Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Tanya Kan, Part I

Image courtesy of Tanya Kan
Image courtesy of Tanya Kan

Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Tanya Kan, a Toronto-based game designer most recently known for the upcoming game, Solace State.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Tanya: I have been very passionate about multidisciplinary perspectives on understanding how power and textual images shape perceptions of the world. In undergrad, I studied Political Science and Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. After feeling a bit dispossessed with what I know of the political life and wanting to communicate in more mass media forms, I turned to games and interactive media. I’ve always loved the idea of 3D, so I embraced my time at Seneca in a postgrad program for 3D Game Arts and Animation.

Miss N: How did you get into making games?

Tanya: Through a very unusual route! I wrote a fourth-year thesis on EVE Online for Cinema Studies, which tied post-structural theory to the idea that EVE Online was all about networking and negotiation outside of one’s avatarial body. It caught the eye of the Editor-in-Chief of Indie Game Reviewer, who kindly let me review the most experimental narrative games/interactive experiences that they receive.

A year after that, I wanted to be on the production side, and so I learned 3D arts at Seneca. Following graduation, I worked at a VFX studio in Hong Kong that was very interested in including game engines as one of their pipelines for product and entertainment experiences. When I returned to Toronto, I found my home at Bento Miso, Dames Making Games, and the vibrant indie and small studio community here. This truly phenomenal community gave me the support network I needed to build up my freelance and independent design chops.

Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?

Tanya: In terms of leisure games that I chose on my own, I remember playing Toy Story (1996), a PC side-scroller that was released less than a year after the first movie. It was pretty addictive. I was super young at the time, and remember vividly that I wouldn’t get off the computer for bedtime, and my dad took the CD-Rom out of the drive and broke the disk in half. (And then I rebelled pretty hard and … nah, I’m joking, we’ve made up since then. He’s now the best supporter I could ever ask for of my video game design thing. But seriously, folks, digital distribution is a wonderful thing.)

Miss N: Do you see any parallels with your previous background with your work now as a game maker? 

Tanya: I realized from my undergrad education that I put myself through some really difficult texts—on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional levels—because I actually love storytelling. It influences my game design now in that I always want to make a compelling narrative as the core of my games. Political science has helped me seek to present some really intricate motivations and philosophies between fictional characters and groups of people. Cinema Studies has helped me seek alternative ways of telling a story on screen, and hopefully giving the audience to reflect on what’s visible, as well as just outside of the frame.

Moreover, I believe that all characters are in some ways informed by their culture and society and, even in fictional worlds, I aim to reflect that in my presentations of them. Lawrence Hill (author of The Book of Negroes) once said that it was through fictional works that we come closest to the truth. I also believe that in the sense that this is the core value of what we can recognize as art.

Miss N: You’ve had so many different roles from game designer to writer to art director, among others. What were those experiences like? 

Tanya: In freelance, sometimes I take on those roles as they get negotiated within a team, or it’s what’s necessary to complete a contract. I didn’t realize early on that sometimes it’s really hard to bounce between those roles, especially wearing multiple hats on a given day. There’s a transitional period when I’m trying to ease back into a role again. For example, when I’m collaborating art-wise, I find that I really want to sink deeply into the artistic process because someone else is working on the same wavelength as me, and so the energy and inspiration amplifies that way. I don’t necessarily want to break off from that and do something else, like keeping in touch with business contacts, for example. It’s nice to be in the zone.

Scar Tissue (Unity prototype, July 2015) by Tanya Kan & Mikki Benaglia
Scar Tissue (Unity prototype, July 2015) by Tanya Kan & Mikki Benaglia

Miss N: Are there any unique challenges inherent within each of these roles that you never thought about before you did them?

Tanya: Writing for games is a unique challenge for me. I’ve been writing short stories for fun since childhood, and a bit more seriously in my adult life. Writing for games and anticipating points of interaction that a player would want to engage with is really different, however.

At TOJam 2014, I specifically trained myself to write out of order, in a spreadsheet, for a jam game I coordinated and designed called Scar Tissue. You would land on randomized platforms that would give you a slice of the story. But my main game project, which is currently in development, is a visual novel called Solace State, and it’s even more complicated. With multiple threads and variables for branching dialogue and character sprite expressions, I realized that I was getting scope creep really quickly. Managing the proper tone between multiple logical threads of dialogue is no joke.

I’ve hitherto relied on novel and screenplay writing guide books, and it doesn’t always translate over, so there’s a lot of trial and error. I also had to try out multiple writing programs before I realized that I actually work the best with the most simple Office or Scrivener setup—provided that I work in a completely silent room.

Lighting prototypes in Unity 5 for Solace State
Lighting prototypes in Unity 5 for Solace State

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

Tanya: Oh, gosh. Sometimes I just go by feeling, as in I’ve seen or read something emotionally evocative, and it could be anything from a newspaper article to a novel to a music video. From there, I think about what kind of message I want to get across. It usually starts out as a Word document for me where I list out what kind of gameplay I think best elevates the narrative into an interactive, emotional component of the experience, what kind of art style, and so on.

Then, if I wait a few days and I like it enough, I start doodling out a really basic layout just to get the basic game flow onto paper. Then comes the prototyping process. Most don’t cross the line to the prototype, though, because I’m already busy with one main project, so I’ve accumulated a lot of Word documents at this point. Maybe forty or so “bucket list” projects? I usually poke through them again when I’m ready to take a “break” from my main project.

Solace State (Concept Art) by Tanya Kan
Solace State (concept art) by Tanya Kan

Miss N: Can you tell us a bit more about your latest project, Solace State?

Tanya: Solace State is a sci-fi game set in the near future about a young woman’s coming of age. She’s reconnecting with her friends in a city foreign to her that is threatening dissent, but the issue is that one of them has gone missing and everyone’s at different places in society. So you have this sense that some people believe that all the world’s a progressively improving place, and others are fighting tooth and nail just to not starve in the streets, or get dragged off unfairly to jail, or “disappeared” off. As the protagonist, you see this from your friends both old and new, and each of them have history and baggage.

Miss N: How did the game come about? 

Tanya: As I traveled more and read about different policies that trickle down to our everyday lives, I felt that historical injustices really cast a long shadow on how we understand our myths, our dreams, and our nightmares. Hearing these stories from new and old friends from the world over has been a transformative experience for me.

So I wanted to encapsulate that—the desire to listen to and witness the truth(s), even if they might not bring closure or peace, particularly as the truth can be a dangerous phenomena to certain structures, certain despots. The idea of gossip and conversation can be subversive; Socrates was persecuted for the simple act of questioning the pillars of Athenian society. But, at the same time, the act of witnessing and gossip can be playful, can be comedic, like graffiti and block parties. All are iterative, organic processes. I am drawn to this contrast—the two sides of the same coin.

Concept art for Solace State
Concept art for Solace State

I was — and still am — really compelled by philosophies of what makes us modern and cosmopolitan, and how we define modernity. After all, isn’t it that generations ago, folks also considered their moment in time to be modern? It’s a fascinating premise of how we articulate that to ourselves, and how we consider our ethics in relation to the concept of “being modern.”

I think the questions of modernity goes hand-in-hand with what we collectively think makes a hero. And the point of Solace State is that I want to show that there’s no final, universal answer of what kind of hero a society needs. My “heroes” for Solace State try to maintain a principle of non-violence because I see that as the more natural progression of most of the developed world in the future, but they can still make mistakes and have to bear the consequences.

I’m curious to see if I can do it: if I can make a game universe where all characters truly have to feel the weight of their actions.

Early prototype (2013) for Solace State by Tanya Kan, Rob Richard, Mikki Benaglia, & Blake Withers
Early prototype (2013) for Solace State by Tanya Kan, Rob Richard, Mikki Benaglia, & Blake Withers

Miss N: What was the process like developing it? 

Tanya: Ah, so many challenges. At first, in late 2013, I was prototyping a fully explorable 3D environment with a lovely team of four devs. It was a demo where the player can walk and jump along ledges, kind of a parkour lite, and reconnect electric signals in the environment so that the character can listen in on communications and memories. The narrative was entirely presented in the form of voice-overs. However, the more I was thinking about puzzle design, the more I got frustrated, because it meant less time that the player would focus on the narrative.

It took me a while to warm up to the idea of a visual novel, but eventually I clued in that this was the genre I needed to tell the story I wanted to tell. Solace State has around 20 characters, and to eliminate the minutiae of their expressions felt like a misstep. It helped me re-scope around what I finally understood to be of paramount importance: character development and having characters express their truths about their society.

So, for the majority of 2014 and 2015, I actually just kept writing, illustrating, and creating Twine and Ren’Py prototypes just to make sure I could articulate what was crucial to the project. What tone and integral message I want to really shine forth. It wasn’t until Q4 2015 that I jumped back into Unity 5 to build out the features.

I also knew that I wanted my fictional Solace State city to have both Eastern influences and Western ones. I come from a diasporic background, and thus, my traditions and values stem from both sides of the Pacific. I feel that a game that explores political identities as deeply as this one does would best reflect me through a constructed nation-state of in-between-ness, of a mixture of different traditions. This was something that I had to include above all else, and that sense only deepened and flourished over time.

Solace State “hacking” visual novel mechanic at work
Solace State “hacking” visual novel mechanic at work

Miss N: What has been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making games?

Tanya: Knowing when to not push myself too far. I mean, the game dev process is a bit addictive to me, and there are so many details to obsess over when I am primarily a solo developer. I would sometimes focus deeply in the writing process, and then when I switch gears to work on something else, I negate the fact that I might’ve been already using a lot of energy writing, and so I end up overworking and feeling burned out.

On the surface of it, it may be a good problem to have in that I don’t ever feel bored—I just pivot when I need to. But some other hand, I do give up on some things. Interesting hobbies, for example. Letting some friendships wane. Forgetting to take good care of my body.

There are times when I think that I’m still not working hard enough, or fast enough, or smart enough. I think it’s about adjusting my expectations on myself to reasonable standards that’s the hardest to reconcile with. It’s a bit of an ingrained behavior—the feeling that I should always strive for improvement.

Local developers Kimberly & Cale playing Solace State at Bit Bazaar 2015
Local developers Kimberly & Cale playing Solace State at Bit Bazaar 2015

Miss N: What has been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had when making games?

Tanya: Definitely in discovering new ways to present an idea that I’ve had for a long time, having the narrative cohesively work together with the game design, and then seeing people engage with a game demo. When other people are excited about your game, that excitement really carries over to me. I really enjoy hearing how people interpret the prototypes that I make.

I also love working within the Toronto game development community, because so many local devs here are willing to share their insight and feedback with so much sincerity. It’s also nice to hear from game developers abroad about their experiences in development, their successes, and their challenges. Despite our difference of geography, it’s fascinating how we converge together with our shared toolsets and enthusiasm for developing interactive experiences.

Miss N: Tune in tomorrow for Part II of this chat!

If you’re interested in following Tanya, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @VividFoundry. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.

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