Finding stories is a joy of mine, and finding people to chat to a thrill. My go-to hunt used to be predominantly through Twitter (I still refuse to call it that other name) but despite the collapse of that site and its bizarre flow of messages, I’m still able to come across really interesting people. And let’s be honest, if they’re fellow Kerry people, even better!
That’s how I came across Rachel Quirke, a fellow proud Kerrywoman who works at Larian, the studio behind the renowned video game Baldur’s Gate 3.
Rachel grew up about an hour or so away from my home base in Kerry, above her family’s newsagents in Cahersiveen. Perhaps it’s a staple of growing up in the Kingdom, but she too was coaxed into playing GAA where she tells me that she was “put in goal on the U-12’s, where I could do minimal damage.”
But despite this, that has never stopped her from being an extremely proud Kerrywoman. I’m immediately drawn to this fact as I too was sent to the goals!
Growing up, Rachel tells me that she was a quiet kid overall, who spent far too much time in her head but had an obsession that drove her out of the Kingdom. Japan.
“That cringey, weird kid at the back of your class who was obsessed with the land of the rising sun? Yep, that was me,” she muses.
“I remember going to the video shop – such a foreign concept now – and renting Spirited Away in about 2002. My little sister and I watched it every night for a week. From there, it was very much the gateway drug to all things anime and manga.”
Fushigi Yuugi was the first manga that Rachel collected in its entirety but tells me that every bit of birthday and Christmas money went into building a collection of anime DVDs and manga for most of her teens. In fact, to this day Escaflowne remains one of her favourite anime of all time. “Mecha and tarot cards, how could you go wrong?” she says.
But it wasn’t just anime and manga that sank their teeth into her, books and video games weren’t that far behind with Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy and Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy being some of her first forays into the world of fantasy.
“I still remember being amazed that anyone could be so creative,” she says. “I was reading so much, my dad put me in charge of the YA (young adult) and kids books in the family newsagents, and I loved it”.
“My PS2 was almost worn out from the sheer amount of times I played the Jax and Daxter series, Final Fantasy X, and Kya: Dark Lineage.” So much so was video games’ influence on her that she did her undergraduate thesis on Mass Effect.
But for Rachel, other than wanting to go to Japan, having an intense love for anime and video games didn’t really help when it came to trying to figure out where her life was headed.
“I knew I wanted to do something in writing, but had no idea what,” she says. “I certainly never imagined video games. I briefly toyed with journalism but realised someone who daydreams as much as I do should never be put in charge of the news.”
But as luck would have it, it was a friend of hers who found her dream course in the University of Limerick prospectus: Language, Literature, and Film, which would let Rachel major in English Lit and minor in Japanese. “It was perfect,” she says.
Rachel went to college in 2009 and at the time, many families like hers were being hit hard by the recession. And so, even while attending college full-time she also worked 40 hours a week in the shop.
“I had a reason for the insane hours though, other than the usual bills to pay,” she explains. “I was determined to save up and do a semester abroad. And where better than Japan?”
In Rachel’s second year, she spent a couple of months teaching in Tokyo and once she had experienced some of the essentials like getting her fortune told at a Shinto shrine, sitting in the life-sized cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro, and sipping tea in a butler cafe, she knew that was the sign to return.
She applied to the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) in her final year and made her way to the city of Oita in the south of Japan. The next two years were filled with great memories and unforgettable moments.
“I danced in Oita Tanabata, spent Stephen’s Day at the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, and even got bitten on the arse by a deer,” she muses.
“While my love of Japan has never faded, the country no longer has the mythical properties it took on when I was a teenager”, she says. “It’s a place like any other, with all the good and bad that comes with that.”
But the urge to write was still there and so Rachel set her sights on a master’s in Literature and Publishing in Galway. “I decided I’d do the ‘sensible’ thing,” she says. “I’d help other people become writers.”
“I wanted to get into the publishing industry, and thought this was the perfect place to put in the groundwork – and I was right! I loved my year in Galway and highly recommend the course.”
Rachel believes that it was the huge interest in the “wonderful chaos and absurdity of Japanese storytelling” and video games that still influences her today.
I have a book coming out next year under a pen name and it has an entire fight scene inspired by the manga Demon Slayer.
Video games are the ultimate interactive fiction, one in which you don’t just play these people’s stories, you become part of them. You can be the hero of the galaxy, miniature chefs running a hectic restaurant, a couple whose daughter has accidentally turned them into dolls – anything! For me, there’s nothing else in the world like them.– Rachel Quirke
After working abroad in Rome, homesickness became too much and Rachel finally decided to return to Ireland. And it was then that a friend messaged her about a job he’d seen for a writer at Larian Studios.
“I adored video games, especially RPGs, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be any good at writing for them,” she says. “However, reading the job description got me excited in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. I’d been struggling with a sci-fi novel, so I decided to submit sections of that, as well as some short stories.”
Rachel heard back from Larian and to her disappointment didn’t get the job.
Gutted but determined to carry on, Rachel applied and interviewed for any job she could find related to writing or publishing. Editorial assistant, copyeditor, proofreader, technical writer, anything but most of the time, she didn’t even get a rejection – just silence.
Weeks later, Rachel was on the bus on my way to a room viewing in Cork, when she got a surprise. It was an email from Larian. They had a position as a Junior Writer open and was she interested?
“I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘YES’ to anything so quickly,” Rachel says.
Rachel went through another round of interviews and screamed the house down when she got the job. “I’d done it – I was officially a writer. Something I’d never thought possible.”
When it comes to the work itself, Rachel says that writing characters and collaborating with other departments brings her so much joy. Most recently she worked on Baldur’s Gate 3, a video game that has amassed immense critical acclaim.
“I can sit for hours trying to come up with a concept, an idea, a line, that will let people instantly know the type of person they’re speaking to,” she explains.
Real-world inspirations come into play too and Rachel channelled her grandmother, Nana Juju when writing the hag Auntie Ethel which she reassures me is a compliment.
“The actor, Rena Valeh, knocked it out of the park. I smile every time she says: ‘Auntie Ethel will sort you out. I’ve lotions and potions galore!’”
The Tiefling bard Alfira was created following Rachel’s grief after she lost someone close to her and Lucretious, the ringmaster of the Circus of the Last Days, is what Rachel describes as her inner drag queen.
“I wish my favourite line was something beautiful, life-changing and poetic, but if I’m being completely honest, It’s the battle cry of a tiny, shitty imp called Shovel: ‘It’s fisting time.’ My favourites to write are the weirdos.”
But while Rachel writes these characters she says that she’s not what makes them shine.
“It’s my fellow writers when they help me brainstorm a tough scene,” she explains.
My leads when they review my dialogues and make my words the best they can be. The scripters when they design and implement the most batshit stuff you can think of for example you can meet a djinni who turns you into cheese – all a scripter’s idea. The cinematic artists when they make scenes leap from the screen, and so many other departments. Nothing makes me happier than when I see everyone’s work come together – that’s when it stops being a game and starts being magic.
The Larian team work in the office and how her day pans out entirely depends on where they are in the production of the project.
One day she could be in meetings all day, trying to figure out the quest flow for a section, another she could be at her desk with nu-metal blasting in her ears trying to make a dialogue come to life.
What always remains, however, is the collaborative aspect of the process. Be it a character, area, or quest, the characters all go through countless people with everyone adding their own touch.
For those looking to get into game writing and working in game development, Rachel stresses that it is vitally important to have a portfolio ready.
“I helped out a little bit a few years ago with recruiting, and I was shocked at the amount of people who applied for a writing job without any writing. Or writing that isn’t relevant like history assignments, psychology slideshows, etc.”
When applying for a game writing or narrative design job, she says that it is vital that you have a collection of your work ready, preferably one that has been tailored to your application.
“I highly advise attaching it to your application from the get-go, in order to make it as easy as possible for your potential employer.”
If you have an interest in interactive dialogues, Rachel recommends Twine, a free, open-source tool for telling non-linear stories, that is perfect for interactive dialogues.
“Not only is it a great way to add dialogues to your portfolio, but it’s also pretty common as a testing tool for writing jobs, so it’s doubly in your interest to get familiar with it,” she adds.
Rachel also recommends game jams where people get together and make a game from scratch in a short space of time, either solo or in a team.
“You can meet industry peeps, get amazing feedback on your game and have a lot of fun along the way. The Galway Game Jam crew are lovely – and you can do it remotely!”
The other advice Rachel gives is to be persistent. The game industry can be tough to break into, especially as a junior, so don’t be dismayed if you hear crickets.
“Keep applying, and keep working on your portfolio. And if you don’t get the job on the first try – I didn’t! – apply again when you’ve built up your skills.”
What does the future hold? It’s a big question but for Rachel, she dearly hopes it will be in writing.
“There are writing days when I want to pull my hair out – the words won’t come, all my ideas are shite, my dialogue has the creative flow of cardboard, etc.,” she says. “But even at its most stressful, I still love it.”
“Or maybe I’ll become a hermit, adopt a bunch of stray dogs, and live out in the wilds,” she muses. “Who knows?”