Anyone who’s played videogames like Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption knows what kind of narratives they tell. Their protagonists are snipers or outlaws ready to fight missions that step outside all legal bounds. Game designers Anna Anthropy, Sebastian Janisz and Michael Molinari choose to tell very different stories. No ambushes, no clandestine ops or full throttle attacks. Brooke talks to the designers about their very personal games.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That game with the great ending, Red Dead Redemption, features protagonist John Marston, rugged survivalist, former outlaw.
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Marston’s story is studded with ambushes, ride-by shootings and public executions. He’s been given the task of fighting to tame the Wild West. The main protagonist of Call of Duty: Black Ops, Alex Mason, also knows that not all missions can be accomplished within legal bounds.
Game designers Anna Anthropy, Sebastian Janisz and Michael Molinari are all too familiar with that kind of digital narrative. But in creating their own video games, they choose to tell very different stories, more like memoir or diary. Anna, Sebastian, Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL MOLINARI: Thank you.
SEBASTIAN JANISZ: Thanks.
ANTHONY ANTHROPY: Nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’d like you each to begin by describing one of your games. Anna, let’s begin with you. What is Dys4ia about?
ANNA ANTHROPY: It’s about the past six months of my life. I decided to go on hormone replacement therapy. I’m a trans-woman. I made the game to try and communicate all – all of the frustration of the experience of dealing with the medical industry, dealing with society, with my own gender dysphoria, and also the hope that comes out of it, after struggling up what is basically a mountain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a sense to mark your own route. Describe the four levels.
ANNA ANTHROPY: The first level is about making the decision to go on hormones, which was a big long arduous process for me, having to deal with feeling like you don’t belong in the woman’s bathroom, with getting misgendered by people on the street.
The second level is about the process of actually dealing with the medical industry – finding a clinic, dealing with the testing. I had to get my blood pressure under control before they would even let me get on hormones.
The third level is about actually being on the hormones, dealing with the wild mood swings, being unable to have my girlfriend touch me because parts of my body were really sensitive and dysphoric.
The fourth level was kind of about getting through all that and reaching a place where I kind of was a lot more comfortable than, than when I started. When I started making the game, I was basically in Level 3 of the game, myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANNA ANTHROPY: And I didn’t know then how the game would end and whether, you know, it would, in fact, be a happy ending.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, tell me about your games. You have one called That Was Yesterday.
MICHAEL MOLINARI: Yes. It was created during a time when I was kind of transitioning. I mean, I came from a little tourist beach town in New Jersey and I moved all the way out to San Francisco area to get my first full time job making video games. And that’s really cool, but I was by myself. I left all my family, my friends.
I explained in my head what was going on, and then I almost literally translated these things, saying, there’s a wall that you need to face away from, and in order to get through the wall, instead of bumping your head against it, you need to look to the past and find all the things that kind of help you drive forward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to tell you, I tried to play the game. I got to the first wall, and then – I was in the snow area and then I couldn’t get past the wall, after beating my head against the wall in the game a few dozen times.
MICHAEL MOLINARI: When you face away from this wall, which kind of represents problems and fears and whatever you think it might be, this big dense wall, it kind of recedes and it moves back. The key there is to exercise patience and wait for the wall to disappear. And once it’s off the screen, then you’re able to turn around, face forward and start moving through life a little bit further.
By the end of the game you find out that even though you are physically alone, you’re not alone spiritually because you bring with you all of the experiences with all the people that you’ve been with in the past. And so, they kind of help you get where you need to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian, your game was about depression, and this was the game I think that for me most fulfilled the goal, if that was your goal, to summon up what it feels like to be depressed. There’s, again, the metaphor of beating your head against the wall.
The second you get through to another place, the same arduous process of beating your head against the wall begins again, or beating your head against various objects and little – very minor spatters of blood, lest you forget that this is actually painful. And the whole thing feels very lonely.
SEBASTIAN JANISZ: Thank you. Yeah, that – [LAUGHS] really sounds a lot like what I would have hoped – someone would kind of get out of the game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You picture your own death. Or did I just – spoiler alert!
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SEBASTIAN JANISZ: Yeah, that – that, that is – well –
I kind of intended for it to represent a sort of inner death, the game ending. I started making it just to kind of almost relieve myself, because I was feeling all this emotion or more like a lack of emotion. You know, I thought maybe making this game would make me feel better.
Essentially, what I wanted to try and do was make it so that when you play it, because of the way the game play is designed, you’ll start to feel how I felt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it because the three of you work in the business that to convey these acutely personal moments, you turned to games, rather than poetry?
ANNA ANTHROPY: This is Anna. Games are particularly well suited for exploring dynamics and systems, because they’re about rules. My experience with hormone therapy was characterized by frustration, and, you know, what better form in which to make an audience feel frustration? Like people play video games, they can play ‘em and say, you know, this is so frustrating, this part of the level is just so – badly designed, it – uhh!
It really is one of the best-suited forms to actually having your audience experience the frustration that you’re feeling because you can set up goals, you can rig the variables, so it’s very hard to meet those goals.
SEBASTIAN JANISZ: This is Sebastian. If I’m watching a movie, I’m watching somebody else’s story. But in a video game, even in something as simple as Tetris, it’s your story. You’re providing the input.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If nobody played your games, would it still be incredibly satisfying to have made them?
SEBASTIAN JANISZ: Actually, with Lackadaisium I, I wasn’t even sure if I was gonna release it or not. I did sort of make it for myself. I thought it was – maybe a little – presumptuous of me to assume that other people would be interested in my experiences. But I just kind of figured I, I had already kind of made this thing, and maybe some other people would find some value in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anna?
ANNA ANTHROPY: I wanted my game to sort of reach out to other trans people who are going through sort of the same experience, and to kind of carry the message that maybe it gets better. I have heard from so many people that like it really resonated with them, and they felt that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, what’s the reaction been to That Was Yesterday?
MICHAEL MOLINARI: Some people had more personal experiences than I even had when I was making it because I was fusing my own experiences to make these, these hybrid semi-autobiographical moments in the game, and people actually had them. And so, they would thank me and, and just let me know that I helped them deal with whatever was going on in their life that was similar to what was going on in the game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anna, you offer tools in your book for amateurs to create their own form of expression through games.
ANNA ANTHROPY: The game industry has become so conservative, more like Hollywood, and I think that, you know, amateurs, as you put it, making their own games and making smaller games that are more personal, more maybe like, you know, the games that we’re talking about today, is really important to video games as an art form. And I think it is also just as inevitable as it is necessary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thank you very much, Anna.
ANNA ANTHROPY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian and Michael, thank you too.
SEBASTIAN JANISZ: Thank you for having me.
MICHAEL MOLINARI: Thank you very much for, for having me here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian Janisz and Michael Molinari are independent game designers. Game designer Anna Anthropy’s first book, The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form, was published this month.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Luisa Beck and Rob Schoon, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC's senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
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