“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 Vaida Plankyte, a Scotland-based game designer who enjoys making small personal games, experimenting with narration, and live-tweeting movies, apparently.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Vaida: I am currently studying Computer Science with Management in Edinburgh. I had tried making games on several occasions growing up, but coding seemed like such a difficult hurdle to overcome. I would abandon projects as soon as I hit a roadblock.
In 2014, I decided to use Twitter more so I could follow game developers, and around that time, the FlappyJam was announced. Its host encouraged me to make a small something, reminding me that Construct 2 was very easy to use and didn’t require any programming. I enjoyed the experience so much that the month after, I started One Game A Month.
Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Vaida: The very first game I played was a Lithuanian educational game with my mom on our home computer. I didn’t own a console then, so I would play anything I could find online. I recall playing a lot of Cartoon Network games when I was little — it’s partly how I learned English, trying to figure out what a quest meant by trial and error. When I moved to France, I remember spending a lot of time on Newgrounds; I found their Art Games collection particularly interesting.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
Vaida: When I started, I mostly participated in game jams, because they often have set themes that prevented me from having to find an idea for a game completely out of the blue. However, as I got more confident with game development, I ended up making games about particularly strong feelings I was having that month—from sadness over a friend being depressed, to having trouble enjoying family holidays.
I have the bad habit of rushing through development; I fear that I will lose motivation on a project if I spend too long on it, thus I like to keep my games short and to the point. I spend time reflecting on how I could make the player feel certain emotions while also keeping the game very small in scope—this is a very interesting process for me, as I end up cutting all the “bonus” content that would, in the end, not benefit the experience that much in order to concentrate on the core mechanics that drive the game.
Miss N: What’s your process usually like when you’re trying to figure out what mechanics to include?
Vaida: When making autobiographical games, I want to see the player empathize, so I usually start development by thinking about what I want to communicate and which mechanics would allow the story to be told in a way that would allow the player to understand it best. I ask myself whether allowing the player to interact is necessary to their understanding, and whether restraining their power could communicate something interesting to them. I enjoy playing on that.
For example, in A Survival Game, the player walks around a forest while listening to the narrator talk about depression. The mechanic is not the core of the game, but by restraining the player’s actions of being able to wander around, I tried to reinforce the idea of inactivity that the narrator keeps coming back to. I’m interested in games that rely on audio more than they do on gameplay to convey meaning—I think it’s interesting to give the player something to tinker with while they listen, only to have them realize that the gameplay is meant to reflect the story.
Miss N: Since March 2014, you’ve been making one game a month. What prompted you to start that streak and what’s the experience been like?
Vaida: I started One Game A Month because I saw that it motivated people to experiment without putting pressure on polishing. I wanted to get myself to make games regularly, and learn how to be less of a perfectionist. My process varies greatly throughout the months: I sometimes develop for a couple of weeks, but more often than not I get really enthusiastic and finish the game in less than a week of intense work.
One Game A Month can be disastrous if you don’t have the right mindset, though; it can become pretty stressful when there is only a week left and you know that you have to make something in order to keep up the streak. However, I have noticed many benefits after doing it for two years. For instance, it does develop a creative habit, and I’m able to brainstorm more effectively. I learned how to deal with Imposter’s Syndrome, tweet regularly, and be proud of what I make. Being able to release games each month and compare statistics has also been really enlightening. Most importantly, it made me realize that game development doesn’t have to be a long process to make long games—BRR took me around five hours to create, yet I believe that its message gets across.
Also, GIFs. Tweets with GIFs work way better to get your game out there.
Miss N: We really love There is a Light That Never Goes Out and Talks With My Mom—two games that you’ve made that feel very personal and evoke such strong emotions. Can you speak about them a little bit?
Vaida: Talks With My Mom was made for Genderjam. I wanted to show how I experienced gender and sexuality by walking the player through several scenes. I was only on my second month of doing one game per month, and I hadn’t yet made an autobiographical game. I felt the need to make this game to see if others had similar experiences, while also having the development be cathartic.
There is a Light That Never Goes Out was made with a team of four people for a 48-hour gamejam with the theme “Start it.” We decided to develop a game about a person trying to start a new life by learning how to handle their anxiety. We were interested in experimenting with gameplay and wanted to challenge ourselves to represent something intangible through mechanics.
Miss N: What was the process like developing them?
Vaida: For There is a Light That Never Goes Out, we set ourselves the rule of not using any text in-game, apart from the title and ending screens. This meant that we had to make the gameplay exceptionally intuitive and easy to relate to, which wasn’t easy. We went through a few iterations regarding the “collectibles,” as it wasn’t completely clear to the playtesters how the items interacted and affected the player. Once we got the right direction, though, everything clicked into place and suddenly the mechanics felt way more natural.
I remember being afraid of releasing Talks With My Mom. I felt that this was impossible to not take criticism personally with a game that was full of scenes taken almost word-for-word from my life. I imagined people telling me that it wasn’t a game and that it was shallow, or inaccurate, or just plain bad. However, I ended up receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback; it was at that point that I realized how rewarding game development can be if it is used to talk about personal experiences.
Miss N: Are there aspects of these games that you’re really proud of that perhaps players won’t realize, at least initially?
Vaida: I really enjoyed working on the audio in There Is A Light That Never Goes Out; I think the various layers of sound create the right atmosphere, and the breathing sounds communicate anxiety well. What is more, our two designers spent a huge amount of time working on which objects to include to make the house more realistic and quite haunting. The amount of art assets our artist produced in 48 hours is unbelievable!
In Talks With My Mom, players often find the dialogue comical, but they might not realize that these conversations actually happened. I am glad I was honest, because ultimately, people were able to relate.
Miss N: Looking back at your game making adventures, what’s the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered when making games?
Vaida: It can be hard to talk about past experiences—when trying to brainstorm what mechanic would work well to express certain emotions, you have no choice but think through those memories and analyze them. It can be a pretty painful process to go through, though the final product is eventually worth it.
What is more, it is challenging to find mechanics that express emotions and abstract concepts clearly and naturally. I often have trouble deciding how linear I want a game to be—I deal with this by deciding whether showing players a certain path is essential, and if having different outcomes would really enhance the game.
Miss N: What’s the most fulfilling experience you’ve had?
Vaida: Making personal games allows me to release negative emotions, and seeing other people empathize with the game is invaluable. I really like the idea of games being snapshots of my life, as if I was building a small collection of interactive polaroids—if I play those games again, I can clearly remember how I was feeling at that particular moment.
I also really enjoy hearing people analyze the games; sometimes they interpret them very differently, and it’s fascinating to hear how certain details that I might not have thought about much when developing were the center of their interest. Developers make a lot of subconscious choices when making a game, and sometimes players make me realize why I implemented a certain mechanic in the way I did.
Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Vaida: I absolutely love The Beginner’s Guide. It has a completely unexpected structure—a bundle of games with an overarching narrator—but it works perfectly. I love the fact that its creator focused on telling the story in a way that worked best without feeling like he needed to comply to what a traditional game is.
Cibele is very smart in its design, too—giving the player a computer screen to interact with works well to make the player identify, and allows for a very non-linear experience, with every player going (or not going) through the files in a different order.
I’m also looking forward to playing That Dragon, Cancer sometime soon!
Miss N: What excites you about the medium of games that perhaps you wouldn’t normally have in other mediums?
Vaida: Looking at personal games, the developer can allow the player to step in their shoes and really experience that moment, not just by giving them text to read or a movie to watch, but by actually putting the player in situations that the developer had to face. This creates a closer bond between the creator and the player than in other media, in my opinion. Even a simple interaction, such as clicking the link of a Twine game, is in a way “endorsing” that text, acknowledging that fact—the player is dynamically moving through the story, which makes them more involved and creates a more intimate experience, especially since every player will interact with the game in their own way.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Vaida: I really admire merritt kopas, as Videogames For Humans opened up my eyes regarding the potential of Twine and interactive storytelling. She also puts an emphasis on the curation of games with Forest Ambassador. This interests me, as I wish to interact with games in different ways, not just make them. Her work, together with Anna Anthropy’s and Porpentine’s, introduced me to Twine and personal games in general. I can clearly remember playing CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA for the first time and being blown away.
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?
Vaida: A band called Adult Mom posted this on Facebook, and I think it applies to games too:
“It’s OK if you know 3 chords on a guitar and nothing else, do what you want, no gear-humping dude should tell u how to make your art.”
Miss N: Thank you, Vaida!
If you’re interested in following Vaida, visit her website, play her games, or follow her on Twitter @underskinnyhrt. 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.