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Gaminiscing 101: Recording my grandmother's childhood memories to turn them into a video game

Recording a loved ones' memories for use as in-game audio is not as straight-forward as it might sound. In this article, I look into the challenges I faced when doing so, and the methods that I used to overcome them.

Bob De Schutter, Blogger

July 17, 2019

7 Min Read

In a previous post, I discussed the concept behind my “gaminisicing” game: Brukel is a first-person exploration game about the memories of my grandmother, Bie. In the game, players visit the farmhouse in which Bie grew up and use their smartphone camera to uncover her authentic stories. As time passes, however, the house takes players on an emotional journey through some of the traumatic events that Bie lived through, including WW2 events.

For this post, I wanted to share some thoughts about the process behind the game. After all, it is not common for games to be non-fictional and very few games would classify as a historical documentary. Similarly, it is far more common for games to first write a plot and then have actors perform the audio for it, rather than having all the recorded audio up front but no coherent narrative to speak of.

When I first visited my grandmother to record her reminiscing about her past, I was not sure what exactly I would end up doing with the audio. I knew that I wanted to turn them into a video game, but what shape or form that game would take was entirely unclear. While her stories were very emotional and immersive, they were also all over the place as she shifted from one story to the next rapidly. To make matters worse, I quickly learned that I could not feed my grandmother any lines to say, as she was no actor. Even simple lines that I was thinking to use for player instructions or feedback (e.g., “We ran!”, “And then we were safe”, etc.) just sounded fake, even with her best efforts.

Needless to say, I needed to find a process that would allow me to get the best possible stories, and then make sense out of them. For me, that process looked somewhat like this:

1. Like everything in game design, iterations and multiple takes are essential

For some reason, I expected that I would record my grandmother’s stories and be ready to turn them into a game right away. I even felt that way after the first recording session. I remember my mom asking me if I needed anything else before we drove back to my parents’ house, and I remember how confident I was that I did not. I certainly did not expect to re-record the same stories four more times, which is what ended up happening.

It was not that the stories that I got on the first take were bad. It was just that sometimes the intonation was not where it was supposed to be on some of the stories. Her storytelling might have been a little off. Or she forgot to include an essential element in the story, leaving me with something that only makes sense to people who had heard the story before.

In short, if you want to create a game in which you use the audio recordings directly, you want to get multiple takes. So plan for multiple sessions – perhaps a week or two in between – to have your loved ones reminisce about the same stories. The stories that make it into the game will likely an edited combination of multiple takes. After all, the goal is to capture the imagination and empathy of your audience, so the audio has to be spot-on.

2. Let your subject guide the interview

This is very standard to social science methods, but I happened to find that a lot of the training that I underwent for my doctorate in social sciences was applicable to this project. In particular, I learned that I got a much better storytelling “performance” from my grandmother if I just let her decide what she talked about. After I figured that out, I went into every interview asking her if she could tell me about her life and that was pretty much it. If I had questions while she was sharing a story with me, I asked her those questions, but I threw my interview guide with prepared topics and questions out the window pretty quickly.

There were one exception to this. During the later interviews, I sometimes wanted to hear specific stories again. To do so, I would pretend that something she just told me (in a previous story) reminded me of something she told me in the past but I just did not remember it very well anymore. If I asked about a story in this manner, she was still very eager to explain it in a lot of detail, which was important for the quality of the storytelling.

3. Borrow from social sciences to organize your audio

After interviewing my grandmother, I ended up with a lot of audio in which my grandmother described her childhood, the farmhouse’s architecture, the war, and how she felt about everyone in my family – the latter unprovoked, but what was I going to do about that? She is my grandmother after all.

To make sense out of all of that data, I also relied on some techniques that I learned as a social scientist. In qualitative data analysis, researchers often go through a number of stages of coding, one being “open coding.” The term “open coding” refers to assigning keywords to chunks of text in order to separate all relevant topics in a large amount of text. There are a number of software applications that allow for this procedure. Through my job as a professor, I personally have access to NVivo, but there are many other Computer-Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS) applications that are cheaper or even free. To save time, some of the applications mentioned above allow to code directly on audio, but I decided to transcribe everything instead.

After transcribing, I used the software to assign keywords wherever I felt that it made sense. Some keywords were simply working titles for specific stories (e.g., arrival of the Germans, death of her mother, etc.), but other keywords referred to the emotions that were expressed in certain parts of the text (e.g., anger, joy, etc.), the protagonists of the story (e.g., German soldiers, Paddy, her father, etc.), potential use cases for the game (e.g., call to action, reaction to events, etc.), potential game mechanics (e.g., puzzle, hide-and-seek, etc.), objects that could be associated with the story (e.g, toys, wardrobe, etc.), and even segments that needed better audio.

After this intensive process was done, I ended up with a database of keywords that I could simply double-click to pull up all relevant pieces of interview as well as the corresponding audio. This allowed me to easily mix and match and construct the best version of each story, using audio from multiple takes, and – during the earlier stages – it clearly showed which stories needed a re-recording during the following take.

After going through the steps above, I was ready to start shaping a narrative out of the data. I had five hours of raw audio that I was ready to edit into quality in-game audio fragments (such as the unused audio excerpt in the YouTube video above). Nonetheless, I was still a long way from home and left with many questions: What game mechanics would work well with the stories? How does this all fit together in a coherent narrative? How do I make sure that the player will even care about these stories?

I will address these questions in an upcoming post. In the meantime, I hope this post might inspire someone to “gaminisce” the memories of their loved ones. It is an extremely rewarding thing to do, and – while I am sure that a lot can be improved – this blog post gives you a preliminary “gaminiscing process” that will help you avoid some of the mistakes that I made.

(For more information, you can find the project on www.brukelgame.com, including its social media accounts.)

Part 1 - Gaminiscing Brukel - How my grandmother's war stories became a video game

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