An Interview With Jean Leggett: ‘Shakespeare’s Landlord,’ Literacy, and Gaming

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Lily Bard

A few months ago, a woman in my TechLadies Facebook Group, Jean Leggett, posted about her company One More Story Games and her upcoming game based on the Charlaine Harris Lily Bard series. After a few conversations with Jean, I started reading the series and fell in love with Lily. In fact, of all the Harris books I’ve read, I’m pretty much feeling like Lily Bard is by far my favorite of her characters.

Lily Bard’s physical strength allows her to continue her daily battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder arising out of a violent rape. Curious to see how Leggett managed to bring this story to life, I sat down to interview her about her company and game.

GeekMom: OK—so, let me start with—tell us a little bit about how you ended up moving from stand-up to video game development?

Jean Leggett: Six years ago this summer, my husband, the games industry veteran, nearly died while we were in Dallas. He was working for Zynga and we decided we’d come back to his hometown to recover. Given that we didn’t have kids or a mortgage or any real debt, we thought we’d take the chance on doing what we loved—a radical idea. For him, it was developing StoryStylus, the game creation platform for authors. For me, I was going to do my speaking, coaching, and stand-up comedy.

About a year in, it seemed that my admin wizardry and keen hustle would be amazing for OMSG, so I stepped in to do operations, grant applications, investor fundraising, etc, and I’ve been in this role for 4+ years now. I have an English degree from Simon Fraser University (Burnaby BC) and a background in web design and database development, so it lends itself quite nicely to managing and helping design tools for writers

GM: You have a new game this month—based on a Charlaine Harris series—tell us a little bit about how that started.

JL: We’d gone to Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery reader/writer conference, which was being held in Long Beach, CA in 2014. After Charlaine was finished signing books, I waited to approach her and asked if she’d considered turning her books into games. She replied that she’d done that before but it didn’t work out. My reply was, “Is that something I could help you with?” She gave me her card and said, “That would be lovely, dear.”

About 6 months later, we started the conversation with her agency, and in February 2016, we were able to announce we’d signed Charlaine Harris and that we were adapting the first novel in her Lily Bard series. I loved the LB series because Lily is a woman who has had some serious physical and emotional trauma in life but doesn’t need anyone to rescue her—she’s still coping with trauma but in her own way.

GM: You chose Lily because she’s a fascinating character, an assessment with which I agree fully. Before interviewing you, I read through all the books. Most games require action and most of the series really focuses on thinking. What decisions in terms of gameplay did you make when looking at this series?

JL: Great question!

When I was looking at Charlaine’s catalog and what was available, I was less concerned about gameplay mechanics and more concerned with the story. Our games can be best described as “book meets game” hybrids and are reminiscent of point and click adventure games from the ’80s and ’90s. With Shakespeare’s Landlord, that first novel, the gameplay mechanics are focused on navigating through the world through the lens of Lily. She’s a maid for hire and as a result, she has access to suspects’ homes and is that person in the background people don’t notice so she overhears a lot of things.

One of the elements is that the player, as Lily, can interview/probe other in-game characters. It’s a bit out of character for Lily, since she really does keep to her own in the novels, but it is a necessary element for players to discover relationships, motives, and alibis.

GM: It sounds like your games are very similar to TellTale Games’ The Wolf Among Us—can you walk us through how your story based games work compared to others’?

JL: Hmm. Well, you can’t get through our games without reading. I’ve watched children and adults play Hard Vacuum Lullaby, which is a 30-minute space adventure with 8 different endings. If you read closely, you’ll be able to navigate quite easily through the world, but if you’re just zipping through the text, you’ll be lost. Our job is to find a balance between reading, world interaction, puzzles, conversations, and lastly, providing enough support for players should they need it. With Shakespeare’s Landlord, we’re making sure every part of the game has hints for players (you lose points if you access them) because our target demographic is readers who also play casual games. We really have to be mindful of their experience of gameplay.

It really is book meets game—read, play, read and play some more.

GM: Why do you focus so much on reading in your games? How did you find this particular gaming niche?

JL: We set out to help authors develop narrative games and focus on good storytelling. While that can be told through graphics and music, which add extra layers to our experience of the story game, ultimately it has to come from the writing itself.

Danielle’s Inferno was a game we adapted from Michelle Rene’s (pen name Olivia Rivard) novelette. I read it and thought this would make for a fun, short quest-type game. We ended up turning it into a 3-hour point and click dark comedy. It’s a lot of reading but broken up into shorter, digestible blocks. It tied for #1 PC Game of the Year here in Toronto and has moved Twitch streamers to tears because they’ve become so emotionally invested in the characters.

With Charlaine’s game, there were so many ways we could have approached it, but the experience of our testers has shown us that they are really enjoying being able to explore a novel in a visual way. An added element is that we brought the Audible book performer, Julia Gibson, into the game. She’ll be voicing Lily Bard. We’re always looking for more ways to create a fuller, richer experience of traditional storytelling but in an interactive way.

GM: You mentioned earlier, and truthfully it’s one of the most powerful aspects of the stories, that Lily suffers from PTSD, which means some of the interpersonal interactions in the game are outside her nature. How did you manage to navigate creating a video game experience that also handles mental health respectfully?

JL: It has been a deliberate part of our narrative construction. I remember when I first read the novel and got through Chapter 5 where there’s detailed descriptions of Lily’s abduction, subsequent sexual assault by multiple perpetrators, and she has an opportunity to kill her main attacker and she does. I didn’t see that as a barrier to optioning the book—while most women won’t experience that degree of brutality, most women I know have experienced assault to some degree. I saw Lily as a relatable person. When my husband and co-founder Blair read the book a year later in preparation for pre-production, he stopped at Chapter 5 and was stunned. He asked how we were going to deal with this topic. “Simple,” I responded, “we don’t need to talk about the rape itself.”

We’re looking to explore PTSD in a sensitive and thoughtful way. When Lily encounters the body of her landlord, the seminal event of the story, the audio cues up an accelerated heartbeat and heavier breathing. There’s an image that parallels the image of her landlord’s lifeless hand that has a slightly different art style.

There are many instances throughout the game where her anxiety and panic is triggered and what I hope is that players come away with feeling satisfied for solving the mystery, the “game” part of the game, but also come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for people who are dealing with PTSD.

One of the images and pieces of narrative revolves around faceless people attacking her. We’ve spoken to several PTSD survivors and they were quite moved by how we’ve represented the very images they see in their nightmares. It’s a fine line and I think we’re approaching it responsibly. We’re also working with some trauma counselors to make sure we’re taking the right approach.

GM: I’m fascinated by how you’re integrating the graphics and sounds to help tell this story. Where does the inspiration for this come from? How did you decide on artwork and audio signaling?

JL: Last summer, our budget for the game was pretty modest and the scope of the game reflected that. If you look at our original YouTube trailer for the game from October 2017, you’ll see the PTSD scene graphics are in red/black. It was almost horror-inspired. It never quite sat right with me, and two months ago, I was able to say this has got to go. Our lead artist Anthony Caruana reimagined the intention of the scenes and suggested we go with a muted, monochromatic look. My breath was taken away. We experience the world in color but our PTSD moments are flat, lifeless but ominous at the same time. Harrison Smith, our second artist, works closely with Anthony to achieve that.

I was looking for talented people to help with the sound and Hazel Turnbull appeared like an angel from the skies. She’s based outside of Edinburgh. She’s been great at striking the mood for the exploratory scenes and various goings-on.

And it really is a team effort. Both Blair and I are writing the game, alongside Sara Jeffers, and we’re looking for ways that we can tell the story with layers of complexity. Both Sara and I have experienced the #metoo moments in our own lives and we are mindful of that in our writing.

GM: Now, I don’t want to take any of your thunder, but I know that you’re meeting with Ms. Harris next week to show her the game. Tell us what it’s been like working with her.

JL: Charlaine is so very lovely. When we set out to work with her, we chose to include language in our contract that said we would honor her world and her vision. The Lily Bard series is very near and dear to her heart and to her readers as well. In October 2017, she was visiting Toronto for Bouchercon’s 2017 conference. We held a sneak peek party, hosted by Kobo Writing Life, and we showed 150 people the beginnings of the gameplay, art, and so much more. In my fireside chat with Charlaine, she shared that it was important that Lily be a character that didn’t need to be rescued. Charlaine herself had been assaulted in the ’70s and mentioned that at every book signing, there’s always at least one person who has a stack of Lily Bard books and expresses how much the character means to them.

We’ve involved Charlaine in some of the art direction and she has final approval on the demo content as well as the full game. We feel strongly about honoring her vision and at the same time, we have creative license to imagine the world on our own.

She really is a very down to earth person and she’s got a wicked sense of humor!

GM: I’m not going to lie – I’m having a bit of fangirl envy right now.

I do have a follow-up to something you said above. I’m particularly fascinated that you’re focusing on “books as gaming experiences” and the importance of literacy in your gaming worlds. Why did you want to focus on reading and literacy as part of a gaming experience?

JL: The literacy piece is something that really evolved. First and foremost it is about story. As we started to develop our own content with Sutherland Booth (Skycarver, Hard Vacuum Lullaby), it translated into something that was text-heavy but with pieces of interactivity. With Charlaine Harris’ game, we’re leaning more towards narrative because we want readers to have a more immersive experience—to dive into living, breathing interactive worlds (which, coincidentally, was our very first tagline for OMSG).

What if reading was more fun, especially for reluctant readers? What if games were more literate and our games were the bridge between two worlds?

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