“Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Elaine Gusella, a game designer and storyteller currently working as an indie dev in Montréal. She is the co-founder of a startup studio specializing in gamification and life-size video game installations. When she isn’t making games, she enjoys playing RPGs and spending time with her partner and beautiful baby girl.
Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Elaine: I studied classical music for years, and then went on to get my BA and master’s in ancient languages and literature. Nothing that would bring me to game making, although it’s now proving very useful. After that, I worked in book publishing where I had the chance to participate in some very interesting digital publishing projects. As fulfilling as that was, the book industry is hard, and I eventually decided that I wanted to go in another direction. I had been writing scenarios for LARP games for about ten years by that time. I decided to make the transition into game making as a career. That’s when I heard about Pixelles for the first time.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making some kind of game, to be honest. It’s always been a huge part of my life. I met most of my friends and even my husband in LARP games, but I had never thought of it as a career path before being selected for the Pixelles Game Incubator. I gained a lot of confidence through it. After that, I went back to school to do a postgraduate certificate in Game Design where I met my friend and now business partner Véronique Bouffard.
Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Elaine: My mom used to make games out of everything to help me learn. I remember that she had made cardboard squares with different syllables on them to teach me how to read and had me match them to form words. I must have been three or four. Soon after that, we got a NES and I started playing Super Mario, but the real hook was when I played Final Fantasy — the very first one. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Miss N: What’s your creative process like? Where do you get your ideas?
Elaine: From everywhere. I try always to stay alert to new ideas. I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. I stopped doing that for a while actually, using only my computer, but I went back to paper. There’s something more direct in writing things out that I enjoy. I find that the more I spend in an iterative process, the easier ideas come to me. Often, game jamming is part of that, too. It keeps me in that creative mindset.
Like everyone, I do get creative blocks. When that happens, I’ll go have a walk, change my environment or talk with other people about what I want to do. It’s usually enough to get me back on track.
I often hear people say that creativity is a talent that some people have and others don’t. I can’t disagree more. Creativity is something that can be cultivated through exercises and changes in perspective. I use many tools not only to get ideas, but also to test them and make them better. I like to use design patterns, for example, to break down ideas to their simplest expression. It helps me see if there are ways to improve the game design and the experience of my games.
Miss N: You’ve previously mentioned that you go to game jams every month. What attracted you to those environments and how did those experiences shape how you make games now?
Elaine: Yes! Game jams have been great for many things. It gave me the opportunity to try a lot of my ideas in a setting where it was okay to do something unusual. And sometimes not really good! It was also a way to build a portfolio and get some experience in a new industry.
I met a lot of people that way too. I encourage all game makers to participate and bring their team spirit. Jams are a great place to learn for amateurs and industry professionals.
I’ve slowed down a bit now that I have a full-time job and a new company, but I try to go as often as I can. I actually have one planned in just a few weeks. And I’m now on the organizing committee for a game jam league in Montréal. I can’t wait to see the new games that will emerge from this.
Miss N: A lot of your recent work dives into physical installations. Can you tell us more about that?
Elaine: I’ve always been fascinated by the mix of human and digital interactions. Learning how to code and how to customize my own controllers has simply given me the tools to do what I’ve wanted.
This goes back to when I was creating LARPs. In those games, you get to do everything. But the game relies heavily on players’ imagination, and there are some things you just cannot make-believe. Among our group of LARPers, our ideal was never to put in play something that we could not represent convincingly. We would not, for example, allow a fireball spell, because we could not have a visual representation of it. But we might allow a paralysis spell, since it could be played out more easily. Projections and video game installations would have given us a lot more freedom.
A few years ago, I visited an exhibit in which the creator had used some Arduinos. I immediately saw the potential, and I started learning more about it. The first game installation I made was during the Montréal Global Game Jam 2016 at ÉTS. I had just received a Makey Makey as a gift and my jam partners were more than willing to try it out. It was a huge gamble because we were unfamiliar with the tool, but it’s so easy to use that we had no problem whatsoever … except the organizers didn’t know what to do with us and our 20” x 20” installation. They had to put us directly on the stage so that the judges could see what we did. We’ve learned that it’s good to contact the organization in advance to warn them of our unusual technical needs.
Miss N: One of these works is a game you made called Hathor. How did that come about?
Elaine: Hathor was actually the result of a game jam. We were asked to create a game inspired by the opera Aïda by Verdi and to design an experience that could take place in a public space. Now, I know that a lot of the teams were not too thrilled with this design constraint, since most were not prepared for this. I’m just really happy to see that there is a growing interest in these types of game installations.
Miss N: What was it like developing it?
Elaine: We have an amazing team! We work well together. I think that’s a big part of the success we’ve had. There’s something great about a jam because it’s a place where you can try things out. Even if it’s a competition, there’s no way to really fail. So you can just go for it. For example, in Hathor, I ended up composing the music and sound effects. I’m really proud about this, but I don’t think I would have done it without the trust and support of my team.
Miss N: Are there any features that you had to scrap from that game?
Elaine: Yes and no. I think one of my biggest strengths in making games is scoping and managing time. There were obviously a lot of ideas that we didn’t integrate into the game, but we achieved what we set out to do once we decided on an idea. What I’ll usually do is list very specific objectives in terms of features and aim for the smallest amount necessary to create the experience I want. Any objectives past that point — I call them candies and unicorns — are just extra. Working that way is very motivating because you’re always building instead of scrapping.
And it’s especially useful for the types of games that I make. It prevents us from making games that are too complex. Game installations are not meant for hours of play during which players have the time to analyze the system. Instead, we’re aiming for a few minutes of simple, very accessible fun. If the players are only going to give five or ten minutes to my game, I don’t want them to spend this time learning how to play. I’d rather they spend it playing.
That wasn’t always the case, obviously. I used to try and do way too much. I had this idea that if my game wasn’t long enough or complex enough, that it wasn’t good in a way. Now I believe that trying to incorporate too many features in a game takes away from the experience. You just have to figure out that balance between putting in enough of your ideas without overwhelming the players.
Miss N: Is there something in that game that’s really subtle (and perhaps players won’t realize initially) that you think adds a lot to the overall feel of the game?
Elaine: There is one feature that we had to explain all the time. Hathor is mostly a cooperative game between four players that have to coordinate their maneuvers to catch pyramid pieces according to a color code. Each player controls a colored snake and must try to catch pyramid pieces of that same color. The center is gold, and gold pieces must reach it for players to get it. In order to do this, the players have a wheel-type controller to rotate their snake. Very simple.
Where it gets tricky is that the pieces come from anywhere around the snakes and the players have to react really fast. And every time they get one piece, their position in the circle changes. The extra feature is that people watching the game can actually play against the four players by deciding the direction of the pyramid pieces. We have added press buttons on the floor around the installation so that the crowd can also impact the game.
We had envisioned a huge installation in the shape of a pyramid for this game. The co-op players would be placed in the four corners, the projection on the ground in between them. We felt that there needed to be a feature that let the crowd enter the magic circle.
Miss N: What’s been the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered when making games?
Elaine: When things don’t go as fast — or as well — as I want. I guess that’s more of a creative business challenge than a game making one. Business development takes a long time, and it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the wait and your passion for what you’re making. That also means that a lot of great games will never be done. It’s still a little difficult to make the decision of which project to push and which one to stop, but I know I have to focus on one thing at a time to make it great.
Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling?
Elaine: Without hesitation, when I get to see people playing my games and enjoying them. Just seeing them smile and having fun: that’s why I make games.
Miss N: Do you think there are things inherently unique in games as a creative medium?
Elaine: The way it engages people. That’s the primary interest in gamification, really. We try to bring game elements into other contexts specifically because we’re trying to recreate that engagement, be it in education, team building, management, etc. And that’s also what I try to do with game installations, but by bringing not only game elements, but complete games in a new context.
Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Elaine: The first thing that comes to mind is escape-the-room games. I’m a huge fan, and we’re lucky to have quite a few in Montréal. Those games are amazing — they get the players completely immersed in the puzzle in a way I don’t get from video games. I think it’s mostly due to the “huis-clos” and the time limit. You have to focus on the game. I especially enjoy the more difficult ones where you have to communicate beautifully with your team if you want to have a chance at solving the puzzles.
Elaine: Wow, there are many, but more especially the Pixelles co-founders Rebecca Cohen-Palacios and Tanya Short. They are always present and supportive. They are simply amazing. The Pixelles Game Incubator has been the source of a huge positive shift in my life — and in that of many wonderful women — and this is thanks to their initiative.
Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were first starting out, what advice would you give?
Elaine: To be more confident and, as an extension, to not be so afraid to fail. I’m learning this again and again every day through my daughter. She is truly inspiring, never doubting, always trying, always learning. I think we could all learn to love ourselves better just by watching kids grow up.
Miss N: Thank you, Elaine!
If you’re interested in following Elaine, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @ElleMakesGames. She’s also going to her first GDC, though she needs a bit of help getting there. If you’d like to help, head over to her GoFundMe page. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers who you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.