A Psychogeography Of Games #6: Llaura Borealis

This is the last of my 6 articles in the Psychogeography of Games series on RPS, drawn from a series of performance talks given at Videobrains in London. If you’d like to support my on-going games writing, and get a reward of a super cool zine of these collected writings plus images and extras, sign up on patreon.com/hannahnicklin. Thanks for reading. – Hannah

This is how it starts:
With the sea.

A child, small, dwarfed by the rocks and the waves, shrunk both by the scale of the Atlantic and the men that rough their hands on board fishing boats, across ropes and nets and salted cold burnt skin.

A child laughing.
Before the child is full of ideas of everything they aren’t that they should be.
Before then, there’s just the child,
And the sea.

As I write this, I’m sat in Holyhead station at 2:09am, 6 hours into my 14 hour journey back from Dublin, where I walked with Llaura from the pier at Dún Laoghaire (Dun Lere-ey) to the top of Three Rock Mountain, where you can see the whole of the bay.

We walk from the bay, from the pier at Dún Laoghaire to the top of Three Rock Mountain. When we get up to the mountain, there’s rain. Only a little, but from where we stand we can see it heavy down by the sea. Big and thick, a rainbow squats down over the city. The bay looks the same shape as it does on Google Maps, which somehow surprises me; like a little croissant curled up around the sea.

The child plays in the Atlantic. Not with the confidence of a swimmer, but with the whole-heartedness of someone willing to be afraid. The child is breath-knocked, pulled, pushed, swirled; gasps and salt-water eyes, clinging hair, the water and the child, alive.

Llaura is interested in immersing herself in the material of things: of finding ways to understand the materials she works with, working with and against that grain. She likes contrast. She’ll write an ending that might be considered the ‘right’ ending – like in her award winning game Curtain – but leave the oppressively sized text box of the antagonist in place, her voice threatening to re-appear. She’ll make A Lit Window – a Twine game for gritty urban streets – and score it with classical chamber music. She searches for contrasts in everything, particularly by drawing on artforms outside of games. In fact, Llaura explains, the biggest step forward in her practice was attending a creative writing group.

“In the six months I was part of this group, […] I learnt more about making video games and what actually matters than everything that had come before. […] ‘good [games] practices’, like thinking of games as design, there is an implication there with the term ‘design’ that there is a perfect game, like there’s a perfect kettle, you know? [That’s a] terrible thing, a meaningless term.”

Llaura describes being influenced by music journalism, poetry, Steven Universe, philosophy. When Llaura talks of games influences, it’s people from the rapid fire highly experimental end of game design, people playing with plasticine and felt tips, Game Maker, twine, people like thecatamites. They’re often personal, autobiographical, DIY in a sense I recognise from the world of basement gigs and warehouse performance. In fact, the DIY scene is the landscape that I feel most clearly shapes Llaura’s approach to games – ‘just fucking do it’; start with who you are; pick up the tools you have, make new ones. From the DIY two-piece at the heart of Curtain, the record store setting of Istanbul, Texas, and the zines she makes, art fairs she puts on in Dublin.

On the Ferry back to Holyhead I sleeplessly re-read Llaura’s late night reflections on BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS. I’m coming down with a cold. My throat is scratchy, I’m exhausted, all I want is a hot chocolate and bed but that prospect is more than 27 hours away. So I suck expensive strepsils, and read her zines. The tiny pixelated print laid over brash accidental art spells out a notion that makes sense of Llaura’s work even in the midst of maximum sorry-for-myself:

“Perhaps the start […] is to look at the world and everything and everyone in it not in terms of how it can accommodate us, but how we can accommodate and value them for themselves .”

Of all the things Llaura and I talk about, the thing that sticks with me most is a description of her swimming in the sea, near where she grew up, in Killybegs. She describes being thrown around by the water, taken by a huge wave, enjoying being pulled around, finding a relationship with it. She mentions this in talking about the way she likes to make games – about understanding the grain of the material of the things she uses to make work with – the affordances of a certain form, or tool, or player expectation. She talks about how she likes to pull out the quirks and the accidents.

Llaura describes herself to me: the difficulties she had at school and uni, a couple of years in Dundee, never fitting into the world’s ideas for her, the pain and violence of non-conformative identity. Then into her early 20s, uni-left, a successful internship at Microsoft, all of the things you’re supposed to want, following the path of a Good Game Development Career. Despite this, Llaura only reflects on a couple of moments of happiness or contentment.

(Sometimes the places and events that shape us aren’t easy.)

Llaura explains that for a long time she resisted being creative, she loathed herself so much, that expressing it seemed like exactly the wrong thing to do.

“When you feel like your deepest core is horrific and horrible, and reprehensible […] you can’t relate to people, you’re locked [up]… I’m still trying to work through it.”

Llaura comes from the fishing town of Killybegs, but mostly she says ‘Donegal’ when people ask her. At the top of 3 rock mountain I ask Llaura, “why are we here, why is this a walk you chose?”

“It’s a really nice view of Dublin, [I moved away, but] I kept on coming back and reclaiming it […] we can see the sea.”

At the start of our walk we get the bus from her house to the seafront. We sit up top. Eventually a gaggle of teenage schoolgirls get on and sits at the back. We go still when we hear that they’re talking about trans people.

“Yeah but isn’t it just like being gay?”
“No, it’s not about who you like, it’s like you’re born a guy, but you feel like a girl”
“So it’s being the thing that you feel like, like what you know you are inside?”
“Yeah”
(Pause)
“I’m pretty certain that I’m a girl”
“Me too”

A thoughtful pause, and they move on.

Our lives intimately affect one another, whether or not you see or know the harm or good they do, your actions and words are passed on. We are connected, Llaura’s interest in this is clear.

“[…] coming into the city from Donegal I didn’t think I would be able to sleep at night because it was so noisy. […] the city was a big change, […] Like people go past on the bus and you see some of them briefly, [and yet] everyone has these… universes.”

Llaura is most interested in creating moments in her game design – not simulations, but small moments, that encompass the tip of universes meeting.

“[simulation can be] really dehumanising, […] say you wanted to make a game about love, [you’re] always reducing, reducing, reducing […] [I’m much more interested in something like] two people at a café and you’re controlling how they look around the café and if you catch each others’ eyes they look away. It’s a moment you’ve captured, rather than saying, “This is love, love is x.” […] you’re leaving it open for them to interpret, according to their lives and according to their experience.”

Llaura is Irish. It’s present not just in the ground beneath our feet, but in the history she tells me at every opportunity: in the place names she dissects and the nuances of something as simple as the word ‘hello’ in Gaelic. She’s influenced by her heritage, and by a sense of being on the edge: in her queerness, DIY culture, her country on the edge of Europe.

“Ireland has always been this country on the edge of Europe, you know? […] disconnected from proper society, like Irish poets and writers. […] there’s definitely a strong sense of community, but there’s a sense in creative people of isolation as well.”

Beckett, Joyce, Yeats: strangers abroad. The outsider is often of value in culture; always able to look at the things seen as normal and point out how really, we’re all queers and freaks, creatures of extraordinary routines.

This article series was made possible by the RPS Supporter Program. Thanks for your funding!

9 Comments

  1. heretic says:

    Very nice series, thank you!

  2. Random Integer says:

    Dun Leer-e.

  3. caff says:

    The outsider is often of value in culture; always able to look at the things seen as normal and point out how really, we’re all queers and freaks, creatures of extraordinary routines.

    Hannah, I’ve loved this series. I’ve said it before but you’ve presented something wonderful and abstract and just real about developers and the people and environs that influence them.

    This last comment is something wonderful. I hope you meant this as a high, something to be celebrated.

  4. Oozo says:

    Just wanted to add my thanks for this series. I feel like I’ve learned more about games, but also about landscapes, about music, about ways of living, in short, about culture — and about people. Most of all about people.
    For a medium that in its most visible parts sometimes seems like something devoid of personality and persons, of people, that’s a lot. So… thanks.

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    tigerfort says:

    Just to add another vote of thanks for a series of really interesting thought-provoking pieces.

  6. Rhodokasaurus says:

    I feel like most of the people in these articles would benefit from talking to other people instead of trying to connect via super-personal video game poetry.

    Releasing something to the general public to discover that almost nobody is looking or understands your creation just makes you feel even more alone. Spent less time in your own head, spend more time around others, finding someone who relates to you. Nobody gets a free pass from having to go through that same sometimes anxious, sometimes tedious experience, no matter how normal or weird you are, or pretend to be.

    Just my opinion.

  7. amusingthebrood says:

    I’d also like to add my thanks for a great series. Up with this sort of thing!