The Art of Congruency – PAIDIA in conversation with Karla Zimonja
PAIDIA talked to Karla Zimonja the co-founder of The Fullbright Company about their game Gone Home, their upcoming project Tacoma 1 and her design philosophy. We spoke about a variety of topics: from the importance of agency and trust in the actions of the player to the problem of underrepresentation and the thematization of love in videogames.
The interview was conducted by Tobias Unterhuber.
You can find the German translation by Johanna Lindner here.
Unterhuber: I'd wanted to start by asking you to introduce yourself a bit for our readers.
Zimonja: I'm Karla Zimonja. I've been in the game industry for a lot of years now, and in 2012 my business partner Steve Gaynor and I founded an independent studio and made Gone Home.
I went to college for animation, and I basically minored in film, even though my college didn't explicitly call it that. I did 2D-, cutout, and stop-motion animation, and my first internship out of college was with a (largely) stop-motion animation studio that no longer exists, sadly.
After I was out on my own and doing job things instead of student things, I took a bunch of classes on animal cognition and evolution.
Unterhuber: That sounds interesting!
Zimonja: It was SO GREAT. I wasn't into science in high school, but when I grew up some and became a more disciplined learner, it was precisely what I needed, I think.
Unterhuber: Yeah. Even though I studied literature and cultural studies I feel the urge to study more in the science area, too.
Zimonja: That's awesome! Maybe there's something there with your foundation versus what you feel you're missing later on.
Unterhuber: Might be!
Zimonja: There's sometimes a lot of overspecialization in schools and jobs. So I personally felt like I was getting ever more one-sided and now I feel like I have a better base to understand things if that makes sense. Grabbing well-roundedness wherever possible. I feel like knowing about a lot of different things is great for basically anything you want to do, but maybe that's just me, ha.
Unterhuber: It does totally make sense to me, too. Especially if you encounter similar questions in different fields.
Unterhuber: Maybe one needs the knowledge in the one area to even to see the connections to other fields one wasn't interested in before.
Zimonja: That's for sure possible! Like little mental forays in different directions allowing you to perceive patterns.
Unterhuber: Yes. Do you think these different areas of interests have influenced your work as a game designer?
Zimonja: Oh my gosh, yes! I am of the mindset that a designer should just plain know as much as possible but also, like, psychological/cognitive principles are useful constantly. In addition, since our games are very much about people, sometimes interests get translated directly, too!
Unterhuber: Could you give me an example of that direct translation?
Zimonja: oh, okay. well, in the game we're making now, since I've been reading afro-caribbean sci-fi, I'm definitely going to make it an interest of one of our characters.
Unterhuber: As I also do a bit of postcolonial research that sounds fascinating.
Zimonja: I'm reading Who fears Death 2 by Nnedi Okorafor right now, which is pretty great. (author is American-Nigerian, though) Anyway, good stuff - black lady sci-fi authors, yes! (like, apart from Octavia Butler, who is great, but more famous).
Unterhuber: There is a lot of great African and Afro-American literature most people don't know about because of our american/european concentration in literature.
Zimonja: Seriously!! It’s totally horrible how little attention they get.
Unterhuber: Yes. Underrepresentation is also a big problem in videogames, as we all know. Gone Home and soon Tacoma have both female protagonists and one also being a person of color. Was that a political decision for you or did it just fit the story?
Zimonja: So... the story of Tacoma is one in which the cultural & economic centers of the world have shifted. This is in part because it seems plausible, but also because... why exclude people? (Of course we are excluding people, still, but it's good to do what you can, I think.) Additionally, it's not possible to create a thing without political content, so there is that.
At heart I think we find underrepresented people more interesting to write about - I'm sure largely due to us not seeing very much of them in media as-is, so there's a lot of ground that can be covered without immediately running into the entire canon of western literature. Maybe it feels like we have more room to maneuver.
Unterhuber: Especially the point about that there is nothing without political content strikes me. In my opinion, Gone Home is a very interesting example of that as it recreates the discourses of the 1990's on gender and queer relationship and makes it possible for the player to relive them, to understand them in a way other forms of media cannot and in a way, videogames haven't done before.
Zimonja: Aw, heck, thank you! That is super nice to hear!
Unterhuber: You're welcome! Do you think there is possibility for videogames to bring forward political and societal topics in a more engaging way than other media? Do you think the medium is taking a turn in that direction with examples (besides Gone Home) like This War of MineFg 3 or Nina Freeman's Freshman Year? 4 Or is there at least a potential for that?
Zimonja: First question: I don't see why not. There’s a lot of power in the fact that games can give you experiences you couldn't/wouldn't have otherwise. Second question: I don't know. I am not very good at industry-wide trends.
Unterhuber: Sure, industry-wide trends are hard to see but the recognition of projects like yours our Nina's is getting bigger and bigger. Moreover, even though GamerGate had so many, many horrible and bad consequences, there is now a discussion on underrepresentation and misrepresentation on a broader front than ever before. Don't you think that now is more the time than ever to make games that include people (as Fullbright's games do) instead of excluding them?
Zimonja: I mean, sure, why not! I feel like this is always a good idea.
Unterhuber: You’re right, of course.
Zimonja: I mean I also am not going to tell people what to do! However, it's nice to be able to show our work as a little bit of an example, maybe to help people feel more comfortable.
Unterhuber: And to show people they don't have to be afraid that it won't work or that they won't sell any games?
Zimonja: I mean, it's impossible to make a claim like that! We can't tell how other people's work will sell, or anything, but hopefully the climate is a little better for it now, if that makes sense. I think it's more like a tiny accretive addition than like a giant shining example, for sure.
Unterhuber: I think Gone Home reached many people that would normally not be interested in that type of game. Neither in the narrative-style nor in the topic. (I had such an experience with a friend of mine with whom I played the game and who could not stop even though he is normally only interested in Dota or Diablo). Could it be that you reached people on a more emotional level that most games? Could it be that people could relate in a different more direct way?
Zimonja: That's an awesome story! Hmm. I don't know if I want to speculate about the mechanism here... I guess my stock response is usually that our systems are consistent and at least somewhat expressive, so our games should feel mechanically solid and hopefully easy to access by both acclimated and less-expert players. So, once you have the moment-to-moment actions down, you can add more, if that makes sense. I mean, also, curiosity is a big motivator. Trusting the player to pull the information they're interested in out of the environment, rather than pushing it at them, should hopefully help them feel more respected. They get to have agency. We also get to piggyback on things like social reasoning, which is a great tool to have.
Unterhuber: Would you like to elaborate more how you incorporate social reasoning in your games?
Zimonja: So, in Gone Home, you're given sort of a pointillistic bunch of information about the characters. The player uses their social reasoning to – outside the information actually given – put together the story's pieces. Understanding and questioning the narrative takes place only in the player's head.
Unterhuber: Filling the blank spaces and making connections?
Zimonja: Yes, exactly.
Unterhuber: Playing the game then is actually an act of interpretation?
Zimonja: I believe so, yes.
Unterhuber: Maybe that is one of the connections of Gone Home to literary realism beside having a ‘realistic’ setting. It uses mechanisms literature always uses. Giving the reader/player agency to interpret what she reads.
Zimonja: That is maybe true!
Unterhuber: In my article on Gone Home I argue in a similar direction. I think the game transforms the player into an archeologist and itself into a (cultural) archive in which the player has to recreate a story that would not have been found without her.
Zimonja: That sounds cool and accurate!
Unterhuber: Thanks. What interests me here is that you said you want the player to have agency. But agency doesn't mean the possibility of choice or decision in the game but of choice in the head of the players?
Zimonja: Well, okay, there's like macro and micro agency. You can have agency moment-to-moment and not, like, agency to change the whole plot. I'd suggest that the moment-to-moment choices about what to investigate are in fact agency (not to mention like, the choice to carry all the objects in the game and throw them into the bathtub.) And, also, your brain is your own, and your own interpretations of nuance and such are your doing.
Unterhuber: Yes, I agree.
Zimonja: As an aside, I would also argue that macro-style agency is generally less complex and interesting than micro, but that is maybe just how I feel about it.
Unterhuber: So while not having the choice to direct the outcome of the story the player a) can take actions on a micro-level (or sub-structure level following the definition of Hans-Joachim Backe) and b) can interpret the game in different ways. As a consequence the player actually becomes a part of the game, doesn't she?
Zimonja: I think so, yes! Without the player, the story only exists as a framework, I think.
Unterhuber: To your side note: Because most game decisions aren't actually macro-decisions?
Zimonja: Yes, there's only so many macro-decisions that can exist in a game and usually there's very few - it's more picking a big path than following your interest, I think.
Unterhuber: I think you're right. You might still influence the way of the story but not so much the outcome. Life is Strange 5 might be an example that tries do that differently with a lot of micro-decisions transforming into macro-decisions.
Zimonja: Yeah, they definitely seem to be doing that! Which is cool.
Unterhuber: And Life is Strange has something in common with Gone Home, too, which I wanted to talk about. The narrative setting.
Unterhuber: Both tell coming of age stories. And I'd be interested if the topic of coming of age might have made Gone Home so relatable.
Zimonja: oh, that's possible. I guess it's a common tactic.
Unterhuber: Not in videogames as far as I know.
Zimonja: oh, I guess you're right. That hadn't occurred to me.
Unterhuber: With all the tropes videogames have borrowed from other forms of media, coming of age still seems to be something very unusual.
Zimonja: That is sort of surprising, but I guess you're right!
Unterhuber: Gone Home is not only concerned with the topic of growing up but also with the topic of love. How hard do you think is it to convey such a topic in videogame format? Is there something about videogames that makes it easier/harder?
Zimonja: I... hm. This one's kind of existential and I don't know if I have a good answer for it. I mean, for one thing I've never tried to convey love in any other medium. Obviously, there's potential slippage between the player and the characters. You can't expect a player to feel the same way about a character as another character does. I don't know. I'm not a writer, this is not a thing that I'm primarily concerned with. We happened to tell a love story because it made sense, but I don't know how much importance to attach to the fact that it's a love story.
Unterhuber: Well, it is still something special in the videogame format I think. And you had an interesting solution about the connection between player and character. It is not the player's character that is in love or whose love story is told but her sister.
Zimonja: Maybe it is easier to feel sisterly love than romantic love. I mean, that made sense for additional reasons as well. The player character being Sam's sister.
Unterhuber: Yes, and to let the player explore not their own love story but the love story of the sister. The player and her character is in that way included but also not the center of the story. She is more the medium of storytelling.
Zimonja: Right. Participating in a love story is much different.
Unterhuber: And, as you have said, might not even work. Because you can't make the player feel that way for a character.
Unterhuber: This seems to be a fundamental for Gone Home and as far as I can speculate about Tacoma. You tell other character's story through the eyes of the player's character.
Zimonja: Yeah, we think that overlaying the player with a player character that allows some amount of cognitive and emotional congruence is a great idea for smoothing the experiential way.
Unterhuber: And also giving the player more freedom? We don't know that much about Katie and her role in the events are only minor. What is important are the actions of the players via Katie, meaning exploring what has happened.
Zimonja: Yeah, we wanted to allow the player to want what Katie would want.
Unterhuber: Appealing to the player's curiosity and need for closure and understanding?
Zimonja: Yeah - Katie's never been to this house, and neither have you. She knows the people in it, but it's been a while and everything's changed. She’s curious, hopefully you're curious, and then hopefully you play the video game!
Unterhuber: Yeah! Congruence, as you said.
Zimonja: You got it!
Unterhuber: Especially there seems to be a congruence of knowledge, too. Player and character know nearly the same amount of what happened. There is no real advance in knowledge on either sides. Does this make exploration your main focus in your games?
Zimonja: Exploration is definitely a primary mechanic.
Unterhuber: Would you say this is something that is part of the specific mediality of videogames in general? That we can explore (on our own) not just a story but also space?
Zimonja: I definitely agree that that's a unique strength of games.
Unterhuber: Me, too. (As you could possibly already tell from my question)
Unterhuber: This changes also the importance of space in the medium and its design. Instead of time as in other media (e.g. film) space seems to be the main way to explore story in videogames
Zimonja: That is interesting! I would almost posit that they're overlaid. In some senses interchangeable but definitely related. It does take time to cover/explore space. There's a strong relationship there. I think they at least need to be thought about in tandem.
Unterhuber: Would you say there is also a congruence then between the time the player needs to explore the house in Gone Home or the space station in Tacoma with the time it actually takes to explore in the fictional world? Is the time in the fictional world moving in the same pace as the time the player needs to play the game? I ask that because in a lot of videogame time in the fictional world is only progressing if the player is progressing the story, so that you can stand around in a corner for hours, nothing will happen, and NPCs and environment won't react to it at all.
Zimonja: Well, sort of! We don't literally advance time in the game, because we want to give you the time/space you need to explore, but we do place the game late at night and give you the whole night to play it, you know? We try to make sure you don't feel too much time pressure, so that you feel free to explore, but still try to keep you interested.
Unterhuber: Yes, I understand. You give the player the actual freedom of exploring (without time constraint) and at the same time, it is at least nearly congruent with the time progression of the fictional world.
Zimonja: yeah, it's supposed to at least roughly fit. The whole night's a pretty long time!
Unterhuber: Definitely! The player’s freedom seemed to be very important for your games on many different levels (exploration, time, interpretation). Is that something you strive for explicitly?
Zimonja: Sure - we definitely think it's important to trust the player.
Unterhuber: Also to understand the story?
Zimonja: Yeah! It’s important for the player to be able to think about this stuff and connect the pieces themself. Otherwise it's just a list of events! May as well be a cutscene, you know?
Unterhuber: Yes! And if it was a cutscene you wouldn’t use what games can offer you to tell a story.
Zimonja: That is right!
Unterhuber: So does the trend to cinematic games actually shorten the experience of games as games with their own distinct ways and structures?
Zimonja: It's not personally my cup of tea, because, as you say, it doesn't play to games' strengths and unique aspects.
Unterhuber: Yes, and using quick-time-events in cutscenes is also only an inadequate solution.
Zimonja: I am not into them either.
Unterhuber: Because it has nothing to do with the player's freedom.
Zimonja: For me it's almost a pacing issue - the player's taught to put down the controller while something happens in a cutscene, and then the contract's broken by a QTE. (That is a mechanical/design objection)
Unterhuber: Because in some way cutscenes are almost a media change and a change of the mode of perception.
Zimonja: And definitely a change in the participation level.
Unterhuber: Yes! It is not a congruent design.
Zimonja: I suppose you could put it that way!
Unterhuber: Congruence seems to be a very important concept for your design approach.
Zimonja: Haha, maybe it's how I'm thinking about stuff today, at least.
Unterhuber: The German expression "eine runde Sache", an all-round thing, a congruent, consistent thing. It seems you want games to be that: an all-round experience.
Zimonja: That sounds like a good thing to want.
Unterhuber: The avoidance of ludo-narrative and design/experience dissonance.
Zimonja: yeah - obviously everyone's sick of those terms now but I definitely still think they're useful.
Unterhuber: Yes, I think so, too. It emphasizes harmony as an artistic strategy.
Zimonja: That's a nice way of putting it!
Unterhuber: I'd like to ask you a bit more about Tacoma before we finish. We already talked a bit about the similarity of Gone Home in terms of game style and mechanisms; But what catches the eye immediately is the very different setting. Why did you choose a space, a science-fiction setting?
Zimonja: Steve [Gaynor] thought of it while on vacation! It’s different from a house, still isolating, and a new challenge. I'm a big sci-fi enjoyer, personally, so I'm having a lot of self-doubt trying to make the setting good enough, ha.
Unterhuber: I'm pretty sure you will! Is there something that is especially important for you for a sci-fi setting?
Zimonja: Well, plausibility is really important.
Unterhuber: Plausibility of the tech-level and development of humanity?
Zimonja: Well, sure. And like physics. Yeah, I mean, all this stuff takes place 70 years in the future. You have to be able to believe that. We’re not inventing all-new cultural systems etc.
Unterhuber: Gone Home was based, at least to some part, on its representation of things and themes people were familiar with from the 90's and a feeling of nostalgia. A science fiction setting by contrast takes a look forward. Did that make for a very different approach or is it possible that Tacoma will share the ‘look back’ with its players on things we know?
Zimonja: Yeah, it's definitely making things challenging but we hope to highlight the fact that these are still normal people on this space station, and they have normal human concerns, even if their lives are kiiiinda different.
Unterhuber: Normal, universal human concerns. I like that idea. So the setting of a game might not even be that important if it is about human beings and their needs, wants and problems?
Zimonja: I mean, at heart, probably! We don't have the whole thing written yet though!
Unterhuber: I still like the idea. The setting then is a way to highlight or to foreground certain aspects, e.g. isolation. (Could you be any more isolated than on a space station thousands of miles away from earth?)
Zimonja: Right? You aren't going to try to go back outside, that's for sure!
Zimonja: It's also a little bit of fun and challenge atop the usual game writing stuff. Future email! Space toilets!
Unterhuber: Yeah! And our understanding of the future mirrors our understanding of our own time!
Zimonja: That's definitely true. I've spent a lot of time reading Philip K Dick in the past and hoo boy the concerns of the 60s are strong there (also a lot of personal and mental problems.) just for example. All scifi is a product of its time, obviously, as you say.
Unterhuber: I'm eager to find out what vision of the future Tacoma will bring us! I wanted to sincerely thank you for the opportunity and the very interesting and exciting talk we had and your great cooperation!
Zimonja: Thanks for the fun talk!
- 11bit Studios: This War of Mine. 2014.
- Nina Freeman, Laura Knetzger and Stephen Lawrence Clark: Freshman Year. 2015.
- Dontnod Entertainment: Life is Strange. 2015.