My IndieCade 2015 Talk: Why People Matter

Here is the full text of a talk I performed at the IndieCade festival today, as part of the “Why ___ Matters” panel. Accompanying melancholy music is here.

I don’t think I would have ever made a game if I didn’t know there were going to be people out there who wanted to play it.

I mean, sure, when you talk about why you make games, you’re supposed to say it’s because you intrinsically love the process of making games. Which I do, honestly, and I have for the last 15 years or so. But the existence of a community of people wanting to play what I made was the thing that pushed me from just tinkering around to actually finishing a game.

As is true of any other artform, game-making is fundamentally communicative. When you make a game, you need players. Sometimes, these players are other game-makers; other times, just regular people who stumbled upon your work somewhere, but either way, your game doesn’t truly come to life unless and until someone else interacts with it.

My game-making practice is, to this day, heavily informed by every review, blog post, forum post, and tweet written about my work — the very proof that what I’ve created doesn’t exist in a vacuum and people have, in fact, played it and had an emotional reaction to it.

This is especially important since most of the games I make are things I work on by myself. I spend all these weeks, months, and sometimes years on a project, practically isolated from the outside, so those moments when I can show what I’ve done to the world become even more necessary.

I want to talk about why I tend to work alone. I’ve preferred working alone as long as I can remember; when I was a kid, I hated doing group projects for school. You’d think that it would be easier, because that way, you get to divide up the workload, but what always happened in practice was that I would feel like I was either doing too much of the work or too little of it. But more importantly, like it wasn’t my own anymore, and like I no longer had control over it. At least if I turned in a project I worked on by myself, whatever grade I got for it was my own fault.

Of course, making games is different, but in a way, it feels even more important that I have control, because what’s at stake is way more than just a grade.

I always used to think this is because I’m not very good at being a people person, which I suppose could be true to an extent. People are strange, difficult, messy creatures — and no, I don’t exclude myself. But I’ve realised it’s something deeper than that.

Having grown up without media representations of people like me, I learned to internalise the idea that my stories and opinions weren’t important, and no one wanted to hear them. In a collaborative setting, I would default to allowing other people’s ideas to take precedence over mine; it felt easier than sticking up for my own ideas and risking being shot down for them.

Working alone was what actually let me develop my own voice. It was a slow, gradual process; I started out by basically copying the kinds of games I grew up with, and later on, started figuring out what it was that I wanted to say, and what I could contribute to games that no one else could.

And now? I’m not only known, but institutionally recognised, for making very personal games. In some ways, it happened practically overnight for me: it’s like I was just a nobody for 10 years, and then I released Dominique Pamplemousse and suddenly it got nominated for all these awards, and now I’m like some famous indie person, apparently.

You know, the funny thing about impostor syndrome is, even when you know it’s a thing, and that it’s really common and lots of people feel that way, you don’t actually stop feeling like an impostor.

You’re used to being just a person, but now, you have status. Status you aren’t entirely sure how you got, or whether you even deserve it, and yet it’s there. And now your relationship to your community is that of a leader, because all these people suddenly look up to you. And you kind of want to shake them and scream, you shouldn’t be looking up to me; I’m just a regular person!

Even then, once we have status, it’s funny how scared we get of having that status taken away. Like, this year, I submitted three games to IndieCade and none of them got accepted into the festival. And then, I kind of freaked out. I was like, oh god, have I already peaked? Is this the part where everyone decides to ignore me from here on out because that’s what they do to one-hit wonders?

And yet, I wouldn’t change a thing about the games I submitted, because they said exactly what I needed them to say and did exactly what I needed them to do. And if what you want to say with a game at a particular time isn’t popular because it makes people uncomfortable, or isn’t something they quite understand just yet, or just doesn’t blow people away with amazing tech… well, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go back and make your message more palatable.

Like I said earlier, I make games for people, but making games for people doesn’t mean only giving them what they want. It means challenging them. It means expanding their idea of what a game can be. And not everyone’s going to understand, but some people will. And those people make it all worthwhile.

And honestly, if I really think about it? In the grand scheme of things, being recognised by a community isn’t really that important, because communities come and go. It’s the people you meet along the way who matter most, the ones you know are going to stay with you even after they fade away from the particular scene where you originally met. The people who’ll maybe still make games, or write about games, or maybe do something else with their lives that’s just as cool.

I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have known several of these people: some I first met as early as 15 years ago, others just last year. People I’ve shared rooms with at conferences, or who’ve let me sleep on their couches when I’ve passed through their city. People I’ve had amazing long conversations with over food or drinks. People who’ve seen me go through a gender transition, and who I’ve seen go through their own major life changes, and yet who still remain constants. That stuff means way more to me than how many award nominations I get for my games, or however many people follow me on Twitter at any given point in time or whatever.

It’s easy to lose sight of this sort of thing sometimes, when we’re all in the middle of the glitz and glamour of the giant indie games hype machine. But it’s good to remember that if you peel back all the layers, there’s something real behind it all.

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