GameCity9 – “Dear Diary: Autobiographical Game Design and You” with Christos Reid

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Feature, GameCity, Indie
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Christos Reid, a former games journalist turned games creator of Failnaut (“Boldly fucking things up where no one has ever fucked things up before”) gives a talk about how you can make an autobiographical game without losing the game portion, and still make people understand the issue.

Wife

I had met Christos earlier this morning and we shook hands and like myself, he seemed like a nice chap, didn’t appear to harbour any inner demons or anything. He tapped away at his laptop as I engaged in a talk about fashion with a fellow GameCity fan and a lady from the British Library who had some awesome heart earrings. I learned he was doing a talk about autobiographical games and although the synopsis read “Come and sit down with Christos “failnaut” Reid as he recounts the madcap journey of making games about mental health, prejudice and love.” I didn’t expect the talk to be what it actually was.

It was a true eye opener.

We learnt the story of his first game Hug Marine, which involved a space marine hugging aliens instead of shooting them first and asking for a hug afterwards. And how a conversation with his girlfriend pointed out that, even with all his issues with physical contact, mental health, social anxiety and making a game where you hug total strangers wearing a space suit brought on some serious contemplation.

A couple of years later Christos separated from his girlfriend and went on an up-and-down phase of feeling free on one day and then suicidal the next. He started working on Escape Pod, an endless runner game as you pilot an escape pod getting as far away as it can from a giant ship. A feature which he wasn’t able to put in was that while you’re zooming away the mother ship is asking you “why have you gone off by yourself?”, “Where are you going? Everything is fine here”, “You should come back where it’s safe”, which by itself sounds like an intriguing piece of narrative for a “normal” game, until you understand the subtext behind it that it is inspired by Christos’ feelings that when you break out of a bad relationship the easiest thing to do is just go back.

Christos didn’t return to the mother ship and instead moved back in with his parents. Soon came the revelation that he was bi-sexual, which divided the parents as his dad was rather supportive, whereas his mother (“one badly made sign away from being a single Westborough Baptist church rally”) or as he put it even more casually “If I like you, we’ll get naked”. Sadly he was kicked out of his home. Surely this couldn’t be the nice guy I shook hands with a couple of hours with earlier?

The indie games community rallied to his aid with personal recommendations on twitter and finally found a place to live where he finally felt safe. After some personal reflection on how it could be seen as fundamentally wrong that a mother could act like that and that it’s their job to put up with your shit, Christos realised he had to do something. Therapy can take many forms. The way he got through it was via the creation of Dear Mother, which is an open letter to his mum. Showing how he had felt in pixel form where words had previously failed had opened up avenues of conversation about how others felt about issues as well as himself.

It is important to Christos that what you do in these games makes sense to the emotion that is being communicated, as there are games out there which also deal with emotional problems and the like but the mechanics don’t seem to fit, which can render all efforts for naught. Christos predicts that with programs that are making the creation of games more accessible, that we will start to see autobiographical games about experiences we have never really thought about before, topics you hadn’t done before because the game world was limited to big companies churning out shooty-shooty-bang-bang for the rest of their lives. Such an example would be RPG Maker which was used to create Mainichi, an autobiographical game about a transgender woman meeting a friend for coffee.

One of Christos’ favourites is Dys4ia, a collection of mini games about hormone replacement therapy, which has received rather positive feedback on Newgrounds of all places, a website not known for its moral fibre. The introduction of such games breaks down the wall of taboo as you, the player will no longer think “It happened to them” to “It happened to me” and you find yourself able to talk to people with more confidence on this issue. Depression Quest is similar, a collaborative effort of the experiences of a few people in text adventures. But they are the real experiences of real people and those who haven’t experienced depression can play the game and come out the other side with a sensation of “Wow, that was hard, that was unpleasant, inconvenient and tough”, and the point is made. No one ever said depression was a breeze.

Games are a great medium in dealing with aspects of metal problems like this is because they’re interactive, compared to movies that use the clichés of dull colours, sad expressions and violin music. He points out that even if it’s done really well it’s still a passive experience and loses the powerful effect it could have if someone is made to face even a facsimile of that mental problem. It opens dialogue as it’s not someone telling you and you simply listening, it’s you feeling it also and this sort of dialogue opening concept is really important.

HugWhen making an autobiographical game, Christos believes that controls are important and extends this feeling to games in general. Using Insomnia as an example where you turn a crank by moving the mouse in a circular fashion as opposed to a single button press or the holding of a direction key. It aids with the understanding where words can fail to communicate.

But how revealing can you be? How true do you want your autobiographical project to go? Is there something you wish to tone down, or even remove altogether? How do you represent yourself? Christos recommends flat out: Don’t compromise, a mistake he confessed he made when making some aspects a little vague and when it comes to making a game about religion and putting it on the internet, it can ruffle a few feathers.

Links for y’all:

failnaut.com
@failnaut
Dear Mother on Newgrounds

Dys4ia on Newgrounds
Depressionquest.com
Mainichi

GameCity9 website

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