Growing up, Annie Kitain loved playing video games and fell in love with their stories – including Horizon Zero Dawn! Now as Lead Writer on Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores, she continues Aloy’s story to delight players all over the world.
Annie chats with us about her life in Hawaii, the games that inspired her, and what led to her writing career in games and at Guerrilla.
Hi Annie – we’re very excited to chat with you today! Before we dive in, can you tell us what you do at Guerrilla and a quick background of where you’re from?
Hi! I’m Annie and I’m a Lead Writer here at Guerrilla. I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii before moving to Seattle, and I’ve been in Amsterdam for a little over four years now!
Wow! Hawaii is a dream destination for so many – what was it like living there?
I feel so lucky to have grown up in Hawaii. The islands are an amazing cultural melting pot and growing up surrounded by this diversity – along with the beautiful mountains and ocean, ono kine grindz, and the laid back atmosphere – have really influenced who I am.
How did you spend your time growing up in Hawaii? Were you into any particular hobbies and video games?
I loved going to the beach and hiking with friends. I have so many great memories of long, lazy beach days. And, unsurprisingly, I also played games a lot as a kid. I first was obsessed with all things Pokemon – Pokemon Crystal, Pokemon Snap, Pokemon Stadium, Hey You, Pikachu… I loved ‘em all. Then, when I was a little older, I played The Sims every chance I got. Looking back, I think playing The Sims helped foster an interest in storytelling – I was always making up stories and creating drama for my poor Sims!
It sounds like your life in Hawaii was so quaint. When did you start thinking about leaving and exploring beyond?
Kid me couldn’t wait to get out and see what other places were like! This might sound silly, but as a kid I really related to the beginning of Kingdom Hearts when Sora wanted to get off the island to explore other worlds. I always felt like there was just so much more out there – so much more to know than just the place I called home. I finally got my chance when I moved to Seattle for college (go Dawgs!). I’m often asked “why’d you leave paradise for grey skies and rain?” but I was SO excited to finally experience seasons (plus the Pacific Northwest is beautiful in its own way too)!
What was living in Seattle like compared to Hawaii?
Moving to Seattle was a big change! I was on my own for the first time, in a new city, with family halfway across the Pacific Ocean. But I've always believed that if something excites and terrifies you, you've gotta take a deep breath and push forward. Life has a way of working itself out.
Luckily, the transition was also a little bit easier since I was there to attend the University of Washington and lived in the dorms with a lot of other out-of-state students. Together, we helped each other navigate going to classes on a huge, sprawling campus, living away from family, and generally just figuring out how to be adults.
I really enjoyed being in a major city surrounded by mountains and lakes – so much so that I stayed after graduating from college. The grey skies, rain, and sunsets at 4pm in the winter were miserable at times, but I did a lot of hiking, enjoyed great food, and in the summer desperately tried to get some semblance of my Hawaii tan back. Living in Seattle definitely helped make the move to Amsterdam a little easier (although Amsterdam boasts even longer glorious summer days!) as the two cities have similar temperatures and weather throughout the year.
Was this when you started thinking about pursuing game development? How did you decide that you wanted to be a writer for video games?
My interest in pursuing a career in games happened pretty much by chance. I had wanted to be a writer ever since I was little, but by the time I was in college I was contemplating writing novels on the side while pursuing a veterinarian career. That is, until my then-boyfriend (now husband) happened to be playing Dragon Age: Origins. I played maybe 10 minutes of his save, became hooked, then started my own playthrough. Even though there had been many great games with great stories before it, DAO was what opened my eyes to what storytelling could be in games. By the time I finished the game and was introduced to Mass Effect, I knew game writing was what I wanted to do.
That must’ve been an amazing moment, when this clicked into place for you. How did this kickstart your path into game development and to Guerrilla?
Breaking into the industry was really hard. It took me about six years from deciding I wanted to be a game writer to landing my first contract role, and in that time there were dozens upon dozens of applications, missed opportunities, and rejections – and all while I was working a day job and trying to build up a writing portfolio on the side.
I was just about ready to give up on the dream (literally said to myself "I'll do one more round of applications and then stop") when I landed a contract with Grimlore Games, working on SpellForce 3. The role was part-time for only a couple of months, but I was so excited. I finally had my foot in the door!
From there, I went on to work on the expansion SpellForce 3: Soul Harvest. It was a full-time contract, so even though I was nervous about leaving the security of my day job behind, I took the leap and became a full-fledged game writer! Then, as that project was coming to a close, I started looking for new opportunities… and that's when I applied to Guerrilla.
And now you’re here at Guerrilla and in Amsterdam! What has your experience living here been like so far?
Living in Amsterdam has been such a great experience. I hadn’t ever envisioned myself living in Europe, but the opportunity to work for Guerrilla was a dream come true, so moving overseas was an exciting change that I’m glad I embraced!
Getting around is so easy, both because of the great public transportation system and the fact that everyone speaks English. Plus, being able to easily travel to other countries (in the US it’d be the same as visiting another state!) has been amazing. COVID obviously put a damper on a lot of plans, so I’m looking forward to making up for lost time.
Overall, I think learning to live in a different city/country broadens your understanding of yourself and the world, and helps you become a more well-rounded person. I’m very thankful for this adventure.
You’ve been here at Guerrilla for a few years now – do you remember how you felt when you first started? How do you feel now?
My time at Guerrilla has been amazing! I've learned so much over the last four years, first as a writer at the regular level, then Senior, and now Lead. Because I was working remotely in my previous job, Guerrilla is actually the first studio I've worked in-house for.
Making a game like Horizon is a huge challenge, but when you're surrounded by so many talented people, getting to collaborate with each other and then see all that hard work come together is immensely rewarding. I'm still awe-struck to this day. It's also been really cool to see the studio grow. We were still in the old office when I started, and in the time since, we've moved to our shiny new office and welcomed so many new people! I'm really excited to see what we'll build together in the future.
I’m sure many readers are so curious to know this: can you tell us about the process of writing for video games? What are some important things you need to consider that players may not know about?
There are a lot of different factors when it comes to game writing, but when it comes to crafting the story, we always start with identifying a character’s desires and conflicts. What’s this character’s ultimate goal? What stands in their way? On Horizon Forbidden West, particularly for the side quests, we also saw an opportunity to further explore the tribes and the world they inhabit through these desires and conflicts. Instead of a grandmother simply searching for her lost grandson, what if they were on opposing sides of the civil war that’s embroiled the whole tribe? It was a lot of fun to deep dive on the tribes’ cultures through a personal, emotional story.
I can imagine how much of the world you need to consider when doing this. How is writing for games different from other mediums, say TV and movies?
The biggest difference between game writing and writing for film or TV is the fact that games are an interactive medium. In other mediums, the audience is passive – they sit back and watch what is shown to them. But in games, the player is an active participant, experiencing the world and story as the character they’re playing as. This has its own positives, as players can become highly invested in the story, but also its own unique challenges, too. We’re always mindful of when and how we take control away from the player – for example, in a movie, it’s fine for the protagonist to rapid-fire a weapon, but in a game, if that’s something the player expects to do in gameplay, having it occur in a cutscene can quickly become frustrating.
And I’m sure that simultaneous engagement with gameplay and story is something the players may not be conscious of, but that must be a good sign of how teams all work together. Who do you work closely with when you think about the story?
The writing team works very closely with Quest, Design, and Art to help realize the story. Good communication is key, as an important part of our job is providing narrative context for different pieces of content. It’s always amazing and inspiring to see other teams work their magic, adding and refining their ideas to help turn something from a written blurb on paper into something fully realized in-game, whether that’s a character design, art dressing, or a full-fledged quest!
With so many moving parts and teams collaborating, what are some challenges you face as a writer specifically? How do you overcome these?
One of the challenges of an open world game is also one of the things that I enjoy most about my job. In an open world, the player has the freedom to explore… and very quickly go about things in a different order than another player might. While we can’t always account for EVERY possible variation, we do try to account for the most likely scenarios. What if the player does quest A first and learns about X, then does quest B where X also comes up? Shouldn’t Aloy acknowledge it?
There’s one quest in Forbidden West that involves a certain tunnel that was so complicated because of all of these edge cases, and I loved figuring it all out. “What if I open the tunnel from the other side before I do the quest?” / “What if I open the tunnel and I had left the quest at the exact step where my companion is standing on the other side – shouldn’t she react?” / “What if I open the tunnel but didn’t kill the machine and then finish the quest – shouldn’t I warn my companion if she’s planning on going that way?” I asked myself so many questions like these, trying to imagine all the ways a player might experience this content and then seeing if we could account for them.
Do you have a favorite part of the story or side quest that you’ve worked on?
One side quest in Horizon Forbidden West I’m proud of is “In the Fog,” in which an aging warrior has been behaving erratically and even wounded his own daughter in a fight. Aloy eventually figures out that he has been forgetting things – he has dementia. Bringing this insight to his daughter helps her finally understand her father and helps heal the rift between them.
Much of this story drew inspiration from my grandma, who had Alzheimer’s, and how our family struggled to understand why she was acting the way she was in the early days of her disease. Finally getting a diagnosis brought understanding. And thanks to our incredible Quest designers, Cinematics and Dialogue team, artists, and actors, the quest turned out great.
It’s fascinating how much of the player’s journey you think about in your role, but also how far you’ve come here at Guerrilla – and with Aloy! How do you feel about how you’ve grown here since you’ve moved?
Helping to tell the continuation of Aloy’s story in Horizon Forbidden West and the Burning Shores DLC have been the highlights of my time here. I fell in love with the world of Horizon and Aloy back in 2017 when I first played Horizon Zero Dawn, and I never expected I’d be able to contribute to the sequel. It still feels surreal!
What an amazing journey so far! What would you tell other aspiring video game writers who hope you follow a similar path?
If you’re just starting out, play or watch playthroughs of games and pay attention to the way the story is told. Is it a linear game, where everything happens in a set order? An open world, where variables have to be accounted for? Are there choices or branching dialogue? The more familiar you can get with storytelling techniques in games, the better.
At the same time, practice writing scenes with subtext, where character actions and dialogue mean more than what’s on the surface. Start an online portfolio where this work can be easily viewed by prospective employers. Published work is of course a great boost, but unpublished work can still go a long way to demonstrating your skills. And when you find a place to apply to, research the kinds of games they make and tailor your application accordingly. Demonstrate that you’re a good fit for their writing needs.
Finally, don’t get discouraged! Rejection can happen often and can be super demoralizing, but try to be kind to yourself and persevere. Keep writing, keep honing your skills, and keep trying. Good luck!