Llaura Dreamfeel is a fascinatingly distinct voice in independent game development. Her work (which is deeply underrated) can be strange, dark, moving, witty and unearthly (sometimes all at once), and is quite unlike anything else out there. Though she’s only been making games for a short time compared to some of the other people I’ve talked to, she has without a doubt made her mark. Whenever you boot up one of her creations you can expect something totally unpredictable, original, and memorable. Her work just feels handcrafted, and in some cases is handcrafted, as is the case with her game Train Song. She’s made several great works, but it was last year that I believe she well and truly hit her stride with Curtain, a pixelated nightmare of noise and colour that depicted in unremitting detail the overbearing and destructive effect an abusive partner can have on an individual.
In the game, you the player are a woman trapped in a relationship with Kaci, a woman who uses and abuses you, a woman who alternates from loving you and totally depending on you to callously disregarding you and dismissing you. Kaci is never seen in Curtain. Not even once. Her presence is represented by a text box, a huge, overbearing and intrusive text box that dominates the screen, and never goes away, even when nothing is being said; you can’t escape from it, or from what Kaci is saying within it. You, the player, are forced to read from it. I shan’t go into more detail because there’s a point in this interview where this aspect is addressed, but believe me when I say that the absence of a physical representation of Kaci doesn’t detract in the slightest from the fear she brings. Kaci wasn’t a monster, at least not in the traditional sense. She was a human being. A broken, nasty, abusive, controlling, terrifying and unpredictable human being, yes, but aren’t there so many people like that? Out there in the world, the real world, there are so many people like her, so many people causing so much pain.
That was the true potent power of Curtain, and if you think I’m banging on about it, that’s because I am. Because before you read what Llaura had to say, I want you to understand her creations, and why I wanted so badly to sit down and talk to her (via email, admittedly, but you get the point). She’s a highly intelligent and talented individual, and throughout this interview she was nothing if not eloquent, intelligent and witty, and she was generally just a lovely person to work with. Even if there are some points on which I disagree with her. But enough of me! Join me as I talk to Llaura Dreamfeel about video game exceptionalism, UI design, Horrible Screaming Murderers and a bunch of other things as well.
Curtain is my favourite of your works for many reasons, but one reason in particular that stands out to me is in the way you depict the player-character’s abusive partner. Instead of showing them in the flesh, their presence is highlighted instead by invasive and emotionally abusive comments shown in text boxes. To me, anyway, the character is given more presence by their seeming omnipotence; you can’t escape from those text boxes, basically. What was it that inspired you to go down this route, and do you think you pulled it off effectively?
That was the point at which I knew I had a game! Curtain was something that had been brewing for a while. I wanted to make a first person game in this vein, and I had been working on the story actively for a bit more than a month, trying to express particular feelings, but it was still missing something to tie it all together. This insight and the last part of the story came as a pair, and I knew I had an experience that could work.
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint any decision but I can mention a couple of things which led to it. The game is in a bunch of ways partly a subversion of immersive sims and a lot of the early ones had these big dirty UIs filling your view. I loved how cramped the screen was. Stephen “thecatamites” Murphy did something similar in a bunch of games like Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan and Horrible Screaming Murderer IV, and he used this to play around with the narrator. I was also thinking about how I could tell a story with another character at the same time, rather than in the past again like nearly all embedded narratives. There’s no way I could model or simulate a person. Then I realized the textbox could be perfect, it could be an ever present, disembodied character and narrator. I could use my biggest weakness as my best advantage.
At the same time I was thinking a lot about structure. I realized I could have the textbox appear at the end but empty. That is the possibility for Kaci’s voice to return is hanging there for a few minutes, that it never quite goes away. This was super intentional and really important for what I wanted to get across with Curtain, the lasting effects of abuse. Only a few people have commented on this directly, but I think this call-back has an unconscious effect on people. With that the direction was settled. It’s up to others how effective it ultimately was, but I’m happy with it as a form. That, along with the time aspect, has actually made me fairly loathe to make another first person game with an “embedded narrative”. I feel like I killed that trope pretty well.
Train Song is such a weird, wonderful little game, and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever played before, and probably will ever play again (interactive stop motion-animated epistemological timed trained experiences aren’t exactly dime-a-dozen). Where did the idea for that particular project come from? Also, it having been made in collaboration with Dave McCabe, who did what on that project, development wise?
I think the initial idea was a cartoon Dave found of a bunch of people crammed into a train (went back and found it: https://twitter.com/MClendaniel/status/420571078306435072), and for some reason he wanted to make a game about that somehow. GGJ was coming up, so we met in a pub, The Hairy Lemon, to discuss it. The core idea of Train Song – as a train journey of a certain length you will have to play over and over to see everything – came out of that. I was super into the idea of games like pieces of music that you could dip in/out of but that it would play itself regardless and could score moments of someone’s life. We wanted to make the game in a day and to make all the art (neither of us were artists) out of physical materials (after a bit of discussion of art styles).
On the day (in Dave’s flat) Dave wrote half the characters and made half of them out of clay, as well the clay border guard. I probably did some of the adventure game programming that day, but I mostly got carried away with the sudden idea of making the intro film from found footage, which was really enjoyable. We were talking to Ronan Quigley (the game’s composer and sound designer) remotely from Dundee at silly hours in the morning the night before and that night, for music. Over the next 5/6 weeks it was mostly me finishing the game and created the background & train art from coloured paper. I wrote the second half of characters (the more verbose ones! And the ones with more custom things, like the one that links to the first-person segment) and Dave wrote a couple more bits and pieces like the conversations in the carriages you can’t see into, and Ronan did more sound.
The game was a bit of an experiment. I was starting to realize a lot of stuff about videogames and making them beforehand. This was the first time I put a lot of that into practice. I wanted to make the gameplay as simple & non-existent as possible and instead within a strong structure put the emphasis on characters and the writing, and creating lots and lots of flavour.
It’s common for many game developers to say that they make games because they can accomplish things that they simply could not in any other medium. What is it in particular that attracted you to that particular field? What can you accomplish in video games that simply isn’t possible in any other medium?
That’s a tricksy question. I guess that’s the end of the easy questions about my work!
So, I really don’t think much of video game exceptionalism, the idea that we should focus on what makes videogames different from other media or that videogames are the one true medium and in the darkness bind them. We’ve seen the same thing with film for example, where people got obsessed with the edit for a short while, but to focus on one aspect above all others totally misses the bigger picture. Video games, like every medium, are a phenomenological blend of senses. What matters is how they mix.
Take Twine, which is often compared to CYOA (that’s short for “choose your own adventure”, in case you were wondering). What’s interesting isn’t choice. Very few of the noted Twine games have much real choice. But the interaction does make a huge difference, it’s another way to express flavour to the audience. It gives you pacing and involvement. That feeling of involvement might not be so different from an engrossing film, but it’s also unique to the specific form of use.
So what makes videogames unique is their specific blend of senses. That completely depends on every videogame and what that particular videogame emphasizes. I like to see the lines between film, music, videogames, poetry, etc, etc as incredibly blurry, and I usually find the most interesting stuff near those boundaries because they are less explored.
Rather than grand sweeping statements, memorized and drilled into us as rote, what I like about videogames at any time is what I’m usually trying to explore at that time. For example last year, I was very interested in creating discongruent textures, combinations of audio, visuals, writing that work at cross purposes and that resulted in Curtain.
Videogames allow us to do different things than other media, not better or worse ones. If anything I make videogames because I think there’s a lot of room for interesting work that isn’t being done. All I can see are unexplored possibilities.
Can you identify any drawbacks with the medium of video games; any unique problems that simply aren’t present in, for example, cinema or literature?
Production! I think video game making as it stands is too finicky and slow and breaks too easily. We spend far too much on things that shouldn’t matter, and what we make isn’t easily and quickly changeable. What’s the equivalent of a jazz band improvising music on stage? I want videogames that break in interesting ways when you make them. Rather than just not running, and needing to be debugged endlessly, make something happen. More analogue. In other less solely digital pursuits it’s easy for happy accidents to find their way in. Videogames emphasize the creator and the design doc far too much. I want to be able to make a game as intuitively and easily as playing music.
This one’s sort of related to the above question: many game developers (including a few I’ve spoken to in the past) have complained that there’s a fundamental lack of progress in video games, and that games have yet to become an art form on par with the rest. Do you subscribe to this particular belief, and, if so, what do you think is the main problem that’s holding games back?
It’s definitely not any kind of technological or design challenge. This question is often associated with “IN THE FUTURE… GAMES WILL BE AMAZING”. This is a kind of techno-utopianism that excuses the way things are right now. We have had great games, and we have great games right now. Some of the most exciting creations in the world are coming out of video games. And we have had incredible games since games first started being made, like Deus Ex Machina (by Mel Croucher of Automata) in 1984. What new breakthroughs/technologies/paradigms give us are simply NEW possibilities, not better/worse ones.
What’s “holding us back” is that we need more people who can write well for video games. To have more really good video games we need to have more really good video game writers. It’s as simple as that. I’d like to see more people consider the structure of what they’re doing. Of course diversity is really important too. We need more diversity of material and theme, but most of all diversity of creators, in background sure, but also diversity of their life experience. The biggest road blocks are the assumptions of what videogames are and who they are for, as promoted by commercialisation of the form since the beginning.
Many game developers whose creations are decidedly niche have turned to Patreon or one-time crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter as a way to pay the bills and to support their endeavours. Do you ever see yourself going down that particular path?
Yes, it’s definitely a possibility. I would like to find the right projects that I’m committed to, rather than just doing it. For example, I would really love to do a Patreon where I’m travelling for a year and each month collaborating with another person on a small game, and sharing the Patreon with them (a good idea, and one practised to great effect by Jordan Magnusson with his “Gametrekking” project). Or even more specific than that, I could release one graphic adventure made from clay every blue moon. Perhaps when I finish my current main project I’ll think about something like this.
I don’t like ‘decidedly niche’. Niche in terms of the typical audience of video games maybe, but often more appealing to a general audience. ‘Decidedly’ implies people have a choice also. That someone could make money if they just made what the widest audience wants, but that’s a bit of an illusion. At present it doesn’t seem like there’s much room to support many more creators even if they make the most mainstream video game work possible.
That’s why I think it’s really important that these alternate channels for helping make a living from video games exist. If we want to see different kinds of things that what we have, we need to support different ways of making art.
Since I’ve always asked interviewees what their favourite games were in the past, I’d thought I’d try something a little bit different this time round. Here goes: what is the greatest flaw in one (or more) of your favourite games of all time?
I don’t really know if I have favourite games of all time. That question is very loaded with a specific set of culturally correct answers I can’t really relate to anymore as an adult. The work that means a lot to me and I think is special, like Space Funeral, or Dys4ia, or Rat Chaos, I can’t really apply consumer-ish criteria to them, such as ‘improvements’. What would you do to the roof of the Sistine Chapel? It is what it is.
An easier question might be what I’d do differently if I made it, if I wrote Crime & Punishment what might be different, rather than trying to guess the author’s intention. With (thecatamites’) 50 Short Games I think it would have had more impact if they all came out at once, but maybe I’m wrong.
(Keeping this question because I’m always interested to hear the answer) Who would you say are the best game developers currently working at the moment, and why?
I think it’s most important to look beyond video games for influence, and increasingly I don’t really look to emulate anyone else at all anymore. But if you were to ask me last year I wouldn’t hesitate before I mentioned thecatamites & David Kanaga.
– Stephen Murphy – marries a fathomless and innate understanding of videogames, effortlessly juxtaposing scenes and interaction together, with well-read, wicked writing and language. Strangely empathetic and deeply affecting.
– David Kanaga – composer, game designer, and philosopher. His work on game feel and the music of play and interaction gives me chills. Of course special mention should go to his amazing collaborators like Ed Key & Fernando Ramallo, but mentioning both himself and Stephen for their writing as well as their games.
I would say the above two (polar opposites in obvious ways but brethren in less obvious ways) for me make the most interesting work in games today. Both of them operate very far outside the norms of traditional game making culture.
I haven’t found people who’ve grabbed me as much as them in video games, but there are a lot of others doing really interesting work right now and redefining what games can be like: Stephen Lavelle (form), Porpentine (flavour), Nina Freeman (poetry), Tale of Tales (subject matter), Ben Esposito (style), Squinky (conversation), Anna Anthropy (voice), Robert Yang (sexuality), Merritt Kopas (touch), Holly Gramazio (play & creativity)… Maybe things aren’t so bad!
Would you say you have a particular design philosophy or aim when making games, or do you just go with the proverbial flow?
When applied to what we do I dislike the word design! It implies objectivity and ‘good’ design is possible, that somehow you could imagine the platonic form of a perfect game. So rather than assuming everyone is going for the same aims, I think it makes sense to consider whether what you make achieves whatever idiosyncratic aim you personally have. With that in mind, my approach very much depends on the game and what I want to achieve. I’m always evolving so my philosophy is too, and each game is very much an expression of where I was at the time. I believe thinking about things differently is important if you don’t want to repeat yourself or others.
I could make some blanket statements… like that the rules of a game / 30 seconds of fun most people talk about it with regards to games is the *least* important part of interaction, not least because it’s what everyone else obsesses over. That both the kinaesthetic, second to second stuff of how a game feels, and the 20 minute/play session stuff of structure and larger movements, are both more important. Generally though, it makes more sense for me to talk about philosophy in relation to each game, for example Curtain was really influenced by considering the phenomenological texture of the game and how the different elements, sound/art/UI/text all play off each other. Its ending is read by some people as really sad and others as really upbeat. There’s a strong tension between the music and the text and also the prior contexts. It doesn’t resolve easily, so it may stick with people a bit more.
At the moment I’m really considering my process a lot. How what we create is shaped by our processes. I’m trying to create a space where I can make decisions more quickly and be more open to outside influences and chance. This includes working with physical materials, and lots of self-imposed deadlines and leaving space to reflect after the fact. I want to be able to introduce as much opportunity for serendipity and happy accidents as I can.
You are to be stranded on a desert island by a malevolent cavalcade of pirates. For whatever reason, they’ve allowed you to bring one film, one book, one album and one video game along with you. Which of each do you bring?
Let’s put aside the obvious choice of anything that lets me create, like rpgmaker/zzt, a notebook, etc etc, or clever answers to help me escape (Looking at you, Nicky Case), and pick actual complete works by other people.
– Film – The New World. This film, both cuts, is so beautiful. It creates a strange beguiling rhythm of time. Not unlike Tarkovsky but more Hallmark and dip in/out-able. Or maybe I could go with The Decalogue and remind myself of the breadth of humanity.
– Book – The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes & Seamus Heaney. This is an eclectic and impressive collection of poetry I’ve had since I was a teenager. Although maybe I should take the opportunity to read Remembrance of Things Past. Or perhaps Nevada, about a queer woman in NY, so I can remind myself I’m real.
– Album – Music for 18 Musicians (by Steve Reich). I haven’t listened to it as much recently, but this piece soothes my soul. Although maybe I would go a little loopy listening to it forever and I should opt for something like the ambient recording of a 6 hour train journey.
– Video game – I think I’ve mentioned it enough, so let’s say Space Funeral. It’s clearly the work of a 21 year old, but that’s part of its charm. I would be happy to potter about its worlds for a while. Also for the past few days I’ve been playing a lot of Panoramical by Fernando Ramallo & David Kanaga, then just staring into the distance. It’s pretty amazing. I think it would make not seeing anyone ever again kinda okay.
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Thank you for reading! Do please check out Llaura’s work if you have the time, and have a nice day, wherever you may be!