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Allegorizing the Millennial adolescent experience in Nightmare Temptation Academy

"I wanted my game to feel like a safe space for expressing your transgressive/shadow side with the kind of freedom I used to feel when exploring the early web."

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

Nightmare Temptation Academy hangs out with a gang of teens in a high school at the end of the world, capturing the strange digital times of the early 2000's and the things teens often saw (and probably shouldn't have seen) on the early internet.

Lena NW spoke with Gamasutra about her work on the Nuovo Award-nominated title, discussing why she wanted to capture this particular time in internet history, what interested her in creating an outlet for expression of some darker desires, and the way true sincerity can come from something that seems "shocking."

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Nightmare Temptation Academy?

I’m Lena NW and I created the story, dialogue, lyrics (written & performed in the soundtrack), music videos, characters, environment, graphics, animations & the implementation (putting it all together as a game). Nightmare Temptation Academy is pretty much my baby. Costcodreamgurl collaborated with me on Nightmare Temptation Academy and she created the mini games and made elements in the environments & created graphics.

Nightmare Temptation Academy (NTA) is the 3rd game I made. The 1st game I made completely on my own in 2014 was Fuck Everything, a cursed dating sim. The 2nd game I made, Viral (2015), was also a collaboration with Costcodreamgurl; it’s a social media simulator/choose your own adventure game.

The previous games are browser games made with HTML/CSS/JS like websites. NTA is the first game I made in Unity.

I guess the FIRST game I really ever made was when I was like 10 years old, using the tool on Neopets.com called “Neopian Adventure Generator” which allowed you to make choose your own adventure games and share them with other Neopets users. I was always interested in making point & click narrative based games; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

How did you come up with the concept for Nightmare Temptation Academy?

Costcodreamgurl & I wanted to collaborate on another game together. She said she wanted to do something that took place in high school. I liked the idea of working with stereotypes/archetypes and mashing several different archetypes together from different places in time (for example, having the stereotypical mean girl/popular girl/prep combined with a “SJW”) to create a work that was both nostalgic and very contemporary/in zeitgeist.

I felt like the tone/demeanor of the work came from a place of wanting to be understood; I wanted to create a context for why I make shocking work, and that it’s something that was learned from a particular internet-induced cultural moment that I was absorbing as an adolescent without fully understanding, and that this has permanently affected how I express myself and how I make sense of the world. I wanted to bring players into the perspective, worldview, and afflictions of the protagonist character.

What development tools were used to build your game?

It was made in Unity. Graphics made in Photoshop & After Effects.

What themes did you want to explore with this work? What drew you to explore them with a group of teenagers dealing with school as their world literally teeters over oblivion?

I feel like my generation (Millennial & younger) feels like we are teetering over oblivion (I can’t speak for everyone but it’s a sentiment I share with a lot of people my age). I also feel like we are stuck in our adolescence/teenagehood in a way because we can’t afford to have houses or families and our retirement plans are death by environmental disaster. We can’t really grow up the way we imagined being a grown up was supposed to be. I feel very stuck. And I cope with using media as a form of escapism - interacting with fiction and other worlds is how I like to spend most of my time and it’s always been like that.

I think, in particular, we grew up with very immersive media; all sorts of ways to interact with fiction and fandoms that could consume our entire lives. Video games, forums, gaming websites, online communities; we have endless ways to interact with the fantasy realm to the extent that it’s easy to make this a central part of our lives/base our entire personalities and livelihood off of fictional media.

I feel particularly unable to get past my traumatic coming of age experiences as a teenager. I feel like the first time I was confronted with reality/society/norms/expectations was in high school and it was a total slap in the face. I was used to interacting with a very different set of norms on online communities that made me feel like an alien when interacting with people in real life. I didn’t know what was appropriate and I didn’t have the same cultural references as everyone else. I also thought school and “real-life” was extremely boring and under-stimulating. I wanted to create a protagonist character that felt out of place in this way.

This game takes the player to a common experience of life on the early (ish) internet, a wild time where a lot of us saw a lot of things we probably shouldn't have way too early. What thoughts went into creating a game to convey this time? 

I wanted to make the protagonist character feral in a way - like her only context for life & social norms are these decontextualized, horrific, and shocking experiences of navigating the darkside of early(ish) internet culture. Her concept of what is socially acceptable is so warped that she isn’t even able to identify when she’s been abused. I wrote this backstory for the protagonist character that isn’t explicitly in the game, but it’s also an allegory for the way I feel like my* experiences on the early (ish) internet messed me up, and made it hard for me to understand my own boundaries, and what was considered even remotely socially acceptable when I was in high school, which caused me to experience a really intense alienation at the time:

“You (the player/protagonist) are a depressed, anxious, suicidal, alienated 14-year-old girl. You were spawned from a post-mordial goop; the spirits, the debris, the carcasses, the residue of all that once was. The ghostly spirits that reared you, raped you in the process of creating you. You live your life carrying the weight of the trauma that is your entire existence; intrusive thoughts and impulses are ghosts that possess you.”

*On a side note: throughout this interview I am speaking in terms of “this is about my experience with _______,” but I also know that I am not the only person with this experience who feels this way. I think there are many people who relate to this kind of alienation and media-oversaturation in the way I’m talking about it. I just don’t feel comfortable speaking for a bunch of people when I’m talking about my own work.

What thoughts went into the design of the dialogue options? They often sway in very, very different directions. What did you want the player to feel from these varying, often violently different choices?

I wanted the protagonist character (You) to feel like you were struggling with intrusive thoughts, and were unstable in that you are someone who really has to battle with the thoughts in your head; a “good” option/decision will present itself as an option that is just as viable as something harmful/bad/wrong. I wanted the dialogue options to reveal things about the universe and the personality of the character, just through reading them, without having to actually select them. The personality of the protagonist character isn’t quite a blank canvas, in that I tried to write both dialogue options with a lot of personality and conflict that were particular to the state of mind of the protagonist - players aren’t in control of building their characters personality, but they are in control in the decisions and choices the protagonist character makes.

In the past my games had a lot of shock-site pop up like features where the game would sort of inflict and push the boundaries of the players regardless of their choices. In NTA I wanted players to have more control over their experience, where a lot of the more heinous content could be avoided based on the players choices within the game. The players have a lot of autonomy on how far they want to descend into the hellscape.

Nightmare Temptation Academy has a vibrant art that style that is filled with a chaotic energy. What drew you to this style? How did it tie into the work, its themes, and its mood?

The art style like a mash-up of my influences from the late 90’s to the present, which I think creates an anachronistic setting for all of the references I needed to create the atmosphere of internet-induced derangement. I made a mood board for how I wanted the art style to be that included images from; Neopets, Pokemon, Bratz, Monster High, Gaia Online, Newgrounds.com, Skull Girls, Bloody Roar, Sanitarium, David Firth, Nightmare Ned, Doll Makers, Dating Simulation Games, early net art (ie. mouchette.org), just to name a few specific things me & Costcodreamgurl were looking at when we started creating the visuals for NTA.

I am really attracted to the amateur aesthetic of early 2000’s flash games and net art; games and interactive experiences created by individuals for fun, when it’s usually thought of as a medium made with a big team & budget. I liked the freedom and weirdness that comes across in solo-dev work.

The aesthetic in NTA condenses time into warped worlds reconciling a lifetime of internet addiction from the late 90s to the present. NTA and my previous games are interactive multimedia games that emulate the chaotic experience of growing up on the early internet. My work becomes both a byproduct and a cultural artifact of Millennial internet culture; an ouroboros of content creation that is meta-reckoning with itself.

The game allows players to explore desire/eroticism/rage in a lot of different ways. What appealed to you in letting players explore these feelings and actions through the game? Through your work?

I felt like my earlier work was often dismissed as being just for shock value, and I wanted to find a way to depict shock as a genuine means of self-expression corollary to the relentless consumption of unrestricted aberrant content. I try to frame the desensitization to atrocity as a Millennial defense mechanism to cope with a culture where the horrific becomes mundane.

I think that people need a space to explore their shadow and darker impulses in a way that doesn’t harm others, which is why I really have a problem with moral critiques of depictions within a fictional realm. I know that having space to explore these feelings, and especially finding others who relate to these feelings makes me feel less alone. The most rewarding part about creating NTA was finding a community of collaborators and players who relate to the sentiments in the game, and meeting people with similar experiences who relate to the game on a very sincere level.

The internet used to be a place where I could “be myself,” or even experience freedom in being completely anonymous, and explore different ideas, take on different identities and characters (I was really into forum roleplaying on sites like gaiaonline.com). Now the internet (mostly social media) just feels like a place where you have to be perfect at all times (even in the past; you better hope your digital footprint from 15 years ago is perfect - or else), and perform a palatable idea of yourself for others to consume. I don’t feel comfortable on social media anymore and I find it mostly anxiety inducing to use. I wanted my game to feel like a safe space for expressing your transgressive/shadow side with the kind of freedom I used to feel when exploring the early web. Internet culture has become sanitized in a way where it no longer feels safe to experiment with different forms of expressions or identities in that space - it’s now filled with rigid expectations and rules.

What thoughts went into creating the music, lyrics, and music videos in the game? Music is an integral part of being a teen as well, so how did you create music that tied the whole piece together? What did you want from that musical side of things?

There are certain phrases I used in the lyrics to create a nostalgic theatrical teenage angst attitude -- like using the phrase “so whatever” in the lyric “Armageddon is so whatever”. I knew that I explicitly wanted to use a somewhat dated and hyperbolized teenage lingo, like something you’d see on a teen TV show in the 90’s.

In the past I had always put my music as just a soundtrack that played in the background of my games, even though the songs did not necessarily relate directly to what was going on in the game. I later felt like having very lyrical tracks playing in the background while players had to read lots of text was very distracting and unnecessary, so I replaced all the music with just instrumentals. I wanted to find a way to meaningfully integrate my album with a game, and decided that making a musical where the songs were cutscenes, would be the best way to do this. I wanted the songs I wrote for Nightmare Temptation Academy to explicitly relate to the storyline in the game, while also keeping the lyrics vague enough that the music would stand alone as an album without needing the game to understand or enjoy the album.

Making music is something I really love doing, while I feel like game development is pretty exhausting and soul sucking in practice. I like the creative aspects of game development -- but not how much labor it requires, which started affecting my mental health while making NTA. Making music is always something that brings me joy and it never feels like labor, so it was the most fun & rewarding part of creating NTA. I also liked the idea of synthesizing all my skills and passions into a single experience; I want my games to showcase my music and have all aspects of my art practice feed into one another

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