As game development becomes more accessible, it's becoming more personal. Not everyone wants to retell the hero's journey for the millionth time. There are other stories out there, stories people can intimately relate to. Designers like Porpentine are at the forefront of this movement.
Some of Porpentine's games are likely to make you uncomfortable. You cannot play a Porpentine game without getting to know a part of who she is, and your reaction will depend on your own life experiences. In most cases, though, it will be a lack thereof. Viewed through the lens of her games, Porpentine has not had an easy life, but her games provide players an empathetic, sharply humorous glimpse into her world.
And, yes, before we get any further, Porpentine is her real name.
"I love that Porpentine starts with a squishy sound and ends sharp," she said, "with an almost fragile 'tine'--it has all these dimensions and contradictions you can feel with your mouth. And it's good for making puns."
If only takes a moment on Porpentine's website to gain an immediate sense of her style--brash, loud, and full of slime. These principles are front-and-center throughout many of her games. But that's just the opening paragraph, and it buries the subtle lede that defines the complicated underbelly of her work. It's the megaphone that prompts you to pay attention to Porpentine. But it's misleading, as it can suggest a shallowness that's not present in the games themselves.
Porpentine came to my attention during the Game Developers Conference last year. When Cart Life won the Independent Games Festival's Seumas McNally Grand Prize, its designer ripped down his booth and let Porpentine show off her Twine-based Howling Dogs. I never got around to playing Howling Dogs, a game she's tried to move on from, hoping to escape being defined as a creator of text games.
Many of her new games, such as Armada, have graphics, though writing remains a key component.
When I spoke to Porpentine on Twitter, this anxiety seemed present. She really, really wanted to talk about her new games, one of which was, actually, the reason I wanted to talk to her: Ultra Business Tycoon III.
You have to play Ultra Business Tycoon III. I implore you. I beg you. It's remarkable. Ultra Business Tycoon III initially presents as a text adventure set within a world of trash, violence, and rampant death. It quickly becomes clear it's not only that but also an astonishingly accurate homage to games of the era (right down to an NFO file) and a darkly humorous window into a moment in Porpentine's youth. These moments come out of nowhere, and often strike a stark tonal contrast to everything else.
But once Ultra Business Tycoon III's dynamics are clear, it's hard to put down, a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating experience that also has one of last year's best "a-ha" moments.
Ultra Business Tycoon III is decidedly retro, and Porpentine's put enormous thought into this idea.
"[Designers usually] reproduce them in a way that is not capturing why we care about them so much," she said. "They are separating it from our experiences as a child. A lot of my thinking on this subject has to do with Kat Lake writings on this subject. She wrote something called Phantom Games--it’s a little essay. Basically, the idea is that you can’t just reproduce the power of nostalgia just through a system. It’s what was going on in our lives when we were playing these games. When I was playing these games, I was growing up in an abusive household, and you’re not going to find that magic just by slavishly reproduces the graphical essence of it or the mechanics. That’s why it’s got these shareware-y things, but it’s also blended. I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t blended it with real-life."
One reason a Porpentine game can feel uncomfortable is precisely how nakedly honest she can be about her own life experiences. It's challenging to put yourself out there, and, in some ways, ask to be judged. Not everyone will be kind, and not everyone will understand. But Porpentine does this over and over in her work. There is purpose to it, though it seems awfully exhausting.
"I started out going to the gym and doing lots of emotional push-ups," she said. "There’s lots and lots of steroids involved, it’s totally illegal."
(I'll remember that the next time a sappy movie gets to me, or I listen to the LOST soundtrack.)
"I guess my question would be: why don’t more people put more things from their lives into things?" she said. "Are you not just putting things from other people’s lives into games, then? [...] It can be a form of catharsis once you actually get it out there. What was emotionally draining was having it actually happen to me. What was emotionally draining was having to be silent about it, like any kind of thing that’s hurt me. Once it turns into art, it becomes free in a way. It’s a way to show other people. When we share our experiences, I think it’s a very healing thing."
"I just really want people to be able to access it in every possible way. I’ll probably make things that cost money in the future, but it’s really important to me to have a lot of stuff be free and be a gift."
The act of sharing is critically important to Porpentine, as well. She wants everyone to have a chance to play most of her games, which is why they're given away for free on her website. It's no surprise to learn this philosophy is influenced by how she first started experiencing media.
"I grew up pirating everything," she said. "I grew up too poor to consume most media. The only way I was able to get it is if it was free or I pirated it."
Piracy is how I discovered music. I listened to music before piracy, but there was nothing like Spotify in early high school. But I did have Napster, which introduced me to Weezer, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, and other musicians that formed the foundation of my ascension into having real taste.
Giving away games for nothing, however, is obviously at odds with the idea of being able to support yourself for a living though game development.
"I just really want people to be able to access it in every possible way," she said. "I’ll probably make things that cost money in the future, but it’s really important to me to have a lot of stuff be free and be a gift. Part of how I’ve been supporting myself is that I have a Patreon account."
Patreon is an interesting, relatively new service stemming from the term "patron."
"a person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, cause, or activity."
Through Patreon, you can support creators, even if you're not totally sure what you're paying for. Porpentine's patrons collectively pay her $650 per game. She's averaging one release per month, but it's not like being a Kickstarter backer. Porpentine is not required to provide "updates" on what's happening, though if she stopped producing games, people could theoretically pull their support. But that's not the case right now, and it's working out for her.
"It’s really good to have that confidence as an artist, and have this material support," she said. "You can’t support marginalized artists only through singular acts of recognition or through praise. You have to give them jobs, you have to reform their day-to-day systematic existence, you have to make it worthwhile and healthy to be them. Money is a concrete thing that is very helpful to marginalized artists. Rent and food and clothing--these are all concrete needs. I’m just really glad to have that support, and it allows me to make free games."
One cannot play a Porpetine game without being left with a distinct impression. The more you play, the more you begin to feel like you know her. That's not to say all of Porpentine's games are pseudo-biographical experiences, but few designers are as willing to put themselves into their work at the risk of being misunderstood. Wrapped around these games is an grungy, dirty aesthetic, a borderline obsession with grime, slime, and trash. Porpentine does not deny this. In fact, it's a defining characteristic.
"I think trash represents this kind of lowest of the lower, this sinking point," she said. "If you’re trash, there’s nowhere else to go, and you’re co-mingling with all these things around you. It’s a refuge. It represents finding value in something that so many other people find ugly and celebrating it, which is something that applies a lot to my life and my work."