Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Hyacinth Nil

Hyacinth Nil
Image courtesy of Hyacinth Nil

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 Hyacinth Nil, a game designer, sound engineer, storyteller, and educator. They like using play as a way of exploring odd or unnerving bits of human experience, illustrating absurdity, and creating weird and multifaceted narratives. Hyacinth is genderqueer and neurodivergent and is most recently known for a narrative game called _transfer as well as a podcast about gender variance called Not Safe For Work.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?

Hyacinth: I’ve been interested in a huge array of different things for as long as I can remember—games chief among them. However, I had a lot of folks tell me that games weren’t really something to pursue as a career while I was growing up.

I ended up getting a degree in applied psychology with a sort of split focus in human computer interaction-type study and gender therapy-related study, two things that would really inform my work later on. It turns out, though, that getting a job as a therapist is also particularly difficult and I wasn’t having a great deal of luck with it. I then went through a pretty bad breakup and thought, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to become a game developer.”

I have always made games, starting with terrible tabletop role-playing games, then moving to bad tiny digital artifacts and whatnot. But in those few weeks, I decided to knuckle down and try to learn the craft for real. I eventually got a master’s degree in educational game design from NYU because I also had been teaching for a while and wanted a way to integrate education and game design in a way that creates powerful contexts for learning. Additionally, though, I like to make odd little games about queerness and identity and possible futures in my spare time.

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

Hyacinth: So I don’t have a whole lot of “early” memories, but my mother has often told me that I spent a bit of time when I was younger playing Bungie’s Marathon and being enamored by how absolutely mindless it was. This might color my current view of most shooters as well. 😉 Whenever I express any sort of exhaustion or anger about games to my mother, she usually responds with: “Well, you knew they were meaningless when you were eight.”

The earliest memory of a game that I can actually recall is playing Final Fantasy X with my sister; I remember us completely losing it during the now-infamous Tidus laughing scene. It’s still so incredibly cringe-worthy a decade or so later. I remember burying my face into a nearby pillow and screaming something similar to “WHAT IS LIFE” because in that moment, everything had briefly stopped making sense.

Mechanics architecture on one of Hyacinth’s games
Mechanics architecture on one of Hyacinth’s games.

Miss N: What’s your creative process like?

Hyacinth: I usually start with “What’s a neat feeling that I want to evoke?” or “What’s a fascinating question that I think I can discuss through play?” The cool thing about games is that they can be anything (yes, anything). Therefore, inspiration and ideas can (and do) come from absolutely everywhere. I’m always thinking about systems and am often ready to take any little piece of information and transpose it into a game that I’ve been working on.

An example: I remember while I was reading The Left Hand of Darkness there was a sentence or two about the political structure of one of the cities on the planet Winter and it gave me a great idea about how to build a political system in a card game I was designing.

Sometimes, also, I need to think about it from a more top-down perspective; I ask myself what the system in question needs to do and how I want the player to interact with it and then take it from there—though this is more often the case when the game in question needs to do something specific, as when I’m making an educational game.

There’s often a lot of flow-charting involved for the actual architecture of a given system, but I also write a lot of notes about how particular systems fit into the larger gestalt of the project. I like to write names for ideas or elements of the game that are extremely broad and then dial them back and atomize them to figure out their constituent parts, eventually getting down to the actual mechanics that I need to build to make the thing real.

What End by Hyacinth Nil
What End by Hyacinth Nil

The direction of the project often comes about pretty organically, but is often informed by two competing forces: the ideal version of the thing in my head and how long I reasonably have to complete it in. For instance, I was working on a game about prophecy and sacrifice called What End last year that I gave myself a month to finish. I had originally wanted it to take place over five in-game nights and have different elements change based on the player’s choice from night to night. That became unreasonably scope-y for what the game was, so I ended up making an interesting hook for the ending of the game so that players were left with something to chew on at the end of one night.

It ended up being about a minute long game with over 400 different possible epilogues and the direction it ended up taking was wildly different from what I had originally set out to create. While working on my own stuff, I usually just like to go with the flow like that, and try to come up with at least one neat and meaningful hook that ties the thing together.

Miss N: Have you ever fallen in love with some ideas, but later had to scrap them?

Hyacinth: If we’re talking raw ideas, not really. I rarely scrap ideas entirely, nor am I certain that anyone is capable of that because ideas are basically ubiquitous. The things that I do scrap, rethink, or put aside are implementations of ideas, ways I use them, contexts in which I use them, etc. Like I might come up with something that I’d love to explore, but can’t quite figure out how to make it into a mechanic—at which point, I’ll put it on the backburner. Or if I discover through development that a particular idea is a bit too much for the game in question, I’ll put it aside.

I almost never completely throw away an idea; they often come back in altered or recontextualized forms in other projects down the line.

_transfer developed by Hyacinth Nil & written by Reed Lewis
_transfer developed by Hyacinth Nil & written by Reed Lewis

Miss N: One of your games, _transfer, recently caught our attention as it was just shown at E3. It’s quite the haunting, disorienting, and really intriguing game. Can you tell us more about it?

Hyacinth: That game is, in some ways, like me saying: “Okay, this is what I’m all about” to the world. The original concept for the project came out of a discussion that one of my closest friends (and writer on the game) were having. We’re both nonbinary, and we started toying around with a little thought experiment. What if we (or anyone, for that matter) had to base our identities off of how those around us interacted with us? That is to say, what if we didn’t have an internal sense of self and all that we knew about “who we are” came from the outside?

This mapped pretty directly to our early struggles with and navigation of our respective genders. We thought that it was a cool idea and almost as quickly as we had ended the conversation, we were jotting down notes about a game based on that notion. We felt that telling it through a science fiction lens would allow us to make a more multidimensional end product and would give us more latitude in how we allowed players to engage with these ideas and the narrative that we wanted to tell about them.

The game is conveyed entirely through a CLI-like prompt, akin to an old text adventure or ’90s cyberpunk terminal. It is about a network of computers, one of whom is the player, who are trying to put the pieces of a broken world back together. Having the player play as a machine and see the world in a way that evokes dark and antiquated technology allows us to toy around with things like memory and conversation flow. Never actually showing the world lets us keep things very cerebral and surreal.

Note that you, as the player, really have no idea how much time has passed in-game from when you start to when you finish. The player plays through a story that currently has four different (randomly chosen) start points and about 38 endpoints. We’re working to make both of those numbers larger and the story weirder and more variable. What we’ve been showing is basically our 0.5 version, with our full 1.0 release launching in the fall.

UI Test on _transfer
UI test on _transfer

Miss N: What’s the process like developing it?

Hyacinth: Developing it has been a very circuitous process, as Reed (my writer) and I basically worked separately for the first several months without really knowing each other’s broader needs and wants. After months of me building small pieces of it without really knowing what content was going to inhabit them and Reed writing a narrative without really knowing what the systems I was making could do, we brought them together and tried to make the thing work. It didn’t, really.

At the time, I had a full-time job and didn’t have much time to work on this pet project as well, so development was really slow. The first breakthrough came one night when I decided to rework the entire interface, read a bunch of stuff on the Internet, and figured out a better way of organizing the whole project up until this point. That same process happened several times—make a lot of progress, realize there’s a better way to do things, and then go back and fix it and rewrite a ton of code. Rinse, repeat.

Miss N: Are there any challenges you encountered or things that are taking longer to figure out?

Hyacinth: The biggest challenge thus far has been handling the dialogue text itself. I’m not a classically trained programmer or anything, so I have never written a formal graph search algorithm before. The one that the game uses is basically me grasping at straws, but it does exactly what it needs to quite well. That ties into the singular thing that took the longest amount of time to figure out—the “best” way to get text into the game. What we’re doing now isn’t quite “best,” but it works. That’s an objective for the coming few weeks.

_transfer developed by Hyacinth Nil & written by Reed Lewis
_transfer developed by Hyacinth Nil & written by Reed Lewis

Miss N: Is there one thing in the game that you’re really proud of that maybe players won’t realize, at least initially?

Hyacinth: There’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time on, but that hasn’t made it into the version of the game that is currently available just yet. But it will. I love it to death and relish the fact that I’ve spent kind of a lot of mental energy on something that I’m certain many who play won’t see or encounter. I’ll be cryptic and say that when you play our final version, this thing is inside of you the entire time.

That said, something that I am really proud of and that sets our game apart from a lot of others like it (and that is actually in the 0.5 version) is how much of the game is randomized and variable. There are four possible starting characters, all of whom have randomized identifiers (names, basically) and genders, which I think is pretty neat. Our name generator sometimes spits out funny things as well. For instance, at E3, there was a sentence that read “I am GIRL, therefore you are not GIRL.” That made me laugh.

Miss N: Looking back at your game making experiences, what’s been the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered?

Hyacinth: It depends in what context you’re asking. Like seeing a problem for the first time and not knowing the first place to start trying to solve it is always tough. So too, however, is convincing (some) people that I and the sorts of weird and obtuse and esoteric games that I want to make are worthy of consideration. And all that’s not even taking into account working with other people in various situations. Team communication is—without fail—one of the easiest things to mess up without even realizing it.

Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling?

Hyacinth: Seeing people play a thing I’ve made and connect with it in some way. I don’t mean get what it’s all about necessarily (they’re usually not designed with one singular point), but I like it when people are intrigued by it rather than dismissive.

_transfer developed by Hyacinth Nil & written by Reed Lewis
_transfer developed by Hyacinth Nil & written by Reed Lewis

Miss N: Do you think there are things inherently unique in games (as a medium) compared to other mediums?  

Hyacinth: I feel like this is a discussion that has been going on for as long as there have been talk of games being art. Heather Alexandra once said there’s absolutely nothing unique about games, and if you pick up any one of Jim Gee’s more recent books, its pages are overflowing with how games are going to change the world because of their absolutely unmatched position as a medium. I lean more towards Alexandra’s position, but not entirely.

There are certain affordances that games have—they can create powerful simulations, they can put a player in control of characters in a story or world, they can allow a player to have agency within a narrative or systemic context. Few of these, though, are absolutely unique to games. There are non-game interactive media, and even forms of static media (such as books or films) that require some level of audience interaction or else the audience will likely not get anything out of it.

Blame! by Tsutomu Nihei
Blame! by Tsutomu Nihei

Comics, I think, are a great example. If you have ever read Tsutomu Nihei’s manga Blame!you’re well aware of what I’m talking about. It’s a story that’s told almost entirely visually and requires tight interaction between the reader and the text in order to discern what is going on from frame to frame. A large percentage of the information is in the transitions between frames. A thing that games do afford that is particularly pronounced is their need for an audience. Many, though not all games hinge on a player being present to engage with it. Like for a book or film, the entire text always exists whether or not someone is consuming it. A game—while all of it always exists (potentially, anyways)—changes form depending on who’s playing it and how. The code itself (often) doesn’t change, but the experience of engaging with the game as a text might. It’s a funny, subtle distinction, but I do think it’s one of those things that sets games apart.

This ties into why games are my favorite creative form. Because of how inexorably linked the audience is with the experience, I can use them as part of the experience. I can invite them to crawl into a dark hole and tell them to play with weird buttons until they figure out how a system works. Their experience and path doing that then becomes part of the text.

I’ve asked players to do unconscionable things in games and watched if they would or if they’d figure out another way. I like presenting players with choices that they don’t know that they’re making and trying to weaken the boundaries between the game space and the player’s real world that they inhabit without being too trite or obnoxiously postmodern. And I like to mess with the metatext and players’ expectations about games and what games can and should be.

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

Hyacinth: tl;dr: Yes, but it’s complicated.

I actually just had this conversation with a friend the other day. It’s tough to talk about in a vacuum because then we have to immediately ask the follow-up question “Are we talking about pushing the boundaries of games in the context of games or in the context of not-games?”

A game like Quake, for instance, has had huge reaching implications for games tech—bits of its engine code are still found in games today. But it’s effect on the world generally is negligible. On the flip side, a game like Foldit might have had a larger worldwide impact than Quake has (though I’m not sure of the actual degree), but hasn’t affected games very much. There are plenty of games that I really like (e.g. Persona 3, Portal, and Silent Hill 2, to name a few) that have done a whole lot to illustrate how to use the medium in effective and unexpected ways, but that didn’t really reverberate outside the game making community.

That said, where we’re standing right now in history, Rogue is continuing to affect game design at an ever-increasing pace. Note how many terms we have for games that extend the framework established in Rogue somehow. Even my queer text game takes some elements from Rogue in an odd, abstract sort of way (my friend once referred to it as a “roguelike dating sim,” for instance).

The second game of that same kind is Minecraft. I have a lot of complicated feelings about Minecrafthaving taught classes with children before, and while it does poke its tentacles out into the real world in more ways than a lot of games do (it’s not absurd for me to say “I’m working on designing a new Minecraft curriculum”), I think its efficacy as a teaching tool is perhaps a bit overstated. That said, I am super excited to see how its design goes on to impact the sort of games the next generation of game developers makes. We’re already seeing that a bit with the huge variety of crafting-focused RPGs and survival games being developed. I hope that the next step is seeing that spirit of creativity that (often, but not always) permeates Minecraft make its way into other games.

However, on some level, all that I’ve mentioned above still works within the framework of how the game-playing populace understands games. I think Dear Esther by the Chinese Room, for instance, pushed at the borders of what we think of as a video game. I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite version of that sort of game, but it was among the original first-person exploration games where players walk through a world and trying to piece together a story.

Analogue: A Hate Story by Christine Love
Analogue: A Hate Story by Christine Love

Additionally, there are plenty of smaller experimental games that I feel are pushing at what games are and what our medium can mean going forward. More recent games like Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World and Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long Long Legs, Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story, x.ra’s Memory of a Broken Dimension, and Sam Barlow’s Her Story have all made me excited about what the form will look like ten years from now. Additionally, in the last few years we’ve seen an increase in games that subvert expectations about games and comment on the form by way of being a game (looking at Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line, Galactic Cafe’s The Stanley Parable, Toby Fox’s Undertale, and even Irrational’s BioShock in spite of the questionable execution of its premise).

I really can’t want to see more games (tactfully) existing as essentially playable essays on the craft of game making, offering criticism on games by way of being a game, or even simply subverting their players expectations around what they’re engaging with. All of these games and the genres and stylistic intent that they represent could mean massive things for games in the future, but their effects have yet to be fully internalized by the industry. To me, there’s a massive difference between ancestral games paving new ground (like Mario or Tetris or Quake) and creating the conventions around game design, and designers now working within the limits established by their forbearers in order to expand the definition of what a “game” is. We can see the games that might expand games being made now, but it will probably be a while before we know for sure.

Dream Askew by Avery Mcdaldno
Dream Askew by Avery Mcdaldno

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

Hyacinth: She doesn’t really make games anymore, but Avery Mcdaldno has made a huge impression on how I think about games. Many of her games (e.g. Dream Askew, Monsterhearts, and The Quiet Year in particular) opened up entirely new vistas of design for me, particularly in how to design non-linear, player-driven stories with shadowy systems tugging at the strings from behind the curtain. They’re all so thick with atmosphere and are incredibly clever in how they use seemingly simple systems to govern inter-player interaction and create powerful stories using very little to start with. My game Dust Ghost was hugely inspired by her work.

Merritt Kopas is someone I greatly admire because of her efforts to illustrate how just about anyone can make games. Because of her (and others doing similar work in the space), I’ve felt like there is an audience out there for the sort of things that I make. She came to this industry through a kind of sideways route like me as well. Additionally, her games are great.

Phoenix Perry is someone who I aspire to be like. She does just about everything (she’s a developer, illustrator, designer, musician, etc.), and does everything well at that. She was also the first person who taught me how to think about code and is, to date, the only formal programming instruction that I’ve had.

Additionally, though she doesn’t make games, the game critic Heather Alexandra (mentioned above) is someone who the industry definitely needs. She’s so incredibly thoughtful and articulate in her critiques of games. The industry at large might have a few less problems if more people took the time and energy to think about games in the way that she does.

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

Hyacinth: Make more bad things and show them to people. Finish a design fast and poorly. Learn to scope better. Don’t be afraid of things not being perfect. You have important things to say and are a valid creator in this space. If you can’t be confident, pretend to be confident until you’re confident in your confidence.

Miss N: Thank you, Hyacinth!

If you’re interested in following Hyacinth, follow them on Twitter @Synodai, play their games, or visit their website. 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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