Goodbye, grad school: on quitting my PhD

As of this summer, I am no longer a PhD student.

A lot of factors went into this decision, but the pickle I was in really started to show itself last winter, when no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get anywhere with the dissertation proposal I was supposed to be writing. I did pretty well in my coursework and passed my comprehensive exams, but somehow, this particular step, where one has ostensibly proven their knowledge in their subject areas of expertise and finally has a chance to focus on their own work, just had me spinning in circles.

What is now obvious to me but wasn’t at the time was that I was going through severe burnout, and it had been happening for months, if not years. I hadn’t finished any new games for an entire year. My ability to concentrate and make anything resembling long-term plans had completely diminished, and I was flaking out on a lot of personal and professional commitments. I wasn’t the most depressed I’d ever been, but my faith in the quality of my work was at an all-time low, and since I have historically derived a lot of my self-worth from the work I do, that definitely took a significant hit.

On one hand, my inability to thrive in an environment as hypercompetitive and uncaring as academia seemed inevitable. A part of me was aware of this from the start, and I tried my best to protect myself by treating grad school as nothing more than a badly-paying job and claiming that I wasn’t married to the idea of becoming a tenure-track professor. But I did enjoy my master’s program, for the most part, and hoped that I could mould my PhD to work in a similar way. Making weird art games in an environment of supportive peers and mentors felt like the best possible job I could ask for, and justifying it as “research-creation” felt like an easy enough way to convince an academic institution to let me do just that.

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Robot Slow Dance

A two-player animatronic diorama game contained entirely inside of a briefcase. Reminiscent of a cuter version of “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots”, players control a pair of robots who, rather than fighting each other, slow dance to a MIDI version of a popular 80s song and have an awkwardly flirty procedurally-generated conversation about robot-related topics. It is not intended to be a game anyone can “win” so much as a silly, playful exploration of the queerness of non-human relationships, very much inspired by my own confusing experiences of trying to date while neurodivergent and trans.

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The games I didn’t finish making this year

It’s about that time of year when people like to start making year-in-review posts of various kinds, and I have to admit: while I did have a lot going on in 2018, I feel like I have very little to show for it, especially in a game-making sense. So, in the spirit of queer failure, here are some games I started working on in 2018 but didn’t get around to finishing.

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RIP Telltale Games

Yesterday, I learned that the first game studio I ever worked for shut down.

Admittedly, I’ve been paying little attention to Telltale’s output over the last several years. I stopped buying their games around the time their incredibly mediocre Back to the Future adaptation came out, though I did once get to present a trophy to some of my former co-workers when their critically acclaimed zombie game won awards at GDC.

But back in 2006, as a young computer science student with an obsession with a special interest in point-and-click adventure games from the nineties, working for Telltale, the new studio where the people who used to work on adventure games at LucasArts all went, was kind of a dream job. So, I cold-emailed asking for an internship, showing off a game I made for fun back in high school, and they were impressed enough with my enthusiasm that they actually hired me.

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What happens after your game gets nominated for IGF awards

You don’t really believe it. This has got to be a dream, right? Your game wasn’t THAT good, was it? Oh no, your Twitter’s blowing up. All your friends are congratulating you. You feel momentarily self-important, but the feeling then gets overshadowed by how guilty you feel for your self-importance.

You struggle to figure out who to invite to your VIP table. You have all these seats to fill, given that tables like these are meant for actual games studios with actual teams. In the end, you put out an open call on social media, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. The people who take you up on it are grateful, sometimes effusively so. Some of them even bring glowsticks.

You discover firsthand the sensory hell of the expo floor, now that you’re actually forced to be there. You field questions from baffled business dudes who don’t understand how you would monetize something like this. (That is, after they go up to chat with the cis dude friends you asked to help out at your booth, who have to explain to the business dudes that um, actually you, and only you, were the one who made this game, yes, all of it, even the programming.)

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you used to be someone

You have no idea how long it’s been since you last set foot outside your cramped little apartment. You don’t really talk to anyone. You can’t focus on work. You barely have any appetite to speak of, literally and figuratively. Even casually reading Twitter makes you anxious.

Somehow, you thought moving to a new city would help you meet people you actually like. That you’d find fun activities to do and better opportunities all around. You used to be pretty good at faking your way around being a social butterfly. People actually seemed to like you, and the stuff you made and performed. But now? You can’t even remember being that person.

Maybe you should go outside. Maybe it will help.

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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.

Scattered thoughts on QGCon 2017

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 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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Dominique Pamplemousse and Dominique Pamplemousse in “Combinatorial Explosion!”

In this sequel to 2013’s breakout musical hit, Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!”, our favourite genderqueer private detective discovers that, through the power of multiple endings from the previous game, they have been cloned! Join the two Dominiques as they traverse surreal locations and interrogate increasingly bizarre characters in order to answer a very important question: which one of them is canon?

There is also plenty of singing. And feelings. And, of course, singing about feelings.

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