Making it personal: Turning experiences into games

By Kyle Hoekstra. Posted

Like any work of art, video games reflect the experiences of the people who make them. Some designers embrace this, and are using video games to examine their personal experiences and adapt them into playable ones. In Consume Me, Jenny Jiao Hsia and AP Thomson have developed a series of confessional prototypes about Hsia’s experience with disordered eating into a darkly humorous game about her high-school life.

In IGF-nominated game Lieve Oma, Florian Veltman takes the player on a meditative walk through the woods with their grandmother, and in Northbound, designers Arno Justus and Johannes ‘John’ Köberle use a road trip with old friends to explore the restless moment following graduation.

We spoke with these game designers and others to see how their personal experiences inform their games, learning how and why they have chosen to adapt the personal into the playable, and what challenges crop up when you set out to make art from your own life.

Food fight

In Consume Me, the relationship between the player and the creator is slightly more direct than usual. This is because the player assumes control of a teenage avatar of the game’s creator, Jenny Jiao Hsia, as they slot Tetris-shaped food onto a plate to meet calorie targets, force her into workouts, and try to take a perfect selfie as they negotiate high school crushes. By making this interaction feel so clumsy and mechanical, Consume Me abstracts the obsessive mind of a high schooler into an absurd, slapstick spectacle.

“It started out with body image and dieting as the main focus, but slowly it became more about what happened to me in high school,” Hsia explains. “When I was working on a game by myself, there were no other characters except for me. [Now] we have other characters to take into account, like my high school boyfriend and his mom and his family.

Consume Me: seldom have minigames been quite so personal.

“Those interactions are not totally focused on body and self-image,” she says, but “on validation and the belief that if you strive to work hard and get a hot body, you’ll also get that boy that you like.”

Consume Me began similarly to a number of Hsia’s previous games: everyday routines in Morning Makeup Madness and Wobble Yoga, and also more serious subjects, as in long-distance relationship simulator Chat With Me. But as Consume Me grew in scope, Hsia recruited AP Thomson, with whom she had previously made the IGF-winning Beglitched.

Hsia is interested in better representation of different people and subjects in video games, but making games from her personal life also comes naturally, she says. “It’s really easy for me to rely on my personal experience to make stuff. I guess it’s hard for me to make stuff up. I also have a really bad memory, so I like drawing from things I’m familiar with.”

In Consume Me, the themes drawn from this experience are communicated through a playful aesthetic and a sense of humour. “We’ve talked about how the most serious subjects are frequently darkly comedic,” says Thomson. “A really important skill in communicating serious subject matter is how to actually find humour in what’s going on.”

Healing journeys

Whereas Consume Me began as a prototype based on Hsia’s relationship with disordered eating, the personal core of Lieve Oma came to Florian Veltman as an imperative part of the design. Coming from a project that was proving too ambitious for a group of his friends, he set out to “make something smaller and more personal,” he says. “The idea of making it about my relationship with my grandmother came later, but I did know that I wanted the game to be a soothing, ‘healing’ experience.”

Lieve Oma was published in 2016 as an ode to his grandmother, whom he described as “probably the most important person ever to me.” It sees the player collect mushrooms in an autumnal wood with a grandmother who wants to listen to their problems.

Florian Veltman initially published Lieve Oma, an ode to his grandmother, on her birthday.

The premise is inspired by, but not directly based on, real events. “I’ve not gone collecting mushrooms with my grandmother,” says Veltman, “but I’ve been on walks through the forest with her. The mushrooming part seemed like the best way to ease the player into the narrative, giving them a short-term goal to push forward with.”

Making the game more personal leant it an emotional resonance, however. “Originally, the game was going to have branching dialogue, where the player could basically ‘vent’ about various things,” explains Veltman. “But by trying to write the dialogue for this, the story felt really bland and unnatural. The mere fact that a player knew they could’ve chosen something different, made the words of the grandmother have less weight.”

He decided to limit the options for player expression, but in doing so crafted a more affecting experience. “A lot of people tell me about how it made them think of their grandmother or someone else who has been there for them,” says Veltman, “which was what I set out to do with the game.”

My summer vacation

A similarly meditative ‘walking simulator’ which draws on personal experience is Inasa Fujio’s Inaka Project, where the player assumes the role of a postman in the Japanese countryside. Fujio’s design choices are based on his experiences, including a summer spent at his grandmother’s house in Osaka.

“It’s partly because I am attracted to the mundane, but it’s also to cover my lack of designing skills,” says Fujio, the pseudonym for a second-year illustration student. “This includes the way I tell my stories, the way I create my characters, and the way I design the map. I believe reality is designed well enough for it to be a video game, and my job is to interpret my personal memories into an interactive medium.”

“It’s hard to appreciate things when you’re in the moment,” says Inasa Fujio, “and developing games has allowed me to revisit those memories.”

Set in a peaceful world, Inaka Project has you deliver letters to locals, collect flowers, and take relaxing drives on long roads. It’s influenced by Boku no Natsuyasumi (‘My Summer Vacation’), a PlayStation game about a boy spending his summer with family. “It holds a very nostalgic memory,” says Fujio, “and I hope to create a piece just as emotionally impactful.” Family seems to be a strong theme for Fujio, who describes his grandmother’s house as “a second home, packed with childhood memories that I would like to retell in my game.”

Meanwhile, a second game, Rainy Season, intended as “a stepping stone” towards Inaka Project’s completion, is “a relaxing short story game about spending time with the family.”

The attention Fujio’s work has garnered online helps sustain his development through Patreon, though he concedes he’s a little “confused” by his success. “I assumed my interests were very niche and walking simulators are not in demand,” Fujio says. “Despite thinking this, I continued to work on it because it was something I wanted to make for myself.” He relishes the chance to share his world with others. “I hope players will experience the same thing as I do, and even travel to the countryside themselves and create their own memories.”

Authentic/romantic

One of the perennial challenges with creating such personal games is balancing authenticity with the player’s immersion – something Fujio says he reflects on daily. “I value research and reference more than anything,” he says. “I’m inspired by ugly scenery, things that aren’t shown in touristy photographs. Part of the struggle, however, is deciding what to exaggerate or romanticise while keeping things authentic.

Adam Dubi made his game Lost Memories partly as therapy.

“As much as I want to create an exact replica of my memories, it’s not very fun to play, so I try to find ways to keep things interesting while staying true to my goals.” Fujio uses the protagonist as an example. “I needed an incentive for players to explore the map, and I thought a postman was a good idea,” he explains. “The hardest question is, how much freedom do I give to players and how realistic should the postman gameplay be? As much as I want to replicate every detail of a postman’s day, it becomes a job simulator and distracts from the real goal of exploration.”

Similarly, what Lieve Oma’s Florian Veltman found most challenging “was to find a balance between making the game for me and making the game for players. I wanted to make an accessible game that would speak to an audience that is larger than just myself, but realising that I had to talk about personal things to make the game work emotionally made it hard to balance accessibility and the insularity of the subject.”

Hard talk

For the creators of both Lieve Oma and Consume Me, this challenge crystallises when crafting dialogue. “At first it was really hard,” says Veltman of writing Lieve Oma’s grandmother. “I felt that the game would become more insular and inaccessible.” But it occurred to Veltman that players’ tendency to probe the limits of the game world resembled “a child testing the limits the adults around them impose.”

Embracing this made writing the grandmother easier, as though she were “observing a child running around, doing the playful things a child would do on a walk through the countryside. Once I figured out the tone of the grandmother, the child’s personality was easier to write as well.”

Creating compelling dialogue in Consume Me is important for Hsia and Thomson, but Hsia explains how finding that balance is difficult. “I’m OK at writing stuff that my mom has said to me and writing about what I think to myself,” Hsia explains. “But it’s just a whole different challenge to think about how my high school boyfriend’s mom would respond when I’m talking about which college I want to go to.”

Jenny Jiao Hsia in her workplace.

It makes it easier that Hsia and Thomson haven’t aspired to write an autobiography. “In the beginning I was looking at old journal entries and looking at notebooks where I would write down all the calorie counts of food I would eat,” says Hsia, “but actually I found that it became harder to figure out how to design something based on something so concrete.”

Much of the game is therefore semi-autobiographical, with certain people from Hsia’s life combined or changed slightly. “Bizarrely,” says Thomson, “it might be easier for me to write the dialogue since I wasn’t around at this time and never met any of these people, so it’s easier for me to take artistic liberty with it.”

Teachable moments

Other creators, such as Montreal-based game designer Osama Dorias and Hungarian developer Adam Dubi, have sought to communicate their deeply personal stories through allegorical games. For Dorias, the xenophobia he’s experienced, and also the love he nurtured through his faith, informed the story he authored as narrative designer on action RPG Dungeon Hunter 4, released in 2013.

Osama Dorias is a senior game designer at Warner Brothers, and co-founder of the Montreal Independent Game Awards. While working with mobile game publisher Gameloft, he was charged with developing the story of their flagship Dungeon Hunter franchise. “There were certain story beats that our bosses expected,” he says, “but everything beyond that was a blank canvas. An opportunity to pour our hearts into our work!”

Montreal-based game designer Osama Dorias has spoken at GDC about Muslim representation in video games.

Born in Baghdad, Dorias and his family fled from the Iraq-Iran war in 1980 and eventually settled in Montreal, Canada. “Not unlike many children of immigrants,” Dorias explains, “my life growing up in the west was garnished with one identity crisis after the next.” He was often reminded of his status as an outsider. “My Islam was one of spreading love, understanding, tolerance, and peace,” he says, “not the one portrayed in Hollywood or the news.” Later, he says, “comments like ‘You’re one of the good Muslims’ or jokes about me being a closet terrorist cut me deeper than I let on.”

In the narrative he crafted, Dorias mined his own experiences to weave a tale about a human-like race called the Valen, who were locked in an interminable war with the monstrous Kenashi. The player would discover, however, that the Kenashi were more than they seemed.

“Both peoples only wanted to live happy lives, while their ruling class manipulated them for their own nefarious goals,” says Dorias. “Sound familiar?” The player would unite the factions in an alliance that endured into future games in the franchise.

Where Dorias explored xenophobia through an RPG, Adam – Lost Memories is a small psychological horror game, “based on a true story that happened to me as a child,” says self-taught creator Adam Dubi. It’s a claustrophobic and tense experience, set within dark environments where a discomfiting presence lurks. “I created this game because I wanted to show people how it feels to be a child who grew up in a family that’s falling apart,” says Dubi. The first release was published on itch.io on 26 May 2019: Children’s Day in Hungary.

Art therapy

Dubi explains that his work on Lost Memories began three years ago, following the advice of a psychologist. “My psychologist said that the best thing I can do to get myself together after my childhood trauma is to release it in some form of art,” he says.

Dubi shares how he created a virtual atmosphere that conveyed the fear and claustrophobia he experienced. The visuals, Dubi says, were not developed on any references. “I just have the whole thing in my head. As I sit in front of Unreal [Engine], it’s really easy for me to create the environments and puzzles without serious planning.” The sound is more complex, however, and many of the effects are custom-designed by Dubi to match the “robust and ‘heavy’ concrete and metallic environments.” He also uses a value called ‘fear’ based on actions performed by the player to create more dynamic environments.

Making Northbound “definitely helped in coping with the fact that university was coming to an end,” says Köberle.

The “hardest part”, however, “was to defeat my inner thoughts about people who will laugh when they get to know that I have had panic disorders and depression. It’s not an easy task to speak about the things that I lived through, and child abuse as a theme is offensive for most of us.” When asked if there was material he chose not to work on because it was too sensitive, Dubi says, “I didn’t want to cut out anything, because my project’s development is sort of therapy for me.”

The therapeutic nature of Dubi’s development suggests how the process of making personal games can help designers examine and articulate those experiences. For Dubi, creating his autobiographical horror title has been a cathartic experience. “Now I have released all of these memories, and it feels just the right thing for me,” he says.

Dorias feels a similar way about the process of making Dungeon Hunter 4. “The time working on Dungeon Hunter forced me to confront the topic head-on in a way that I never had to do before,” he tells us. “It helped me surface, and resolve a lot of issues about my upbringing and relationships past and present.”

Euro trip

It was about halfway through developing their bachelor’s thesis project Northbound when Arno Justus and John Köberle decided to make the anxieties associated with leaving university the central theme of the game. “That was when it really started to hit me that university was about to end,” says Justus. “Making these experiences into Northbound’s narrative certainly helped me in sorting out my thoughts and processing them.”

Northbound is about taking a road trip with old friends in the restless period after finishing university. Inside the bus, the player prompts discussion by interacting with characters and nostalgic objects. The narrative was inspired by their situation, while the characters and conversations are loosely based on people they know.

The road trip itself is informed by the duo’s childhood “love-hate” relationship with road trips. “While I certainly loved the adventure, I also hated it half of the time, because it was boring and could take forever,” says Köberle.

Designers of Northbound and Zurich University of the Arts compatriots, Arno Justus and John Köberle.

To capture this mood, Northbound incorporated a ‘boredom’ mechanic where players can exhaust all of the exploration options available to them and must then wait for the next chapter to begin. The result is “awkward silence and slight boredom,” says Justus. “That is exactly what we wanted them to feel, which, looking back, was a pretty risky move.”

From Northbound to Consume Me, we as players are connecting with the personal lives of their creators. “In the case of Northbound, the personal experiences really made the game more relatable,” says Köberle.

Ultimately, when designers take advantage of gaming’s capacity to communicate personal messages and discuss difficult topics, they’re also contributing to a growing pool of human experiences and, in the process, helping to evolve the medium as a whole.

We’d quite like to own a handheld console called Wonderdude, actually.

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