Avid gamer, writer, and video game storyteller, Morgan Lockhart is one of the minds behind the Halo series. She has worked as a writer in the video game industry for well over a decade, producing several immersive narratives and exciting worlds. Morgan was also kind enough to act as guest instructor for Storybird’s Video Game Course.
But Morgan is much more than that. She is also a music lover, a conceptual thinker, and a mentor. We had a chat about her inspirations, advice, and experience.
“I wanted to produce to stories that would engage and entertain and inspire. Video games ended up being my path to do that.”
The Halo Series has such a vast, rich narrative. What are some story-heavy video games that inspire you to be so creative?
Morgan: I would say Mass Effect 2 was one of my favorite games. You take on the role of a space captain playing through this grand sweeping universal story. You had to live with the consequences of the choices you made along the way and there are all these wonderful occasions to get to know this cast of characters that you travel with and how their stories intertwine with the bigger story.
Sounds exciting! But Mass Effect 2 is a Mature-Rated game. Are there more age-appropriate video games out there to inspire young creators?
You need to think about what’s age appropriate, but no matter what it is that you want, I think you can find a game that cultivates that.
“There are games that cultivate imagination, that cultivate cooperation, that cultivate empathy.”
I would pitch the game Never Alone, which was a game that was created in partnership with Alaskan natives about a young Inuit girl and her Snow Fox companion. The whole thing is just beautifully done. There’s a lot of cooperation between the girl and the fox and they intersperse it with actual stories from the Alaskan natives.
What about inspirations from sources other than video games? For example, a novelist might talk a walk in the city to get inspired…what do you do to inspire yourself as a narrative designer?
Reconnect to the deeper themes or to the characters that you’re trying to create. Anything that can help bring you back if you get lost. Sometimes they do what we call mood boards which is where they visualize the theme just by painting something that’s the same emotionally as what you’re trying to say.
Neat! Anything else?
“It’s definitely a challenge if you are a professional writer to always be producing. Certainly the creative well of inspiration runs dry.”
Video game writers often need to work on teams. Do you have any advice for those worried about critical feedback and team pressure?
It is very difficult to learn to take feedback but it is so important.
“Something that you have to always keep in mind is that you are a work in progress as much as your work is a work in progress.”
You don’t come in with these skills. You have to develop them over time, and the only way you’re going to do that is if you can really look at your work and see where things need improvement. You just you can’t take it personally. You know it’s not a judgment of who you are fundamentally. It is simply a feedback on a skill that you are developing.
So team feedback is necessary when writing, but what about when you’re just forming your ideas? What tools should young artists use when brainstorming?
Early on when working on a concept phase we actually sometimes just use note cards. We put beats on note cards that we can easily rearrange, drop them, change them out. We also use white boards a lot because we can easily just erase something that’s not working.
Any advice for writers who make it past the concept phase? What would you tell someone who gets stuck halfway?
“One of my most important mottos is always seek to understand more.”
That can apply in a lot of different ways. It means that I need to dig deeper into a character and understand them more, or it means I need to dig into a concept and better understand that, or it means I need to go out and look at a reference book and deepen my understanding of a scientific concept for science fiction, or a historical concept for worldbuilding. You can always understand something better.
This is all fantastic advice, but what about creators who are just testing the waters? How does an emerging video game writer test their skills and get their work out there?
“Make use of the communities out there where you can share. A lot of games provide the ability to actually create mods.”
Those are little user-generated content packages that you can put out there. Usually there’s a community feedback system and that is one of the things that I did early on. That was one of the ways that I learned how to use game tools, to have put something out there that somebody else is going to play. There are things like the Super Mario Builder where you can make levels.
What would you say to those who don’t know where to start?
“The only way to learn how to make games is to start making games. As with anything else, just do it. Get messy. Try things.”
Even though you work with teams to create your narratives, do you feel personally fulfilled by your work? What do you find rewarding about completing a narrative like Halo 4?
I remember when the music got added to Halo 4. The game ends with a big climactic battle but it also has these emotional beats throughout. When the music came online, it really just brought the emotion of that scene together. I had played this a million times. I had been part of the creation process and I still cried. I really love those moments when this thing that you have been working on really starts to come together and you see that, “Oh yes, All right. This thing we’re trying to build. It’s real.”