Ba Ngoai: An Interview with Léonie Beaulieu


Ba Ngoai (vietnamese for maternal grandmother) is a piece of interactive fiction exploring the generational and familial bonds between first and third generation immigrants, along with the preservation of memory through oral practices. Through the various choices made by the user, the autofictional character is brought to interact with various objects scattered in Ba Ngoai’s house, and with the memories of migration linked to them. The piece is characterized by its grey-scale, monochrome 8-bit aesthetic, complete with retro video music soundscapes.


This digital piece is described as “interactive fiction exploring generational and familial bonds.” For quite an extensive narrative scope, what kind of questions did you ask yourself while creating this piece? 

Answer: The work was an experiment in using fiction and digital media to explore oral history. It was made during a one-week online game jam called Fall Rainbow Jam with the theme of “Stories Untold”. I’ve been meaning to find ways to preserve memory in a digital format in my work, especially my family’s history and how personal narratives help nuance the bigger historical trends we use in public history.

One of the big questions I asked myself was how much fiction and how much “fact” I wanted to include in the work. In my work in public history and academia, we tend to put aside the creative aspect of recording and writing history. Ba Ngoai was a way for me to play a little bit more with the subjective nature of history, in a context that felt meaningful to me.

Everything about your digital artwork conveys a reason for being there: the multiple narratives tied to finding specific objects and overall design. Can you elaborate on your choice of creating an old-timey designed game with monochrome aesthetics? 

Answer: To be quite honest, time constraints hahaha! Monochrome 8-bit aesthetics are quick to produce and left me more time to focus on the storytelling aspect of the game that I wanted to produce a prototype of within a week online while also having my other real-life engagements. The design choice also seemed to fit the theme; retro looks for stories about the past seemed right, and I was lucky to find really great epic matching music to really bind the whole game together.

We’ve previously talked about your use of pronouns, but I was hoping you could elaborate on its inconsistency, notably with the character Ba Ngoai?

Answer: There’s a few linguistic layers to the story I haven’t touched upon in the piece itself. When it comes to Ba Ngoai’s inconsistent use of pronouns, speaking in first and third person singular at times to refer to herself, it’s more or less a translation of the idiosyncratic way the person it is based on speaks in French, which is the language we use to speak to each other.

Ba Ngoai’s first language is Vietnamese, but she did most of her schooling in French. I don’t speak Vietnamese myself, but from what I understood, her level of Vietnamese isn’t very good, and she tends to mix the two languages when she speaks with other Vietnamese speakers. There’s a proper linguistic explanation that I’ll try not to mess up here, but I’m not a linguist nor a Vietnamese speaker, so it might not be fully accurate. From what I was told, in Vietnamese, as in some other Asian languages, it’s common to refer to oneself with terms that match your relationship with the person. Ba Ngoai’s use of the two ways of speaking tells us about her mixed linguistic personal experience.

The game aims, as you put it, “to preserve the oral history of an elderly Vietnamese immigrant woman.” How did you decide on the particular fictional/intentional memories to include, for example: the family photograph of seventeen-year-old Ba Ngoai and her father back in Vietnam?

Answer: In my work in oral history, I found out that material objects can be really powerful tools to create discussion and help record personal histories, especially with older generations. Ba Ngoai was a way to translate that experience in a digital format and talk about the experience of collecting memories itself.

When it comes to the selection of the anecdotes themselves, they were mostly picked from my family legend, various stories I’d heard about our family growing up. It was important to me to include the mythical figure of the Vietminh great grandfather, along with more recent tales of migration to Canada and more optimistic stories about succeeding against the odds. I did take a few creative liberties with the stories themselves too, once again as an experiment with how I could use fiction within a mostly historical scope.