The Strange in the Familiar
By Nicole Pacampara
For Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer, their love affair for games was born out of a love for stories. As a kid, they relished becoming part of the stories themselves. Gravitating towards classic adventure games like the Monkey Island series to Grim Fandago, these games would spark their early interest in making games.
Best known for the 2013 musical detective adventure game Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!”, Squinky’s games tend to explore everyday experiences mixed in with their signature humour and “general silliness.” Last month, as Squinky settled in their new home at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) research centre, I sat down with them to talk about their own story. With over ten years of game making experience, we chatted about their younger optimistic years, the disillusionment that followed, and the growing sense of identity and community they found in later years.
If you ever had to thank one studio for leaving a lasting impact on adventure games, it would have to be LucasArts. From the aforementioned Monkey Island series to Full Throttle, the studio crafted many of this genre’s classics. Today, we see its influences in studios founded by former employees, from Telltale Games to Double Fine Productions.
For Squinky, the studio ended up influencing them as well: “The really huge thing that changed my view of what gaming could be was when I discovered LucasArts adventure games … [I thought] Oh it’s a story and I get to be the main character of a story … and not just [to] jump over the bad guys to get through the level. I thought that was really neat … [it] made me think, I really, really want to make games.”
At the age of 13, after having moved from Edmonton to Vancouver, that dream slowly became a reality. At that time, Squinky recalls feeling lonely and missing friends which prompted them to spend more time online in ways they hadn’t before. Shortly thereafter, they found solace in LucasArts fan forums. Here, they discovered independent projects of game engines trying to clone SCUMM, the in-house game engine LucasArts was using to make their adventure games.
One of these clones was an engine called SCRAMM. Though the engine would turn out to be vaporware (forever stuck in the conceptual stage), Squinky was sucked into its fan community. The forum was filled with game ideas where members created detailed design concepts, screenshots, mockups, and trailers. Encouraged by seeing so many interesting and experimental ideas, Squinky started designing their first game, Cubert Badbone, P.I.
The game revolves around aliens on a floating island in space. When all the human tourists suddenly disappear, it’s up to you (the titular character) to uncover what happened. With visuals inspired by the game The Neverhood and cartoons like Rocko’s Modern Life, the game foreshadows many of the elements seen in Squinky’s later works including the film noir angle as well as the way the game plays with gender (admittedly though, Squinky says the characters are still a bit stereotypical).
With the game being their first, Cubert Badbone, P.I. would take three years to make — including a move to a different game engine called SLUDGE. In those early days, Squinky learned from trial and error including messing with tutorial code, learning animation in Flash, and composing music in MIDI.
When the game was finally released in 2002, it was well received. Landing Squinky a following within this small community led to their first press coverage, with a print magazine even including the game on a CD-ROM. Seeing the game now, they cringe and confess it’s like “looking at a high school year book.” Back then though, they were simply happy everything worked. At the same time, it also left them feeling a bit sad: “There was this thing that I had been working on for so long and now it was a real thing. I didn’t have to work on it anymore. What now?”
Buoyed by Cubert, Squinky kept making games. Their follow-up, The Game That Takes Place on a Cruise Ship, was yet another adventure game. This time around, it centred around a young woman as she explores the S. S. Asylum cruise ship. Released in 2006, Squinky says the game suffered from the second-system effect where they suddenly wanted to include all the features they couldn’t include in their first game. From bigger adventures, multiple endings, plot branches, and better graphics, the game’s original concept was larger than what Squinky could realistically do. In the end, they settled with a game that was less ambitious than expected.
By the time of the game’s release, Squinky was already in the middle of their computer science degree at the University of British Columbia. Game making was a side hobby while they studied and worked co-op jobs (their first job was QA testing for a company specializing in military maintenance simulations). After finishing their second game, they decided on a whim to start targeting game companies for their next co-op job. One of them was Telltale Games.
Telltale Games was born out of the ashes of a cancelled LucasArts project. Nowadays, with its success through games like The Walking Dead series and The Wolf Among Us, the studio is venerated for its ability to create engaging interactive stories. Back in 2004 though, when the studio was formed following the cancellation of the Sam & Max: Freelance Police game, it was a young upstart still trying to find its voice.
As a fervent LucasArts follower, Squinky saw all this and wanted to be part of it. Applying to Telltale as an intern, the studio was impressed with how Squinky already had a few adventure games under their belt (not to mention being a big LucasArts fan). Despite all the paperwork involved with hiring a Canadian, the studio was undeterred. In 2006, Squinky left home for the first time and headed to sunny California, home of Telltale Games’ headquarters.
Working on games like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — Hard Evidence to Sam & Max: Season One, Squinky would spend the next eight months at Telltale. As a young and wide-eyed game designer, they soaked everything in. Dropping in on design meetings with folks like Dave Grossman (one of the people who worked on the original Monkey Island series), Telltale Games reaffirmed how much they loved making games.
“It was kind of this dream state of being weirdly too good to be true … this was a time before I got so disillusioned, angry, and bitter about the game industry,” says Squinky with a laugh. “It was really magical. [Now I think] Aw, little Squinky, you’re adorable. This won’t last but it’s really adorable.”
Coming from the high of Telltale, Squinky felt sad to go back to school. Though they ended up working for another game company during their last co-op term, it didn’t match their Telltale experience. Despite this, they were still entranced with working in the game industry.
“When I was younger, I thought I’d just wind up working for some company. That was my big goal,” admits Squinky. “I believed I’d have more of an impact. I believed I could be a lead designer for a large company and design a game that millions of people would play.”
After graduating from UBC in 2008, their career path seemed destined for this. Ron Gilbert, another notable ex-LucasArts game designer, had just joined Vancouver-based game studio Hothead Games to spearhead a new adventure game called DeathSpank. Squinky was brought on board, landing their first job out of university. It seemed like an ideal place with Squinky’s early gaming experiences coming full circle with Ron, one of Monkey Island’s creators, as their boss.
The story, however, doesn’t end there.
While Squinky enjoyed a great working relationship with Ron, the same couldn’t be said with the rest of the studio. As Squinky recalls, Ron’s team (of which they were part of) was isolated from the rest. While they found themselves in a clique, it was the wrong clique to be in at that company.
At around the same time, Squinky was also starting to read more about feminism and became increasingly annoyed and disillusioned by the mostly “dude”-centric work the studio was producing. The working environment didn’t help matters either.
“Back then, I wasn’t even getting to explore my gender identity,” says Squinky. “In terms of people at the company who were not men, it was me and the receptionist a lot of the time.”
Though there was a woman producer who worked at Hothead when Squinky first started, she was culled in one of the studio’s first layoffs. “That was really hard on me,” says Squinky with a sigh. “It underscored how little emotional labour [was] valued … she did a lot of emotional labour … That was one of my first disillusionment moments.”
Another came from people’s reactions to Squinky’s criticisms about the game industry’s diversity issues. Speaking up and doing talks about these things in conventions like PAX, Squinky thought the studio would look at the criticism and try to make things more inclusive. While Squinky had supporters, others in the studio saw the criticism as an attack.
“I could have handled things a lot better back then,” admits Squinky. “I was a bit overzealous about a lot of feminist stuff and wound up publicly trashing my company on internet forums that they could see (in retrospect, not the smartest idea). But I thought everyone was well-intentioned … I was just this 24-year old kid … I had no power.”
Despite the clash, the studio would keep Squinky for another two years because, as Squinky points out, they were “young, cheap, and enthusiastic.” After DeathSpank was released in 2010 though, Ron decided to leave. Having been Squinky’s biggest supporter and mentor, the void left Squinky without a support net. Subsequently, they felt the pressure from the studio.
“I remember being really anxious and not being able to sleep because I had just been pressured to quit my job.”
While all this was going on, they were still making small games on the side. One game about a middle-aged novelist called Life Flashes By would prove to be the final straw pushing Squinky out of Hothead.
In 2009, Squinky discovered Kickstarter through friends who successfully crowdfunded their projects. Squinky figured they’d try to do the same and kickstarted Life Flashes By in 2010. With a $1000 funding goal, they reached it and, for the first time, made money out of one of their games. The only problem? The game was started while working at Hothead. When management found out, they didn’t like it one bit. They gave Squinky a choice: “If you still want to work for us, you have to stop working on your own game.”
“I was like f — — that, I don’t want to do that.”
So, as Vancouver welcomed the 2010 Olympics, Squinky found themselves disillusioned, disappointed, and without a job.
Even with their biggest setback to date, Squinky didn’t want to abandon making their own games. Work on Life Flashes By continued while they went through months of trying to find work. After three months of job interviews, they finally received two job offers: one from a web development agency creating websites for social change organizations while the other was a newly formed game company creating games geared for girls and women.
At that time, Squinky was still presenting themselves as a girl (only later during the Dominique Pamplemousse years would they come out as a non-binary individual). As such, as a “female game designer,” they were highly sought after especially for a studio catering directly to this audience. Squinky though didn’t feel as enthused.
“I [was] starting to feel very uncomfortable with gendered assumptions of any kind whatsoever. What does it even mean to make a game for girls or women? Am I really qualified to do that?”
“Designing games for this imagined audience of what a typical girl or typical woman is supposed to be … was offputting to me for reasons I wouldn’t discover until a little bit later,” recalls Squinky. “In retrospect, I was definitely feeling this discomfort between expected gender versus actual gender.”
Given these reservations along with the uncertainty whether they could still make their own games while working in a game company, Squinky ended up choosing the web development position. It was nothing more than a day job, but with so many other things they liked doing outside of work (from making their own games to playing in a band), they were perfectly okay with that.
“After everything that happened at Hothead and getting disillusioned with the game industry … [I thought] well at this point, I don’t want to be in love with my job,” says Squinky frankly. “I just want one that pays the bills.”
The job would do just that for a couple of years. Yet, as 2012 rolled around with yet another Olympics, Squinky would go through an eerily similar experience: they’re laid off.
On the heels of their layoff, Squinky started putting more time on a new project, a musical adventure game we now know as Dominique Pamplemousse.
“I’ve always thought it’d be really cool to do a whole game full of interactive musical numbers,” said Squinky on an early blog post. “Meanwhile, I’ve recently been rekindling an interest in stop motion animation, which I was really into for a period in my early teens … So, put these ideas together and we get a musical stop-motion adventure game. If that doesn’t absolutely scream ‘least likely to make any money whatsoever’ to corporate bigwigs in the videogame industry, I don’t know what does. And that’s all the more reason I need to make it. “
Inspired by the musical scene in The Curse of Monkey Island and stop motion games like The Neverhood and Dream Machine, Squinky dove into developing a claymation adventure game around an ambiguously gendered detective. Echoing their earliest work in Cubert Badbone, P.I. with its film noir aesthetic, Dominique Pamplemousse introduces a wholly new detective story where characters spontaneously burst into songs and tackle themes like gender and economic struggles. While a strange and silly mixture, the game culminated Squinky’s decade-long exploration (since their 2002 debut in Cubert) of making personal, awkward, and silly adventure games.
With no job lined up, but having a promising idea in Dominique Pamplemousse, Squinky took to crowdfunding to help finish the game. This time, they set a far greater goal: $9500.
“Running that crowdfunding campaign was my full-time job for the month of August 2012,” says Squinky. “It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences ever.”
In the end, they reached their goal. Finishing Dominique Pamplemousse was now a priority.
A freelancer’s life is often wrought with setbacks and uncertainty. You never know where opportunities will come from. Sometimes you go through phases where the well is dry, yet other times, they come at you from all sides. For Squinky, the crowdfunding success was just the start of a whirlwind few years.
Soon after the crowdfunding campaign for Dominique Pamplemousse finished, prominent interactive fiction developer Emily Short got in touch. That year, Linden Labs had acquired Little Text People, a studio Emily had co-founded with Richard Evans. Their team was working on Versu, a social simulation game engine designed for creating interactive fiction. Squinky was hired to do contract work, doing support work on early Regency games as well as lead authoring the Office Politics series.
While in the middle of juggling contract work and finishing Dominique Pamplemousse, Squinky started thinking about grad school, more specifically going to the Digital Arts and New Media program at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Seeing how a few of their friends had gone to the same program (most notably game designer Heather Logas and interactive fiction writer Aaron Reed), they felt compelled to apply. A few months later, they got in.
Before moving to Santa Cruz in 2013, Squinky finally released Dominique Pamplemousse. Modestly received, it wouldn’t be until they started at UC Santa Cruz when the dams broke.
“After I had just started my masters, suddenly the game gets accepted at all these festivals and blows up,” says Squinky in shock. “I did not expect that … I expected maybe a lukewarm reception.”
Bringing Squinky to festivals like IndieCade, E3, to the Independent Games Festival, Dominique Pamplemousse was revered by critics. Yet, success with critics doesn’t always translate to mainstream success. Squinky concedes that most of the game’s attention came from festival organizers, tenured professors, and those who were deeply interested and open to new ideas in games. For the most part though, mainstream gamers didn’t get it.
“I try to not look at the reviews on Steam because it’s too painful,” says Squinky. “Trying to separate actual critique from … people criticizing things that you did on purpose and not understanding why you did it … [that’s] kind of a tricky thing.”
Oftentimes, independent game developers toil in obscurity with dreams of one day achieving the same kind of visibility as Squinky achieved with Dominique Pamplemousse. Yet, visibility is a two-sided coin: the more attention you get, the more you’ll get people with polarizing views.
“[I got] people kind of really liking it or really hating,” says Squinky. “I feel fortunate that it hasn’t gone all the way to harassment or personal attacks but there’s definitely been this sense that not everybody gets this.”
Recently, Squinky revealed a sequel is in the works. Promising to be even weirder than the original, they’re both looking forward and dreading the reaction. When asked if they’re feeling any pressure in following up a critically acclaimed game, they’re pensive.
“I’m really, really trying to be gentle with myself in the sense that if this [sequel] doesn’t get as popular as the first game then that’s okay,” says Squinky. “It’s more important that I say what I want to say than try to please a hypothetical past audience because you never know what your audience is going to do. You never know who is going to grow with you and who is going to move on to something else. You can’t control that. If you design too much for a particular imagined audience at the expense of your own vision … it’s not very helpful, it won’t make as good of a game.”
In as much as visibility to Squinky’s works have changed over the years, the community around them has also shifted, arguably for the better.
After being laid off from Hothead in 2010, they recall feeling alienated from the games community. For the longest time, they never felt like people were interested in the same things as them. Arriving in UC Santa Cruz in 2013 though, that all started to change.
Describing it as their missing undergrad years, it was the first time they felt respected for what they did and felt comfortable among like-minded people. They could talk to folks about really deep game design topics but also about social justice issues. Feeling like they were among peers and equals, they started to come out of their shell a bit more and get into the “socialness of everything.”
Releasing Dominique Pamplemousse also forced them to come out (in a good way) as non-binary. Finding themselves in a new city with new people, Santa Cruz was one of the first spaces where they felt respected and accepted as they started asking people to call them by their new name and using they/them pronouns.
While their early years in the game industry was filled with a lot of disappointments and disillusionment, these later years ushered in a sense of self-discovery and community. Squinky credits this to the greater shift that happened in the wider games community. Pointing to Twine, the “rise of the videogame zinesters,” and the emergence of visible trans people, Squinky felt these gave them the space to recognize their own identity (which in turned encouraged them to be more visible and vocal about it).
“I think there was this great critical mass that happened around 2012/2013 where suddenly you have all these new voices,” says Squinky. “Of course that community was never perfect or anything like that but … being close to the Bay Area [around that time] was a really interesting time.”
Beyond the community, Santa Cruz would also influence Squinky in their works — namely developing a growing interest in alternative controllers. While UC Santa Cruz was known for games based on AI and computational storytelling (social simulation games like Façade and Prom Week came from the school), Squinky was more interested in blending the digital with the analog.
For their thesis project, they set out to do this with an interactive play experience called Coffee: A Misunderstanding. The play revolves around the weird interactions you’d get at conferences (i.e. a fan coming up to an artist). The game is a digital/analog hybrid where players act out what they read on their screens (which feed them stage directions and their respective lines). Other members of the audience get to “direct” the play by being able to choose what happens on certain points of the story (akin to Choose Your Own Adventure games). Mixing elements from improv as well as adventure games, Coffee taps into our awkward feelings both in the context of socializing but also in performing the game itself.
Squinky says the game came out of their own experiences with the artist character being their younger self while the fan character was inspired partly by someone fanboying them too much on Twitter. Having initially written the game on Versu (though later switching out when Linden Labs axed the platform), the game ended up looking like a script. Thinking it would be more fun to have people actually perform the whole game via a live performance, Coffee was born.
It’s through this game that Squinky eventually ended up in Montreal.
During Fall of 2014, Squinky went on an east coast tour of sorts: showing Coffee and speaking at conferences in New York, Toronto, and Montreal. While in Montreal, they attended CTRL-ALT-THÉ, a games event organized by the Mont Royal Games Society (a local organization running socials and game-related events).
Here, they played In Tune for the first time. For a game dealing with bodies, interactions, and consent (with skin contact being the main controller), it felt perfectly awkward and in the wheelhouse of the kind of games Squinky loved. Later on, they met the trio behind the game (Allison Cole, Jessica Rose Marcotte, and Zachary Miller) and was enamoured by their similar interests and perspectives. The trio became Squinky’s first ties to the city.
As Squinky finished up their studies in 2015, they wanted to pursue further education. While they enjoyed their two years in Santa Cruz, they concede “it eventually started to feel a bit small.” As a minority, the whiteness of the city (mostly populated with white middle-aged hippies) also left them feeling out of place. Squinky missed home. They missed Canada.
When the time came then, everything converged in Montreal. While they’ve found welcoming communities before, Squinky says these were often temporary or limited in those who cared for issues like safer spaces, marginalized queer issues, and many others. Montreal felt different.
“Things aren’t perfect [here] but they’re pretty awesome honestly.”
Factoring the confluence of organizations like Mont Royal Game Society, Pixelles, and TAG, they felt the city had a critical mass of socially progressive folks who wanted to make games better.
“I really wanted a community,” says Squinky. “One thing I’ve hated about my previous lives is feeling like I’m the only one who cared about things … whether it’s about social justice, marginalized people, or storytelling in games … there are people here who care about the same things I care about … here there’s a critical mass and being part of something already happening is really cool.”
Looking back at Squinky’s games, whether dealing with conversations or greeting rituals, a common theme bubbles up. A lot of them talk about the awkwardness of social norms sprinkled in with moments, no doubt, influenced by Squinky’s own experiences. When asked why they seem drawn to these themes, they bring up their current manifesto: videogames are boring.
For Squinky, they’re bored by the epic and the fantastical. What fascinates them are games about the most boring and mundane things. They love looking at these things, pulling something out of them, and creating a playable experience — whether about being lonely in a group of people to the awkwardness of dancing.
“This really ties into things like ‘making the familiar strange’ in a Brechtian sense. [It’s] also the idea of queering: looking at something that you take for granted as this normal [thing] and kind of turning it around, looking at it from a different perspective.”
“[When] you turn a mundane activity like a conversation between people into a game … it makes you realize how strange things are that we take for granted,” says Squinky. “Intimacy is strange. Conversation is strange. But it’s also very relatable … [and you think] ‘I didn’t realize my life is so weird!’”
With life as strange as it is, Squinky wants to keep making “boring” games. While it may not have been the direction they thought they’d end up in years before, it’s one they are happy to have found. “I’ve played games that maybe … thousands of people have played [versus mainstream ones with millions of players] but those thousands really care about them or just have a strong response … that’s special in itself,” says Squinky. “I am doing way more interesting games [now] than I could have ever imagined back then.”
As our conversation reached its end, I ask Squinky one last question: If you could go back to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself?
“Enjoy the excitement while it lasts,” they say with a laugh. “You will be disappointed, but that’s normal … [and] not necessarily that it gets better, but it gets different. There will always be more challenges. You will always get disillusioned. But, there will always be something else cool that happens … Things are getting worse, but they’re also getting better.”