If you haven’t heard of the indie game Aberford, you haven’t been paying attention. Recently, this smash-hit of a concept has been sweeping through Tumblr like a doo-wop doomsday. As someone who wasn’t ever all that much of a ’50s era fan? This game has me by the poodle skirt. Silly jokes aside, it’s billed as the answer to all our undead prayers: a zombie game with an all-women cast. It has yet to drop on Kickstarter, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help to build the hype. What’s more, Aberford is set to offer both a main story and multiplayer mode for all the folks out there who enjoy co-op campaigns.
Sketchy Panda Games is new to the scene, but what the team lacks in previous titles they more than make up for in unbridled enthusiasm. Over the past few months, they’ve been answering nonstop questions via their Tumblr account, tackling everything from racial representation to gameplay mechanics on a daily basis. It’s truly refreshing to find a team so earnestly devoted to diversifying the playing field and taking fan suggestions into serious consideration—though the incredible game concept definitely helps their cause.
On behalf of Aberford, Adam Clark was generous enough to take some time out of his busy, zombie-infested day to answer some of my questions. We’re digging into what makes a ’50s style video game more diverse and inclusive than the vast majority of titles out there, and how other folks interested in diving into the development scene can join the fray. Are you ready for a little zombie hunting, ladies?
J: No game is made without a hardworking team behind it. Can you introduce us to yours?
Adam: My name is Adam Clark, and I’m the writer/game designer on this project. I planned on becoming a novelist after I graduated college, but I ended up helping my dad launch a business instead. I realized I was thirty and I wasn’t really doing what I wanted in life, so I decided to try my hand at making video games because I LOVE them. Working in a startup for so long taught me how to get a LOT done with very scant resources, and that’s been very helpful in this early development process.
Our lead developer is Parr Young. He’s been involved in programming and software development for over 20 years. He and I have worked together for almost a decade, and he is extremely skilled at software development, as well as figuring out how to make professional quality media using budget resources. Parr’s technical skills and business sense helped us create an achievable plan for this game. Together, we have a long history of biting off impossible projects and making them turn out great.
We have a number of people we’re consulting with that we’d like bring on officially once we fund, as well as an Art Director to ensure the proper look and aesthetic of everything.
J: You say, “The three big things we want to deliver in Aberford are a great story, fun, challenging combat, and amazing, ‘50s-inspired artwork.” That’s a tall order! How did the concept of Aberford come to be, and why do you feel so passionate about making this game?
Adam: When Parr and I decided to get into game development, we sat down and came up with a lot of different ideas for both mobile and platform games. But we really wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. Something that would stand out in an extremely crowded field. So one day, when I saw this post up on Pinterest. I saw absolutely no reason why it should not be a thing. Great concept for protagonists, interesting social premise, and there is literally nothing more fun than beating zombies to death in a fancy dress and heels (I assume. I’m a Wingtip guy myself). Originally, we conceived of this game as a phone game, but the plot very quickly spiraled into something that was way too big for mobile devices. The ‘50s gives us just too much material to work with, and we wanted the game to be a lot deeper than just “women kill zombies.” So we reworked the design into a full 3D game and expanded the plot to really dig into the stories of our leads. And everything is coming together really nicely.
There are a number of things that make us very passionate about this particular game. First off, we just really love good games. We grew up playing them. Video games helped us forget what scrubby losers we were as teenagers. And a great video game is like a really great book; there’s an experience in it that stays with you for the rest of your life. And Aberford has all the foundations of a really great video game. So we’re very excited to have a chance to bring something like that to life.
Another thing that has us passionate about this project is the chance to positively impact the video game landscape. The demographics of video gamers have drastically shifted over the course of our lives, from it being mostly weird white boys in basements to being weird people of all colors and genders, sometimes in places that are not basements. And that’s fantastic. Gaming should be something that unites and excites all of us. But while the demographics have shifted, the profile for games really, really hasn’t. In prepping for this game, I tried to play games with strong female leads to see what had already been done, and there is basically nothing. And about half of what there is, the character could just as easily be a man with no real impact on the story. So we want to make a game where the leads are something other than angry, brown-haired white men with guns, and have that be important to the story. Having all female leads in a game should not be that revolutionary, but for many sad reasons, it’s blowing people’s minds. We want to show that game developers can take risks, have unconventional characters, and not just succeed, but thrive. So a chance to shift something we love in a positive direction excites us.
What also has us fired up is the passion other people have for this project. Every day, we get dozens of messages from fans who are THRILLED that we’re doing this. Men and women. Older gamers and younger gamers. Gay, straight, trans, and every “other” you can think of (Tumblr is a wild place). People are excited about this game, and they’re excited together. And for every person who thinks we’re being too inclusive or not inclusive enough, there are 100 more who just want to play a great game. So all that energy and excitement (while terrifying) has also got us very pumped about making Aberford.
Lastly, and this is more of a personal note, I really want to be able to play video games with my wife. But she doesn’t like many games, and what she does like are things that I think are terrible, like GTA and Shrek Super Party (yup). So when she got excited about this idea, I got excited about the idea of making a game that might appeal to non-gamers. I love the idea of creating something that can help connect people to gaming.
J: Can you tell us a little bit about your research process for a setting like this one? You do a wonderful job answering the question regarding racism in that era and how you shaped the narrative to “create historical plausibility, if not historical accuracy.”
Adam: I believe that writing is an input/output process. What you read/watch/play effects how your brain works and what you produce, so I played a number of different action games (zombie and otherwise) and watched a lot of ‘50s movies (I think I have seen every Doris Day movie ever now). I also like to set up a scenario and then puzzle out how to get there. So, for Betty, it seemed odd for a black woman to be the neighborhood with the other white characters, unless she was a maid or something. Well, I hated that, so instead, I looked up jobs that black women did during those times. One of those jobs was being a nurse, which would provide some level of social standing and a solid income. We also would have needed her husband, Phillip, to be successful, and military service was good way to do that. And with the city of Aberford, we had a place that was fairly new, populated by forward-thinking scientists, and not in the American south, so it became possible for a young, successful black couple to own a home in an upper-middle class white neighborhood in the ‘50s without anyone stopping them from moving in. It may not have occurred historically, but we get close enough to a plausible scenario that it doesn’t ruin the game. We aren’t saying that people in Aberford aren’t racist (because they are), we’ve just stacked enough cards to let our characters slip in under the wire.
The thing about this scenario is that it lets us look at racism from a different, more modern angle. This is a successful, attractive, young couple. They’re friendly and sociable. They’re great at their jobs. They’re exceptional neighbors. But for all that, they still don’t quite receive a basic level of respect afforded to everyone else. They have to run as fast as they can just to keep up, and watch less qualified and less industrious people pass them by. For me, that parallels the modern struggle where black people still have to walk on eggshells around police officers, because a mistake could be fatal. A mistake that would be nothing for someone else. By having Betty and Phillip be part of this largely white community, as equals or betters in many respects, we can look the hidden side of racism. Not “why we treat people are different from us as different,” but “why we treat people who are the same as us as different.” And the horrible mental toll it takes on people who just want to fit in and be accepted.
We also created a trans woman character who is going in the story, but we had a number of things to work through. We had to figure out a plausible scenario for a trans women to be in this town. We had to figure out era-appropriate things that were used to transition. And when we hit dead ends, we had to figure out plausible workarounds. So we talked with a number of really great, patient fans and came up with a backstory. We made a character who was sympathetic and important to the story without turning her into a sideshow. Right now, we only get to see a portion of Norma’s story, but if we overfund, we can hopefully include the entire thing.
In short, there’s two things we do. Either we walk ourselves through the scenario until it works and is right, or we find someone who knows more than us and walk them through the scenario until it works and is right. We don’t want to ruin the game with poorly conceived characters and plotlines.
Adam: Well, step one: women are people. And people don’t just stand around waiting for the game to start. They have things they’re doing before the game, and things they were planning to do before zombies suddenly arrived. So we needed full backstories. I wanted the “housewives” to have previously led some other, more fulfilling life, so for my leads, I started with cool “men’s jobs” that they could have had during WWII. Peggy played baseball, Doris built planes, Sylvia was a scientist, and Betty was nurse (she’s still a nurse, her story is a little different). And then the men came home, the women were more or less forced give up their jobs and become housewives and live the American Dream as it had been scripted for them. This created that dissatisfaction of having given up an important dream in order to do what was expected, and we felt that was a core issue for many people.
For the women of Aberford, the prepackaged American dream has sat differently with each of them, and as a result, they each have very different marriages and lives. And those lives are a huge part of what we get to explore in the game. As the world comes apart, we get to see the dynamics of these women’s lives unfold, showing the compromises and the unhappiness, as well as love and the things that matter (without getting too sappy, we’re here to kill zombies). These women get a chance to understand who they’ve become, and remember who they used to be. They each also have to become something new in order to survive in their new world. We don’t tell the same story four times, but rather we tell four very different stories at the same time. For me, all the best games have a story that haunts or thrills you for days, and I’d be lying if I said that’s not exactly what we plan to do here.
J: What platforms will the game be available on? Have you learned anything interesting about the process of adapting a new game for different systems?
Adam: Adapting a game to a new system is a huge hassle, but it seems to be getting better. Steam makes it much easier to distribute across multiple operating systems, while console developers have been putting improved focus on making development tools available to developers.
Right now, we’re planning to launch on PC, including beta releases of the game in chapters (five total). This helps keep our production schedule lean and focused. However, if either things go well and we get ahead of schedule or we overfund, we’ll look into releasing beta chapters on other platforms as well. Once the game is finished, we want to port it over to Mac, Linux, Playstation, Xbox, and Wii, but we’ll have to get a little cold and calculating in terms of order. If we release on the most profitable platforms first, we’ll have enough money to keep porting to the less popular platforms, hopefully until we have them all.
J: I see you’re preparing for your first Kickstarter launch. What’s your biggest challenge right now?
Adam: The biggest and most important challenge is going to be our credibility. We have no major games to our name. We’re a small studio. We are financing ourselves. There’s no guarantee that we can succeed. We want to, we’ve succeeded at a lot of other things, and we plan to put 100% into this project, but at the end of the day, people don’t know us. So we have to get them so excited for this project that they’re willing to take a risk on us. And we have to get far enough into this project by bootstrapping to show people that there’s really a game and that we really can make it and that it’s going to be amazing.
Internally, our challenges are a little bit different. Parr and I are both married. We have mortgages. He has kids. He’s still working another job full-time. We’re taking a huge financial risk to try and make this game, as well as the extra time it requires. It’s actually taken quite a lot to just get the game to a Kickstarter-able point, and we really need their help to be able to move on to the next phase.
The other thing I struggle with is my desire to be inclusive without sinking this game. There are so many people who feel underrepresented in video games, and I genuinely want to help them. But this game has a particular scope, and while we’re able to represent some of gaming’s underrepresented groups, we just cannot get them all. For plot reasons. For historical reasons. For logistical reasons. For budgetary reasons. And in some cases, because I just cannot figure out a plausible, positive way to bring it into this game. So I worry that in our efforts to be inclusive, we’re making some people feel even more excluded. And I hate that. So I want our fans to know that we are listening, that we are doing our best, and that their support makes all the difference.
J: If someone came to you interested in launching their own first game, what would be your suggestion to them? What guidance would you give?
Adam: Well, first off, I would say to look at what people are asking for, rather than what people are buying. Don’t just a make a game for yourself. There are so many games out there that an indie gamer trying to make something that already exists is a howl into the madness. The roll of indie gamers should be to find things that people want, but that big studios aren’t giving them. If you can’t find that idea, you’ll be wasting your time.
Beyond that, do your homework. We found all the tools we needed and tested them out before we moved forward with this project. You not only have to know what you’re making, but you have to know how you’re going to make it. If you’ve got a good idea and you’ve got a way to make it happen, then I would unequivocally say, “Do it.” It’s so important to do something that makes you happy in life.
J: And since it’s a bit of a tradition here at FemHype, what’s your ideal breakfast food? 🙂
Adam: As a great man once said, ‘Bring me all the bacon and eggs you have.’