If you've spent hours playing Assassin's Creed or one of its several spin-offs or board-game versions, then it's time to meet the gaming industry leader who has been in a lead position creating art for the household name, and arguably, the largest and most successful title to date, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Since realising her dream to become part of the game industry and joining Ubisoft Singapore in 2015, Syarah Mahmood, Lead Artist, Ubisoft Singapore has steadily climbed the ranks. Her recent projects have seen her taking up a lead position creating art for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Her work has seen her collaborate with game industry veterans across the world and seen by over 11.7mn players as they journey through the digital likeness of Ancient England and Greece.
The rise of female gamers is a well-documented phenomenon, with statistics from 2020 showing that women account for 40% of gamers in Southeast Asia. Knowing what the talent landscape looks like for the video game market, Syarah has focused her efforts on boosting awareness about the gaming industry, dispelling myths about who can and can’t make a career in video games, and challenging the current status quo.
In this interview with Aditi Sharma Kalra, Syarah talks about her career journey, what it’s like creating art for one of the world’s top game franchises, and the challenges she had to overcome along the way.
Q What did you dream of becoming as a little girl? What attracted you to the world that blends art with gaming?
As a child, I’ve always been interested in storytelling, and loved writing and drawing. I chose to study animation in school, as I felt like it blended all of these interests. After university, I worked in the animation industry for a few years. Eventually, my perception of storytelling had started to evolve, and I wanted to push myself to explore a different industry.
To me, gaming is a way to tie together storytelling, world-building, design, gameplay, and tech — which provides me with the challenge I was seeking. I had an amazing experience playing the first Assassin’s Creed and was inspired to recreate that incredible feeling for others.
Q Creating art for one of the world’s top game franchises, what challenges have you had to overcome along your career journey, and how did you tackle them?
This is probably a universal experience for people joining a new industry, but I initially faced doubts on whether I could make it in gaming. This made me question myself.
After a while, I learned to ignore these comments and focus on my goal, which is making great art, building immersive gaming worlds, and working with talented artists to really grow my skills in game development.
I think that while there will always be people who doubt you, what's important is how you react to the situation, and what you choose to focus on.
Q From starting out as a background artist to creating world-loved artwork for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, what inspires you? Who are the influences in your life to built your early interest in this field, or to sustain it?
The real world inspires me with its complexity and beauty. Nature, travelling to new places, experiencing and understanding new culture adds to the knowledge and visual library. Music, TV, and games and pop culture and, of course, games.
Having the opportunity to work with visionary art directors from Ubisoft (Mohamed Gambouz, Dann Yap!), really gave perspective and insight about art game direction. Not only is it about inspirational direction, it is about how you translate what you know and your intentions, and how you motivate the team to execute your vision.
There’s a lot to be inspired about if you are constantly seeking and open to it!
Q Do you believe the diversity issue in gaming is one that can be resolved with sustained efforts, and if so, what organisational initiatives would you gladly support?
Yes! I work with many talented women in the studio, and believe that the industry is already becoming more diverse.
I think there are many concerted efforts within gaming to improve workplace culture and discrimination. Ubisoft Singapore, for instance, conducts regular training and courses on topics like combating biases and respectful behaviours. We also have channels such as Women@Ubisoft, and an employee resource group for women — acting as safe spaces for us to discuss any issues or share ideas.
Beyond that, I also think that public outreach is a huge part of the equation. We do regular tie-ups with local institutions and schools to share more about the career variety and opportunities in games. While change will take time, I think all these initiatives are helping the industry grow in the right direction.
Q If you could represent the concept of diversity in a game, which one would you choose, and why?
It would be about representation. Showing more women, different cultures, etc. to reflect diversity in society.
Giving opportunities to the audience to able to relate to the game experience/character or learn a new experience from playing the game, it can contribute to broadened perspectives and mitigate unhealthy/untrue stereotypes.
In this brand-new series of interviews, titled Breaking Barriers, HRO speaks to women leaders globally who have forged their paths and made a mark in their career of choice, doing what they love best — living out their passions and uplifting others to go further and faster. Read all our Breaking Barriers interviews here.
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