During Hispanic Heritage Month in September, the good people at Latinx in Gaming held a three-week UNIDOS Game Jam focusing on celebrating Latinx culture. In all, 42 games were submitted but only six games were selected for Best Narrative, Best Art, Best Gameplay, Best Audio, Challenges and Best Overall.
I had a chance to speak with the winner of Best Narrative, Casey Ramos, the developer of unfolding and Lead Narrative Designer at Gameheads. unfolding takes us through the day in the life of a synesthete, that is, a person who has synesthesia (a neurological condition in which someone feels multiple senses at the same time). This means that they can hear color or see sounds.
unfolding is a beautiful story. As an interactive game, players can choose from dialogue options to move the story forward. I was able to interact with family members, respond to text messages and understand the world through my senses. The poetic storytelling is perfectly accompanied by striking images and sounds. In all, Ramos does a tremendous job of guiding players through a day in her life.
Here is my discussion with Casey Ramos.
Renee Lopez: In making unfolding, it is clear that this is a game that is close to your heart. How did you decide that this was the story you wanted to tell?
Casey Ramos: It actually took some time to decide what shape I wanted my story to take. I knew I wanted it to capture a snapshot of my life, but I realized pretty quickly that that didn’t narrow down my options at all. There are only two things about my game that held steady from beginning to end.
I wanted it to explore synesthesia in an immersive and atmospheric way. I’ve had calendar-form, motion-to-auditory and intero/exteroceptive synesthesia my whole life, but only recently began documenting and paying conscious attention to the way it affects my everyday life. I wanted for that experience to feel tangible in my game by bringing the senses forth and trailing their sort of waltz and flair along with it.
I wanted all of the game’s contents to be written in poetry form. I don’t see poetry often in games, and it’s a creative medium I’m very in-my-zone in. I wanted to allow myself to completely sink into that comfort in this game and simulate that poetic lull throughout.
It’d been some time since I’d worked on a game from beginning to end completely on my own, so I saw this jam as an opportunity. I wanted to tell a story I could take complete creative ownership over without feeling that anxiety of taking up too much space with my identities. I was kind of like: “What’s the most obnoxiously ‘me’ story I could tell? Let me get it all out of my system.”
I used instances of harassment as the story loop that the game begins and ends on as a result of a present personal struggle of mine. I’d been looking for the thread to string all these ideas, issues and topics through and I wrote the opening “dezfazendo” poem in a fury of emotion at like 3 a.m. one night. It struck and echoed into a really deep part of my mind, and whenever that happens I know that part of me needs a little more healing and attention, so I ran with it.
[In regards to the Game Jam] To me, the game jam’s theme of “celebrating Latinx culture” started as “What are my roots to the Brazilian side of my family?” and evolved into “How do the Latinx parts of me interact with every other part of me?” and the answer to that question felt a lot more profound, so I ran with it. A happy revelation: I realized that the “x” in Latinx didn’t just encapsulate my gender, but my relationship with my latinidade and everything else. “Latinidade” has no distinct look, shape or color. It does not exist within a binary, and the “x” honors that. I think when you think about it that way, you realize the true diversity of our community and everyone’s unique space within the “x.”
RL: The writing in unfolding is superb and has a very distinct poetic cadence to it. Where did you draw your inspiration in writing the dialogue as you did?
CR: Thank you! Gosh, I draw my inspiration from so many giants in the creative writing world. I spent my life as a writer of prose and poetry mostly, and some of the brightest stars in my world happened to be writers who, like me, had identities that drew them apart from “the norm.” I think especially of Audre Lorde, Ocean Vuong, Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Ransom Riggs and Jonathan Safran Foer.
They aren’t incredible just because they’re different, though. They’re incredible because their writing crawls under your skin and stays there. They’re compelling, inviting and unapologetic. They do not flinch in what they tell you and how, and I’ve noticed over the years the shape of my writing soften into an adjacent form. This shift seemed to happen the more I settled into myself, so I can’t help but wonder if that tone is a ripening that comes with time!
RL: You touch upon a few topics in your game such as synesthesia, family dynamics, politics and harassment. In your introduction you note that these are all inspired by a true story, were there drafts of additional stories? Will there be another game like this in the future?
CR: There were! The most significant bit that was left out was a branching option in the mirror moment. It was supposed to be split into options to moisturize, do your makeup and get dressed. That was going to be an opportunity to explore the PC’s self-perception a bit. Respectively, those options were set to explore my vitiligo (a skin discoloration condition), ancestors and eyes (as a mixed-race person) and my tug-and-pull between masculinity and femininity. I do wish I could’ve gotten into it and it was coded and everything, but I sunk so deep trying to flesh out synesthesia and harassment that I decided to lay that bit to rest for now.
As for the potential for a part-two, I honestly saw this game as a kind of bridge between my being the writer I’ve always been and the creator I hope to be going forward. It feels like a kind of love letter to that person.
That being said, I’m not sure that there’ll be a game like this in the future, though the reception of this game was definitely an encouraging reminder that text-based games are not out of style! I had toyed with the idea of making this a Unity text-based adventure game but couldn’t learn command-line code in time. The itch for it is still there post-unfolding, so maybe that’s up on my “next” list.
[In regard to the “few topics”] It always started with one seed, for example, a conversation with my parents. But the more authentically I was assessing my experiences in these places, the more intertwined they became with other topics and identities. For example, I couldn’t fully explore my family dynamic without mentioning political tension (especially since it’s so on the surface right now). I couldn’t explore my relationship with NYC without mentioning the harassment. It felt like a lot to pack in, but I tried to be as honest and thoughtful about my expressions as I could to maintain accessibility to those emotions.
RL: Representation is a hot topic in the games industry, and you are correct in saying that we shouldn’t let these kind of stories go untold. What would like to see game developers consider when developing games and developing characters? What is your hope for the future of games with regards to representation?
CR: Representation is definitely a hot topic! And rightfully so, but I also do see it being mishandled by certain studios as an ebb in the market, or simply an opportunity to thicken the company wallet.
The secret behind good representation isn’t really a secret at all: actually having your character’s identities in the writer’s room is nonnegotiable. I think people assume — sometimes with good intentions — that they can cognitively understand what it’s like to be a specific kind of minority. But the truth is, even if you can understand an experience or identity on the objective level (research, statistics, studies), that will only ever be a fraction of the complete and lived experience as a human with that identity. You think you can get away with it, but what ends up happening is you get really one-dimensional characters, and it shows. Even if the intentions are good … I think if the intentions are great, a creator will realize that they need to either get the right people in the room (and pay them!) or step back from that direction until they can.
I hope for the future that people of all abilities, backgrounds and genders get to tell their stories for themselves. Representation in games cannot end at deepening the hue of a PC’s skin color. D & I needs to happen on multiple levels. Also, diverse characters deserve more than sob stories! Let them be popular and cool and loved and also let them exist beyond the world’s reactions to their identity. Characters like us deserve to play the heroes, too.
unfolding is available to play for free on itch.io. Happy gaming!
This article was originally posted on 11/9/20
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