Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Elyse Lemoine

[Courtesy of Elyse.]
[Courtesy of Elyse.]
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 Elyse Lemoine, a queer game designer, writer, and artist passionate about feminism, diversifying the games space, and games about cats!

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

Elyse: My relationship with games, like most developers, starts way back when I used to play Mario with my friends and pretend Link was my best friend. I was a notoriously bad rules reader when I was a kid and an even worse puzzle solver, so I used to make up my own rules for the board games my family owned (Monopoly, Clue, Sorry), which ended up being way more fun than playing the actual game. (Clue isn’t as fun as the whodunit RPG that I used to play it as!)

Miss N: How did you get into making games?

Elyse: It was in 2012 when I started making games. I was graduating from university with a degree in Biological Anthropology—concentrating in Forensic Anthropology—and had a volunteer job at the La Brea Tar Pits as an assistant to the curatorial assistants. I was passionate for skeletal remains and puzzle solving in forensics and was looking to pursue an MSc in Forensic Anthropology to work as a CSI.

But something didn’t feel quite right about pursuing a non-creative field, and I wasn’t very interested in pursuing academia. I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pencil (my first short story was Hello Kitty Goes to the Zoo) and was an avid fiction and fanfiction writer. I wanted to do something creative with my life instead. I realized that I could use my writing talents to work on video games.

I took a course in games at my school before I graduated, discovered the games industry, and decided to make board games while applying for my MFA in Game Design. A couple months later, I was accepted into the program!

Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?

Elyse: I have so many memories of playing games, it’s hard to pick the earliest one. I remember playing Mancala with the other girls at school and absolutely dominating. I remember getting my first Game Boy for my birthday and curling up on my couch, playing Mario for hours on end. I remember playing Mario 64 with my video game-loving uncle, asking him to solve level and boss puzzles for me whenever I’d get stuck, or going over to his apartment to play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater with my sister.

I think the most vivid memory I have is playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Mostly, I remember being terrible at it, and getting stuck at the snow temple. But I loved the game and the vivid world so much that I kept playing anyway. I’d go through the three-day cycle over and over again, trying to get masks and roleplaying as Link. I’d pretend to talk to NPCs and explore houses like I knew the people living inside. I got so many hours of playtime after this—even if the game and story never progressed.

Alien Academy by Elyse Lemoine, Vanessa Briceño, & Char George
Alien Academy by Elyse Lemoine, Vanessa Briceño, & Char George

Miss N: Do you see any parallels with your previous background and your work now as a game maker?

Elyse: I see a lot of parallels between game design and anthropology, and have actually met quite a few people who come from anthropological backgrounds before they switched to making games! Making games and programming especially is like puzzle solving, something that carries over heavily from my work in forensic science and paleontology. But anthropology is the study of humans, and I see a lot of that knowledge carry over into things like worldbuilding, character creation, language-writing, and even art.

In writing, they say to “write what you know,” and one of the benefits of coming from a really diverse background means I have a lot of information to pull from. That’s one of the many reasons why I love working with a really diverse team, too—the more everyone knows, the more interesting, varied, diverse, and awesome your game is going to be! Everyone has something different to bring to the table.

Miss N: Has making games changed your creative process in any way? Has it changed the way you see things or approach things?

Elyse: It really has. Mostly as I’ve become more of a programmer. I think making games takes a really diverse skillset, which is why it sometimes takes teams to craft really elaborate games. When I first started making games, I began with board games, as the only thing I felt I needed was some design sense, balancing, artistic skill, and a lot of patience. I started programming when I entered my Master’s program in Game Design as a part of the curriculum (which is why I wanted to pursue an education in games in the first place), and programming required me to rewire my brain’s entire approach to problem solving. I had to re-teach myself to approach and tackle problems from a totally different perspective, which I think was the hardest, but most rewarding thing about making games.

Now that I’ve wired myself to think more like a programmer, I see it a lot in the way I approach, solve problems, and create now.

Concept art from Alien Academy
Concept art from Alien Academy

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

Elyse: My creative process varies from game to game, but I like to start with an idea, usually a narrative. As a writer, I like to shape my gameplay around my story, marrying the two completely. For me, the story and gameplay usually go hand-in-hand. From there, I like to start concepting. Sometimes I’ll start with a paper prototype of a mechanic, but usually I’ll start with concept art, sketches, story bits, character bios, and worldbuilding. I don’t need to completely flesh out my world before I start working on the game (that would take forever), but I like to have ideas before I dive into the actually prototype.

From there, I start prototyping mechanics, mini-games, the base game loop. And as my prototype becomes more fleshed out, I move into alpha, beta, and then polish the game.

As I’m working, my game is likely to change a lot. If it’s a small project, it’s not likely that I’ll stray far from my original idea (like a game jam game or a small prototype), but as I discover better mechanics, new mechanics, and the like, I’ll reshape my game to balance it, as well as keep it under scope. Sometimes, I’ll even hit a wall—there’s a part of the game that I know I can’t do in the allotted time—and then I’ll reshape other parts of it completely to compensate. Making games is an iterative process, so I try to stick to a design doc, but I like to be open and flexible enough to handle any larger problems as they come!

Usually, with larger projects, I’m working with a team as well, and we usually tackle all of these problems together.

Concept Art for Witching
Concept Art for Witching

Miss N: In your work as a game maker, you’ve had so many different roles from game designer to writer to programmer, among others. Are there things inherent within each of those roles that you never thought about before you did them?

Elyse: Yes, definitely! Game development shapes each of the roles differently than they would be on their own.

For instance, writing for games is a completely different thought process than writing prose. While writing prose, I can capture an audience’s attention by carefully crafting the story I want them to read, but game writing needs to be different. Whether it’s the overarching story to a tactical game or a choose-your-own adventure game, narrative needs to fit the game that it’s marrying. Backstories need to be playable—they need to come out in the game, seen in some way without being told. Narrative needs to fit the mechanics, story, and progression, and it needs to be something more than just a slide read in-between scenes.

Miss N: Thinking about your game projects, have you ever fallen in love with some ideas but later had to scrap them?

Elyse: Before I came to games, I was a writer of over fifteen years. And over the years, I’ve learned that you always have to be prepared to “kill your darlings.” A character or plot thread that you love might not actually fit in with your story, and no matter how hard you try to cram that puzzle piece in, you’ll have to kill it to make your story stronger. This carried over directly into making games — ideas that you love might not always be good ideas, or they might not fit into the scope of the project. You have to always be prepared to scrap them if it means making the project stronger or better. You can’t get married to particular ideas, especially when working in a team.

For instance, I was working on a choose-your-own-adventure game about being queer and coming home for the holidays. It was about dealing with a family who loves you, but doesn’t always understand you. I wanted the player to be able to choose their gender at the start of the game, and I wanted that choice to matter. It wasn’t just a simple change of pronouns, but also a change in perspective. This was important to the story that I wanted to tell, but considering only one route was 25,000 words long, I knew I didn’t have the time or bandwidth to do both and had to cut the idea from the final game. I would rather have one strong story than two weaker ones.

The one thing I will always fight for in the games that I work on is diversity. It’s my number one priority as a game developer, but also as a queer woman in the games space. I’m so tired of the white male dominance of the industry, so I push, either aggressively or subtly, for changes in that. I usually won’t back down off this issue until I’m at least sort of satisfied with the end result!

Prototype for Husband of Mine
Prototype for Husband of Mine

Miss N: How do you know when to fight for an idea (especially if you’re working in a team) versus scrapping or compromising?

Elyse: Usually, I trust my gut. If I know that an idea is a good one and worth pursuing, then I’ll fight for it. In working with a team, it’s important that you don’t have the mentality of “my way or the highway,” but having convictions in your ideas is still good! If there’s a concept that I know is at least worth trying, then I’ll push for it. And if we try it and it’s terrible, then at least we can say we tried and I’m more than willing to back down after that. Because hey, at least we learned something from the process.

But I’m never looking to fight with my team, I’m just willing to argue for my ideas. Picking your battles is important, and if it’s just going to sow dissent or disparity in your group, then maybe it’s worth backing down for that too.

Again, when it comes to the topic of diversifying my games, I also tend not to back down until a legitimate reason is given to me why “x character can’t be a woman,” or a certain story element has to exist.

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

Elyse: Obviously, the hardest hurdle that I had to overcome was my lack of programming knowledge. Not only was programming a hard concept for me to grasp at the start, it was also a hard thing for me to get good at. I had to re-approach my methods of problem solving, and had to push really hard in order to have the knowledge that I do today. The biggest challenge that I have to overcome every time I sit down to make something new is when I ask myself “how the hell am I gonna do this?” There are still a million and one times where I’m unsure how to tackle a particular problem in code, so I have to find ways around them. Or consult Google until my eyes are bleeding.

Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling?

Elyse: Seeing people react to the games that I make is the most fulfilling. A lot of the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve done for myself. Quite a few games that I made were ways for me to tackle particular problems in my life or were tools to help me discuss my emotional state with my friends. It’s always amazing seeing someone react to one of those games, and react positively.

BONES by Elyse Lemoine
BONES by Elyse Lemoine

Earlier this year, I worked on a game called BONES, an autobiographical Twine game about dealing with abuse and sexual trauma. I was going through a really hard time in my life, and wanted a way to be able to express that to my friends. It was easily the hardest game I’ve ever had to produce content for. I chose to tackle parts of my life that I’m still traumatized by, but in the end, I had something I could show people, even if it was just to get them to understand me a little bit more.

I ended up posting it online to a group of my close friends, and a lot of them asked me if they could show it to other women in their lives who’d been abused, sexually assaulted, or bullied. And those women reached out to me afterward and told me that hearing my story helped them in the smallest way. This experience made all of that pain and suffering just a little bit worth it.

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

Elyse: In a genre of sameness, especially in the more macho AAA companies, the games that really push the boundaries stand out. I’ve always looked up to Bioware as a company for how they push the narrative of their games, not only allowing players to craft their own stories and creating a community of shared and individual experiences, but in their push for diversity of character and story. It’s always such an inspiration to me, especially as a queer game developer. On the other hand, it’s almost sad that I’m continually amazed that a game chooses to represent non-binary, non-cis, non-white male characters and do it with respect and do it well. I think, in 2016, we shouldn’t be commending a company for this because ALL companies should be doing this. C’mon, people!!

I think the independent games community is always looking to push games as a medium. It comes from the culture of independence, but also the sheer diversity of game makers in the independent scene. There are people who are trained and people who are just starting out and each of them will tackle game design in a different and unique way. Diversity begets more diversity, and the independent scene is an incredibly diverse one. I’m always constantly amazed at the content produced by indies.

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

Elyse: That’s a really challenging question. The obvious answer is “immersion.” By giving the player the controller as well as the agency, you can better pull them into your stories and characters. But I think books and film and TV shows do this just as well. There are characters I’ve bonded with in games by gaining control of them and making them mine, but I feel the same way about characters whose journeys I’ve followed very closely in TV or film.

I think games, as a medium, have the freedom of exploring stories and mechanics in a completely different way. By knowing and understanding the tropes that work well for other mediums, we can subvert them or even destroy them completely. You can take a player’s expectation and shatter it just by giving them the freedom of choice, or by giving them agency and control over an avatar. I think player stories are something that games have that no other medium can truly grasp. By giving players agency and allowing them to shape their own stories, new narratives emerge.

And this doesn’t even have to be done by embedding your game with narrative choice. I’ve heard some of the best and most diverse stories from games like Dwarf Fortress. I’ve heard hours-long conversations between friends about “their Shepards” from Mass Effect or “their Inquisitors” or “Wardens” from Dragon Age. And while I can have just as exciting conversations with friends about movies or books, we’re almost always telling the exact same one.

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

Elyse: I admire all women and nonbinary people in games, to be honest. With the male dominance and the constant harassment that so many of us have to put up with, it’s easy to be discouraged. But the women and nonbinary people in this industry are made of tough, amazing stuff. It’s so incredible to hear their stories, to see them at conferences, and to watch them speak out and make positive change! Seriously, you all inspire me every day with your courage, your creativity, and your hard work. It makes me proud to be in this industry.

My list of awesome and inspirational people in games is so long, I don’t even think I could pick just one! But Clara Fernández-Vara — my friend, professor, and mentor — has made such a strong impact on my life that she makes the top of my list, for sure. She’s an amazing writer, game maker, academic, and friend, and has inspired so many of my projects. She’s also shaped the way I look at, approach, and make games, and has pushed me to be my absolute best.

And, of course, I’m constantly inspired by my girlfriend and partner, Eva Jolene. (As well as some of my friends who always inspire me: Winnie Song and Vanessa Briceño!)

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

Elyse: Don’t be afraid to fail.

When I first started out making games, I was excited and ready to push myself harder than I ever have, but as I became self-conscious of my ability to program and my worth as a game maker, I became more conservative with some of the projects I worked on. We should never be afraid to try something new, even if it fails in the end — we learn the most from our failures, and I learned the most from mine. I should’ve failed more, instead of always picking the safest route and shying away from new ideas and challenges!

Miss N: Thank you, Elyse!


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