A worker-owned game design co-op
Hi! We’re Soft Chaos, a worker-owned game design cooperative that creates critically-engaged, intimate, vulnerable, and unique interactive experiences. Our work includes experimental videogames, tabletop games, larps, art installations, and interactive performances.
Our co-op focuses on service-based consultancy work for clients. We use that work along with crowdfunding to fund Soft Chaos Originals: experimental creative projects that we have full creative control over. That's also why we're here on Comradery, to be able to make more of our own original pieces.
(This is Part Two of a series on Soft Chaos's latest SCO, an as-of-yet untitled project that you can read a bit more about in Part One, here.)
Games as Gemstones
All summer, we encouraged our workshop students to scope small and polish well. As part of that, we had a guest talk by Droqen, who came to talk to us specifically about small games and their power to communicate moments and ideas to other people. Droqen explained that a tiny game is something that you can share with another person and then talk about immediately, as compared to a big open-world game where you could both play for hours and have entirely different experiences. Among other things, one metaphor that Droqen used that stuck with me is the idea of tiny games as gemstones — small experiences that you can polish and carry with you.
When we were thinking about the structure of this new project, I wanted to make something a bit more bite-sized, where even making a bit of progress on the project could potentially make a big difference to the experience. I also wanted to stretch some of the skills that I don't get to use as often in client work because they're not my specialties. For example, with client work, it's much more expedient (and wise) to have Squinky handle the programming tasks, because they are a trained programmer and will be able to do the job much more quickly (and better!) than me. And lastly, I wanted to make some solo games (again, to stretch my skills and make something according to my tastes and abilities) and some games together with Allison and Squinky.
That's why I suggested that, inspired by Squinky's Second Puberty and Droqen's 31 unmarked games, we should make an album of games!
The cover of Droqen's 31 unmarked games, photo by a pixabay user named Bru-nO
An Album of Games
When I spoke to Squinky and Allison about album games, Squinky said that Second Puberty and their interest in album games was in part inspired by ceMelusine's east van EP. One of the lines in the description of this project is this: "I think videogames, as a concept, should be more like music, so I've decided to pretend they are."
The great thing about music albums is that songs are arranged in a particular order for the listener to enjoy. Oftentimes, songs are positioned on the track list with some thematic resonance or pattern that the artist wants to communicate, but you can also listen to the songs in any order, or just pick out one to listen to on repeat. Songs on an album are in conversation with each other by virtue of having been chosen for the album, and the choice of ordering principle reveals something about how the artist thinks about the songs. Are we being taken through an emotional arc or even an explicit narrative arc? Are the songs grouped by theme or by tempo?
My hope is that, by making an album of short, polished "gemstone" games that explore a single idea, moment, feeling, thought, or experience, we'll be able to create some interesting juxtapositions, particularly around the theme of...
Joy and Dread
When we were discussing themes to help guide our work on this project, I started to reflect on the kinds of emotions that were coming up for me. As we spoke together, the twin themes of joy and dread emerged.
The world can be incredibly demoralizing and scary right now. [...] Let's pretend that in that ellipsis, I listed all of the many, many ways that the world is demoralizing and scary right now. I think you probably know at least some of the things that I would say. Fill in some of what you'd say is scary.
At the same time, moments of joy that may seem small in comparison to all of the capital D Dread. That joy is so, so important, but it's also not uncomplicated. Allowing ourselves joy can be a fortifying act of resistance that helps us be resilient, but in some cases, it also comes with guilt and worry. Are we allowed to feel joy when there is so much pain?
Obviously, my opinion is yes, but it might not feel that way.
When we were talking, Allison described an image that struck me and that I haven't been able to get out of my head. Over the summer, Allison booked cabins in nearby Quebec cottage country to prepare for her wedding next year. Almost as soon as she booked them, Quebec was on fire in a way that it has rarely been. She described picturing her wedding next year — her and her fiancée getting married at a beautiful lake while the forest burned behind them.
And in many ways, that's what life under late capitalism during a climate crisis feels like, as both of those interrelated crises magnify instability and inequality across the planet. (Whoops, I guess this is part of what would go into that ellipsis, huh?)
But resisting and making lasting change is a marathon...or maybe a relay race? We need to stop and take breaks. Rest and leisure are human rights for a reason. They have intrinsic value, and so does joy for its own sake. But they also help us continue on.
So, these are some of the thoughts that I'm bringing into this new project with Allison and Squinky. Stay tuned for Part Three from Squinky in a few weeks!
[Jess is posting this on behalf of Allison, who wrote it!]
Hello everyone, Allison here!
I’m going to begin with some updates, because it’s been a while. This summer, Soft Chaos was busier than it's ever been– with all three of us working well beyond our capacity. This led to burnout and some needed time off and away to recover. The work we did was challenging but rewarding. It helped us reach an important milestone: the cooperative has been able to pay out a (small) but stable salary relatively consistently for the first time since founding. We’ve learned a lot of lessons about how we can run the cooperative from a workload and a financial perspective.
Maybe we’ll share some blogs about that as we go but that’s not what I’m here to tell you about. I’m here to tell you about our newest creative project! Each member of Soft Chaos will be taking a turn telling you about this project, and what excites them the most. I get to go first and the part I’m most excited about starts with an old idea from years ago and a trip to LA…
We had been working on a Soft Chaos Original (SCO) for a while now: a multiplayer time travel escape room about change and nostalgia. This project had ended up falling into a bit of a rut, but we hadn’t figured out what to do about it quite yet. This was where we were when we took our recovery break from the cooperative. At the end of that break, I was lucky enough to see The Nest, an immersive narrative experience that played with some of the affordances of escape rooms. Soft Chaos had actually proposed something like this a year or two ago, called “In My Room”-- a story about discovering and learning to celebrate queerness. We had gotten a small grant to develop it, but weren’t able to accept.
I really am proud of the concept work that we did, and the story we intended to share. We never really figured out the time or place to make this escape room happen but the idea had always stuck with me. There was something there, hidden in the affordances of escape rooms, that I knew could be special. The Nest really rekindled that excitement. I won’t say too much about it (and if you are ever in LA you need to witness The Nest for yourself) but experiencing someone achieve what I knew was possible (an extremely emotionally resonant story within an escape-room-ish space) brought back my passion for doing something similar. And I brought that passion to Soft Chaos upon my return.
What happened next is exemplary of what Soft Chaos excels at: taking the things that we are excited about as individuals and combining them into a project we are all passionate about as a group. I wanted to do this large-scale physical escape room-y installation. Jess wanted something small and achievable that would start the ball rolling after our break and stalling on the last project. Squinky wanted to work in the digital space this time, as almost all of our SCOs up to this point have been non digital.
Maybe it seems like this would be a contradiction: a digital small achievable game that was also a giant non-digital installation? But together we came to the concept of the physical escape room: audience members would be exploring an old abandoned magical realism arcade, full of small video games that help tell the story we want. In video games, you get audio logs. In real life, you get video game logs!
The themes of these games, and the story we’re trying to tell is also really important and meaningful to us as queer people who exist in the world at this moment, but I think it would be best to save that for a part 2. Thank you for your support, and staying with us on this journey!
Hello, lovely humans!
Soft Chaos is still chaotically busy with our summer work, which is why things have been quiet here. It's been just about a month since you last heard from us with a thank you for your continued support.
In our absence, please enjoy a free copy of QUEER SLEEPOVER WITCHING HOUR!
There are those moments at a sleepover, just before everyone drifts off to sleep, when one’s filters are at their most permissive and those last, weird, sincere conversations of the night begin, where almost anything is fair-game.
Who can even remember what was said the next day?
Take care and have a great summer!
Hello to all of our lovely Soft Chaos followers.
We have been doing a lot of work this summer to help develop an accesible curriculum for teaching game design and employment skills to autistic youth. While it has been incredibly rewarding, it has also been incredibly exhausting in a plethora of ways. We haven't had the time to work on our own artistic practises or write about process in the ways we've wanted to.
We still want to thank you all for your support while still being mindful of our capacity, so over the course of this teaching contract we will make one of our games free every month this summer.
This month, we have chosen Memories of Gods
Memories of Gods is a game to be played while falling asleep with someone you want to spend intimate time with.
You are gods, remembering how you created the world in each others image.
The game asks you to think about the ways in which the person/people you are going to play with or you yourself are reflected in the world around you. What does your heartbeat sound like on the scale of a god? What does your partner's smile look like? What do their orgasms feel like?
You then tell the stories of how you created the world together, before you once again tire and fall back asleep.
From now until mid July, it has been made free for everyone.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I went to a panel discussion about accessible design.
The most eye-opening question for me was how the panelists got into accessibility design. Not one of them identified their own disabilities as a reason. My personal favorite answer was when one panelist said that Section 508 (a US law that requires federal agencies to ensure that their information is accessible to certain standards) gave them their start. While each person espoused the need for input from the populations they were trying to serve, none seemed to have folks with disabilities on their team.
When I commented on this to my fiancée, she simply stated, “I mean, of course. That’s just the state of the tech world. We have to try to make our products accessible, but the workplace to create them definitely isn’t.” And that really stuck with me.
I’ve recently started negotiating my own relationship with calling myself disabled. This is my first time writing about it explicitly and publically or really expressing this outside of a close group of trusted friends. I’m still not sure where I am on my journey, but every day I identify more and more with the word.
If you’ve read all of our posts, you can see that this is a major theme of my writing for the last year+, even though I didn’t realize it. (On learning how to accept my capacity, When You’re Not Proud of Your Work, IM SICK ICK BOO BLECH). I’ve always had ADHD. I’ve burnt out at many jobs and struggled to be able to function until I found situations that didn’t require a “normal” 9-5 (though for real, who actually works well at a 9-5?). I didn’t really start feeling like I had earned using words like disabled until it really genuinely interfered with my ability to have a fulfilling life and (more importantly of course /s) my ability to Capitalism™.
I’ve more recently developed chronic pain that ebbs and wanes. At its worst, it means that I can’t walk more than a half block without being in enough pain to need to stop. I’ve become fatigued in ways I have never felt before and need much more sleep. Gone are the days of “It's no problem, I can do everything because I only need to sleep for 6 hours”. I have to meticulously plan every outing to avoid extreme anxiety (what if I am suddenly overwhelmed by excruciating pain and don’t know where the nearest bench is?!). This is the context for where my mind is at when I think back to experiences like that panel and also when I get to work with people who understand true accessibility.
Soft Chaos is currently working with an educational organization to develop and deliver a curriculum for autistic youth with folks who truly understand what accessible design is. I could talk at length about how they are designing the courses in amazingly accessible ways for the students, but the thing that I really want to celebrate is how they (and we) are designing a space that is accessible for *us* as researchers, designers, and educators.
The work environment where this class is being created is accessible. The people creating the curriculum are accommodated in the same ways as those receiving the curriculum, which ultimately is going to lead to a much more inclusive and diverse end result. We get to model neurodiverse reactions, strategies, and self-care. We get to teach about boundaries and burnout. We get to let students see that we have disabilities and demonstrate how we have learned to manage them in a society that often asks that you appear perfectly able-bodied and neurotypical (however that best presents to the Capitalism Gods), whether you are or not. This experience has been a lot of things: it has been hard work, tiring, and challenging. But it has also been freeing in a way I wish everyone could experience.
What would game dev look like if every time we added an accessibility feature to a game, we also had to look at our own teams and see if they are accessible in the same way we want our games to be? It would be hard work, tiring, and challenging, just like what we're doing now. But it would also be so much better for so many people. Having your needs met as a matter of standard practice instead of needing to constantly fight to find ways around the inaccessible can be life-changing. I want that not just for myself, but for everyone.
Sometime earlier this year, I quietly locked my main Twitter account, the one I've had since 2009 and always kept public, and nobody noticed. It's not like anyone's missing much: I post very rarely these days, usually to retweet cool things that Soft Chaos has been up to. Social media in general feels like so much more work than it did when I was younger, and has become so much less usable and way more hostile, to the point that the thought of having to keep up with any of it makes me so tired. And no, it's not just because of a particular billionaire buying out and mismanaging a particular platform; for me, it's been much deeper and much more gradual than that. Migrate to Mastodon? Didn't we already do that like 6 years ago? Sure, alternatives to corporate social media sound cool at first, but eventually, they all end up feeling like just another website to check and keep track of until I can't justify bothering anymore.
I remember when I used to enjoy posting my thoughts and feelings online, especially on Twitter, where the then-140 character limit felt like a fun challenge in constrained writing. It felt good when people seemed to like what I had to say, and found me funny and relatable. Sometimes, I even made real friends. But after a while, I don't know when exactly, I started to feel like the persona I'd been encouraged to develop online wasn't who I really wanted to be as a human being. I felt incentivized to be publicly angry at everything, and while there is for sure a lot going on in the world that is important to get angry about, writing sarcastic tweets did little other than make me more irritable.
There was also the growing, looming fear of going viral and becoming too popular. At first, I thought virality would be good for me and my "personal brand" (ugh) and would get more people to play my games. But then, I witnessed friends and online acquaintances getting their lives ruined by mass harassment campaigns, which quickly convinced me that "there's no such thing as bad publicity" was a lie. And in the wake of one such harassment campaign, I did in fact compose a tweet that went viral, and it wasn't even all that good. It didn't make more people pay attention to any of the work I was actually proud of, or improve my material conditions in any meaningful way. All it did was flood my mentions with complete strangers who wanted to tell me why I was wrong and stupid, and while it was only a tiny fraction of what I saw others experience, it was unpleasant enough that I didn't want to go through anything like that ever again.
That happened years ago, and my relationship with social media has steadily declined ever since. Twitter went from being fun to being a professional obligation, until it became apparent that it wasn't even beneficial for that either anymore. Other platforms started turning into Snapchats and TikToks, their user experiences becoming so fast and so confusing to me that I couldn't keep up and started complaining about being too old for the internet. In the end, I just gradually stopped posting as frequently, and stopped reading as much, too. It just wasn't making me happy, and now more than ever, I want to spend more of my life focusing on things that do.
I recently finished reading the book "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" by Jenny Odell, and it spoke to my exhausted, burnt out soul. There's a lot that goes into discussing what I find so troubling about social media and why (spoiler alert: it's late-stage capitalism!) but also a lot of inspiration for where and how we can direct our attention instead. I was particularly moved by the story of Old Survivor, the last remaining old growth redwood tree in Oakland, which still stands after many centuries because it was "useless": too small and weirdly-shaped to be cut down and used as lumber along with its taller, straighter neighbours.
I admit I've been feeling somewhat useless myself, lately. I often get the sense that my career as a game designer peaked sometime between 2014 and 2015, and it's been a downhill slide into obscurity ever since. I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing, though, so much as a sign that the more I have learned about what it takes to be "successful" as a creative person in a capitalist context, the less I want anything to do with it. Maybe being less of a public figure, and resisting the need to be on social media all the time, is actually helping me survive, too.
Hello lovely humans! Soft Chaos is back from our vacation!
Today, I want to ruminate on some of the gameplay in Dredge and its relationship to time and psychology. I also want to relate my thoughts on design in Dredge back to our current Soft Chaos Original, the as-of-yet-untitled multiplayer digital escape room project. (If you haven't played Dredge yet, I'll do my best to avoid actual discussion about the concrete details of the story, but in discussing the mechanics and themes, it's likely I've included something spoilerish. Caveat lector!)
First, let's talk briefly about escape rooms and time. Escape rooms are usually characterized by a lack of time. Typically, these games impose an hour-long time limit on play to create stressors and limitations for players. This deadline is inflexible. If you don't meet it, you just lose. Time is one of your most precious resources and the lack of it is one of your biggest stressors. (Oh no, too real! Isn't that just life under late capitalism?!)
Now, in our untitled SCO, I doubt that we'll do away with this genre convention, but after playing Dredge, I find myself wondering what lessons we can take away from how it treats time and the emotional resonances of the passage of time.
So, in Dredge, you play a fisherman who, after an accident, has been given a boat by the mayor of a small island town. To repay the town and improve your boat, you have to fish. Your boat is also equipped with a crane and other equipment that allows you to dredge up objects from the deep. You are warned by the villagers that strange things seem to happen on the water to fishermen who stay out past sundown and that you should always make sure to dock somewhere and rest for the night.
My experience went a little like this. I quickly learned that life is fragile. My tiny boat dashed itself on the rocks after I accidentally drove it too close to the shore. I also learned that time passes quickly when you're fishing and dredging up artifacts from the past. With my beginner fishing equipment, engines, and hull, my driving speed and fishing speed were abysmal, and my hold could barely take in a day's catch. Every day, I barely made it home before dark and sold my meagre catch.
But the game slowly encouraged me to transgress. Firstly, I learned that certain species of fish could only be caught at night. Secondly, if I wanted to venture further than my little cove, where bigger fish and better fortunes were to be found, I needed to skirt the rules and be willing to travel at night and spend more time awake. Even before the actual nighttime mechanics kicked in in earnest, I could feel my pulse race as I raced through the night.
Then a paranoid eye opened on the Day/Night wheel. The longer I stayed awake, the more the eye radiated anxiety and fear. And the more anxious it became, the more dangerous the obstacles that appeared grew, too. Strange gusts of winds crossed the water. Rocks materialized out of the night into my path. Iridescent red-green clouds vibrated toward my ship. Another tugboat screamed after me in the night, honking its horn.
All of these dangers were very real. Or...were they?
Common to each area on the map was a wandering merchant on a pontoon. When I came to them with a damaged boat, they told me things like, "Let me guess — a rock appeared out of nowhere and you couldn't avoid it," or "You've just been standing there for a while now. Maybe you should get some rest." These dangers were no less harmful (I know, I crashed my boat), but this merchant introduced just a little element of doubt by suggesting that paranoia and exhaustion were to blame for my accidents on the water rather than supernatural creatures.
That is, in addition to the actual supernatural creatures (giant fish and mutant creatures in my catch, for example) that I could encounter even when I was well-rested during the day. Despite its apparent physical manifestations, exhaustion could still very well be what actually harmed my solo fisherman, causing him to be a danger to himself. In a world where the supernatural exists, why wouldn't the manifestations of an anxious mind also be cut from the same cloth?
As my boat's movement and fishing speed, hull/hold size and ability to take damage increased, so, too, did my daring. I would sometimes stay awake all night to find what I was looking for, then furtively rest during the day until that paranoid eye closed on my dashboard. I faced the night's terrors and survived, minus a wooden plank or two and with the occasional lost fish if I banged the wrong part of the board up against something. After all, I had debts to pay beyond just my sleep debt.
So what could this mean for our Soft Chaos Original escape room game?
Well, so far, we are, in part, playing into themes about whether something is supernatural horror or just late capitalism. Given that duration is a common limiting factor in Escape Rooms, I would love to see us think about how we could change the player's relationship to that time limit, too. Can we empower them in some way to face it?
In some ways, maybe that's already what escape rooms in a group are all about: discovering what resources you have within your group and learning to work together to leverage them. But that isn't what most escape rooms feel like or seem to be encouraging me to feel, especially when they're going wrong. Maybe time limits in escape rooms could be made more flexible in a satisfying way that encourages people to transgress. How can we change the players' relationship to time at a more philosophical level? I'd like to think that there is room for more satisfaction in escape rooms than just managing to complete an often random-feeling set of puzzles and arbitrary-feeling answers within a time limit with a themed window-dressing stuck on.
There must be.
This last month has been a wild ride. Allison got engaged and is moving, Squinky's been sick, and Jess has been traveling Japan! In honor of that last thing, we made this beautiful Sanrio avatar banner to announce our March vacation.
…sadly in all the chaos I (Allison) forgot to post it.
That being said: know that we haven’t forgotten about you, our lovely comrades, and we look forward to getting our next post written and out to you in April!
Allison here. Today I wanted to talk about what it’s like for me to be working on the kinds of projects Soft Chaos has excelled at: helping people who have no experience making games design their own games. This post will come from my perspective as a systems designer, so please keep that in mind. I’ll discuss trying to help increase literacy in the area I love the most: systems.
As we’ve continued to grow, Soft Chaos has more and more found ourselves in a niche of work that we really like: guiding the design of not-for-profits who want to use the medium of games to engage audiences in topics that are important to them. People see games and understand that they have great potential to teach, but aren’t always sure how to approach them or even exactly how to unlock the potential. We help them learn that!
What I’ve found is that many people are natural storytellers. When they come to us they know what they want to say, and they have tools they understand for presenting this information. Sometimes they come with scripts, storyboards, or sketches. They know the characters they want to see, or the lines of dialogue they want the player to hear. What folks don’t often come to us with is an idea of the systems they want put in place to make it all happen. This is one of the things that I find really exciting about our projects: introducing new people to systems and procedural literacy.
When I teach game design, I always start with a simple activity: modding a game of war. We look at the game itself and ask some mechanical questions:
But we also look at the game and ask what the system says as a metaphor. Because the game is called “War”, that informs what the metaphor is. So we ask questions like:
Our work with clients is very similar to this exercise. We ask a lot of the same questions, be it about information poverty or vaccine hesitancy:
1) What are you trying to say?
2) How are you saying it?
3) How can we uniquely leverage the unique affordance of games to make that happen?
With these questions always in mind, we bring the groups we work with tools to tell the stories they want with game systems uniquely suited to those stories.
And this is what Soft Chaos continues to pride itself on: instead of fitting messages into games, we build games to carry messages. It is really gratifying to be able to help people better communicate their ideas in a meaningful way in a medium that we love.
Back in October, Jess posted about our newest Soft Chaos Original, which is an as-of-yet still untitled digital escape room project. It is now February (what? how did that happen???) and we've been continuing to have design brainstorm meetings for this project about every two weeks, which is a pace that feels comfortable enough that we can fit in more pressing client work and other obligations.
Indeed, a lot has happened since Day One of the project! For starters, we've scrapped the original "In My Room" concept entirely (and those sweet, sweet moodboards... maybe those cool art styles will return in a future project, though!) and decided to go in a completely different thematic direction. We've found ourselves captivated by the idea of the escape room taking place on a road trip, specifically set in the Canadian prairies (where both Allison and I spent significant portions of our childhoods), and themed around coming home to a place that, as time passes, feels less and less like home, both because it has changed and you have also changed. We are very much still at the initial brainstorm phase of things, and there's still a lot that's subject to change and needs time to solidify, but so far, we're enjoying how everything is taking shape.
During one of our most recent meetings, we decided to do some freewriting exercises on the following prompts: When was the first time you saw a building demolished? What's the oldest building you remember that's still around? When was the first time you lost a sense of mystery/wonder? Here are some particularly good bits of writing to have come out of that:
"When I was younger my mother would drive by these blocks and blocks of strip malls by the library, and say 'These used to be fields – full of plants and trees. We used to play here.' I grew up on the opposite side of the same city surrounded by green space. When I went back to visit recently, all of those fields had also been replaced with malls and movie theaters – the exact same experience 30 years later." – Allison
"My sense of the past is filtered through the stories that my parents have told me and the visible artefacts that used to exist in the neighbourhoods that they inhabited (which were just next door to ours). They've lived within 5 or so kilometers their whole lives.
The fact that those neighbourhoods were next door but not in the exact same neighbourhood as me meant that they felt sort of timeless. I could imagine the past co-existing with the present. Old factories stood empty for forty, fifty years, sometimes more. Old breweries. Old silos. I remember stopping to photograph a tree growing on the second floor of a derelict brewery, its smoke stack still standing proudly.
It's condos now. It's all condos, all the way down. The hat and mitten factory, the brewery, the silos..." – Jess
I myself remembered an old blog I was fascinated with years ago chronicling buildings that used to be Pizza Huts. I had to stop myself from wasting too much time scrolling through and re-reading it just now, but it's still quite fascinating, at least to me.
On a tangential note, a theme that kept coming up in many of our conversations about escape room design was how real life bureaucracy feels like badly-designed puzzles: think of every time you have to use 2-factor authentication, or find the door code to get into a building, or read a car manual, or do your taxes. One time, after helping Allison move into her current apartment, we had so much trouble figuring out how to return the U-Haul afterwards that we kept making jokes about being in an escape room. Now, it's become somewhat of a running gag every time we have to do anything requiring a series of overly convoluted steps... which, I must say, is annoyingly often, especially when you're attempting to run a sustainable business under late-stage capitalism.
Finally, I thought I'd mention the song "Plastic Jesus", because when we first decided to make this a road trip game, we thought it would be fun to include a literal plastic Jesus on the dashboard of the player's car and also record our own cover of the song. We'll see if this idea actually makes it into the final game or not, but here it is for posterity.
And that's all I shall tease for now – until next time!
This January marks my TENTH YEAR making games. For this week's Soft Chaos post, I thought I'd do a little bit of reflecting on that anniversary and on a special project that is making my marking ten years of making games especially meaningful.
So, when I started to make games in 2013, I was actually already doing a bit of the autoethnography work that would later mark my doctoral research. Working as a student journalist for a university games lab (TAG), I had decided to do a series of posts about my experience following along with the Pixelles Montreal Incubator, which was being run for the first time. It was a six-week-long program for people who had never made a game before and the goal was to make a small, complete game.
At the same time that I was doing the first week of the incubator, the lab director suggested that I cover Global Game Jam. I intended to go there as a fly on the wall, but when all was said and done, I had joined a team and made my first game before finishing the first game that I had started as part of the incubator.
From there, I was lucky enough to live in a city where there was always (at the time), a next opportunity to make games. I took one of my most formative game design classes with Pippin Barr, took part in the Critical Hit games incubator, and then kept doing more game jams.
Somehow, three years later, I had already had a successful (by my standards) alt-controller game that I had made with Allison Cole and Zara Smith that toured at E3, IndieCade and various other events, and had started an interdisciplinary doctorate with a focus on game making that allowed me to make whatever games I wanted. Five years after that, I founded a worker cooperative with Allison and Squinky while completing that doctorate.
I've spent a lot of the past decade trying to share meaningful experiences with people, as a designer, writer, maker, facilitator, incubator co-director, game event organizer, teacher, playtester, game master and player. I've also spent a lot of time trying to capture what those experiences were like for me and others so that I could communicate them to others.
Since I started making games, I've completed (with various definitions of "complete" 😀) over forty-five projects of different scales and contributed to a fair few others, some of them over the course of a weekend, and some of them in development for years, going through many iterations.
I'm using numbers to try and quantify what it all adds up to here because there are hundreds of stories that I could be telling you about what it's like to watch someone play something that you've made, or how many times a game's title has come out of quiet, tired giggling at Global Game Jam, or what it's like to have one of your own games make you cry.
Frankly, I'm just incredibly moved and humbled that I get to keep making games that mean something to me, with the hope that they mean something to other people, too. I love making awkward, intimate, vulnerable projects.
So, how does this fit in with one of Soft Chaos's current projects and why is this project in particular so special to me?
Well, Pixelles Montreal turns ten years old this month, too, and we're helping to create an interactive data visualization game to help people navigate ten years of stories and information that show what kind of ripple effect an organization like theirs can have, both locally and internationally!
So, there really is a sense of coming full circle. The first game that I started was for the Pixelles Incubator Follow-Along project, and now I get to help them make an awesome project that represents what they and the community have accomplished together. It feels like the perfect project to be working on during my game-making anniversary.
I won't say much more until things are a little further along, but I will share some mood boards and touchstones.
Note: I thought it would be funny to keep the placeholder title from the draft of this post, and honestly couldn't think of a better one so please enjoy.
Hello everyone! Allison here once again. Something you’ll notice about these posts is that they frequently end up being about how we are gaslit by capitalism. What you may not know is that often we start out with other intentions. This week’s post was supposed to be about the tiers we’re working on, and how we plan to revamp them to be more sustainable for us as creators. Instead, once again, you will be getting a personal account of how capitalism has invaded my self perception and how I am just starting to overcome it.
Today's Capitalism(™) of choice is in regards to my perception of my own body and health, which is a recurring theme. Content warning here for discussion of internalized ableism.
So a bit of background on me: I come from a centrist white upper middle class family. Close your eyes and picture the most stereotypical version of this that you can, and that probably looks very close to my family. My mother was a teacher and my father was a pilot who for the first thirty years of employment never called in sick for a single day. This was a point of pride, and one that I deeply internalized.
I’ve known some of the ways this has impacted me, and try to mitigate them. I have always seen myself as exceptionally healthy and resilient. Believed I get sick a lot less than the average person. But this week I woke up with an eye infection. I planned to take no breaks from as much of my daily work as possible (it's all remote and how does having one less eye make me any less effective as a game designer?) when I had a lightbulb moment. I am sitting at my computer with eye swollen shut writing this post one week late and I realize that just because you don’t take time off for being sick, doesn’t mean you’re never sick. It just means you haven’t acknowledged your own illnesses. I realize that I might not be “hearty”, instead that I just might have been ignoring all the ways my body had been communicating to me that it wasn’t OK. That I get sick just as often, if not more, than the average person, but that I haven’t let myself accept that.
Maybe you’ll get tired of hearing this (but if you’re here, I may be preaching to the choir), but being part of a work environment where I am encouraged to speak about how I feel both physically and emotionally has helped me become more aware of my own feelings and capabilities. Expressing that I am not feeling well makes it more real. This is both a blessing and a curse. I get to finally be sick sometimes, but it also means that I actually am sick sometimes! Which is hard when you have placed a large chunk of your value from how much you can power through. I’m hoping to turn this awareness into acceptance, but it is definitely a journey.
To end on a more cheerful note, please enjoy these cross stitches of my cats made by Soft Chaos collaborator Jenny Bacons.
It's now the time of year when seasonal depression tends to kick in for me, and somehow I'm a little bit surprised every time it happens, even though I probably shouldn't be. I was supposed to write a blog post on a completely different topic, struggled with that topic until I was a week later than I'd anticipated, then got to a point where I felt like I was hitting a wall and finally posted a bunch of frustrated messages on our internal Soft Chaos Discord server complaining about how stuck I was. Allison then responded suggesting a collaborative post about asking for help and tackling things as a team, and this is what we came up with:
Squinky: I am notoriously bad at asking anyone for help. This has been true for as long as I can remember, and I'm sure it has a lot to do with being various forms of neurodivergent and struggling to explain my needs and thought processes in ways that most people can coherently understand. Regardless, I distinctly remember early school experiences where I would opt to do solo projects because working in groups was too hard, which would later extend to my gamedev career, where the majority of projects I devoted my time and passion to were ones where I basically did everything myself: code, art, sound, writing, you name it. It was just so much easier for me to simply do the thing than it was to express what I had in mind to someone else and trust that it wouldn't be misinterpreted or outright rejected.
This tendency of mine, paradoxically enough, doesn't extend to being asked for help. I love helping other people, especially when I understand exactly what they're asking for and know I can effectively accomplish the task at hand. When I try to ask other people for help, I feel like I'm imposing a huge burden on them, but when other people ask me for help, I'm happy that they even thought to ask. Even when what they're asking for ends up being something I can't do, or can't do well, I'm flattered that they saw me as someone who could be helpful in this circumstance. I may be frustrated by my own inability to give them what they need, but it's way more of a judgement on myself than it is on the person asking.
After a series of burnouts in my early thirties that eventually led me to leave grad school and academia, I came to a point where I realized that trying to be as independent as possible came with severe limitations and that if I wanted to live a happier, less stressful life, I needed to learn how to be more interdependent. Part of why I wanted to be in a worker co-op was, and still is, to put this need into practice. Yet, it's been easier said than done a lot of the time. Even though I'm working with friends I trust and respect deeply, I still struggle on a regular basis with feeling like I'm dragging them down if I can't do everything perfectly all of the time.
Jess: Oh my gosh, I strongly relate to being bad at asking for help. I am so bad at asking for help and at pushing myself too hard that, during my doctorate, it was one of the findings of my autoethnography -- that even solo creators need other people. I also found that once I *did* ask for help, there was a whole community around me who wanted to offer it. And, although it wasn't transactional, I realized that, for some reason, I also have no problem stepping in when other people need a hand, and that I had built something of a reputation for it.
What is a co-op if not a group of people that can ask each other for help?!
I would like to think that I've gotten better at asking for help than I used to be. Interdependency and mutual support can be hard when you're used to needing to either step up into a role that shouldn't be yours, but is, or when appearing competent and capable as a marginalized person is one of your key survival mechanisms. For me, the term 'parentification' comes to mind from my formative experiences as a young human. Not only did I have to parent some of the adults in my life, but being a tall, responsible-seeming kid, other parents would put me in charge of any group outings with my friends. I value my ability to help others, but I want it to be a choice, and I also want to be able to ask for the things that I need without worrying that I might be a burden.
So, how can we make asking for help as painless and easy as possible? We already know that it's fine when other people ask for help and we're usually happy to provide it if we can. Maybe it's a matter of practice and building up a database of 'times that I asked for help and it was fine, actually'.
Allison: You might not expect this from me, if you know how much work I do on intimacy and collaboration, but the memories Squinky shared of school projects echoes my own quite closely. During my undergrad I would check the syllabi of each class to see which had group projects and then I would drop the ones that did or, if the class was required, take the hit to my grade for not participating. Navigating the give-and-take of working with strangers terrified me. I’ve gotten better at this as time has passed, but there will always be that moment my chest tightens and my heart races.
I have a complicated relationship with asking for help now: I think I’m actually quite good at it, but only if I don’t really need it. Writing this, it's been hard for me to put into words. I’ve had to sit with my articulation for a while, and am still not sure it’s doing a great job of communicating my feelings and anxieties properly. I’m good at asking for help because it would make my life easier, as long as I know I am capable without that help. These kinds of asks make me feel good about myself. I am a team player. A collaborator. It’s what appears on evaluations starting as early as elementary school “plays well with others”.
Asking for help I can’t survive without, however, still fills me with dread. That little voice in my head starts: Oh god, I’m putting so much pressure on this person. They feel like they can’t say no. They’ll hate me. On top of anxieties about what the other person might feel, the thought of needing someone instead of collaborating with them suddenly turns me from a team player into a giant worthless failure. It’s magic.
Soft Chaos has been instrumental in helping me learn how to navigate the pressure I put on myself. Asking for help can be so many different things. It can be an ear to listen, someone taking over a work task you just can’t make yourself do, or just the understanding that some days you need to rest. Whatever it is, we all need help.
I hope you are as lucky as I have been, and can find the people who help you ask for help, and control any angry little voices in your head (especially the ones telling you that you are bad for having needs).
So, here we are, three people who are pretty bad at asking for help but who want to help each other. Knowing this about ourselves and others is actually already a pretty huge help in navigating it. Like Allison said, here's hoping you find the people that can know these things about you and give you help when you need it, too.
Today, Soft Chaos had our very first design session about a new untitled virtual escape room project! This project picks up on the work that we started when we had been granted a residency at the SAT for a VR project but had to drop out of because of team members getting sick. That project, In My Room, was intended to be a kind of VR Escape Room project for the SAT's custom Mozilla Hub.
For this digital escape room project, what we've determined so far is that we want to use existing tech solutions to design something for a fixed number of players. We also want to use the mood boards and aesthetics that we came up with for In My Room to inform our art direction.
[The moodboard for the first planned room of the In My Room project, featuring black and white, 2D effects in 3D spaces.]
[The objects that might be found in Room Two of the In My Room project, featuring play with light and organic, alien-seeming things.]
Having spent the summer and early fall mostly doing client work and working on a publication-version of *Strangers on the 'Net*, I think I speak for all of us when I say that we're eager to work on something new that is also ours. I love *Strangers*, and I'm so excited for there to be a version that others can use to run the game and have the same kinds of delightful experiences that we have had with it. But there's definitely a different quality to working on something new and the exploratory phases that come with that.
[One of the headers for the Strangers on the 'Net rulebook.]
So, today was Day One of the new project! I'll be looking forward to sharing more with you as it happens.
AS AN ASIDE...
It is kind of incredible how many chances you get to test your assumptions when you form a worker cooperative (or most forms of business, I imagine). In hindsight, I don't think it should have been as much of a surprise to me that I don't have as much time as a co-founder to do the amount of rapid prototyping that I used to.
So, when I look at our plans for tiers from around this time last year in late September and think of what we've done in the past year, the expectations and the reality don't align. We thought that we would be able to sustain one prototype a month, but that really hasn't been the case. Our administrative hours and client work really add up to a lot of time spent on projects other than our own very quickly!
So, with that in mind, we'll be looking to revamp the tiers to make sure that they're achievable and sustainable. The reason this is relevant is because, thanks to all of your generosity, we're nearly at our first goal! We're currently at 119 and that first goal is set at 150! A monthly livestream still feels achievable, and we hope we'll reach that goal soon so that we can share our process more directly with you. As new milestones come into view, we'll have to think through what makes sense to do. We'll keep you posted!
I’m here to try to write a bit about the Business (™) side of Soft Chaos. While we are artists, we also have to worry a lot about how to survive in the capitalist hellscape that currently exists.
Our process has involved working closely with a local business coach, a Montreal organization with the mission of supporting local entrepreneurs, and a cooperative setup to help cooperatives. We’ve had to do extensive work on a business plan to prove that Soft Chaos is a viable thing. We know it is, but it’s been a struggle to prove on papers to others.
There is a pressure to prove you will make lots of money, and grow very big very fast. Not wanting to do that involves a constant push-back against “conventional” business wisdom. While it has been a challenge, we’ve found some folks willing to champion that cause.
I want to talk about how we built the OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) for Soft Chaos in a worker-focused way. Early on a potential funder identified one of our strengths as the “retention of high level talent” (or in other words, our unwillingness to burn people out so they stick around), and so we’ve been able to focus on that as the basis for every goal we set for our studio.
To start, we found a list of the causes of burnout (and altered it a bit to be more directly applicable to us):
Every goal we set we can now do with this in mind. Honestly, a lot of this we were already doing in practice, but the exercise just helps to articulate the practice more clearly as a business case.
Every time we set an income goal, it is in service of making sure our workers are fairly compensated. Our OKRs, probably contrary to those of many companies, set a limit on how many contracts we take in, in service of making sure that there is a realistic workload and that everyone could take on more if, for example, one of us gets sick. We make sure to always have a creatively fulfilling project that we have control over on the go in addition to our client work, so that we can be inspired and make wild (possibly impractical or risky) decisions without having to go through others for approval.
A lot of these decisions may seem to work against the possibility of getting funders to believe in your work, but what we’ve found is that it filters out those who would probably not be a good fit regardless (even if they have those sweet sweet piles of money that would pay our rent). They also seem like less of a liability when they are reframed in ways that speak “the language” funders speak. We did a lot of work on this when we worked on getting our website up (which Squinky also wrote about in an earlier post).
It might not be the most natural for us, but knowing who we’re talking to and learning how to frame our worker-focused model has been useful to us. We've started to speak to an audience in a way that lets them see that there are benefits (like retention) to a less exploitative and extractive model of work. This lets us continue to making steps towards sustainable wages and the workplace that we really want to be able to provide for everyone at Soft Chaos.
So, I guess to summarize If you’re not working in a traditional business model (exploiting worker labour for profit and promising infinite growth), you need to be able to articulate:
and then find the people who want to support that (hopefully with their own piles of money).
Hope this helps, or at the very least gives you a tiny peek into how we Do Business (™) here at Soft Chaos.
In my last post from a couple months ago, I discussed how we as a co-op have gradually settled on pursuing two kinds of projects: client contracts and Soft Chaos Originals. One question we've been asked on occasion is, why don't we try to make Soft Chaos Originals our main source of revenue? This is, after all, the business model for most indie game studios: while many of them do take on client work like we do, they tend to eventually want to get to a point where they can afford to only work on original projects. And I have to admit, it does sound very appealing to only work on your own stuff and not have to deal with clients. But there are, unfortunately, huge tradeoffs to doing that.
The indie studio dream, as it's been sold to us, is to come up with a big indie darling hit that will generate enough revenue for you to create your next indie darling hit, and repeat these steps forever and ever until you die... or more realistically, until your hit fails to be enough of a hit and you can't secure any more funding and have to shut down your studio. And while the process of creating a hit is far from an exact science, gaining access to the resources needed to have a fighting chance at a hit, such as investment funding, publishing contracts, and good marketing, means you have to spend a lot of time convincing people with a lot of money that giving you some of their money will make them even more money.
As you can probably imagine, this need to impress rich people means you can't create anything too "risky" or "experimental", and you can definitely forget about anything that challenges the capitalist status quo that keeps these rich people rich in the first place! Sure, you can include "diversity", but only so long you frame it as selling to an underserved market demographic. Sure, you can be "edgy" and "innovative", except no, not like that, what are you even thinking?
Early on in founding Soft Chaos, we decided that attempting to play by these rules would only stress us out and hinder our creative process. We would rather continue dealing with the challenges of client work than feel pressured to turn every Soft Chaos Original into a hit, and we feel it's a much more sustainable business model that will make it more likely for us to continue existing in the next 5 years and hopefully more. We don't want to be forced to grow too big too fast, like many studios have to do in order to compete with the technological fidelity of the latest shiny blockbusters. And we don't only want to make videogames, or any one kind of game; we want to keep adding a variety of projects to our eclectic portfolio of cool stuff. Some of our work might go on to find a large audience and make us extra money, most of it probably won't, but in our case, the latter doesn't automatically have to mean failure, since we already have other streams of revenue.
I have to admit, though, I dream of a better, less capitalist world where everyone's basic needs are taken care of, in which we can only focus on making Soft Chaos Originals with no pressure to turn them into hits or take on client work. This isn't to say that we wouldn't still work with other organizations, though I would expect that these relationships would feel less like clients and more like partnerships. It's wonderful to imagine a world where we don't all need to be in cutthroat competition with one another, isn't it? Let's hope we can work to bring ourselves closer to such an ideal.
Jess here to talk to you about a yearly tradition that helps me stay creative and keep my work in perspective ever year.
So, the Soft Chaos Cooperative shut down for the first week of August for our first ever formal summer vacation!
Now, I've never been good at the kind of vacation where you sit down at the beach and nap while the sun caresses your face. For one, I'm really, really pale. I sunburn easily. For two, I get bored if I'm not doing something. I'm a novelty-seeker who likes making stuff.
So, since Summer 2013, I've been participating in a yearly charity scavenger hunt called GISH (formerly known as the Rhino Puzzle Hunt, GISHWHES, and GISHWhES, and other variations). GISH is a hunt where not only do you have to find unusual things, you also have to make them and make them happen. From flashmobs to voter drives, finding someone to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and pose with the statues there, to making mosaics in the bottom of your car, carving Avocado pits to look like tiny monsters, to sewing Hokkusai's The Great Wave at Kanagawa onto a patchwork jean jacket, GISH has always asked me to do some pretty wild and interesting things. Sometimes, GISH asks me to do things that feel impossible until I manage to get them done.
But with around 200 items on the list each year and a team of fifteen dedicated team members and their helpers, we've got to keep up a pretty good pace to finish the whole list in a week. My personal target is to average three items a day, while also making each item as high-quality in execution as I can. But different items are different "sizes" and take different amounts of time.
What this means is that I have to manage my perfectionism against the time limit. It's an exercise in letting the best that I can do in the time that I have be good enough, in seeing just how much I can do when there are constraints, and, perhaps most of all, understanding that perfection is the enemy of good.
This year, I managed seventeen solo items, two team items, and assisted with two other items. My favourite item this year, and the one that broke my record for taking the longest amount of continuous time, was indeed using a Japanese embroidery technique, sashiko, to embroider the The Great Wave at Kanagawa onto a patchwork jean jacket. It took about thirty hours!
Honestly, I'm looking forward to the Fall weather to be able to wear it.
So, this is what I do, ever year. And though I don't always manage to be at peace with my perfectionist tendencies, it makes a big difference to what I consider possible in my creative practice. It makes me feel equipped to learn new skills, and not only that, I have used skills that I learned during GISH in my creative practice later. I'm very glad to have those reminders ever year.
Soft Chaos is kind of like that for me, too. Starting a worker cooperative and doing what we can to make a workplace that we can be proud of, that aligns with our values, that avoids worker exploitation and isn't beholden to shareholders... Under late capitalism, well, sometimes that feels really hard, too. But with Allison and Squinky, I feel like I can make the impossible possible.
As a cooperative Soft Chaos has realized one thing: despite not being in a traditionally “seasonal” industry, our work and funding has been extremely feast-or-famine. During our last “feast” session we were working on over a half dozen contracts and projects simultaneously. This was primarily client work with tight deadlines, and a lot of what Squinky described in their last post as “in-between” projects (ones where we got some creative control and some money, but not a lot of either).
It felt like a period where neither my financial needs nor my creative needs were met (through no fault of the cooperatives – we’re a new business just getting on our feet). I quit my job in January because of burnout and was running out of savings so got a new one. As my capacity seemed to be coming back after being sick and grieving for so long, I decided to crowdfund a game I had been working on for almost a decade. I filled every inch of capacity I had (when will I learn?). And then, I once again got sick.
I couldn’t make everything be something I was proud of. I had to prioritize the projects I could put my whole self into. A lot of those “in-between” projects fell through the cracks. I felt like I was letting the cooperative down. I wrote in April about accepting a lowered capacity (still a work in progress) but one thing I still am not good at (or used to) is accepting failure.
I wouldn’t call the work Soft Chaos did a failure. If I wasn’t writing this, I’m not sure anyone would be able to pick out the particular projects that I don’t feel I was able to give my full self too. Again, this is one of the amazing aspects of being on a team. I was able to rely on both Squinky and Jess to make sure that we produced something that is still interesting, unique, and beautiful. But, I know those things could be better. I know what I contributed is, by my standards, a failure. And I know that they had to pick up the slack for me.
It’s hard to not be proud of what you’re producing, and even harder when the names and reputations of people you both work with and care about are tied to your work.
One thing that I’m not sure has been mentioned before, but is very important to me is that as part of our working structure Soft Chaos does group therapy together. Squinky, Jess, and I are not only coworkers and creators: we are good friends, family even. And we want to be sure that the struggles of our cooperative don’t bleed into our relationships. I bring it up because having this space to talk about my feelings of failure in such an open space has been invaluable to me. It helped me realize I might not be alone in these feelings. After our last therapy session, we talked about boundaries we could set to help make sure this doesn’t happen again (number of contracts we accept, what sort of control we have over our projects). Being in a cooperative means we get to value the health of our relationships more than the amount of work we produce.
As I write this, the cooperative is taking a one-week break. For the first time since we’ve founded it feels to me like we are in a good place – we’ve wrapped up a large number of contracts and get to see our work out in the world. We also have funding to work on getting our own creative project completed and published. We’ve set up both the working conditions that will foster work I am proud of, as well as support systems for dealing with the feelings of failure when I can’t.
To end on a really exciting and positive note, people have been receiving their copies of Cadences and nothing makes me happier than seeing everyone receive and love something we really put ourselves into.
Back in the mid-2000s, when I was a lot younger than I am now, I used to think I had the whole "career" thing all figured out. If I just got a job in a field I intrinsically enjoyed and wanted to do all the time anyway (namely, making videogames) it would barely feel like work at all, right?
As I later learned, it didn't quite work that way. In my experience, no matter how much you enjoy an activity, the moment it becomes necessary for your continued survival, there's this pressure that didn't exist before. When you do something purely for fun as a hobby, you have a lot more flexibility. If you're feeling stuck or bored, you can take a break and come back to it later, or even scrap everything and start over. But once you have to make a living from your work, you have obligations and deadlines and all sorts of other expectations from the people giving you money, and suddenly, it isn't quite so much fun anymore.
(This is exactly why I refuse to turn any of my other hobbies into side hustles: I don't want to be a professional musician, or sell my craft projects on Etsy, and I'm most certainly not going to start an OnlyFans, lol.)
When we came together to form Soft Chaos, we focused on fun projects at first and made our money elsewhere, whether through grad school scholarships, freelance contracts, or day jobs. Once we decided to transition from a collective to a fully-fledged worker co-op, it was a struggle at first to both figure out how to make money and still work on projects that we loved and had full creative control over. Eventually, we landed on doing two more-or-less distinct streams of projects: contract work, where we focus on clients' needs first and foremost and which pay reliably well, and Soft Chaos Originals, where we get to let loose and be as weird and experimental as we want.
We got to this point because, as we eventually figured out, it was projects in the grey middle in-between area that ended up stressing us out the most: the ones where we got some creative control and some money, but not a lot of either. We would find some things to enjoy in the work, but inevitably feel bogged down by a very short timeframe in which to deliver the final product (leaving no time to playtest or otherwise give the work time and space to breathe) or by being obligated to use particular tools when we would have preferred something else (in my case, having to work in Unity when I would much rather be using Godot). And at that point, even the fun parts ended up feeling like too much work to justify the comparatively low pay.
That isn't to say we haven't been making any money at all off of Soft Chaos Originals: on the contrary, we just wrapped up the successful crowdfunding campaign for Cadences and have future plans for a gamebook version of Strangers on the 'Net, with help from the Pixelles C'est Fini Fund. (We even managed to break even on our Fringe Festival run of This is Fine!) The difference here is that money didn't come into the picture until these games were already fully designed, which meant that we could go through the creative process with them unencumbered. Now, we're finally at the point where we're about to start working on our newest Soft Chaos Original... which we look forward to telling you all about at some point in the future when we're ready, but not before.
Meanwhile, as a first for us since officially becoming a co-op, we've decided to give ourselves a vacation and take the first week of August off work so that we can get some much-needed rest and devote time to non-work hobbies and interests. As much as I love the work we do together as Soft Chaos, I for one am really happy that we're in a position to take time off, which isn't at all easy during the early stages of building a studio where it constantly feels like there's more we could be doing. But taking a break means that instead of working ourselves to the point of burnout, we can focus on other things for a while and then come back to our work with a lot more energy and fresh ideas. Plus, we're strong proponents of rest and relaxation as valuable for their own sake, so I'm especially glad we actually get to practice what we preach in this way.
Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll turn off my computer and start enjoying my weekend!
You heard us right! Soft Chaos has welcomed an intern until the end of August. His name is Ryan, and he's a fantastic animator and artist with game design chops to boot!
When we made this decision, we were as surprised as anyone. We just turned a year old in May. We're a very new business, and we learn so much everyday.
But, this awesome local initiative called "Diversité en jeu" specifically aims to help students from underrepresented populations in games get an internship! Thanks to them and to a program called "Accueillez un stagiaire", we were able to fund an internship for Ryan.
Ryan had already had an offer from another studio when we interviewed with him, but he told us that he was looking for something a little different if he could find it. It turned out that that was us.
Now, internships, although an amazing opportunity for students to gain experience, are notoriously, cartoonishly exploitative in many industries. It's a well-known stereotype. The stereotypical intern often has poor working conditions and is given the horrible or very boring jobs that other people don't want to do. I don't know the actual stats on this, to be honest, but I'm betting that's still the case for many.
That's not what Soft Chaos is about. We started Soft Chaos as a cooperative and wrote our bylaws in such a way that we wouldn't only be relying on our own consciences and good behaviour to behave ethically. Our collaborators and guest artists receive either the same or a better pay rate than we do. (I say "or better", because as co-founders at the start of our second year of business, we are still doing unpaid hours).
For Ryan, we also wanted to build an internship that would be a useful, positive experience for him. We talked to him about where he hopes to wind up in games (he's an art director in the making) and have given him personal development hours to use as he wishes, whether that's a personal project, taking care of his health, or doing research in the form of playing all the videogames.
Ryan can also choose whether or not he wants to sit in on our meetings of any kind, including the biz dev ones, and he has a choice about which projects he wants to contribute to (with one base project).
As our cooperative develops, hopefully, we can keep learning more best practices about how to share our knowledge and welcome people to the design space.
So far, we're so impressed with Ryan and delighted to have him around!
(P.S. It's my spouse Tom's birthday today! Happy birthday, Tom! Ask Mark Hamill to wish him a happy birthday on Twitter for me, will you?)
So this has been a busy month for Soft Chaos and for me as an individual, and I’m so excited to get to share some of what is up in the air with you all!
First, and most importantly, it is my birthday month! And on my birthday I got to kiss my girlfriend under a giant double rainbow. Which is the most gay thing you can literally ever do. (second rainbow not pictured in the selfie)
Secondly: SOFT CHAOS IS IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR FRINGE SHOW RUN! Chad Poober of Poober™ (you know, the Uber of toilets) has been running his Very Important Networking Event at The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival and has already found two amazing (unpaid) interns to help him leverage synergy and afford that second hover-house-craft in the Bahamas.
Thirdly: In more boring (but also really rewarding) news, our cooperative has started getting consistent and steady client work. We’re starting to stabilize as a business, which is important.
And finally: I have been working on a queer game about magical girls for the last 8-10 years (who knows what time is these days) and today it has launched for crowdfunding.
This game is really important to me. Partly because I’ve held it so close for so long, and partly because it has grown so much with me. I started working on this game before I was confident in myself as a game designer, and also before I was as confident as I am in myself as a queer person.
Alchemistresses is a game where you use reincarnation as a mechanic to grapple with queer feelings of self-discovery, fire blast baddies who are trying to suck out your best friend’s pure heart force, and trade barbs with your hot ex.
Preparing for a social media campaign makes you really sit down and think about both what you have put into a project, and what parts of that are going to *mean* something to someone. A lot of that, for me, has been listening.
It’s been so special to be able to play this game with people and watch it connect in ways we didn’t expect, and couldn’t in a million years have predicted. I’ve been lucky to have friends, and even people who were strangers until they played the game with me, become passionate advocates for something I made. Listening to them talk about *why* they care so much about this game has warmed the cockles of my heart.
So if you’re reading this, and you’re one of those people: Thank you so much! If you’re not, but you think you might become one, be sure to check out the crowdfunding campaign ; )
The following is a sponsored guest post from Poober™.
Hi, I'm Chad, founder and CEO of Poober™, writing from my 1000% apocalypse-proof billionaire bunker in [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION]. The fine folks at Soft Chaos were kind enough to let me make an announcement about a Very Important Business Conference that will be taking place during the St. Ambroise Montreal FRINGE Festival next month. We hear that many of you are looking to pivot to a new career during these unprecedented times, and you're in luck, because we're looking to expand the Poober™ family by hiring one new team member!
You're no doubt already familiar with Poober™, but what you may not know is the story of how Poober™ came to be: it all started one evening over 10 years ago when I was attending a Mindfulness Reiki Tai Chi workshop in Prospect Park, and suddenly really needed to drop the kids off at the pool, so to speak. After walking around for over half an hour trying to find a restaurant that was still open and allowed non-paying customers to use the bathroom, I thought to myself: what if there was an app that allowed regular ordinary people to make a little extra money on the side by making their bathroom available for people nearby to use? And the very next day, thanks to some seed capital from my dad who owns a cobalt mine in Africa, Poober™ was born.
Since then, we have grown from one simple idea to the multibillion-dollar enterprise you know and love today, which features among its many game-changing products the original, public toilet industry-disrupting Poober™ App, our pandemic-friendly PooberEverywhere™ VR toilet simulator, our PooberCares™ philanthropic initiative to bring porta-potties to developing nations, and very soon, a Highly Exclusive Limited Edition series of Poober™-branded poop emoji NFTs! Of course, to continue expanding our Poober™ empire, we also need to expand our team. And that's where you come in!
Of course, we're not just looking for anyone; we're looking for a real ninja warrior rockstar guru who can move fast and break things with us! And to show us that you are the kind of ninja warrior rockstar guru we're looking for, we want to see your networking skills in action! After all, the most important indicator of success at Poober™ is how good of a culture fit you are, so if you think you have what it takes, come to the Very Important Business Conference and maybe, just maybe, if you're good enough, I'll touch base with you there. Until then, keep leveraging that synergy!
This is Fine: An Apocalyptic Networking Event will be running as part of FringeMTL from June 11-18. It will be an in-person, masked interactive theatre game with a significant amount of audience participation, so come prepared to do some fake business networking! You can buy tickets here.
Hello folks! Thanks for sticking with us over the past couple of difficult weeks!
Yesterday, I finished the script for our Cartomancy Anthology game, and today, I started to implement it! As a reminder, our Cartomancy story is called (technically still a working title but I think it's growing on us...) The Fool's Fairytale. It's a game where you play with Shadowpuppets and queer fairytales unfold, and you get to choose whether they're affirmative or critical of the monarchy and other tropes.
Writing this game involved reworking the same scenes from two different ideological perspectives while keeping the line count as close to the same as possible.
Now, I'd say that that's already a pretty complex task. But one of these versions features ideological standpoints that I absolutely disagree with but had to write in a believable (but also firmly satirical) way. Identifying those viewpoints and writing them not only in a way that made sense, but in a way that made fairytale sense in the queer fantasy context that I was writing was a big challenge!
As I was writing yesterday, sharing bits and pieces with Allison and Squinky, Allison pointed out that part of what made a particular scene work is that everyone thinks that they're the good guy. Cartoon villains are one thing, but people generally justify their actions through one moral framework or another. They are acting in accordance with a set of beliefs.
This is not a justification of those beliefs or those actions. It's more that writing from a different perspective in a believable way means learning about that perspective and the connected standpoints while also not surrendering your own.
(There's some pretty scary research about how media bubbles and watching, for example, fascist alt right content, can really mess with your brain. I don't suggest doing, for example, as some journalists have done, and watching such content deliberately for a month.)
I don't know that I have much to say about that work except that it is a process. I regularly write thousands of words in a day, but this was a much more careful, subtle thing. Oftentimes, I found myself spending a lot of time changing the same word, trying to tune a phrase until it felt like it explored the belief but also kept the satirical note that I wanted.
Eventually, the story sort of took on its own shape, each fairytale "moral" emerging as I wrote without a firm idea at first what each ending was driving at.
I honestly can't wait to see what playtesters think!
Allison here! You may have noticed we missed one of our bi-weekly updates and that this one is a bit late. Soft Chaos has been up to a lot lately: client work, fulfillment for the Cadences crowdfunding campaign (if you missed it, you can check out our pre-order store here), making a game for the Cartomancy Anthology and preparing to put on a show for the Montreal Fringe Festival (You’ll hear more about this from Squinky in a later post!). All of this is on top of cooperative logistics (we are close to finding an office space) and giving back to the community and organizations that have helped support us thus far. But all of this isn’t the main reason we missed a deadline.
From here on out this post is going to get personal. Content warning for sad pet stuff and COVID.
Growing up, my father never took a sick day from work the entire time I lived in his house. Not one. He always used to say that being sick was all in your head, and you could just power through. It was a point of pride for him. As much as I can look at this intellectually and know I don’t agree, it is something I have deeply, deeply internalized. Cooperatives are not immune from self-exploitation, and I have tied so much of my self-worth to being reliable, being able to work, and always getting things done that I have perpetuated this.
I have been working to be kinder to myself, and accept help when I need it (my therapist jokes I’m a pretty bad communist for how much I like work and how uncomfortable I am asking for support). I have been making some progress– I quit the day job that was burning me out and leaned on my partner for support, I limited the hours I could be working, and I even felt ok taking a couple of days off here or there.
But this was all based on the fact that, in my mind, I was allowed to take that time because I would be able to “make it back”. That time wouldn’t result in missed deadlines or dropped balls. I wouldn’t let other people down. It was never “you can rest until you feel better”, it was always “it is OK to take a day or two off” (with the unspoken implication that while a day or two was ok, three or four was not).
So I kept up this pace. Until, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t. Not just for a day, or even a week, but for over a month. First, my beloved pet of over a decade got very sick and within a week passed away. That last week of his life was hard and limited my ability to work. I forgave myself and gave myself time to grieve. (Pictured below is one of his last days)
Then, after two years of extreme COVID precautions, I got COVID at the veterinarian’s office. I had a fever that didn’t break for days and still have lingering symptoms. Again, I tried to be kind to myself but all I could really do was be frustrated. Why was my body letting me down like this?
Since then, there have been a series of even more unfortunate events that have led to me being exhausted. I still have many dropped balls, I’m still not at a capacity level I’m used to. And, to be completely honest, I’m still not okay with that. But I’m trying.
At Soft Chaos, I’ve been able to admit I just can’t do things and ask for support. I was able to essentially be MIA for an entire month. I’m still struggling with my own feelings about this, but it is something I absolutely could not do in my position as a contractor for a large corporation. I was only able to take this time through the support of my cooperative members.
Even if it is hard (or even sometimes frustrating) for me, seeing my colleagues assert strong boundaries about what they are able to do has been invaluable. I am constantly learning from them and it is one of the great joys of the job. Having a workplace where our wellbeing is the top priority forces me, as someone who will put my own well-being pretty low on my priority list, to re-evaluate how I am making decisions. My workplace is actually trying to get me to exploit my own labour less, which still blows my mind.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you are excited about all of the stuff we have in the works : )
Earlier this week, Soft Chaos gave a keynote presentation for DiHuCon 2022, a Digital Humanities Conference hosted by folks at the University of Alberta that took place entirely on Discord. The theme we were given was "Kindred Cyberspaces" and was described to us as "an invitation to consider the networks of infrastructure and relationships that constitute and permeate our experience of and within digital environments, to reflect on past expressions of these relations, their current iterations, and dream of alternatives."
Prompted by this theme, we thought of Strangers on the 'Net, a Discord-based live-action online game that we designed two years ago, where players take on the role of teenagers in 1999 who enjoy roleplaying as characters from their favourite fandom with an ensemble cast (popular examples of which include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon). As teenagers, their role is to embrace the drama of gossiping, roleplaying, flirting, fighting, falling in love, confessing their secrets, and exploring their identities. Players are encouraged to confront past beliefs that may not have aged well, and explore their own experience through the lens of taking on these fictional characters.
As queer game designers who found ourselves by being Extremely Online during this particular time period, there was a lot that we really missed about what the internet was like in the late 90s and early 2000s, especially compared to today's internet where so much of our activity is confined to these very centralized (and in many ways exploitative) Big Tech social media platforms. While we're under no illusions that everything was necessarily better back then, a huge part of our motivation for designing Strangers was to communicate what we both loved and hated about our teenage internet experiences to others who may not have shared them, and in doing so, collectively imagine new possibilities for the online world we live in now.
In our keynote, we talked at length about the specific experiences and feelings that went into designing Strangers, and also gave participants a server tour of a previous game that took place in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. Here is a selection of some of our slides, which, as you can probably tell, we had a little bit too much fun putting together:
In which Jess publicly admits to pretending to be all three members of a Danish rock band as a teen.
Allison maps out everywhere she lived pre-1999, which is almost twice as many places as I had lived by that time. Also pictured is a vintage long-distance phone bill - remember those?
"Be anyone. Have cybersex with Sephiroth." That is all.
One of our players in a Sailor Moon-themed game made fanart! Sadly, we had to cut out Sailors Uranus and Neptune (the best Sailor Scouts, hands down) due to lack of space.
These three characters featured in the server tour just so happened to be the characters originally played by us three members of Soft Chaos — can you guess whose is whose?
A slide full of classic Under Construction gifs, because we had to.
Overall, the DiHuCon attendees really seemed to enjoy our talk, which made us feel all the more strongly about how important and meaningful this project has been for us. With that in mind, our next steps for Strangers will involve a digital and physical guide book that will enable anyone to run a game of their own, without us having to be there to facilitate it. Stay tuned for more news on that in the future!
Jess here with some great news, folks. The Cadences IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign has passed the 100%-funded threshold! Whoo! (ICYMI or are interested in funding community copies: we are celebrating by matching all community copy donations. Currently, that means we have 22 community copies!)
Since we're about two-thirds of the way through, I thought I'd talk a bit about the experience of crowdfunding as part of ZineMonth and off of Kickstarter.
First Things First
First, the basics, because I had no idea how much I didn't know until I realized that I didn't know it. We are funding a low-stakes ZineMonth project (where our funding goal was low and we weren't too dependent on the results). The decision, compared to many crowdfunding projects, was relatively late. Most people prepare for months before they launch a campaign -- getting a big mailing list together that goes out at launch, for example, and filming a fancy trailer (instead of getting their spouse to brood prettily on the Verdun boardwalk), and all sorts of other things to do with journalists and press coverage. There are loads of articles about this. You can learn about conversation rates and mid-campaign slumps and all sorts of stuff.
Did you know that apparently, the best time to launch a crowdfunding campaign is on a Tuesday morning between 8AM and 12PM in your target audience's region? Yeah, me neither. But the many crowdfunding sites out there seem to agree that it's the case.
So, naturally, we launched on a Friday because we wanted to launch before Valentine's Day so people could have a neat activity to do.
The Tyranny of Kickstarter
We decided not to fund on Kickstarter because of their disrespect for the community when it comes to their plans for a crypto-based platform and the sudden move of ZineQuest to August. As we started the campaign, our hearts sank a little as we began to understand the huge gap between Kickstarter-based projects and everyone else. Kickstarter projects similar to ours were 1000%-funded in two days, while other platforms languished and lagged behind. Having seen this, I fully understand why so many people literally can't afford to leave Kickstarter right now -- not until there's consensus about another platform, I don't think. That's really sad! I hope we can change this together. (That's one of the reasons that we've chosen to be here on Comradery rather than on Patreon. We believe in the cooperative model and in creators taking part in the decisions that affect them.)
The Dangers of Always Being On
Early on in the campaign, I realized that it had started to take up all my time because I could literally always be on social media, doing some preparation work for the campaign, or helping to manage pledges as they came in. So, we held a promotional meeting where we made a schedule of what we would promote and when, to the best of our abilities. Not everything was within our control, such as when a particular interview or play session might be posted. The point is that we made something flexible but that helped us timebox the work.
Coming up with ways to share the game in a sincere way that reflected who we are as creators and as a cooperative was actually a ton of fun. Two of my favourites so far were interviewing Allison about her role as the project's art director and Allison making the three of us as Bird People, similar to one of our art prints. I also really enjoyed being on the Party of One Podcast with Jeff Stormer for an actual play of the game.
Here's one last thing that I'll say about this process. Even knowing that there are mid-campaign slumps and that I can only do so much to promote the game, no matter how wonderful and meaningful and lovely it is, it's difficult not to feel as though I'm not doing enough. It's easy to attribute a quiet pledge day to me not managing to get the word out the right way, or not resonating with people. Us humans always think we'll be the exception. But these things happen in almost every campaign, and Cadences is no less wonderful for us having a day where no one decides to pledge.
And that's that! These are the lessons I've learned so far. Since we've got 10 days left to go, I imagine I'm also about to learn a whole lot more. Thanks for reading!
Hello everyone! Allison here again : )
As you probably know, we’ve been running a crowdfunding campaign for Cadences: The Story of a Distance and Its Pair.
It’s been a lot of work, but also a lot of fun to talk about design, process and community! I’ve shared my thoughts on supporting the community shift away from Kickstarter, what Valentines Day means to me, and many many pictures of my cats in ties.
(Also, if you’ve ever wanted to own everything Soft Chaos has printed, anyone who backs before Monday will be entered in a raffle for this amazing bundle.)
But, I’m here to let you know something you probably don’t know! Early this year, Soft Chaos was invited to join the Cartomancy Anthology and make a short game inspired by a tarot card.
We, of course, will be making a game inspired by none other than The Fool. We took particular inspiration from this description from Alainn Tarot:
The Fool is your invitation to relax, play, and have fun. Treat life like one big experiment and feel yourself in the flow of whatever comes your way. This card asks you to embrace your beautiful, carefree spirit, allowing yourself to connect to the energy that surrounds you and flows through you. Tap into your fullest potential by stepping into a place of wonderment, curiosity and intrigue. Live life as though you were a child once again. Laugh more, dance, and let your heart go free.
We assessed team capacity and I have ended up taking the lead on this project (including the programming!). So enjoy some behind-the-scenes from me as I dust off my Unity skills and geek out about late 19th-century/early 20th-century art and music.
Our team decidedly wanted to do something playful (how could we not with The Fool as our card?), but also had to work within a very tight scope. This constraint made us think about how to create something rich but achievable in the time we have. We settled on (drum roll please)...
Soft Chaos will be creating shadow puppet fairytales, remixing the visuals of art nouveau illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett and the music of Gabriel Fauré. The experience will include queer procedurally generated narrative related to how the player assembles the scene.
Our game works with the playful, innocent, exploratory, nature of The Fool by framing the experience through toys. We want players to have an opportunity for creative expression, and feel as if there are endless possibilities. We also want to connect to our own wonderment, creating the queer fairy tales we’ve always wanted.
I invite you to listen to Gabriel Fauré - Sicilienne, for cello & piano, Op. 78
I’ve been hard at work recreating midis of Fauré’s music, building shadow puppets out of the expressive illustrations of Virginia Sterret, and learning how shadows work in Unity.
We’ll let you know when this project launches, and hope you are as excited as we are : )
Remember last week, when we told you that Cadences: The Story of a Distance and Its Pair would be crowdfunding in time for Valentine's Day as part of #ZiMo2022? We launched today, meaning you can now get access to earlybird tiers that greatly discount the project :3. Help this community-run initiative!
Eventually, our goal is to be able to give you access to our digital content on here, regardless of how much you're supporting us for. Those and other goals are explained here.
For now, please support us if you can by picking up a copy of Cadences through IndieGoGo -- there are loads of cool tiers! -- or by resharing the project with your friends and people you think might enjoy it!
Hello, hello! Jess here!
Happy Black History Month! In 2022, the global theme for Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness. In Montreal, it's "Honour the past, inspire the future". It's the perfect time to learn about Black History and support Black people in the present. Depending on where you are, there are lots of resources that can help teach you about Black History as it relates to your surroundings. I think that knowing global history is important, but local knowledge and context can also help you understand how you can act in solidarity with others. Since Soft Chaos is Montreal-based, here's one of my picks: the Massimadi Film Festival! Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Laurent Maurice Lafontant, the coordinator of the Massimadi Montréal LGBTQ+ Film and Art Festival, when we spoke on a panel together. This year, the festival runs from February 11th to March 11th. You can watch 26 films for free, streamed at massimadi.ca. (Here's a round-up of other local-to-Montreal Black History Month events.)
Alongside this, ZineMonth is upon us! You might know ZineMonth as the month formerly known as ZineQuest. That's because this year, after Kickstarter started to talk about cryptocurrency and also moved ZineQuest to August instead of February, many smaller zine creators decided that maybe it was time to replace ZineQuest with a more community-led event, and that it might also be a great time to give Kickstarter alternatives a try!
You've already heard a bit about Cadences from us. It's just gotten better since we last spoke about it. I'm so proud of what we've made. We've just finalized everything and sent out our first order to the printers. That's because Cadences will be crowdfunded as part of ZineMonth 2022! You can look out for us on IndieGoGo -- the link isn't live yet, but we're launching for mid-February. (Yes, probably on Valentine's Day -- we think that Cadences is going to be a fun thing to do with someone you like spending time with, either because you want to celebrate kissy romantic things or in spite of it).
Can't wait to share it with you, and we hope you'll support us by picking up a copy when we launch! We have some cool goodies planned to go along with the game.
The Intro to Cadences: The Story of a Distance and Its Pair
All around you right now are incalculable distances, measured in years, measured in heartbeats, measured in steps between, or miles to a destination. Other distances elude our best efforts to quantify them, and cannot be weighed or assigned a number, even if we feel the weight of them settle in our bodies. Distance is a queer thing. No matter how close two people get, the very molecules of their being push them apart, resisting ideas of perfect alignment, making sure that there is always some level of separation maintained. Language is an imperfect tool, too, for communicating just what another person means to us, just how close we wish we could bring them, or how far apart we need them to stay.
But perfection was never the goal. This is the story — your story — of a Distance and its Pair.
For the better part of the month, I've been hard at work coding our shiny new website. While it's still very much under construction (insert the appropriate 90s animated gifs here), it's already starting to look quite fabulous, especially thanks to the work of our designer and branding expert, Brandy (yes, that's her actual name).
We're hoping to officially launch within the next month or so, and some things, like colours and placeholder text and images, are definitely going to change from now until then, but in the meantime, please enjoy these preview screenshots:
The top of the landing page, which will feature a fancy hero image instead of all that blank purple.
Reasons why we're awesome and why clients should hire us, plus a very kind quote from a past client.
Calls to action, which will absolutely certainly include cats.
A little bit about who we are, to be followed by team portraits once we finalize them - gotta show off our winning smiles and great hair!
If you're going to do placeholder text, might as well have a little fun with it.
“Marginalized game workers will have a say in their working conditions and benefit from their own labour, ending their exploitation in the game industry so that they can focus on projects that excite and appeal to them and have better living conditions.”
One of the first things Soft Chaos did as a cooperative was to participate in two incubators, one of which was Damage Labs, an incubator aimed at the creation of diverse social impact game studios. The quote above is the ultimate outcome statement Soft Chaos wrote as part of the program. It is the biggest vision for Soft Chaos’s social impact on the world: what we want to do as people, and as a cooperative.
We also had to make smaller, short-term outcomes that we will work to achieve more immediately. For us those include "Game developers are better informed about their rights as workers" and "There is more awareness of worker coops as a viable option for game studios."
Even as a freshly formed studio that is still learning, we feel like we’ve been able to take steps towards these goals. Most recently, with the support of Game Workers Unite, we were able to write an article titled “Why we created a worker cooperative, and why you might want to as well” that will be distributed to students in game development programs. We’d like to share an excerpt from that article with you.
Why form a worker cooperative instead of a corporation?
*These days, there are social finance models emerging that seek benefits and returns on investment that are not solely monetary gain.
We hope that gives some insight into why Soft Chaos exists in the form that it does, and some of what you can expect to guide our actions as a cooperative. Thanks for supporting us if you already do, and if you don't yet but think that you might want to, we hope this helps you decide to!
The Soft Chaos Team is on holiday break, so instead of our usual format, we decided to share the joys of Catmas with you, featuring our official team cats: Burt Lahr and Sweenie O'Toole, Guybrush Food St. Jacques and Cecil Tobermory Kalervo Sinervo Fenelon, and Neko the Cat!
There are lots of wonderful holidays in December, from Hanukkah, to Christmas, to Kwanzaa (in order of appearance this year). Our posting schedule just happens to put us on Dec. 24th, and our families just happen to have cat-sized Christmas accoutrements. Whatever you're celebrating, we hope it's a happy one.
Happy Catmas from...
Burt Lahr, a Christmas Lion!
Sweenie O'Toole, Reindeer Cat and Holiday Caroler
Guybrush Food St. Jacques, disturber of Christmas Trees and total Grinch who only wore these costumes long enough to glare at the photographer
Cecil Tobermory Kalervo Sinervo Fenelon, just a sweet, innocent Jorts fan who wants to taste everything.
and Neko the Cat, posing with a Christmas Poo as their human respects their bodily autonomy and the limitations of human-sized Santa hats.
All the best for the coming year! We'll see you then!
Hello comrades! Today, it's time for a deep cut from the top secret vault of unfinished Soft Chaos projects. That's right, I'm going to tell you the story of the very first thing that the three of us ever decided to work on together, back in the increasingly distant year of 2015: something we have been calling... *deep breath* Selfie Game: The Movie: The Game: Song of Myselfie.
I don't think any of us remember exactly how this project came to be, but I suspect it had something to do with being cranky about and/or wanting to make fun of 2012's Indie Game: The Movie. One of us probably suggested something like "wouldn't it be funny if we made our own indie game documentary filmed entirely using selfie sticks?" and another one of us might have responded with "yeah, and it should also be an FMV game!" and then someone else (probably Jess) suggested including "Song of Myselfie" somewhere in the already very long and ridiculous working title with too many colons. Obviously, this idea was so conceptually compelling that we just had to figure out how to make it actually happen.
Eventually, we decided that every day from April 1 to June 30 of 2015, we would record a 15-second video selfie: basically the same idea as "1 Second Everyday" but with 14 more of them. We would then leave the decision of what, exactly, to do with all those videos to our future selves, but in the meantime, we just enjoyed the process of documenting our lives as they were happening at that point in time. I was in the middle of finishing, exhibiting, and defending my MFA thesis at UC Santa Cruz, Jess was traveling in Europe for over half the time and helping to run a Games Incubator, and Allison was preparing to head to New York for her MFA while showing In Tune at festivals and attending her grandfather's funeral along the way.
Me, making a video chat appearance in one of Allison's selfies.
Jess at the airport, about to embark on their Eurotrip.
After our allotted 3 months were over, we tried to figure out how to design an interactive experience around these selfie videos, but the rest of our lives got in the way and, aside from screening a selection of the videos at a gallery exhibition the three of us participated in at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont later in 2015, the project would never again see the light of day.
Years later, the whole ordeal that was 2020 happened. At that point, the three of us were living in the same city making games together again and tentatively planting the seeds of what would soon become Soft Chaos. I believe it was I who brought up Selfie Game: The Movie: The Game: Song of Myselfie again and wouldn't it be fun to do the same thing 5 years later, especially now that we had the opportunity to document the weird, apocalyptic moment in time that was the early days of COVID? And so, from April 1 to June 30 of 2020, we did exactly that.
The day Allison first met her now-girlfriend Dee, while running a game of Long Time Listener, Last Time Caller.
Jess doing a foxy closetplay.
Helping Allison move, complete with terrible homemade cloth masks.
Now, our current plan is for this to be a very long-term project that we pick up every 5 years. Maybe someday it'll become an actual documentary (interactive or otherwise) about the history of Soft Chaos, or maybe it'll just be a fun activity we keep to ourselves. Maybe we'll even come up with a more snappy title (but we don't see how that's possible :P). Who knows what the future will bring?
Hello again, Comradery!
Allison here to update you on the exploits and adventures of Soft Chaos.
To start off, I want to say that behind the scenes, there is so much exciting stuff happening for the Soft Chaos team. We’ve always been confident in our abilities and our members, but we’ve surprised even ourselves (and we’ve definitely surprised our business coach) with how quickly things are taking off. One thing we can mention is that Pulling Strings will be on a PAX Unplugged panel! If you’ll be there, be sure to check us out.
With that said, on to the main topic of this post: our current work-in-progress.
Cadences: The Story of a Distance and its Pair.
Cadences is a game designed to be played by two people asynchronously. Players will create the story of a relationship’s life, from the moment of its conception until the moment it ends. In Cadences, there are two roles for the players: The Distance and The Pair.
The Distance is ever-shifting and mysterious. Playing The Distance means seeking to find words and metaphors to describe something abstract and mutable.
The Pair is human and flawed. Playing The Pair means playing a grounding, concrete role in contrast to the metaphorical and amorphous nature of the Distance.
The Distance and The Pair take turns going on walks guided by an accompanying audio file, considering the changes and phases of the relationship, and communicating the next part of the story in a way that fits their relationship. The Pair describes, with the help of prompts, events that happen in the relationship while the Distance describes, through metaphorical descriptions, how those events impact it.
I’ve always been drawn to designing games about abstract communication. You can see this in my past work — from a cooperative video game where two players have asymmetric information and need to communicate it to each other by manipulating a single musical note to a Larp where you are being haunted by the literal ghosts of your failed relationships who can only communicate with you by manipulating your environment à la poltergeist. I can’t quite remember how we came up with the idea for Cadences, but the minute I heard it I was in love.
Squinky brought this image by artist Olivia DeRecat as a jumping-off point. It’s a beautifully visual representation of closeness over time, using the distance between lines to represent intimacy. We wanted to take this further: we wanted to have a distance that could be represented in even more metaphors. In colours. In musical notes. In shapes.
This game concept also spoke to me because of my own life. I’ve always been rather nomadic — I’ve lived in eight provinces and states, in countless apartments, and in my entire adult life have never stayed in the same apartment for more than two years. I’ve been to five post-secondary institutions and have had over twenty different jobs. I pride myself on having relationships and friends from so many of those times and places in my life that I care deeply about and remain in contact with (though not as often as I’d like). While making this game, I’ve spent time thinking about so many of them and how I picture the distance between us. In Cadences, the relationship ends at the last moment that either of the Pair thinks about the other. So as long as I’m thinking about these people, I am keeping our relationship alive in some way.
I can’t wait for the point in the design process where I get to play this with someone I care about. I also can’t wait until we have the support to dedicate enough hours to these projects to get them to a level where we can release them for you to play too.
Do me a favour, and think of someone you care about and miss. Picture what the distance between you looks like. And smile remembering you may have just shrunk it a little.
P.S We want to thank you all for your support. We’re at 69$ now. Nice.
At the end of October, the Soft Chaos team finished off a project for a competition called "Power and Control" run by an organization that aims to prevent violence among teens, particularly those in romantic relationships. We were named as finalists for the competition in early October and had about twenty days to finalize our entry and create support materials.
If you know the Soft Chaos team, you might remember that two of us (Allison and I) worked on a game a whole seven years ago that we toured a whole lot of festivals with (and filmed a trailer for before we had switched our controllers to PlayStation Moves with custom conductive sleeves) called In Tune! In fact, it's part of how we met D. Squinkifer, our third member, when they played our game at a local event. With In Tune, our goal was to explore negotiating the touch of bodies in different contexts. So, the Soft Chaos team has some experience, both with In Tune, as well as with different safety practices and mechanics we've used in a wide variety of games, with designing this kind of content.
Our new game is called Pulling Strings, and it's about how different aspects of identity lend people different forms of power over each other in relationships. In Pulling Strings, we literalize that power by having players physically tie themselves to each other. Players choose a hand that they move blocks with and a hand that they manipulate other players with. Depending on the relative power in the relationship, players tie strings to each other's hands, which affects their ability to manipulate blocks to meet their objectives.
Although it's designed for teens, it was important to us that we not oversimplify the issue, and we tried to make a game that helped players ask the questions that they needed in order to understand the dynamics at play. These dynamics exist in any relationship, but how they are handled and what comes of them is a different question. For some of us, designing this game meant drawing on lived experience with difficult dynamics from our past relationships.
I think that creators can't help but put a part of themselves in their work, always, and the smaller the team, the more you can see those distinct parts because they come from fewer people. But I also think that the Soft Chaos team in particular puts a lot of our most vulnerable selves into our work. In making something new of those experiences, a kind of transformation takes place -- from something lived and maybe reflected upon, to something remade and repurposed.
I'm suspicious of catharsis in general when it's just about a release of feelings that makes an audience feel better, because that can rob people of the will to act to improve the world around them. If you feel good and comfortable, then why work to improve a situation? It's been argued that this is kind of a "bread and circuses" way of keeping people complacent. (Ready Player One and the Metaverse, anyone?) This opposition to catharsis (in the Aristotelian sense) is something that Bertolt Brecht talks a lot about. Catharsis that can shore up existing structures, and it's a major reason why Brecht created epic theatre and aimed to keep the audience distanced or alienated (and therefore able to be critical).
But when that release of emotion is tied to possibilities for future action and to a transformation of the situation, I think it can make for something very powerful. Even though Pulling Strings is a small-scope little project, I hope it can help teens (and others) feel equipped to act.
We'll find out in the next few weeks how we did in the competition, so more on that to come!
Hi, it's Squinky again. So, here's the thing: initially, I had been planning to write a blog post about one of our "One a Month" games that Allison alluded to a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't bring myself to focus well enough to do the topic justice. Instead, I'm going to talk about burnout.
You know that feeling you get when you just don't want to do anything, even stuff you know that you usually enjoy doing? When it feels like all the creative energy has been squeezed out of you, like a tube of toothpaste you've rolled up in an attempt to get the last tiny blobs out of? Sometimes, you can force yourself to persist, but sooner or later, your exhaustion catches up with you and you just can't anymore.
That's how I've been feeling these past couple weeks, and I hate it. Here in Montreal at least, the weather is getting colder and the days are getting shorter, which, without fail, means the inevitable onset of seasonal depression, no matter how much I try to intervene with artificial sunlight and exercise. Commitments I'm pretty sure I was able to handle just a month ago are now too overwhelming to even think about. As much as I really want to talk about the exciting projects we're doing, I can't make myself actually feel excited about any of them... at least not right now.
It's been drilled in us repeatedly that starting a new business is a lot of hard work with little to no return for our efforts, and that's especially true in the first year. And for all our optimistic intentions, as a worker co-op, in creating a space for ourselves to work sustainably, without the pressure of bosses breathing down our necks and forcing us to work long hours, the fact remains that the world out there is still a dystopian capitalist hellscape and we still have to keep up the hustle in order to survive.
Until the much-awaited revolution comes, however, we can at least try to mitigate the punishing effects of capitalism. We do whatever we can when we're able to, and when we're too exhausted to even, we try to stay communicative and accountable. I often feel ashamed of myself when I collapse and my teammates have to pick up the slack in my absence, but I also know I would be more than willing to do the same were the roles reversed, because I genuinely care about them as human beings and value them for more than their productivity. I'll admit, it's a lot harder to extend the same grace to myself, but I'm trying my best, as are we all.
As hard as it is to resist the pressures of hustle culture, the fact remains that none of us can do our best work unless we listen to our bodies and take the time to slow down and rest when we need to. Ultimately, as a co-op, we aim to run a business that is sustainable, which may sometimes mean re-evaluating some of our commitments and changing course accordingly. So while there's still a lot we're in the process of figuring out, workload-wise, the great thing about being our own bosses is that we're the ones who ultimately get to call the shots, so why not make it a priority to care for our whole selves?
I’m Allison, the third co-founder of Soft Chaos. It’s finally my turn at the wheel to let you know what has been happening with us (and it has been a lot!).
The first thing that we want to do is give a big thank you to everyone who has supported us so far. With your help, we’re almost halfway to our first funding goal.
A quick reminder of our next couple of goals:
With that being said, I get to update you on one of the most important parts of Soft Chaos: our practice as artists.
A lot of starting a workers cooperative is the bureaucracy. I personally have been on hold with more banks and government agencies in the last year than the majority of my life. It has been tiring, and not always nourishing to my artist’s soul. So, we here at Soft Chaos decided to set up structures to ensure that while we get our feet on the ground as a financially sustainable organization, we also continue to make. cool. art.
The first and most important project we have put in place, we lovingly call our “One a Month”.
We make sure to put aside one evening a week where the cooperative meets in-person to work on a creative project. No business talk. No mention of upcoming grant deadlines or the logistics of opening a bank account in another country or how to get group health insurance. Just making stuff together. This is the reason we formed a cooperative. Because we love the act of creating as a team.
'But Allison,' you may be asking. 'You meet weekly, so why do you call it "One a Month"?'
What a good question! Our goal with these weekly meetings is to create one game or playful experience a month, realistically scoped to make a finished product in that timeframe. We want to be able to experiment with form, content, and narrative within small games that are possible for us to make quickly. We know we’ll come across ideas and projects that we want to expand, but for now, we already have small ones that we love.
We started this process in late August, and already have projects that we're proud of and that you’ll hear about in future updates. One of them is even a finalist in a design competition!
I can’t express how good it feels to be creating again, and particularly with my two co-founders. We all want to thank you for helping to make our creative practice a sustainable one.
Hi everyone! I'm D. Squinkifer, one of the three worker-owners of Soft Chaos, and I wanted to announce that I've just finished a new videogame project, titled Squinky and the Squinkettes present: SECOND PUBERTY!
SECOND PUBERTY started out as a project wherein I wanted to explore feelings around gender transition and starting hormones in my thirties. Then, the pandemic happened and it also partially became about getting through that whole thing. At this time of writing, the pandemic in question is still not over, and I guess neither is my gender transition, for that matter. But the game is finally as finished as it's ever going to be and therefore ready for you to play!
I designed SECOND PUBERTY to feel somewhat like a music album or a collection of poetry, uniting a bunch of small videogames around a particular theme. Each game is its own bite-sized experience, meant to be played in any order you want and to be returned to if and when you so choose, and you will probably end up with a favourite and/or a not-so-favourite. That said, there is a narrative arc of sorts embedded in the album as a whole:
"Super Modesty Bros." is about growing up in a religious purity culture and being taught to shun things.
"hold in your farts or die" is about masking in order to fit in, a common experience between queerness and neurodivergence.
"An Introvert goes to a Party" is about coexisting within a crowd of other people while dealing with sensory overload.
"Dance Dance Validation!" is about getting people to like you by becoming a compelling and charismatic performer.
"please don't leave me." is about finding oneself in an unhealthy and abusive relationship, and finding the courage to walk away.
"You wake up from a long, dark sleep" is about how it feels to slowly come out of a depressive episode.
"Hot Apocalyptic Summer" is about reuniting with your friends in a world where everything feels weird, uncertain, and, well, apocalyptic.
Incidentally, this last game kind of sums up how I've been feeling about cofounding Soft Chaos. It's a weird time to be starting a new game studio, and in spite of all our planning and hard work just getting the basic bureaucracy of everything settled, none of us have any idea what's going to happen or how things are going to go. But at the very least, we're all in it together, and for the first time in my very long and winding game development career, I feel like I'm actually part of something bigger than just myself.
You can play SECOND PUBERTY for free in a web browser here. If you make a donation for $1 USD or more, you will also get a downloadable copy. Meanwhile, if you aren't already supporting Soft Chaos here on Comradery and want to help us make more games as a co-op, you can subscribe here.
Welcome, welcome! The Soft Chaos Cooperative is excited by all of you who have decided to join in on the chaos so far! Thank you. We can't wait to share cool stuff with you!
We wanted to let you know what you can expect from us on here in a bit more detail. In a nutshell, the more support that we have, the more that we'll be able to make! For now, you can expect a written post from us every two weeks about different topics related to design, from behind-the-scenes development diaries to retrospectives and reflections on past projects, starting with this post explaining our future plans for Comradery.
From here, we plan to create target monthly funding goals that will allow us to pay ourselves a fair wage to create cool things for you. Here are a few of the goals we have in mind so far!
When you help us hit a specific monthly funding goal, you are helping to unlock that content for the whole community! Anyone who pledges a dollar or more with us will have access to all locked content that we distribute through Comradery. So, when you give us a little more, you're helping everyone who supports us enjoy what we're able to make as a direct consequence of your generosity!
For now, the one exception that we foresee in the future is when it comes to physical rewards. For those folks who want physical rewards, there will be tiered options to cover the cost of making the physical goods and shipping them. Those will come out when we have something that we want you to be able to hold in your hands!
Meanwhile, more and more features are about to go live on Comradery, and we'll be exploring what we can do with those as well. We also just started a new creative project last week that we're looking forward to sharing details about in the next little while!
Look out for our next update in two weeks!
We're ecstatic to announce that as part of the Pervers/Cité festival, which is part of Montreal Pride, we'll be running Strangers on the 'Net on August 26th and September 2nd 2021. This two-part interactive theatre piece features wonderful facilitators with a ratio of one facilitator to three players. It's a live-action online game that takes place entirely over text in Discord.
Get ready to gossip, roleplay, flirt, fight, fall in love, confess your secrets, explore your identity, and confront what it meant to be a teenager online in the 90s.
In this two-part live-action online experience, the adult audience participates as 16-to-18-year-old teens in 1999 who absolutely love two things:
1) a well-known and beloved fictional fandom (in this case, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*), and
2) text-based roleplay on a chat server called RPFreak.net.
*In-depth knowledge of Buffy is not required -- watching a YouTube compilation or two of your character or watching an episode or two of the show is plenty!
Tickets are available here but no one will be turned away for lack of funds, so reach out if the ticket cost is a barrier and we'll hook you up! We'd love to see you there.