“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 Diane “MadameBerry” Mueller, an independent game developer creating weird tiny games.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Diane: While taking part in a beta test for a small MMO in high school, I discovered I loved seeing the game evolve. After that, I pursued a degree in game development from Savannah College of Art and Design. I originally went for 3D modeling, but found I had a much better appreciation for design. While the degree had a great focus on preparing students for AAA development, I was able to develop my own design style and teach myself pixel art.
Anyway, I create small games with narrow focuses, as well as Patreon-funded experiments and prototypes.
Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Diane: My dad had an old NES he’d let my brother and I use occasionally. He didn’t like us playing games much, and eventually sold the NES (which he regrets doing) under the rule that if we got a new console, we would have to sell the old one first. I remember playing Duck Hunt, Top Gun, Super Mario Bros, and Legend of Zelda, though we never got very far in any of them.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
Diane: I have a running list of game ideas, story ideas, art style ideas, and such that I add to any time I have an idea. I’ll pull from that, occasionally combining things I think might work well together. If there’s something I feel strongly enough about to want to drop everything to make, I’ll make a proof of concept and see if it’s something I want to continue. I like working on one long-term project while exploring a bunch of smaller ideas at the same time.
Miss N: As you go through the development process, what’s your process like when figuring out what mechanics to include in your games?
Diane: I generally want to include mechanics that compliment the theme of the game I’m making. In Fragile Soft Machines, I wanted to include a particular experimental typeface that looked like plants, so plants and words became the mechanic of typing responses that grew a garden. Or in Visual Out, the project I currently have in development, I wanted to come up with mechanics that complimented being in an electronic landscape, so things like manipulating currents and altering data came to mind.
Some of my games start out as mechanics, and I build a theme around that.
Miss N: In Fragile Soft Machines, we really loved how the narrative is delivered in such a poetic way. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Diane: Fragile Soft Machines is a point-and-click style game about a butterfly with a torn wing. It features narrative choices and writing prompts which affect the path the butterfly takes up through the garden. Certain choices also dictate the way the garden grows.
When I made Fragile Soft Machines, I had making an environment in which the player felt calm and comfortable in mind. I mentioned I had a typeface I was using, where each letter was a different bit of a plant, so each word the player typed became a unique bundle of flowers that grew where the player stood. I wanted to explore a theme of finding belonging in a world that doesn’t seem like you were meant for it. The butterfly was fairly obvious symbolism that worked exceptionally well in the setting of a garden.
Miss N: What was the process like developing that game?
Diane: I actually scrapped and re-wrote the game completely a month into development, and then again a while in. Writing was absolutely the most difficult part of development. I felt like I had no voice, or that I was trying too hard to force a voice and it was coming off annoying. A ton of thinking, spreadsheeting, talking it over with friends, and writing later, it became something I was much happier with.
I also vented by making a game in which you uncontrollably throw away everything you write.
Miss N: Can you expand a bit more on the challenges you faced?
Diane: There were a lot of times I didn’t know where the direction of the game was going. I knew the mood I wanted to convey, and the general conclusion, but trying to fit the pieces together never seemed to work right.
The game takes place on a series of rising platforms, on each of which the player sees a little narrative vignette. I had a lot of trouble making those vignettes flow coherently, especially since the player can take a number of paths out of order. The spreadsheets helped with that—I had a place to catalogue the mood of each vignette, any characters you met, and any inspiration I wanted to reference in an order that made sense while developing.
Miss N: Is there one aspect of the game that you’re really proud of that perhaps players won’t realize, at least initially?
Diane: Aside from the plant-growing font, which I feel like might not be immediately obvious what it does, I’m super happy with the visual style of the game. Everything really fell into place in that regard, and whenever I need to find a screenshot, I’m suddenly reminded, “That game was pretty, how can I do that again?”
It was fun creating the different types of fauna that can grow depending on player choices, and the different weather types. Even though the game is short, it takes a lot of patience to go through the game enough times to see all of them.
Miss N: Looking back at your game making adventures, what’s been the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered when making games?
Diane: Programming is always a bit of a challenge—I’m just not a programmer. I use Construct 2, a “drag-n-drop” engine, because the events system allows me to ignore most syntax and just look at my code visually.
I have a few ideas that don’t work in Construct, though— I’d have to use something like Unity—and I’m worried I won’t be able to execute them the way I want due to my inexperience programming.
Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling?
Diane: Occasionally, I’ll get messages from someone talking about Fragile Soft Machines or Cadence—a game jam game I was part of following a child diagnosed with a chronic illness— telling me how relatable they are. Any time I’m able to touch someone like that is a really joyful experience.
Miss N: Speaking of Cadence, that game was made in the context of game jams. We’re curious what role game jams play in your creative works. How do you approach these jams (process-wise) and how does it compare to your self-initiated work?
Diane: I freaking adore game jams. They give me an excuse to experiment with no guilt about wasting time (since they’re generally so short) and also present that work in front of an audience (a great way to gain feedback that you can carry on to future projects). I generally like to go into jams with zero planning. I tend to get a fairly strong idea about what I’d like to do quickly, and I find that pre-planning can muddy those ideas. It’s also more fun if I don’t stress beforehand and jump right in.
Whereas when I start a project on my own, I like to have a much more concrete and planned idea of what I want to do, since I don’t have a theme to go off of. It’s easier for me to waste time (like, months) on personal projects if I don’t go in with a plan.
Miss N: Cadence has such an interesting mechanic— one where “vision is limited to the character’s heartbeat.” What drew you all to the game’s concept and what was the process like developing it?
Diane: The theme of the jam was a sound clip of a heartbeat, which hit a real soft spot concerning some heart problems I grew up with (and still deal with). I brought this up with the group of friends I was working with, and they were all incredibly happy to incorporate my personal experiences into the game.
One of my friends (Nate) came up with the mechanic during our brainstorming session at the beginning of the jam and we all latched onto it. I had, at one point, attempted to make it more epilepsy-friendly, but it severely compromised the design, so I changed it back to the original idea.
Miss N: Are there games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Diane: I haven’t played as many games as I’d like to, especially recently, but I have an appreciation for the games that have come out lately that force the player to un-learn typical game conventions. Portal did this with spacial awareness when it came out, and Antichamber attempted to do this in the same way—changing areas when the player looked away, making the player walk backwards to progress, and such (though it eventually devolved into “Block Puzzles the Game”). I recently played Undertale, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the same way about making choices as I felt in Undertale.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that are inherently unique to games (as a medium) compared to other creative mediums?
Diane: Games share a lot of individual components with other media—visuals, different narrative styles, even interactivity; but that combination is what I think makes it unique. I’ve always been interested in game feel and kinesthetics in digital games—the way the player is able to move and how it feels. In non-digital games, this is inherent within the game space, but it’s an aspect that’s very rarely explored in other media (or when it is, it usually feels tacky—like those movie theaters where the seats shake).
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Diane: Ahh, there’s too many great people! I follow so many people I admire on Twitter, it’s hard to keep up. A friend I went to college with, Carrill, made an awesome game called Perdition a while back, and is working on one called Trinity now. I love seeing her screenshots—her games have such a great sense of mood.
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?
Diane: The first game I tried making on my own was massive. Don’t try to make your dream game as your first game. It just won’t be as good as you want it to be, because you don’t yet have the skill. You’ll always have time to make it later, and it’ll turn out better for it.
Miss N: Thank you, Diane!
If you’re interested in following Diane, visit her website, play her games or follow her on Twitter @MadameBerry. 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.