“Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Jessica Marcotte, a Montreal-based game developer and scholar most recently known for her studio’s game, In Tune.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Jessica: I have a background in art and writing. I did a Communications: Arts, Media, Theatre degree at CEGEP Vanier College, a Joint Honors in English and Creative Writing degree from Concordia University, a Masters in Creative Writing from Concordia University, and I’m currently starting an interdisciplinary PhD with the TAG Research Lab (also at Concordia) under the supervision of the awesome Dr. Rilla Khaled.
Miss N: How did you get into making games?
Jessica: I often say that I started making games accidentally while I was busy doing something else. That’s because I officially made my first video game at Global Game Jam 2013 while covering it in a journalistic capacity. Around six weeks later, I finished making my first solo game through the first-ever Pixelles Incubator “Follow-Along Program.” From there, I took a class called the Curious Games Studio with Pippin Barr, and then was a participant in Critical Hit 2013.
You could say that my game making addiction evolved pretty quickly. I’ve made something like twenty or so games and game prototypes now.
Miss N: Has your previous background shaped your work now as a game maker?
Jessica: There’s no doubt that this background shapes my approach to game making, games studies, and game playing. I’m a person who likes a good story, no matter what tools are being used to tell it, so that’s very important to me.
The games that I make tend to have internally consistent fictions built into them or engage with larger “narratives” or problems. I recognize that I am part of a larger tradition and that my work exists in a particular context—those are some of the things that studying all those dusty old books and shiny new books has taught me. Language is also very important to me, so I’m very careful with words when I’m working on a game.
Miss N: Quite a few of your games were made in jams (such as In Tune and Seventy-Eight). How do you approach these jams (process-wise) and how does it compare to your self-initiated work?
Jessica: Jamming has really taught me the power of the iterative process, and about trying and failing (or succeeding) with an idea before investing a lot of resources into it. Those are lessons that I have definitely carried over to my self-paced work. Getting the least polished proof-of-concept done and seeing what the reaction is from a few play testers helps me to guide which areas I work on the most in a game.
On the other hand, I almost always tend to make the game equivalent of the “short story”—I’m not yet a “game novelist”—and maybe that kind of very tight scoping around one question or idea is also something that I’ve taken from jamming. I’m okay with that for now, although I think I’ll eventually experiment with longer forms.
Miss N: In Tune uses skin-to-skin contact as an important gameplay mechanic. How did you all decide on that mechanic?
Jessica: Physical contact was one of the first things that was settled on in the game. We knew that we wanted to use a Makey Makey and deal with the themes of bodies, awkwardness, and consent. The game was made in the context of the boobjam, which deals with breasts and bodies in ways that resist the usual way that they are treated in games.
Miss N: What was the discussion like when it came to dealing with folks who may be uncomfortable with playing your game (which may limit your audience)?
Jessica: One of the most important aspects of In Tune is that it is as much about saying no as it is about saying yes. So, people who are uncomfortable playing the game and who are able to say no to playing it … have played the game?
Negotiating physical consent is such a good entry-point into the topic and that knowledge and experience can then be generalized to other forms of consent. The physical contact aspect was very important to us, in some ways because it is awkward, tentative, and requires you to build trust and a kind of relationship with whoever you play with. It is a really good thing that people are able to recognize their own discomfort and say no to playing rather than feeling pressured into it. It is okay to be uncomfortable.
How we make sure that people know that there is a lot of physical contact in the game is through carefully-crafted rules and tips at the beginning of the game that can’t be skipped—and we also have copies of these rules and suggestions in a longer form. Everyone has to read them or encounter them in some way before playing—so the physical contact is not a surprise.
Miss N: What has been the most challenging aspect when you’re making a game?
Jessica: I’m always pushing up against my own limitations in terms of technical skill—which pushes those technical skills hard and often and helps me to keep learning. I’m always learning something new.
I can do a little bit of everything— a bit of art, a bit of programming, a bit of sound design, quite a bit of writing (okay, a lot of writing if I need it), and game design. It makes me versatile when I’m on my own and a flexible teammate, but I’m not a virtuoso at any of those aspects of design.
I either have to find a clever way to make it seem like the game does what I want it to do, or actually find a way to make it do it. I’m not above lying about what’s going on “underneath the hood” if the game still “feels” right, but I try my best to help those challenges push my skills.
Miss N: What has been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had in making games?
Jessica: So, this is a tie between two different kinds of moments.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of games right now—and this is in some ways specific to my community—is that I am a part of this wave of people who aren’t usually invited to make games who have been empowered by making games, and being a part of that, and helping other people start or continue to make games is really fulfilling and wonderful.
The game making is infectious! Montreal has Pixelles, Critical Hit, GAMERella, The Mount Royal Games Society … so many lovely community initiatives. I like being a part of that, teaching workshops, adopting jammers, or just talking and encouraging others to start making games, take their next steps towards other opportunities, or just keep making games.
More directly connected to the experience of making games, sharing In Tune with people in quite a few places in North America has been a lovely experience.
When people don’t have a partner, they often play with one of us, the creators. It can be draining to play a game like In Tune with strangers over and over again throughout a showcase—but there are so many lovely moments of connection. Recently, in Culver City at IndieCade, somebody who I played with and made a connection with came back at the end of the night to say goodbye and it just felt sort of awesome to still be surprised by the intimacy that my own game can foster, even when I’ve played it hundreds of times.
Miss N: Are there any games that you’ve felt really pushed the boundaries of the medium (i.e. in terms of mechanics, narrative, or tech)?
Jessica: Well, the boundaries of the medium are always shifting as people push up against them. What is boundary-breaking today might be the status quo tomorrow. So, it’s all about that context.
Right now, the things that I am trying to foster for my own game making practice, and what I am interested in seeing in other games, is the human aspect—emotions and connections and stories—and a critical eye: games that surprise or manage to translate an experience or an idea into a neat game.
I love Coffee: A Misunderstanding by Squinky, and there are some really great games that got made this summer at Critical Hit, including my two personal favorites—(un)done, where the main interaction really feels tied (sorry for the pun) to how the game unfolds and feels really right, and We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine, which is about shared experiences around marginalization in its many forms, which can be so healing. Like In Tune, it uses physical touch really nicely as part of the controls.
I also like subversion and games that share a joke between the creator and the player. So, in that sense, I really enjoyed Goat Simulator and The Stanley Parable. I’m also a huge fan of Pippin Barr’s games in general. Another game that I really like is Papers, Please; I think it’s a game that uses bureaucracy and routine for a great message.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that games do better than other mediums?
Jessica: This is a hard question! I do think that games are a different medium that permits different kinds of experiences, but there are a lot of nuanced reasons why that’s the case.
I think that people permit themselves to think, play, and otherwise do things when they’re playing games that they wouldn’t otherwise. Play does suspend some of the normal rules of particular contexts, even if we don’t talk about the magic circle in quite the same way that Huizinga did anymore. Games combine powerful aspects of other mediums with the giving and withholding of player agency.
I think they have powerful ways of changing our perspective, even if just for a while. And they have their own whole set of expectations for creators to play with and disrupt.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you admire?
Jessica: So many. I feel like I should just make a list and let people discover why they’re so awesome for themselves, because that was such a pleasure for me. Some of them, I’m lucky to count as friends or part of my community, and others are inspirations or just people I admire.
I’m just going to write these as they occur to me: Allison Cole, Dietrich Squinkifer, Ida Toft, Kara Stone, Tanya Short, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Kim Hoang, Alicia Fortier, Carolyn Jong, Anna Anthropy, Rilla Khaled, Nicole Pacampara, Amanda Tom, Milin Li, Ana Tavera Mendoza, Christine Love, Morgan Sea, Nina Freeman, Hope Erin Phillips, and so so so many others. But I think that’s a good start!
Miss N: If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were first starting out as a game maker, what would it be?
- Let things be “good enough” sometimes and don’t endlessly chase some ideal of perfection (although striving is a good thing for a while).
- Forget about what you think games are supposed to be.
- Don’t be afraid to start small (heck, don’t be afraid to keeping making small games if that’s your jam).
- Learn lessons from other mediums.
- Communities are great things to be supported by, but you don’t owe anything to communities that don’t respect you. There are other people who will.
Kara Stone also just wrote a great article about this with a lot of advice that I agree with (and some of which I’ve echoed here). You can read it on her Patreon, which you should support if you are able to and like her work.
Miss N: Thank you, Jessica!
If you’re interested in following Jessica, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @jekagames. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.