This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Memory Card is a collection of development builds, small creations, pictures, works in progress, and worlds in the process of coming together, captured as-is by their developer and laid out for the player to experience. It's an open look into the developer's creative process, offering everything they had worked on over a period.
Game Developer sat down with Lily Zone, developer of the IGF Nuovo Award-nominated experience, to learn about what interested them in bringing a collection of these works together, the throughline that connects many of these works if players take the time to see it, and the thought process that goes into deciding when a work is truly "done" or "complete".
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Memory Card?
Lily Zone, Memory Card developer: I'm Lily "Creator of Memory Card" Zone, creator of aforementioned Memories. I made most of the memories on my own, with Zoë Sparks contributing some music, writing, and various odds and ends to "Day/Night Town," "The Virtual Museum of Dead-Wifery," and "Elf Bowling RPG: Episode V -IF YOU MEET THE SANTA ON THE ROAD... ROAST HIM OVER AN OPEN FIRE-."
What's your background in making games?
Zone: I lay in bed every night and cannot stop thinking about floor plans. I have been making games for more than 12 years now. In early 2010, I had dropped out of high school and was staying with my parents while I waited out the list for public housing. In the meantime, I wasn't doing much, and for the first time in my life felt agency to hole up in my bedroom and not pay attention to the outside world.
At this time I was mostly doing visual art and music, but I had downloaded Valve's Hammer Editor and started cobbling together a big pointless public building with lots of halls and empty rooms. I had the idea I'd one day add "gameplay" on top, although I quickly realized how boring I found trying to make the map work as part of an FPS. I lost steam and gradually gave up on it. A few months later, I tried messing around with a shmup project in a pirated copy of Game Maker 8, but never got far with that, either.
I would form these ideal visions of a game in my head and feel motivated to work on an idea until I saw its vague outline on my screen, but could never extend the charge beyond that point. I'd instantly lose interest any time I had to design the more prosaic parts of the game. I'd got to the point of having a level, a spaceship that bops around, a button that sprays some bullets, but tying this all together into a more coherent shape would become draining and my interests would move elsewhere. If the boundaries of a game were explicit, I'd feel myself groaning as I mechanically plugged away at it.
It was hard to justify enduring this predictable grind towards an imagined future point, which became increasingly bleak as it wore on me. As a result, for the first year or so I felt like I was just piling up assets with little idea what to do with them. Towards the end of 2010, I read a thread on the SaltW forums where a few people were posting models they had made toying with Wings3D. Although I had used a few FPS level editors, I got the impression actual 3D modeling was relatively inaccessible, and had never really considered doing it, but seeing other people with no experience make janky little block people and janky little block areas, I instantly felt drawn to try it myself.
I am only capable of learning anything by aimlessly fumbling about long enough, so in the first couple months I hadn't even figured out how to add textures or really make anything but block structures. The basic commands were simple enough though that, over time, I picked it up bit by bit, and the more I developed an intuitive feeling for it, the more 3D modeling became something I'd do impulsively. I still hadn't really "finished" anything, but I started compulsively modeling things whenever I had time.
After I had failed at completing several projects, I had all these assets laying around that I'd loosely stitch together when I was bored. They'd take on new shapes, and every gap left a space to expand on. Switching parts out, squirreling bits away in nooks and crannies, months go by and 100 secret areas with 100 secret doors naturally take shape in the process. I am totally obsessed by this tendency. Making a compelling and novel game through sheer force of will is hard, but you can play peek-a-boo all day and it's cheap. There are a million ways to peel away a set of objects, and each time you do there's opportunities to cake on more, until the boundaries become blurry.
Anyway, I hope this legitimizes my great passion for goofing off in the eyes of the public.
How did you come up with the concept for Memory Card? For releasing much of your work as-is in this kind of collection?
Zone: Well, I made a bunch of games, but didn't want to submit just one game so I submitted all the games.
What development tools were used to build your games?
Zone: Gimp, Wings3D, Audacity, RPGMaker VX Ace, Unity, the classics.
[Zoë Sparks: For what of my work is in here, in addition to the engines Lily mentioned: Schism Tracker, SoX, Inkscape, Gimp, Krita, my cut-ups tool Scissors (https://milky.flowers/programs/scissors/), Ruby, Cairo, Pango, FFmpeg, JACK, Vim. I guess also like, in the background, zsh, LXTerminal, i3wm, Gentoo GNU/Linux.]
What thoughts went into creating the framework that contains your various buildings, sims, drawing, and scribbles? Into giving the player a place to access all of these items instead of just the raw items themselves?
Zone: All the stuff I'm doing is already just fragments of another game I play in my head, where I half-sleeping stare at the wall, or a screen, or at the trees across the way, and on its points project the hazy outline of another place over it. I can gauge the distance between a place in memory against whatever is in my vision by the discrepancies between their points, and from these discrepancies new places are conjured up.
I wander these places in my thoughts at all times, and collect many coins. Sometimes there are secret doors. It is a very beautiful place and I wish to be there always. Little has anyone suspected, but the organization of the Memory Card exposes a larger thought process that runs through all my output and until now has only been expressed by its fragments.
What was the appeal in sharing these creations as-is when you found them? What did you hope they would spark in the player? What did you hope it would spark in yourself?
Zone: I hope people might notice some interesting things in the train of thought that runs through them all. There are things in them you might not pick up on by themselves that you might notice when you see them all arranged chronologically. I think that might add more to the experience of them than if you were to just look at one of the pieces individually.
Looking at the timestamps, you can see how there were certain things I was thinking about month-to-month or day-to-day that came out in the different pieces in different ways. There are things I get preoccupied by for months sometimes that I can't let go, and those will show up in all my work at the time in different ways.
For me, the appeal is kind of like reading a journal I had been keeping, in that I don't always think much later on what I was so stuck on at the time and I can revisit that through seeing all the pieces arranged like this. Sometimes it seems strange to me what I thought was so important at the time.
Did you feel any compulsion to make any alterations to these creations before releasing them?
Zone: To be honest, I think I'm too lazy to go back and change stuff. But also, I think it would be sort of an injustice in a sense to go back and change things with this project. It would obscure what really happened. Then it wouldn't make a very good "Memory Card" in a way. I do like to go back and continuously update things, speaking in general, but for this piece I wanted it to be a document of what was happening over the span of time it covers.
How did you choose what to include in the experience? If you included everything, why did you choose to do that?
Zone: I included everything I started work on from the time I began Betsy's Hospital (Nov. 2019) up until the present. At that time, there had been several years where I had been mostly focused on the big projects Zoë and I had been doing together and I hadn't really had the impulse to just start working off the cuff on a little game like that. That was the first game I had made that way since Overworld (Sep. 2016).
Also, Betsy's Hospital feels to me like the first piece where I started following a trajectory I've been on ever since then. I was branching out a lot at that time- I started a comic, I was making more visual art, I did some other small games afterwards, etc. Since we also submitted one of our big game projects (~Song of Homunculus~), I thought this would be a nice way to show the other tracks I've been on alongside those big projects.
How did it feel to release these items to the world in this way?
Zone: I mean, I hoped that people wouldn't just be like, "What the fuck?" [laughs]. I hoped people would actually go for it, I guess. Like, engage with it on its own level and think it's interesting in some way, you know, as a "memory card." Whether they start at the beginning or just jump in somewhere and start feeling things out. I hoped some people had an experience like that, I guess. That's what I was thinking after I put this out.
Whether some items are not technically "finished," or present only a vision of something that could be, there is a beauty in experiencing these items as they are. They exist, and are striking in their existence, in the shape that they are no matter where they are at as a "completed" work. What feelings did you hope to draw from the player in seeing and experiencing these pieces of a creative process?
Zone: Well, I think for someone who's into my stuff, I would hope maybe this would give a new angle on it for them they might not otherwise have, just because they don't know what I'm thinking about day-to-day or whatever. I take all that stuff for granted because I'm the one thinking it all the time and having to live in my body, but other people who like my stuff, I can't tell how much they know about any of it or what any of it is. I worry about all my stuff just seeming incoherent and hard to access and I would like to imagine maybe other people can project their own memories of place (i.e. weird daycare) onto its shape, which makes my job easier anyway.
As far as things being finished or not, I think I only really call something "done" when the idea behind it has kind of totally left my system and I no longer have the same drive to work it out. I think there's a point where I get tired of any given incarnation of an idea, and then I would usually say "it's finished." Anything I would do on it at that point is kind of "dead" in a sense. If I want to go back to it later, I'll just approach it in a different form instead. Like, Walpurgisnacht has some similar material to Symbol, but obviously I didn't just go back to Symbol and make a new version. I wanted to go and do something else. And then when I got sick of that after a month, I tried to wrap it up and put it out in the world.
But I feel like if anything the fact that we have three huge unfinished projects already, and then I've got my huge unfinished hall game, is kind of perfect in a way, because those ideas live on and they are always changing and new shit is happening and I've had a billion different ideas about all of them at different times and some of them work out and some of don't and some of them get used in the other games in different ways. They're always transforming and taking on weird shapes.
Even the different builds of things in this, or whatever, I think kind of show this a little bit. I know there's not that many different builds, but even so, I think they show a little slice of it. You can see with Baby's Town, for example, I know it has a really early build where it's just one of the outside areas, and I had a very different image of that game then. In that area, even the buildings are set up in different ways. Some of them are set up like you're able to walk into them, but you didn't end up being able to do that in the end. Things like this - places where I wanted certain possibilities open but I ended up going with other directions in the end that turned out to feel more exciting to me.
To that end, I eventually did hit a point where I was kind of just like "god I'm so sick of working on this game" and then I just wrapped it up and finished it, and then it's "dead". But I guess then it's alive for other people; it's part of their world and they can do whatever with it. That's actually part of what I really enjoy about how I've been releasing the hall game; at each step I can kind of get a feeling for what people feel about it. It feels exciting to hear people's responses, but I also feel like I'm continuously changing it and adding on this and that.
Anyway, in that sense, I think a finished game, for me, is just one I don't really have any interest in going back to in that way anymore. Before that, when it's still a "living project," it goes through many different forms, even changing day-to-day, and I think all of those can be interesting in their own ways. You can see all the different paths I had open at different points, all the things I thought might have been interesting that I did or didn't do or might have come out a different way in the end or that sort of thing. I have a bunch of beta ROMs of various games on my hard drive; which is my ideal way to experience any given Game.
What inspired the game's name, Memory Card? Why do you feel it suited the experience you were putting together?
Zone: Well I have memories and I wanted to put them together and, you know, why not a memory card? Looking at weird old memory cards is kind of fun if you've ever gone through them. It's not a memory card necessarily, but I always remember, it was truly mysterious to me, all the saves on rented carts, because I got into Mega Man Legends, uh, which was called Mega Man 64 (its N64 port of course, because you know, N64 everything has to have the "64"). But, I remember, at the time when I first rented that game, I did not get how to play it at all. I would always just die.
But it seemed like several other people had played through it. There was only one slot at the bottom that hadn't been used. The rest of them were all full. There were different parts of the game with different people who had played it. I remember one time there was a save file right before the final boss, and I remember I would just watch it, like I would watch the opening.
Like, run around the final dungeon a little bit, because there were no monsters in the part they were in leading up to it, and go and watch the cutscene. I didn't even know it was the last boss, I was just like, "Wow, what could the plot of this game be, crazy," or whatever, and do it over and over and get killed within three seconds. But I remember that game really fixated me and when I did finally get a used copy...
Well that's another story- but anyway that sort of thing really captivated me, just seeing the disconnected flashes of different sections from the game that other people had experienced and me, kind of stumbling into it, as always.
This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).