illustration of Johnnemann Nordhagen
illustration by Erin Thompson

The Power of Storytelling

by Joel Vaughn 

From a small ski town to Sony Playstation and starting an independent studio, Johnnemann Nordhagen has developed a passion for games, observed changes in how the game industry treats narrative and expressed a need for worker protections. 

Nordhagen finds that describing his career is a “harder question than you would know.” Nordhagen’s career in games began in quality assurance at Sony Playstation before moving on to  program for the Bioshock series at 2K Marin, after which he moved on to co-found Fullbright Games which released Gone Home to critical praise in 2013. Currently, Nordhagen is the head creative director as well as the sole employee at his own game development studio, Dim Bulb Games, which released Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, an American folktale-based narrative adventure game, in 2018. 

Nordhagen grew up in Snowmass, Colorado, a small ski town. Like many who grew up in the late eighties and early nineties, Nordhagen describes his passion for games, particularly role playing and narrative-based games, starting in basements with childhood friends over Dungeons and Dragons handbooks and stacks of Magic cards. For Nordhagen, D&D and other table-top games were a means to create worlds, maps and adventures.

Games continued to develop into a childhood pastime for Nordhagen when he was gifted a Windows computer at 10 years old and then later, a Nintendo Entertainment System. 

“Video games at the time were certainly very mechanically focused,” Nordhagen said. “There was the narrative in many games, of course, but there wasn’t the sort of pure narrative game that we see today.”

Outside of games, Nordhagen also made a point of learning how to program in DOS, Shell Script and other basic coding languages on his home computer. For Nordhagen, this made games a more tangible product and the experience of interacting with a computer more concrete through customization. Being in a small town, Nordhagen wasn’t able to grow up around other computer geeks, which in turn made programming and playing games on his computer a very personal experience. 

Nordhagen had grown up enmeshed in games and working with computers, but it wasn’t until he joined a video game club in college that he realized that his childhood passion could turn into a career. 

After college, Nordhagen assumed that he would have the standard trajectory in triple-A game development: move from developer to developer up the company ladder until becoming a senior lead. Things didn’t turn out like that though. When he left 2K Marin and helped found Fullbright early in 2010, the indie gaming scene was experiencing a popular boom, allowing Nordhagen to consider going independent as a viable career path. 

Nordhagen attributes part of Gone Homes’ success to the resurging indie market and the absence of narrative-driven games coming out of bigger studios. Gone Home also served as an early example of small, personal stories in video games. 

“[Gone Home] was a story about two young women falling in love, and that’s not the sort of thing that any triple-A studio would touch with a 10-foot pole in 2012,” Nordhagen said. “Just being able to tell the kind of stories that were important to us and also do them in a way that didn’t have to follow the patterns of accepted game design was really incredibly freeing.” 

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While Nordhagen sings the praises of the indie scene, he is also intimately aware of the drawbacks of not having a steady stream of income, health insurance or guarantee of financial returns after the project is finished. Even with the instant success of Gone Home, Nordhagen explains that the team at Fullbright had to pour all of their savings into a project they wouldn’t see returns on until after Steam sales were processed. 

But financial security in the indie scene certainly isn’t the only issue currently facing the games industry. Nordhagen characterizes one of the major downfalls of game development as a lack of diverse representation.

“From the very beginning of the industry it’s been a white male dominated field that glamorizes working very hard and just not treating oneself or others well,” Nordhagen said. “In general people need to hire more marginalized folks and make more content about people that don’t look like your standard game developer.” 

One of the examples Nordhagen points to is Riot Games’, the developer for League of Legends, recent bath in hot water over sexual harassment and gender discrimination. A possible solution to this is an organized push for workers rights in the game industry. Nordhagen finds some hope in The Communication Workers of America’s efforts to unionize the game and tech industries. 

Nordhagen wants to be clear that the indie space isn’t bereft of its own issues with inclusivity and working conditions. “They don’t solve the problem of power differentials and pushing, the kind of weaponized passion of the game industry,” Nordhagen said.

That being said, Nordhagen has seen video games, both in terms of the industry and the games themselves, change significantly since he has become involved, so maybe there’s some hope for the future. 

Both Gone Home and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine can be found on Steam.