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Jess on our GGJ 2017 experience
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.
I’ve been wanting to write a post about Brechtian influences on DomPam2 for a while now, but with trying to wrap up course work this semester and dealing with other life things, it’s been hard to focus on things that don’t have immediate deadlines. My general stress level has, in part, been heightened by last month’s US election, which affects us here in Canada pretty significantly, even though I honestly am glad to be back.
In times like these, I believe it’s more important than ever for artists to engage with politics in their work, even as some folks seem to get all bothered about it. “Artists are supposed to make people smile, not think.” “Games are supposed to be fun.” That sort of thing. And, well, sure, what I want to do is not going to make me popular or garner me a lot of Steam sales, because most people who play videogames seem to want to have fun and feel good, at least as I understand it.1 And yet, I’m at a point where I can’t not make games that express the things I’m thinking and feeling.
So, Brecht. I first encountered Bertolt Brecht‘s work sometime after I released DomPam1, when people much smarter and more well-read than me started comparing it to The Threepenny Opera, and Weimar Germany-era cabaret theatre in general. So, of course, I eventually started to look into the stuff I was being compared to, and found it resonated with me in a big way. I mean, gee, I can’t imagine why, in this current political climate, I’d find a lot in common with a playwright who worked during the rise of fascism pre-WWII, but there you have it.
A cheesy sports game lampooning the idea of the “oppression olympics”, a term used to describe when people of different marginalized groups “compete” against each other in order to prove who’s more oppressed. For best results, gather together some friends around a single keyboard and button-mash as fast as you can. Made for GAMERella 2016 with Jess Marcotte and Sarah Fay Girard.
I feel like there’s a misconception among well-intentioned games people that to promote diversity in games, the goal ought to be to make a game that everyone can enjoy. While it’s a goal that sounds nice in theory, in practice, it tends to result in bland, uninteresting games that don’t really speak to anyone in particular. I personally feel that what we should really be doing is making more games for people who don’t typically have games made for them.
One of the most frequently repeated criticisms of DomPam1 was, in fact, that it wasn’t a game for everyone.1 To this day, I’m still frequently confused as to why this is even a bad thing: the vast majority of videogames in existence — the vast majority of works in any medium, even — are not for me, and I learned that lesson pretty early on in life. It occurs to me, however, that some folks do in fact go through life assuming that their tastes are universal, particularly those for whom the constructed “gamer” identity is a perfect fit. That is to say, if you play videogames, there are very particular reasons why you like videogames, and very particular games you hold up as gold standards for the medium. Generally speaking, you enjoy smooth-feeling gameplay that makes you feel empowered and as if your choices actually matter, and you like having impressive production values to go with that.
So, I’ve leaked a few teasers here and there, but in case you weren’t aware of them: yes, I am indeed officially working on the sequel to Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” — which will be called Dominique Pamplemousse and Dominique Pamplemousse in: “Combinatorial Explosion!”
Full disclosure: I kind of hate sequels. I especially hate the idea of being obligated to write them. When the first DomPam game exploded and people started to ask me if there was going to be a sequel, I’d either groan audibly or joke that sure, I’d make a sequel, but it would be an angsty Twine game about my feelings, or something equally far-fetched. As far as I was concerned back then, I’d already written the story I wanted to write the first time around, and there was no point in continuing it.
But then, sometime last year, I got an idea. I was at WordPlay, and Sherwin Tija1 was giving a talk about his “You Are A Cat!” gamebook series. He stated that if you write a story with multiple endings, and you then decide to write a sequel to said story, then it logically follows that you have to choose one of your multiple endings as the canon endings. And then I started thinking, hey wait a minute, what if you didn’t have to choose? In fact, what if the entire plot to a sequel involved being confused about which ending was canon?
So, I started thinking about Dominique again. Regardless of my feelings towards its completeness, a lot of things have happened in my life in the intervening 3-4 years since making it, which I now want to address. As it happens, my current PhD research is on autobiographical games, and while DomPam is not explicitly autobiographical, it has enough of my lived experience in it that it feels very formative to who I am as a person.2
The premise, therefore, is that since the first game had two endings, the sequel features two versions of Dominique, one from each alternate timeline. And so, they wind up wandering around in search of answers to the question of which one of them is canon, while encountering a number of wacky characters and situations in the process. I hope you find it as fun as I do.
Stay tuned for more writing about my design process, including thoughts on Brechtian alienation and stand-up comedy!
A two-player physical game about greeting rituals and the awkwardness they sometimes produce. Each pair of players is asked to perform a set of procedurally-generated instructions for greeting one another, then taken to a page where they receive procedurally-generated feedback on how well (or poorly) they executed the greeting. Made for Global Game Jam 2016 with Jess Marcotte.
A few weeks ago, I had my first solo gallery exhibition of my games at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. It went from October 26 – November 16, and the works featured were Dominique Pamplemousse, Coffee: A Misunderstanding, Interruption Junction, Tentacles Growing Everywhere, Quing’s Quest, Conversations We Have In My Head, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge.