Development, Interviews

Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan

Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan

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 Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan, a Berlin-based game maker who’s teaching herself how to make experimental games. She loves ideas, creative expression, and french fries.

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

Marie: My path was not straight. My work is mostly in social enterprises. I’ve done work in alt-education with high-risk youth, created social arts experiences, and used my hands and hours on community building. I’ve led small, scrappy DIY organizations.

I founded Wyrd, a national non-profit dedicated to encouraging, documenting, and connecting creative expression across Canada. I am the Editor-in-Chief of Weird Canada, a website that celebrates and documents do-it-yourself, experimental, and emerging music, books, ideas, and art. I also made a day for the celebration of drone music.

A year ago, I felt like there was no more room in my life for me. I decided to move to Berlin and make experimental games. I had made one game, Þink, with DMG four years before, but otherwise had no exceptional background or experience playing or making games.

For a long time, I thought I hated games, but I was just playing the wrong games. I’m generally not very excited about competitive, complicated, disempowering, rule-heavy experiences where I am enacting a vision that fundamentally misaligns with my being. I’m into experimental narratives, soft experiences, deeply transformative ideas, ritual, and strange expressions of play.

In my very first days in Berlin, I signed up to volunteer at the Wikimedia Free Knowledge Game Jam, and they asked me, “Why not participate?” I said, “I have no idea what I am doing,” and they gave me a name tag that said “Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan: Game Designer.” That was that.

I pitched an idea at the jam, found a team, and made TexTiles, a paper prototype of a pattern-matching game using textile samples from the historical archives (and we actually won third place!).

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

Marie: My earliest games were all make-believe. I’d say, “Make-believe that … [some wild imaginings]” and would instantly be transported to a magical other place where anything was possible.

When I was in grade three, I designed a game of make-believe with strongholds, enchantment, capture, and negotiation. It was on the edges of the playfield where the long grass grew and there were a few groves of trees. It started with just a few friends, but by the end of the year, almost every single kid in my grade was part of the game. It even mixed up the boys and the girls, who were straitjacketed in gender-normative binary playherds. I was delighted.

Mostly, though, make-believe was just me, alone, whispering to inanimate objects or singing softly in a made-up language to my cats on top of a culvert over a creek.

Miss N: Where do you get your ideas?

Marie: From the moment I open my eyes, I am looking for things that feel playful. I look for things that feel interesting, that feel disgusting, that feel dreamy, that feel frustrating, that make me feel strange, things that I want to extend, or repeat, or never experience again — about things that make me think about things in new ways.

I have two to 24 game ideas a day, and generally they are terrible. I have a spreadsheet online where I capture many of them, but sometimes they get scribbled on paper or recorded as voice memos. I try to write them down, but the point of the practice isn’t to capture. The ideas are the clay that’s cut away. The point of the practice is awareness: my creative energy and my mind are the things I am working on.

Þink by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan
Þink by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan

Miss N: Do you ever get creative blocks?

Marie: I have two kinds of creative blocks. One, where I am totally dried out and shriveled up like a forgotten apple core under a bed. Or two, where it feels like the universe is expanding in infinite directions and I am being ripped to shreds with the movement and possibility of it all.

Miss N: How do you get through them?

Marie: When I feel dried up and empty, I find the most useful thing to do is organize administrative documents, network, run a boring errand, or do anything that feels like a grind. I throw myself into the things that make me feel like I am walking with quiet desperation towards death. For whatever reason, this is when the juice all flows back. Unless it is a serious case. Those times I simply wait. When it is a serious bad time, there is absolutely nothing you can do but lay in the you dimension and jump back into the okay world. You try to eat good food (drag yourself to do it if you can) and get sleep (tiny doses of melatonin for me) and move your body if you can (usually you can’t, and that’s ok too) and just wait it out.

For the infinite explosion paralysis, I deal with it by making lists. The lists have to be on the computer because they are always being edited. I make a plan, then I zoom in on a manageable piece of my plan and break that piece down to smaller steps, then zoom in on one element of that list and break it down smaller and smaller until the items are absurdly easy and don’t feel like they even merit note. Then I do one, and then another, and then another.

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

Marie: I’ve scrapped (shelved?) many of my ideas because of my own technical limitations. I just started learning to code four months ago, and I find it very challenging. In the hopes of connecting with other people who feel the same way, I wrote about it.

Other Hands by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan
Other Hands by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan

Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about some of these?

Marie: In August, I wanted to make a game that was about virtual realities. I wanted to explore the idea that anything is possible in a certain kind of virtual reality, that the self can be transformed in ways that fundamentally challenge everything we take for granted about identity and selfhood.

For example, when we first made creative computer programs, we actualized impossible ideas like “make my hand be a cursor, and my cursor be a paintbrush.” With virtual realities, our avatar selves can be everything and anything. Rather than hand-moves-cursor-and-cursor-is-paintbrush, it is simply self-is-paintbrush, or even self-becomes-something-that-transcends-paint.

If we accept the VR terms of service (total surveillance and control), the magic of data and virtual reality means that we can live our lives like a multitrack choose your own adventure, flipping between realities, rewinding, rewriting, and identity-channel flipping at will. Further, because we are only existing as avatars in VR, we could have the capacity to be all things, to multiply or transmute our own selves to match our incoming environments. Imagine you encounter an impassable body of water: you could simply choose to become a boat, or even better, become water yourself. Solving a problem would be a matter of changing your perspective — literally.

With machines, philosophers, and mathematicians, we may finally have the capacity to build our perfect world. Humans, as a collective, have a larger understanding than human individuals. But this is creating a world that we are not built for. We are creating realities where the main limitation is our capacity to synthesize all these virtual selves through these physical bodies we are firmly anchored in and working from.

Anyway, I wasn’t up for coding all that, so I backed up and made the game Other Hands. It’s a tiny game made in dialogue with these ideas and inspired by a lot of teenage accidental lucid dreaming. It’s also a VR game: you are in a room, peacefully making weird glitch hand art. But there is a fly buzzing around your head. It is really annoying. Do you choose to kill the fly? Or do you continue to make hand art?

If you kill the fly, I remove the headset from you and we give you a permanent tattoo of the fly you killed: a simple number eight with a line through it. Our actions in virtual worlds may or may not actually change those worlds, but they do permanently change us. Other Hands inscribes meaning on our physical bodies in response to our decisions in virtual worlds.

Figuring out how to get Oculus 1.1 and the Leap Motion operating on my Macbook (using old unsupported SDKs) took about 13 of the 30+ work hours I had to build Other Hands. There was no way I was going to open and learn Unity and make infinitely expanding dimensions and absolutely transformative avatars in my remaining 17 hours. So I shrunk my idea down to this tiny end piece, the idea that the only immutable remainder in these (imagined) virtual worlds is the ephemeral body underneath all the lenses and the cords.

A permanent tattoo in Other Hands
A permanent tattoo in Other Hands

Miss N: You work a lot with experimental games with all sorts of alternative controllers. Can you tell us more about that and what drew you to making these sorts of games?

Marie: I feel abject terror when I look at standard controllers. They remind me of being a kid on a couch, finally getting a turn on some video console (after watching some other kid play for 57 minutes), but my hands are fumbling and I don’t know what all those buttons do (and why can’t my parents just buy me a Nintendo like everyone else?). Then I’m dead in less than five seconds because I can’t remember which button means jump, and I’m back to watching some little boy stomp turtles for another couch-lint-picking hour.

So I’m really excited about strange controllers. They encourage experimentation, they draw people into a more equalizing space on the edge of comfortable social scripts and behaviors. Our bodies are the ultimate fleshy alt-controllers: a part of everything, but also plugged into our realities through patchy sensory data streams, informing and transcoding incoming messages, then translating and sending out messages by flailing around in this air soup and trying to make things happen. It’s awesome.

In my game Auscault, I am plugging into these outgoing data streams. I made Auscault to let the body speak, to bypass verbal communication. It takes the way a person feels (using biosignals like pulse and electrical conductivity as well as facial expressions), processes that through a machine learning tunnel, and turns it into music so you can play another person’s feelings like an instrument. You get to tune into the body of another person, to listen to them and the way you are making them feel.

Auscault by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan
Auscault by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan

Miss N: Do you have examples of subtle features (that players won’t realize initially) from any of your games that you’re really proud of?

Marie: With my game Closer, which is a cooperative game where people physically move their bodies to control a single shared playable character, I put a lot of work into creating a space for collaboration, intimacy, and cooperation. The game begins with the two players standing close together to power up their shared player, and this helps the players to enact and actually build real intimacy before they begin. I designed the game controller mechanics to build trust, rewarding players in overt ways for trust and collaboration in gameplay.

I’ve watched about 600 people play Closer in the Netherlands, in Ukraine, and in Berlin. I couldn’t make it to South Africa to watch people play at A MAZE. But I always watch when I can and I make subtle, small changes in response to the players’ movements and points of confusion.

Closer by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan
Closer by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan

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

Marie: Myself. Learning to work with myself, to work through the inevitable feelings of inadequacy, ignorance, and total abject failure. Learning to work past feelings of being an imposter. Learning to work from within the state of mind I find myself in, instead of wishing for it to be different.

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

Marie: Making an experience for people and watching them interact with it in a meaningful way is a totally unique experience. It feels different and more intimate than anything else I’ve ever hosted, built, or made. I feel so moved by this experience that I’m working on setting up a series of workshops for people in Berlin to make interactive experiences, experimental storytelling, and strange games. I’m starting small, with a few self-contained one-day workshops, and then if a community emerges, working together in more intensive ways.

I feel like the process of creative expression — especially within a community — is one of the best things about being alive. And having space to articulate your voice and tell your story is key to being an engaged member of your own life, as well as the larger society you live in.

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

Marie: Games are the first art I’ve ever really made for other people.

I make experimental music, but I only make it for myself. I find that when I play music for others, I end up just playing the things that they want to hear and all the magic fades out. I’m too focused on being understood — on being loved by the listener — that I stop paying attention to what makes me feel true, or what I am trying to say. It’s like finessing a translation for a listener until the original meaning is lost.

But games are different: they are collaborative for me; they are a collaboration between myself and the player. The entire time I am designing, contemplating, developing, prototyping, I am asking people to play, I am watching them play, and I am making the games for the player.

Games are unique as art because they are interactive experiences. Games are built intentionally for the player/viewer/listener/user to touch back. All art is participatory (the recipient brings the meaning and gives it life), but games are unique in that they weld the art-act of creation and the art-act of performance together, open their arms to the human on the other side of the art, and say: I was made for you, player.

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

Marie: Trust yourself.

Miss N: Thank you, Marie!


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

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