Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Kaitlin Tremblay on her Interactive Fiction Game, Lights Out, Please

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Kaitlin Tremblay

Kaitlin Tremblay is an editor and gamemaker who primarily makes horror games with themes related to feminism and mental illness. Her latest creation, Lights Out, Please, is an interactive fiction game that she wrote collaboratively with an international group of diverse writers using Twine, an open-source software that allows users to create text-based and interactive fiction games.

Today, Kaitlin speaks with Open Book about Lights Out, Please, the collaborative process and the relationship between games and fiction.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new interactive fiction game, Lights Out, Please.

Kaitlin Tremblay:

Lights Out, Please is an anthology of traditional ghost stories or urban legends rewritten by a diverse international group of authors to show how the fear depicted in scary stories is often a daily fear for many people.

Lights Out, Please originally started as a solo project I did for merritt kopas’s Naked Twine jam (where the goal was to make a Twine game without any fancy aesthetics in order to just focus on the words and the story itself and not the appearance of it). I rewrote two urban stories, the one about the man with a hook for his hand and the one about the babysitter who gets phone calls, you know, the person ends up being in her attic. I rewrote this from a child’s perspective and focused on how the fear in these stories is very similar to the fear women in abusive relationships experience. For many women I know, myself included, something as simple as a phone call can be absolutely terrifying. And more often than not, the person who you are scared of isn’t a stranger, but actually someone close to you (someone in your attic, so to speak).

My plan was to write more stories and turn it into an anthology, but I found myself having a hard time writing more. Not because I didn’t have ideas. I had loads of ideas and ghost stories and urban legends to adapt, but I somehow felt like, the more I spoke, the less effective it became. And I realized this was because I’m a fairly privileged woman. I’m white, I pass as heterosexual despite being bi, I’m cis, I’m able-bodied. My stories were just the tip of the iceberg for what I actually wanted to discuss. So, I kind of realized that for Lights Out, Please to matter, it had to be more voices than just mine. It had to be diverse. Otherwise what was even the point? You want to talk about a daily sense of fear? There are so many other people who experience this kind of fear way more acutely (and frequently) than I do, and I just came to the decision that their voices mattered more than mine. So, I put out a call for submissions and just kind of said: tell your story how you want it to be told. So often in games, marginalized folks don’t get to tell their stories.


Could you explain a little bit about the Twine program and how it works to us?


Twine is an open-source software that lets people create text-based games or interactive fiction stories that are playable online. Basically, Twine sets people up with a series of “passages” that you can connect to other passages to create a choose-your-own-adventure-style narrative. The beautiful thing about Twine is that it’s free and you don’t need to know any coding or programming languages to be able to make something in it — you literally just type the text you want into a box, and select the words you want to become hyperlinks to other passages of text, and you’re done.

But if you do know any amount of coding, you can customize the look and the user interface of your game or story. So, for example, in Lights Out, Please, I used different CSS-customization and Javascript macros to have the stories from each contributors appear and play differently than any others in the collection.

Because it is free and because of its simplicity to use and to share, Twine has been used a lot by marginalized folks as a way of telling our stories — stories that might not get traditionally told in big blockbuster commercial games, like Call of Duty. Our stories get buried underneath all the big commercial games that contain stories of "A White Man With Being Sad," "A White Man With A Beard Being Sad" or "A Man Is Angry Because Something Happened To His Girlfriend/Daughter/Wife."

Some really amazing games have been made in Twine, like merritt kopas’s Conversations With My Mother, to Soha Kareem’s Penalties and Rokashi’s I’m Fine. All of those games were made in Twine by Toronto developers and gamemakers. They all tell different stories about different experiences, ranging from sexuality, to race, to dealing with mental illness.


What was the collaboration process for Lights Out, Please like? How did it work?


The collaboration process for Lights Out, Please was fantastic! It was fairly independent, as well. Each contributor wrote their own story (some coded it themselves, as well), and then I compiled all of the stories into one master file and connected them with a frame story and a table of contents. It was a really inspiring process, actually, as I worked one-on-one with many of the contributors, providing feedback when I was asked for it, and just being there for encouragement. A few contributors had never written anything for public consumption before, let alone having made or released a game, and so getting to work with these folks to help them tell really difficult, but important stories was really the best part.


How would you describe the relationship between fiction and gaming?


For me, the relationship between fiction and gaming is incredibly intertwined. Both fiction and games have the same goal: give the reader/player as good of an experience as possible. As an editor at a publishing house and a rehabilitated literature grad student, I despise the question inevitably asked at book launches: “What are you reading?” Not because I don’t read. I do. I read quite a lot. I read poems, and short stories and novels. Memoirs, and personal essays, and text messages, and notes left from lovers and texts meant for someone else's eyes.

But I also read stories in games.

And often times, it’s the stories I encounter in video games that leave me decimated, in the same way that reading the line “I am, I am, I am” from The Bell Jar can make me never want to leave my bed again. So I despise the question “What are you reading?” because what I really want to answer is the question “What stories have you experienced lately?” That sounds cheesey, I know, but it’s true! I want to tell people about the magic realist story told in the point and click adventure game Kentucky Route Zero, which includes references to Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. Kentucky Route Zero takes the sadness and optimism of feeling lost and trying to find your way and compounds it by having you control your character’s descent into being lost in a place where the road literally changes under your feet if you reverse direction.

Basically, gaming is made up of fiction. You can’t tear the two apart. Good games tell some of the most remarkable stories. The puzzle game made from the Joy Division song "Will Love Tear Us Apart?" tells the story of a failing love and relationship in a powerful and poignant way, using images and actions to convey what sometimes words can’t. But even more simply, gaming relies on story, even if it’s just the simple story of you’re a soldier who has to defend your town/nation/planet from invading forces. When you play a character, you’re playing into the narrative being told — you’re reading and playing a fiction.


Are there any future Twine projects you are working on that you can tell us about?


Not currently! In the year I’ve been making games, Lights Out, Please is my third fully finished and released Twine game. My previous ones include Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before and There Are Monsters Under Your Bed. Both are feminist body horror games that look at what it’s like being a woman and living with mental illness (depression for Monsters and an eating disorder for Stop Me). Monsters mimics the style of old-school role playing games from the ‘90s, whereas Stop Me is more of a sometimes-true memoir, as I awkwardly call it. My next project will either be an attempt to transform my poetry collection into a Twine game. Or perhaps another horror game. Everyone always asks me to make a nice game, about hugging or making friends or something, haha. But I like horror. I like telling horror stories. I like the power behind horror, too.

Kaitlin Tremblay is an editor in children's educational publishing, as well as a gamemaker who primarily makes horror games about feminism and mental illness. Kaitlin has a Master's in English Literature, and loves horror, monsters and Godzilla above all else. Born in Windsor, Ontario, and the youngest of many, many brothers, Kaitlin now resides in a tiny hobbit hole in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter at @kait_zilla.

For more information about Lights Out, Please, and to play the game, please visit the That Monster website.

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