Sometimes, what makes a game interesting is how complex mechanics work together, or a detailed and surprising world, or some sort of well-judged progression system. But sometimes it’s as simple as the idea behind it. A single human experience expressed in a relatable way, an interactive take on real life that hits you with the shock of the new and/or familiar.
On a recent trip to Norwich to chat with some local developers, I sat down to chat with game developer Hannah Rose, who splits her creative energy between a day job making VR and AR games at one of the town’s few salaried studios, and going home to create impactful autobiographical experiences.
“I'm from Switzerland originally, Geneva, English parents. Before being in Norwich, I used to work in London. I worked in a company that taught kids to make games as a means to teach them to create code.”
Rose never got on well with London, it was too loud and busy, never ceasing, never stopping, so she moved to Norwich.
“A lot of it is rough: it burns you out. It's definitely not the case that all jobs in London are intense and crunchy and all that, but there's definitely a trend.”
“Norwich was actually… I didn't come here at all for any games-related reasons. I was just completely burned-out on London. My partner is a medical student at the local university, so I just thought, Norwich, looks quiet, it's kind of got the same feel that Geneva, my home town, has. It's small, and I could walk to work if I got a job. I came here with no idea what I was going to do.”
Finding games-related jobs in Norwich isn’t an easy task. As we discussed in our recent feature about the city, despite a thriving game design course, very few studios settle permanently there, and finding salaried work can be tough. Rose was lucky enough to find a good day job, but she also discovered the town’s supportive indie community and began to follow her own ideas in the evenings.
“Autobiographical games are something I just totally stumbled into, because late 2016, early 2017, I was a totally socially anxious mess. I started therapy, and I thought the best way to deal with things I was struggling with was to translate this weird head stuff to something that I do understand, which is games.”
“So I've tried to make mechanics to capture how I feel some of the experiences I have had work, so I can better understand those things myself. I did that in four games. I was trying a one-game-a-week little thing, which seemed like a great time to try experimental things. If these experiments were absolutely awful, I could just ditch them, I had the freedom to try things out.”
One of these mini-biographical games Rose created, titled I’m a Terrible Person, came from an eight-hour long game jam while in Berlin. One of the themes was “I am the Villain”, and so Rose decided to make a game focused on self-hatred, and in particular her experiences with intrusive thoughts.
“It's a game about going to a games conference and talking to someone you think is much better than you, and constantly trying to avoid mentioning all the awful things that you know about yourself and don't want anyone else to find out about”
The game focuses mechanically on trying to hold down a conversation, and trying to visualise the pull of intrusive thoughts as something visible, and tangible. Players click on speech bubbles to make their way through a conversation, while increasingly large intrusive thought bubbles take up the screen. As time goes on it becomes harder and harder to find the sensible and reasonable answers to click on, as the intrusive thoughts take up more and more mental focus. It’s a really simple idea, but the execution really captures something of the experience many people have to deal with day-to-day.
“If you just go through the sensible options, you just have a totally normal, rational conversation,” says Rose. “You just have all these intrusive thoughts that you've had to ignore, which if you click on you just get this rather dumb thing where your character just suddenly confesses all their deepest, darkest misdeeds, and the other person's kind of confused because that's a weird thing to do the first time you meet someone!”
For Rose the act of creating something around intrusive thoughts, which people could see and experience, helped her to see them as the often-silly things they are.
“The intrusive thoughts are naturally quite absurd things, and this was one of the reasons I made it. You write these things up which are genuine fears you've had, and you show them the world, and the world laughs at them because they're ridiculous. I was like, everyone thinks that's ridiculous - I should stop worrying about that so much!”
You can play I am a Terrible Person by clicking here.
Another of Rose’s games, showcased at Norwich Games Festival, is called Small Talk. It's about the difficulties of managing conversations when you have difficulties with social anxiety. The idea was to show that while the individual parts of holding a conversation might be easy in isolation, when all combined they can be a bit of a juggling act for those who struggle.
“Interaction is fairly straightforward, it's not difficult to have a conversion; you look at the other person, you pay attention to what they're saying, you don't say anything stupid, you remember to keep a nice posture. There’s just loads and loads of things you have to keep track of, and they're all really straightforward.”
“But there's a lot of them. And it's difficult to do everything at the same time - or it was for me at the time when I developed the game. So how this manifests, you have simple minigames that are played with only the up and down arrow key, or only the space button. Because they're exclusive to particular sets of controls - as you play through, it starts making you play several of them at the same time. And that's when it suddenly gets really difficult. It’s not the individual tasks that are tough, it’s remembering to do them all at once.”
“Just remember to smile, it's really easy, just mash the space button. And also dodge awkward topics of conversation at the same time, and also don't say anything stupid.”
The game itself does a really interesting job of presenting social anxiety. As someone on the autism spectrum I found it particularly poignant, because all of its actions are simple, until you realise how many of them require active conscious thought. If you’re someone who has some anxiety about social interactions it can often feel like spinning plates, even if any one activity seems easy to remember by itself.
While Small Talk is an undeniably beautiful little game, it struggled to find at audience at the Norwich Games Festival, largely due to the event’s broad age range. Lots of kids picked the game up looking for mechanics, without really thinking about the more subtle complex themes on show. Rose chuckled as she explained the problem to me.
“It is pretentious artsy fluff. You have to first get someone to accept that it's okay to be pretentious artsy fluff.”
“Pretentious artsy fluff is great”, I say.
“I love pretentious artsy fluff!”
It was at this point Rose and I stopped to just chatter a little about our favourite "artsy fluff" games. Some folk dismiss these kinds of games as simply being for the affected group, pigeonholing their themes and potential. But to me they’re some of the most interesting experiences, particularly when developers come up with mechanics to express complex human experiences in ways that might otherwise be tough to explain. They’re like a window onto someone else's way of seeing the world.
For Rose the fact that these games are relatively simple to make is important. Most if not all of her autobiographical works were made during Game Jams, events where games are developed to strict time limits. It allows her to engage with a multitude of different experiences, but also helps her complete a game and finish it, without the risk of getting stuck on one project or getting the urge to move on.
You can play Small Talk by clicking here.
One more of Rose’s games created during the constraints of a game jam, in this case Global Game Jam 2018, was Personal Space. Created during the period after a long-distance relationship, the game looks in-depth at the pacing of day-to-day communication, when you and your partner are separated by distance.
“The theme for Global Game Jam 2018 was waves. I was chatting with a friend of mine who is QA lead at Bossa. He was coming up with all these great ideas, he's really great at ideas – ‘Oh, yeah, waves - space - time - there's a long distance between communication in space and gaps, and communications and waves and whatever’. He had this idea for a game where you have all these delayed communications, and I was like, ‘that's a really great idea. Can I steal it and totally repurpose it for my own doings?’”
“So I made a game about another experience - because personal games are something I know how to do. I was in a long-distance relationship for six years. It ended about three months before that game jam, when my partner moved to London for a year and then I moved back here because long distance, bleugh. So I made a game about being in space, you're in a spaceship, and you're just talking to your partner - but it takes about two minutes, three minutes, five minutes, for them to reply to any messages. So it's a very delayed narrative thing.”
As the game goes on, delays between messages will become longer, presenting the fact that, when you’re having an asynchronous conversation, often you won’t be focused completely on the discussion in the gaps between messages.
“I just put a bunch of intentionally quite dull distractions at the side,” says Rose. “You can go stand at the front of the ship and it zooms out, so you can see the whole ship. There's a music player, you can play random tracks of music on, and there's a game that's intentionally quite boring, doesn't tell you your high score, and if ever you want to stop the game you have to abandon your progress.”
“One of the other things I was trying to capture was this weird thing people do where you might message your partner, she doesn't immediately reply because she's not there, so you fill the time. What I'll often do is personally is boot up Overwatch. Let's play a game of Overwatch while we wait for a reply. You hear the sound of a message arrive and you're like "I should reply to that, but I'm in the middle of a game.”
“It's trying to create this very distinct feeling I got, which is you don't want to put your day on hold, but what you end up doing as a compromise to fill the time is actually why your half of the chat is sometimes delayed. You're doing something pointless to fill the time. You both are. It just reinforces the weird flow of a long distance conversation.”
You can play Personal Space by clicking here.
While Rose has made a number of really interesting games about personal experience, the future for her is looking a little less autobiographical, thanks in large part to her getting somewhere happier in her life. She’s comfortable with herself, and she’s not going to force a game concept if she doesn’t have a strong idea for how to execute it.
But moving away from games based on personal experience doesn’t mean she’s moving away from unique ideas about mechanics for games.
“When I took part in the Jupiter Hadley jam last year, there was a theme of extinction, and the initial thought is ‘well, I don't want any violence in a game called Extinction, so let's make it about the end of humanity.’”
“There's this mindset you start to get into when you make personal games about how to tell a deeply personal story. I think I'd describe this as... it stops being a case of you make a game, and the game tells stories to a thousand people. It's that you make a game, and that game tells its story to one person a thousand times”.
You can check out all of Hannah Rose’s games on Itch.io by clicking here.