Kaitlin Tremblay graduated from Humber's Creative Book Publishing program in 2012. Just two years later she's working as an editor of books... and video games. Read her fascinating account of storytelling in this unusual context.
I get this question all the time, especially at publishing industry events: "Why video games?"
As an alumni from the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber, my position as an editor at an educational children's publisher makes sense. But, for many people, my work as an independent game maker and my involvement in video game criticism might seem to make less sense. But I'd argue they're two sides of the same coin.
I have a BA in Creative Writing, as well as a Master's in English, so I've always been enamoured with the world of telling stories. But after I finished my Master's — a 10-month long whirlwind of reading books, writing essays, grading essays, drinking a lot of cheap wine, and one too many all-nighters to complete a conference paper to be presented the following day — I was burnt out. Playing video games became my short reprieve, my way to engage with stories while allowing myself a little breather from my previous life of being buried under books. This is where I was at when I entered the Creative Book Publishing Program: in love with stories and constantly seeking new ways to engage with those stories.
Funnily enough, it was being a publishing student at Humber that got me my first job in the video game industry. Alex Jansen, from the multimedia production company Pop Sandbox, sent Cynthia, the CBPP director, an email about an opportunity for a CBPP student to become an intern on Pop Sandbox's first video game, Pipe Trouble. I couldn't resist applying. In fact, a very dear of mine told me he would be furious with me if I didn’t apply. So I did and I got the job as marketing/publicity intern. That position quickly evolved to level consultation, as well as admin assistant. For Pipe Trouble, our marketing campaign involved creating old school arcade machines with computers inside that would run Pipe Trouble. We built these arcades and then decided to transport them around different locales in Toronto. My job quickly transformed from marketing intern into "girl who was in charge of physically lifting and moving these arcades around Toronto in snowy and rainy March!" It was fun, but let me tell you, I'm never moving arcade machines that are three times bigger than I am ever again.
In the two or the two or three years since working on Pipe Trouble, I have continued to work in some facet in the video game industry, be it as a writer or editor for games criticism website, or as a fledgling game maker myself. Toronto was the right city to do it in, too, with organizations like Dames Making Games encouraging women to get involved in game making.
My most recent game is actually a collaboration with twelve other incredible writers and game makers. The game, called Lights Out, Please, is an anthology of short horror stories, all retellings of traditional urban legends or ghost stories by diverse contributors. I am so happy to say that Lights Out was just nominated for five awards at the Canadian Video Game Awards, including Best Writing and Game of the Year. Which is amazing considering it started as a small project where I just wanted to work with cool contributors! It’s even more exciting to be nominated because Lights Out, Please isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of “video games,” because it’s entirely text-based.
Lights Out, Please is made entirely in the open-source software program called Twine. Essentially, Twine lets you create a file that you can either download or play on the web. The format of the game is text-based: the player reads passages that are linked together by hyperlinks (the game maker chooses which words or phrases or images players can click on to go onto the next passage). In some cases, players are given choices that will take them to different parts of the game. Think of Choose Your Own Adventure books.
What I love about making text-based games in Twine is that it lets you focus on writing, while also lending a degree of interactivity and player complicity to the game; the player has to make a choice that determines where the story goes. There are some stories in Lights Out, Please, such as "The one about the carnival" by Kitty Horrorshow and "The one about the basement" by John R. that involve more interactivity of this kind.
In video games, there's always this weird debate about whether Twines are "real" games. Someone once told me that Lights Out, Please was more "interactive reading" than a game and my response was - and always will be - a game is just something you interact with, plain and simple. For Lights Out, you engage with the game by clicking hyperlinks that propel you through the story. That's interaction. You are controlling the events in the story in the same way you control events in a game with a controller, more or less. And besides, the Canadian Video Game Awards seem to think it's enough of a game to be nominated for Game of the Year, along with Ubisoft powerhouseWatch_dogs!
I love making games in Twine because it's always been the stories in video games that have enthralled me the most, and Twine lets me focus on this aspect of games. My first two games were personal accounts of my experiences with mental illness, and focusing on how to make a player engage and be complicit in parts of the story was what I liked best about it. My second game, There Are Monsters Under Your Bed, was my attempt at showing people what it's like living with severe depression. It's structured to play like an old 90's role-playing-game, like Final Fantasy. You have to make choices about which weapons to use, if you want to be a mage or a fighter, and whether or not to fight monsters. But your choices all feed into the narrative of feeling helpless and unable to leave your own bed, let alone your bedroom. So, while it's meant to mimic old video game structures, the focus on the text forces the player to focus on the words and what is being said, rather than on the spectacle of fighting scary monsters. You don't see the monsters because the monsters are in your head, and this is something I was only capable of doing in Twine.
While making There Are Monsters Under Your Bed and my other solo games was a remarkable experience, it was working with others on Lights Out that has been the best experience for me. I was able to offer a small space and platform for others to tell their stories, stories about what they're afraid of and are unsure of how to talk about.Lights Out is our game, not just mine, and that’s what I love the most about it. It's a sad and scary and, at times, heartbreaking game written by people about what scares us. That ability to, in some way, provide a space for people to tell their stories, is what I love about working in video games. The video game industry is dynamic. Yes, it is incredibly volatile and toxic at times. But it's also filled with some of the most incredible people I know, telling some of the most remarkable stories ever. Because that's really all video games are: stories.
I don't really view my work in video games any differently than my work in publishing. As an editor in both industries, it's all about how people tell stories to each other — and how these stories affect and influence the culture around us. My work in games has been to tell my own stories as a form of activism and, however I can, to help others tell their stories, too.
You can check out all of Kaitlin's games, both solo and collaborative, at thatmonster.wordpress.com. To playLights Out, Please, click here. You can also purchase her book, Escape From Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal, about Epic Game’s 1998 computer game Unreal here. Follow her ramblings about horror, feminism, and mental illness on Twitter at @kait_zilla