[Trigger warning: brief discussion of death and the concept of mortality.]
“Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Gabby DaRienzo, a Toronto-based freelance game artist/UI/UX designer and independent game developer.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Gabby: I was studying graphic design in school, but my portfolio was super game-heavy. Shortly after I graduated, my game-heavy design portfolio helped land me a job as a marketing artist at a local mobile games studio called XMG Studio, mainly doing marketing/promotional materials for XMG’s games, but also a lot of UI/UX and front-end development for the studio’s websites. A year or so later, when they needed another UI/UX designer, they transitioned me over and I started working on their games.
Around that time, I was introduced to Dames Making Games—a Toronto-based organization that supports women/trans/nonbinary/queer folk who want to develop/play games. I met a ton of incredibly inspiring game makers, and it was through DMG that I started learning some programming basics and was inspired and encouraged to make my own games and run my own business. At the beginning of 2015, I made the decision to leave my job at XMG and pursue a career as a freelance game artist and UI/UX designer, working on client’s projects and other interesting games, and developing my own games in my spare time. A few months ago, my partner and I made the decision to start our own game studio together, and we are currently in the early stages of incorporating.
Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?
Gabby: When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play video games. My dad thought they were a waste of time, and so we aren’t allowed to have any video game consoles in our house. Without his knowledge, I would buy PC games, sneakily install them onto our family computer, and play them while he wasn’t at home. My favorites were Tomb Raider III, Glover, and The Sims. While visiting my cousin, I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on his N64 and became obsessed. Ten-year-old me desperately wished for an N64. I drew a ton of fanart of Link, and even made this super nerdy Majora’s Mask walkthrough.
I feel like I should note that my dad has since accepted that games are not a waste of time, and is quite supportive of my career. His favorite games are Bubble Witch Saga 2 and this weird Tetris knockoff he plays on the TV while watching TV.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
Gabby: I have a note on my phone that is filled with weird game ideas, mechanics, or themes. I’ll think of something or be inspired by something I see/watch/read/whatever and write it down immediately. Sometimes those ideas flesh out into something else, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes my ideas come from dreams, but they’re usually not great. A lot of times, my game ideas are monster-related—I really like monsters and ghosts and stuff and they usually sneak into my games somehow.
When I think of an idea, I like to bounce it off of someone, usually my partner. For me, explaining the idea out loud and seeing their response or hearing their feedback is how ideas get stronger and evolve into actual game designs. Sometimes, you realize the idea doesn’t work and you can trash it, or take bits and pieces from it to use in another game idea.
Miss N: Last year, you showed Trackoons at Bit Bazaar. It looks like such a fun multiplayer game, especially with those custom controllers. Can you tell us about the game?
Gabby: Trackoons is a competitive 8-person local multiplayer game for PC/Mac/Linux where you play as a raccoon facing off in a hurdles race in Toronto, Canada. However, because you are a Toronto raccoon who has eaten too much garbage, your belly is too full and you are unable to jump. The only thing you can do is use your joystick to swap positions with the person adjacent to you, throwing them into obstacles and out of the race.
The original version of the game used Xbox controllers, but we have since built a custom 8-player joystick rig for it, in which the joysticks are positioned in such a way that you have to squish in—subsequently messing up your friends in real life, while messing them up in-game.
Miss N: What motivated you all to make it?
Gabby: My partner and I came up with the concept during the Wild Rumpus/Venus Patrol party at GDC 2015. There was this game there called Elbow Room, which is played with one single keyboard. Something like 40+ people each choose a key on the keyboard, and on the screen, this radial menu spins around and you have to tap your key when the spinner lands on your letter.
It’s really hard, especially when you have like 39 other people shoved in around you —sometimes someone else’s hand will slip and hit your key and it makes it really challenging. Everyone was having a blast, though, laughing at themselves and with each other. It was a ton of fun. We really loved that mechanic of physically messing up your friends, and that heavily inspired Trackoons.
Miss N: What was the process like developing it?
Gabby: It was made by myself, my partner Andrew Carvalho, and our friends Robert Peacock, Yuliya Boublikova, Maggie McLean, and Robby Duguay for a game jam (Dames Making Games Gym Jam) back in May 2015.
We were originally planning on developing it in 2D, but figured ragdoll physics would make the game more hilarious, so I taught myself how to do low poly 3D art in Blender during the weeks leading up to the jam. It was my first time working in 3D, as well as rigging and animating, so it was quite the productive jam weekend for me. It was also Robert’s first time programming for a game, so I think it was a great “first time” experience for a few of us.
Miss N: Were there things you wanted to include, but had to scrap?
Gabby: There were a ton of things we wanted to include but didn’t have time for. Our 2D artist Yuliya made a bunch of gorgeous background images that unfortunately didn’t end up working out. Fortunately, we’ve been approached since then by a few upcoming festivals, and now have the opportunity to update the game with the things we initially weren’t able to include.
Even though we couldn’t use Yuliya’s art in the game, we are planning on commissioning her to do art for an upcoming exhibition at TIFF digiPlaySpace. We’re really excited to be able to feature more of Yuliya’s gorgeous work.
Miss N: Previously, you’ve also shown an interest and have written about death positivity in games. Can you tell us what drew you to this area of games?
Gabby: I’ve always been interested in death and the death industry, starting from when I was a pretty young kid. I can’t even exactly pinpoint what started that, but I remember being very accepting of death and my own mortality as a very young, elementary school-aged child. I think that’s what drew me to really loving games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and The Sims—both of which are fairly death-centric.
Recently, I’ve been incredibly inspired by Caitlin Doughty, Amber Carvaly, and other morticians and funeral directors who are actively changing the way we think about death and the funeral industry. Last year, I read Caitlin’s autobiographical memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory in which Caitlin talks about her career and experiences working in the funeral industry. I read this book, finished it, and then immediately started reading it again. I loved it so much. I started thinking about death a lot more, but particularly how it relates to games.
Miss N: Why do you think games are good platforms to explore death?
Gabby: The interactivity of video games makes it a great medium for getting the player to directly deal with things like death, yet a lot of the time, it seems like developers aren’t really considering it mechanically when designing their games. There’s this formulaic response to use a life system or respawning, which works well for a lot of games, but often it just feels tired — like the designer didn’t think about it at all.
However, there are a bunch of games that do use death in mechanically or narratively interesting ways, and it’s exciting to see developers really thinking about death when designing their games. It’s something I’m considering a lot now, and a big reason why I wanted to create Mortuary Simulator — a game that encourages the player to directly deal with death.
Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about Mortuary Simulator?
Gabby: Mortuary Simulator is a game we are currently developing for PC/Mac and potentially other platforms. You play as a mortician and are tasked with running a funeral home, preparing the cadavers of the deceased, and interacting and comforting the deceased’s family.
I had originally created Mortuary Simulator as a prototype just for fun—it was something I had been thinking about a lot, and wanted to make for funsies. I prototyped it using PICO-8, shared a few screenshots, and that was that. What I did not expect was for people to actually be interested in the game. I received a ton of questions asking where they could play the game, when it would be out, etc., but also specific questions about the funeral industry. I was surprised, but also quite pleased—I didn’t expect many people to be interested in the topic. I decided it might be a good thing to make into a full game, and have been excitedly working on it since.
Miss N: What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
Gabby: The biggest challenge with developing Mortuary Simulator so far is trying to avoid it coming across as a horror game, because it super isn’t—it’s more like a job sim, haha.
The majority of depictions of mortuaries or funeral homes in media, specifically in games, are horrific or gruesome, and it’s hard to break people’s mindsets about that. It’s a profession like any other, and I want to make sure Mortuary Simulator shows that, and breaks what perceptions people may have about death and the funeral industry. I’ve also been doing a ton of research and interviewing death professionals to make sure the game is as accurate as possible.
Miss N: Looking more generally at all your game making experiences, what’s been the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered?
Gabby: So far, the biggest challenge for me is juggling client work with my own personal games and projects. I have a hard time saying “no” to working with cool studios and/or on interesting projects, and often, my personal work suffers for it. I’ve been working to overcome that, and prioritize my own work alongside client work.
Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had?
Gabby: I really love watching people play and enjoy our games, especially kids. We had the opportunity to show off Trackoons at an event during the summer with Dames Making Games, and there were a ton of kids there that really enjoyed it. We had a lot of kids thank us for making it. A few kids asked us how we made it, and listened intently as we told them about what tools we used, how to download them, and where they could find resources for making their own games. It was awesome, and meant so much that these kids were super enjoying something that we made, but also that it was inspiring to them to make their own games. That probably isn’t going to happen with Mortuary Simulator, haha.
Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Gabby: There are so many games I can think of that have done incredible and innovative things with mechanics or narrative or tech, but Psychonauts still stands out to me as a game that really pushes boundaries. Not only is the game gorgeous, hilarious, and a ton of fun to play, but Psychonauts also allows the players to navigate and interact with neuroses, trauma, and mental health in a way that is both eye-opening and stigma-breaking. Psychonauts remains my all-time favorite game for all of these reasons.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that games do better than other mediums?
Gabby: Video games are a very participatory medium, and there’s a lot you can do with that. There are so many games whose stories are told through that interactivity, and wouldn’t work nearly as well with any other medium. Games like Her Story, Undertale, Hotline Miami, and BioShock immediately spring to mind.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Gabby: I really admire all the folks I know through Dames Making Games and Pixelles. I’ve had such a positive experience with both of these communities and it’s mainly because their members and organizers have been incredibly supportive and inspiring. I can’t even begin to list who inspires me from DMG, because all of the friends I’ve made through this organization have had a such a positive effect on me—not only in how I design and develop games, but as a person as well.
Taylor Bai-Woo is someone I met through DMG who has had a very specific effect on how I approach game development. Taylor’s games are often small, but always gorgeous. They’re sometimes very personal, sometimes very experimental, and sometimes just very fun. I really admire Taylor’s versatility in game development, and that’s something I’m constantly inspired by and something I’d like to personally strive for.
I also really admire Karen Teixeira and am always so inspired by her gorgeous art, her versatility with style, and her willingness to learn new things. In a really large way, it’s because of her that I’ve been motivated to teach myself 3D art and animation.
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?
Gabby: Making your own games isn’t as out-of-reach as you think it is. Make your own games!
Miss N: Thank you, Gabby!
If you’re interested in following Gabby, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @gabdar. Her game, Trackoons, will be part of TIFF digiPlaySpace from March 5 to April 24, so if you’re in Toronto, check out the game! As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers who you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.