An Exclusive Interview with Beneath Floes’ Creator, Kevin Snow

I think lately we’re really entering into some kind of beautiful new age of video games.

For some reason, the idea of properly analyzing a game, looking at it closely, actually thinking seriously about games has always been seen as kind of a charming, pointless exercise. Despite the effort, art and work that goes into even the shortest games, it’s only recently that people have begun to look at them as a valid and recognizable form of art. I have no doubt that it is due to the many accessible new tools available lately that have allowed anyone with an idea to reach out. Gone are times when you needed a room full of dudes and a backer to make a game. Gone is the jump-and-gather formula that so many old releases were built on. Like a beautiful, smelly flower, video games are opening their petals and bringing us new and different ways to entertain, to tell stories, to interact with us. Emerging artists are changing the whole idea of what a game actually is.

It’s been fascinating to sample so many different types of games brought to life by so many different artists, each one bringing their own ideas, methods and forms of interaction to the table.

Today we look at a collaboration between Kevin Snow, Patrick Bonaduce (artist), Priscilla White (music), Mike LeMieux (design), and Pinnguaq (editor) on the game Beneath Floes, a short interactive fiction based on Inuit Folklore. It’s a haunting little piece about culture, narration and history. You can play it for free at his site, Bravemule.com.

What inspired you to tell this specific story? Why did you decided to tell it as a piece of interactive fiction?

I love monsters — the fears they represent and reflect, their otherness. This is conflicted love: horror stories are often ableist, drawing their dread from society’s anxiety about disabled bodies. But when you can’t find good representation, you find ways to love the bad. Disabled characters have historically been villains, sure, but villains are powerful.

The best monsters come from oral traditions, because those monsters embodied fears so specific that folks kept them alive across centuries. But oral traditions change based on historic context, on the storyteller’s lived experiences. Monsters exist in time and space.

With both The Domovoi and Beneath Floes, I was concerned with how stories change across time, so the fluidity of interactive fiction seemed appropriate for a conversation between a storyteller and her audience. Every medium is an exchange between creator and viewer, but games are expected to foreground that communication.

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Can you talk about your connection to the Inuit culture that Beneath Floes is drawing upon? What about the myth of the qalupalik drew you to it as material ripe for use?

I don’t have a personal connection with any Inuit culture. As a white person, I depended a lot on the collaboration with Pinnguaq, interviews, distribution to and feedback from players in Nunavut, historiographical research, histories of (mis)representation, and sources like the Qikiqtani Truth Commission to manage those aspects of the game. Meg Jayanth, the writer of the incredible 80 Days, talks a lot about approaching historical representation with respectfulness. Although I’m not saying we were successful with Beneath Floes (that judgment belongs to the player & critic, of course), I think any potentially successful outsider writing requires collaboration, empathy, and respect as a minimum. That goes for everything — culture, race, gender, orientation, bodies, age, etc.

Beneath Floes is set in the 1960s, so there are a range of experiences being referred to there that we wanted to acknowledge as historical truth. The encroachment of colonialism and capitalism, how folks between 1950-1975 used traditional cultures to negotiate with drastic change, incorporating and personalizing aspects of outsider culture to empower themselves. The shifting stories of the qalupalik reflect those historical developments and concerns.

Recently released was the title Never Alone, another game with Inuit culture at its core. Its purpose was to bring the stories and myths of that culture to a new generation and wider recognition. What was your purpose in using this culture?

I wouldn’t say that education was a goal of Beneath Floes. Never Alone’s success in its mission required the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, so any work with a similar mission requires that kind of voice. Instead, I view Beneath Floes more as a game about oral literature that tries to respect the cultures it includes. The collaboration with Pinnguaq made those aspects possible to achieve, but we didn’t want to tell people’s stories for them, so that required firm choices about narrative focus. If the game leads anyone to learn more about Inuit lives, though, or if anyone connects with it personally, I think that’s wonderful.

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What are your thoughts on making a game in the Twine engine? Is it easily accessible? Robust? Well received by the audience?

Twine is incredible. It has some hard limitations that foster creative thought. I struggle with aspects of it … the engine is accessible, but to do more with it, you might need to learn some CSS & Javascript, which are nightmares.

You can just look at the incredible diversity of work to see how versatile Twine is. The work of Kaitlin Tremblay, Javy Gwaltney, Soha Kareem, Andi McClure, Christine Love, Michael Lutz … I could list names forever.

People seem to like Twine games, but I’ve noticed some frustration with how some creators approach choice. I approach my games as interactive short stories, but some folks expect Bioware choices. There’s room for every kind of approach, so long as you establish what the player’s expectations should be early in the game.

Beneath Floes artist, Patrick Bonaduce, has some really evocative watercolor-esque images that go along with the story. Did you choose the style to fit the story or was that simply the painting style you had to work with?

I worked with Patrick Bonaduce before on The Domovoi, and there I gave him a lot of direction, but with Beneath Floes it was more of a mutual collaboration. The game originally was only supposed to have one illustration — the title screen — but Patrick produced 68 illustrations in one month. It was unbelievable. I can’t speak much about his creative processes, because they were his choices.

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At several points in the game you make reference to the tradition of oral storytelling and the interplay between storyteller and audience. Was that the purpose between the detail altering hypertexts? A method to evoke that particular theme?

I think that’s a great interpretation of that mechanic. The moments in the game about how the protagonist’s mother modified traditional stories to entertain them more … it’s certainly drawing a connection between how people incorporate aspects of aggressive outsider cultures to survive and how people change stories to fit the context of their lives.

What the was the thinking behind the conversational tone of the writing? For instance, you interrupt the narrative to tell a joke about a pigeon.

The narrator is a character as much as the people in her story. Since the game is about storytelling, it’s a useful frame to continually remind the reader to view the narrator’s story as a work of fiction told in a specific moment. In such a short work, it’s useful for tone management, too. Beneath Floes is 3,000 words but switches between dark humor and horror sometimes within the same paragraph. Like the penguin joke, the narrator teasing you about their storytelling decisions draws attention to them and establishes player expectations.

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Currently, do you have any plans or ideas as to what your next game is going to be? Will it be interactive fiction? Or will you be looking at other mediums?

My next game will be a Phoenix Wright-style adventure set in the Ozarks. It’ll be more ambitious — I can’t stop playing 80 Days, so right now the design document is derivative. Pinnguaq is making a horror game about a qalupalik, so I encourage you to check that out!

 

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Eric Swain

A graduate of Boston University, majoring in English and Creative Writing and has spent significant time studying story structure and theory in the mediums of books, film and video games. His articles offer unique perspective on deep game development and design through his eclectic prose. you can find his critical analysis on www.thegamecritique.com.