Thursday 4:30pm–5:30pm: One Falls for Each of Us: The Prototyping of Tragedy”, by Brenda Brathwaite

My favorite talk of the conference, or indeed any GDC that I’ve been to. Brenda said that she now gets introduced as somebody who makes games that make you cry; I can attest that she gives talks that make you cry.

This talk was a “pre-mortem” for the game One Falls for Each of Us. Which makes her anxious: this game is a personal effort instead of a group product, and her personal design process is odd.

It’s part of a series called “The Mechanic is the Message”. The first is about the slave trade; she made it for her daughter. The second is about the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland. Which is more related to her personal family history. The third is Train, about the Holocaust: zeroing on complicity, complexity, regret. The fifth is Mexican Kitchen Workers. Then Cité Soleil, about day and night violence in Haiti. (People playing two different games on the same board.)

All these games use the same little people figures: the same underneath, different colors on the surface.

The fourth: One Falls for Each of Us.

These games were originally design challenges: she was teaching at a college, didn’t have access to programmers. Interlude: talking about a conversation between photographers about choosing whether to take the picture. Alien to her: you don’t generally get to choose not to make games.

Tragedy as a topic. At first, she thought it was alien to games, but not so. Puerto Rico, Colonization; but Super Columbine Massacre and Six Days in Fallujah are anathema to many in our society. And she doesn’t have to worry about topics, packing, time, schedule.

She liked the potential of these games; others were less impressed. Commenters on blogs reacting negatively; Indiecade award was special, though.

Her process of approaching tragedy: she believes deeply that the game already exists, she needs to find it. And that she’ll be able to do so: it will take some thinking, but she has time, the game will reveal itself eventually. (As opposed to, say, Ravenwood Fair: she feels that she makes that sort of game rather than finds it.)

Interlude on art: Richard Serra, Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock would spend a lot of time just circling the canvas.

Taking a road trip back from Indiecade: what would it mean to leave her home? Really hard for her to find an entry point. But: where there is a human-on-human tragedy, there’s always a system. How could she find it? She spent a lot of time studying maps.

She had a discussion on Twitter about appropriation of culture.

Finding the system: how did they “remove” these people? How did these people respond? Why did they do this? What was their motivation? What resources were they given? What were given up?

Interlude on Irish soldiers in the US who were told to attack Mexico: they instead fought on the Mexican side. Reports of numbers told by Americans and Mexicans are radically different. Don’t trust any of the history of this stuff.

Back to appropriation and systems. You’re playing it as a white guy, not as an Indian. She thought maybe the board should be the USA. Previous games made you feel complicit: how to do that here?

You’re playing a white man; four of you, removing five Indian tribes. With a game of massive scale: the game will have 50,000 pieces. So a piece represents a person: if you want to play the game, you’re going to have to move a lot of pieces.

The subconscious and symbolism. The pieces come in bags of 100. Then, she opens the bag, dyes them: the bag looks like a hamburger wrapper. They dry out on newspaper; one session was right after the Haiti earthquake, making some amazing juxtapositions of red painted figures and photographs of Haitians in the earthquake.

Concerns (or where it is now). She wanted to have it finished by GDC, she had her weekends planned out. But then crunch time intervened. Why did she let that other game take precedence over this game of her own heart? She won’t do that again.

Where it starts: part 2. In fall 2006, she was attacked in a horrific way, and laid in bed for a long time after that. She’s trying to understand what happened, why they did that. She was thinking about making a level in a game that would represent this. She made a game in her imagination, exploring pain as a system.

Then she played The Path. Which gave her a release, an amazing moment. It made her realize games can do anything.

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