Unbe-level-able: Part 1

In this series, I will break down levels of games that I love or find interesting. We’ll do an analysis of different aspects such as: lighting, camera, critical path, occluders, airlocks, streaming, and well… honestly, I am going to forego a *lot* of the technical terms until I am a little further on in my understanding of level design. I’ll compile a dictionary of sorts as I progress.

Costume Quest

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The first game we’ll look at is Costume Quest (Double Fine Productions). You play either Wren or Reynold, a new kid in a new city. Your parents let you and your brother go trick-or-treating (and making friends) in the neighborhood of Autumn Haven. I played as Wren! Wren’s starting costume is a robot and Reynold’s is …… candy corn. I don’t know why, but it seems like everyone in this game world REALLY hates candy corn!

You discover that there is some evil plot afoot and that goblins and a witch named Dorsilla are stealing all of the candy (including your candy corn wearing compadre). You’ll have to trick-or-treat and end the corruption of the goblins or else get in a LOT of trouble for losing your sibling!

What I Love Abt It

The animations when the kids change into their costumes for fights is probably what tugged at me at first. There’s this lovely appeal to the nostalgia of wearing costumes as kids, and the power of imagination. When I was a kid, I pretended to be an otter, a witch, a Jedi knight, a chipmunk, and I orchestrated ridiculous dance routines and action sequences for myself and those who dared play with me!  I didn’t grow up in North America, so the elements of nostalgia were a bit lost on me.

The levels in Costume Quest follow a really nice sequence of child fantasies of Halloween. You start in a small town and then go to a mall and then a carnival and finally a creepy maze. The location that stood out most to me was the mall. And the design that felt the weakest to me was the first town level, Autumn Haven.

UI

Quick look at UI (my graphic design roots)! The UI for the game complements the theme well. The hand-drawn effect makes the UI feel like part of the narrative itself – it’s the player’s journal and resource!

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The only thing I would change re: the UI and how it affects level design are how the costume parts and the levels interact with each other. The designers give some info about where certain costume parts are located, but I think that could have been developed further to contextualize the costumes in the same way that the way into the mall adds context to the Space Warrior. For example, I kept hoping that the vampire costume would somehow have an effect on the characters in the space, or be part of interaction with another NPC to give a different costume piece through “hypnosis”.

This could sit in the notebook under the costume section with a hint to see a certain someone, or give a hint about what the costumes can do in the levels.

The Levels

There are five levels: 1) the town, 2) the way to the Mall, 3) the Mall, and 4) the Halloween fair, and 5) the maze & boss-fight.

The one that stuck out to me the most was the mall! The traversals between levels were largely done by cutting between one scene and the next, so 2), the way to the Mall felt out of place. As far as I can tell, its role is to provide context for the Space Warrior costume, which would be awesome if it carried through for more of the costumes.

The first level felt like it should have appealed to this nostalgia for the fantasy of walking around and trick-or-treating in a nice neighborhood, but there was something about the initial level that left me feeling like it wasn’t that interesting.

What I’d Do Differently (abt Level 1)

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One of the things that I found most remarkable about Costume Quest, is that it reuses assets effectively, and the single camera when you’re exploring never felt annoying! Super smart direction. So, in order to stay within the guidelines of the game itself, I would change the circuit that the character follows in the first level!

My first step is to use LE GOOGLE to find some ideas!

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Colmar, France

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Barrie, Ontario

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Barrie, Ontario

I think I’m intrigued by the possibility of intertwining aspects of Colmar with Barrie!

I’d add some more depth to the town by way of breaking up the architecture with more of the open spaces, height changes in the terrain, and a character to the central points in the first level. For example, in the park (where you get the first bobbing for apples game), I’d make sure that there were some more Halloween decorations, add lighting, and play around with the buildings a bit to make use of space and empty space! I’ll doodle this out later!

Why the Mall was the BEST!

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The Mall had the best design (for me) because of its use of levels, lighting, and the ability to capitalize on (pun intended) the store-fronts. There was great flow from the ground floor to the top floor, and the hidden areas felt really great to discover. The actions the players could take in the space made it feel more fun! There were so many great interactions with other NPC’s in this area as well – it made it come alive for me.

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GDC 2018: An IGDA Scholar’s Experience

Nowrooz

This is the Haft-Seen table for Iranian New Years!

It was the Iranian New Year during GDC!

To be totally honest, I was surprised that I was selected to be an IGDA Scholar this year. I was worried that my activism and my desire to support change in the games industry might be counter to what the IGDA was looking for. I was thrilled when I was accepted, and very nervous!

To break my experiences down, I’ll separate this post into several parts. First: the talks!

From Red to Rukey: Animation and Rigging by Camilo Vanegas

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Camilo’s talk was one that I had been looking forward to since I heard about the talk. He’s worked on Transistor and Pyre. As a new student in 3D art, I’ve already learned that I love the process from modeling to texturing and even animating. According to Camilo (and many others), this is a good sign that you’ll like working on smaller teams or at smaller studios where you can really own all the different parts of the process.

I found that this talk was way too advanced for me even though it was geared for students. Camilo’s work is freaking *amazing* and inspiring. I think the main take away is: really stick to some principles and goals of your characters and the design process.

Tools he uses:

  • modeling – zbrush, mudbox, and maya
  • rigging – maya
  • animation – maya
  • rendering – render farm, v-ray, after effects

GDC link: http://schedule.gdconf.com/session/animation-bootcamp-from-red-to-rukey-building-and-animating-characters-in-transistor-and-pyre/856047

Eos is Alive: AI in FFXV

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Holy geez, I thought the animation talk was tough! My other (current) passion is understanding how to implement AI for my creatures and models. I know that AI is one of the most complicated systems to learn and so my main goal in attending these talks was to just break through my own mental wall and expose myself to as much knowledge as possible so it would be less alienating. Also, FFXV’s AI is AMAZING.

The main takeaway from this talk, for my still newbie status, was the importance of developing hierarchies and using inheritance to manage complex systems where you have a huge database of monsters and characters in the world. Object-oriented programming is exceptionally challenging and complicated, but I liked how I could see a structure throughout the talk!

GDC link: http://schedule.gdconf.com/session/eos-is-alive-the-ai-systems-of-final-fantasy-xv/854305

‘A Mortician’s Tale:’ A Different View on How Games Treat Death

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This talk was probably my favourite of all the talks at GDC this year! Gabby DaRienzo began by talking about her personal experience with death as a child and how video games helped her explore death and dying in safe and engaging ways. She then spoke about a brief history of death in games – one of my favourite parts!

There are frequent evaporating-body phenomenon of most games with the combat mechanic (Call of Duty franchise, enemies in Zelda franchise), death is often used to motivate a character’s revenge story (Dishonored), and death can also be tied to meaningful narrative (Final Fantasy VII).

In A Mortician’s Tale, the mortician prepares bodies for burial and interacts with different folks at funerals and burials.

Image result for mortician's taleThe narrative and game mechanics promote what DaRienzo calls, “death acceptance.” In the specific narrative of the game, players can interact with the sadness and variations of grief as well as the bodies of the dead. This has had a profound impact on players around the world. Some people were able to confront their own grieving processes outside or were given a structure to discover how to mourn.

DaRienzo explained how the game treats death and the process of preparing a body for burial with respect and therefore required linear storytelling and carefully crafted gameplay.

GDC link: http://schedule.gdconf.com/session/a-morticians-tale-a-different-view-on-how-games-treat-death/853311

A Fun Time in Which Some No-Good Game Developers May or May Not Discuss ‘How we made NieR:Automata’

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I so much enjoyed this talk by Yoko Taro and Takahisa Taura! I appreciated that the talk was entirely in Japanese with a fantastic English translator and that the slides were beautiful and clear. I was so excited for this talk that I lined up an hour in advance, well aware that it would be a packed room (and it was!).

Some big takeaways here!

Gameplay (Taura-san):

  • design for a particular “feel” – good, or bad, whatever the designer wants
  • communicate what this means for the team
  • iterate constantly
  • make sure that even the very first button press feels “good”
  • UX and UI are so important!
  • set up flags for the animations and fine-tune every single frame till it feels and looks exactly how you imagine it (sometimes this means manually going in to every single animation!)

Design (Taro-san):

What is freedom in games? How do players experience freedom?

Right now, many players who enjoy North American RPG’s feel exhausted. The huge world and relatively stagnant gameplay options make players feel like they’re doing “chores” – picking up items, finishing quests, talking after NPC after NPC, and digging further and further down into the minutia.

For Yoko Taro, freedom was restricted on the development side by financial limits. So, he thought about how to give players a different idea of freedom. I’m not going to go into this *too* deeply because I think it’s worth it to watch the talk in the vault if you can. Instead, I want to talk about the last part of Yoko Taro’s presentation where he brought up the idea of helping other people that you had never met before.

As a game designer, I want to create worlds where people might make discoveries about their own motivations and challenge their own worldviews. Yoko Taro, I think, was able to do that with the final credits of Nier: Automata which plunge the player into an extremely difficult bullet-hell gameplay section. When I played the game, I died a *lot*. Accounting for this, players are prompted that they’re being helped by others who had already finished the game.

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Yoko Taro mentioned that his original idea was to make it *mandatory* that players help each other. But, he realized that this would have been projecting his own ideology onto others. Instead, he gave players the option to choose whether or not to erase their entire progress and achievements in order to help strangers navigate this last challenge. In his talk, he said, “if I got people to think about strangers that they had never met, even for just a few moments, then I consider that a victory.”

Nier: Automata is a game with a very heavy-handed message, and I still loved it even though I knew the story wasn’t “for me”. I loved every minute of it. Even in the last moments of the game, even with a degree of freedom about whether or not to help a stranger finish their game, I felt the strength and the hope of the game designers.

GDC link: http://www.gdconf.com/news/director-yoko-taro-discuss-making-nier-automata-gdc-2018/

Stay tuned to part 2 of this blog where I’ll talk unions and my own personal experiences! ❤

Survey for Diversity Issues in Games

I’ve been working on a survey about diversity issues in the games industry. I hear about lots of folks who try to ask questions about diversity or want better representation in games, but just can’t fight all the battles.

My goal is to find ways of supporting these people inside the industry, but the first steps are to really understand how many people want this to happen, and then figure out ways to help them in their work.

Here’s the survey! ❤ https://goo.gl/forms/pdios533UHTZAraJ3

GDC 2015 (a first attendance pov)

I arrived late. I fumbled my way up the stairs of the HiHostel, otherwise known as the “indie hostel”, and pushed myself through the door to the room I’d call home for the next week. I didn’t want to wake my roommates (two of which are my friends), but I was so excited that I definitely did. We hugged briefly, and I threw my disheveled mess of a self into the top bunk, happy and unable to sleep properly.

I shared the room with Allison Cole, an amazing game designer who is ⅓ of Tweed Couch and made In-Tune, Amanda Wong, a Master’s student in Communications and Culture at York/Ryerson, and Ida Toft, a media artist and game designer who is currently pursuing a PhD at Concordia University. And, as intimidating as these three amazing individuals are, they are also kind, welcoming, and each have unique takes on the world around them!

The first day of GDC was a bit of a blur. We all woke up at the crack of jet lag and dispersed. Passes were collected and Amanda and I became fast friends. We attended many of the same talks, bonded over food, and went on adventures. Close comrades Stephanie Fisher and Anne Farmer guided us through many avenues of GDC as well, and I met many, many more amazing folks along the way.

It would be impossible for me to go over everything, but I’m going to try to encapsulate as much as I can. I’m going to break up the info into reflections and insight on GDC as a whole, and some specific talks that I went to.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Blah

I attended a panel, led by experienced community manager Tony Jones, and unfortunately titled “Conquering Community Toxicity like Genghis Khan.” The talk was as problematic as the title, and I chose not to stay through it. However, there were some key points that I’d like to mention in regards to this.

The first is that the use of Genghis Khan as model for community managers was troublesome because it was used to emphasize the “good” parts of the man who conquered most of Eurasia (1206-1227 roughly). The speaker made a few jokes aimed at addressing the fact that Khan conquered and united by massacring enormous populations which did very little to explain why Khan was a useful exemplar for others in this field.

Moreover, Jones’ talk centered on the game design teams who are often the target of community toxicity. As someone outside of the games industry, I found this a particularly important point because rarely are we privy to a talk about community toxicity aimed at community managers and the labourers within game design teams. Employee morale, for example, is affected by how the community responds to a game. Identifying and understanding that players as well as game developers encounter harassment and toxic behaviour can create solidarity.

Jones defined community toxicity as “any [act] driven by frustration, dissatisfaction or irrational behaviour that has significant negativity.” This definition reduces toxicity to a broad form of negative behaviour. The danger of a definition like the one that Jones provides is that it could apply to any number of negative behaviours. Toxic behaviour often reinforces more toxic behaviour, and it is often about continuous, repeated harassments – most often verbal and personal – to the point where abusive language and action take precedence in a space.

I chose this talk because I have been wondering, and continue to wonder, if there is a place for me in games industry. Community management and QA testing are often the most cited employment opportunities for those just entering the games industry. This was the only community management talk I was able to attend. It was an important one for raising awareness about the potential backlash of being a community manager. But I think rather than learn from Genghis Khan, Jones and other community managers may benefit instead from the understanding and cooperation outside of games industries to combat toxicity.

Choices and Game Game Narratives

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The next talk I attended was titled “All Choice No Consequence: Efficiently Branching Narratives”, led by Cassie Phillips. Cassie works at Pocket Gems, and her talk focused largely on the game Demi Lovato: Path to Fame, an interactive story-driven game that focuses on player choices. The games’ system is tablet/mobile, and I thought this was really neat. The talk was in one of the larger rooms and was packed. I found it a bit refreshing to have a large presence for a game like Demi Lovato: Path to Fame. My own games bias is that mobile/tablet games are still considered “less than” PC/console games and that mobile/tablet games are often gendered. Indeed, Demi Lovato may appeal to a younger, more feminine games community, and I really enjoyed that there was respect for that in a space like GDC.

As Phillips pointed out in her talk, branching narratives are becoming a popular game mechanic. Therefore, the key question is whether or not it is really worth it to have branching narratives in a game. Some of the takeaways from this talk are about answering this question and how best to incorporate branching narratives effectively.

Philips pointed out right away that having choice matters, and it matters much more in the feeling than that those choices are impactful. It’s important to find major branches by assessing the major changes in scenes and characters and the unique ways to get to the same goal. Avoid getting hung up on small branches. Choices present in dialogue should contribute to the development of characters with clear, unique voices; choices should be succinct and with purpose; and there should be clear consequences and goals. Phillips was quick to point out that the consequences did not need to be major, but that any feedback produced a positive reaction from players. Finally, one should avoid using false choices. There’s a lot more I could say, but my notes below are a close transcript of the talk.

One of the most interesting points that Phillips brought up was player reaction to feeling that they were “wrong.” By this she meant that there are many players who feel that they are being called out for having made a mistake or choosing something that they feel reflects that they are “bad people.” When they feel judged in the game, these players will often stop playing the game. In Phillip’s talk, she is referring to this data as a means of emphasizing effective game design. One typically wants to maintain audience base and popularity.

This, to me, is a fascinating piece of data because PC/console games quite often feature protagonists who occupy problematic subject positions (GTA, Amnesia, Man Hunt), or are designed to have explicit binary gameplay where you can choose to play as a bad character or a good character (Fable, Papers, Please, BioShock), or contain choices that do not always have explicitly binary, moral outcomes (Fallout: New Vegas, Undertale, Oxenfree, This War of Mine). Game design focused on experiencing moral and ethical decisions within a narrative space has the potential to affect the person playing the game. Typically, we see these explorations positioned squarely in a fantasy for enjoyment (most media is designed for enjoyment). So what happens when we play outside of this fantasy? How can we experiment with media that evokes difficult feelings, even judgements, without losing a player? Is it possible, and is it something that should be tried at all?

One response is that there are options outside of formal industry. There are wonderful examples of games not made for profit or that are independently developed that do play with these themes (I’m thinking of Squinky’s games, for example).

As Phillips concluded: “What is the value of being wrong?”

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Uncomfortable Conversations

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My next talk was on Life is Strange and was titled “Life is Strange: Using Interactive Storytelling and game design to tackle real world problems.” It was presented by Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch.

Like so many that filled the room, I was ridiculously excited about this talk. The studio’s first game was Remember Me (one of my favourites). I’d only started playing Life is Strange a few weeks back, but felt quite differently about it than I had about Remember Me. The game is story driven and thus has exceptionally well-developed character, character voices, and game mechanics to highlight these things. But, even though I felt strongly that I should have been enjoying playing Life is Strange, I kept getting this weird prickly feeling at the back of my neck whenever the protagonist (Max) or other female characters (such as Chloe) spoke. I did a bit of research and found that all the writers are men. I think that this is an emerging and interesting “problem” in the goal of better inclusivity and diversity in games.

Is it enough to have female characters? Are those female characters white? Are people of colour present in games, or non-binary people, or people with different physical attributes? Who works on games, and how do they identify? Representation and diversity is more than an in-game presence; it is about respect, collaboration, and hiring within the industries as well as what’s in the games.

Barbet and Koch’s major hypothesis was about how to deal with difficult subject matter such as euthanasia in a game. According Barbet and Koch, “if a scene presents neutrally, [players] can interact and think differently.” Both developers as well as their team were interested in maintaining respect and thorough research practices before and during the game. This attitude was refreshing and stayed consistent throughout their presentation at GDC as well.

In sharing their research practices, Barbet and Koch also presented clear and attainable outcomes for other designers interested in pursuing meaningful discussions about uncomfortable subject matters in games. Their approach was consistently top-down, and focused on data, speaking with doctors and professionals, creating mood boards, and assessing the huge economic cost of medical attention.

However, like many academics and industry professionals, a top-down approach emphasizes a distance between researcher and researched. Part of this may be that it is difficult to receive ethical clearance to engage vulnerable subjects. Like issues of diversity and inclusion, doing the research is a huge and important step towards real structural changes. But even though it’s an important step, it remains problematic to have unequal gender and racial representation in the room, especially when a game’s subject matter is specifically about underrepresented or marginalized people. Life is Strange features female protagonists, but there was no female representation on the game’s writing team or on the GDC stage (that I can find).

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Be Afraid

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The next talk I attended was by SOMA’s creative developer, Thomas Grip. The talk was called “Crafting Existential Dread.” Full disclosure: I am a horror maniac. I love horror games with the kind of fervor that only a Lacanian psychoanalyst could. My feelings on the game itself stemmed largely from inconsistencies in the use of horror elements that contrasted uncomfortably with the existential and provocative elements of the game’s narrative and its settings.

My feelings on the game aside, I knew that I felt a particular kinship with this talk the moment that it began. There was a palpable excitement in the room and from the stage. Grip said that he felt Amnesia was a failure to produce an examination of consciousness from its players. Be still my heart! Grip’s enthusiasm about these explorations into human consciousness was immediate. In direct contrast to the Life is Strange talk that felt muted, emotional, and full of a deep and profound respect, SOMA’s creative director was deeply enthralled with experimentation. I found this difference refreshing and complimentary – both teams have different approaches, and both approaches produced very different games.

Grip, and by proxy the Frictional Games team, have emotional and psychological goals in their games. In SOMA, the team’s goal was to produce existential dread in the player. They had a large number of ambitions outside of that (examples I caught: horror, puzzles, underwater) and (I think) a hard time deciding what to include and what not to. The AI and deaths were included at the very end, and this makes total sense to me because it felt that way in the game as well.

In order to develop around existential dread in SOMA, the developers constantly tested and received feedback from players about specific instances. With delight, Grip noted how emotionally players reacted to the [SPOILER ALERT] euthanizing of an innocent, non-sentient robot. Their game design technique, unlike previous talks I attended, was: “how do we communicate our theme on a holistic level?”

Even though both Life is Strange and SOMA tackle emotional (and uncomfortable) subject matter, SOMA’s direction spoke to me on a psychoanalytic level. Frictional’s preoccupations with being underwater (the unconscious), deterministic mechanics (fantasy), and including too many puzzles (subject presence) all led to an exploration of humanity within a horror game space. There is even a moment where the character in SOMA can clean a mirror in a bathroom and look at themselves. They experience the horror of seeing their subjectivity personified in the body. It’s fucking awesome.

The SOMA talk reminded me of one of my favourite conversations with game designer Cameron Kunzleman. When I first came into game design, he and I were talking, and I was going on and on about wanting to make an anticapitalist game or a game that was specifically about psychoanalysis. Cameron told me something that still guides me today: that the ideas, subject matter, and curiosities that drive me would come through in my game design regardless of how consciously I was trying to create them, and that I would produce something better from that unconscious creation.

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Identity and GDC

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I was thrilled to see that Indigenous game development was represented at GDC. Renee Nejo’s talk, “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” took me by surprise. I didn’t get to go to any talks on Middle Eastern game development. I didn’t see many talks that spoke to how I identify as an Iranian-Canadian. My mom is Iranian and I’m close with her and my extended Iranian family. My father passed away when I was in grade 12 (a very long time ago). We lived abroad for most of my young life and I had very little contact with his family. I don’t remember how or when I found out, but my father had Native Canadian blood. My second cousin, Jay Odjik, an Anishinaabeg comics artist from Kitigan Zibi connected last summer at the Creative Writing Camp where I was teaching. I was and am very emotional about this. He and I traced my lineage and discovered that our great-great-grandfathers were best friends. I often wonder it would have been like to have met my father’s side of the family, to know more about my heritage.

I didn’t expect that I would bridge more of this gap at a talk at GDC. But, Renee Nejo’s talk about her own experiences coming to terms with race, representation, and vulnerability exposed the vulnerabilities of myself and others in the room, helping us to connect with pieces of ourselves that we often suppress.

She explained that we have made very real progress in diversity and inclusion, but there is still a LOT more to be done. She explained how blood quantum (also the name of her upcoming game) works: about how in the United States, you carry a card that tells you what fraction of your blood is Native. She spoke of walking two worlds and of not looking exactly like a specific population, or having a name that didn’t sound like the names of people that share your heritage.

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Nejo described how shame and guilt make it feel impossible to talk about problems. She talked about how in games, marginalized and underrepresented people in particular are making themselves vulnerable and how terrifying this vulnerability can be. For Nejo, game design that attempts to tell stories about and for underrepresented people is about returning to the concept of “us versus them” and conceptualizing it as a conversation between player and designer. Nejo’s major goal in doing this is to better communication between different perspectives.

It takes strength to do something without any guarantee of its success or of its impacts. And the major takeaway from her talk as it relates directly to game development is that it is important to show others, not just tell them, in order to break the binary between “us” and “them.”

Jane Ng is a Badass

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I really want to talk about how Jane Ng is a badass and how her amazing talk, “Making the World of Firewatch” gave me a boost of motivation to conquer more artistic processes in a large gush. I’m going to try to do my best to explain these feelings more coherently, but I’m attaching my notes because the talk gave real tips on how to develop in a small 10-15 person team in Unity.

Jane Ng is a badass because she wears multiple hats and wears them well. She was the environmental artist and jack-of-all-trades for Campo Santo’s breakout hit, Firewatch, senior artist on The Cave, and a senior artist on Spore (to name a few). I could relate to Ng’s jack-of-all-trades position because I’m someone who tackles multiple projects at the same time, and often takes on various roles within those projects. Ng wove her expertise into the making of Firewatch’s world through art as well as optimization. Whereas I had heard and seen other game developers talks about process, Ng’s talk delivered information about Unity, her process, and optimization – extremely complex concepts – in real, digestible ways. If anyone wonders about the purpose of meaningful representation, they should refer to Jane Ng’s talk. I never thought I would understand Unity, let alone be inspired to push my 2D art into more 3D space. But Jane Ng made a huge impact.

I have different thoughts on Firewatch that you can read HERE.

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Advocacy Ripples

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Throughout my journey at GDC, I stayed close to the advocacy channels, friends who push for diversity and inclusion in games, and met developers and artists working in these areas. The culmination of many of the disjointed and positive experiences at GDC was the talk by Stephanie Fisher, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Zoe Quinn, Sagan Yee, and Gemma Thomson – “The Ripple Effect: How Women in Games Initiatives Make a Difference.” I met Stephanie Fisher recently through my own work with ReFIG and felt refreshingly at ease with her. When I moved to Montreal in 2014, I attended my first game jam, GAMERella, and met Rebecca. I met Sagan around the same time that I met Stephanie, and Sagan, Carolyn Jong (a researcher, game developer, and activist) and I are collaborating on the Game Curious project in Montreal. I met Gemma at the start of GDC and I confess that I fangirled pretty hard when I met Zoe and she was remarkably kind despite my large, sparkly eyes.

The panelists are all exceptional and the panel was organized to both explain the different types of initiatives that came from each person’s projects as well as to highlight what to do if you are interested in establishing a women or non-binary initiative.

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Across the board, each person explained how their unique backgrounds in animation, web design, maker culture, identities and mental health, game jams, activism (to name a few!) led them to the Difference Engine. Sagan, for example, wasn’t able to find work in her field and stumbled into the Difference Engine for the love of learning … and for the free food. In fact, having support, free attendance, and free food for 6 weeks was a common source of excitement amongst all the panelists.

There continues to be a tremendous amount of devaluing of women in games initiatives, of the support systems that accompany these initiatives, and of the bonds that are formed. On this matter, Sagan explains that seeing representation means the ability to walk into a space without fearing how to navigate it. There is an opportunity to learn new skills, feel passionate, and not feel like you are being tokenized. There’s real power in that.

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For Rebecca, the power of one’s own identity and the creation of women’s only spaces has been a crucial part of her journey after the Difference Engine. Together with Tanya Short, Rebecca co-founded Pixelles in Montreal, and in January 2013 they helped 10 women make their first games. The incredible popularity, support, and games that have come from the Pixelles is demonstrates the necessity for and positive outcomes from a women’s initiative. Pixelles continues to expand and learn. One of the most challenging and difficult components of creating an advocacy-driven initiative is openness, continued learning, and strong communication. The Pixelles is a space that supports these goals.

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Zoe’s work has been diverse. She has worked on making tools available and resources for women, non-binary, and marginalized people interested in games. Her work involves the creation of tools and support for people facing harassment and mental health. A point that rung home for me was that there needs to be continued support after someone initially makes a game – there is further work to be done. In Zoe’s words, it’s about planting seeds and then nurturing them so that they flourish.

Gemma’s work in the creation of spaces is also about ensuring that men can explore non-binary roles. Gemma has created ongoing game jams like Game Jam Stockholm, as well as programs such as Diversi and LadyCADE.

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All the panelists spoke about how having women- and non-binary-led game development programs has not limited the number of men present at events. It merely provides the majority or equal access to women and underrepresented people. Visibility and trustworthiness is a staple of each panelist’s goals, and they work hard to have structures in place to address microaggressions, racism, or other issues that arise.

Creating supportive spaces can be as simple as fostering low-pressure jams, pronoun badges, access to food, and avoiding bars or the expectation to drink. Most importantly, you do not need money or a big budget to create or support communities dedicated to diversity and inclusivity. There is a lot of power in community and grassroots organizations. In fact, Rebecca pointed out that opting for official non-profit status can incur new fees and create challenges for taxes and labour.

The final takeaways from this panel are that it is crucial to teach people how to negotiate, whether that be for job opportunities in tech and games industries or elsewhere. Reach out to people and celebrate their work, not just their struggles. Lived experience *is* experience. However, for me, the point that stuck out was that each individual on that panel took a different approach to how they develop spaces for new game makers. There was genuine respect and friendship between all of them, including their differences.

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Eat Your Vegetables!

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Squinky opened their talk, “Designing Discomfort” with a painfully uncomfortable look into the eyes of a total stranger on our left. The exercise was accompanied by the most perfect lounge music, and Squinky’s clear, unfaltering voice, asking us to imagine we are at a Middle School dance. Squinky is a game designer, developer, writer, advocate, and academic. We recently connected about being half-Iranian (Squinky is also half-Filipino) and it was one of those moments that shows how powerful representation matters. It’s not that every single person who identifies similarly to someone will mean that they are instant allies, share the same ideas or history, or be friends, but there is an instant rush – recognition – that comes with having someone one can relate to. I am also really happy to say that I absolutely do identify as Squinky’s ally (and friend).

Squinky’s talk, in a large room at GDC, was full. A few others have noted that the advocacy talks at GDC were often in smaller rooms. Many of the gender, sexuality, and more political talks and meet-ups were in rooms so small that supervisors had to turn people away. I was able to attend the LGBTQ+ SIG Roundtable, but there were people standing lined up against the walls and many who could not even enter the room because it was at capacity. It is easy to understand why these spaces are so important, and GDC’s organizers should recognize and accommodate this necessity. I was happy to see Squinky’s panel so full, and that GDC made that space available.

Discomfort, for Squinky, is an essential part of game design. Many of the talks beforehand focused on implementing fantasy spaces devoid of continuity errors. In some cases, this fantasy structure was also meant as an opportunity to engage in difficult material (like the SOMA and Life is Strange talks).

I’ve come at games horizontally, meaning I have no formal training. I love 2D art and design, have played games since I was 4 years old, enjoy critical discussions around games, and love fostering more communities around independent and experimental games. I’ve had never seen Jesse Schell’s model of the Flow Channel from “The Art of Game Design” until Squinky’s presentation. But the immediate chortle that surged from the crowd in unison was evidence that game developers are quite familiar with the following model:

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The model is intended to demonstrate that there is a specific zone that games should aim for their gameplay to be situated in – the Flow Channel. It is neatly between challenge and skill and anxiety and boredom. Keeping gamers entertained, of course, is integral for capital gain.

But Squinky dares to ask if that really is true. Is it necessary to stay in the lines?

Squinky explored several games like Papers, Please, Depression Quest, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge and how each game is playable, all are situated outside of the intended flow channel, and all with unique designs and focuses. The talk ended a little prematurely for me. I wanted to hear more about how the different games that Squinky highlighted mattered for Squinky, seasoned game developers, and newcomers to game development. Squinky’s talk was aimed at uncovering whether or not it truly is necessary to pander to specific fantasies in games. “We have to train gamers to eat their vegetables!”

Outside of the Talks

GDC was a confusing experience for me. On the one hand, I feel extremely privileged to have partaken in the conference. It would not have been possible if I had not won a pass and funding through the Pixelles in Montreal. Conversely, I think that Mattie Brice’s recent blog about boycotting GDC is extremely important. It highlights, amongst other things, how conferences like GDC piggyback off of the labour of marginalized and underrepresented people:

This model was created by professionals who had jobs that assisted and benefited from participating, creating something that benefited a community. But marginalized people often aren’t part of the community, they don’t have industry or academic jobs that support them, with their skills and viewpoints not yet valued by the mainstream enough for networking to land them work. Since industry is always looking for something new, outsider groups are taken in only for their social cach but not in trade for work or other methods of sustaining their practice. Meaning, our current system is a flawed band-aid on a deep wound, and deserves a lot more open challenges than it currently gets.

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The presence and importance of community, grassroots, and non-profit organizations dedicated to improving marginalized populations at events such as GDC cannot be undermined. But indeed, as Brice suggests, a lot of people (myself included) do not know where we stand and have no idea where to go afterwards. I wasn’t even aware that speakers – including the speakers that inspired me the most, who are underrepresented or marginalized folks – were not actually paid for their time at GDC other than having received passes to attend parts of the conference. Cost is a big problem, and there is a deep feeling that one should take on costs one cannot afford if it means that one is able to attend privileged spaces like GDC. By comparison, TwitchCon (also an exploitative structure), had a far larger number of attendees and was visibly more diverse – except for many speakers and panels.

Even at the earliest entry into GDC, I felt alienated and out of place. When one registers for GDC, there is an elaborate form to fill out. The form asks for your role and connection to games, and for those of us who are completely adrift in our professional careers, this was an anxiety-producing moment. I have been (and continue to be) looking for work in games and creative industries, but I’ve been unsuccessful thus far. If I were able to pursue a career in the games industry, I believe it would be really beneficial for learning new skills and for (I hope!) contributing both my artistic work as well as my interests in better diversity and inclusivity. I’m also comfortable not being part of these industries and pursuing independent game development and community building, but without stable employment, it is difficult to do much of anything. My live-streaming, writing, and community work also falls outside of games industry proper. I didn’t know what to put for what my position in games was, and so I put my little “company” title for my freelance work and hoped that I’d be able to have more in-depth conversations when the time came.

The biggest revelation for me at GDC was finding like-minded people. I spent most of GDC with people who identified as people of colour, women, trans, non-binary, and Indigenous. I never went to any parties (by choice), but threw myself into talks, lunches, small adventures around San Francisco, and expo halls. Truthfully, I felt exhausted. I wasn’t sure what my place was even though I loved many of the talks and felt inspired. At the end of it, I wondered if I had let people down by not figuring something out.

There are some serious issues with for-profit conferences like GDC. Exclusion via income sets up a dependence on money, corporate sponsorship, market success, or games industry status. The talks at GDC, however, were the most compelling when they were led by people from different backgrounds. The popularity and necessity for activist networks in games can mean the difference between having a support network and safer spaces for employment, community work, or artistic/experimental games. As so many of the speakers pointed out, the problem is becoming more about sustaining involvement and improving inclusion. If GDC is one of the only large hubs dedicated to work in games, then it’s time to reassess who is benefiting from the conference.

GDC 2015 (a first attendance pov)

I arrived late. I fumbled my way up the stairs of the HiHostel, otherwise known as the “indie hostel”, and pushed myself through the door to the room I’d call home for the next week. I didn’t want to wake my roommates (two of which are my friends), but I was so excited that I definitely did. We hugged briefly, and I threw my disheveled mess of a self into the top bunk, happy and unable to sleep properly.

I shared the room with Allison Cole, an amazing game designer who is ⅓ of Tweed Couch and made In-Tune, Amanda Wong, a Master’s student in Communications and Culture at York/Ryerson, and Ida Toft, a media artist and game designer who is currently pursuing a PhD at Concordia University. And, as intimidating as these three amazing individuals are, they are also kind, welcoming, and each have unique takes on the world around them!

The first day of GDC was a bit of a blur. We all woke up at the crack of jet lag and dispersed. Passes were collected and Amanda and I became fast friends. We attended many of the same talks, bonded over food, and went on adventures. Close comrades Stephanie Fisher and Anne Farmer guided us through many avenues of GDC as well, and I met many, many more amazing folks along the way.

It would be impossible for me to go over everything, but I’m going to try to encapsulate as much as I can. I’m going to break up the info into reflections and insight on GDC as a whole, and some specific talks that I went to.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Blah

I attended a panel, led by experienced community manager Tony Jones, and unfortunately titled “Conquering Community Toxicity like Genghis Khan.” The talk was as problematic as the title, and I chose not to stay through it. However, there were some key points that I’d like to mention in regards to this.

The first is that the use of Genghis Khan as model for community managers was troublesome because it was used to emphasize the “good” parts of the man who conquered most of Eurasia (1206-1227 roughly). The speaker made a few jokes aimed at addressing the fact that Khan conquered and united by massacring enormous populations which did very little to explain why Khan was a useful exemplar for others in this field.

Moreover, Jones’ talk centered on the game design teams who are often the target of community toxicity. As someone outside of the games industry, I found this a particularly important point because rarely are we privy to a talk about community toxicity aimed at community managers and the labourers within game design teams. Employee morale, for example, is affected by how the community responds to a game. Identifying and understanding that players as well as game developers encounter harassment and toxic behaviour can create solidarity.

Jones defined community toxicity as “any [act] driven by frustration, dissatisfaction or irrational behaviour that has significant negativity.” This definition reduces toxicity to a broad form of negative behaviour. The danger of a definition like the one that Jones provides is that it could apply to any number of negative behaviours. Toxic behaviour often reinforces more toxic behaviour, and it is often about continuous, repeated harassments – most often verbal and personal – to the point where abusive language and action take precedence in a space.

I chose this talk because I have been wondering, and continue to wonder, if there is a place for me in games industry. Community management and QA testing are often the most cited employment opportunities for those just entering the games industry. This was the only community management talk I was able to attend. It was an important one for raising awareness about the potential backlash of being a community manager. But I think rather than learn from Genghis Khan, Jones and other community managers may benefit instead from the understanding and cooperation outside of games industries to combat toxicity.

Choices and Game Game Narratives

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The next talk I attended was titled “All Choice No Consequence: Efficiently Branching Narratives”, led by Cassie Phillips. Cassie works at Pocket Gems, and her talk focused largely on the game Demi Lovato: Path to Fame, an interactive story-driven game that focuses on player choices. The games’ system is tablet/mobile, and I thought this was really neat. The talk was in one of the larger rooms and was packed. I found it a bit refreshing to have a large presence for a game like Demi Lovato: Path to Fame. My own games bias is that mobile/tablet games are still considered “less than” PC/console games and that mobile/tablet games are often gendered. Indeed, Demi Lovato may appeal to a younger, more feminine games community, and I really enjoyed that there was respect for that in a space like GDC.

As Phillips pointed out in her talk, branching narratives are becoming a popular game mechanic. Therefore, the key question is whether or not it is really worth it to have branching narratives in a game. Some of the takeaways from this talk are about answering this question and how best to incorporate branching narratives effectively.

Philips pointed out right away that having choice matters, and it matters much more in the feeling than that those choices are impactful. It’s important to find major branches by assessing the major changes in scenes and characters and the unique ways to get to the same goal. Avoid getting hung up on small branches. Choices present in dialogue should contribute to the development of characters with clear, unique voices; choices should be succinct and with purpose; and there should be clear consequences and goals. Phillips was quick to point out that the consequences did not need to be major, but that any feedback produced a positive reaction from players. Finally, one should avoid using false choices. There’s a lot more I could say, but my notes below are a close transcript of the talk.

One of the most interesting points that Phillips brought up was player reaction to feeling that they were “wrong.” By this she meant that there are many players who feel that they are being called out for having made a mistake or choosing something that they feel reflects that they are “bad people.” When they feel judged in the game, these players will often stop playing the game. In Phillip’s talk, she is referring to this data as a means of emphasizing effective game design. One typically wants to maintain audience base and popularity.

This, to me, is a fascinating piece of data because PC/console games quite often feature protagonists who occupy problematic subject positions (GTA, Amnesia, Man Hunt), or are designed to have explicit binary gameplay where you can choose to play as a bad character or a good character (Fable, Papers, Please, BioShock), or contain choices that do not always have explicitly binary, moral outcomes (Fallout: New Vegas, Undertale, Oxenfree, This War of Mine). Game design focused on experiencing moral and ethical decisions within a narrative space has the potential to affect the person playing the game. Typically, we see these explorations positioned squarely in a fantasy for enjoyment (most media is designed for enjoyment). So what happens when we play outside of this fantasy? How can we experiment with media that evokes difficult feelings, even judgements, without losing a player? Is it possible, and is it something that should be tried at all?

One response is that there are options outside of formal industry. There are wonderful examples of games not made for profit or that are independently developed that do play with these themes (I’m thinking of Squinky’s games, for example).

As Phillips concluded: “What is the value of being wrong?”

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Uncomfortable Conversations

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My next talk was on Life is Strange and was titled “Life is Strange: Using Interactive Storytelling and game design to tackle real world problems.” It was presented by Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch.

Like so many that filled the room, I was ridiculously excited about this talk. The studio’s first game was Remember Me (one of my favourites). I’d only started playing Life is Strange a few weeks back, but felt quite differently about it than I had about Remember Me. The game is story driven and thus has exceptionally well-developed character, character voices, and game mechanics to highlight these things. But, even though I felt strongly that I should have been enjoying playing Life is Strange, I kept getting this weird prickly feeling at the back of my neck whenever the protagonist (Max) or other female characters (such as Chloe) spoke. I did a bit of research and found that all the writers are men. I think that this is an emerging and interesting “problem” in the goal of better inclusivity and diversity in games.

Is it enough to have female characters? Are those female characters white? Are people of colour present in games, or non-binary people, or people with different physical attributes? Who works on games, and how do they identify? Representation and diversity is more than an in-game presence; it is about respect, collaboration, and hiring within the industries as well as what’s in the games.

Barbet and Koch’s major hypothesis was about how to deal with difficult subject matter such as euthanasia in a game. According Barbet and Koch, “if a scene presents neutrally, [players] can interact and think differently.” Both developers as well as their team were interested in maintaining respect and thorough research practices before and during the game. This attitude was refreshing and stayed consistent throughout their presentation at GDC as well.

In sharing their research practices, Barbet and Koch also presented clear and attainable outcomes for other designers interested in pursuing meaningful discussions about uncomfortable subject matters in games. Their approach was consistently top-down, and focused on data, speaking with doctors and professionals, creating mood boards, and assessing the huge economic cost of medical attention.

However, like many academics and industry professionals, a top-down approach emphasizes a distance between researcher and researched. Part of this may be that it is difficult to receive ethical clearance to engage vulnerable subjects. Like issues of diversity and inclusion, doing the research is a huge and important step towards real structural changes. But even though it’s an important step, it remains problematic to have unequal gender and racial representation in the room, especially when a game’s subject matter is specifically about underrepresented or marginalized people. Life is Strange features female protagonists, but there was no female representation on the game’s writing team or on the GDC stage (that I can find).

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Be Afraid

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The next talk I attended was by SOMA’s creative developer, Thomas Grip. The talk was called “Crafting Existential Dread.” Full disclosure: I am a horror maniac. I love horror games with the kind of fervor that only a Lacanian psychoanalyst could. My feelings on the game itself stemmed largely from inconsistencies in the use of horror elements that contrasted uncomfortably with the existential and provocative elements of the game’s narrative and its settings.

My feelings on the game aside, I knew that I felt a particular kinship with this talk the moment that it began. There was a palpable excitement in the room and from the stage. Grip said that he felt Amnesia was a failure to produce an examination of consciousness from its players. Be still my heart! Grip’s enthusiasm about these explorations into human consciousness was immediate. In direct contrast to the Life is Strange talk that felt muted, emotional, and full of a deep and profound respect, SOMA’s creative director was deeply enthralled with experimentation. I found this difference refreshing and complimentary – both teams have different approaches, and both approaches produced very different games.

Grip, and by proxy the Frictional Games team, have emotional and psychological goals in their games. In SOMA, the team’s goal was to produce existential dread in the player. They had a large number of ambitions outside of that (examples I caught: horror, puzzles, underwater) and (I think) a hard time deciding what to include and what not to. The AI and deaths were included at the very end, and this makes total sense to me because it felt that way in the game as well.

In order to develop around existential dread in SOMA, the developers constantly tested and received feedback from players about specific instances. With delight, Grip noted how emotionally players reacted to the [SPOILER ALERT] euthanizing of an innocent, non-sentient robot. Their game design technique, unlike previous talks I attended, was: “how do we communicate our theme on a holistic level?”

Even though both Life is Strange and SOMA tackle emotional (and uncomfortable) subject matter, SOMA’s direction spoke to me on a psychoanalytic level. Frictional’s preoccupations with being underwater (the unconscious), deterministic mechanics (fantasy), and including too many puzzles (subject presence) all led to an exploration of humanity within a horror game space. There is even a moment where the character in SOMA can clean a mirror in a bathroom and look at themselves. They experience the horror of seeing their subjectivity personified in the body. It’s fucking awesome.

The SOMA talk reminded me of one of my favourite conversations with game designer Cameron Kunzleman. When I first came into game design, he and I were talking, and I was going on and on about wanting to make an anticapitalist game or a game that was specifically about psychoanalysis. Cameron told me something that still guides me today: that the ideas, subject matter, and curiosities that drive me would come through in my game design regardless of how consciously I was trying to create them, and that I would produce something better from that unconscious creation.

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Identity and GDC

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I was thrilled to see that Indigenous game development was represented at GDC. Renee Nejo’s talk, “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” took me by surprise. I didn’t get to go to any talks on Middle Eastern game development. I didn’t see many talks that spoke to how I identify as an Iranian-Canadian. My mom is Iranian and I’m close with her and my extended Iranian family. My father passed away when I was in grade 12 (a very long time ago). We lived abroad for most of my young life and I had very little contact with his family. I don’t remember how or when I found out, but my father had Native Canadian blood. My second cousin, Jay Odjik, an Anishinaabeg comics artist from Kitigan Zibi connected last summer at the Creative Writing Camp where I was teaching. I was and am very emotional about this. He and I traced my lineage and discovered that our great-great-grandfathers were best friends. I often wonder it would have been like to have met my father’s side of the family, to know more about my heritage.

I didn’t expect that I would bridge more of this gap at a talk at GDC. But, Renee Nejo’s talk about her own experiences coming to terms with race, representation, and vulnerability exposed the vulnerabilities of myself and others in the room, helping us to connect with pieces of ourselves that we often suppress.

She explained that we have made very real progress in diversity and inclusion, but there is still a LOT more to be done. She explained how blood quantum (also the name of her upcoming game) works: about how in the United States, you carry a card that tells you what fraction of your blood is Native. She spoke of walking two worlds and of not looking exactly like a specific population, or having a name that didn’t sound like the names of people that share your heritage.

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Nejo described how shame and guilt make it feel impossible to talk about problems. She talked about how in games, marginalized and underrepresented people in particular are making themselves vulnerable and how terrifying this vulnerability can be. For Nejo, game design that attempts to tell stories about and for underrepresented people is about returning to the concept of “us versus them” and conceptualizing it as a conversation between player and designer. Nejo’s major goal in doing this is to better communication between different perspectives.

It takes strength to do something without any guarantee of its success or of its impacts. And the major takeaway from her talk as it relates directly to game development is that it is important to show others, not just tell them, in order to break the binary between “us” and “them.”

Jane Ng is a Badass

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I really want to talk about how Jane Ng is a badass and how her amazing talk, “Making the World of Firewatch” gave me a boost of motivation to conquer more artistic processes in a large gush. I’m going to try to do my best to explain these feelings more coherently, but I’m attaching my notes because the talk gave real tips on how to develop in a small 10-15 person team in Unity.

Jane Ng is a badass because she wears multiple hats and wears them well. She was the environmental artist and jack-of-all-trades for Campo Santo’s breakout hit, Firewatch, senior artist on The Cave, and a senior artist on Spore (to name a few). I could relate to Ng’s jack-of-all-trades position because I’m someone who tackles multiple projects at the same time, and often takes on various roles within those projects. Ng wove her expertise into the making of Firewatch’s world through art as well as optimization. Whereas I had heard and seen other game developers talks about process, Ng’s talk delivered information about Unity, her process, and optimization – extremely complex concepts – in real, digestible ways. If anyone wonders about the purpose of meaningful representation, they should refer to Jane Ng’s talk. I never thought I would understand Unity, let alone be inspired to push my 2D art into more 3D space. But Jane Ng made a huge impact.

I have different thoughts on Firewatch that you can read HERE.

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Advocacy Ripples

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Throughout my journey at GDC, I stayed close to the advocacy channels, friends who push for diversity and inclusion in games, and met developers and artists working in these areas. The culmination of many of the disjointed and positive experiences at GDC was the talk by Stephanie Fisher, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Zoe Quinn, Sagan Yee, and Gemma Thomson – “The Ripple Effect: How Women in Games Initiatives Make a Difference.” I met Stephanie Fisher recently through my own work with ReFIG and felt refreshingly at ease with her. When I moved to Montreal in 2014, I attended my first game jam, GAMERella, and met Rebecca. I met Sagan around the same time that I met Stephanie, and Sagan, Carolyn Jong (a researcher, game developer, and activist) and I are collaborating on the Game Curious project in Montreal. I met Gemma at the start of GDC and I confess that I fangirled pretty hard when I met Zoe and she was remarkably kind despite my large, sparkly eyes.

The panelists are all exceptional and the panel was organized to both explain the different types of initiatives that came from each person’s projects as well as to highlight what to do if you are interested in establishing a women or non-binary initiative.

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Across the board, each person explained how their unique backgrounds in animation, web design, maker culture, identities and mental health, game jams, activism (to name a few!) led them to the Difference Engine. Sagan, for example, wasn’t able to find work in her field and stumbled into the Difference Engine for the love of learning … and for the free food. In fact, having support, free attendance, and free food for 6 weeks was a common source of excitement amongst all the panelists.

There continues to be a tremendous amount of devaluing of women in games initiatives, of the support systems that accompany these initiatives, and of the bonds that are formed. On this matter, Sagan explains that seeing representation means the ability to walk into a space without fearing how to navigate it. There is an opportunity to learn new skills, feel passionate, and not feel like you are being tokenized. There’s real power in that.

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For Rebecca, the power of one’s own identity and the creation of women’s only spaces has been a crucial part of her journey after the Difference Engine. Together with Tanya Short, Rebecca co-founded Pixelles in Montreal, and in January 2013 they helped 10 women make their first games. The incredible popularity, support, and games that have come from the Pixelles is demonstrates the necessity for and positive outcomes from a women’s initiative. Pixelles continues to expand and learn. One of the most challenging and difficult components of creating an advocacy-driven initiative is openness, continued learning, and strong communication. The Pixelles is a space that supports these goals.

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Zoe’s work has been diverse. She has worked on making tools available and resources for women, non-binary, and marginalized people interested in games. Her work involves the creation of tools and support for people facing harassment and mental health. A point that rung home for me was that there needs to be continued support after someone initially makes a game – there is further work to be done. In Zoe’s words, it’s about planting seeds and then nurturing them so that they flourish.

Gemma’s work in the creation of spaces is also about ensuring that men can explore non-binary roles. Gemma has created ongoing game jams like Game Jam Stockholm, as well as programs such as Diversi and LadyCADE.

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All the panelists spoke about how having women- and non-binary-led game development programs has not limited the number of men present at events. It merely provides the majority or equal access to women and underrepresented people. Visibility and trustworthiness is a staple of each panelist’s goals, and they work hard to have structures in place to address microaggressions, racism, or other issues that arise.

Creating supportive spaces can be as simple as fostering low-pressure jams, pronoun badges, access to food, and avoiding bars or the expectation to drink. Most importantly, you do not need money or a big budget to create or support communities dedicated to diversity and inclusivity. There is a lot of power in community and grassroots organizations. In fact, Rebecca pointed out that opting for official non-profit status can incur new fees and create challenges for taxes and labour.

The final takeaways from this panel are that it is crucial to teach people how to negotiate, whether that be for job opportunities in tech and games industries or elsewhere. Reach out to people and celebrate their work, not just their struggles. Lived experience *is* experience. However, for me, the point that stuck out was that each individual on that panel took a different approach to how they develop spaces for new game makers. There was genuine respect and friendship between all of them, including their differences.

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Eat Your Vegetables!

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Squinky opened their talk, “Designing Discomfort” with a painfully uncomfortable look into the eyes of a total stranger on our left. The exercise was accompanied by the most perfect lounge music, and Squinky’s clear, unfaltering voice, asking us to imagine we are at a Middle School dance. Squinky is a game designer, developer, writer, advocate, and academic. We recently connected about being half-Iranian (Squinky is also half-Filipino) and it was one of those moments that shows how powerful representation matters. It’s not that every single person who identifies similarly to someone will mean that they are instant allies, share the same ideas or history, or be friends, but there is an instant rush – recognition – that comes with having someone one can relate to. I am also really happy to say that I absolutely do identify as Squinky’s ally (and friend).

Squinky’s talk, in a large room at GDC, was full. A few others have noted that the advocacy talks at GDC were often in smaller rooms. Many of the gender, sexuality, and more political talks and meet-ups were in rooms so small that supervisors had to turn people away. I was able to attend the LGBTQ+ SIG Roundtable, but there were people standing lined up against the walls and many who could not even enter the room because it was at capacity. It is easy to understand why these spaces are so important, and GDC’s organizers should recognize and accommodate this necessity. I was happy to see Squinky’s panel so full, and that GDC made that space available.

Discomfort, for Squinky, is an essential part of game design. Many of the talks beforehand focused on implementing fantasy spaces devoid of continuity errors. In some cases, this fantasy structure was also meant as an opportunity to engage in difficult material (like the SOMA and Life is Strange talks).

I’ve come at games horizontally, meaning I have no formal training. I love 2D art and design, have played games since I was 4 years old, enjoy critical discussions around games, and love fostering more communities around independent and experimental games. I’ve had never seen Jesse Schell’s model of the Flow Channel from “The Art of Game Design” until Squinky’s presentation. But the immediate chortle that surged from the crowd in unison was evidence that game developers are quite familiar with the following model:

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The model is intended to demonstrate that there is a specific zone that games should aim for their gameplay to be situated in – the Flow Channel. It is neatly between challenge and skill and anxiety and boredom. Keeping gamers entertained, of course, is integral for capital gain.

But Squinky dares to ask if that really is true. Is it necessary to stay in the lines?

Squinky explored several games like Papers, Please, Depression Quest, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge and how each game is playable, all are situated outside of the intended flow channel, and all with unique designs and focuses. The talk ended a little prematurely for me. I wanted to hear more about how the different games that Squinky highlighted mattered for Squinky, seasoned game developers, and newcomers to game development. Squinky’s talk was aimed at uncovering whether or not it truly is necessary to pander to specific fantasies in games. “We have to train gamers to eat their vegetables!”

Outside of the Talks

GDC was a confusing experience for me. On the one hand, I feel extremely privileged to have partaken in the conference. It would not have been possible if I had not won a pass and funding through the Pixelles in Montreal. Conversely, I think that Mattie Brice’s recent blog about boycotting GDC is extremely important. It highlights, amongst other things, how conferences like GDC piggyback off of the labour of marginalized and underrepresented people:

This model was created by professionals who had jobs that assisted and benefited from participating, creating something that benefited a community. But marginalized people often aren’t part of the community, they don’t have industry or academic jobs that support them, with their skills and viewpoints not yet valued by the mainstream enough for networking to land them work. Since industry is always looking for something new, outsider groups are taken in only for their social cach but not in trade for work or other methods of sustaining their practice. Meaning, our current system is a flawed band-aid on a deep wound, and deserves a lot more open challenges than it currently gets.

Brice, 2016

The presence and importance of community, grassroots, and non-profit organizations dedicated to improving marginalized populations at events such as GDC cannot be undermined. But indeed, as Brice suggests, a lot of people (myself included) do not know where we stand and have no idea where to go afterwards. I wasn’t even aware that speakers – including the speakers that inspired me the most, who are underrepresented or marginalized folks – were not actually paid for their time at GDC other than having received passes to attend parts of the conference. Cost is a big problem, and there is a deep feeling that one should take on costs one cannot afford if it means that one is able to attend privileged spaces like GDC. By comparison, TwitchCon (also an exploitative structure), had a far larger number of attendees and was visibly more diverse – except for many speakers and panels.

Even at the earliest entry into GDC, I felt alienated and out of place. When one registers for GDC, there is an elaborate form to fill out. The form asks for your role and connection to games, and for those of us who are completely adrift in our professional careers, this was an anxiety-producing moment. I have been (and continue to be) looking for work in games and creative industries, but I’ve been unsuccessful thus far. If I were able to pursue a career in the games industry, I believe it would be really beneficial for learning new skills and for (I hope!) contributing both my artistic work as well as my interests in better diversity and inclusivity. I’m also comfortable not being part of these industries and pursuing independent game development and community building, but without stable employment, it is difficult to do much of anything. My live-streaming, writing, and community work also falls outside of games industry proper. I didn’t know what to put for what my position in games was, and so I put my little “company” title for my freelance work and hoped that I’d be able to have more in-depth conversations when the time came.

The biggest revelation for me at GDC was finding like-minded people. I spent most of GDC with people who identified as people of colour, women, trans, non-binary, and Indigenous. I never went to any parties (by choice), but threw myself into talks, lunches, small adventures around San Francisco, and expo halls. Truthfully, I felt exhausted. I wasn’t sure what my place was even though I loved many of the talks and felt inspired. At the end of it, I wondered if I had let people down by not figuring something out.

There are some serious issues with for-profit conferences like GDC. Exclusion via income sets up a dependence on money, corporate sponsorship, market success, or games industry status. The talks at GDC, however, were the most compelling when they were led by people from different backgrounds. The popularity and necessity for activist networks in games can mean the difference between having a support network and safer spaces for employment, community work, or artistic/experimental games. As so many of the speakers pointed out, the problem is becoming more about sustaining involvement and improving inclusion. If GDC is one of the only large hubs dedicated to work in games, then it’s time to reassess who is benefiting from the conference.

An Other Response to Firewatch

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Firewatch Artwork by Olly Moss <http://ollymoss.com/&gt;

WARNING: Mega Spoilers!

 I read this beautiful written response to Firewatch by Alec Meer and I felt compelled to speak about my own experience with the game. Meer writes openly about what it was like for him to play Firewatch as a married man who is juggling a lot of responsibilities in his life. I loved Firewatch, but I felt alienated in my play-through even though my play-through was remarkably similar to Meer’s.

I had been looking forward to playing Firewatch for weeks. I saw people posting gorgeous screenshots online and read comments about the strength of the writing. I felt a surge of excitement every time I saw something new, and I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in Two Forks and explore the world around me.

My partner bought the game so we could play it together on the weekend – one of our favourite ways to play games. When the game booted up, we decided to take on the questions together, mumbling what our preferred responses would have been, selecting based on both of our interests.

 

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Firewatch Screenshot, Campo Santo <www.firewatchgame.com>

I was able to play for some of the time, but I ended up mostly spectating while my partner played, which was meaningful to me in a few ways: 1) I enjoyed the environment, concentrated on the story, and relaxed into the role of voyeur, and 2) it allowed me to see my partner interact with the world and with Delilah. I’ve always enjoyed watching different people play games. There are lots of play styles, and I love being able to share in that and see how people make choices and discover mechanics. In Firewatch, I felt like I was part of the experience, even when I wasn’t playing it myself, as my partner and I got deeper into the game.

But when the player’s interactions with Delilah’s take precedence over Henry’s solitary exploration of Two Forks, my responses were no longer asked for. This wasn’t intentional on his part. The writing in Firewatch is powerful. The conversations between Henry and Delilah are quick, and with a timer determining whether or not Henry will reply at all, it’s easier to maintain conversational flow on an individual level. After some time, I began to feel left out of the game and I wasn’t sure why.

I watched, but kept looking down, recognizing the enjoyment my partner was having in the scripted flirtations with Delilah. We paused to talk briefly about whether or not it was flirtatious. I struggle with insecurity and it’s often difficult for me to trust my own analyses. There are complicated feelings between Henry and Delilah. And, remarkably, the game is able to extend that complexity to the player as well, particularly if they relate to Henry.

 

After some time, I had the controller and got to play. Briefly, I played. Finally, I thought, as myself. Finally, I thought, I would be able to respond to Delilah as me, as a woman. I chose not to repeat the same patterns of conversation. I chose silence sometimes, or something less banter-y. My partner said, “Why are you being mean to her?” I was confused. I was just talking to her the way I would have wanted to talk to her. “No,” I said, “I’m just tired of participating in the same kinds of flirtatious dialogue. I want to explore what it’s like to play as me.”

Of course, that seems rather idiotic in retrospect: I was supposed to be playing a character. I was supposed to be playing as Henry. The Henry that I would have been would have tried to have different conversations about the world. My favourite parts were when they talked about the environment and explored the history of Two Forks. Maybe, I thought, I should try to get into the dialogue more and respond to Delilah as I saw my partner respond.

Except that, as Meer points out, there are opportunities to alter the trajectory of the conversation. The player can choose to say nothing, to let conversations hang, or choose text that is more straight-forward. I explored more, but stumbled a little, less streamlined. My mastery of the game’s mechanics was more sluggish; the pacing for my communication was slower, too. I wasn’t great at reading the map, but I didn’t mind that. It became stressful, though, every time I saw the timer in the corner of my radio icon, every time I accidentally went to the wrong cliff and couldn’t climb down. I ended up surrendering the controller completely. My partner asked if I was sure I didn’t want to play. But I honestly felt that there was no space for me in that play through. Maybe there is no space for me at all in this game, and that’s okay, but I’d like to figure out why.

 

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Screenshot of Firewatch by Kyle McKenney <http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2016/02/08/firewatch-review/

It’s not that Delilah isn’t cool – she is! But the player’s agency is aligned with Henry’s, so my own projection into the game was based on Henry rather than Delilah. As the game progresses, so does their relationship, regardless of the player’s choices. I noticed that when the player had an opportunity to bring up Julia, the tempo of the conversations changed. Delilah and Henry spoke with more serious, kinder, and empathetic tones. Inevitably, however, the conversation slips away from the player and back into the more romantic narrative.

But, you might notice the picture of you and Julia is tipped over, and keeps getting tipped over. You might notice your ring is missing. You might choose not to put it back on.

My experience with Firewatch was alienating. I loved the game so much, but felt strongly that there was no place for me in it. There is nothing wrong with that, and it’s not that creating a sub-narrative for Julia or for Delilah would have changed the story to better include someone like me. I think that it would have made the game less intimate and the story less compelling if there had been a shift in the character you play.

 

In Firewatch, I feel as though I am playing a fantasy – and not just Henry’s, more like a male fantasy. There is an unseen woman who I can interact with; I control my responses to her and they come out as infinitely witty; the attraction is reciprocal or not at all, and I am in control of that; I am isolated and free to explore the space of Two Forks without being held back by mortal danger (there is no accidental death possible for the character in the game); I can choose whether or not to remember the pressures and pains of the life I left; my position, my subjectivity is secure.

And then suddenly, it’s revealed that the characters in the game have been monitored – you have been monitored. The conversations between Delilah and Henry have been written down, enjoyed, scrutinized, and studied by someone else. The fantasy, originally an individual’s idyllic escape, becomes threatened. As the threat spreads and gives form to the death of a boy and his father’s escape, the fantasy begins to erode. First, there is a contained fire, and then a second at the Wapiti site. Henry’s fantasy is interrupted by continuous external forces of reality (like the two girls setting off fireworks), representative of things outside of his control. Finally, the second fire gets out of control and destroys any potential for the fantasy to continue. In wish fulfillment, the story goes that once you get what you want, you no longer want it. If we imagine that the fire is representative of Henry’s repression of reality, then the fire is there as a violent return of the repressed and the end of fantasy.

 

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Firewatch Screenshot, Campo Santo <www.firewatchgame.com>

I am reminded that the majority of games allow me to experience a fundamentally man’s fantasy and the male gaze. And even though this game complicates that, it is still a male fantasy. What would it look like to make space for alternative fantasies alongside Henry’s?

The relationship between Henry and Delilah is complicated and I think this complication is a remarkable one for video games. Relationships are messy, at times difficult or contradictory – even friendships. Both the game’s and Meer’s exploration of that complication is, for me, really beautiful and important. It should have nothing to do with one’s morality. It doesn’t matter what is “good” or “bad” about the choices a player makes in Firewatch. What matters is that the game motivates players to engage emotionally with a character, and that engagement in turn, can affect the player outside of the game. It’s more interesting to wonder why players make the choices that they do and really cool to think about what those choices mean afterwards.

The emotional engagement in Firewatch challenges us to wonder about relationships, friendships, boundaries, and fantasies. Firewatch’s writers and Meer’s article suggests that indeed a fictional world, a digital game, may provides a reality check of one’s own life. It’s possible to feel confusion, attraction, jealousy, fear. It’s possible to experience projection, or to watch someone else project themselves.

I think my partner knew I felt uncomfortable, and maybe chose different paths because I was present. I feel sad when I think about that and I worry about addressing the feeling of alienation at all. We talked about my experience of the game afterward, and it helped a lot. I’m not worried about goodness because that adds nothing to the conversation of respect, love, complications, and problems. I’m more interested in questions like: what do we do when we become conscious of these complications? What do our fantasies reveal for us? What do the fantasies in games provide for us? Where do I belong in this game? How do other folks who can’t identify with Henry feel when they play this game? Would I want someone to choose a heavier life if they could escape it? Can we have more conversations about complex relationships? What would my fantasy in Firewatch look like? (Spoiler: a lot more animals.)

P.S. I’m so sorry that the images are all from secondary sources – I don’t have access to the screenshots on my laptop.

P.P.S. I do absolutely think it’s wonderful to have conversations and I am lucky enough that my partner and I do get to talk about difficult stuff! It kicks ass (mostly).

 

 

 

Undertale Thought Mash

 

When I played Undertale, I played it on live-stream with an audience and with a very special person – a guide. My guide (Messiahforhire) reminded me to call Toriel at every new screen, to buy multiple hot dogs, and to pet dogs till their heads expanded off the screen. Without Messiahforhire guiding me, it’s likely I would have missed a large chunk of the game. Maybe Messiahforhire didn’t anticipate that I would play in pacifist mode, but that mode of gameplay came naturally to me. When I started SOMA, I chased the dinosaur-monster-robot I found in one of the first levels thinking that maybe it was just misunderstood…

 

Pacifist mode is achieved by playing the entire game without killing any of the monsters, and by befriending Papyrus, Undyne, and Alphys. If you’d like to learn more about the different Undertale modes and how to achieve their endings, you can read this post!

I play a wide variety of games, though I tend to focus predominantly on horror and games made by smaller teams, studios, and artists. It’s becoming more rare that I’ll maintain interest in a game and want to explore and complete the game thoroughly. Undertale captured my interest right away – I was so invested in the game that I couldn’t wait to stream it to so I could play more!

Rather than share a more formal analysis on my feelings and experience with Undertale, I thought I’d build on the format of Michael Lutz’s spectacular 20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique. Warning: there are spoilers!

  • Each encounter, character, and event in Undertale felt genuine for me: genuinely funny; genuinely strange; genuinely empathetic.
  • This feeling of genuineness is important: it marks a difference between games that play at diversity and games that truly speak *with* diversity. There is an alarming trend to play dress up in the name of diversity, especially in games and tech. Undertale is NOT playing dress up and this is one of my favourite parts of this game.
  • Many folks have spoken about the conflict of interest between playing Undertale with information with a guide or spoilers and how that shapes the game, and the game as it would have been played devoid of any supplementary info.
  • Having Messiahforhire as a guide structured my play differently, but this is not a problem for me. There are times when anxiety, attention to audience interaction, or simply not having enough attention span influences how much exploration I’ll have in a game. Guides (sometimes as a single guide and sometimes as multiple people in chat) often help me when I need to Stay Determined. This is most helpful for me in horror games…
  • The way that, what I will call the guide function, operates in my live-stream is often through consent: people will first ask me if I want to know how to do something and then offer assistance (it’s awesome).
  • However, Undertale is straight-forward in how pressing the role of authorial intent is. Lutz points this out in paragraphs 10, 13, 14.
  • Combat is ambiguous and this causes frustration when each action could potentially harm the monsters or seemingly stop the story from continuing. The fight with Asgore is an example (also, omg my heart during that fight!).
  • Purchasing items in the game is almost entirely about the characters that will benefit from your exchange: Temmie can go to college (sidenote: I have never ever loved anything as much as I love Temmie); spiders get to have bake sales; Bratty and Catty get their wares from the garbage dump (but don’t worry, it’s a good dump). These exchanges, more about the characters than the goods, makes the economy of the game less about weapons and more about uncovering relationships.
  • So is Undertale’s economic system a market economy? Difficult to say… The majority of purchasable items varies from Glamburgers and Torn Notebooks to an Empty Gun (which still does damage). The most powerful weapons appear to be weapons you find rather than purchase, and belong to the monster who leans most heavily towards violence as a solution to the human condition.
  • Flowey is one of the best-written characters in that game; petals down. But there is a point where, as I was being battered over and over again (in my most favourite boss sequence of maybe all time) that I realized that this is an *actual* problem for real-life me: I do not fight back.
  • Like so many, I have experienced different forms of abuse.  By rewarding the player for being patient – no matter what – the game unintentionally reinforces patterns of abuse: accept being attacked; “spare” the attacker; repeat a few times, receive reward of having the attacker return to a state of introspection and, ultimately, (platonic) love.
  • “Not fighting back” is crucial to the success of Undertale’s pacifist mode. You are rewarded only after being attacked and (often) killed over and over. I’m not sure how I feel about this as the only means of achieving positive reinforcement in the game.
  • I had/have a channel slogan now called #BurnAllFlowers that my friends chanted with me to help me overcome the ultimate Flowey fight, but when it came time for me to actually harm Flowey, I couldn’t. We still chant #BurnAllFlowers even though I never will.
  • There is something lurking here, relating to (psycho)analysis, projection, and desire. In some ways, I can imagine that the player is a patient in a psychotherapy session, and Frisk, meant to be a projection of the patient, acts more like a projection of the analyst instead. I’ll follow this part up with more on psychoanalysis in another article.
  • I wonder who the ideal player is in Undertale … Was it me? I had so much personal investment in the game and love everything about the game. But, if there is a motive behind the learned ethical code in Undertale’s pacifist play, what motive is that?
  • Is it even possible for me to play Undertale in murder mode? I highly doubt it. But what I wonder is what the benefit of that exploration would have been; to wipe the slate clean and approach the game from a different gameplay perspective may have alleviated pressures to act in certain ways and indeed to confront the monsters lurking underneath (I’ll see myself out).
  • Is the game (ethically) unplayable in murder mode as Lutz’s points suggest? It is troubling to think that the answer is “maybe.” And if it is playable, who is it playable for?