W&A Team member Clare Povey caught up with screenwriter Soni Jorgensen to discuss her craft and career.
Soni Jorgensen would never call herself a gamer. So understandably, the Swedish screenwriter had initial doubts when film and video game director Josef Fares approached her to collaborate with him on his next game idea: one that would go on to become the multi-award winning, It Takes Two.
“I’ve known Josef for a long time as we’ve been in the same Swedish film & TV industry for years,” Soni says, sitting in her Stockholm home. In class Scandi style minimalism, a single picture hangs on the wall behind her. “He wanted me to join some of his earlier feature films but the timing never worked. When it was time for his third game, It Takes Two, he wanted me on board. But my first reaction, as a screenwriter for film and TV, was: What? Gaming? Me?”
Doubt isn’t a feeling that Soni is accustomed to due to her years of professional screenwriting experience. “I rarely have doubts,” she says, laughing. “This makes me sound like I have the biggest ego, but it’s not that. It’s because I have really learnt my craft. I’m a workshop junkie and love learning. So when I feel doubt about a project, it’s more myself questioning whether I’m really the right writer to best tell this story.”
This careful consideration married with unwavering confidence in her own talents marks Soni Jorgensen as a unique talent. She is assured and never once downplays her own skills and achievements. Not that she should. She has written for a number of TV shows and films, including script consulting for As It Is In Heaven, a Swedish box-office hit that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Soni also worked as a dialogue coach on American Horror Story: Hotel and co-directed the feature film King of Atlantis. Despite the innate sexism of the film and TV industry, even in a country like Sweden where there is a huge push to reach gender equality in film funding, Soni’s success as a writer, co-director and producer, and as a woman of colour, merits celebration.
Soni speaks passionately about her craft and how the art of storytelling has been her lifeline. Orphaned in South Korea and subsequently raised in Sweden by her adoptive family until the age of fourteen, Soni grew up in a working-class background and found refuge in imagination. “Since my childhood, my world has always been about stories. I read books all the time. I did write stories as a kid, but I had no idea that you could become a writer for the movies!”
This last sentence is delivered with a wry smile; Kid Soni would surely be amazed at Adult Soni’s burgeoning career. If writing for video games was just another unexpected career step, how did her doubts eventually disappear?
“Well, I think Josef had to buy me lunch, two or three times, before I finally said yes.” Soni speaks directly into the camera, leaning in as though about to share a secret. “But he said ‘Listen: story is story. No matter the form.’ I wasn’t confident that I could write a game, because I’ve never gamed. But when he said that I thought: Okay. I trust him. We agreed to try it out and I’m very happy I did.” It’s safe to say that the collaboration turned out more than just okay. Released in March 2021, It Takes Two has already sold over 7 million copies and won various awards, including the BAFTA Game Award 2022 for Best Multiplayer and Original Property and the D.I.C.E Award for Game of the Year. It’s a game to convert non-gamers and leave avid gamers in awe of what a game can do.
It Takes Two follows the story of Cody and May, a married couple who are getting a divorce. Upon breaking the news to their daughter Rose, she runs and hides in the garden shed, taking her homemade dolls with her that look just like her parents. When Rose’s tears land on the dolls, her parents find themselves trapped in the dolls’ bodies. From here on out, Cody and May must find a way to break the spell and return to their bodies, their home, and their daughter.
It is a co-operative game and as the story unfolds, both Cody and May receive different skills on different levels. The emphasis is on collaborative playing, working together as a team to progress, just like how the game was made itself.
Soni stresses throughout the conversation that the process of writing a game is all based on her personal experience. “This is so important to state because a lot of game developers, especially the bigger ones, have different hierarchies. Hazelight is a small studio and Josef invites everybody to be a part of the creative process. Our office was just one open room and sometimes he (Josef) just ran through the room shouting, ‘Come on! Let’s fuck shit up!’” No wonder she’s grinning throughout the conversation. The game-making experience is one that Soni is keen to repeat. “The basic premise for the game was Josef’s original idea, taking the real world of a family home and morphing it with a fantasy world. I was the Head Writer and wrote the whole script in close collaboration with him.” Soni goes onto explain the complex process of working on a narrative game. “In film and TV, a screenwriter usually develops their script first before the other departments come on board. But at a smaller video game developer like Hazelight Studios (founded by Josef Fares) all departments must start working at the same time. I describe it like a dance, you know. We (the narrative script department) would come up with ideas for different levels, which we would give to the other departments so they could start to develop visual ideas and gameplay possibilities.”
A unique feature of It Takes Two is how the narrative seamlessly marries with the gameplay. It may be surprising to learn that hiring a screenwriter for a game is not the norm. “It’s still quite common that the game developers write the story in-house,” Soni says, visibly still surprised about this fact herself. Yet for anyone who has played the game, it’s clear that It Takes Two is a cut above the rest in terms of narrative. During one level, Cody and May stumble upon a war taking place in their garden between a gang of militarized squirrels and a swarm of wasps who inhabit a large oak tree. The main characters are pulled into a quest to defeat the Queen Wasp, who turns out to actually be a bumblebee in a robotic wasp suit, a former ally of the wasps who was seduced by power. A later level sees Cody and May entering their daughter’s room and finding Moon Baboon, one of Rose’s favourite old toys, purchased during a trip to the Space Museum. Despite Rose outgrowing Moon Baboon, he is still fiercely protective of his owner and abducts Cody and May via a tractor beam. They find themselves up in space and must complete a series of zero-gravity challenges in order to defeat Moon Baboon, proving to him that they have their daughter’s best interests at heart.
Digging deeper into the writing process, it’s clear that Soni is a writer who puts character before everything else. “I’ve always naturally started with characters. The story and plot develop organically from the characters as I get to know them, but we had to come up with a few basic beats of the story to share with EA at the beginning of the project.” It Takes Two was published by EA Originals, a program that supports independent game studios across the globe. Once the basics of the storyline were established, Soni got to work on developing the rest of the narrative. It wasn’t straightforward. “I would write a full level only to discover that there were technical limitations. I’d have to do a complete rethink and rewrite. There’s that saying ‘all writing is rewriting,’ but it feels especially true when writing for a game. The gamer needs to experience that the characters have gone through some sort of change, otherwise the story won’t engage on an emotional level.”
At every level, the characters of Cody and May must work together in order to progress throughout the game. During each level – “or chapter, if you will,” Soni adds – Cody and May receive different abilities. In their quest to defeat the Queen Wasp, Cody has a tree sap gun and May is armed with a flamethrower gun. The two gamers playing need to ensure that the sap is first fired at the evil wasps before they can be blown up with the flamethrower. Every motion of gameplay and piece of dialogue has to be considered twice. Like writing a novel with multiple POV, but with a lot more coding.
Yet despite the challenges of rewriting and adapting to the needs of the gameplay, Soni relished the total creative freedom she experienced. “I’ve never had that before,” she says, “and I think it’s the key to the games’ success. Josef never micromanages. He understands that creative development isn’t about control. As Head Writer, I got instant feedback from him. If there was something that we didn’t agree on, I could immediately go back to my desk and rewrite it back at my desk.”
Moving beyond the game, Soni’s screenwriting craft is something she has tirelessly developed over decades. Growing up in a working-class family, she had always wished to be a writer. It was a dream she kept close to her chest, afraid to speak out loud. “I’d been told and understood,” she reflects, “that you could never become a writer because it’s not a job. I am also dyslexic so writing wasn’t something I thought was possible. Maybe if I had come from a middle class family, I would’ve thought differently.”
It was Soni’s other passion, art, which actually led her on the path to forging a career in screenwriting. She attended an art school in Stockholm, and a subsequent internship at a small film studio led by Swedish director Roy Andersson was her first experience with storytelling on the screen. “It wasn’t until then that I learned that there are writers who come up with the whole story, characters, everything.” Soni laughs; the time when she knew so little about screenwriting feels like another world away now. “It took me several years to find a way to develop my writing craft. I had to save in order to afford courses and workshops. At that time in Sweden there were no professional training programmes for screenwriters.”
The turning point for Soni came in the form of a discovery. That discovery was the work of František “Frank” Daniel, a Czech-American filmmaker, who is most famous for developing the sequence paradigm. Daniel also developed an advanced methodology for character development. It is unique, a methodology that is in direct contrast to most theories in screenwriting books that talk about developing scripts with exact formulas. A Google search doesn’t reveal much – if any - detail about this particular methodology of Daniels’. It feels shrouded in mystery, the screenwriter’s holy grail.
“Finding this methodology was like uncovering the final missing piece for me,” she says. “I read every single book on screenwriting, which is an important way of learning, but I always felt that there was something missing. I thank Daniel’s methodology for my whole career and passion. The only places to learn about it was either Columbia in New York or the University of Southern California. So I applied to USC and thankfully was accepted.”
There are thousands of miles between Stockholm and California, but the journey was one that found Soni staying in LA for several years. “Screenwriting is highly respected there,” she explains. “In the US, they know that finding a good screenwriter is a difficult thing. Once you have a writer who can write a great script, you can find a director and a cast.”
Having worked across TV and film, Soni is no stranger to working in constant collaboration with other writers, producers and directors. With so many different opinions to consider, is accepting the loss of total creative control difficult for a screenwriter?
“When you work with a director, they usually have everything going on in their head and think we can see inside their brain. I’m pretty good at picking up on what people really mean. It’s another skill that a screenwriter develops over time.” While some might find this a frustrating part of the process, Soni takes it all in her stride. “My job is to take feedback and decipher it, to find out what the real problem is and then go and fix it.”
As the conversation draws to a close, talk turns towards more professional aspects of a screenwriting career: finding work and landing an agent. “I do have an agent and they send me proposals, which helps of course, but to start with I’ve gotten most of my jobs myself.” Soni explains how Sweden is still quite different from the US and the UK where there is a larger push for screenwriters – and authors – to find an agent.
“I’m about to talk a lot, but I hope your readers can be encouraged by this.” Soni clasps her hands and shuffles even further towards the screen. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have an agent, because every writer who now has one started off without an agent. If you write a solid script that blows people’s minds when they read it, sooner or later, that script will open doors for you. Those doors will help you get an agent or find a producer. Too many writers limit themselves because they think they can’t become a screenwriter if you don’t have an agent. A common misunderstanding among aspiring screenwriters is that once they get an agent, their career will take off. But you are collaborating with an agent and your responsibility is to deliver something of quality that the agent can go out with and sell. You have to respect how incredibly difficult it is to be an agent today with all that competition. They have so little time because they have to read so much stuff. You must respect that.”
Respect is a word that every writer comes back to. It’s there at every stage of a writer’s journey, after all. You respect your own time, to make room and create space to write; you respect the work of other writers, perhaps those who you admire and who inspire your own work; you respect feedback when it is sought after; you respect submission guidelines and the editorial suggestions of agents, editors, directors and those who you collaborate with. Respect is one of the most important tools to have and, incredibly, in an industry where it can often feel like everything is happening on the other side of a door you can’t unlock, respect is something you can control.
A final parting piece of advice from Soni is, unsurprisingly, all about the craft. “Learn the tools,” she instructs. “Keep on writing and learn to take feedback so you can improve your drafts. If you only do those things and have talent for it, you will eventually end up with a really solid draft that will make people in the industry take notice of you. That’s all you need.”
Soni Jorgensen is a Swedish screenwriter with extensive international experience, crossing both borders and genres. Jorgensen is particularly known for her skill in balancing drama with comedy and is also passionate about writing thriller/crime. She received her training at the USC Graduate Screenwriting Program in Los Angeles and other highly competitive European professional creative media programs such as Sources, North by Northwest, and Moonstone.
Jorgensen has worked as script consultant for numerous films, including the Swedish box-office hit As It Is in Heaven (2004), which was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ and sold worldwide. Jorgensen also worked as a writer on the second season of Life in Fagervik (2009), a popular Swedish drama comedy series. On top of that, Jorgensen is co-producer of the feature film King of Atlantis which premiered in 2019. Jorgensen is also writer of EA’s latest game It Takes Two (2021) together with game director Josef Fares (A Way Out). It Takes Two was the big winner at the 2021 Game Awards, often referred to as the Oscars for gaming, and was awarded ‘Game of the Year,’ ‘Best Family Game,’ ‘Best Multiplayer Game’ and was nominated for ‘Best Narrative.’
Photograph credit: Kiefer Lee