The story of a Japanese manga editor that built a 15-years career in the videogame industry
“I love immersing myself in magical worlds full of compelling characters, heroes, and villains with different personalities and stories.” We talked with Jake Forbes, Creative Director at Star Stable, before his upcoming talk at Friday Stories. He shared with us about his 15 years career as a videogame storyteller, how he entered the industry, and tips for aspiring game writers.
Jake is not only a creator of game stories and characters, he is also a consumer of video games since he was 3 years old, a writer of graphic novels and Star Wars spin-offs, and an experienced editor of best-selling Japanese manga, like Sailor Moon.
In a nutshell, he is an authority, so it was logical to ask him about his favorite characters, both as a writer and as a gamer.
“My favorite narrative experiences are ensembles with a mix of characters. I am not a huge fan of protagonist-driven narratives that focus on playing as hero, and savior; I prefer stories that focus on an ensemble of characters, like in Dragon Age: Origins, where the drama comes from the dynamics between characters. They really come alive as a group when characters have autonomy and don’t only service the player’s power fantasy.” In terms of a specific favorite character, he chose Passepartout of 80 Days as one of his biggest inspirations. “In the source material, he is a sidekick, but in the game, he is a cypher who invites you to challenge your assumptions about what a game protagonist should be.“
When it comes to his own characters, Alex Cloudmill from Star Stable is his favorite. Jake speaks of Alex as if she was his best friend and confident, more than a character he wrote for over five years at Star Stable. He admires Alex's profound transformation, from being impulsive and wild to becoming a moral compass for the team and a strong and passionate leader.
“I was in the right place at the right time”
At the age of 10, Jake Forbes was a nerdy kid who had his own gaming PC and was a big fan of video games, action figures, Legos, and board games. However, he never seriously considered a career in the games industry. It was just a hobby. Even in university, he studied film production, only taking one elective class in game development.
After university, his first job was in the localization team of TOKYOPOP, adapting Japanese manga to English. In just two years, at 23, he became their Editorial Director. He worked in more than 200 volumes, including many of the best-selling series, such as Fruits Basket, Sailor Moon, Gundam, Cardcaptor Sakura, Chobits, and Magic Knight Rayearth.
“I was in the right place at the right time. I was at the origin of the 'manga boom' when manga went from a very niche thing to popular and mainstream in the USA and Europe.”
This job taught him to write for varied audiences who were very different from him. “I understood that I was not always the target audience. The fandom I grew up in was overwhelmingly male, but with series like Sailor Moon, I was introduced to a fandom that was overwhelmingly female, and I learned to love and respect things that weren’t made for people like me.” A Learning that he has applied throughout his career.
After 5 years as an editor, he tried his hand as a writer and authored his first graphic novels: Return to Labyrinth volumes 1,2,3, and 4. Also, he wrote some Star Wars spin-offs. However, Jake didn't feel ready for the commitment needed to be a full-time fiction writer, and at 29, he started a job in the content team of Perpetual Entertainment, a game studio in San Francisco developing MMOs.
His career in games started with that job, and continued in San Francisco as a content writer for different studios focused on social media and mobile games. During his time at Linden Lab, makers of Second Life, Jake Forbes had the opportunity to learn from and Emily Short on Versu, an innovative twist on interactive fiction that mixed authored dialogue with social simulation.
After moving from San Francisco to New York, and then to Stockholm; and a year as a full-time dad working as a freelancer, he started his job at Star Stable.
Jake has worked at Star Stable for 5 years now, first as Narrative Director, helping the company grow from a single game productive to a multimedia world of stories, and currently as Creative Director on a new game IP, “Project Curie.”He adds that, traditionally, games for girls were written off by the industry as small and disposable, not known for their high quality. He appreciates that Star Stable is the first game of epic scale targeting girls and horse lovers, with huge and sophisticated stories, worlds, and characters.
“Star Stable is an exciting place to be, with a lot of responsibility, because this is the first exposure to videogames for many girls. They grow up with these games.”
Jake describes his entry into the video game industry as “being in the right place at the right time.” But now, writers are increasingly valued at studios, so there are more opportunities than ever for storytellers, he says.
"Writers are now considered an essential part of teams for studios, just like designers and developers"
Jake Forbes’ first job in the videogame industry was at 29 years old. For him, it was a happy accident, but he points out that now storytellers enter the lifecycle of games production in earlier stages and studios hire more full-time writers. Also, Jake highlights that game studios are increasingly more focused on complex and high-quality stories, so there is more and more game writing jobs.
“AAA Games are packed with more narrative than ever, casual games like Lily’s Garden and Switchcraft tell epic stories over years, and independent story games like 80 Days are celebrated in the app store and press. More and more studios consider writers and narrative design to be a foundational element of the studio, not an afterthought as it often was in the past.”
His advice for those who want to start writing for videogames are:
Make games with whatever tools you are comfortable with
Participate in teamwork events such as Game Jams
Ideas are easy, finishing is hard. Take a project to completion.
The most important: build a portfolio that displays a variety
BONUS tips from Jake
Nail your portfolio: tips for colleagues
Jake highlights that games writer portfolios don’t need to showcase epic stories or reflect big games.“Make every word count. We’ve all played games where you can’t press the skip button fast enough. Get to the point clearly and quickly while making the reader feel something.” The expert advises appealing to human feelings and emotions so the dialogues and characters don’t appear flat.
The expert says that a good portfolio has to demonstrate that "you can write and adapt to a wide range of text types", but the minimum that it should contain are:
Lore descriptions. For example gear, creatures, locations
“Barks” - Short snippets of dialogue, evocative and with feelings to connect and emphasize
Characters with complex personalities and backgrounds who are relatable but suggest hidden depths
Dialogue scenes that show a grasp of plotting, drama, and humor
If possible, interactive samples with Twine or other tools that show confidence with interactivity and scripting
For the experienced Creative and Narrative Director, demonstrating skills in interactive narrative and its tools is essential as a game writer.
Interactive narrative: stories that resonate
Jake comments that videogame stories now have to resonate with the audience to extend the life of the players in the game. Some of his key points to create interactive narrative experiences are:
Let the player participate in the flow of the story
Prolong the interaction with the worlds and characters
Tell personal stories to spark empathy
Respect your audience
The Creative Director of Star Stable will address this topic in-depth in his upcoming talk at Friday Stories. To get your ticket, register here
The Pro’s recommendations
The Creative Director of Star Stable shared his favorite games and books.
Jake is a huge fan of the strategy and RPG genres, and of videogames where the story is a byproduct of play, rather than something to consume like a movie. He recommends:
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Return of the Obra Dinn
As a writer, books are a key part of his life. He enjoys diving into fantasy and magical worlds full of captivating characters with twists on the typical hero narratives, so he recommends:
The Akata Witch trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor
Diana Wynne Jones - Howl’s Moving Castle, the Chrestonmanci series
The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
Join us this Friday when the Creative Director of Star Stable addresses stories that resonate in his upcoming talk at Friday Stories. To get your ticket, register here