Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Leisha-Marie Riddel

[Courtesy of Leisha.]
[Courtesy of Leisha-Marie.]
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 Leisha-Marie Riddel, an illustrator based in Toronto and the creator of #PROJECTSOLACE.

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

Leisha-Marie: I graduated from Sheridan College’s Bachelor of Applied Arts Animation Program (aka not a real Bachelor) when the program was in its infancy, so it was still ironing out a lot of the kinks that the program no longer has. I always wanted to be a commercial artist, i.e. working for a company as an artist or generating art for consumption as opposed to creating art for exploratory purposes, and I pursued that from childhood. Unfortunately, because I graduated during the program’s problematic teenage phase, I wasn’t given a lot of the insight a lot of the graduates now have, and I wasn’t a particularly confident grad.

Miss N: How did you get into making games?

Leisha-Marie: I spent a lot of time freelancing from home on various projects and going into games was suggested to me by a peer. I started freelancing for games, and ended up at Gameloft Entertainment. But around that same time, I got introduced to Dames Making Games, and I did my first game jam at their very first NoJam 2012, where I made Seven Sins — the platforming adventure of Suzy Shears, the single mom pirate.

Since then, I’ve created several independent games at jams, and worked on game titles such as Shrek’s Fairytale Kingdom and Disney’s Magic Kingdom as well as several unreleased/unannounced titles.

Level Mockup for Seven Sins
Level mockup for Seven Sins

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

Leisha-Marie: I was actually discussing this on my Twitch channel the other night. My very first memory of a video game is possibly watching my brother play Metroid on the NES, and being terrified of Crocomire. I remember crying for several nights about that boss monster.

But my first memory playing games is probably Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis . I was determined to play and beat that game. We didn’t have any of the other consoles—we just had Sega branded consoles. I remember not being able to beat it, and I eventually gave up. I still play games like that.

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

Leisha-Marie: Generally, when I want to create a game independently, my process is fairly arbitrary. It depends on the jam that I’m participating in, and if I’m working with a team. My work and creative process tends to focus on character first, then color. I’m not big on exploring mechanics or game design, as it’s not an area I focus on my daily life.

Model sheet for Lisa on #PROJECTSOLACE
Model sheet for Lisa on #PROJECTSOLACE

When it comes to character creation, for games or for comics (which is my predominant medium), I’ll draft up a brief on who the character is and what their motivations are in the gameplay space or the world they exist in. So, as an example, when I was finalizing “Lisa” for #PROJECTSOLACE, I decided what her motivations were and how I wanted her to develop over time. The same applies to game characters, who have decidedly less backstory. When we were working on Pluto’s Revenge, a jam game that satirizes Pluto’s demotion from planet status, I focused on Pluto’s motivation to become a planet and that informed its transformation over time.

Miss N: Speaking of #PROJECTSOLACE, we’ve featured it before, but for those who have yet to hear about it, can you tell them about it?

Leisha-Marie: #PROJECTSOLACE is my graphic novel project that follows the story of Alex Wolfe, a 19-year-old illustration student, and how her world is turned upside down after many women and nonbinary folks are granted superpowers. It takes place in Toronto, Canada, so there are a lot of iconic locations featured in the comic such as Kensington Market, the Distillery District, and the Toronto Islands.

The story is an exploration of how the patriarchy would get its knickers in a twist if this actually happened. The antagonists of the story, “The Matriarchs,” are interesting in that they can’t be classified as evil in any way — just as a different viewpoint to the folks of #PROJECTSOLACE.

My intent was always to create a diverse cast, and so far the cast is comprised of 80% women, nonbinary, trans, and disabled characters.

#PROJECTSOLACE by Leisha-Marie Riddel
#PROJECTSOLACE by Leisha-Marie Riddel

Miss N: How is it developing? Any early challenges you’ve encountered or things that are taking longer to figure out?

Leisha-Marie: Well, honestly, it was supposed to be out by October 2015, but in the summer of that year, I realized making the Matriarchs evil was a poor representation of who the characters in that group were. I took the extra time to flesh them out and realized that they were much more sympathetic than I had ever planned on them being.

I also wanted to be more inclusive, because I’m a garbage cis person. I realized while I couldn’t directly relate to the transgender experience, I could still explore it as something that affects the characters I do relate to. So I wrote a few nonbinary and trans folks into the storyline, which expanded the depth of the characters that were already there.

I’m very aware of its potential reach now, and I’m constantly writing to improve how they might be perceived. It’s a bit like stepping on eggshells—I can’t just stomp through it. Currently, I have the first couple of chapters finished, and hope to have chapters one through five drawn and printed by May 2016 for the Toronto Comics Arts Festival.

Miss N: What are you most excited about with the project?

Leisha-Marie: After going to GaymerX, I realized just how profound the effect was of having a cast of mostly women and nonbinary characters—especially a cast that was over half POC. Characters who perceive their own race as something they have to overcome, or wear as a badge of privilege, really resonates with people. I truly wasn’t aware just how deeply that would move people, and perhaps it’s because my workspace has generally been comprised of cis het men.


Miss N: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve encountered so far?

Leisha-Marie: It sounds a bit terrible, but writing the trans experience even with secondary characters has been pretty eye-opening. It’s not something I can personally speak to, but I’m aware that inclusion of trans characters and doing them justice in mainstream fiction isn’t something that’s done frequently or with any finesse. Generally, I sit down and explore my characters on a very personal level, and none of the original seven read as transgender for me, which I still kind of feel bad about. But I’ve been able to introduce at least two into the story and not in a way that’s like, “Here I did it, do I get my good ally badge now?” Rather, it’s in a way that actually affects the characters and plot.

Miss N: Does your creative process change when you’re working on games versus working on other mediums like your graphic novel?

Leisha-Marie: I touched on this in the previous question, and generally, yes it does. When I work on a game, and especially in the games that I’ve worked on (either mobile or independent), the backstories of the characters and the world are of lesser importance. The focus for game characters is always the playability and immediate appeal of their design, and how they explore the space physically.

I have spent years developing the characters for #PROJECTSOLACE, and it might be a focus bias, just because games have generally been a hobby or a way to survive the economy  (which sounds terrible). If I could be given the opportunity to explore characters and worlds to the depth that I can do on my own time, I would probably fall more in love with my career. But I don’t think any budget or schedule would allow that. With my personal work, I’m acutely aware of its potential effect on the people who I want to consume it, so I’m constantly changing angles of the characters so as to attempt to not offend anyone.

But with games, especially when you make games in a studio environment, you can’t just do whatever you want and take as long as you want. But that isn’t a creative death sentence, which is widely what’s considered of going mainstream. Working within restrictions and with the extra pressure of working with people you didn’t choose to work with (which can be positive or negative) often yields results you wouldn’t achieve on your own.

Miss N: Do you ever get creative blocks or moments when you know what you made just isn’t “right?” What’s your process like in terms of trying to get through it?

Leisha-Marie: I recently faced a creative block and generally, if I can, I step away and do something completely different before I come back and try again. Otherwise, it becomes even more redundant, which demotivates me. If I’m really stuck, I’ll phone a friend and ask for their input.

Same thing goes for my career—if I do something that isn’t right, and if I’m afforded the chance, I’ll come back to it later. Otherwise, I’ll call on my Art Director to step in and give a new perspective. In both scenarios, I won’t necessarily accept the advice, but it’ll change how I’m approaching the problem.

#PROJECTSOLACE by Leisha-Marie Riddel
#PROJECTSOLACE by Leisha-Marie Riddel

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

Leisha-Marie: Aside from being completely incapable of programming or coding of any sort, the biggest issue is being able to keep the passion and fire of the original idea alive in the final product. When you generate a new idea, it’s always exciting and new, but it gets diluted as time passes.

Miss N: What’s the most fulfilling experience you’ve had when making games?

Leisha-Marie: In late 2015, I did the ROM Game Jam with a few friends (our team was mostly artists) and we made a game that satirized Pluto’s demotion from planet status. The game we ended up with after a day or so was funny, and fairly easy to pick up and play. We were interviewed for The Huffington Post and Space Channel on our endeavor, and it wasn’t really something that hit home for me, but my friend Britney—who really needed that pick-me-up at that time—felt something change inside her. She finally felt that her pursuit wasn’t futile, and that really made it for me—that I was there to see that.

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

Leisha-Marie: Games are really good at making people really angry, I know that. Honestly, I don’t think that other than being able to interact, there are things that games do better than any other medium. Games present visuals and entertainment in a different way than comics or movies do, so I find it hard to compare.

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

Leisha-Marie: There are countless games being created by Dames and other independent developers that all push the boundaries of what we expect of a video game—and to write about all of them would take forever. I would say check out what Dames Making Games in Toronto is pumping out on the daily, as well as the results from the Pixelles Incubators. They’re all fascinating explorations of mechanics and video games.

If I had to choose one, I’d choose Punk Prism Power, developed by Mahou Shoujammers, where you play cooperatively with actual “magical” swords that interact with the screen. 

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

Leisha-Marie: I actually really admire Kara Stone. She’s very frank in her work and has so far been very successful in her gaming and academic pursuits. I admire her honesty in her work. It’s something I don’t see often.

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?

Leisha-Marie: Hey, young me, it’ll suck for a while—but it gets better. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to sit through fourteen hour days to get promoted while your cis het male coworker gets to go on vacation and gets promoted, too.

Miss N: Thank you, Leisha-Marie!

If you’re interested in following Leisha-Marie, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @LeishaRiddel. 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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