An Interview with Porpentine, Maker of Mutant Feminist Cyber Games
Porpentine lives in Oakland and makes games about, among other things, “pop star Ke$ha against trans-dimensional haters.” You can try them out here, some in this very browser*. She also writes a weekly roundup of free games for Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
I decided to interview Porpentine over chat. (This meant it took about 57 hours, and she may never do an interview ever again: sorry, Porpentine and journalism.) We talked about bodies, women’s work, jet ski depiction, violent business sim memoir, and we insulted fruit. I’d call it a text adventure, except, that’s not right at all**, because Porpentine is the human, and I’m the *%^#$(!#@ parser pretending to direct her responses. The interview has been cut up and spun around.
Tim: Step 1. Play video games. Step 2. Start making them?
Porpentine: Games feel like some kind of Wild West frontier where so much is possible. It’s just such an exciting, sensual medium to play with. I like how they unify different mediums (sound, visuals, text, etc.) into this weird chaos beast. I played a lot of games as a child, so yes I was probably definitely brainwashed into fetishizing low-poly femme aesthetics and bizarre architectural spaces.
But I couldn’t really make it come out of my own fingers until I figured out a lot of my own shit. Like, my games come from my body. The limitations and strengths. The games I was “supposed” to be making were alienating and exhausting me. Complete games. Games from existing molds, whether those molds are mainstream or obscure. There’s always pressure to harden and solidify.
My games are broken. And that’s okay.
Free games feel like blog posts, snippets of conversation. It surprises me that games haven’t really trickled into the rest of the Internet that way.
Yeah. Much more alive. Games went through a period of inaccessibility for a while, like, “Buy a huge slab of ominous machinery that you plug into your television and it beams Licensed Nintendo Radiation into your skull leaving you feeling aroused but nauseous.” Now most games I play or make can be played in browser in 10-20 mins, and you don’t have to be a freaking nerd about it.
Not that byzantine arcane experiences and the ritualistic hardware and paraphernalia surrounding video games doesn’t fascinate me.
You and some other game makers have started pages on Patreon, which is a Kickstarter-like for smaller projects. Does this feel like a viable way to keep making free games?
It’s part of making games, but not all of it. I’m working on more $ shit, because, let’s be honest, we need to dignify the labor of marginalized people with cold hard squirming $. Women get told their labor is worthless all the time, and they end up doing most of it, and they do it better.
I think art is too big for any one solution. It’s one tactic out of many, whether it’s Patreon or Gumroad or leaving discs on park benches, or all of the above. Having a following is also super important.
Could you walk us through the process of making one of your games in particular? What does it look/feel/taste like?
90% of making a game is dealing with the physical and emotional exhaustion of constant harassment, misogyny and transphobia in my field. The rest is where I come in.
I don’t really know how I made any of my games. I’m pretty sure high-ranking celestial entities are using my body as a vessel to interfere with the history of game development.
But, um, one of my games in particular? Ultra Business Tycoon III is interesting. I started that years ago, inspired by the trashy aesthetic of thecatamite’s work. I picked it up again, and it became much more personal. Much porpier.
At first it was a violent business sim, but I have so much trouble keeping emotions out of my work that the game part became a way to comment on the meta part, where you play as a young girl in an abusive family who loses herself in video games. She has a big sister. Both sisters are facets of me at the time: the little sister who lost herself in games and the big sister who left her family behind to survive and become the beautiful woman she was meant to be.
My art and selfhood is heavily informed by this dualism. I feel like I have to occupy both roles to understand. How dare I speak for someone else? I’m not going to set up a prop of my IRL sister. It can be influenced by her, the game is definitely for her, but some of me had to be there as well.
So I’m an hour away from releasing my game, and I’m lying on my bed holding my phone reading texts from my sister and crying. The game still has no ending. She sent me some pictures, and I asked her if I could put them in the game, and she said yes. I knew I couldn’t seek some false catharsis. The only ending I could put in my game was real life. Which is hard and unpredictable, but it’s where we live and what we have to work with. It’s one of the most whole things I’ve ever made.
I mean, what else can I comment on besides my personal condition? Satirize capitalism? Satirize the huge fucking death machine destroying the world on a larger scale than I can even comprehend? It doesn’t give a shit about me. We know these things are bad. That is obvious. How does it change anything? I need to do things for myself and the people around me to survive. I have no time for the monoliths.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’ve talked in the past about frustration with players dismissing [some of your games] as being autobiographical and thus uninteresting. How do you engage with that audience/is it worth engaging with that audience, in making games?
That’s so boring. I don’t think about that stuff. I’m beautiful and everything that comes from my mind and body is beautiful. It’s 3014, our flesh is literally melting before our eyes, I have no time for nonsense.
I’m my audience.
I have no control over who likes my art, but I’m very happy when they do. I’ve gotten kind words from everyone from the proverbial straight white male to trans women like me, and I value them all. Like, a game about Ke$ha fighting transdimensional haters with sparkle beams is probably different from a game where you wander across my 300-foot-tall body in a junkyard cleaning congealed feminism from my joints.
I do see some common motifs there, and like in Armada, that are really cool. Bodies seem to do a lot of erupting and taking in. There’s a horror element, but not in the passive, rapey way of horror movies. Is horror something you want people to interact with?
I didn’t know it was horror, I thought it was cute.
It is definitely a joyful [thing], not like eeeevil.
As a woman I get horror. Women know fear. We aren’t protected. And I get body horror. We’re taught to internalize pain until it mutates and tears us apart. I envision physical metaphors of violence commensurate to the emotional violence done to me.
“Fucker been sowing some pretty heavy shit.”
Role-playing is key for empathy. Does that seem right to you?
I don’t think anyone has any mercy for me that will magically appear if I make just the right combination of pictures and text and mechanics. A piece of art can be powerful and feel like epiphany but it’s no substitute for the regular maintenance required for scraping out the oppressive sludge building up in our joints every single day.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to make it seem like you make games as empathy inceptors. “Usefulness” is sort of reductive and ego-massaging to myself as a player, and leaves out the inventive language, aesthetics, etc. that make your games interesting.
Yeah, I agree. I like when people focus on the technique and aesthetic of my games, because I feel there’s a lot of intentionality and artistry that gets erased from analyses of women’s work. Like, we need deeper analyses of women’s work than “Isn’t it great that women are making games?”
It’s like yes, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand?
What are you working on/thinking about/excited for?
Oh god. I’m pretty much purely driven by prophecy, so I have no idea what will survive, but I’m making a little collection of hideous microgames. And this very second I’m making something about post-apocalyptic jet ski designers just to keep my brain alive.
I’m just really excited to be making games about being a woman. And more explicitly about being a woman who is Porpentine, which is all I really can ever do.
Are these microgames you are planning graphical? For some reason, I hear jet skis and assume graphics. Although a text adventure on a jet ski would maybe be an interesting challenge?
The microgames are graphical. You can be a witch or a slimeblob or navigate dressing rooms as a trans woman (same thing). They are awful.
The jet ski thing I’m working on is text. You harvest jet ski parts for the cartels. You build jet skis from the jet ski parts. The world is radioactive and full of sludge. It’s therapeutic. Sewing together the scraps floating around my mind makes them less loud. It’s like an irritation. Just trying to be the best oyster I can be.
When I pitched this story, I quoted your description of Womanhood Triumphant (about being a floating woman’s head who has to avoid projectiles until her baby dies…also she has to avoid those bigwigs in washington who want to control her bod…very political game, very topicaluuurrgh sound effects by REAL WOMENS MOUTHS INC): the best description of a game I can’t play because I bought a dumb Mac. I think something interesting about indie games is sewing in scraps, like “real women’s mouths.” What makes some scraps suited to graphical games and some to text games?
Lollllll that old game. I love that game.
I don’t know. Text can be introspective. Graphical lets me play with motion and color.
Pain Transmuted is almost pure motion and color. You have to keep moving in circles… like Pokemon without numbers or slavery.
Hahah! I’m glad you played that game! I don’t think a lot of people have. I love it dearly.
Yes, pure motion and color. I played with the variables for hours until it felt just right. Most of the motion has small amounts of randomness built into it.
OK, is there anything else you would like to discuss?
Ummmm let me think.
The importance of pretty dresses, big gems and gorgeous nail polish to the game development process.
Ooh! This is what I meant by, “What does making a game look like?”
Ahaha. Okay well. Lots of cuddling, lots of crying, lots of pretty dresses. Drink lots of water and eat cute fruit. That’s my motto!!!!
Eat Cute Fruit -Porpentine, 2014
What is the least cute fruit? My vote is… apples?
The least cute fruit is masculinity, next question.
Oh yeah, apples SUCK. That’s so weird, in my last interview we were talking about how much apples suck. I think it’s related to the fact that apples suck.
In general though, I think it’s important for women to realize how much pressure they can be under to push themselves and wear themselves out and it’s like, you have to listen to your body and put your body first. You matter so much more than any amount of productivity or art or whatever.
Speaking of bodies, mine is mostly asleep now. Unless you had more to say on that?
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This is my final will and testimony.
Please safeguard it.
*If you are wondering how Porpentine makes the text games that appear here, she gave another interview for The New Inquiry explaining why you can and should make strangers on the Internet choose-their-own-adventures in a faraway trash-filled wasteland.
**Also not right because Cara Ellison, also at RPS, has actually made an interview with interactive fiction makers you can play.
Tim Williams is a community moderator for the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn.