Road to the IGF: Khan, Meekel, Flusk, and Meekel's after HOURS
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
after HOURS has players sharing a tiny space with Lilith, a young woman suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) due to childhood molestation. Through sharing her space and thoughts, players will get to witness the break between the objective reality and the hurtful realities the disorder creates.
Gamasutra sat down with Bahiyya Khan, designer of the Best Student Game-nominated after HOURS, to talk about using discomfort and pressure to draw out empathy and understanding, using FMV and animation to recreate the dual realities of BPD, and the challenges of exploring (and reliving) difficult topics like molestation.
Who is Bahiyya Khan?
Existentially? Who can say? Some things that I do know is that my name is Bahiyya Khan and I’m the game designer and writer for after HOURS. I play Lilith, the protagonist in the game, and since it’s a full motion video game, I co-directed it. I also provided my own teenage poetry for the game, which is very cool to me.
Breaking from what games "should" be
When I was in my final year of high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I mean, I knew I wanted to be in a band and write, but I have brown parents so hahaha yeah. I ended up studying game design at university because I figured I could make games about being in a band.
I only *really* started making games three years into my four-year degree. I mean, I made games for school, but I was so unhappy in my degree for the first two years that I just didn’t give a shit about what I was making. Half the time my best friend was carrying me through my degree cause I was just so sad and felt like an outcast. Once I stopped caring about all the things that everyone told me a game “should” be, that’s when I began making games that I cared about and actually had fun doing it.
Using rage to help others
I had to make a year-long game for my honors project at varsity. A year is a long time, so I knew that I wanted to make something important. Unfortunately, at the time, there was a rise in violence against women and children in South Africa. Friends and family I’d known my whole life had also come out to me about being raped or molested. I’ve also experienced a disgusting amount of sexual assault and fuck man, I was fucking furious about it all. That’s when I decided to make my honors game about it. I wanted to direct my rage into something that could potentially help people.
In terms of the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) aspect, I have it and it is my desire to kick its arse in the pit. A lot of people that have BPD have been sexually abused in childhood or just have had unstable childhoods, so it made sense to me to show that Lilith has developed this disorder because she was abused. I was also so sick of people with BPD being demonized, whether by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or just experiences I had in my own life.
So, I wanted to show that we’re not evil people. We’re hurting and trying our best and we read "Catch 22" a lot and like The Front Bottoms enough to stick their lyrics on our bedroom walls.
The tools to create after HOURS
Initially, I prototyped the game in Twine. I did that to kind of guide the way I wanted the game to flow. I also mapped out the game on paper. I just drew out how I wanted the bedroom to look and what I wanted players to be able to interact with. The game was then filmed using a Sony a7s ii camera and #MadeWithUnity.
Very importantly, we also used our hands and brains and hearts. Lest the general public forget that video games are made by people.
On choosing to explore the challenging topics of after HOURS
I’m a woman that lives in South Africa. We have one of the highest rape rates in the world. I needed to talk about it. I wanted survivors and people with BPD to feel less alone. To not feel like they’re insane for feeling the emotions that they do. That they are valid and are more than what has happened to them or their illness.
The difficulties of developing a game about heart-wrenching topics
A lot of the development process was the worst! Wow, it was really bad. So, in the beginning, I was working in Twine, whatever, that wasn’t too emotionally taxing 'cos I’d just sort of done vague plot points. When I had to get into the character of Lilith, that’s when things started getting bad. I have BPD, so a lot of Lilith’s reactions are very close to my own, and performing something on camera that I hate going through in my actual life was really weird and uncomfortable.
The molestation aspect of the game ruined me. It actually ruined my life and I’m still trying to recover from it. Immersing yourself in content like that for concentrated periods of time… I just couldn’t stop thinking about how ugly it is that it exists. I was losing my mind trying to come up with solutions to end all the pain for people. I couldn’t live with the knowledge that I had. I became obsessed with reading articles about children that had been molested because I felt like I wanted these kids to not just be another statistic but for someone out there to know their names. All the scenes in the game where I’m crying and tearing down my room, I really was that angry.
Sometimes I’d be unable to do my bit of work on the game because I was so depressed and that would, in turn, set everyone back and just make the whole process really pressurized and awful and it was a really bad cycle.
Leaving the player with no room to relax
My intention wasn’t for the player to passively consume her story. I knew that I wanted them to play the game with bated breath and give them no room to relax - to sort of mirror some of what Lilith goes through. I wanted them to have access to the voices in her head so that they could contrast that against what was “objectively” happening and think about the dissonance in Lilith’s reality and how scary it is not being able to trust your perception of things.
I wanted players to interact with her thought processes when sending texts to her boyfriend or friend and then not give them agency in choosing certain options to show them how often Borderline people feel like they have no agency in their lives, and are being dragged by the hair by the evil bastard in their brains.
Using FMV & hand-drawn animations to create a split reality
I’m pop-punk trash and watch a lot of music videos, and one of my favorite bands, All Time Low (pls notice me), released this music video for their song Nice2KnoU which combined hand-drawn animations over film, and I thought that looked dope as hell. Then I was like, “Shit! This will be perfect for after HOURS!” because the way I feel as a person with Borderline is that a lot of the time, the reality that I experience is different to everyone else’s. It’s a more wounded and intense reality. That’s when I decided to use animation in the game to show that sort of split in reality – what is objectively going on and what is going on for Lilith.
I feel like I often inhabit a different reality as opposed to everyone else, and while this is true for all human beings, I feel like mine is different in a much more intense way. I thought adding the animations were a useful tool in depicting this. They also help with letting the players know when Lilith is triggered by something or experiencing a particularly strong emotion by the repeated trope of her eyes being scratched out or an animated snake going into her head and symbolically poisoning her mind.
Drawing out empathy with after HOURS
I want to make people uncomfortable. I feel like a lot of the time, people watch their friends or whoever experiencing depression in a rather passive way. They don’t see who you are when you’re alone. They can’t see into your mind or see what you see. And while no one can ever really inhabit your reality and experience your depression or what it’s like to be molested, I want players to get as close as they could to empathizing with those realities in a 20-minute video game.