Interview: A Conversation with Lena Chappelle

Lena Chappelle is a composer, game designer and an author, best known for her work on Guild Wars 2. We had the opportunity to interview her, asking questions about her career, gaming and her experiences coming out as transgender.

Lena Chappelle

How old were you when you first started gaming, and what was the first game you played?

Games came pretty early in my life (though, I’ll admit, not as early as kids growing up now.) For my sixth birthday, my parents bought me the Nintendo Entertainment System that came bundled with Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt and a Zapper. I also had one of those Tiger handheld things, a Batman one. That Batman game stuck around for a long time. Because a lot of times it was me and two friends over playing co-op, and obviously there were only two controller ports on the NES, the odd friend out usually went straight for the Batman handheld. They were like the first mobile games. Not all that fun, but great for wasting time.

Which game would you say inspired you the greatest?

There’s a ton of games that have inspired me in one way or another, but the one game that’s inspired me in all aspects of its craft has to be NieR. It’s got everything. Odd, flawed characters that you want to know more about, to pursue their stories and understand their motivations. Amazing music that not only morphs and changes as you play the game, that is at first sweet and moving, then absolutely terrifying. It’s got bizarre encounter designs that bring in aspects of puzzle solving and bullet hell shooters to an otherwise traditional-seeming hack-n-slash. Text adventures! This game just straight-up blacks out the screen at one point and sends you into a freaking text adventure. It’s amazing! And in a super bold move that probably no one else can do now, they made these alternate playthroughs and endings that continued to expand how much you knew about what was happening, leading to a final choice between a sad end, or a better one that involved completely erasing your save file. I mean, talk about impact. I did every ending, and erasing my save was… heart-breaking and liberating. I fully plan on 100%ing it again.

You’ve composed music for Guild Wars 2, as well as working as a designer. What was your first experience with music composing?

My dad is a composer and fiddler, so making music was just kind of a thing while I was growing up. I had my songwriting debut a little after I started talking, just banged out some tunes on the keyboard and recorded nonsense words on his studio’s reel-to-reel tape. When I started gaming I was completely struck with their soundtracks. I grew up with them, memorized them, sang them to myself. When I was in middle school, I got introduced to MIDI and some guy I’d met online taught me how to use this simple MIDI editing program. I started transcribing and recreating game music from everything from Legend of Zelda to that PSX dance battle game Bust a Groove. Even submitted a few tracks to VGMusic.com, this great site filled with game music MIDIs in the days before MP3s and YouTube playlists. From there, I started writing original stuff. Eventually it led to a degree in music composition, but it all started with MIDI and game soundtracks.

NIER

If you could suggest one game’s soundtrack for everyone to listen to, which would it be?

I’m going to sound a little redundant with the previous question, but I’d say absolutely NieR. But I’d also say it’s necessary to listen to within the context of the game. Because ultimately the best game soundtracks are dynamic, and simply hearing them in an album context doesn’t do them justice. Hop into NieR and pay attention to how the music changes as you play it. Listen to the NPC singing along to the town theme as you approach her at the fountain. Explore any of the dungeons and hear how the track’s mix changes as you move around the space. It’s those emotions you get while inhabiting a space that really make a game’s soundtrack shine.

How did you get into the gaming industry?

The most boring answer to this would be, I looked on Monster.com. The slightly more interesting version is that I was looking for contract music work right out of college. I went to GDC, met some amazing people, mostly composers, but didn’t get much attention otherwise. I made my industry debut with two tracks that I was contracted to write for a PC wargame called World at War: A World Divided. I followed up those tracks with one more for a game by the same publisher, The Operational Art of War III. War war war, but hey big orchestral combat stuff is fun! But then nothing else came up. I demoed for a few games, including that Clive Barker game Jericho, but ultimately wasn’t the top pick. After a year of relative unemployment, I decided to look elsewhere. So I found a QA position on Monster that led me to Nintendo of America. After two and a half years in their certification department, I got restless, followed recommendations to a few other QA positions, until finally getting the opportunity for a design position at ArenaNet.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I love how flexible my position at ArenaNet is in terms of the ability to not only design content, but write music as well. Pretty often, the music I write tends to also be for content that I’m in charge of designing. So I’m able to have an amazing amount of authorship over the experience. The best example of this has been in one of the Living World releases for Guild Wars 2 where you discover this amazing, mysterious cave, half-turned to gold. I knew I wanted that moment to be one of pure awe, and I’ve worked with creating in-game cinematics before, so I created this dramatic camera sweep of the area, wrote the music, and helped direct the design of the cave so that everything meshed. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve helped create.

Lena's Cave

‘The Mystery Cave’

You’ve also done some writing before, with your book ‘City of Tigers’,  and are currently working on another. What can you tell us about this upcoming book?

When I was finishing up City of Tigers, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and began writing an odd, off-the-wall story that was told in this mish-mash of online roleplay chat logs & blog entries from a self-professed hacker. While writing that story, I discovered a character in there who happened to be transgender. He wasn’t the main focus of the story, and his gender identity wasn’t a big deal to the plot, but it made me want to keep writing about him and figure out more about him. I wasn’t out at the time and, though I knew I didn’t fit into the binary, I didn’t really have a clear concept of my own gender identity, so exploring this other character – even though we’re on the other side of the gender spectrum – unlocked a lot of doors for me and helped me acknowledge I had to do something about it.

So, that got heavy, but the short of it is: My new book is about a trans boy at an all-girl Christian boarding school, and his self-discovering journey into an online world to find a lost friend. I’m having a blast writing it, and can’t wait to finish!

You came out as transgender while having a large portfolio of work already created. Has it been difficult to ensure that your work was associated with you under your new name?

It really depends on the work. A lot of what I’ve done outside of the games industry is my own copyright, so it’s mostly been lots of menial work to update literally as many things as I can remember to update. With my music credits at ArenaNet, once I was out, I chatted with the main composer Maclaine Diemer, who is also a good friend, and within a day every track on Soundcloud had been updated to my new name. And with Guild Wars 2 as a whole, the community has had my back from day one, which I’m amazingly grateful for. We have a Wiki page for the game that’s updated solely by players. Before I’d even thought to check, a new entry had been created for me, the dead name page redirected, and bio revised to the right name and pronouns. I was moved to tears, it was so amazing.

The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with, actually, is my existing book. Because the metadata for books is so closely wound up with an author’s name, and because it was published under my dead name, it’s expensive and time-consuming to get it changed. Instead, I managed to work out a deal with my publisher where they’d replace my name on the cover & interior with my initial, (which, helpfully, remained the same), and swapped out the bio for my new one.

Has your experience of the gaming industry changed after coming out? If so, how?

You know, a lot of the current industry environment really informed my decision to come out. While it hasn’t affected my immediate experience of the industry, it absolutely will for the future. As I’m sure you’re aware, being a woman in games is not a friendly proposition, but it was something I had to consider when making the choice to come out. I have – and I feel horribly guilty about this – made my way to the point I’m at while aided by the advantages and privilege that being a white man provides. Even though it wasn’t the primary reason for coming out, I felt like I needed to be honest, to not hide among a demographic I wasn’t actually part of, to stand with my fellow lady devs and be there with them. I suppose we’ll see how that unfolds.

On a final note, is there any advice you have for trans people who may be planning on coming out, especially those who are employed?

The experience of coming out, anywhere, varies so wildly depending on the location, the people involved, the circumstances. Speaking to just the employment part, the best place to start is evaluating how your workplace would respond. Are there transgender folks already out and working there? That’s always a great sign. Is the workplace LGBT-friendly to start with? Being friendly to the first three letters doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll respect the T but it’s at least closer to comfortable. How comfortable are you with your coworkers? They’re all things you’ll have to consider.

I can’t even really quantify all the things that went through my head in the run up to finally coming out. I wrote five drafts of a letter I never even sent, planned out who I’d tell and in what order, of which my workplace was one of the final steps. The most important thing to consider, I think, is what feels right to you. The world is gradually becoming more and more aware and accepting of trans folks, but sometimes a clean break is necessary to move on and live a healthier day-to-day life as your true self. I was lucky to have such understanding family, friends and coworkers, but I’m the exception.

You can find Lena’s website here, and Soundcloud with her compositions here. Her book City of Tigers is available to purchase at Amazon.

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Lyanna

As a child, Lyanna first got her hands on a Gameboy Color, spending most of her free time playing Pokémon Blue. In the years between then and now, she has mostly stuck to role-playing games, finding the ability to enter another world to go hand-in-hand with her vivid imagination. While enjoying RPGs the most, Lyanna is willing to play a wide range of games from different genres. As of today, her favorite games are Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Portal 2.

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About Lyanna

As a child, Lyanna first got her hands on a Gameboy Color, spending most of her free time playing Pokémon Blue. In the years between then and now, she has mostly stuck to role-playing games, finding the ability to enter another world to go hand-in-hand with her vivid imagination. While enjoying RPGs the most, Lyanna is willing to play a wide range of games from different genres. As of today, her favorite games are Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Portal 2.