Natalie Clayton is an Edinburgh-based developer whose signature style involves plaintive, serene environments interspersed with bits of personal narrative. We met up in a café near the co-working space where she has a desk in Leith to talk about designing evocative spaces, and carving a niche for personal work in the Scottish games community. Interviews conducted February to March 2018.
How did you start working with video games?
I did a lot of small scale art in high school, but I weaned off of that because I hated the way that art was taught in high school. But I was doing a lot of modding during my teens and that grew into doing game design at uni. I did a lot of Half Life 2 levels, some Warcraft III stuff, some Unreal… A lot of unfinished things just trying to create interesting spaces.
The most famous Half Life and Warcraft mods were ones that led to the development of other games, like Counter Strike and DoTA, so that approach to modding seems kind of different.
A lot of my work was just trying to learn the tool and never finishing anything. My later work was a lot of Source engine-based narrative stuff like Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable. The mods were all initially very ambitious, and that would go nowhere so I started scaling down to make really short work. Everything I’ve made since then has been tiny, focusing on one or two core aspects, and I’m only now starting to branch out from that.
Is that an element of how you feel your work has changed over time?
Yeah. It was taking a couple years to hone in on “what am I good at?” and “what can I achieve as one person?” It gave me a better sense of my own capabilities. When you get started working in games, you see all these cool things and you want to go straight for that.
Most of your games are these evocative first person experiences but I’ve also noticed on your itch.io page that you’re using other tools like Bitsy and Flickgame to make web-based games.
That grew out of starting a Patreon. If I’m going to make stuff on the regular it has to be quick. That felt like a nice opportunity to mess around with web tools. I made a short game in Flick for a friend’s PhD, so when I started doing the Patreon stuff I thought I’d go back to that. I got into Bitsy and then got kind of out of it because everyone else who’s into Bitsy is VERY into it.
What was appealing about Flickgame and Bitsy?
That they were just easy — that feels like a cheap answer but because they’re so limited it’s exciting to try and work and create something special within the limitations. My first experiment with Bitsy was trying to create this cool over world thing, and I guess it worked because it was on Waypoint an hour after I posted it.
Yeah! To me that game (The Exile on the Long Shore) seemed kind of like your usual work but with a different mindset, because it also has a really good sense of location.
I think space is one thing I try to centre in my work. I feel like I’m trying to spend a lot of time narrowing down what my focus is in games and it always comes down to what kind of spaces can be created and who’s in them.
How would you describe your game development process currently?
Kind of between a hobby and maybe an arts practice now, because I’m doing stuff to be creative, but it’s more a thing I do because I want to. I’m not making any money right now, generally, but I got lucky to pick up some semi-regular journalism work that lets me do game stuff on the side without being too fussed about my work needing to be for a portfolio. When I’m making something I’m not thinking about “how am I going to sell this to someone who wants to hire me” or “how am I going to sell this…” full stop.
In light of that, how do you develop your ideas or decide which ideas to follow?
I usually try to find an area I would like to get better at. My current project was from wanting to re-learn 3D modelling and sort of grew out of that and became re-learning how to animate, and has become this weird over world Unity project thing. It’s a freeform adventure narrative game in a mech. I’m tentatively describing it as Where The Water Tastes Like Wine meets Jalopy. Moving from town to town in this big, expansive desert, taking care of your vehicle and meeting other people in the wastes… It’s all still in flux but that’s the general idea.
A lot of your games have mostly empty spaces, or spaces the feel abandoned. What would you say are thematic threads that connect your games?
It’s easier to control what the story interactions are in emptier, post-collapse spaces. It makes more sense to have very minimal character interactions. And if you’re going to tell anything with the world itself, you can be quite dramatic about it. It makes it very easy to suggest things with small details. In general I like to make places that are nice and quiet, where things are still very open.
Do you have a different approach when you’re working with something like Unity as opposed to the small experimental tools?
A lot of my work with Unity has just been trying to make Unity work like Source. So just throwing in add-ons to make it feel like the Hammer editor and just block out scenes. Transit and Satellite have very little code in them, just triggers for dialogue and transitions. I’m only now getting into making a game that has more stuff in it. That’s always the intimidating part, because the moment I look at code I die, for real. You still have to go into Visual Studio every so often or tweak things for an hour to make the mouse disappear, but it’s a nice engine because there are ways around a lot of things. It’s not like making something from scratch in C++.
There’s always a long on-boarding session, though. That’s why small tools are good, because there’s nothing to look at and get lost in. There’s always a month or two when I try to pick up a new engine where it’s like “oh god, what is anything here,” “how does the camera control?”
Do you think working with small projects and small tools has influenced your feelings towards larger projects?
I think I try and pull on a lot of the same threads and themes, but the development is structured, so that if I’m making a bigger project the process is kind of the same, it just takes longer. With the Patreon I’m trying to justify it to twenty people who are paying, so if I’m working on a new game or something larger it may just be an update. Because it’s people I know supporting me, I feel like it’s less pressure because they’ll sense where I’m coming from. It’s easier to be like “Hey, I didn’t do anything because a lot of writing was dumped on me this month.”
Have you ever worked collaboratively on things? Is that different?
A couple of times during uni. I also had a couple of game jobs during uni and some game jam projects. I like working with two or three people, but once it gets to larger teams it becomes weirder. I have a very nebulous skill set, that makes it hard to define what exactly it is I do to a larger team. I worked with one other person on a piece we did for third year projects about social anxiety and that was really cool, to bounce things off of one other person. She was better at coding in GameMaker than I was, and I was better at art.
What do you think are the benefits of working on a personal scale most of the time? (Especially being one person with a nebulous skill set).
Because I’m working at such a small scale of games it feels important to make it as loudly personal as possible, because that’s what I’m selling. Maybe “sell” is a bad word because I’m not directly asking for money, but it’s easier to interest someone in a personal project if it’s a highly evocative personal vision. You’re selling yourself more than anything, even more than your games, you’re selling what you did.
So the process is a part of the package, not just the final game?
Yeah, when you’re doing very low-budget, personal games.
Is that weird or difficult sometimes?
I don’t like working on things like mechanics that much. I like being more personal and creative with narratives and moods. But that’s just my way of selling things. There’s also people who have their own unique way of creating interactions with games. The negative is that I’m just perpetually poor, and rely on the support of my partner and my family, but it does feel nice to be in complete control of what I’m doing.
Do you have an ideal alternative model or support structure for this sort of risky, freelance situation that you’d like to see?
I would like if there was even just some way that I could cover workspace and basic necessities to keep myself going. Some way to create art, but also have baseline needs met would immediately just be fantastic.
Do you have a particular workspace or routine you follow?
I try and come to the Leith co-working space every day from about 11 or 12 until 5 or 6. If I have paid work I’ll get that done first, game development is what I’ll do if I have time, if there’s not things I have to write or emails to respond to, or things to submit, or people to interview… This is the first time in a while I’ve been on the other side of an interview.
What’s the co-working space like?
It’s quiet, which is nice. I was looking for if this would be a nice place to spend six hours a day, but half the people I already knew through Scottish games Twitter, which was reassuring. Having this space to work in has been so beneficial for my practice, because otherwise I would be using a desk that’s five feet from my bed. I tried going into coffee places for a while and that really racks up in price, because there’s an implication that for every hour that you’re not buying a coffee, you’re cheating them out. And it’s always quite noisy.
How do you feel about being a more experimental or arts-oriented developer working in Scotland?
It does feel like a very quick process to get to know everyone. I got the space I’m working at currently because someone was immediately like “hey, we have a desk free.” Most of the cool indies I know in Edinburgh are there. I think there are quite a few people doing solo or small team work in Scotland, maybe more so than there are small studios.
Do you think it’s difficult to carve out a space and promote yourself if you’re a more quiet and reserved person?
I’m not sure, because I would consider myself very quiet, and I’ve had an okay time getting my name out there, but it feels like dumb luck. It’s a knock-on effect from making a bold decision three years ago. Videobrains was a monthly speaking event in London for games or game-adjacent people. I ended up doing that after the TEDx Abertay event because, explicitly I was like, “Hey, I’m really bad at public speaking. What if I did public speaking?”
I put out a thing on Twitter asking where I could do it again and my partner tagged in the person who was running Videobrains and he said “yeah, just come down for this.” Because the people there were all involved in games journalism or smaller games, the network that grew out from that was super beneficial to my own work. Most of the people on my Patreon or who have paid for my games on Itch are from that scene.
How do you feel about presenting and talking about your practice?
I always feel like it’s going to be really exciting and I’m looking forward to it, and then I get on stage and I’m terrified, and can’t.
But obviously even if you feel like can’t you come across well!
I had a campfire chat about this with a friend at Feral Vector and they were like “Even if you’re not the best at speaking, at least you have interesting things to say,” which was quite reassuring. Even if you’re shy, it’s what you’re saying with your work more than how you’re saying it.
And you can also put yourself out there over the internet, which can be easier than public speaking situations.
Yeah. The nicest thing I’ve found when engaging with games and the indie games scene at large is that everyone is just a person, and might be friends with all of your friends.
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