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VC #11: Interview with Emma Needell
The Head of Story at Tally Labs talks about her approach to world-building, different approaches in Web3, storytelling 101, and things to think about when developing characters
This is Valet Confidential (VC), the best way to keep up to date on Jenkins the Valet, Azurbala, the Jenkins Audio Experience, Book 1 with Neil Strauss, mutant hijinks, and everything else in the Writer’s Room ecosystem.
Hey! SpaceWalk here. Before we jump into highlights of my interview with Emma Needell, Head of Story at Tally Labs, let’s talk about the crossover. I’ve been producing the MetaVault newsletter and podcast for the past 10 months. Originally focused on Pixel Vault, I expanded my aperture recently to look at the broader NFT space. Lots of things are changing and evolving — and I wanted to think about it all!
This edition of Valet Confidential bridges these two worlds. My interview with Emma on the MetaVault podcast is the epitome of where I want to spend my time and energy. With the flawless release of Bored & Dangerous this week (congrats to the team!) and Azurians soon finding their way into our lives, I wanted to talk to Emma about world building, storytelling, and character development. And she blew me away.
Highlights of this interview should absolutely live on Valet Confidential — the premier 😂 newsletter for all things Tally, Jenkins, and now Azurbala! I hope you enjoy the crossover.
It Takes a Team to Raise an Azurbala
I’ll start with my experience coming up with Azurbala many months ago before the rest of the team was involved and how it's really taken off and shifted.
The one thing that's really important about Azurbala is intent. And that was something I had in the forefront of my mind when I created a Bible — and a Bible is a document that’s commonly used in TV shows, that kind of details the themes, the setting, the overarching story, the main characters.
So I created a story bible, an Azurbala Bible, to share with everyone on the team. I really wanted to make sure the intent came through of what we're trying to build and why. And so, form and process are very key to telling a story.
When I write a screenplay, I know who I'm writing it for. Ultimately I'm writing it for directors and for actors and for producers to then make a story, a film. I know what I'm doing when I'm writing a novel. One thing I’ll admit, we're all learning in this space. It's all so new. Anyone who says they're true experts forever, you know, a little bit of caution because we all need to say a little humble and nimble.
I would not claim to be a true expert in Web3. But I knew enough to have an intent for a story and a hope. And then it was really people like VJ and Safa, who really understand the Web3 space and they love their community.
And listen, I mean, they're in the discord every day, whether it's Azurbala or the Writer's Room. They're really good at absorbing that feedback. Even the kind of critical feedback. They're really good at it and they really care.
And then we have Roebs — Head of Product — who's also absorbing all of that and learning. You know, I think she said on a recent Twitter Space that it's really great for her to be able to get feedback from the community in real time. And then Ethan, who's an engineering genius — I just feel like he can build anything, he's kind of a superhero to me. So you have all these people, right? With all these different backgrounds and we know we have an intent for what we wanna build, but then how do we do it? How do we roll out a story world? How do we roll out character development? How do we roll out all of these grand ambitions?
And that's when it's really important to bring in folks like Thread Guy, Director of Vibes, right? What he cares about really is the experience. The vibe, right? What is the experience of being in the discord? What is the experience of being part of the Azurian or Jenkins community on Twitter? And he does so much work in really thinking about what people do, how they're interacting with both the story, but the community, because the community and the story are completely interwoven and only will continue to be.
And then we have Little Fortunes (Caroline), who's thinking, “Okay, Emma has this story. What content do we need to put out into the universe to tell this story?” And she and I worked very closely together to make sure — again, she's working off the Bible. Some of the things she's she's put out there on Twitter came directly from the Bible. So we have this really great working document where everyone kind of understands what the goal is.
But one thing I'm really excited about, and to talk about Apewood here, you know, I had this idea for what I want, like what the story world is, who the characters are, what the big themes are — but I didn't have any understanding of process or form when it came to actually giving it to the community or how we build on top of it. And that's where Apewood came in. He is a true curator and expert in this space and he took a story idea and translated it into something executable, translated it into what you will all experience over the next year plus. It's almost like writing a script and then you give it to the director and then you realize you're working with, you know, Denis Villeneuve or Alejandro Iñárritu.
Experimenting with Storytelling in Discord
We ended up doing it live and a little bit unannounced. And the response from it was incredible. We have a lot of plans and a lot of story we wanna get out that will continue to live in the Legends Chatter and elsewhere.
I think if we were to do a little post mortem on it and talk about it, I think one of the reasons it was so successful is because, you know, there was enough of the world that was understood and the characters were understood and how they fit in that even though you don't know yet what Falon looks like or what Jet looks like, you know enough about them to understand everything they're saying, you know, has meaning behind it. And I think that's really important.
Originally the Legends Chatter was that first chapter or kind of the prologue was going to go live at the same time the Discord did. And for really boring security reasons we couldn't figure it out in time. Then we ended up doing it live the next day and it was even better. And that was a huge learning — like, cool, the live element, let's embrace that and let's keep doing that. And, you know, we have a bunch more chapters coming out soon, um, that I think people are gonna be really excited about.
To have a compelling character and frankly, to have a story, you have to give your character a goal (what they want), a motivation (why they want it), and conflict (something standing in their way). Goal motivation, conflict. That is the most fundamental part of development that you could ever do from there.
You wanna figure out ways to specify your character. You wanna give them three dimensionality with quirks or fears. The fear, you know, their deepest, darkest fear could be a motivation. So all these things can color it, but the most fundamental part of character is goal motivation: conflict. The thing that's really interesting — and what I love about a villain — is that a villain too has a goal of motivation and a conflict.
It's kind of a common phrase in writing that the villain should be the hero of their own story. And that's where the empathy comes in. You know, even the most evil villain of all time, they care about something for a reason. You have to fall in love with your villains, just as much as you fall in love with your heroes.
Average Joe Stories
Oftentimes, you have your kind of regular character and your goal and motivation and conflict might be really small. Your goal might just be making enough money to feed your family. Why you love your family. Also, you know, your dad didn't help a lot helping your family and you wanna be better than your dad. Great motivation. Maybe you have a shitty boss. That in and of itself is a great conflict. And so those stories are so compelling, but what will be interesting as our story world takes off, there will be opportunities to find an inciting incident, to tell a story that is grander — if you wanna go down that path.
But one thing I think that's important to think about in Azurbala — it’s a city. It is the massive jungle city on the other side of the metaverse. It has been ancient for a very long time. And it has recently entered the 21st century with a vengeance. In a city, you have many different kinds of people. You have business people, you have artists or artisan. You have engineers, you have plumbers, you have teachers, each one of those archetypes, each one of those characters, to your point, has a wealth of content and many different stories with many different genres.
There's a comedy, a romantic comedy, a tragedy, an action. All of this can happen simultaneously in a city. And that is so much the intent here as well.
Some Disclaimers: None of this is financial advice. DYOR. And yes, FilmBook and SpaceWalk are WR collectors and long-term hodlrs.