Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

A screenshot of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi displaying an overhead view of several rooms in an adorable apartment, and a cute stylised character with dark skin and dark hair wearing a white and purple outfit.

This will be a design article on my game Mainichi, aiming to be insight to my thought process during its creation and serve as a guide for others to make games. To get the most out of this, download Mainichi here and then come back to read this! If the download is giving you problems, use my contact info and I’ll send you a copy. For extra reading, I also suggest getting a copy of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, as I’ll be speaking to many of the ideas she advocates in it.

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
This entry was posted in General Gaming, Indie Games and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

  1. Ms. Sunlight says:

    The aesthetic reminds me of a private action in a Star Ocean game.

    I think I got several of the things you were trying to say. Thank you for the game. It felt really frustrating at times, but as long as you’re still playing, you haven’t lost yet!

  2. Pingback: Writing | Mattie Brice

  3. buhbuhcuh says:

    Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man.

    Can you go into this a little more? I am curious because I make my living as a game designer for a large company, and myself and all the other designers on my team are straight up embodiment of the “hegemonic man” – yet when asked what we wanted out of our tools for our next game, we pointed to the toolset of RPG Maker.

    I would argue that many tools do not reflect the cultural desires of the builder (currently using google docs spreadsheets for a very high profile title) so much as the maturity of the tool. RPG Maker has been in development for over twenty years, slowly but surely becoming more usable.

    On the other hand, if a cultural bias in the tools available is preventing minorities from making games, then we have an identified course of action! Change our tools! It is frustrating to me, even as a white, male, straight, bespectacled, beardy game designer that my fellow designers can all be described the same way, unless they happen to shave that day. However, once part of the hegemony, it is very difficult to identify the obstacles to entry.

  4. Justin Bruns says:

    I feel this piece was a success in terms of artistic communication; it was very interesting to live a week in this characters’ shoes and experience the ways that supposed “right’ actions didn’t always result in positive rewards, and how the rewards were occasionally, in themselves, negative reinforcements.

    The use of game as a medium was inspired but brings with it a certain obligation to the form. I’m referring to the lack of an “ending’ or any sort of sign that I was playing ‘correctly’. Again, as an art piece, I feel it succeeded brilliantly – it left me with a lasting thought-process to mull over, and I will be sharing the experience with others. However I think it is important as a game designer/writer to recognize that gamers get frustrated when they don’t have some sort of reciprocating input. The first time a new day started and the dialogue was all the same, I assumed I had done something wrong or perhaps that the game had glitched out and restarted. I wasted day two and three doing the exact same things as day one, and sitting through the same text, simply to establish the game mechanics. This confusion made it difficult to connect with the game during the middle section of my experience. This frustration added to the artistic merit of the project (life doesn’t have clear rules of gameplay, life usually doesn’t end after one day, often every day feels the same, and it’s very difficult to make valid action/reward connections ahead of time) while detracting from my overall emotional reaction to the piece while I was playing. Instead of thinking about the social situations, I was spending fully half of my mental energy just trying to figure out if I was ‘playing the game right’. In hindsight, this fits right in with the artistic themes you were trying to present, but I think with a little more of an eye towards the ‘game’ aspect of the piece, more people would be willing to play it long enough to achieve an emotional response. I’m fairly certain most of my less dedicated or intellectual gamer friends will stop ‘playing’ the game after the second day turns into a slow repetition of the first.

    Perhaps a better balance could be struck in the future. Something as simple as a “Day 1, Day 2″ counter or muttered dialogue about how every day feels the same would have helped me to focus on the social experience the game provided and not felt so ‘lost’ in the game itself. Or a new friend at the coffee shop each time, or an object placed around the home, one for each day passed, just to show the player that they are in fact progressing.

    Of course, these thoughts are all secondary to the fact that I enjoyed both your postmortem and the game. All critique aside, I found this to be a very significant experience. I will be following your writing and career from now on.

  5. Alex says:

    Thank you for writing about your process when making the game. I love reading these sorts of things, I inevitably miss something(s) so I like hearing about what the author was going for.

    I found the game quite effective and got a lot out of it, especially from playing through it multiple times. It ties into our discussion recently about games that tackle serious issues being “fun.” Mainichi is a great example of a game that isn’t “fun” (it’s not supposed to be!) but is interesting and engaging (I know engaging is a Hack Game Reviewer word but oh well this is a blog comment).

    Use of choice and multiple playthroughs was really effective. I was struck by how the girl on the street would either misgender you or harass you by touching your hair; it illuminated how oppression puts a person in a lose-lose situation, where no matter your choices you are still going to have to deal with a lack of privilege. I liked how the internal monologue inside the house subtly reflected the emotional costs of doing beauty work. The other thing that stood out to me was how, even after going through the incredibly awful harassment from the man on the street, the comments from your friend in the cafe are almost as hurtful, even if they are out of concern. It’s impossible for someone without this experience to truly understand what it is like to live it every day. But I think your game offers at least a sliver of understanding and perspective.

    Also “I would have blown it up too” made me laugh :)

  6. Shannon says:

    Thank you for the game and for writing about it! I came on here to say something but Alex beat me to all of my points. Like Justin, the frustration of “what am I doing wrong?!” was poignant. Thank you.

  7. Matt Wamboldt says:

    Hi, thanks for sharing your perspective. Tools are definitely getting better and have a long way to go. It’s great that they’re to a point where anyone can put their thoughts out there.

    I agree with Justin that the game feels broken and couldn’t get past the second or third day. If you wrote it down it would feel like the opening paragraphs of a compelling short story, copy and pasted several times. An adventure game is a piece of writing made visual and interactive. You have compelling things to say and I want to want to keep playing.

  8. Kelley says:

    Hi Mattie,

    I just wanted to say: I liked this game a lot. It gave me an even deeper understanding of your experiences every day. (Ever since I became *aware*, I have been making an effort to understand an empathize with those who are trans. Please forgive me if I say anything untoward; I’m trying and learning.)

    Reading this postpartum was even more enlightening; I’m so glad you wrote it. I know that my experiences aren’t the same as yours, but we both have difficulties (however different they may be). Mainichi has inspired me to try my hand at making a game about living with narcolepsy. Thanks for being an inspiration. :)

  9. mc^2 says:

    Much like Kelly, I think I’m feeling more and more like I should try my hand at making a game. I feel like there are things in my life and my day to day experience I just can’t easily communicate with people. Partially because the terminology is missing from common language, partially out of fear of rejection by people I care I about.

    I think if I ever get around to it, I’d be inclined to make a game about learning the language needed to really wrestle with these ideas and perhaps some of the experiences in my life which led to me needing to know them in order to feel human again.

    Thanks again Mattie. Life may never be easy but maybe one day, it won’t be as hard for others…? I wish I felt I could hope for more…

  10. K-W says:

    I am impressed by what you have done. It takes a lot of patience to make a game, even with provided software. I’m definitely not one who can stick with making a single game. I enjoy reading how your own personal experience is shown by this game, even though you don’t have a single targeted audience. Games always tell a story, and I’m glad to read the process to how you “wrote” this story. I can’t wait for a chance to sit down and play it.

  11. Pingback: Worth Reading: 11/16/12 | YourGameTube.com

Comments are closed.