Development, Feminism, Health, Interviews

Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Kaitlin Tremblay

Kaitlin Tremblay
[Courtesy of Kaitlin Tremblay.]

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 Kaitlin Tremblay, a writer, editor, and game maker whose work focuses on mental illness, horror, and feminism. [Trigger Warning: Discussions of depression, eating disorders, and self-harm.]

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Kaitlin: I kind of fell sideways into making games. After I finished my Master’s (in English and Film), I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. Around this time, a friend of mine from my creative writing undergrad was starting up a small website for video game criticism and asked me if I wanted to be involved. From there, I started meeting a lot of really cool people in games and it got me thinking about video games in a way that meant more than being just a distraction.

Miss N: How did you get into making games?

Kaitlin: I moved to Toronto and started doing PR/marketing support work for a small indie video game. I met even more amazing people who not only loved and talked about video games in the same way as I did, but who were really supportive and encouraging of me making my own game. Dames Making Games, a feminist organization, was a huge part of this process for me. DMG was filled with a lot of amazing, talented, and supportive women game makers that making a game didn’t feel so scary and impossible anymore.

Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?

Kaitlin: My mom always tells me it’s Big Bird’s Egg Drop on the Atari! I vaguely remember that, but in the same way that I probably only remember it because it was told to me so many times.

What I do remember is playing Super Mario Bros. with my mom when my two older brothers would go off to school, and it was just her and I at home. My mom always encouraged me playing games, and would dutifully take me to Future Shop to buy expansion packs for video games like Unreal and Baldur’s Gate as I grew older, too. She even let me paint the symbol from Baldur’s Gate: Shadows of Amn and Ecco the Dolphin on my bedroom walls when I was growing up.

Games were a big part of my childhood. My brothers and I made up our own games a lot, also. We once cut up all these little squares and placed them all over our living room in a checkerboard pattern. We then used our X-Men action figures as game pieces, and made up our own RPG-esque stats for each figure. We had intricate rules that borrowed heavily from video games like Shining Force and board games like Hero Quest. I honestly can’t remember a time of my life when games, in some form, weren’t a predominant outlet for me, whether it was creatively or personally.

There Are Monsters Under Your Bed by Kaitlin Tremblay
There Are Monsters Under Your Bed by Kaitlin Tremblay

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

Kaitlin: To be honest, I’m not really sure! It varies each time.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before came from a short story that I had been writing, and realized wasn’t going anywhere. This realization hit at the same time that people were encouraging me to make a game, so I figured translating what I had written into Twine would be a good way for me to get what I needed from that story and to tackle making my first game.

There Are Monsters Under Your Bed was a lot more deliberate. I knew I wanted to make a game in Twine with a lot of RPG elements, and I wanted it to be about struggling with depression. The mechanics for that game arose from those two goals. So, you can select your weapons like you would in an RPG, but they’re skewed toward mundane elements (like an eyelash curler).

I guess for most of my games, the story and mechanics feed into each other like this. What is it like having depression? Sometimes it feels like you’re fighting monsters and can’t escape your bedroom. What is it like having an eating disorder? Sometimes you want to tear at parts of your body and refashion them into new parts.

There has always been a kind of natural flow between the game mechanics I implement and the core idea I want to communicate, and I’m really happy that Twine is a tool that I can use to do that. It lets me focus on storytelling, while implementing interactive mechanics to flesh out the points I want to make.

Miss N: What kind of things do you look out for now as a game maker that you rarely thought about before in your creative works?

Kaitlin: The kinds of things I try to keep in mind are the following questions: what are people going to do? What will they want to do? And, most importantly, what do I want them to do?

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before was a very straight-forward game with only small places where players could make significant choices, and this was because I wanted them to follow how Elizabeth was feeling and echo in the interactivity the little amount of control that Elizabeth had. I also wanted the players to be complicit in dismembering Elizabeth, because I wanted it to be clear that eating disorders don’t exist in a vacuum, but mostly I just wanted people to notice and really see what Elizabeth was doing to herself.

I didn’t want it to be like reading American Psycho, where you can flip past parts you are uncomfortable with. I wanted people to be affected by moving Elizabeth’s hand as she self-harmed because I didn’t want it to be ignored. Especially with eating disorders—that have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness—not seeing or ignoring obvious pain and symptoms is a huge problem. And for me, player-interactivity was really the only way to achieve this. It’s these little things that excite me about making games. Ways to involve players in hearing something that is extremely difficult to talk about.

Say When by Kaitlin Tremblay (Writing, Programming) & Emilie Majarian (Art)
Say When by Kaitlin Tremblay (writing, programming) & Emilie Majarian (art)

Miss N: We recently got to play your game, Say When, at this year’s IndieCade (as part of DMG’s table at the “Gaming for Everyone” Pavilion). It was such a strange, but really moving experience. Can you tell us a little bit about the game?

Kaitlin: Say When is a game about what it’s like to feel empty. I think I make so many games about mental illness because there isn’t one way to convey all the feelings included in struggling with something like depression or an eating disorder. Stop Me focused on the physical/self-loathing that is part of my eating disorder, Monsters focused on feeling helpless when trying to stay strong, and Say When is about feeling so empty you don’t have room for anything else.

Say When was interesting for me to write, though, because it focused more on how people try to help those who are suffering from mental illness and that was a challenge. I’m used to being able to talk about how I feel about my mental illness, and approach from a kind of “this is how I am dealing with, it’s personal and it’s mine” kind of attitude, but I didn’t want to do that with Say When. I wanted Say When to be more about what it’s like to try to help somebody but not know how, while also showing what it feels like to feel so empty and useless that you don’t even feel like a real person anymore. It was challenging to write because I was trying to be both brutal and kind, fair and unfair to the main character, Lily.

Miss N: What was the process like developing it?

Kaitlin: It was an interesting process because I focused on the mechanics more so than the story at first. I knew the core of what I wanted to in terms of story, but I was focused on ways to do that in Twine. I built it structurally first, which was the first time I had ever done that with a game. Usually, I wrote the story bits first, and then found ways to interweave the mechanics. But with Say When, it was the opposite. I coded the entire structure first (during a DMG game jam, actually), and then filled in the story vignettes afterwards.

Say When by Kaitlin Tremblay (Writing, Programming) & Emilie Majarian (Art)
Say When by Kaitlin Tremblay (writing, programming) & Emilie Majarian (art)

Miss N: Where there any challenges you encountered or things that took longer to figure out?

Kaitlin: The biggest challenge with Say When was trying to make it feel like a complete game, even though the ending would be defined by the player. I still wish I had made it bigger: offered more choices, included more connections between the choices, made the little nuances more clear. But I am very happy with how it is now. I think it achieves what it sets out to do: that is, to show people that it isn’t just as easy as “doing yoga” when you’re having a depressive spiral, basically!

Miss N: A lot of the games you make are horror-themed though not in terms of guts and gore, but in a more personal and psychological manner. What drew you to making these kinds of games?

Kaitlin: It’s what I always say about horror: horror is the one genre where the audience never questions the woman when she expresses fear.

Take Scream for example: Sidney Prescott tells the police that she is terrified and something bad is happening, but they don’t believe. And as an audience, we feel frustrated that nobody will believe her. Why is she so scared if something actually isn’t happening? It’s the one genre where women are believed and listened to—if not by other characters, then at least by the audience.

I’m not the only woman who views horror this way, either. Gita Jackson wrote a really great article talking about this exact same thing for Polygon. So using a genre where this is a given helped me approach making games about incredibly difficult and personal matters.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by Kaitlin Tremblay
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by Kaitlin Tremblay

Take Stop Me for example. I chose to make a horror game about a woman dismembering her body because people would look at it and accept the violence she is doing to herself and feel something about it. My fear with making a literal game about having an eating disorder was that people would dismiss it. They wouldn’t listen to the fear and hatred that comes with eating disorders — people rarely do, in my experience. People approach these kinds of things with preconceived notions, and for me, using horror was a way to get around this—or at least try to.

Miss N: What has been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making games?

Kaitlin: Honestly, self-doubt! I have a lot of anxiety over my skills and my work (imposter syndrome, ahoy), and fighting back against those negative thoughts is incredibly challenging. It doesn’t help that there are always going to be people that I’ll have to defend games made in Twine as “real” games, but that doesn’t get to me in the same way that my own self-doubt does.

But that’s also part of why I make games. I make games to show that I can and do rise above the idea that I’m not good enough, or that I don’t have enough of my own identity to be able to create.

I started making games after leaving a partner who took every opportunity to undermine me and enforced in me this idea that I was nothing and any aspect of myself (my ideas, my personality, my interests) were all stolen from him. So in a way, making games has been a direct counter to those ideas: yes, I am my own person and these games are stark reminders of what I can do and what I can survive.

Miss N: What is the most fulfilling thing you’ve experienced when making games?

Kaitlin: The reaction from people who have played it is always so overwhelming (in a good way). Since my games have all been personal games about my struggles with mental illness, it’s terrifying releasing something so intimate into the void. But people have always responded really kindly and warmly, and I’ve even received many messages from people saying parts of my games resonated with them and they felt less alone. I’ve made good friends from building these kinds of bridges and it means the world to me.

I often worry that my games become repetitive or redundant, since they deal with similar themes. But I always stop those thoughts in their tracks because I make games for myself as a way of processing and coming to terms with things I’m dealing with. And I’m okay with that, because they help me. And I’ve been told they help others as well, and those are really the only two things that matter to me.

Miss N: Are there any games that you’ve felt have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?

Kaitlin: I absolutely adore Device 6. Device 6 does really interesting things with the way it positions text on a “page” and adjusts its orientation, direction, and flow in order to simulate feelings of walking down hallways or up stairs and other such physical sensations. Device 6 is the kind of game I wish I had made — which is the highest compliment I can pay anything!

Knock-Knock by Ice-Pick Lodge
Knock-Knock by Ice-Pick Lodge

In terms of games that push boundaries of mental health representation, I think Knock-Knock and The Cat Lady are two of the best. They both aren’t afraid to show the dark and scary aspects of mental illness, but also manage to never sensationalize it or trivialize the experience of mental illness into a tired trope the way other games so often do.

Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?

Kaitlin: This is a tough question to answer. I think it’s less about games being better at something than other mediums, but rather how some people approach and use mediums differently.

Coming from an English academic background and publishing profession, it’s cool to see the ways indie communities form in video games. There’s a certain DIY aspect to small game communities, particularly revolved around Twine, that is so charged with wanting to carve out a safe space for people to talk about their own experiences and make whatever kind of game they want.

In literary communities, self-publishing, while on the rise, is still met with a lot of elitism (that invoke suspicions of worthiness and talent) in my experience, and while there are certainly barriers to making and disseminating your own game, making and self-publishing your own game doesn’t raise the same kind of suspicions of talent as it would in a literary community.

I think this small and subtle difference in communities is what makes games so inviting. It’s not that one medium has a leg up on another one inherently, but it’s how people approach and use that medium that gives it power.

Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you really admire?

Kaitlin: Kitty Horrorshow is the best at writing horror games. Her games are simultaneously brilliant and eviscerating. She cuts right to the bone (pun intended), and never misses a beat. I always feel slightly destroyed when I play her games, because she seamlessly works in these brilliant observations and statements of what it’s like being a human into games with such vivid imagery that they kind of stick around in my brain like an imprint. Her games are so beautiful, and they manage to hurt and invoke intrigue and thoughtfulness all at the same time.

Five Stages: A Cycle of Ruined Romances by Catt Small
Five Stages: A Cycle of Ruined Romances by Catt Small

Catt Small also does really incredible work. Five Stages: A Cycle of Ruined Romances is a really brilliant and beautiful game, and it’s such a perfect game for when you’re mourning a loss and need to feel hopeful and not just bitter and spiteful.

I also really admire the work that Maddy Myers does. Siren For Hire is a really smart (and on point) game about the way women are treated in geek communities (and games specifically), and it really rings true.

Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were just starting out as a game maker, what would it be?

Kaitlin: Don’t be so scared and trust yourself. There will always be people who don’t like what you do and will react against it, but there will also be people who click with it, and those connections make all the challenging aspects worth it. And making games will fulfill you in a way other forms of writing never could, and to hold onto that when you’re feeling defeated.

Miss N: Thank you, Kaitlin!


If you’re interested in following Kaitlin, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @kait_zilla. 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.

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