Anna Anthropy has always aimed to challenge the status quo with her games, but Dys4ia, a collection of mini-games that tell the story of undergoing the hormone therapy process as a trans woman, feels more intimate than much of her previous work.
Not only does it aim to communicate the sense of vulnerability in one's own body and the life challenges that seem to go hand in hand with the process, but it also illustrates some of the systemic prejudices and social behavior of others that create additional challenges. In that regard it's Anthropy's personal story, but it also has something to teach others.
The game's been nominated both for the Excellence in Narrative and Nuovo categories at this year's Independent game festival. Continuing our Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees, we catch up with Anthropy about Dys4ia.
What's your background in making games?
I started making games because i was sick of playing straight dudes' fantasies about killing / fucking aliens and rescuing / fucking / killing women. When i started making videogames, they were really alienating to me - there was no Twine, there were very few other queer people making games. I figured if I wanted to see more queer games, I would have to make them myself.
What development tools did you use?
At the start, Blitz Basic, which was programming so I wasn't very comfortable with it, then Game Maker, which became like programming so I became uncomfortable with it, then Actionscript which was definitely programming so I was uncomfortable with it the entire time, and now I mostly use Twine, which is really nothing like programming, so I'm comfortable with it.
How long did it take to make Dys4ia?
Say six months, off and on. I would make one part of it, then I'd set it aside for a while to work on something else, like KEEP ME OCCUPIED. Then I'd come back to it, and I'd know what the next part of the game would look like, because time had passed, and I'd found new things to be frustrated at.
You often encourage the use of game-making to convey personal experiences, and Dys4ia is one of yours -- how did you decide on the game's format?
My partner claims she's the one who suggested I make something WarioWare-like (Anthropy's partner, Daphny, says the game was "hella [her] idea", and that she actually said, "Ma'am, make a WarioWare game about hormones").
There were so many different experiences and frustrations I wanted to communicate, it made sense for the game to always be shifting. The constant changes also fit what was going on with my body at the time.
Aesthetically there is something quite gentle about the game -- friendly colors, touching language. To an extent you often are attracted to an arcade-style visual aesthetic, but what can you share about your stylistic choices here?
There's a lot of existing game vocabulary i'm piggybacking on in Dys4ia. Trying to fit a weird shape into a weird-shaped hole is classic videogame behavior - it's Tetris, it's a thousand other games. It makes the player anxious when she's unable to do it. I made the game colorful because I'm sick of brown games.
What do you hope the game's audience will take away from playing?
A sense of not just what trans people often have to go through, but that it's institutionalized. One of my partners has taught Dys4ia in a classroom, and that's what she's identified as being valuable about the game: that it communicates that these frustrations aren't isolated encounters, but fit into systems of oppression that trans people struggle with every day. That's the most important thing I think I can teach people who aren't trans.
Have you played other IGF finalists? Any you've particularly enjoyed?
When my partner broke her arm at IndieCade in October, it was Richard Hofmeier and his partner Jenny who drove us to the emergency room and stayed with us until three in the morning. But I still haven't played Cart Life yet.
Jake Elliot put me up when I was in Chicago for my book tour. I have played Kentucky Route Zero, though. He's good at moments of subtle but powerful emotion. And I've been playing vVesper.5 for six months, off and on. I think I'm approaching the end, but it's hard to tell with that game.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
It sucks. I don't really see the point of distinguishing between big games publishers and "the indie scene" when they're basically the same thing: white dudes with beards making money by endlessly remaking the same game. I'm much more interested in this burgeoning community of outsider game creators that tools like Twine are allowing to exist.