Blanket Fort Chats: Tanya Kan (Part II)
“Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. We continue our chat with Tanya Kan, a Toronto-base game designer. Last time, she talked about her creative process and her upcoming game, Solace State. Today, we talk about her attraction to narrative-driven games as well as games and game makers that have inspired her.
A lot of your work revolves around narrative-driven games. What drew you to making these kinds of games?
I’ve always just made sense of the world through stories for as long as I can remember, as soon as I’ve the language to form sentences. Undergrad especially sharpened my desire to shape narratives, through the study of media forms and power in governance. I’ve always wanted interactive ways to talk about society, even if they happen to be imaginary ones. And governance itself can be seen as having a structure that has constant rules and standards of play.
I constantly ask myself about tone and pacing, and what kind of audience I want to reach. Should it be one who is more interested in being introduced or referenced with in-depth philosophies, or one which is more mainstream? I think about that a lot, mostly because I really want to make the joys of philosophy, humanities, and the social sciences more approachable to a young audience, but without erasing some of its most interesting complexities.
I think that there are a lot of great visual novels out there which take a more fantasy or escapism approach — most obviously that of dating sims — but that just doesn’t come as naturally to me. So I try not to fall into that convention too much despite myself. I try to develop my own voice.
Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
First of all, I really like the exploration of nuanced, historied interior spaces in Gone Home. I feel that exploration in this game is perfectly scoped and really lets a 3D interactive world weave its magic over the player. Similar to Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, both games that I also very much love for their unique ambience and tone, these games use a minimalist first-person control scheme to their advantage. The result is that they really let the narrative and art direction shine.
In Visual Novels, there’s nothing that captures my imagination as much as Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel, Hate Plus. Developer Christine Love has woven political intrigue with heartfelt stories in a wonderful mystery about a generational ship which has dropped out of contact. As the player, you feel immersed in reading through historical logs and missives between the key characters of the story. She has also managed to include some comedic turns in a broader melodramatic story, which is no easy balance of tone and pacing.
Cat and the Coup by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad is the penultimate game for me that maximizes narrative gameplay and affect in the least amount of time conceivable. The gameplay time is around 15 minutes, and you play as Mohammed Mossadegh’s cat. Mossadegh was the last prime minister of Iran, and the act of following his history is as compelling as it was evocative and heartbreaking. It planted the seed in my head that political science and video games can in fact align together to great affect.
Another one is Bastion. I had first played it right as I received my college acceptance on my education as a 3D game artist, and in many ways it strengthened my resolve to work in the industry. Bastion hit all the right notes: A resounding sense of adventure, a tinge of regret lost to the passage of time, and a lore that is intensely and uniquely its own. Furthermore, it’s created by a very small team, which sounded revolutionary to me at the time, and I wanted nothing more but to be a large part of a small studio after seeing their successes.
Supergiant Games’ sophomore project, Transistor, is in some ways even closer to my heart. The melancholic atmosphere of a city eroding upon itself glimmers at every corner, echoed in music and in voice, and I feel like I’ve not quite ever seen this sublime quality in games before. It’s compelling and its mechanics are a joy to play, without ever being unapproachable.
Lastly, I really think EVE Online is the ultimate sandbox for social negotiation and interaction, and thus utilizes uniquely game attributes. EVE Online cannot exist in any other form but as an MMO. Even though it is antithesis to a lot of the linear narrative games that I like creating, I’d like to think that it keeps me superbly humble. Here’s a game which is filled with lore, but the greatest story rests in the hands of its players. I don’t know how, but I’d like to be able to create some sort of a multiplayer game one day that encourages that high level of meta-gaming. There’s nothing more empowering than to know that what you can do in a game world can have far-reaching repercussions in its power politics.
Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?
I don’t necessarily think that games are better than any other medium. Just as there will always be books, there will always be games. Instead, there are designs which work better for games and there are designs which work better for other mediums. As players, our reactions to games are different than if an experience is presented in a different medium. We tend to think more about immediacy, but simultaneously we’ve ingrained as logic the expectation of interaction that we’ve experienced hitherto in a particular game universe. There’s a very interesting parallel interplay here, a simultaneous living-in-the-present while retaining a strong muscle memory, narrative continuity, and problem solving skills of the past. We just don’t progress through a book or film the same way.
There are times when I’ve started designing something only to find that there’s a mismatch between narrative theme and the actual game mechanics. There are times when I’ve written a story blurb and realized that I need to put this into a future comics pile, or future short story pile, because the story doesn’t translate into a ludic experience. Solace State has gone through numerous redesigns because of this, and thankfully I have friends who are not afraid to critique it for what it is. I think that’s one of the difficult challenges that makes game design so intriguing to me. It’s especially true for the hard questions such as philosophy, which usually don’t see the light of day in any form but art, prose, and really dense textbooks, and usually for a very niche audience. But that’s changing.
Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
I feel like this is a list of game makers who have created something that have touched my heart thoroughly, made me feel like my horizon has expanded, made me dream multiple lives. Each of them captured a beautiful essence of humanity, and combined it with a fitting game design.
Christine Love, of Analogue: A Hate Story fame, really knows how to enrapture audiences with her speculative fiction in her visual novels. With Analogue, she has created a world in which history texts can be interacted upon and our interpretation as players become the game. There’s poetry in acknowledging that even historical records are shaped by the opinions of their writers, and Love’s work is deeply self-reflexive in acknowledging that.
Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales has had such a colourful oeuvre of marrying art with interactive ludic experiences. I love how lush and dynamic the Endless Forest is, and so very different from the usual tropes of an MMORPG. Fatale, on the other hand, reminds me of a classical concert experience, one that privileges feeling and roleplay on an emergent stage of the screen.
Arielle Grimes is a prolific creator of several short but beautiful games. In What Now?, she has created an aesthetic that expresses existential suffering that deeply resounds with me. Meanwhile, in care&control, it’s a flourishing and magical garden that lends me inner peace. I love how I feel like she’s sharing her unique subjectivity with me through her game mediums. She often quietly lets me play the game first, and then we talk about it afterwards, and this often reminds me that games are a conversation that goes beyond just the game itself.
Karla Zimonja and Kate Craig of Fullbright, who created Gone Home with Steve Gaynor and Johnnemann Nordhagen. I love the gradual reveal of the stories’ secrets in a house that looks well-lived in, with all its intendent details. It was also incredible to partake in a workshop and presentation that Kate Craig ran at Bento Miso, and hear her talk about her process and teach us ways to challenge ourselves in game arts and design. I will also be so, so happy with myself if I can build something like a Fullbright House one day, like a band’s live-work space, but for a game dev team.
Lydia Neon created my favorite Twine game, bar none. It’s called Reset and it’s set in a transhumanist future. By using some nifty Twine customizations, the narrative game is in turns sexy, mysterious, and sublime. Honestly, when’s the last time I’ve played a game that I thought was thoroughly empowering and sexy?
Jessica Curry of The Chinese Room not only has the best philosophical reference for a game design company; In my opinion, she has spearheaded one of the most confident experimental first-person games to date. What I love most about Dear Esther is how unapologetically musical it is, and Jessica Curry’s work is crucial to shaping the visual and aural landscape of the games at The Chinese Room.
Jen Zee is the art lead of Supergiant Games. As mentioned before, Bastion has been crucial to me to jump from academic and journalistic writing of games to the development side of games. Because of her successes, it gave me impetus to believe that I can also pursue indie game arts independently and as a freelancer. I absolutely love her art style with its painterly textures and colorful palette, one that immediately evokes emotional connections to Supergiant Games’ epics. Her broader portfolio of work continues to inspire me because they often contain both youthful vitality and deeply emotional connections.
If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were just starting out as a game maker, what would it be?
Look after your body, mind and soul equally, so that you can keep creating creative works for decades to come. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can keep working as hard as humanly possible, because eventually imbalances create even deeper and more painful imbalances.
Also, be more willing to ask others for help or even just to bounce ideas. A lot of people are actually very willing to contribute their specialized insights into a project, once they find it compelling for themselves and they understand your goals. It also makes the project healthier in every respect.
Thank you, Tanya!
Thank you for the interview! I’ve always enjoyed FemHype’s interviews because everyone comes from such diverse experiences, and it keeps me feeling so super humble because of all these fantastic journeys that different people have gone through!