S2E02: Building (Thorny) Games with Kathryn Hymes
HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist
Kathryn Hymes is 50% of the indie studio Thorny Games, where she makes games about language and cryptography. She is a multiple time Indiecade Finalist and Award Winner, has spoken at GDC, and delivered keynote addresses at gaming conferences. She is also a co-host of the Game Design Round Table podcast and a 2016 GenCon Industry Insider. Follow her on twitter at @chicalashaw
Search through the Thorny Games website to find Sign and Dialect and to preorder Xenolanguage!
- Be sure to check out Machina, a new podcast from Realm Studios
Hello there friends. Welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds with facts and science. I am your host, Dr. Moiya McTier. I'm an astrophysicist who studied pretty much everything in space from planetary orbits to the radiation leftover from the Big Bang to star formation and black holes and Galaxy evolution. But I am especially interested in the motion of stars and how that affects the habitability of exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system. I am also a folklorist who specializes in building and analyzing fictional worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds and that knowledge with you. So let's get started.
I guess it's easiest to start with introductions so that you know, we don't have this whole conversation and then we're like, "well, who are you?" So do you want to tell me in your own words, who you are and what you do?
Yes, I gladly. I am Kathryn Hymes, and I am a few things. But fundamentally, I like to think of myself as a playful person, in many ways. I tried to find the play in what I do every day. And I'm a linguist, a computational linguist, I like to call myself in that I do a lot of things with computers and human language, trying to get the two meet and do interesting things in understanding how computers can better interact with human language. I am a game designer, and I love exploring the stories behind people and culture communities, but especially doing that through the lens of language. Words and our own language are just these morsels of history that we all toss around to each other constantly, and make meaning and then go about our daily lives when just these miracles happen all the time. And then I'm a writer, too. I enjoy writing. And I love talking about worldbuilding, and play and games out in the world. So that's me.
That's awesome. I'm not gonna say you're in the right place, but you're definitely in a right place to talk about worldbuilding and story from cool different angles. What got you interested in linguistics? I feel like everyone knows about language in the abstract. A lot of people interact with it in their daily lives, but not many people choose to study it and understand its origins. So how did that happen for you?
I had a formative experience as a child where you're looking for things that excite you in the world. You try out a bunch of somethings, and as a like middle schooler took a think it was a French class and found myself tumbling down the rabbit hole wanting to understand words, and like almost looking at other languages, like a code that I could crack. And then I found that I would almost collect words like how people make collections, I would put them in little journals and diaries. And people would say words, and I would keep them and this kind of blossomed just as I grew up. And so when time came to ultimately choose a direction in life in college and study. At first I kind of resisted it. I majored in math as well as language. And I love math too, for different reasons, but it just always drew me back in. And now I found, like, I have this narrative thread in my life and career that's been around language. And anytime that I stray from it, I become less happy. So it's been an interesting just through line of who I am from the start.
That's really cool that you have identified that about yourself. Also that you've taken the chance of straying from the linguistics path a little bit just to test it, to see if you want to come back. And you always do. You said you write. What type of stuff do you write?
I love to write now, more nonfiction. Writing for me is an act of figuring out how I feel about something and a moment for clarity and quiet, which is really wonderful, especially in the noise of life in the greater internet. I really love writing about playful systems, like where I see play in broader areas of dynamics in the world and where maybe there's an opportunity for looking at something through the lens of game design to think about it differently.
Interesting. I think maybe you have a different definition or concept in your head of "play" than I do. It seems like when you say you mean something much bigger than what I typically mean when I say play. So could you say a little bit more about what play means to you?
To me play is kind of almost a flow state where there is sort of a joy that you're bringing to what you do. It's cooperation with people, or yourself that is defined by a set of rules that really builds a little world that you have together that you're operating in. So like when we sit down to play a game of chess, you know, before we are playing, it is just a bunch of pieces on a board, but once we sit across from each other on opposite sides of the board, we've agreed to a whole worldview and how we're going to interact with each other in it. And we both have goals and different tactics that we're going to deploy. But we're in roles at that point, too. And it's a powerful little microcosm, just, you know, to be at that chess board. But once we leave, like the rules of the world change, and it was just that game experience. But it's amazing to think about just a lot of what we do in life is being a kind of performance or playfulness. I don't see it as a negative thing to say that we perform. We are different people in different contexts. And there's sort of different rules of operating in those contexts. And so understanding where, you know, systems can help to draw out rules that help people live more fulfilling, joyful lives. Those are very interesting to me those questions.
That's really cool. When you were talking about, you know, the rules of gameplay and how, when you sit down to play a game, you agree to these rules, you agreed to this context, this bubble that you're building around yourself... When I first started getting into worldbuilding, one of the first things I noticed was that it's so important to establish the rules of your world first. And that's how you can really make it immersive and make it feel real. By following those rules. If you avoid any sort of jarring events that take people out of the world, and I see that connection between worldbuilding and play here,
Totally, yeah, you make it so that it can be emergent, because it's based on underpinning logic that helps to explain sort of the dynamics of people, how they interact, all those things. And I think that that happens in good games, too, whether there are these fundamental rules that are either very transparent, or that just are built into the way that you know, this video game works. And then people take those rules in really different spaces, surprising ways that they use the same set of rules.
So true. Games are one way to engage in play, right? There are lots of others. You've chosen games... why? How did you get into game making, like the jump from studying math and linguistics to designing games is a really cool one. But it's unexpected.
Yeah, I am a big believer in nonlinear paths to different things, you know, as I'm sure you know, you've experienced too in your own story.
For me, I separately had a passion for games. I loved board games since I was tiny. And it eventually got to the point where I was, you know, joining communities that were regularly playing games and thinking about them. And I do think that there's an appeal for someone who wants to think about systems to be drawn into games, because really, you know, you're building systems and then giving them to people and seeing how they interact with them. Like, it's a very interactive art, fundamentally. And so if you're interested in people in interaction, games are a great way of doing that. They're all modeled little experiments, too, so... great for scientists. What really did it for me in terms of making my own games was finding the right community. I went to a convention for many years, called Gen Con, the largest [board]gaming convention, and other kinds of gaming are welcomed there too. And that's really where, I stumbled upon the story games community, and it was such a vibrant, welcoming space of people who are really interested in finding out amazing ways that you can urgently tell stories with other people. So let's get down at the table, we'll agree to a set of rules that are parts of you know, the underpinnings of what this game is, but together, we're going to co-create a story or a world and have this experience that is true of us and like a mixing of our imaginations. And I played a couple of those games and it completely blew my mind after that. I just had to had to become one.
One of us. Yeah, that's so beautiful. You said "story games". That's not a term I'm familiar with. What are some other examples of story games?
As with all terminology, once you get into the niche corners, I'm sure that like I could make a lot of people angry [with] the way that I define this, but I am very loose with this term. And to me, it's more like tabletop role playing. And if you play Dungeons and Dragons [and] things like it, story games are games where the point is to tell a story together. And typically that doesn't necessarily mean that you're adversarial, like there isn't necessarily a winner or loser, but sometimes there is. That's like the ultimate thing that you're agreeing to do by playing this game is experiencing this co-created story. And so co-creation is a big part of it too, which is really neat. Because you know, there's not just one person that determines how everything goes. And power is divided in different ways in a lot of these games still, which is very interesting, but it still is born of all the people that are there.
I love that. Alright, so you went to Gen Con, you found this community of story gamers, and then you started your own game design company with a partner.
Right? Hakan Seyalıoğlu was my co-founder, partner.
Got it, and do you want to tell us a bit about Thorny Games, and what you do?
Yeah, so Thorny Games is our game studio, we are making story games. So the idea is to make these games where you can tell both intimate and epic stories with friends at a table. The particular kinds of stories that we're really interested in often just reflect our broader passions in the world. We've really rooted a lot of our current games in language, and how language is this incredible vector and mirror of what's important to people, where they came from, who they are - their identity. It just gets at these really juicy questions, but in a way that's a little bit roundabout. And so if you can kind of creep into talking about these things, and then you realize, "Oh, goodness, it's right here." And these language[s] [are] like a playful mechanic, we've actually just recently gotten into kind of blurring the line between games and fiction, with this new anthology that we're making. So we are in collaboration with a bunch of sci-fi writers and with game designers, we have a bunch of people that are coming together to explore the concept of first contact in play, and really trying to blur the lines between what is a reader, what is a player, at what point do you take over the story, at what point does the story you've just read maybe motivate what you want to co-create by playing a game? So that's like one exciting direction I'd say that we're really looking forward to, but there's still just so much space to explore with story games.
Absolutely. I did some perusing on the Thorny Games website, you have three games listed there: Dialect, Sign, Xenolanguage. And I have some questions about each if you don't mind, going through each of them. Okay, because they seem really cool. Was Dialect the first game that you made?
It was actually Sign, surprisingly, even though it was the latter one... we ended up boxing it a little bit later, but Sign was the first.
Then let's start with Sign. Do you want to tell us what it's about, and how is it played?
So Sign is actually the story of Nicaraguan sign language. So it's based on a real true story. And part of the motivation of this game is really just to spread this amazing story, which ought to be known more. The story is, you know, very briefly in Nicaragua, up until like the late, maybe 1970s-1980s, there was no official sign language. And so if you were deaf in the country, it meant that you had to go on your own. Deaf children would negotiate a set of signs with their local family to make it through the world. There wasn't an established language that was dominant and supportive for folks. Something changed, deaf children were across the country brought to a school in the capital, Managua, to learn a Spanish through lip reading. And what actually happened beyond that is that the children were for the first time just among other people who had a shared life experience, who were kids and wanted to make friends and just had all of the normal, you know, desires of what it meant to be a kid and want to play and under the noses of, sort of like the establishment and the teachers in that school, they emergently started making their own signs together and teaching each other and a sign language emerged. And new kids came into the school, they learned that language and actually developed it even more. And this language just grew and grew to becoming what was maybe, you know, something that was more simple and delicate at first, but then it's just this thing that is alive in and of itself, right? At some point, linguists were invited over to help to understand what was going on. And they realized, "Oh, my God, this is a language born in modern times from children!" Truly, the first speakers of this language are alive today. It's an incredible story of children creating their own form of communication and taking power unto themselves. And so this game is meant to just honor that story. It's a live action game, so that means that you move around when you play, and you play as children meeting each other on their first day of school. And, over the course of play. you negotiate a series of signs together that you are making up that are particular to your exact group. And over the course of play, you know, this language changes and becomes something that you know, you share with this group of friends that you've gone through a game session with. And we find it's like a really interactive, powerful way for people to experience this story a little bit. It's in no way, this story, it's no way empathy from what actually happens. But it's a way to internalize a story that that is important. And that is just one of those, you know, sort of triumphs of humanity, that at least makes me a little brighter in the morning. And it also is a way for us to directly support Nicaraguan sign language, all proceeds from the game, just go to a charity that we work with in Nicaragua.
That's really amazing. I'll be including links to all the games on your site in the show notes, so people can check those out.
This game seems like something that I would have a lot of fun playing with a trusted group of people. I read through the instructions, and it's a game that you play in silence, because the idea is that you're making these signs, these ways to communicate. And it seems like it'd be really hard, right? Like the tagline for the game, I think is you know, it's a game about understanding.
Being understood. That's such a powerful message. Have you watched people play this game? What is it like to see people go through this exercise of coming up with a sign language, a very basic, simple sign language?
Many times now that I've run it, played it, and watched people play it; it's always amazing where people start from [because] this is a game [centered] around, trying to negotiate communication when you don't have it with other people. [It's about] where you end up with some understanding and negotiated communication, and there's an actual journey that players often take. Some of this journey is also just directly through interaction in play, which is pretty amazing. There's spaces in the game that are meant to be this free space where there is emergent play from people. And I think that, you know, it can be intimidating to play a game where you're asked to kind of figure things out as you go along with a bunch of people who are agreeing to a set of rules that they're all going to operate by. And it kind of draws on some of those improv skills. But it also is like having a bunch of people who are pointing in the same direction trying to co-create something together. And when you have a bunch of people who have agreed to this premise that they really want to experience something like that, it's pretty magical to see what happens. We've gotten a really lovely feedback from a lot of people. I like to think of games as a persuasive medium in the sense that, you know, there are many ways that people hear stories, you know, like, maybe I go to a movie, or I hear a news story, or my friend shares it. There's a lot of ways that we hear stories that are very consumptive. They're all about, things coming at me, and maybe I have time to bake in them or make up my own mind. But it's really games that allow you to like take a premise and a story, but then ask you to be a direct part in it by taking actions, making choices, interacting with it in some way. And I feel that that is a much more direct and powerful way to absorb information myself. [It allows me to] makie my own opinions, [to] hold up truths to the light and decide if they are what I think they are, [to] interrogate things. And so I think by going through an experience like this, you internalize the story in a deeper way.
Yeah, definitely helps empathize with people who have been in situations where they didn't feel like they could be understood, or they didn't feel like they could communicate with the people around them.
Yeah. And this game is in no way trying to make a statement about you know, what it means to be deaf. For the deaf community, it's really clear about that, too. It's really just trying to take a story that is about, you know, children who had no form of language, and then create it on their own terms, as this amazing human achievement, that I think that makes us look at language and power, and just even cooperation and people a little differently.
It's also really cool, because this is a game that truly can be played over and over again, with different combinations of people, and you're going to get a different thing every time. I think all of your games are kind of like that, actually.
Yeah. [It's about] who sits down at the table and where they are in that day [and] moment [that] is going to completely shift what happens.
Yeah, or like what point of your life you're in. I imagine that if that same experiment or event in Nicaragua happened today, and it was deaf adults being gathered, it would be very different, the language that they would come up with. So the second game you came out with was Dialect and what is that game about? How is it played?
Dialect is a game [that] tells the story of a group of people by building up their language and so you can see a connective thread in some of these games already. Dialect, I guess in the taxonomy of games, it's a tabletop role playing game. So you're not getting up and moving around, you're sitting at a table and talking and using the rules of the game to tell this story. But also, while you're telling the story of a group of people, you're also building bits and pieces of their language that you're making up there together.
I love it. One of the first things you do in the game is decide who you're going to play, and what backdrop you're going to play. It's a really different experience, depending on the setting that you choose to play in, there's a bunch of settings that are built into the game that you can choose from, some of these can be really varied, like, we often will play with this setting where you are settlers on Mars. So you're the first Martian outpost, [and] one thing that's critical for all of these settings, is that you are isolated in some way. That isolation is just the core component for why your group is changing, and how that change is reflected in your language. Sometimes that isolation [can be] very physical in the sense that you're cut off from Earth, and you're on Mars. [Other times], it's more hav[ing] your own community in and of itself. So maybe we're a bunch of boys at an English boarding school. There's the teachers and us, but like we are, you know, the boys in prep, and what it means to, you know, become a young man, you know, after going through our English boarding school experience,
I'm sure the nature of the isolation effects the type of language that you create. [I imagine] being isolated on Mars is very different from being isolated as a student with teachers, right? Because then it brings in the opportunity to define yourselves in opposition to something else.
Absolutely, and that's a fundamental part of that setting. The game leads you through fundamental aspects [as] they're called [which] are these sort of ingredients that are really fundamental to who you are as people and everyone who plays as a character has a different relationship with them. So if we're on Mars, maybe it's like, "Are we on Mars because in this world, we've decided that Mars is Australia, back in the day where it's a penal colony?" Or maybe Mars is a bunch of technocrats because Elon Musk got there first.
Oh, I hope not.
I know, right? Maybe Mars is something else entirely. Maybe we're the first people out there, and we're a bunch of scientists, but all of those ingredients end up being isolated. They're the things that helped sort of generate your story, and also the language that happens because of it.
Yeah. That's awesome. What was your inspiration for making this game? Like what muse came to you and how?
Part of it is just loving language, and appreciating how much [of] a story there is in the way that we speak. And the way that I speak is reflective of where I'm from, you can hear California and you can tell that I'm a millennial. There's so many things that you can pick up on, just in speech. There's speech in who you are as a person, but also just all the communities that you belong to, there's a whole world of linguistics called sociolinguistics that's about studying how people use language and how language shows up as a part of society and identity. It's always just been something that's very fascinating to me. And there's a lot of amazing games that already existed up to that point that explored worldbuilding in interesting ways. And it was a natural opening to go, where's my worldbuilding game where I get to sink into the language as a part of what we do? And for people who love Tolkein or things like it, the worldbuilding through language has a history there and so being able to do it on your own terms by creating your own language with other people that are at the table just makes it all the more personal and interesting.
Yeah, absolutely. So you're asking players to evolve language on their own. In the real world that happens according to principles that you can study in sociolinguistics. In the game, do you provide any of those basic principles or concepts to the players or is being realistic not important to you, or do you trust that it will be realistic because these are people and they know language anyway?
Yeah. Such a good question. It's a mix, but like the real answer is the latter or the last thing -
I love that, see we're already playing. The game provides some ideas for how you could go about being playful with language and how language does change the way that you know words can morph or you know, mix together. Just even the idea of anything related to like a "COVIDiot" now and what that means to people. That's a word that would not have meant anything a year ago, or a year and some ago, and now is an unfortunate truth that we have to live with. But that is reflected in language and how it evolves. It's constantly evolving, but ultimately, what the game relies on is just that we're actually all experts in language. It's utterly how our brains work and how we communicate with each other all the time, and often, like not overthinking things will have you do what is the most logical, natural thing. So you know, we'll come up with something immediately on the spot, and it'll feel right, and it does reliably, which is cool. It's kind of magic.
Yeah. What's your favorite term or phrase or word that you've come up with while playing Dialect or that you've seen other people come up with?
It's so hard now. I've experienced so many worlds in these different ways, [and it's] so hard to choose. I wish I could.
Maybe not favorite, but like a memorable one?
Imagine we're Martian settlers, and on Mars for us, one of the things that's really important is, there's a lot of long distance trucking. We need to move freight from place to place, given where we live. And another thing that's important on Mars, there's a lot of sandstorms. And the way that you would play a game or a turn of Dialect is usually you have a term that you would choose to define based on cards in your hand. So if we're going to define the term "friend", what I would do is first kind of tell the story and help to worldbuild a little about what the word "friend" means and why it's important and why it's different for us. So I might say, like, "Oh, well, you know, there's a special form of friendship, here in our isolation on Mars, where someone is with you, they have to be there for you, when you are trucking these long distances. You know, they're the voice in your ear that's helping you go through it. Otherwise, you know, you're on your own. And you know, they're going to help to navigate you through some of these sandstorms. So they're just the voice on the other side". So we've like, taken a little bit of story there, where we've set a true thing that's kind of about the world and why this particular term or former friendship became special, then at that point, you might decide, what this term is, and how it came to be. And so ultimately, the term is "essie", what people decide to call their friends. And the way that they get there is: okay, well, maybe there was an official term at some point for who this person was. They were your secondary contact, or some bureaucratic term like that. And over time, that probably got shortened because no one's gonna say, "there's your form of secondary contact", and that became just "SC", which then is spelled maybe, "e-s-s-i-e" just becomes something that's a little bit more dear and casual. And then that becomes just sort of a generic term for the particular form of friendship that you have with someone when they are there for you in those long haul trucking periods, like out into the nothingness of Mars.
I love that.
That becomes like a little nugget that is both part of the story and then part of this little bit of language that you've come up [with] together, and then critically, in Dialect, then you'll play out a scene where you're going to use that word in some way. So you inject a little life into it.
That's great. Do you still use some of these words after you're done playing? Like with people who have played the game with you?
Yes. It immediately kind of brings you back to that moment, in the same way that you have friends from high school where there are things that you talked about that were important to you. There [was] that one teacher or that incident with the lemonade or whatever, that brings you back immediately. It becomes like a little shared in group language that you have with the folks that you've played with.
Nice. So if you don't have enough in-jokes with your friends, or your "essies", play some Dialect.
Nice. I think it's time for a little break. And when we come back, we'll talk about Xenolanguage, which is Thorny Games' third game.
People talk about getting humans to Mars all the time, but not enough people talk about this shady office drama and politics at the companies that could get us there. Luckily for us, Realm Studios is here to close that gap with their new fiction podcast, Machina. Machina follows the story of two rival tech companies competing to get a government contract - that happens in real life - to develop artificial intelligence technology that can be used on Mars. There's corporate espionage, robot dogs and dramatic workplace romances. The first episode aired on April 1 and new episodes come out every Wednesday. There are 10 episodes in the first season. So be sure to check out Machina from Realm Studios wherever you get your podcasts.
If you like my worldbuilding work, if you are enjoying Exolore and you want to support it, a great way to do that is by joining my Patreon. Patrons do get some perks like early access to episodes and you get to see my research notes, which I guess are post hoc research notes for different episodes and I'm adding benefits over time as I learn more about what Exolore is, and what it can be. Your monthly recurring support on Patreon would help me do things like pay my editor and eventually get to pay my guests and just keep the lights on here at Exolore. So if you are inclined and able, I would love for you to go to patreon.com/exolorepod, and see whatever you can give.
One of the other Multitude shows, Join the Party, is having a live show! Join the Party is my favorite real play D&D podcast. The storytelling is on point, and I can imagine the world in my head when they talk about it. And everyone on the show is just such a great human. The live show is on May 13th. So you still have time to buy tickets by going to multitude.productions/live where you can see their upcoming shows and check out replays of past ones. If you like Join the Party, you don't want to miss this. And if you don't like Join the Party - yet, then you should go check it out by typing "Join the Party" or "Multitude" into any podcast app that you prefer.
Welcome back. Now we're going to talk about the third game from Thorny Games called Xenolanguage. I am really excited about this one because I think that it ties in very well with Exolore's brand purpose. So Kathryn, what is Xenolanguage? And what's it about? How is it played?
Xenolanguage is a story about first contact. You play a bunch of scientists with deep personal ties that are brought together to help make sense of alien communication. As they do that, they also need to reckon with their own sort of personal trials and tribulations with each other. And so it's definitely a love letter to really soulful sci-fi stories like a rival or the short story that it was based on or the book and movie contact, where, you know, there's this deep human story alongside of this incredible melding of worlds story.
So the premise is that aliens make first contact with us, they send a message, and these scientists are asked to interpret it. Do you have any constraints about like, what are those aliens like? Or is it left open ended?
It fundamentally comes from the people who are planning. You discover what these aliens are like through playing. Some of these are directed through prompts where you'll be asked direct questions that help to give indication there, but part of the replayability of it to [is that] what these aliens are saying is determined by how people are interpreting this message. Fundamentally, I should mention, because this is a big part of gameplay and sort of the way that this interpretation ends up being so fluid is that the basic mechanic of how you play and how you make contact and then make sense of this message is through channeling. And so there's this custom channeling board, similar to the way that Ouija might work where there are alien like symbols sort of in this kind of found artifact immersive board that then collectively, you as players and as scientists will channel over to then progressively receive a message and then try and grapple with what it means. And over the course of the game, you discover more about what's behind this board, and what may be the underpinnings of this message, then it's up to you and your group to interpret it. And then what that means for the rest of us for all of humanity.
Right. You mentioned earlier that you have this anthology, Games to Bind Us. And that's stories and other games that are related to Xenolanguage by authors, by writers and game designers are those stories based off of specific games that you've played and the messages that have been uncovered in those like sit downs?
They're stories that are original to the people that are writing them and the games there too. But the fundamental connection is just they're exploring the concept of first contact, where play is a really fundamental ingredient there. And so either being a game or telling a story where one of the ways that we're interacting with aliens that come down or with you know, new life is through play.
That's definitely one of the best ways that first contact with aliens could go. They come here, they leave you this nice little message and you just have to play a game to decode it. No invasions. No takeovers -
It depends on the game.
Oh. So this is like random, right? The message that you get is based on where you put the individual symbols when you are setting up the board. Are some of these messages nice and some of them aren't?
Oh, yes, yeah, it is very different depending on the people and similar to how the way that channeling works, it's sort of this collaborative storytelling that you do based on like, you know, a real physical, biological principle of subconscious movement. There's sort of this element of subconscious storytelling that happens just through playing. And so I've seen so many in play, so many games at this point, you know, sometimes that ultimately, you know, someone will say that they're here, because they're giving us a gift. Sometimes they're looking for refuge, they're trying to give us knowledge, but we're not ready for it. Sometimes they are antagonizing us, this is a threat, and who the people are and what they're playing and how their story kind of emergently happens can skew where this goes. It's pretty amazing to see people so earnestly talking to themselves really [which is] what you end up doing when you're collaboratively channeling like that, and then interpreting it again and again, to land on a very definite conclusion of what they're saying and what we should do about it.
[That] sounds like science. I absolutely love how much self reflection and like introspection there is involved in all of your games. It's a nice other thread throughout. In addition to the linguistic side.
It's hard to find moments for introspection, especially when you can do it with other people there as well. And games just give you through the course of these rules, you've all agreed to space to think about stories and how you want to react and choices you would make an alternate worlds that you're a part of. And that's really cool. And I think by playing a lot of games, like the best case scenarios, where you learn a lot about yourself and things you would do or how you feel about something, and sometimes change your mind based on what happens through play.
In my head. I'm picturing that GIF from "Parks and Rec" where that woman says, "this is growth". So I have a few questions about general choices in game design and how game design works. I guess the first question might be very broad, but could you describe the process of creating a game? What goes into [creation] from ideation to [the points where] people can buy this and play this? What's that like?
Whew, yeah. I say that almost like experiencing all those stages too. And like the work that's involved along the way, and you know, always the caveat that different people's process is different. But for us in our studio, we often will start with a concept that we think is really exciting. [Like] a fundamental story that we want to tell that's both exciting for us [and] that we think should be told. [It's one] that has something that can personally help it be born into the world. Fundamentally, [it's] being excited about whatever the story is, and why you want to spend the next, end years working on it. It is really necessary to get you through the rest of the process.
Don't commit to something if you don't believe in it.
Definitely. I remember when I was first making things, and it was just a struggle [because] you just want to make anything. And that is a great urge to get better at something, but when you really want to commit to bringing something into the world at scale, you have to really believe in it because there's so many different stages along the way where you run into things that are trouble or just frustration and difficulties. And what will get you through is when you really are down with the what you're doing. After that point, there's then a whole consideration of you know, what are the mechanics that would support the kind of stories that we want to tell, [and] different games, even within like the world of story games have, you know, different priorities about how co-creation happens, like in a lot of our games, so far, it's really fairly equally spread among all of the people who are playing. This is different than Dungeons and Dragons, which is a different type of game, where usually you'll have someone who's a Game Master, maybe the worldbuilder, you know, someone who controls the world, and then other people who are in it. Whereas a lot of our games are really about, you know, everyone is kind of sitting down with equal power at the table when, you know, the game starts and when the game ends. And so then there are particular mechanics that we think about that help to divide a story, but also give people interesting choices that hopefully feel easy in the moment, but that will lead you to surprising places. Language is then a natural topic of interest for us. And so figuring out what's a really sly way that we can help people take advantage of our own utter mastery of language to do something that's kind of amazing. And that ends up being kind of fodder for what mechanics can be.
Yeah, I saw a video on the Thorny Games website, where you said, you've spent a lot of time thinking about what mechanic would be best for Xenolanguage. I was wondering if you could say, what some of the other potentials were? Why did some lose, and this channeling mechanic won out?
Yeah, that's a great question. Fundamentally, when you're asking someone to believe that they are being immersed in a story about first contact, and actually, you know, taking actions and that story about it, it's a tall order where you are asking them to believe that they're having this otherworldly experience. And I think there are ways of kind of losing people emotionally, when you don't have the right behavior that's kind of baked into the game, or like the fundamental sort of interaction that you have with the game and each other, that doesn't match the story you're telling. So we were striving to find a mechanic that would do that, like subject matter justice. There are many, you know, more generic story game mechanics, where you just have people collaboratively tell that story. In Xenolanguage, there's a physical board that is almost like this alien artifact that you're around that tries to be an immersive element for people, but you could imagine a game that actually is just a bunch of rules where, you're playing cards talking together. And we felt like that would lose something fundamentally from like the immersiveness of the experience. We looked at other sort of interpretive games, like there's an interpretive elements for this, that we really wanted, where different people could take away different meanings from what they saw. And so thinking about just other forms of interpretation that people find, like, Rorschach drawings, or Tarot is another one. But the physicality of channeling, like the the connection to co-creation together -- you're all touching this planchette that that is moving over these alien symbols together. And making decisions collectively about where it goes just felt like a kind of a beautiful marriage of a bunch of things we're excited about.
I love that. So first step is come up with an idea that you feel like you're the right person or team to bring into the world that you believe in, and then figure out the mechanic that works. Then what's next?
Play tests, so many play tests, and different studios will have different appetites for how much they do this, we do this to ad nauseum. We'll have an idea, and because games are interactive, you'll think that you know, what exactly is this beautiful masterpiece of how it all goes together. Then you'll put it in front of people and be humbled, so you embrace that humbling, and you learn [from it] each time. There's a whole art and science in learning how to ask the right questions of people when they are playtesting because they come into the experience as players. What you can take away and learn and iterate [is important so that you can] then rinse and repeat and do it again until you finally have a design that you feel is well baked and doing what you want it to do. And then you knock on the door to the world and invite them in to play.
Yeah, I imagined the play testing stage can be kind of difficult, because you've created this thing, and other people are saying hopefully not bad things about it. Hopefully, they're constructive, but they're doing a lot of feedback. Do you have any tips on how to stay resilient through that? How do you deal with people saying that you need to change your brain baby?
Oh, my gosh, yeah, there are support networks for you know, creative game designers that go through the heartache of what it is to have an idea that you thought was what it was, and then you know, put it out in the world and then have it get picked apart. It's hard, but it's also just like a fundamental part of the process. Like you can't really make a good game, unless you give it to people because fundamentally, what you're asking to do is to have people interact with it. And when it's a game that is trying to create an experience for other people, that isn't something that you can be the ultimate owner of. That fundamentally takes other peoples' experience with it, and I'm telling you what it was and their truth in order to reckon that. It is hard. It is emotional, and it still is hard after having done it for so long. And so many times but, you know, you do get sort of an element of separation in just the mechanics of doing it because it feels like it's just part of the process after a while. And it has to be similar. I'm sure in being a working scientist, right. You put all these ideas out in the world. How's that for you? I'm really curious.
I often tell this story of some research project in grad school where I thought I had made a really cool discovery about something out in space, and my advisor had to reel me in and then I spent like two or three months reaching out to other scientists basically asking them to prove me wrong. So that I could, you know, be confident in the rigor of what I was putting out into the world and I loved how you said, you know, just recognize that it's part of the process and remove it from it being any sort of statement about you as a person,that's just how it works. But you know, for a young little, like second year grad student me, that was a really tough blow.
But then you know, you get on the other side and you are stronger because of it. I do.
Yeah, absolutely. And it gets easier every time you go through the process again, so by my third research project, it was much easier and hopefully by your third game now, it's easier.
There are a couple of your games in Sign and Xenolanguage where you play as characters that come written into the game. So in Sign, you play as these schoolchildren characters and in Xenolanguage, you play as the scientists characters, how do you choose what characters to build into the game? I'm especially interested in the Xenolanguage characters because I noticed there's a linguist, a biologist, a psychologist and an ecologist. There's no astrophysicist.
Oh, I'm so sorry to leave you out.
It's okay. We didn't know each other. It's totally fine. But like, no shade, absolutely, but how did you choose?
It's really different for different games. With Sign, that's a game where you know, you have almost a pre written character that has a backstory that is something that you know, and that you're able to explore and use as fodder for what is this language that you're co-creating. Your information and backstory will come out and play, and any twist that you want to put onto that is up to you. And there's space that's made for it, but you're given a more definite sort of person. And in choosing how that's represented, it's sort of as a balance of what are different possible stories and elements that we wanted to bring into that game. [These are] in part inspired by some of the folks that we're actually part of the living of it. For Xenolanguage, part of the reason why the roles on the game are what they are, is that actually the most important thing in who you are in the game is your relationships with other people, rather than your particular role on the mission. [That] in part [is so that] you don't need to feel like an imposter if you aren't a mathematician, or a linguist or any of these things because what's most important about this game is the story that you're telling of the connections you have with other people and how those change in light of going through a huge experience together [through] first contact. It isn't a game where you get to deeply roleplay the life of being at a physics board or a chalkboard although, some people will choose to take it there if they want to, if that's their form of fun. It is a game where the fundamental bit of the character that you are [depends on] how you relate to others, and so some of the more definite things that we offer people when they decide who they want to be in the game is actually deciding, what are the kind of relationships that they want to play into? So maybe someone else on the mission was your advisor, and you always looked up to them, but then they did something that made you really question their motives; and that's always been hanging between the two of you for a while now. But now you're both on this mission - you have background together, you're going through this incredible experience together, where you're also sort of representatives of humanity. But there is this complicated relationship that also you will explore as a part of it. Maybe your twin is there, and what happens when you know your twin who was always just a little better, or always just a little more up top, or maybe failed out of medical school, but still, like, you know, ended up being here. What does that mean? And how do you process that together?
And those relationships are things that the players make up when the game starts?
That's really cool. I like that a lot. When you play Xenolanguage, do you typically play as the linguist?
I often don't just because it's a little too close to home. People love playing close to home, I don't. I like playing a little farther from home.
That makes sense. I don't really watch any sci-fi because so much of it has to do with space and it feels like work to watch it.
So I know how you feel.
That is a whole other world that I totally get you there. Yeah, it's amazing when you love something and then it becomes a vocation and passion, but you've got to turn it off at some point. You have to find that healthy separation and when it creeps into your media, or your pastime, [you've] got to make little space.
Yes, absolutely. Speaking of one of the things I always ask my guests that I didn't ask you at the beginning was what fictional worlds are you inhabiting these days?
Whoo. I read Dune at the beginning of the pandemic, but actually I should say the world that I did not expect to inhabit, but that I fell down [is] a series [I reread] called The Animorphs.
Yes. I'm so glad you know what this is. I'm sure like millions of readers who also maybe are about our age also, you know, read these when they were in like, middle school.
I remember flipping through to see -
The little marker?
Exactly. Oh, my God, I love it. Are they good?
So yes, asterisk: there are things about them that are amazing. And then there are things about them that are hokey and inconsistent, and very bad, and that is a fundamental tension that you find there. What I found, for whatever reason, in the course of the year that was 2020, is that it was just a moment where I decided to reread one, and then I couldn't stop. It became a project after a while to really figure out what that world was. This is a world of kids fighting a parasitic alien invader, and then discovering sort of a broader world of aliens and how they play into it, but it's really [just] children being on the front lines. There's a lot of nuance really, [and the] series was able to tackle [it] in a way that felt really true and raw, and also very honest, in its discussion with kids about how the world worked in a way that wasn't talking down or infantilizing that I really appreciate on a reread, but it was pretty intense.- 64 books.
I remember there being a lot of them. I was gonna ask - 64. Also, there are so many books, series, whatever about kids doing really adult things like saving the world is a really adult thing. And I remember just all of the books that I read, when I was that age were like 12 year olds doing all of these epic things. [This] really gave me false expectations [about] how epic my life was gonna be in middle school. We should, as a society, think about that. What messages are we sending to these kids about what they're gonna be doing with their time, but okay. I'm Kathryn, this has been so much fun. Thank you for telling me about your games and your process for creating them. When the listeners want to learn more about you and what you're up to, how can they do that?
They can find us in our games at thornygames.com, and we're on Instagram, typically just @thornygames, and sometimes I'm on Twitter as right now [@katehymes]. It was so lovely talking to you, too, like a great morning of worldbuilding and story sharing.
Yeah, this was so much fun. Oh, one last question is Xenolanguage out yet? Can people buy it?
They can preorder it very soon. It was kickstarted, and it'll be available at the end of the year.
Awesome. Then the links to the Dialect and Sign and the link to pre order Xenolanguage will be in the show notes, so people can check that out. I will definitely be checking that out. Awesome. Thanks so much again, Kathryn. That's a wrap.
This episode of Exolore was edited by Mischa Stanton, the cover art is by Steven J. Reisig. The transcript is by Iesir Moss, and the music is from purple-planet.com. Exolore is a member of Multitude Productions, an independent podcast collective and production studio. I highly recommend checking out the other Multitude shows. All you have to do is type "Multitude" into the search bar of your favorite podcast app. If you want to support me and my worldbuilding work, the first way to do that is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It's free, you don't need any sort of Apple device and it really does make a difference and helps the show grow. Second, you can support me on Patreon. Your monthly support would make it possible for me to continue working on this passion project of mine. So if you're able, please head on over to patreon.com/exolorepod, again that's patreon.com/exolorepod. If you can, be sure to follow Exolore on Twitter or Instagram @Exolorepod and if you like this episode, share it with your friends and subscribe to the show because that way you can catch me next time on another world.