‘She was a beautiful nerd’: a tribute to game designer Laralyn McWilliams

Noted game designer Laralyn McWilliams, 58, died as the result of complications from heart surgery on 5 February in Seattle, Washington. She was creative director of Free Realms, Sony Computer Entertainment’s family-friendly online world, lead designer on 2004’s Full Spectrum Warrior, and the recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement award at the Game Developers Choice awards.

McWilliams was born in Vicenza Italy in 1965, into an American military family, and moved frequently throughout her youth. She found her home in the games she played, and Myst was particularly significant to her, a world to which she returned again and again. She earned a BA in psychology from Vassar College, and a JD from St Louis University of Law. While she worked hard for those accolades, she never forgot the joy that games brought, and she wanted to return to those worlds and bring that same joy to others. She taught herself game design and became a master of her trade, creating games for Disney, Dreamworks and many others. She was a rare all-rounder, having worked on everything from first-person shooters to casual games.

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Laralyn loved justice and stood for principles over personalities. She wouldn’t compromise or stay silent, even in the face of significant online harassment. She spoke out for others who couldn’t. She spoke for those who were afraid to speak. She didn’t – she wouldn’t – back down from anything. When it came to right and wrong, she was a warrior, as flexible as concrete. She worked tirelessly to make the games industry a place where the underrepresented were valued and their voices were heard.

When she received a diagnosis of cancer – incurable, terminal cancer – it met its match. She was an advocate for her health and sought out treatments, trials and physicians who were working on the cutting edge of medicine. And in an industry where the young and super-fit are favoured, she openly talked about her diagnosis, treatment, recovery and remission, inspiring others who found strength in her words and who opened up about their own journeys, too.

She was a beautiful nerd. Laralyn liked to talk about nuanced game mechanics and how they might play out over the course of a game, how they could adapt and mean more when paired with another mechanic; she enjoyed talking about players and keeping things centred on their experience; she could write a tutorial script as easily as she could balance combat progression. She was a mentor, a friend and an inspiration. Laralyn McWilliams was a true legend in the game industry. She leaves her mark on people, players, games and designs.

Laralyn is survived by her husband and best friend, Charlie Hatley, her mother-in-law Charlene, her brother Jim and his daughter Sophie, and her aunt Sandy.

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