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Interpreting family, politics, and bureaucracy in Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures

Road to the IGF 2022: Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures follows a pair of siblings as they navigate their differing views on their family lives while also navigating the strange bureaucracy that stands between them and their inheritance.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 9, 2022

8 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures follows a pair of siblings as they navigate their differing views on their family lives while also navigating the strange bureaucracy that stands between them and their inheritance. Players will take on an array of actions to help the siblings through, using trust, gameplay, stream of consciousness writing, and miming to make their way through the game.

Game Developer sat down with Gabriel Helfenstein, creator of the IGF Nuovo Award-nominated title, to discuss how the game explores how we all interpret family, politics, and bureaucracy differently even when sharing the same world; how its visuals evoke a nostalgia, yet also bear a similarity to cash-grabbing business art; and the appeal of stepping away from a game while still continuing to play it in the real world. 


What's your background in making games?

Gabriel Helfenstein, creator of Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic AdventuresI started making games around 2015 or so. Before that, I had next to no prior experience in programming—although I created some pieces of interactive literature back in the day when Flash was still a thing.

Since then, I have worked mostly under the name Outlands. I have been part of a game collective called AAA and now I'm one-third of Fantasia Malware, a Berlin-based collective and label creating games and performances.

With Fantasia Malware we make collaborative projects - such as our game-performance Orchid Collector - and release the works of our individual members, like Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures.

How did you come up with the concept for Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures?

Helfenstein: Honestly, my work process is very chaotic and the concept behind my games changes a lot during production. In this case, it didn't start with an idea but with a visual style. I "discovered" the possibility of working with 3D renders and wanted to create a game around it. 

As the game began to take shape, I realized that I wanted to make (or was already making) a game that was a sort of an awkward mirror reflection of 2020.

On a personal level, my father died in 2020, so I was confronted with the arduous bureaucratic "quest" that comes with death, as well as the emotional and interpersonal negotiations that come with grief in a family. And, of course, a lot happened in the world at large during this time - amongst other things, there was the Covid pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and a general sense that the gap between how people understand the world on different sides of the political spectrum was widening, both in the US and Europe (where I'm from).

What interested me in particular—in family, bureaucracy, and political events—was that we are all born in the same world, increasingly close to each other, living through the same events, yet the closer we are, the more it seems that we interpret those events differently. What can lead to a rewriting of history, encouraging the hold of systemic racism or create a worldwide anti-vax movement, can also be found in a family, amongst friends, in the way we all interpret our memories and rewrite our own past.

I didn't necessarily want to make a clear statement on all of these things, but reflect on them in the same way that our dreams reflect our waking life—as fragmentary images, and as a way to process information in a chaotic, unguided, yet meaningful way.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Helfenstein: Mostly Blender, Unity, and Photoshop.


How did the annoyances and tangles of bureaucracy and paperwork shape the board-game like play of Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures?

Helfenstein: Like I said before, bureaucracy was a big part of my 2020 year. Apart from that, I think that games and bureaucracy increasingly share a similar energy because they happen on the same system (a computer), tend to share a similar aesthetical fascination for things like numbers, skills or statistics, and, of course, are almost fused together in the neoliberal turn towards gamification that permeates most of our App-mediated world.

Bureaucracy is also one the most visible ways we experience power, so trying to play around with that was always interesting to me.

Trust seems to be a big requirement for playing Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures (or a lack thereof thanks to screen-peekers). What interested you in having that element in your game? In exploring trust between people (siblings) through the game?

Helfenstein: I'm not sure that trust really is a requirement for playing the game. Because it happens locally on a shared screen, it's very easy to cheat. I think cheating is a very important aspect of games and has produced some of the most interesting by-products of video gaming (speedrunning, for example) as well as very interesting dynamics in real life games. So, I'm fine if people play by the rules, but I'm also very happy for them to use the game the way they want to.

What drew you to the game's particular visual style? What did you want this look to evoke in the player?

Helfenstein: At first, the visual style was kind of an accident. I don't really remember why, but I followed some tutorial on making renders with Blender and I realized that I had never considered using 3D renders to produce what is essentially a 2D environment.

What I like about this style is that it evokes a certain nostalgia because of the widespread use of 3D renders in older games and the way it can have a toy-like quality. At the same time, it is also heavily used in corporate design and attention-stealing cash-grabs. For example, the kind of stock imagery that is often used by businesses online (think a 3D rendered smartphone on a pastel colored background) and the aesthetics of online casino games and other freemium apps.

I think we live in a particularly nostalgic time. This is not really surprising as culture tends to turn towards the past when it can't envision a positive future—but I don't think we have ever been in a situation where nostalgia was so heavily and effectively commodified. A lot of it comes from the fact that the algorithms that dictate our tastes (think Netflix or Spotify) are kind of built to serve us back what we already like, so we're stuck in this weird endless nostalgic loop.

In any case, this is what I wanted to evoke in the player—a sense of comforting corporate nostalgia with a touch of maddening uncanniness.


What interested you in using non-digital interactions with the game? In having things like stream of consciousness writing, miming, etc?

Helfenstein: I guess I just enjoy it when games are not doomed to live and die on a screen. I think that something interesting happens when people have to let go of the mouse for a while and bring their bodies into play. Maybe because it reminds me of the real life games I used to play as kid, when playing was both more innocent and more meaningful—a way to learn how to be in the world.

The stream of consciousness writing is a way for each playthrough to be different, for each game to be not only a product of my mind, but a fragmentary reflection of the history of the players. I also think that the reports you get in the end make for a good "trophy" to get out of a playthrough. Much more interesting than some lame Steam achievements.

What do you hope that sharing these questions with a partner or friend can evoke in them? In going through some of these odd requests together?

Helfenstein: The game tells the story of two siblings who have a very different interpretation of their past and their family—even though they have lived through the exact same events. Again, this is a phenomenon that happens constantly between people, family, friends, coworkers, etc. While not being necessarily problematic, this divide can widen when we don't talk enough—or when most of our communication happens online.

I guess I wanted to create a situation where people have to communicate and negotiate how their perspectives can harmonize—even if this all happens in a very silly way.

Okthryssia and Saturnia's Bureaucratic Adventures mingles silly and (somewhat) serious questions, depending on how the player takes it. What do you feel that this mixture of silliness and seriousness can bring out of the player? Why bring silliness and seriousness together?

Helfenstein: When art takes itself too seriously it can easily be dismissed as arrogant or elitist. When it is too silly, it can be dismissed as being "just for fun", dumb entertainment. The combination of both moods make it harder to dismiss, and more in line with our actual experience of life.

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).

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