling. Creators from very different avenues could collaborate on the same world at the same time. That’s news to many creative arts students out there who have chosen a specific major in a particular medium precisely to gain specific expertise. Smith’s concept of connective story experiences would break down borders between these entertainment mediums to focus more on the people they’re creating these stories for.
“What I want us to move towards is coming up with ideas for people first, and then understand that people engage with multiple mediums,” says Smith. “The goal is to not look at your IP, or your genre, or your platform, or your medium as this fixed, stagnant community, but rather vectors to widen.”
And a key step to widening those vectors is developing in-depth and accurate diversity in character design.
“It allows the player to get more immersed in the game, because they're seeing a spectrum of people just like they would see in the real world,” says Brown a SCAD alumnus and current team member at Black-owned studio Wildseed Games, who gave her own virtual presentation at GamingFest on diversity in character design. “And obviously, your spectrum can be a fantastical spectrum, but you still get the full experience of not only being able to play, or see, these different experiences, but also to be able to project yourself onto them.”
While inclusion is always a cornerstone in any narrative, Brown says diversity in gaming – or in a connected story experience where gaming is involved – is especially vital, as players are not just visual observers, but actual active participants in these worlds.
“When you see a character stereotypically being portrayed in a harmful way that doesn't represent your race well, or doesn't represent your background and culture well, it immediately closes the gate for people to enter into that experience,” explains Brown, whose presentation for SCAD included common stereotypes and tropes used in gaming, from unflattering hair textures and the tired use of large Black men as gang members, to inappropriate and ineffective skin lighting. “It’s definitely getting better in recent years, but we still have a long way to go. As a young black woman, feeling seen probably would have made a lot of difference and would have made me even more into games than I already was.”
Diverse characters also contribute to that connected experience by linking players together through characters that hold different ideas and ways of thinking.
“Ultimately, you get such richer executions and variations of stories when you're exposed to different ideas, and when you interact with different people, and you look at things from different perspectives,” says Smith. “Think about your world with respect to who can feel at home in this world, based on what's going on in the world today, and tune your narrative that way, and then understand that films, games, and comic books all have different strengths, in terms of that type of representation.”
To develop characters and stories that will have the effect on players that Brown and Smith are hoping for, it will take hard, often tedious work, much more in-depth than the Donkey Kong and Sonic games that Brown says she remembers most prominently from her own childhood. But both gamers fervently believe that this is the future of not only the gaming industry, but also the film, television, and entertainment industry as a whole.
“Honestly, I feel like it's one of those things where, when somebody does it first, boom, then everybody's going to be like, ‘Okay, we need to see more of this,’” says Smith.
Luckily, there isn’t a need to start from scratch to implement stories with connective experiences.
“The real opportunity here is that, for any existing IP that we have, this idea still works,” says Smith. “It’s not too late. If there’s already a game out there made for people of only one demographic, we can make another game that expands that universe. This concept isn't for anything but progress. It’s not to look at anything that we've done before and feel disappointed, but rather to feel empowered to move things forward and widen audiences, communities and industries that have had less representation in the past.”
Brown adds, “The more education that we get about many different people, the more diverse dev teams that are behind the scenes, the better representation we're going to get overall.”