It’s always a real pleasure to get to talk to a developer not just about their newest project, but about their journey in the games industry. Where they started, where they are now, and how they changed on the way.
Prolific in their output is to put it lightly, today’s guest is passionate, articulate, and makes great experiences for folx to enjoy. So without further ado let’s bring out our guest.
Kaiju: Today on Digital Diversity we’re shining our developer spotlight on a prolific dev who makes awesome games full of queerness and powerful feels.
Welcome to the Digital Diversity project Caelyn. I love your work, have really enjoyed streaming it and it’s great to finally have you on to talk to.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do in the games world?
Caelyn: Sure! My name is Caelyn Sandel and I’m a freelance narrative designer and experimental author living in Boston, Massachusetts.
Of all my work, I’m best known for being a writer and sometimes designer for Caves of Qud, which was my favorite roguelike well before I was hired to work on it!
I do solo work that I fund through Patreon, as well. I just love pushing the bounds of storytelling, especially through small story experiences, and crowdfunding has helped me explore that. I’ve written dozens of interactive fiction pieces, and busk on social media by writing pieces of microfiction.
K: My first introduction to your work was via Caves of Qud; a game I’ve yet to get even slightly good at, and I was impressed as heck by what you’ve done there. Since then I’ve played a few of your personal projects and loved them.
I’d love to know how you got started working in games? Was it a gradual move into the industry or did you decide “this is for me” and jump right in making games? What was your first gamedev creation?
C: Becoming a game designer has been my dream since elementary school if not earlier. I’ve been fascinated by video games as an art form and as a storytelling medium since the day I played one.
The trouble is, I was an artsy kid who got pulled away from programming because I was doing drama school stuff, preparing for that acting career that I was probably going to get or whatever.
So I didn’t touch games for a while, and proceeded to have an absolutely miserable third decade of existence. 2010 was my return to that creative outlet, when I collaborated with a close friend on a parser interactive fiction game called One Eye Open. We entered it in that year’s IFComp and it placed third.
Then I got a job in QA at Harmonix Music Systems. Dance QA, specifically. I was a dance tester. That was my introduction to the industry.
Shipped three games, got laid off, said “fuck it, we’re doing it live,” and started a Patreon in January of 2014. I would come out as trans a few months later.
K: This is a pretty neat origin story, and it sounds like you ended up where you were meant to be, both in gamedev and transitioning.
You’ve now been doing your own thing for about six years then, not including your work for CoQ, have you found that the stories you’ve wanted to tell, and the themes you want to include have shifted over that time or have your passions remained focused on certain genres?
C: Absolutely, my writing has changed over time. I’m happy to have work from five years ago that I still feel proud of, but I’m not the same writer now that I was then. It’s not the same world. I’m not writing to the same audience.
My focus right now is on examining the role of the Other in anglophone narratives, on looking at the colonialism that lurked in the stories I’ve been reading my whole life, that snuck into my stories too.
I hope I’m different in another five years, too. I never want to stop learning.
K: More deconstruction of colonialism is definitely required in our games right now, especially from AAA games that still cash in on glorifying it.
If you can talk about it I’d love to hear about your work with Caves of Qud. Are there any contributions to that game that you’ve made that you feel especially proud of? How has it been working on a game that focuses so heavily on random narrative generation & unique storytelling?
C: My most substantial contribution to the game is definitely the random snapjaw dialogue. My favorite, however, is the randomly-generated sapphic love sonnet with interweaved pairs of rhyming couplets.
I don’t get into the procgen guts of Qud much, but it hasn’t been hard to work with at all. If anything, Qud has driven home the principle that authored content is the backbone of all good procgen.
K: It’s also been a really good example to point at when it comes to gender and pronoun customisation. Just before this interview someone randomly brought up how Qud gives a lot of real freedom in that, which may possibly be unique for Rogue-likes.
More onto your personal work now: your output of games has been in all ways prolific, both in number and in theme. I’m curious to know if there are any specific elements in your work that you think of as inherently your style? Be it a way of telling your stories, or types of characters, anything that you like to think of as something special you bring to your narratives?
C: In his recent Narrascope talk, Jason referred to the energy I brought to Freehold Games as ‘cozy’, which is, I think, spot on. I write with a mind for emotional engagement between NPC and player, and my mind is always on how my contributions might feel, when players encounter them.
That said, my style is always changing, and I’m learning so much from the brilliant Freehold team. We are all learning our own styles both individually and together.
K: You’ve been around the industry for quite a while now. You’ve seen the good and the bad, and just how rough it can be for marginalised folx in gaming.
In your opinion what needs to change to make things better? How do we change games and the industry that makes them better for queer folx especially?
C: The AAA games industry as it is now makes good representation impossible. Art isn’t a growth industry, but AAA games are so focused on growth, on imitating the “tentpole” IP that Hollywood has used since Jaws, that I can’t imagine a way to redeem that process. Publishers are financially committed to growth and the broadest appeal possible, and that’s anathema to representation. Licensing, franchises, sequels, merchandise, everything has to make not just as much money as the last thing, but MORE. It’s awful. I hope to never go back to AAA.
Indie games, however, have a chance, and sites like http://itch.io are leading the way in cutting out the middle-management of big box publishers. Of course there’s this hierarchy of privilege and access within indie spaces as well, but it’s substantially easier to have creative control and still have your voice heard.
K: It definitely feels like we keep hitting the same roadblocks in the AAA industry. Every step forward for representation seems to be immediately followed by a step or two back.
Since we’re talking about itch.io do you have any recommendations for good queer content there? Games that resonated with you or that you think stands out as examples of voices we really need to hear more from?
C: I wracked my brain trying to think of good queer content, but I think I’d prefer to point at some work by queer devs that can’t necessarily be parsed as queer work in and of itself.
I follow Chloe, aka SuperBlizzard, on twitter and have been watching her hammer out some extremely cool artsy games over the past few years. She releases games at http://owch.itch.io, including the upcoming action RPG 10S2. Try ‘Water’s Fine’ to start.
Sophie Houlden, too, is an extremely skilled programer who creates tools and toys in addition to games. She made the most in-depth dice-rolling app I think I’ve ever seen. You can find her things at http://sophieh.itch.io.
I think we’re seeing a reaction in queer gamedev, and it’s a reaction that I’m very much part of, to the flood of queer games that happened in the early 2010s. There are still devs making games about being queer, but a lot of us are trying to elbow ourselves some space to make games about other things too.
K: Thank you so much for joining me for Digital Diversity, Caelyn. I’ve been so thrilled to finally get to talk to you about your awesome work in the industry and I can’t wait to get hold of Lore Finder & explore more of your personal projects
Before we go I’d love to know, if you could make any kind of game whatsoever, with no limit to time, budget or resources, what would you make? Gimmie that big Caelyn dream game.
C: I have this concept for an emotional crafting and survival game called ‘Heartsmith‘, and it’s been my pie-in-the-sky game goal for several years now. The setting I envision is our world or one like ours after the onset of a contagious emotional plague. As a Heartsmith, you can collect the negative emotions from the infected and synthesize them into tools that are capable of curing the plague, one person at a time. So you build a safe base over time as you connect with other communities, other Heartsmiths, and collectively beat back the tide of despair.
It’s not a particularly ambitious idea as projects go, since I imagined it as a top-down affair, but I know I don’t have the chops to go at this one alone. So I’m waiting for the right opportunity to pull a team together. My future is a bit of a mystery, but I’m hoping to connect with people who can help me keep putting together beautiful narratives.
K: That sounds like an utterly wonderful idea for a game, and I hope you get to make it. I think we need a game like that in the world right now so keeping my paws crossed you can make it happen.
This has been wonderful. Any final shout-outs or words of wisdom you’d like to share with folx before we finish up?
C: Yes! Qud’s composer, Craig Hamilton, is working on a carewave game called Gitcha Gotchu Garden that approaches “digital pets” with a less domineering and more positive take than any other similar game I’ve seen.
Also, I’m still working on my atmospheric horror twine, The Wait. It will have ambient sound, sparse graphics, and a narrator who likes to omit things that they should probably not omit.