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Beating a video game can be hard, but turning a franchise’s unruly fiction into a concrete narrative is a whole new level of challenge. That’s where Christie Golden comes in, as she’s spent three decades in the publishing industry, specializing in writing novelizations for all your favorite geeky series.
By her count, Golden has written over 50 books based in 13 different intellectual properties, including StarCraft, Star Trek, Star Wars, World of Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, and Dungeons & Dragons. It's a strange burden to bear. For the majority of her time as a professional, Golden was an independent contractor — an agent outside the ecosystem. And yet, giants like Blizzard continued to trust her with some of the most guarded characters on earth.
"I tend to do pretty well with characterization and dialogue, and emotional-laden moments rather than battle strategies. So we'll talk about the story that they want from me, and define the parameters," says Golden. "When I did the Halo universe I was not at all familiar with it. I did a short story for them. They gave me some source material, and through it, I found something that I thought would be a good match for my skill set, and then I dove deep. I read, and I watched, and I had questions. I just lived with it 24/7 to get it into my pores. Then I feel comfortable going ahead and writing something from it."
Originally, Golden wanted to write her own fiction, and that desire drew her to the fantasy and sci-fi scenes back in the late '80s and early '90s. Along the way, though, she found a unique knack for interpreting other people's ideas. Video games — particularly MMOs like World of Warcraft — have a difficult time constructing cohesive three-dimensional fables, so Golden compares her career to a theater professional inheriting a role. All the ingredients, all the drama, motivations, and vengeances land in her lap. She's the one who makes them sing.
"Generally I've got a very good idea of the limits of the character, how they speak," she says. "I can see them in my head, and I try to just bring that to my writing."
One of the most uniquely challenging aspects of Golden’s job is that, occasionally, she's not privy to the ultimate secrets of the characters or series she's writing. When you're a contractor, you're kept out of the smoky back rooms, where executives determine the ultimate fate of a fan favorite or demand a new, more popular origin story. It's a stark difference from traditional authors, who hold direct proprietary rights over the names in their books. J.K. Rowling sketched out the climax of book seven well in advance, because J.K. Rowling never had to answer to anybody but herself.
"I'm generally about 80 percent there on my draft. But there's always something new that's going on at the company that I'm not privy to yet," she says. "Not all the doors are open to you. They tell you what you need to know, but sometimes you don't even know what you need to know until you get into it."
That's not to say she ever felt unwelcomed. It's just that the depths of the protectorate surrounding a fiction as hallowed as Warcraft continually surprised her.
"I would come down to campus and brainstorm with the team for the day. I was like, 'I know quite a bit, I've been doing this for 20 years!' she adds. "But you don't know, until you get there, that you've only really been welcomed into the parlor, and the lower levels of the eight-story high rise. It's like an onion, there are so many layers, and I certainly know a lot more now."
Golden now holds down an official job within the Blizzard ecosystem. It means that she's exclusively working with Blizzard products, and the decades she spent composing stories for other universes have been put on hold. Slowly but surely, her portfolio has diversified. Today, she contributes dialogue to cutscenes in the game and is invited to the writer's room meetings, giving her more of a footprint on this world than she's ever had before.
"Most days, I walk into work, and I'm this close to singing, 'good morning, good morning!' because I'm just so happy to be here," she says. "I can't believe I get to do the things that I get to do. All of the writers here work on all of the IPs. I got to write some of the lyrics in the Hearthstone songs, I sit in for meetings in Overwatch and Diablo, we touch all of our IPs. I'm extremely happy with the areas I'm getting to work on."
The characters that Golden writes will never fully belong to her, but after so much time, it only feels natural that she's doing crucial initial writing for characters she's helped make indispensable.