Montreal, for boring old white people: a report on two walking tour experiences

The following is an essay I wrote for a graduate seminar I am currently taking called “Performative Dramaturgies”. I thought it would make for an interesting blog post, so I’m reposting it here.

This year is the 375th anniversary of Montreal — the number alone being an indicator of the centring of white European settler-colonialists rather than the First Nations people who lived on this land for considerably longer — and with it comes a great deal of funding for celebratory installations and performances around the city. Among these are guided walking tours taking place in particular neighbourhoods of Montreal, two of which I have experienced for myself. The first, “Paul à Montréal”, is set in the Plateau-Mont-Royal, and the second, “Cité Mémoire”, is located in Old Montreal.

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you used to be someone – design goals

you used to be someone is a work in progress about my experiences with depression. It entails going for a solitary walk at night in an attempt to alleviate restlessness and agitation, frequenting the kinds of spaces that stay open late: bars, convenience stores, laundromats, fast food restaurants, etc. while at the same time feeling unable to meaningfully interact with others in these spaces.

This game, contrary to my other works, is a first-person 3D game, but one that features a collage art style wherein cut-out pieces of public domain photographs on 2D planes are assembled in 3D space. Combined with the first-person camera, this creates a distorting effect when moving around the space: from certain angles, objects look three-dimensional, but from others, it becomes obvious that they are actually flat. The effect is intended to convey feelings of disorientation and distance, invoking a sense of dreamlike hyperrealism.

Additionally, the use of the first-person camera and controls is a very deliberate choice on my part. As a player, I have found that first-person shooter interfaces in particular are very disorienting — they are likely to make me motion sick, and the frequent experience of looking down and seeing body parts that belong to a white cis man (i.e. what society sees as a “default human”) is also very strange to me. However, as the standard first-person game interface is seen as intuitive for players who are accustomed to the control scheme, I find it important to deviate from it somewhat. In you used to be someone, the camera is only controlled by directional input (WASD or arrow keys) whereas “mouselook” is disabled; instead, the mouse behaves as it would in a 2D point-and-click game. I am additionally interested in experimenting with different control peripherals, such as an arcade joystick and trackball, or completely custom controls, in order to fine-tune a balance between slight disorientation vs. complete inaccessibility. My end goal is to create a user interface that is equally unfamiliar to most players, in the sense of not giving seasoned first-person game players an advantage, but one that is at least navigable for those who don’t normally play games.

As this is a game based on my lived experience, I would consider it autobiographical, but in a more abstract than representational sense. For instance, the architecture of the cramped apartment and city street in this game are not directly modelled after any actual apartment I have lived in or any street through which I have walked, so much as they are designed to represent my feelings in these kinds of spaces. I have dreams in which I am in familiar spaces but the architecture is very different: there are extra rooms, the layouts are all jumbled, and even the building materials and lighting are different. A major depressive episode, in its own way, can be a state of un-reality with dream-like qualities, in that it is different from one’s “normal” state of being.

Finally, I want to stress that you used to be someone is not going to be “a game about depression”, but instead a game about how I, personally, experience depression. Unlike works such as Depression Quest, which aim to generalize the experience of clinical depression, I aim to be very specific. I am interested in eventually comparing and contrasting audience reactions to specificity vs. generality in experience when it comes to autobiographical games, but that may be a forthcoming project for when I have a more established data set to draw from.

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Scattered thoughts on QGCon 2017

Cross-posted to ReFiG (Refiguring Innovation in Games), who sponsored my writeup as well as my trip to this year’s QGCon.

Early this month, the Queerness and Games Conference took place at the University of Southern California. This was the fourth time the conference was held, and the third for which I was a co-organizer. Aside from my usual organizer duties, I gave a microtalk and had two games on display in the QGCon Arcade: DomPam2 (which is still on sale until the end of the month) and The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter (which my collaborator, Jess, wrote a lot about here).

Here are some scattered thoughts on this year’s incarnation of QGCon:

This was the first year we held the conference in LA instead of Berkeley. It made sense to move it because most of us organizers are no longer based in or near the San Francisco Bay Area. There was a lot I missed in terms of the change in location — USC is not as centrally located to food and other amenities as Berkeley, and we ended up having an unfortunate issue with campus security that made our Saturday night karaoke party less well attended than usual. We’ve been floating around the idea of moving QGCon to different locations every year (I keep rooting for Montreal, of course, and not just because I live here now) but everything’s still up in the air for the moment. Stay tuned, I guess!

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QGCon 2017: falling in love in a cyberpunk dystopia

Below is the text of a talk I gave at last weekend’s Queerness and Games conference, as part of a microtalk series on the topic of “Out of Sheer Spite”, moderated by Kris Ligman.

This time last year, I went through the worst major depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Up until then, I’d experienced periods of what I thought was depression, but could really be more described as melancholy. This time around, however, was a complete, utter breakdown. I’d alternate between states of heightened anxiety and uncontrollable crying spells. I lost my appetite. I had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t even write code without having to stop because I was too anxious.

I’ve known how to program since I was ten, to give you an idea of how drastic that was for me.

I’d moved to Montreal at the beginning of the year, eager to have a few months to myself to live alone in a tiny apartment and make some games while living off my savings, waiting to start my PhD in September. For as long as I can remember, I would have given anything for unstructured time where I didn’t have to work for a living and could just make art for a while.

Unfortunately, my brain had other ideas.

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DomPam2 release!

I’m super proud to announce that I’ve now completed the long-awaited sequel to Dominique Pamplemousse! I can’t believe it’s already been exactly four years since I released the first game. A lot has happened in the intervening time: I went to grad school, came out publicly as queer and nonbinary, changed my name and pronouns, got nominated for a bunch of awards, showed my work at art exhibitions, and survived in the midst of many catastrophes, both on a personal and a global scale.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m offering both DomPam games for sale at pay-what-you-want with a minimum of $4 (or $2 each). Proceeds from this sale will go towards me getting top surgery (specifically, a radical breast reduction), a long-awaited important transitional step in helping me feel more at home in my body.

Anyhow, do head on over to itch.io to buy the game. Hope you enjoy it!

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Two collaborative physical/digital hybrid projects

Along with the time I’m spending finishing off DomPam2, I’ve also been working on a couple of games with my good friend, fellow Concordia PhD student, and now-frequent collaborator, Jess Marcotte.

The first game is The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, which we call “a radically soft suitcase game about emotional labour and otherness”. You can find out more about it here, including upcoming events where we’ll be showing it.

The second game is rustle your leaves to me softly, an ASMR plant dating sim that we prototyped during Global Game Jam 2017 last January. Jess wrote a more in-depth post about it on their blog.

As you can imagine, I’ve been super swamped this semester and terrible about blogging lately as a result. I’ll be making some more exciting announcements soon, though, so hopefully that’ll change!

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CHESS FOR MEN: a game for Pippin Barr

This past semester, I took a class in Player Studies, where one of the assignments was to study one particular player and then design a game specifically for them. When I was given this assignment, I thought it would be especially fun to use another game designer as my test subject. I chose to work with the renowned Pippin Barr, not only because I’ve admired his work for a long time, but also because he happens to work in the same game lab as me and was therefore easily accessible.

What I found when playing games with Pippin was that there was a difference between the games that he designs versus the games he enjoys playing. Pippin’s design style is short, to the point, and “jokey”, with a low-fi aesthetic; he is perhaps best known for adapting the works of contemporary artist Marina Abramović into games, which really says it all. The games he enjoys playing, on the other hand, range from masocore (e.g. Terry Cavanagh‘s work) to lushly-rendered exploratory “walking simulator” games (e.g. everything by The Chinese Room). Another game we ended up playing together was chess, which we both played when we were younger, then stopped — though Pippin did take it up again recently, via play-by-mail with a long-distance friend. While we were playing, and as he was about to win, he uttered the following phrase:

“I’m not very good at winning games… actually, I guess I’m not very good at games at all.”

This both intrigued and inspired me. What is it about winning games that would make someone uncomfortable? Moreover, how can I, as a designer, enhance this discomfort? In contrast to the idea of a masocore game that is so difficult that constantly losing is part of the fun, what if the game were ridiculously easy, and the accolades you got for winning then felt completely and utterly meaningless? Moreover, what if the way to play and win the game was to be a complete, utter sociopath?

The result was that I made a game called CHESS FOR MEN, which you can play here.

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