SECOND PUBERTY and the future…

First: the game is out now! Go play it!

Second, an announcement: now that the game is finished, I’m going to be closing my personal Patreon. The reason for this is so I can focus on my work with Soft Chaos, which officially became a worker co-op just this year. For updates on what my teammates and I will be up to going forward, you can subscribe and support us over at Comradery, a new democratically-owned crowdfunding platform that aligns with our collective values.

As I said in a post I just uploaded over there: “It’s a weird time to be starting a new game studio, and in spite of all our planning and hard work just getting the basic bureaucracy of everything settled, none of us have any idea what’s going to happen or how things are going to go. But at the very least, we’re all in it together, and for the first time in my very long and winding game development career, I feel like I’m actually part of something bigger than just myself.”

SECOND PUBERTY #6: You wake up from a long, dark sleep

Here it is, folks: the penultimate SECOND PUBERTY game. Only one more to go after this! Aaaaaah!

I started working on “You wake up from a long, dark sleep” shortly after getting my first COVID vaccine, and finished it right before getting my second one. I’ve been feeling a lot more hopeful than I have been in what feels like a very long time, but there’s also this undercurrent of ambivalence given how traumatizing the past year has been. While I’m noticing that I’m having more good days than bad ones, thanks to an increase in sunlight and the occasional in-person socializing I’ve had access to, the bad days are still really hard.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m feeling awful, my thoughts go to deep, existential places, ruminating on how broken our sociopolitical economic structures are and how doomed everything and everyone is. When I’m feeling better, it’s not like I’m able to convince myself that everything’s fine; I’m way too cynical for that. But I am a lot more likely to just allow myself to enjoy simpler pleasures, like going for a nighttime walk in the cool summer air, or petting my cat, or – going back to the original theme of this album – feeling at peace in my body now that I’ve been able to medically transition.

Everything is still weird, chaotic, nonsensical, and hard to navigate, but as you persist, it gets a little easier to find your way around and maybe even see some beauty in the chaos. At least, that’s what I’ve tried to convey, and I hope I did so effectively.

As always, support me on Patreon if you want to play this and the other SECOND PUBERTY games before they officially get released.

SECOND PUBERTY #5: please don’t leave me.

Welp, I did it. I made another SECOND PUBERTY game. Five down, two to go. This one’s called “please don’t leave me.” and you can play it now if you’re a Patreon supporter.

It may be hard to tell from the 20-second preview, but this has actually been the most emotionally difficult game I’ve worked on for the album. Yes, it’s a game representing a romantic relationship, but no, it won’t turn out to be a particularly healthy relationship. It’s a little bit inspired by indie “art games” made almost 15 years ago by straight white cis men, like Passage and The Marriage, but, well, it’s about my own experiences.

I don’t want to say much more than that, except: I have been both the blue blob and the red blob in different situations. I have a lot of regrets and I’ve carried a lot of hurt and shame since, but making this game has been healing, especially at a time I’ve been feeling more isolated than ever. There’s something about abstracting a set of experiences into a playable system that has inspired me to think about what happened in a different way from if I were just trying to tell a linear story: if I understand the unhealthy patterns that got me here, maybe I can find a way out. And maybe other people will be able to relate.

SECOND PUBERTY #4: Dance Dance Validation!

Today, I’m emerging from this most terrible winter to announce that I have somehow managed to finish another SECOND PUBERTY game. It’s called “Dance Dance Validation!” and it looks and sounds something like this:

As always, support me on Patreon if you want to play it and the three other SECOND PUBERTY games now; otherwise, just wait for the whole thing to be done. Only three more games left!

“Dance Dance Validation!” is a dancing game, but not a rhythm game. It’s more of a virtual puppeteering game. The more you dance, the more layers of music and visuals appear, and if you stop dancing, they gradually start to disappear. On a more conceptual level, it’s about how I learned how to get people to like me by becoming good at performing. It’s also about how I found out that there are limits to this kind of approach to getting people to like you: performing gets very exhausting after a while, and there really is such a thing as too much attention and exposure.

I used to think I wanted to get famous. I thought being admired by a following of fans for being talented at something would counteract the constant aching loneliness I felt for being different. On the surface, it sort of worked: whenever I stood up in front of an audience and spoke, or made a videogame that a lot of people liked, or played or sang a song I’d been practicing for a while, or composed the perfect tweet, people were nice to me, which sure was better than the alternative. But as I would later learn, becoming famous for something is no real substitute for actual emotional connection with other people. I never really wanted fans; I wanted friends.

This is one of the reasons why a lot of my work and focus in recent years had been drifting out of digital spaces and into smaller, more localized physical spaces: that feeling of presence and connection with other human beings has become more and more important to me, especially given that my body has been gradually transitioning into a form where I feel way more comfortable living in it. Sadly, we are still in the middle of a pandemic and in-person activities and events are still on hold and everything is still online and weirder than ever. Like I said, it’s been a terrible winter. But hey, at least I made this game?

SECOND PUBERTY #3: An Introvert goes to a Party

I’ve now completed the third SECOND PUBERTY game, which I have named “An Introvert goes to a Party”. Once again, you can play it if you’re a Patreon supporter, or watch a 20-second preview for free:

Another bit of good news: SECOND PUBERTY is now being funded in part by the Pixelles Creator Fund! Exciting!

So… parties, remember those? The bigger and louder and more crowded they are, the more I hate them, and the more I complain about how much I hate them. Even when they’re not so big and not so crowded, they still take a lot out of me. So, you’d think that in These Unprecedented Times™ where big crowded parties can no longer happen, I’d be relieved, or at least indifferent. And for a while, I was, don’t get me wrong. But then I started to miss them.

The thing is, I actually like people, even though it’s often hard to be around them for prolonged periods of time. Many people who call themselves introverts seem to be content with not really having a lot of friends, but I love having a broad social circle full of interesting people I have good conversations with on occasion but don’t necessarily feel the need to actively keep up with on a regular basis. And pre-pandemic, I would do most of my in-person socializing at regularly-held events (whether weekly, monthly, or annually) centred around a particular shared interest or activity, and then collapse at home afterwards and become a hermit for however long it took me to have energy again. This has been one of the hardest things for me to lose as many public health guidelines have instructed us to keep our social contacts confined to those with whom we share a household. At this point in time, my household consists of just myself and my cat, as that’s all I can realistically handle on a day-to-day basis.

In retrospect, I have always had to balance my fascination with other people against my particular combination of sensory sensitivities and general social cluelessness that has since been confirmed to qualify me for an autism diagnosis. I was very young when I first started to notice that most other kids found me weird and annoying, so I learned instead how to be quiet and unobtrusive. Eventually, keeping a low enough profile allowed me access into social spaces where I could act as an invisible “fly on the wall” of sorts: I would spend a lot of time observing and trying to make sense of the chaotic and overwhelming noise of other people socializing, in an attempt to understand how to do it myself, all the while fighting off a gradually increasing awful feeling of sensory overload that I could eventually learn to tolerate for longer periods of time but never completely eradicate. Eventually, I would get better at having actual conversations in such circumstances, but never with the same amount of ease as someone more neurotypical.

“An Introvert goes to a Party” is a game about how it often feels for me to enter an unfamiliar place full of unfamiliar people. There are no real goals or objectives so much as a space you get thrown in, packed with characters who all look like the same 6 archetypes and sound like they’re just saying the word “watermelon” over and over. You can try to make sense of their conversations, you can wander off to the bathroom for some peace and quiet, or you can leave without saying goodbye… or even hello, for that matter. Just like in real life, I hate it but I also love it, and I hope you all feel similarly.

SECOND PUBERTY #2: hold in your farts or die

A few months ago, I introduced a new videogame anthology series I’m working on called Squinky and the Squinkettes present: SECOND PUBERTY. The second game in the series, called “hold in your farts or die”, is now finished – you can play it now if you support my Patreon, or check out this 20-second preview:

“hold in your farts or die” is a game about what it’s like to be autistic, trans, queer, racialized, and/or any other marginalized identity where being your whole self makes other people upset with you for reasons you don’t understand, so you have to “mask” or “pass” just to coexist with them. Those of you who have been following queer games for a while may recognize some similarities with Lim1 – indeed, it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to suggest that “hold in your farts or die” is my personal take on it.

I began working on this game during yet another long Montreal winter, a time when my seasonal depression tends to kick in, causing me to spend long stretches of time never leaving my apartment and turning even more solitary and introspective than usual. Of course, as soon as the first signs of spring showed up and I started to get all excited about going out more and feeling somewhat human again, this whole pandemic situation happened and is still happening – now, everyone has to stay home and/or avoid other people as much as possible.

Thinking about social distancing when you’ve already lived a life feeling distanced from others, in various ways, is… well, I can’t even put my feelings into words. So instead, I threw myself into finishing this game, where you continuously fart these rainbow-coloured clouds that bother other people so much that they chase after you and punish you. You can hold in your farts, but it comes at a damaging personal cost. The obvious message, if we are to believe everyone who says things like “just be yourself!” and other similar platitudes, is that you ought to be free to fart as much as you damn well please, but what if people have perfectly good reasons for not wanting to smell your farts? What if holding them in, even though it hurts, is the only thing you can actually, realistically do, given the situation that you’re in?

To be clear, I’m not so much saying that being autistic/trans/etc. is the same thing as carrying a contagious and potentially lethal virus, so much as expressing how the ways we are being asked to behave in the face of the latter can exacerbate trauma experienced from the former. When going out and having a social life is something you’ve had to work very hard to learn how to do, to be asked to stay home and be alone, the thing you’ve always found the easiest, is incredibly weird, especially when you read so many other people complaining that a life spent like yours makes them feel crazy. When you finally transition and actually like your body enough to feel present in it, and then are forced back into a situation where you can’t really interact with anyone as a corporeal entity anymore, causing you to fall back on behavioural patterns from back when you had to dissociate to cope with the dysphoria, it’s even weirder.

I feel fortunate and privileged that I’m still able to make games and art at a time like this. I’m not one of those people who thinks everyone ought to be using quarantine to write their version of King Lear or anything like that, but I’ve been making games ever since I was a scared, lonely teenager going through first puberty, and it gives me an anchor to hold onto as much now as it did back then. I’m not doing it for capitalism, or even for social capital; I’m doing it to save myself. But if other people happen to get something out of it too, even better.

SECOND PUBERTY #1: Super Modesty Bros.

Squinky and the Squinkettes present: SECOND PUBERTY is a currently-in-progress series of seven short games about the weirdness of feeling like a teenager and a thirtysomething-year-old at the same time.

In 2018, I began hormone replacement therapy after a lengthy period of hesitation – while I had understood myself to be transgender for several years prior, I was unsure as to whether my gender dysphoria was really “enough” to merit hormonal transition, and worried that the changes would be more than I could handle. To my pleasant surprise, my experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive, changing my relationship with my body for the better and making me feel hopeful about the future in ways I never thought were possible for me. Yet, with that hope comes regret and heartbreak for the past, and how long I spent enduring painfully uncomfortable circumstances I had no idea I could change.

SECOND PUBERTY is my way of grappling with these feelings, which its development in and of itself mirrors. The game is being created using the Godot engine, which is free and open source and completely new to me, yet makes a lot of sense to my brain, especially compared to many other engines and frameworks I’ve tried working with in the past. The individual games I’m designing focus more on movement and audiovisual experience than on text, which is a change for me as someone whose game design focus has primarily been narrative and interactive fiction – as a person who’s finally rediscovering what it feels like to truly inhabit a body after spending so many years stuck in my head, this feels only fitting.

The first game in the series is called “Super Modesty Bros.” and it is a reflection, of sorts, on my restrictive religious upbringing and the ways it made me suppress my authentic desires and ways of being in favour of behaving “correctly”. It is also just incredibly silly. Here is what it looks like:

You can play this now, and every subsequent game in the SECOND PUBERTY series as I finish them, by supporting me on Patreon. When all the games in the series are finished, I will release the whole thing to the rest of the world.

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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