Looking Back is an autofictional game that takes you, the Player, inside of Kris’s life as a PhD student. Appropriating the classic JRPG style with a Choices Matter twist, it is a parts exploration, parts visual novel game, in which you must carve your own path toward the destruction of the ultimate boss monster that haunts your everyday life: your Thesis. It lurks in your bedroom and fills you with anxiety, but before fighting it, you must make sure your Mental Health, your Energy, your Skillfulness, your Wits, and your Endurance are high enough to tackle this challenge of a lifetime and finally obtain that degree! However, the way to become stronger is not by gaining experience grinding on endless hordes of monsters. Rather, you improve your stats by exploring and making decisions, building relationships with people around you, and altogether attempting to improve your everyday life. Simple things like choosing your dog to be a German Shepherd instead of a Cocker Spaniel, or difficult decisions such as saving one of two friends, every choice matters and affects your stats, your world, and yourself, indelibly.
One of the most fascinating elements in the game is the fact that the player can alter memories after encountering their triggers in the storyline. The game is described as being an “autofictional” game on its Steam game page. How did you negotiate the twin demands of such a game, being simultaneously autobiographical as well as fictional? Moreover, what do you see as the role of making certain events malleable, and putting the responsibility on the on the player to decide?
Answer: I’m acutely aware of, sensitive to, and critical of the concept of autobiography (and all of its related terms: autofiction, life-writing, autography, self-writing, etc.), as it is the topic of my doctoral dissertation – the inexorable boss monster at the end of Looking Back. Thus, the adjective “autofictional” was not chosen lightly. While I consider that all autobiographies are partially fictional, the term “autofiction,” for me, insists further on the fictional side, and has perhaps fewer pretensions of representing reality. Video games are, as I continue to argue in papers and conferences, the artistic medium that offers the most individual agency to its audience, as the term “player” denotes (as opposed to reader, viewer, etc.). The player plays an active role in the narrative, their input is direct, instantaneous, and tangible. It was important for me to insist on that not only in the choice of the medium, but also within the game itself through the narrative and through game mechanisms of my own creation, most notably, the memory triggers and the dream sequences in which the player holds much power to alter the protagonist’s identity. The player is often confronted with clear decisions in the form of dialogue options, and those decisions affect the player’s stats (increasing or decreasing their odds to succeed), but these choices also take the story itself in different directions.
As a reader and as a player, I often find that the most personal and most “autobiographical” works of art were the most touching, the most memorable, the ones that instilled more empathetical feelings and, ultimately, the ones that affected my identity the most. So, I was hoping that by retelling my own story, some parts of which are highly personal and even traumatic, I would “reach” the player, involve them even more in the narrative. Throughout the game, the player and I become co-narrators of a new story, our story. The game’s foundation is established on true events from my own life, but a new story is built on that foundation. There was something empowering in that idea, both for me and for the player. We have the power and agency to re-create ourselves. I cultivate a relationship with each player, as we open up to each other and write the narrative together in order to beat the Thesis. A PhD, which is a very lonely and isolating experience, becomes the result of teamwork in my game.
You are currently finishing your PhD in Comparative Literature at U of T, which leads me to ask: as a literary student, why did you choose to tell this story via this medium, an online video game. What can a game reach instead of a book? Is there a connection for you, between literature and gaming?
Answer: The first reason why I decided to make a video game rather than a novel for instance, despite being much more of a writer than a developer (and having very little prior programming knowledge) is that video games allow a lot of player agency, as I explained in the previous question. Another reason behind my choice of medium is that I grew up playing video games – as Looking Back depicts in one of the memories, I had few friends growing up, I considered Mario and Link, fictional game characters, my friends. Games were central to my identity-building process as a child and as a teen. While this may sound lonely, it was actually a beautiful childhood, filled with imaginary worlds that shaped me. I think that this idea will resonate with a lot of introverts who grew up alongside fictional characters. Since the game deals centrally with questions of memory and identity, the medium of video game felt only natural to retell my own story.
Also, games are much more dynamic by nature. Unlike a static text, a song, or a movie, they change every playthrough. I wanted to represent memories that way, as dynamic and ever-changing, and to give the player the power to alter those memories, with all of the unpredictable consequences that that entails. The medium works hand-in- hand with my desire to make an empowering and cathartic piece. The connections between video games and literature are definitely plentiful: I even inserted short pieces of creative writing in the game in the form of dialogues uttered by various characters. I took many physical notes as I was creating the game, particularly when it came to the memory and dream sequences, some of which are highly literary. The process was very much, in certain aspects, similar to writing, but the literary process becomes perhaps a bit obfuscated by the graphics, the music, and the game mechanics – or perhaps it is underlined, in some instances. Either way, the more literary players will, I hope, appreciate the text in the game.
What was your goal in creating this game? And, has the game helped you in any way? Have you approached your thesis differently since finishing the game?
Answer: The game started as a very small project after a conference about representations of memory and memory loss that I attended. While the field of video game study is growing, it is still very much marginal and alienated from academic circles. My presentation focused on a couple of games and the archetypal silent RPG protagonist who acts as a blank canvas onto which the player projects an identity. It was, to me, reminiscent of amnesia and Alzheimer’s Disease, and how the person who interacts with them keep trying to trigger memories and instill their past identity onto them.
In my paper, I suggested, through an analysis of video games, that a blank canvas or a memory loss is not so much a curse or a time bomb, but an opportunity for re-creation. I saw such fruitful ground for video game analysis in that field! The medium seems so ideal with its unique mechanics that rely on the player, their identity, and their agency. But there were very few games that treat the theme of memory explicitly in its narrative, while making use of these memory-oriented video game mechanics. I wanted to see what such a game would look like, especially when imbued with an autobiographical narrative, since autobiographies rely so heavily on the writer’s memories. Therefore, the endeavor to create a game was initially an intellectual and academic one, driven by artistic curiosity. I also grew frustrated by academia’s conservatism, for instance as it pertains to their looking down upon video games, but also and even more so in terms of their institutions and traditions, as the rigid format of the dissertation, the committee, and the thesis defense embody. I felt empowered by the creation of a game where you actually and literally fight your thesis and your committee members. It was a powerful metaphor to me and there are probably many graduate students who feel stuck in a constraining and harmful structure that they have to abide in order to succeed.
A year went by, and before I knew, I had started using it very much as a diary, to work through some of my own memories and traumas, and to cope with certain difficult situations for my mental health, unintentionally making it very personal. There was a huge shift from its initial use as a cute little intellectual exploration of memory. I had completely removed the “objective” distance between me and the work of study, I was completely inside of it. I decided to keep working on it this way and see where it led me, and perhaps share it with a few friends and fellow graduate students that may find it cathartic, and help break the isolation. After over three years of working on it, I realized that the narrative had taken many routes; many kinds of people could be touched by it and not just graduate students, so I decided to make it available to everyone. One of my priorities was to make Looking Back a realistic depiction of mental health, and life as a graduate student becomes the setting in which this theme is treated because it is the one I know best and because the game is autofictional. Creating the game has certainly been helpful in working through some of my own traumas and to create my own light at the end of the tunnel, as I had to create an ending to my game. It was quite empowering in that sense. But even more important to me is the idea that my story is now in other people’s hands, and it is now their story as well. It doesn’t belong to me anymore: it’s theirs. It’s very liberating.
You’ve spent many years developing this game and knowing the content is autofictional and that the platform is an interactive game, how has your perception of the game changed for your since starting to show it to others and in anticipation of its launch in the coming months?
Answer: I used to be very secretive of my project because, as I mentioned, I initially did not really plan to show it or do anything with it. Because I did all the testing myself as well, the months before release were filled with technical difficulties that were frankly a bit discouraging. It was also very difficult to show other people because of how personal the content is: the thought of people going through my memories was terrifying. But the release has created a healthy distance between me and the game. It is now out there for people to enjoy (or not). But after all, the thought of reaching certain people who are struggling with their own mental health is what truly pushed me to publish the game, so I had to force myself to stop being self-conscious. The idea of being an impostor because of my lack of programming and game design knowledge is still there, but through showing the game to others, I realized that Looking Back distinguishes itself not through its outstanding graphics or length, but through the feelings it conveys, its creativity, and its uniqueness. If the reception is positive, I plan to keep updating the game and adding content, as I receive player feedback.