Bringing games back to play and imagination

An interview with game developers

James Wood & Claire Morley 

 

Photo by Cheri Donohue

Claire and James are two game developers based in Bristol. Claire is a self-taught programmer, artist and game designer currently working on Before I forget, a game about a woman who suffers from dementia and James is a developer passionate about learning and collaboration, currently working on Phogs, a vibrant cartoony adventure as a double-ended dog.

They first met at Feral Vector, a game festival near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. Since then, they’ve been working together, organising workshops and running a small games party and showcase.


Why do you like video games?

James: For me games have always been this magical other world. I’ve always loved books and films, but games give you this other space where you can go to and embody something else, have a completely different experience. To me that doesn’t quite exist in the same way in books and films which, are usually about following somebody else through their journey. In games the player is very present and I love that so much.

Something else that games do and it’s very difficult to do in other mediums is having cooperation and people who play together. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have control over what’s happening in the story. Video games have so much potential and so much that hasn’t been explored in terms of how you can bring people together, share experiences and give them more chances to see what’s it like in other places or worlds. To me that is inspiring and motivating.

Claire: Games are very good at exploring ideas and places. The games I used to make when I was younger were all about creating a world and using the game as a way to explore it, its systems and the things that exist in that place. I always used to struggle with ways of expressing myself when I was younger and I think recently, especially with these smaller games, I found a really nice way to be able to express certain things about myself and that’s been amazing for me.

James: Right and also there’s this amazing community around their creation. People are really keen to help those who don’t have experience and want to get into games. It has become easier for people to start making games and smaller tools that aren’t focused on commercial games, but on making small, free things for anyone to play online or on their phones.

You’ve told me about events where you had to create games with non digital materials like paper for example. Your workshop at the V&A was similar. How is the analogue experience of crafting a game different from the digital one?

A research board for their V&A workshop. Photograph by me.

Claire: It’s definitely different in a positive way. When you’re crafting things with your hands you can often make the ideas in your head come to life a lot quicker than you could with something digital. Whereas, if you’re coding you might end up stumbling over parasite bugs and problems. I think it’s like using a different part of your brain when you’re just building things and you let your imagination go a lot more. People always end up making things you wouldn’t imagine.

James: When you’re making things with your hands it’s much easier to get involved with other people. If you’re on a computer you’re very fixed on the screen and you’re in your own world, but when you’re using your hands and you’re making analogue things it’s so much easier to collaborate, to just ask somebody to come over and help you and actually make something together, not just make separate things that go into the same game. This is often what happens with digital games: lots of different people will collaborate, but they’ll be doing individual parts rather than actually touching the same materials and working on the same physical objects.

You mention collaboration and I’ve seen in both your portfolios you enjoy it. Can you talk more about this way of working?

James:  For me it’s always been a part of how I make games and a way of learning as well. When I was in high school I was trying to learn programming and having somebody else there who could help me when I was stuck on something and push me to try new things and inspire me when I was a bit lost in terms of what’s due next, helped so much.

What we did in high school, without being aware of it, was this idea of coming together with a group of people who made games and make something in a short period of time. Usually people tried to do something new or at least use a theme that encouraged you to do something new. Hopefully in the future is just what I’ll keep doing and making.

Claire: It’s been a natural part of doing things for me as well. I didn’t study programming or computer science or anything like that. With games, I started doing the art stuff. I would meet up with people who did programming and game jams and things like that and I think the collaboration was always there. I think just making little projects with friends was what got me into game development.

You said some of the projects you’ve worked on had to be finished in a short period of time. Do boundaries help your creative process? Do your minds work differently if instead of a few hours you have one week available for a project?

Claire: It’s sort of the same with having a blank sheet of paper and endless time. It’s difficult to start thinking what exactly I’m going to make and just turn it into something I can manage. I think if you have just a few hours or a couple of days and then maybe a prompt or some kind of theme it’s really quick and a nice experience to start generating ideas. I think the limitations really help to refine what you’re making.

James: I think for me it’s the lack of thinking involved. When you’re in those constraints and you have some kind of time pressure or working with new people a lot of the time you don’t have the space to overthink things. If I’m on my own I’ll spend ages trying to find the perfect design for what I want to do, but if I’m with people I just go with whatever is happening and it’s more fluid, it doesn’t feel like there’s the same focus on making everything perfect. I love that so much. That’s where games really shine, when you have together all these strange ideas and weird interactions. I think a lot of players like that. When a play is very polished and clean and perfect it doesn’t shine nearly as much.

On a post on your website, James, you say you’ve left education to begin learning and that resonates with me a lot. What’s your prefered way of learning?

James: I think it’s definitely a case of doing and maybe that’s something I didn’t find at university: the practical side of things is not as valued as it should be. When you’re an artist, or a game developer if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you’re making things all the time, so learning should be about making, especially when you’re with other people. Everybody has their own expertise and experiences so by sharing that through making rather than trying to lecture each other is so much easier to learn and pick up things. Until you try it and go out there and do something, you’re not really going to find out what your own way of doing things is.

That’s exactly what I love about the V&A: the opportunities they give children to work with their hands, experience things and learn through doing. You held a one week workshop there. How was that experience for you?

Image from James and Claire’s workshop at the V&A. Photograph by me.

Claire: It was incredible. We had such a good response. We’ve not run anything on that scale before or that particular workshop. We were a little overwhelmed by the variety of things that people made. They had to make a creature, a plant and a structure and had the desert, the forest or the sea as settings. We didn’t know what to expect, but they came up with so many amazing things, they just have wild imaginations. It was also nice that there was no pressure on being good. If everyone was producing masterpieces, it would have been intimidating, but I think it was quite accessible and approachable in terms of what was there and people came in feeling they would be able to add to it.

James: I loved the way everybody came together, even if they didn’t know each other beforehand, parents and children they were creating this world together and responded to each other.

I run a zine jam and sometimes what happens is that people just go into their own worlds and they don’t really communicate because they’re so focused. Yet here, everybody seemed to really connect, so you got the inspiration from what was already existing in each world, kind of creating or impacting what was made after. It was a nice way of showing that you can do this big collaborative playful thing by making stuff and putting it under a narrative that gives it a lot more meaning and interconnectedness.

I loved the way people treated it, not like it was just an activity, but a new world where they were explores and creators.

Because this isn’t the type of thing you’d find in a museum people were quite surprised by it and they were so excited. If we had run this in an art environment where people were already all around making things, I don’t know it would have had the same impact that it did when people walked into the room [the Raphael room], where there were these amazing paintings.

Did you notice any differences between the way children and grownups approach the same situations in terms of openness and creativity?

Claire: I think we were pleasantly surprised by the way adults reacted to it and got involved. I ran other events where the parents would came in and just let the kids do things and come back. It’s so nice when people do work together and at the museum all the adults got involved.

James: One thing I noticed was when a parent came along, usually with more than one child, often they would hand the materials to the children and let them get on with it for the first little bit, but as soon as they saw the children making things they were so drawn in and they would start making things themselves.

Then when the materials we gave them ended, it would be the children who took initiative to come up and ask for more. They weren’t embarrassed, they were really enthusiastic and wanted to keep doing it. That’s something I found interesting in terms of boundaries that were perceived – the parents didn’t seem to want to ask for more or go outside of what they’d been told to do, and the kids were more open.

Claire you’re working on Before I forget, a game about a woman with dementia. What attracted you to the project and what do you think the value of games like this is?

Claire: It’s a project I’m working on with my friend Chella, which I met at a game jam about two and a half years ago. The theme of that jam was borders, so we were thinking about some mental borders and barriers. Chella is a writer and she’s interested in the concept of self memory, what happens when we don’t always have them. That’s how it started.

I’ve always been interested in this sort of personal games that deal with social issues and I think it’s a really good medium for telling those kinds of stories. You can show different perspectives and people have definitely started telling these sorts of stories more with games and realising there are all these interesting things you can do when you’re playing as the character, and you are directly experiencing what they’re experiencing.

James: You also told me there are lots of games that deal with different mental subjects that are more about what’s going on inside someone’s mind, but often in a bit of a negative way and often being portrayed like an obstacle, or a challenge the player has to overcome. What I think is brilliant in Before I forget is the fact that they treat it like a real thing that people go through and how they represent their experience: not always from a negative perspective.

Claire: Yeah, I think a lot of games go down this sort of horror vibe. And I know it’s probably terrifying to go through something like that, but I think that’s sort of the default way of showing that experience.

We got this pastel light color palette which makes it quite dreamy when you go in the game. We want to avoid this horror side of it and show the character around the disease as well. Show the positives, the things that she does remember and she’s happy about and everything else going on her life.

Can you walk me through your process of creating a game from the idea to the end product.

James: It changes based on who I’m working with. When I’m in one of these game jams and I’m making something new I usually start by thinking about play and this idea of interesting interaction and doing new things that maybe aren’t represented in games yet. That’s really important to me. I always try to experiment and find new ways of making experiences that aren’t using the same formula that’s been used in the past.

It’s difficult to do that, as it is with any art, you’re always inspired by something. From there, for me is just about making something that’s visually unique and different and I think realism is a little over valued. A lot of people think realism is the future of games and in the same way computer graphics and movies have become more realistic, but I think it’s so important to find new styles and new ways to visually create something interesting. Something else is important to mention. When you’re making something it’s important to question Why? Why does that exist why do we need that?

Claire: I really enjoy thinking about the metaphors and meanings behind all those interactions and the story and behind what the player needs throughout the game. So if you’re making a horror game, then you’d think about it and construct it very differently to something more relaxed. I just think about how all the aspects come together, how they support each other and how one completes the other.

“I see the future of games slowly getting away from the idea of a controller and a screen and bring games back to what they used to be: this pure form of play and imagination.”

You mentioned you wished some things would be more represented in video games. Can you give me an example?

James: Cooperative games. They exist, but often are very much about cooperating to overcome a challenge or to beat something. Recently, I’ve seen smaller games where the cooperation is about building and creating things together and I just can’t wait to see the future of that, of giving people the space to play and create something that maybe doesn’t have a goal and it’s purely for the purpose of playing and creation.

Minecraft is the easiest example. It does have a little bit of that creation side of things. Another would be Dreams made by Media Molecule. Just making more experiences like that could give people the space to make things in a digital world. So much of the digital world is dominated by consumption.

Is there’s anything else that I haven’t asked and you feel like mentioning?

James: If anybody is into the idea of making games, or the opposite, if they think it’s something they would never be interested in, I strongly encourage them to look for this tools: bitsy or twine. They’re very easy to use, they require no code, they’re all in your browser (you just need a laptop or a phone), and they allow people to make interactive experiences that are personal and share a story very quickly. I think everybody should at least once in their life have the chance to make a game, in the same way that everybody is able to pick up a pencil and do a drawing.