ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Jane Friedhoff about Slam City Oracles, a colorful game with a strong message.
Being a woman is hard, but “being a woman in game development is really hard,” Jane Friedhoff told ANIMAL. Her newest game, Slam City Oracles, will debut tomorrow at the NYU Game Center’s annual “No Quarter” exhibition, and its release is timely, to say the least. The video game industry has long been an unfriendly place for women, and that’s come into acute focus recently through several unfortunate scandals. Slam City has been in development longer than that, but its existence right now couldn’t be more timely.
In Slam City, one or two players control a pair of female characters as they repeatedly slam into the ground and various objects, causing havoc and wreaking destruction on a greater and greater scale as gameplay progresses. The premise is simple: “You and your best friend dance so hard that you tear down the city,” Friedhoff said. A bubbly pop song by Prophets & Kings bounces along, and big pink words describing your hijinks flash across the screen—”fuck the police” when you smash a cop car, or “high five all the pizza” when you, well, high-five giant slices of pizza. The world is elastic. It’s adorable and gleefully fun, but in developing it Friedhoff drew on unpleasant experiences.
“If you grow up as a woman you have a lot of painful experiences and moments about your body and I kind of wanted to turn that into something really personal and more uplifting,” she said. She compared her approach to game design to the zero-fucks-given riot grrl movement of feminist punks, with eager self-representation and a lack of apology at the forefront. “There’s something about having two female characters having a really good time with each other, ignoring the outside world, taking up a lot of space, and using their bodies as a force,” she said.
Friedhoff graduated from Parsons’ Design and Technology MFA program last year, and she’s been making games her whole life. But one needs to look no further than the hatred and bile endured by women like critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Zoe Quinn to see how difficult—and sometimes dangerous—it can be to be a female working in the video game industry. Friedhoff feels underrepresented and under-appreciated at best, and she said every female developer she knows feels the same way.
“I would show stuff at conventions with my male colleagues and people would only talk to them,” she said. “I would stand behind the booth and no one would talk to me, or they would assume that I was in marketing or whatever.” She co-founded an organization called the Code Liberation Foundation with other female developers, including Phoenix Perry, Nina Freeman and Catt Small, that teaches women programming for free. The response from male gamers was so hateful that she eventually stopped reading the comments.
Slam City Oracles is very much a response to those experiences. In her most vulnerable moments, Friedhoff said, she began to fantasize about being invincible. “I feel like this whole world is pressing in on me; what would it feel like to press out on this world?” she wondered.
Like so many games, Slam City Oracles started out very differently from how it wound up. Friedhoff worked on prototypes for months, and through multiple iterations she kept coming back to the slamming. “I made this terrible little prototype,” she said, “just, like, two bricks with a couple of bricks in between them, and you can jump, and you can slam down, and you can throw each other. And I was like, this is really stupid, but I keep not being able to put it down.”
The game began to really come together when artist Jenny Jiao Hsia joined the fun. Friedhoff loved her art—”It was cute, but kind of with an edge, a little bit goofy, a little bit manic, and she had a sense of color that was just really wonderful,” she said. She gave Jiao Hsia minimal direction regarding characters and environments, happy to let the artist do her thing, and the results speak for themselves.
“A lot of the games that I make tend to orbit around bodies and awkwardness and taking up space in this weird way,” Friedhoff said. Two of her previous games, Scream ‘Em Up and Second Amendment, fall into this category. The former involves running around screaming into an iPhone and requires a projector and a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor, while the latter is a text-only adventure game in which you play as an arm slamming repeatedly onto a keyboard.
But more than anything else, Friedhoff is always chasing something called “ilinx” in her games. The term was defined by French sociologist Roger Caillois as a disruption of perception, like vertigo. “Ilinx is like when you’re on a roller coaster, or you’re being spun around—this total disorientation, kind of lost in the moment, dizziness,” Friedhoff said. “I feel like there’s something really transformative that happens when you lose the thing that’s grounding you.”
Slam City Oracles will be on display this weekend at NYU’s No Quarter exhibition at Waka Waka in Manhattan. Friedhoff plans to release the game more widely following the exhibit. Head to slamcityoracles.com and gamecenter.nyu.edu for more information.