Nata Pokrovskaya on Storytelling in Video Games and Beyond and Personal Newsletters

Nata Pokrovskaya on Storytelling in Video Games and Beyond and Personal Newsletters
25 June, 2024 • ... • 246 views
Diana Kussainova
by Diana Kussainova

Making a career change is stressful, starting anew — even more so. But this process can be rewarding and help you find a place where all your talents are engaged. Writer and film director turned narrative designer Nata Pokrovskaya is a perfect example of that. 

Read this interview to get inspired by Nata Pokrovskaya’s path and learn some of the universal storytelling principles used in video games, cinema, and beyond. Plus, get to know how a personal newsletter helps to build a professional image and community.

Nata Pokrovskaya (they/them), narrative designer at Wargaming (new unannounced project), writer, film director. Website: pokrovskaya.com

Nata Pokrovskaya photo at work
Source: Nata Pokrovskaya

Professional path

Tell us about your career path. How did you go from copywriting to screenwriting to narrative design?

I started in fashion magazines before becoming a copywriter for major international brands. This gave me deep experience in commercial writing, taught me to work with “yesterday” deadlines, and handle comments like “the color should be vivid, preferably black” (true story!).

After 10 years, I felt advertising had nothing new to offer. Wanting to work in IT, I “pivoted” to tech startups, combining my project management and communication skills. Simultaneously, as a writer and director, I began making films with my creative partner Anton Outkine. Our first sci-fi short “Summer” debuted in 2015, garnering festival nominations and awards.

A still of the Summer movie showing its actress and badges for the many awards and nominations the movie received
Source: Lateral Summer

Then, in 2016, our startup got shut down, so we co-founded our studio, “Lateral Summer”. As gamers, we naturally wanted to explore interactivity in storytelling. So when we got an offer from a non-profit media focused on social issues to make a young adult web series about an HIV+ girl, we proposed to make it interactive.

This became “It’s Complicated”, Russia’s first interactive series and my first narrative design work. We developed the mechanics, designed the interactions, co-wrote and shot the series. It’s been taken down due to repressive Russian laws, but a backup is available (in Russian only).

The series was very successful, leading us to explore various interactive media: narrative VR, immersive shows, edutainment, and video games — and even writing the first Russian textbook about it.

What motivated you to make a career change? Was it a challenging journey to where you are now or a simple one? What helped you along the way?

I’ve always wanted to learn something new while leveraging my forte: storytelling and communication skills.

At times, this meant starting almost from scratch. When Russia’s full-scale war began, I realized I couldn’t tell the stories I wanted in Russia anymore. We closed our studio to focus on video games. Wanting to learn from industry leaders, I joined Wargaming after 6 months and 50-ish job applications. I feel like this is the perfect place for me to apply my experience and challenge myself every day.

Do you have any advice for people who want to make a career change?

Make sure you’re going for what you love. There’s no stability left anywhere, so prep your financial airbag and go for it. Not saying you shouldn’t be fairly compensated!

  • Don’t put yourself into a box. If you’re a writer that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to code.
  • No matter how senior you think you are, the moment you think you know enough, your career comes to a stop.
  • Be prepared to step back on the ladder in a new industry, but keep your personal growth plan in mind.

Narrative design and storytelling

In what ways do you think copywriting and narrative design are similar? How did your previous experience help you in your new field?

They are both about communication. And in narrative design, you also have a “client” — the game designer (unless you’re both, like Hideo Kojima).

As for my previous experience, I’ve always worn multiple hats, and narrative design turned out to be the space where I can finally combine most of them! I believe video games are a medium that gives you the maximum possible ways to tell a story, even in non-story-driven games.

How does one become a narrative designer? What set of skills does it require and how did you acquire those?

“Narrative designer” job can mean different responsibilities in different studios: from coming up with a story and implementing it in-engine to writing characters and dialogue. I believe anyone with strong storytelling skills and a love for video games can become a narrative designer. Filmmaking background helps a lot, but there are things to unlearn as well, because in a game, the player is always the main character, and the “show, don’t tell” principle becomes “let do, don’t tell”.

  • Become a writer, if you’re not one already. Then, learn to tell a story without a single word.
  • Be open to inspiration from anywhere: other games, cinema, exhibition design, amusement parks, drag shows.
  • Learn a game engine (I prefer Unreal) and make your own game. No matter how small, it’s a huge step toward becoming a narrative designer.

What are some of the basic storytelling principles everyone should know about?

  • A complex character in simple circumstances: this is the basis for the character-driven narrative they use in today’s Hollywood, and it works in games as well. Always start with the character.
  • The hero’s journey still works! My personal favorite is Dan Harmon’s version: it’s simple and can be applied to anything, from character to map design.
Dan Harmon's storytelling scheme (You, Need, Go, Search, Find, Take, Return, Change)
Source: Pooya Kamel’s design in Figma
  • Always do your research: even in a high fantasy setting, your elves and goblins experience the same human truths as you and the people around you. Find your characters’ prototypes in real life, study them, talk to them. 

Personal newsletter as a branding tool

You have a monthly personal newsletter — Unevenly. What’s it about and when did you start it?

Unevenly is about narrative design and all things around it, with peeks into my Belgrade life. I started it a year ago to share my journey with people who might want to learn narrative design and start working in gamedev, and also to promote myself in the international community. 

Why did you decide to create a personal newsletter? What goals does it help you to achieve?

“Unevenly” stands on the shoulders of my first personal newsletter that I’m writing in Russian: “How to succeed at everything (no way)”, I launched around 2016. Friends kept asking how I juggle so many things: full-time work, beauty blogging, making photobooks, etc. Instead of repeating myself, I decided to write to everyone at once. I love the personal touch of newsletters; I write thinking of friends, addressing them directly in my head. It’s grown organically to over 4,500 readers and I’ve started with that base for “Unevenly”.

It helps me structure and reflect on my experiences while staying connected with my community and meeting new like-minded people!

In what ways was your newsletter helpful to you as a professional?

Establishing myself as an expert, especially now that I’m co-writing a book on narrative design and interactive storytelling, and testing some of my theories, getting feedback from readers.

What benefits do you see in running a newsletter as opposed to a professional social media account, for example?

Newsletters are safe from algorithms that aren’t helpful at all these days. When I’m subscribing, that means I’m ready to invest my time and attention; and I just love hearing the author’s personal voice coming through. 

Do you use other communication channels for networking and building a personal brand?

LinkedIn for professional goals and Bluesky for a mix of personal-professional, since there’s a great gamedev community there. I’m still on Twitter, but since it’s “ensh*ttification” I don’t really post anything. Used to be on TikTok, but I’m not a fan of my every breath being collected as data, so I quit. After all, I feel most comfortable with my newsletter, so I’m focussing on it.

In general, who do you think reads Unevenly? How did you acquire your audience of more than 3,000 of your subscribers?

Most of my audience are creatives in that way or another, and the majority of them are interested in storytelling, either as established professionals or aspiring writers. As I mentioned above, I used the subscriber base of my personal Russian-language newsletter, and it turned out to be the right move: so many people stayed and are reading it! I’m especially proud that all my subscribers came organically: I’ve never done any promo, it’s all readers’ shares, friends’ recommendations, my personal social media, and a couple of interviews.

How do you come up with topics for your emails?

From my daily work (without breaking the NDA), professional buzz on social media, or from my book. But I’m at my happiest when readers send their requests!

Email newsletters best practices

What personal newsletters do you read? What makes them stand out to you?

I love Arnold Schwarzenegger’s emails for they are truly the positive corner of the internet they claim to be. 

Arnold’s Pump Club newsletter excerpt with the heading “The health benefits of sprinting the stairs”

Pixel Prophet by fellow multi-hat wearer Phil Strahl reflects his passion for video games, especially indies and vintage.

Pixel Prophet newsletter excerpt with a message from the author and news & updates
Source: Pixel Prophet

My friend Natasha Rostovtseva has launched an email newsletter about professional freedom: reading it isn’t just useful, but also a way for me to keep in touch with her.

Nat’s notes about freedom newsletter excerpt with the title “#54 Why is no one buying a Porsche?”
Source: Substack

Jörg Colberg’s delightfully grumpy CPhMag is my longtime companion on photobooks and contemporary photography.

CPhMag newsletter excerpt with the heading “You’re on the shortlist!”
Source: CPhMag

What’s one thing every personal newsletter author should or should not do?

Keep it personal. Even if the week’s most significant event was your cat puking on your Acronym kicks, please share it with us along with all your professional updates.

25 June, 2024
Article by
Diana Kussainova
Writer, editor, and a nomad. Creating structured, approachable texts and helping others make their copies clearer. Learning and growing along the way. Interested in digital communications, UX writing, design. Can be spotted either in a bookshop, a local coffee place, or at Sephora. Otherwise probably traveling. Or moving yet again.
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