What would you do if your child came to you one day and asked for a big kid game? Would you scour the internet for examples or head to your nearest video game store? Or would you spend the next seven years teaching yourself game development, coding and design? And then take all of that knowledge to build a game that taught life lessons through fantasy? Stay-at-home turned indie game designer and co-founder of So Peculiar Games, Chera Meredith, did exactly that. We recently had the absolute pleasure of chatting with the incredibly talented designer about what led her down this path, her inspiration behind Closer Than You Know and what else is on her plate. Keep reading to find out!

This interview is condensed for length and clarity. 

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Chera Meredith

Screenshot of Closer Than You Know with the main character searching a room.

Closer Than You Know

Julia Roth: How did you get started in the industry? What made you think, ‘I want to make a game?’

Chera Meredith: I googled how to make a video game seven years ago because my oldest son, he was five at the time, had asked for a big kid game. Something about that question, I couldn’t quite sort out what was in his head versus what was in my head as a big kid game, and how come we couldn’t find the thing out there that he, that would satisfy that itch for him. And so that set me off on a quest really to figure out what does it mean to have a big kid game for a five-year-old? And how do we do that? So I, I thought if I was making a little project, maybe I could figure it out. Maybe it would take a year to finish.

And then seven years in, we’re still working on that same project that I started with. We’re now working on a second project. I met some really awesome developers in the industry who have been so kind to share their skills and their knowledge, and really found the industry a very welcoming place where people were excited to share what they’ve learned. Game development is hard, but nobody said, ‘oh yeah, you know, don’t copy us.’ They said, ‘here, take what we’ve learned and run with it.’ They were very generous. And so it was really nice to find a community of people who were very eager to share their creative work.

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JR: Did you have a history of video games beforehand?

CM: I would not have called myself a gamer. Certainly not like a hardcore gamer. I grew up with Nintendo, but my brother had it, and I would play it sometimes. But I loved to be outside. I did play games for fun with friends in college. And then, I played them with my kid. It was really when my son got excited about games, and I could see his wheels turning as he would play something. I thought, ‘this is where he is gonna be for his childhood. This is where he wants to live in these worlds, so I better figure out why this is so engaging to him.’

JR: This must have led you to play tons of games now.

CM: I really have grown to appreciate the medium for a way to escape, for a way to experience other worlds. A way to learn and storytelling. I love a good story in whatever medium it’s in. And games is a really interesting medium to tell stories. So that’s definitely got caught my interest as an individual now.

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JR: How easy or hard was it to find resources to teach yourself how to develop and code video games?

CM: It was actually pretty easy to find things. The hard part was weeding through all the content of information out there. There’s a YouTube tutorial for about anything, and trying to figure out what is it that applies to me and what parts can I actually learn? At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom. I had the five-year-old and then an 18 month old. The learning curve seemed really steep. So I poked around on Facebook groups, asked questions, and then someone recommended a toolkit called Adventure Creator that was available on Unity. It was visual scripting, not hard coding, so it felt a little more accessible to me.

I watched that three hour tutorial five times with my eyes glazed over and my brain feeling like it was going to explode. I would watch it while I did dishes, folded laundry and all that stuff until I finally felt like I could jump into it and give it a try. And then it was lots of trial and error until I felt like I could make something. It was one step and then the next.

The inventory book in Closer Than You Know

Closer Than You Know

I told myself, ‘I’ll do the next thing until I get to that point.’ And then the more I took the one step ahead and tried not to think about 10 steps ahead, the easier it became to get to that next step. And then, at some point, we got a test build on an iPad. For me, that was the moment where I felt like I knew what we were doing. I don’t know if we can do them well, but we can technically get it done and get it out there.

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JR: You are the one handling all of the design and coding, but did you reach out to others for help with assets?

CM: I have very little art skills; I feel like they capped it about second grade. So I knew I would need an artist. The game that I wanted to make was a point-and-click adventure, which was very art-heavy. I asked some friends for recommendations on how to go about finding the right artist. They recommended hiring an intern from a school, so we posted a job at Sheridan College in Toronto.

We had nine applicants, but there was one girl who said she had worked in a veterinary clinic, and for some reason I thought, ‘she sounds really nice, let’s pick her.’ She and I have become really good friends over the last seven years we’ve worked together. And that now she’s working with other friends of mine, and we talk almost every day. She’s become like family to us.

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JR: Now, designing and developing a video game on your own can be costly. How are you covering the costs?

CM: We are very fortunate that my husband had a really great job. I was a stay-at-home mom, and he was an attorney for the last 10 years. So he made good money, and we thought, this is something we want try – let’s go for it and see. So we spent some of our own money to hire. We ended up hiring an animator as well for a little while. She still works with us part-time, and we’ve had a few different people that have come in and out. So that’s been a real gift.

About a year ago, he ended up leaving his job. Being an attorney is really intense and he got really burned out and needed a change. Now we’re totally going for it in a different way. We’ve slowed down production because we don’t have the funds to continue that pace, but we’re moving more slowly and still working toward the finish.

JR: Closer Than You Know is your “big kid game” that you have been working on over the last seven years. What inspiration led you in that direction? Are there elements your son loves? Or things you wanted to incorporate?

CM: I prayed, ‘God, I don’t know what to do here.’ That’s my prayer; a lot of the times when I don’t know what to do here. I immediately felt like I had this idea for what story I would want him to hear. If I was going to get through to him at age five, what would I really want him to know? For me, it was some of the hard things that life has taught. As a mom, you want to shelter them from that. But I also want him to have the takeaways that I’ve gleaned from some of those hard scenarios.

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I grew up in a real dysfunctional home and wanted to do life differently. I wanted things to be better for my kids. But it made me who I am in a way, and it made me strong, and it made me really wrestle with some things in life that I think were worth wrestling with. The theme that came out of that whole process was hope. What does it mean to hope when you’ve been disappointed? What does it mean to hope for things when they don’t turn out or when hope feels really risky?

The main character in Closer Than You Know looking at a crystal.

Closer Than You Know

All these ideas started coming that I really want them to know at a young age. And maybe if I had known some of this stuff I wouldn’t have been so scared or things wouldn’t have felt so hard growing up. As I started writing it down and flushing it out, it became more of a fantasy metaphor. They can journey through some of these hard things and maybe come out on the other side with a little more optimism or a little more assurance that they’re still good in the world, even if you go through something really hard.

JR: Has your son had a chance to test out Closer Than You Know?

CM: He is my biggest critic and my best QA guy. He’s 12 now, and I started this when he was five, so I had in mind an audience that was very young, and now he can help me probably finish coding the whole thing. But he has played it, and he helps me with some of the puzzles. He says it’s probably not his kind of game. To be fair, he likes first-person shooters, and I made a point-and-click adventure, so, you know, mom for the win there. But he does say it’s a good game, and he’s really excited that we’re going finish it.

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JR: You shared that Closer Than You Know is set to release late this year or early next year. How does it feel to be in the final year of production and have a demo available to play?

CM: The demo that’s on Steam is about 45 minutes of content. We have all the environment art done, the programming done, and the puzzles are designed. At this point we’re doing characters art and animation and then cut scenes, so there’s and sound design. The skeletons there, the framework’s there, and I’m really optimistic about finishing it in a year. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out. We wanted to get all the design work done last year. I’m really happy to be at this stage where we can visually make it come to life.

JR: You also mentioned work on another game? What is that one about?

CM: My therapy is “do a different creative project when I get really tired of working on the same one.” I’m a projector; that’s how I operate. And when I get tired of one, I jump to another. It’s therapeutic and interesting to have a different kind of game from Closer Than You Know. This one is called Insectarium. It’s a little bug-catching simulator. Oddly enough, it was inspired by my other son, who really got into bugs for a season, and we would walk around outside trying to find them.

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Summer’s always a hard time for me to work because kids are home. The schedule is a mess. And so I end up working very few hours, and we have a lot of adventure time. This seemed like an easier thing to work on over the summer break. We did that for a while, and then when school started again, my husband thought, ‘I think this might have legs. We should see it through.’ Now we’re balancing two projects, but we hope to have this one ready for a June release.

The main character of Closer Than You Know searching a room.

Closer Than You Know

JR: Is there anything you would love to happen in the final year before Closer Than You Know releases?

CM: We would really love to find a publisher and support in getting things finished. We’ve been on our own for a long time and it’s worked well, and if that’s what we continue to do, then we’ll make it work. But it would really be nice to have some support in the marketing as we ramp up everything for Close Than You Know and Insectarium. I am not social media savvy. That is not my jam. So, we would really love some support in that area.

JR: With Insectarium hopefully releasing in June and Closer Than You Know releasing later this year/next year, what’s next?

CM: Just to be candid, I hope we make some income so we can keep going because we’re at the point where we’re living off savings. And if not, I guess, you know, we’ll go find other jobs. But for the time being we’re so thankful that we can live in a time where we get to create things and do that with each other. I hope that we get to keep making games. My kids and I were always brainstorming, so we have a long list that we would love to continue making.

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JR: As an indie game designer who stepped into this industry blind, what advice do you have for others looking to do the same?

CM: Patience and perseverance are gonna be your biggest assets. There’s so much information out there and so many different ways to go about game design that I think you really have to pick your path. Listen to the wisdom of others who have gone before you. But ultimately, we all have our different ways of creating and different ways that we get inspired.

I started as a stay-at-home mom, so my work time was very much bounced around from a nap here to ‘oh, the kids are entertained, let me, me sit down and do 10 minutes of work really fast.’ For some, that would drive them crazy, but I’m a little bit easily distracted and I love to bounce around from task to task. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of time I had to sit down and work because I could squeeze it in here and there. And so embracing that about myself and about my work style was incredibly helpful.

GGA Game Review: HORTICULAR

Catch Me