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6 min read
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How grief made a game.

Horrible things happen to us all, and for most people, there are very few avenues to explore the consequences. As game developers, we have a unique opportunity to share our feelings in a unique way. This is how I made a game, fuelled by grief.

At the risk of stating the obvious, making games as an indie is hard, really hard. If you're working hard to be a successful indie (I define success as being self sustaining on game dev alone) even the smallest setback can be a cataclysmic event. We're usually too small to be able to insulate ourselves from the kind of trouble that larger companies deal with on a day to day basis. A speeding ticket on the way to the abandoned tattoo parlour where you work (that you managed to con your way into leasing for cheap) can destroy a days productivity. A breakup can slow things down for weeks. The death of a family member can sometimes be a company destroying event. In our few years running Screwtape Studios, we have faced all of it, and more, and it was the death of a loved one that turned out to be a defining moment in the history of our little company.

Cancer is a horrible thing. It destroys lives. While the disease metastasizes internally, it does the same emotionally, latching on to family and friends, causing the kind of contemplation that is usually reserved for drunken 3am conversations, or paranoia filled escapades locked on the couch after smoking too much weed. We think about life, the universe and everything, our place in it, and the hole we might leave when it's our time to shuffle off. For me, that contemplation turned into a desire to express myself through the medium I've devoted my life to, games.

I'm very cynical when it comes to the mobile space, it seems to be exclusivley about business and not about Art (Note the capital A, there is some very good art in mobile games). I get it though, the nature of the medium dictates that interactions be relativley quick, we play when we're on the bus or the toilet, and for most, mobile games are seen as a distraction from life, not a commentary on it. I wanted to comment though, to reconstruct my feelings in digital form, to maybe remind people that even though they're currently sitting on the bus (or toilet) that life is precious, unpredictable and for better or for worse, temporary.

A few years ago, a collegue and I created a small game called Time Dash. It was essentially the classic game Snake but on a 3d moon. Our protagonist was a daschshund who ate crystals and grew his midsection, we thought it was out there and funny, but the theme didn't lend itself to discoverability, and we didn't have the resources for player acquisition. Like most, it failed. The idea was solid however, and I was encouraged by a mentor to think about it from a different angle. Boyued by this encourgement, I created a blank unity project and started the game again from scratch. At around the same time, my business partner Meg received some devastating news.

Megs mother, Annette, had been diagnosed with cancer and it was a gut punch to say the least. Very quickly, Megs attention turned to caring for her, and because her mother lived in a different city, the company's activities slowed to a crawl. I got some work with another local developer who was doing some cool stuff and I decided that rather than let the snake game get stuck in limbo, I would dedicate nights to getting it done.

Annette's condition deteriorated quickly, and it was soon obvious that she wouldn't be with us for much longer. Where doctors previously used words like "treatment" and "fight", they now replaced them with "comfort" and "relief". My thoughts and feels about the situation steadily leaked into my game design, I wanted to talk about all of this stuff and games gave a kind of soapbox to do it. It was through this that Zen Snake was born.

The goal became to capture a lifetime of experiences each and every time you played. Each game can bring frustration, excitement, relief, confusion, helplessness, and joy; and like life, success usually depends on your ability to get out of your own way. Death is inevitable and the game ends abruptly, and you are then reborn, to experience it all over again (Unlike real life which is most probably a "one and done" kinda deal). I wanted to encourage people to think about their life while they played, and to show that for most of us, we are truly happiest when we are focused on the "next apple", in the now, and to not worry too much about the future because it's never going to work out like you planned.

Lots of ideas came from this, from all ends of the spectrum, one particually dark version had a random name generated at the end of each run designed to smash you in the face with the mortality thing. It rang hollow though and was a little too on the nose. The final straw for that idea came when a name generated during testing was that of a loved one who had actually passed, and it was ultimately decided that sending players into a spiral of depression was not a sound business decision. I pulled it all right back, settling on the Zen theme. There is some great imagery there, and it could all be used in a positive, life affirming way. The idea of the Ouroboros (The snake eating itself) was also a nice way to talk about life and death in a way that people were familiar with. 

Late one evening at the Townsville General hospital, Annette Summers, sourrounded by her family, exhaled her last breath. She was an avid reader, and going through her book collection looking for mementos was and long and emotional task. During the search, we came across a little book of Zen sayings, quotes for people to reflect on their lives and meditate on. These sayings were the missing piece in Zen Snake, they gave each play through a specific purpose, something to contemplate while being frustrated, excited, relieved, confused, helpless, and joyful. A reminder that we can find happiness in just focusing on the "next apple", and that for a while, things will be okay if we can manage to just stay out of our own way.

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