On campus, Etana Jacobson is your typical graduate student in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television specializing in directing. She’s working on her thesis film and staying focused on graduation. However, in the land of geeks, techs and testosterone, Jacobson might be considered a gaming goddess, spinning new universes, characters and creatures from her imagination. As a screenwriter for video games, Jacobson has accrued noteworthy media achievements in a galaxy far, far away from film school.
“It’s a funny departure,” Jacobson said. “(But) I feel like games and film are more and more convergent all the time. We’re living in an increasingly interactive universe.”
While she might not seem like the busty heroines that she writes scripts and story lines for in games like “Gods and Heroes” and “Lair,” the new $21 million-$35 million PlayStation 3 launch title, Jacobson certainly exudes the same powerful confidence while navigating the predominantly male video game industry.
“I’ve definitely had people ask if I’d be comfortable in this all male, “˜grrr, lads’ environment, and I’d (say) I’d thrive on it. That’s fine. I’m in the film industry; it’s really not that different. … A boy’s club is a boy’s club.”
Sure enough, Jacobson’s work in the “club” has even earned her membership in the New Media Caucus of the Writer’s Guild of America.
“Getting into games can really be a portal to get into lots of other stuff. I would love to be this great female comedy writer-director. … I hate to be the girl anything, just because there aren’t that many of us that are girls.”
However, Jacobson is unphased by the industry’s gender lopsidedness.
Jacobson originally started working on small writing gigs at Sony Interactive to offset school tuition, and soon landed work on major titles such as “Star Wars III,” for PlayStation 2. Most recently, she wrote the storyline for “Lair” on the PlayStation 3 console. She has also worked on “Jet Li: Rise to Honor 2″ and the massively multiplayer online game, “Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising.” Her work has stirred up interest from other large game studios, such as Rockstar North, the developer of the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise. Jacobson recently had the privilege of meeting with the head of Rockstar in Edinburgh, Scotland while in Europe with UCLA’s film-shooting internship.
Though she works primarily with science fiction and fantasy, Jacobson is hesitant to subscribe to any labels. “I don’t know if I have the honor of calling myself a “˜geek’ exactly, but … as an English (literature) major and drama major undergrad at NYU … I feel like I’ve always lived in a world of story and seeing myself primarily as a storyteller.”
Jacobson expresses exceptional unity between her life experiences and her creative writing. After graduating from NYU and dabbling in comparative religion (she comes from an Orthodox Jewish background), Jacobson spent some time living with the Aborigines as well as nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Middle East.
“I’ve been living most of my life with highly ritualized people and that really makes its way into the game (“˜Gods and Heroes’). I was hired, as I was told, because of (my) knowledge of ancient cultures (for) “˜Gods and Heroes.’ It definitely all seems to tie in. … Why don’t we have a world that’s like a snow-covered volcanic caldera with bubbling multicolored mineral spring and a lightning storm? I’ve been to a place like that in New Zealand, so it was easy to draw upon,” Jacobson said.
“The more real life experiences you have … the better storyteller you’re probably going to be.”
Besides taking a lot from her own life experiences, Jacobson also credits much of her success as a screenwriter to UCLA’s film school.
“I really went out of my way to take eight screenwriting classes while in the directing program. It helped me a lot to structure my ideas (and) to be good in a writer’s room,” Jacobson explained.
Professor Hal Ackerman, co-chair of the screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, particularly noticed Jacobson’s exceptional efforts. “She is an imaginative, inventive visual storyteller. She’s taken more writing classes here than many of our screenwriters,” he said.
Jacobson has even decided to leave her video game work on the back burner in order to concentrate more fully on her film education.
“I’m now revving up to do my thesis film at UCLA and graduate and I actually have turned down full-time contracts to work in game studios to stay a UCLA student,” Jacobson said. “Some people thought that was crazy but I really want to stay at UCLA, and I wanted to finish my degree in film. It’s really important to me.”
Nevertheless, Jacobson isn’t planning on straying too far from either of her disciplines after graduation.
“(After graduation) I can then get back out and … see if I can get into a sort of convergent company and then give back to UCLA.”
In addition to financial giving, Jacobson added, “I would also love to teach interactive entertainment and games in the program.”
For Jacobson, the growing world of interactive media has a vast, untapped potential. “Being that games have been this running theme in my life for six or seven years, I’m definitely interested in exploring it further and seeing where it’s going to take me.”