By Rianne Herrera
The year is 2003, and one of the biggest events in the game development industry is in full swing: the Electronic Entertainment Expo, more commonly known as E3. Tucked away in the lowest level of Kentia Hall at the Los Angeles Convention Center, game developers prepare first looks of leading-edge projects for investors to demo, eager to get the proper funding for a full launch.
Among them is a young, anxious Robert Brookes, a fledgling game developer showcasing a working title on behalf of Sherman 3D, a Malaysian company endeavoring to release their new Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, “Vibe Force.” Back then, he was a concept artist taking his first steps into game development, working remotely from the United States. Now, twenty years later, he’s a senior narrative designer for one of the biggest action MMOs to date: “Destiny 2.”
When I first messaged Brookes, I was scarcely expecting a response. I have been enthralled with the fiction of “Destiny 2” since my sophomore year of high school, daydreaming about the expansive universe Brookes has had a personal hand in cultivating for years now. When Brookes got back to me only a few days later, I saw just how broad his compassion for inclusivity is, taking a Saturday afternoon to speak with me on diversity in the narrative design sector of the game industry.
Brookes cites his first position in game development as one of the most influential in his career, though it didn’t last long. Despite his position as a concept artist, the small size of Sherman 3D allowed Brookes to interface with various departments of game development as well, such as writing and design.
It was an especially valuable introduction to the industry, but lasted only a short three years before “Vibe Force” was canceled. With his dayview project lost to the pitfalls of game development, Brookes struggled to find work in the industry. He worked as a freelance artist for a time, before financial stress led him to take on mundane desk jobs, including one position as an insurance litigation auditor.
This lapse lasted until the early 2010s, when a friend suggested Brookes try writing for table top role-playing games (TTRPGs) like “Dungeons and Dragons.” After a year of writing competitions and freelance work, Brookes earned himself a position writing for the “Pathfinder” RPG, where he worked for 10 years. Then in 2018, after over 200 rejected applications for narrative design positions, Brookes learned of an opportunity at the game studio Bungie, then still working on their only active title “Destiny 2.”
It was a perfect fit, according to Brookes. “It wound up being something that was just kind of the exact right time, the exact right place, and that’s the commonality I hear with a lot of people in the industry,” Brookes said. “And that’s harder and harder the closer you get to being in an underrepresented group.”
Brookes has been an advocate for diversity in writing since his time in the TTRPG industry, where he started Encounter Table Publishing, a company he staffed with a variety of gay and transgender writers that may not have been able to break into the TTRPG industry otherwise. He attributes his earliest days in the game industry working for Sherman 3D as a driving force in his push for diversity and inclusion in narrative design today.
“It felt good to take people who had no foot in the door…and just make them a part of it, holding the door open. Which is what I didn’t see a lot of other people doing,” Brookes said.
Beyond the moral duty he sees in uplifting diverse writers, Brookes also sees diversity within narratives themselves as a key factor in telling more interesting stories that attract wider audiences of people. “I think that’s one of the best parts of having a diverse [writing] room is that you can create worlds that very few people have stepped in before and that helps build empathy … and understanding,” he said.
“If you have a queer writer who feels passionate about queer stuff, let them be gay and write gay things, [then] you’re gonna get something good that people can identify with.”
Although the game industry has seen more diversification in recent years, narrative design remains one of the more convoluted and difficult departments of game development to enter. As a position with no clear degree or courses, most designers end up taking paths just as wildly diverse as Brookes’ own. If they are able to break the membrane at all, that is.
“When [people] say everyone’s path is circuitous, it’s also prickly and bramble-filled, and very, very hard. And for all it seems I kinda just lucked out, there are 200-and-some odd jobs … that I applied to and never even heard back,” Brookes said.
To those still shrouded in doubt, afraid to take those first steps in the realm of narrative design, Brookes offers one simple, yet heartfelt piece of advice: don’t give up.
“Even when things look bad. Things come in cycles, things can and will get better. And they will get better if people with the right mindset step into the industry, get seniority, get experience and can move the dial.” he shared. “And it’s up to folks like me who have more influence to try and find ways to bring the ladder down for them, to make it easier for them to get in, and I think that other people at my level in the industry should kind of look at … who [they] can help elevate and lift up. Because they’re the ones who are gonna be doing the real lifting in the future.”
Brookes speaks to the world of diverse narrative designers at large, but his words inspire me just as deeply as I know they will others. I thanked him for what must have been the thousandth time as our meeting ended, tucking away my notes to open my resume instead. A few short hours after our meeting, I sent out four applications for narrative design positions. Perhaps the first four of countless applications to come.