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In defense of fanfiction: Game devs share how writing fanfiction kickstarted a career in games

The film Turning Red has certain folks up in arms about the idea that teens write fanfiction, but why call fanfic "cringe" when you can just love fanfic?

Pixar's Disney+ original movie Turning Red is turning heads. It's a fun romp about a 13-year-old girl named Meilin "Mei" Lee discovering a big family secret that turns her into a giant red panda—right as she's slamming into puberty and all its wonderful side effects. It's cute, it's sincere, and today, it's got game developers talking on social media about fan fiction.

Why? Some predictably sour reasons. A conservative-leaning backlash against Turning Red has been brewing for a few months now, and this weekend it manifested with a review bomb campaign on Rotten Tomatoes, complaining against everything from the diverse cast to the "unrelatable" plot (for more on that cringe-worthy critique, you can read about the cast's pushback).

One pattern among the harsh reviews was a critique about Mei's habit for fanfiction. "I had to turn it off after 10 [minutes], after I saw the main character drawing fanfiction as a 13 year old," one reviewer wrote. "It left me uncomfortable that a 13 year old was doing this in a Pixar film."

They then noted that they would rather watch Cars 2.

If you haven't seen the movie, the subtext is this: Mei's not just "drawing fanfiction," she's actively fantasizing about a boy she has a crush on. If you ever had a crush on someone but didn't know what it was, it's very relatable. This reviewer and others have taken serious umbrage with the idea of a 13-year old realizing she's romantically interested in other people and is manifesting that interest through art and fiction.

The burgeoning backlash has been met by both fervent defense of the movie's fans and an even more rousing defense by fanfiction (fanfic) writers. And among the ranks of those fanfic writers were a great many game developers--not just game writers! Designers, artists, and more all had a lot to say about the fan-oriented stories we make up when we're teenagers.

It will likely not surprise you, dear reader, that your humble author also had a fanfic stint around the same age Mei did. What's it got to do do with game development? It turns out—quite a lot.

A first stab at fiction

Hang around any game writing scene (like the Golden Gate Bar at GDC pre-pandemic) and you'll hear plenty of writers and narrative designers sing the praises of fanfic as an early creative outlet that can lead into video games.

Hidden Path Entertainment senior narrative designer Jennifer Helen Allaway did not hesitate in saying that her life as a teenager fanfic writer taught her how to be a game writer. She told Game Developer that after a childhood of writing in other ways, she stumbled into writing Final Fantasy IX fanfiction in third grade. A few years later, from ages 12-13, she eagerly took up Final Fantasy VII fanfiction, where she wrote stories based on shipping (a common term for assigning romantic pairings) different characters together.

"The fanfiction I wrote in this era of my life [is] some of the largest [work] I've ever written, and among the only personal projects I've ever finished," she said, before spelling out that she churned out 120 pages in 10 days. She'd later go on to write custom fanfic set in the world of the anime Naruto for her friends "where everyone in our group...got shipped with their preferred Naruto characters as OC inserts."

Allaway knows this teenage work was flawed, but of course it's flawed, it was written by a 12-year-old. "I try to be proud of my roots, because I definitely wouldn't be as good as I am today without this early practice in my life." 

She said that the high word count (plus feedback she got on the popular fan-work website fanfiction.net) was an early taste of the basics for writing in games.

Do other game writers and developers feel this way? Yep. Louisa Atto (who also publishes books as Louisa Onome) has written for an upcoming Playdate game and on the upcoming superhero game Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. But before that, she was writing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts alternate universe (AU) fanfic. "It absolutely made me want to get into games, but I think it mostly allowed me to appreciate and understand story in a really nuanced way," she explained.

It gave her room to practice before she became a professional writer. 

Kait Tremblay, currently lead narrative designer at Capybara Games, talked about writing her own fanfic of the professional wrestling franchise WWE, casting herself as the manager of all her favorite wrestlers. "It helped me grok a lot about writing for games and informs my approach to narrative design," she explained. 

"I reference WWE pretty often in my games work because there are also aspects of it...that are surprisingly relevant to the work I do daily."

Kris Lorischild, a writer and copyeditor with credits on Beast Breaker and some lore projects at Riot Games, described all of their teenage fanfic as "angsty," whether it was about Transformers, NiGHTS, or other manga. Their Transformers fic was "helpful" for their work at Riot, because it overlapped with a focus on "product-first lore-development."

NiGHTS fan art by Kris Lorischild
"There is no way I freehanded that horse." - Kris Lorischild

Devon Giehl, lead writer at Wonderstorm, unabashedly credits her Warcraft fanfiction as teeing up her career in games and on shows like Netflix's The Dragon Prince. "My first big dream was to write for Warcraft some day," she admitted. "BUT, I actually used my experience writing fanfiction and roleplaying with friends in World of Warcraft to get my first job in the industry."

"What I was doing for fun was ultimately a low-stakes form of collaborative storytelling, which is key in professional creative settings! 

Alternative controls designer Amanda Hudgins offered some nuance on how their Kill Bill and Watchmen fanfic affected their current career trajectory. "I don't think it necessarily got me into making games, but the speed and responsiveness aspect of it definitely contributed to my writing style and practices as an adult," they mused. They also felt "very confident" they could fix the ending of the Matthew McConaughey/Christian Bale fantasy flick Reign of Fire

And fanfic is still an appealing starting point for aspiring game developers of today. YouTuber Paul Giandinoto and aspiring indie developer Phoenix Cody Ridley told Game Developer that they use games like Breath of Fire or Telltale's The Walking Dead as jumping off points for what they create as adults. 

After asking about devs' early fanfic works on Twitter, my inbox and Twitter DMs are loaded with anecdotes about how fanfic is an excellent hobby to prepare for a career in video games. Luckily, that's not just for writers. Fan games and fan art can be inspirational too.

"Drawing fanfiction" is actually kind of accurate

While fielding the multiple messages from former fanfic writers, my inbox started piling up with other "fan" creations. There was fan art, like Mei's drawing in Turning Red, but also fan games, fan role-playing creations, and other fan-made works that showed how young creatives use other people's storytelling tools to build the foundation for their future work.

Kitfox Games CEO Tanya Short revealed that she contributed to a number of unofficial Wheel of Time MUDs (multiplayer text-based worlds), before later becoming a volunteer moderator/content designer for a commercial MUD in her twenties.

Milestone game designer Lorenzo Albertini told  us that while he did write some fanfic, he was "mostly into worldbuilding," and wrote many pages of documents that were "a strange fusion between a dark souls lore recap and a pitch design for an open world RPG."

"When you are the only kid into [tabletop roleplaying games], you make do with what you can," he said.

Shawn French, a developer at VR studio Hyperkinect, not only wrote a lot of Conan the Barbarian fanfic, but also developed small games for himself and his friends, often implemented using cards and dice. These were built on his love of sports, particularly boxing and wrestling. It's a different kind of fandom, but still definitely of the same energy as fanfic.

French's teenage work was so solid he's actually resurrected his dice tables to use in a new mixed-martial arts simulator. Here's a screenshot of his charts.

Sometimes fan games are spreadsheets.
Sometimes fan games are spreadsheets.

Across the Atlantic, folks like Francois Hardy contributed content for other online RPGs, writing original stories for the French tabletop RPG series In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas. "I'm immensely proud of some of it, ashamed at the perhaps volume of smut I wrote at the same time," he quipped. "But in my defense I was a horny teen, your honor."

Developers have also chased their fanfic dreams in other hybrid forms. Ubisoft narrative designer Ben "Books" Schwartz wrote plenty of Animorphs, Redwall, and Spyro the Dragon fanfiction, but also paper-prototyped original level maps for the CG animated series Reboot. They also made original Star Wars fan films, and made in-depth sprite sheets for Chrono Trigger and Kirby games. 

Schwartz still uses fanfic as a tool to hone their creativity and build out fictional worlds that don't live up to their expectations. As they put it, "if the work isn't going to give me what I want out of it, I'll make something myself that does!" 

That's to say nothing of the deep treasure troves of fan art that are also part of this experience. There's even vague overlap--a simple image may not be a full narrative, but drawing characters who never meet (or who have no romantic interest in the original work) in a romantic way is its own kind of short fiction.

It doesn't even have to be romance! Artists like CaptDedEyes told us about their fan comic that remixes the plot of Super Smash Bros. Brawl's Subspace Emissary plotline with one that adds new characters from other stories. These included Pac-Man, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Garfield.

CaptDedEyes also talked about drawing "heaps" of game concept drawings that included screenshot mockups, item lists, move set concepts for fighting games, and more. They described an urge to cringe when looking back at some ideas (Garfield fighting Mario is perfect, it should happen), but talked about the same sense of aspiration and energy that other developers did. 

Fandom is a weird beast where creatives can project their personal passions on creative works made by others, and fanfic shows how much it can do for creators. But that sincerity isn't always given a warm welcome out in the world.

A vector for cruelty

Game writer Emma Kidwell (currently at Firaxis and formerly of Hangar 13 and Game Developer) is another writer who got into game development through fanfic, but she remembers being "embarrassed" in her fic-writing days in middle and high school. "The culture back then demonized what teenage girls loved and middle school always sucks when you’re a marginalized kid," she explained. "So I kept it a secret from anyone outside my friend circle."

Kidwell first wrote Twilight fanfic for herself and her friends, then jumped into Mass Effect fanfic after the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 left her yearning for more Mass Effect. Like others we spoke with, Kidwell wrote stories from the perspectives of "self-insert" characters--protagonists who stood in for the writers, and expressed the same hopes, anxieties, and often romantic interests of their authors.

You've seen riffs on the star-eyed fanfic author in plenty of video games and cartoons by now. Sometimes they're presented with love, other times their passion turns into obsession, or often the butt of the joke. Fanfic is by definition, not professional, and is often very messy. 

Garrus Vakarian
Mass Effect's Garrus Vakarian, presented here for no reason whatsoever.

But that mess is the point! OnlyCans writer Nessa Cannon described writing "really elaborate" narrative quizzes that followed the format of a "choose your ending" story. Depending on your answers, a different hero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe would fall in love with you. She was very clear that this was a "self-insert" exercise for her and those who played her quizzes.

"I wrote like—DOZENS OF THEM!" she exclaimed.

Cannon lovingly called her works "peak cringe," and explained they were a way for her to learn a lot about her feelings and her writing. She had a crush on Captain America, as portrayed by Chris Evans, and this was one outlet for her to explore that crush, just like Mei does in Turning Red.

Many developers we spoke with used their fan projects as similar ways. Writer Mercedes Lamb, who's currently working on the indie mecha RPG Habit of Force, spelled out that because conventional stories do not like to show fat characters in conventional romantic stories, fanfic is where she goes to get that experience.

"When I read a fanfic about the Mandalorian falling in love with a faceless reader, it makes me feel like there is a space for me in the romance genre," she explained. You can extrapolate Lamb's point out to other marginalized identities across categories like race or gender as well.

Tanya Short said her time in the Wheel of Time MUDs was driven by "an interest in eroticism" (though simultaneously, she stressed that she had "no sense of anatomy").

Short described experimenting with different looks and genders for her character. Some of it was her trying to figure out what she thought was "sexy," but some of it was just trying out what made her feel comfortable. "It was like trying on different hats, but instead it was whole personas," she explained. 

She'd be in "light" relationships with other players through roleplaying, but would cry real tears when her characters' hearts were broken. Sometimes Short was a haughty ship captain, or a flirty treasure hunter, other times she was a shy librarian or front-line warrior. 

"Kids and teens don't really know who they are, or even who they wish they were, and I tried to be even more fluid than most," she mused. She thinks some of this still lives on in her writing for games like Kitfox Games' Boyfriend Dungeon. "Maybe I'm just more comfortable consciously choosing to express sides of myself, or those sides are more crystalized than they were."

You're starting to get the picture now, right? Fanfiction, especially fanfiction by young authors, is fertilized by the messy, uncomfortable feelings we're all trying to reckon with at some point in our lives. It gets even dicier when you live in a conservative community, where sexuality (particularly women's sexual identity) is aggressively policed.

And if you're using your fanfic to explore queer sexuality, or what gender means to you? It can be downright dangerous for some teens.

We should loop back to Kidwell's anecdote for a moment, because her example is a telling one for this Turning Red moment. Kidwell wrote Twilight fanfic in that 2007-era period where Twilight was both earth-shatteringly popular and publicly reviled. Even as hordes of fans (many of whom were young women) pored over Bella's love triangle with Edward and Jacob, it was just as common in pop culture to mock the series and its romance-minded fans.

I should know, I remember doing that mocking! It would be years before I "got" why people were so attached to Twilight.

If you read criticisms of Twilight back in the day, you'd see plenty of sneering over Stephanie Meyer's writing style and her "self-insert" protagonist. Around this time, the phrase "Mary Sue," which broadly represented near-flawless, idealized female protagonists acting as the author's fictionalized stand-in persona, achieved new virality on the internet.

The label was tossed on Bella Swan without a second thought. You'd see it roar back years later when the new Star Wars films debuted their new heroine, Rey.

It's entirely possible to be critical of Twilight (and Star Wars) for their many, many other flaws, but it's hard to look past how viscously pop culture went after the image of Bella. Kidwell wrote Twilight fanfic in an era where Twilight was being ripped apart for centering the romantic interests of a teen girl, and plenty of fanfic writers and fans took notice. 

Strong expression of sexual desire or emotion for these idealistic, dark, brooding characters? Pairing off your friends with their favorite in-universe lovers? It doesn't take a genius to see why fanfiction writers felt compelled to keep it secret from their other friends.

Which brings us back to the objections to Turning Red, and why so many developers have reacted so strongly. Not only is the story set in 2002, when many of us were thirteen years old and figuring ourselves out, it features a heroine whose entire internal conflict has to do with being mocked, ridiculed, and embarrassed by these new hormone-driven feelings. 

The reviewers lambasting Turning Red for showing a 13-year-old "drawing fanfiction" have a very clear point they wish to make. Fanfiction is messy. Romantic fanfiction is even messier. In their minds, it's an emblem of "the dark corners of the internet" where sexual interest and passionate feelings are inappropriately mapped onto fictional characters. To them, it isn't appropriate for children.

Mei Lee's mom finds her journal
Mei Lee's Mom finds her journal.

But the developers we spoke to know better. It's a real experience for many young creatives. You could defend it on the merits of being "a foundation for a professional career," but fanfic is more than that. Fanfic is deeply personal and can be part of how people figure out their creative style, or just their own personal identities.

Calling Mei's fanart and fanfiction,  "unrealistic" causes dissonance with game developers because it's an experience they've lived, sometimes within the video game industry. It calls up that demonization of women's romantic interests, and it's no wonder it's got so many developers sharing their fanfic. Once, they were messy too. Many still proudly are.

Giehl delightedly described returning to her Warcraft fanfic as an adult. "It's immensely satisfying to cut loose and just write indulgent stuff for myself and no one else," she wrote with obvious delight. It's a clear reminder that creativity is not purely mercenary.

It is very often for our very messy inner selves. Giehl, the developers we spoke with, and the creators of Turning Red are just talented enough to recognize that.

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