“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 Caroline Guevara, a Games Production Trainee for Cartoon Network where she helps produce mobile and web games and also just have plain ol’ fun catching up on the latest game design trends, whether it’s console, mobile, or web.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Caroline: Background is always a funny question for me. I am of Guatemalan and Salvadoran descent and grew up in the D.C. metro area. I went to George Mason University for my undergrad for Computer Game Design and went to Drexel University for my Masters in Digital Media.
To be honest, I didn’t even know that was a thing—to go to school and learn how to make games. Fortunately, that was the first year they were officially offering it, so I was super excited to declare that as my undergraduate major. As soon as they started to teach us Unity and Maya/3DS Max, I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?
Caroline: I was maybe five or six years old playing on my uncle’s Sega Genesis. It was always a treat to play on it. To this day, I still remember that one game where you had to move around crates in a warehouse … and then, of course, the Sonic games and the controversial Mortal Kombat game followed right after. To be fair, I had no idea what was going on in that game violence-wise, I was little! But since then, I’ve always had a thing for games, and I was always “that girl” in class who would play video games and hang out with the boys. Never took it as an insult, though. I just thought it was a normal thing.
A few years after my Genesis days, my mom got me my Game Boy Color, and then it was uphill from there. It exploded later with the Game Boy Advance (SP too), the DS, PS2, PS3, and in the near distant future, the PS4. Never really got into PC gaming. Thought it was always boring and inconvenient.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
Caroline: I never pay attention to my creative process as much as I should. It’s kind of all over the place. I really just start to jot things down randomly on any piece of paper I can find. I look at what’s on trend and what’s been done. I’ll play some games similar to what I want to do and go from there. I also love to draw, so there’s plenty of sketches involved and scattered about on a big piece of paper.
Miss N: Previously, you did research on the “effects of activist games.” What drew you to this area of games?
Caroline: Well, that was my main topic for my thesis. A game’s ability to affect someone’s emotions just always struck me. Why should I care about the fate of a fictional NPC other than it might change the course of my ending? It’s all about the hook and what is done and the freedom of choice a player has when making these “game changers” (pun not intended).
Miss N: Why do you think games are good platforms to explore this area?
Caroline: Games are an interactive media that can be utilized for more than just play. They can educate and talk about serious matters all while engaging the player actively. We just need to make sure that there is balance between making it fun and informative as well. The last thing you want is to make your audience feel like they’re just going through an interactive infomercial.
Miss N: Indemnity is one game you made that could be classified as an activist game. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Caroline: It’s a first-person game that aims to convey what provokes Latinos from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to migrate to the U.S. Players take on the role of Cristían, a Central American teenager, who is constantly harassed by a gang throughout the course of five in-game days to join them. Players must choose whether or not to associate themselves with the gang to progress through the game. The choices they make determines one of three specific endings.
The game was designed to help players become more understanding and empathetic of Latinos from all countries by causing them to feel the pressure of the gangs in the game as children and adolescents would in Central America. In addition to promoting the social awareness of this particular issue, a main goal of Indemnity was to provide an individualistic perspective rather than the overarching view of the issue as a whole.
This all started by writing one composite story comprised of five individual personal accounts collected from Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran natives who reside in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The stories collected all had the similar issues of extortion from gangs, family reunification, and deprivation of resources, which forced them to leave their homes. Additional details such as statistical data and other personal accounts were extracted from the Children on the Run report released by The UN Refugee Agency. The game itself was developed around these stories and reflected these real issues through narrative.
Miss N: Did you encounter any challenges developing it?
Caroline: Definitely coding was a big problem for me. The extent of my skills were basic Python and tutorials from the Unity website, the forums, and any other resource I could find online. In the end, it worked out just fine, but it REALLY would have made a big difference if I had a developer who could officially team up with me. I’m just glad I was able to touch on the main issues that drive Latinos out of their homes.
Miss N: Were there things you had to scrap?
Caroline: Originally, I did want to make the game about saving up money to travel to the U.S. only to have it stolen or used for ransom for your family. I ran into many issues with that [concept] scope-wise and had to really bring it down a few notches.
If I ever do go back to working on this game, I would like to add a woman protagonist so you would have a choice between playing different characters. The issues that teens face in Central America are similar, however, women unfortunately deal with more severe and traumatizing incidents such as trafficking and sexual assault.
Miss N: While developing this game, how did you work through striking a balance between making it fun but also informative? Was it a trial and error process or did you try other methods?
Caroline: It was definitely trial and error. I did do some initial play testing internally with my classmates to get a feel for what could work and what didn’t. There was also a lot of back and forth with my adviser when it came to the core mechanic of my game.
Essentially, it just boiled down to a “collect with stealth” game in which the player had to avoid getting caught by either gang members or police officers. People would get frustrated at some points, which is what I ultimately wanted to achieve, but not so much to the point that they didn’t want to continue playing. At the end, they did learn that you were “damned if you did, damned if you didn’t.” They understood that there was no definite win in this game, which reflected the hardships immigrants face when running from their country.
Miss N: What’s been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making games?
Caroline: Probably the number of iterations I had to go through to get it just right. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. During the development process, I find it frustrating to redo a level or a texture or a model just because something doesn’t look right. Even more so when there’s a tight deadline.
Also understanding the objective of your own game. You have to have an epiphany almost of what it is you want your game to be. It’s like you know you want it to be “cool” or “unique” or some other exciting adjective. But in order to do that, you have to do research and see what’s already out there and improve upon it. This part isn’t so bad, it’s just more of a soul-searching thing, if anything.
Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling?
Caroline: I kind of touch on it in my last answer, but the research aspect is fun. Finding out what was done before and what didn’t work is interesting to find. To avoid names, there was one game in particular I found that was beyond politically incorrect to the point that they were forced to change their NPCs after the game was released. It’s also interesting to see the creative process of other developers and how they came about the idea for their game. You get to pull all of these ideas together and mold it into your own little project you can call your own.
Specifically for Indemnity, the most fulfilling thing was that I was able to educate students on the matter of Latino immigration. Most of my responses came out to be positive, with a few exceptions. I was able to see firsthand that my game was making an impact. Whether or not it was long-term would be a question for another research subject in the future. I am happy, however, that I was still able to spread a little bit more awareness.
Miss N: Are there any games that you’ve felt have pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Caroline: I’m always in favor of console games for their ability to deliver these grand stories that seem to get more intricate as time passes. That being said, The Last of Us did an amazing job with their delivery. [Spoilers] After the first 15 minutes of gameplay, I was so heartbroken after such a sudden loss. I was hooked and only wanted to see how my character’s life played out after the untimely death.[/Spoilers] The same goes for Heavy Rain. To be fair, this felt more like an interactive narrative than a game, but still great nonetheless. Everything that you did had a consequence. It’s just great to have that amount of freedom as the player to decide your own fate.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that are inherently unique to games (as a medium) compared to other creative mediums?
Caroline: Limiting it to TV and film, games are different in the sense that they are actively engaging. Sure, you can flip on the TV and engage with the show, but you’re still distracted. You have your phone or laptop, buddies you might binge watch with or something else.
When playing a game, it requires your full attention. It immerses you fully (if the story and gameplay are well done) and you feel like you’re Nathan Drake or Batman or whoever else your heart desires. You strive to get that ultra upgraded utility belt and all the extra perks like your life depends on it. Games just open up a whole new world of interaction that TV does not have—no matter the level of live tweeting or voting.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you really admire?
Caroline: I admire a lot of people. There is Brenda Romero, though. She’s just kicks ass all around with all of her achievements and through all the backlash that women face in this industry. She goes above great lengths to show that we do have a place alongside our male counterparts and that we can produce great things as well. And just as a shout out to all of the amazing women who I experienced GDC 2015 with for the IGDAF Intel Scholarship. Those are some pretty rad women.
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?
Caroline: It gets better. As cliché as that sounds, I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere with my degree and lack of experience when I was an undergrad. I would tell myself to just not be afraid and pitch whatever ideas I had without hesitation. The worst that could happen would be a flat no or constructive criticism that could only help me do better. The worst thing you can do is not try and strive for your goals and dreams. Ask for critiques, show your portfolio, and network as much as you can to really get your feet wet in this business. It wasn’t until recently that I found out the magical world of networking. It pays off to say hello and strike up a random conversation with industry leaders.
Miss N: Thank you, Caroline!
If you’re interested in following Caroline, follow her on Twitter @caroliiiiine_02. 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.