When you think about video games, the first thing that comes to mind — depending on your generation — might be Fortnite, World of Warcraft or Donkey Kong.
But last year a little Australian title called Untitled Goose Game managed to break into the zeitgeist, with celebrities like Ariana Grande and Chrissy Teigen counting themselves as fans of a very naughty goose determined to cause mayhem in a small English village.
Goose Game was a runaway hit, briefly out-charting a remastering of a Legend of Zelda game on Nintendo Switch and recently surpassing 1 million sales.
“[This level of success] for the kind of game it is, is unprecedented,” says Dr Brendan Keogh, an academic from the School of Communication at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
“I think it [the game] speaks to people in a way that maybe those mainstream games don’t.”
House House — the small Melbourne production company behind Goose Game — are not conventional games developers by any stretch of the imagination, counting a filmmaker and fine arts graduates in their ranks.
And other indie Australian game designers with backgrounds in art history and comedy are bringing distinctive style, content and gameplay to their work and making provocative, artistic, and critically adored video games in the process.
Who is a game developer these days?
Dr Keogh is currently surveying game makers as part of his research into Australian video game development.
He groups Australian video game makers into two broad categories: those who grew up as gamers and studied game development and those who were not gamers growing up, had backgrounds outside of game development and saw themselves as artists.
“Those people [the artists] seem at a disadvantage because they don’t know the whole history of this medium — but on the other hand, it means they bring this outside perspective … that sense of a different kind of sophistication that you’re just not used to seeing [in games],” Dr Keogh says.
Michael McMaster of House House says: “We did come from these creative backgrounds that were really about honing a creative practice, figuring out what we liked and what we didn’t like.”
Part of their strategy for the release of Goose Game was a trailer, cut by film school directing graduate Jacob Strasser, which went viral and was key to the game reaching a large audience when it was released in September last year.
New platforms and new tools
Dr Keogh says that our resistance to viewing games as art comes from the 80s and 90s, “when the games industry formalised in a really visible way around a very specific commodified audience of white young male gamers”.
“Unsurprisingly, it was young males who grew up wanting to make games and feeling like games were a place for them, and video games have been stuck in this cycle for many decades — where young men grow up and make games for other young men,” Dr Keogh says.
Women and people with diverse backgrounds did still manage to make their way into the industry, and there were designers doing experimental work, but that was mostly obscured until the last 15 years.
The rise of digital platforms (online and mobile stores like Steam, which opened in 2004, and the App Store, which launched in 2008), as well as new, more accessible tools for games design (including the Unity and Unreal game engines), has meant that those previously shut out of the industry can more easily make their own quirky games — and reach wider audiences.
The result is small teams like House House creating their first video game Push Me Pull You — which started off as a summer hobby in 2013, but then snowballed into a minor hit on PlayStation 4.
“That greater accessibility of tools has allowed more people to be visible as game makers and for the games they make to be understood as games — and that’s come with consequences. So in a sense, Gamergate was like a direct call out of this,” Dr Keogh says.
Gamergate initially emerged in 2014 as a harassment campaign against developer Zoe Quinn, but it quickly spiralled into a many-pronged attack on diverse voices in games criticism and game-making.
Dr Keogh says Gamergate can be traced back to Quinn releasing their game Depression Quest on Steam in 2013: “All these traditional gamers just could not understand why people thought this game was good, and [they] got really mad about it.”
“So Gamergate, there’s broader issues there — but it largely is this traditional userbase not understanding these new forms [of games].”
Make the game you want to see in the world
While Grace Bruxner did study a bachelor of games design at Melbourne’s RMIT, she did not grow up playing games back home in Darwin.
“I didn’t feel like they [games] were made for me … I figured if I wanted to play a game that I’d like, I probably would just have to make it myself,” Bruxner says.
While some teachers and peers were unkind about her lack of familiarity with the medium, it ended up being an advantage.
“A lot of the people in my course were hardcore gamers and … a lot of them just wanted to make the games they’ve already played and seen … but I came in without that existing knowledge so I could make something that didn’t really exist already,” Bruxner says.
Bruxner made first-person 3D detective game The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game (using the Unity Engine) as her final-year university project.
In Frog Detective, you play a crime-investigating amphibian with a dry sense of humour drawing on Bruxner’s background in stand-up comedy.
“I always describe the comedy in Frog Detective as like a sitcom, like Parks and Recreation or something where it’s a character-based comedy.”
Bruxner says she gets regular emails from Frog Detective players who have never played games before.
“We [collaborator and partner Thomas Bowker] wanted to make it as light and easy to pick up as possible,” she says.
Frog Detective was a critical success, well-reviewed and nominated for a 2019 Independent Games Festival Award, and Bruxner and Bowker recently released an acclaimed follow up: Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard.
After working at the League of Geeks (an indie game development group), Bruxner now works full time with Bowker developing games, with funding from Film Victoria (which also funded Untitled Goose Game) and Polish company Superhot.
“I think the most interesting games are being made by people from different artistic backgrounds,” Bruxner says, pointing in particular to the work of graphic designer and illustrator Cecile Richard.
“Those games are more like an interactive poem or an interactive comic, but there’s still gameplay in there.”
A good example is Richard’s Novena — where you “play” a bird looking for a wish-granting ocean in what ends up being a moving poem/game about mental health.
Games with meaning and art
Shell Ocean has a more traditional gaming and game development background, but since meeting Pewka Zilla, who has a background in fine art and art history, the partners have begun making games together using new tools and platforms.
The first game that the Sydney-based games designers, who are both trans women, released together is called The Trans Zone.
“We were sick of seeing content that portrays trans stuff in a certain way,” Ocean says.
“There are two perspectives, where you have to be out, loud and proud — or hiding in your bedroom forever,” Zilla says.
“We wanted to create an experience that we could give to a cis person and say, ‘This is what it’s like to be a trans person’. It’s not necessarily positive, it’s a jarring experience,” Ocean says.
The game, set in a pink-hued hyper-fluoro world, begins with a reference to a game from Ocean’s childhood: “They do that thing in Pokemon where they say ‘Okay, are you a boy or a girl?’ at the start, and we played with that,” Ocean says.
The player then begins completing little quests in order to collect hormones and transition. Once hormones are attained, they can be “spent” in the binary or non-binary tree, which influences how your character transitions and how other characters then respond to you, based on their own biases.
Zilla and Ocean were surprised by responses to their game.
“People played it and it really touched them in a deep way but we didn’t intend it to be that way, we intended it to be a joke, kind of an in-joke but it struck people very deeply,” Zilla says.
“I had so many people come to me saying that ‘I’m going to start transitioning because I played your game’.”
Their next work together, Cursedom, reached a wider audience, making it to the front page of indie games platform itch.io.
Cursedom comes with its own distinct aesthetic, inspired by internet art from the 90s and early 2000s. Much of the game art was sourced and submitted by other members of their queer gaming community.
“It’s this collaborative work between lots of queer people who don’t necessarily have the skills to create a game themselves, but would still like to be a part of it,” Ocean says.
Art, not tech
Dr Keogh, who studied creative writing before becoming a games journalist and academic, said those trying to make a living in our small and struggling gaming industry would benefit from reframing their approach to game development.
“The public generally doesn’t understand that games function as a creative industry and not purely a tech industry,” he says, which means students in game development degrees end up having unrealistic expectations about the likelihood of gaining employment at the end of their studies.
“That’s just simply not how it works. You have to be part of the scene, you have to be part of a community. No-one cares if you have a degree in game development — they care if you’ve made a good game,” Dr Keogh says.
He has advice for both students and those struggling to sustainably make video games: “Realise that you are trying to be an artist, you are trying to be a creative practitioner and … that comes with certain levels of precarity.”
Jacob Strasser from House House agrees: “Most people working in the arts don’t make money from it and that’s the way you need to approach it as well.”
“Most people who make games don’t make a living off it, we’re incredibly lucky that have managed to do this — but it’s absolutely not the norm, and it’s not a healthy thing to set out to do.”
Topics: games, arts-and-entertainment, games—other, games-industry, contemporary-art, lgbt, australia, sydney-2000, melbourne-3000