Bahiyya Khan is the developer of after HOURS, a full-motion video (FMV) game about sexual assault and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Presented as an interactive film, after HOURS has received critical acclaim and awards at game conferences around the globe for its innovative storytelling and willingness to tackle difficult subjects. The game has also earned a publishing deal with Humble, which will be releasing the game for Windows in early December 2018.
I first saw Bahiyya when she traveled from her home in South Africa to the Different Games conference in Massachusetts, where she spoke about the challenges of developing a game whose subject matter could be triggering. In this podcast interview, I ask her whether after HOURS was a cathartic experience; why she chose FMV as her medium; whether her decision to star in the game increased her sense of vulnerability; how she recruited her team from local artists in Johannesburg; what it means to be earning a college degree in experimental storytelling; how her BPD manifests itself; and how she’ll feel when the game is finally released to the general public.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spoke, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Bahiyya Khan on Twitter
- Bahiyya Khan on itch.io
- after HOURS trailer
- Different Games 2018
- Crying in the Club: How to make games despite the crushing weight of being alive (at A MAZE 2017)
- ‘After Hours’ Brings Mental Health Awareness To Gaming (Frantz Jerome for Black Nerd Problems)
- Interview: Bahiyya Khan, Game Developer of After Hours (Erian Mathis for We Are Geeks of Color)
- Bahiyya’s favorite bands:
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to Polygamer episode number 83 for Wednesday, November 14th, 2018. I’m your host, Ken Gagne.
Last month, I went to my alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Massachusetts to attend Different Games, a video game conference that looks at the academic applications of video games and how they can be used to move forward our culture and our studies.
It was not the first time I attended. I had gone to the event at New York University years ago, but it has since moved from Brooklyn to much closer to me, in Massachusetts.
However, not everybody who is coming was from nearby. One person came all the way from South Africa to talk about her game, “after HOURS.” Joining us today on the Polygamer podcast is that developer and writer, Bahiyya Khan. Hello.
Bahiyya Khan: Hi, thank you so much for having me on here.
Ken: Thank you for coming on the show. I really appreciate it. It is quite the track you made to come all the way to Massachusetts from Johannesburg. Is that correct?
Bahiyya: Yeah, it was. I think it was 28 hours in total, so pretty hectic.
Ken: That must be so exhausting, and the jet lag must have been crippling?
Bahiyya: Yeah, I feel like I’m still recovering, but it was definitely intense.
Ken: You’ve traveled for quite a few video game events in the past few years. I saw that you went to A MAZE, and you had also done some crowdfunding to go to GDC, so you’ve been to quite a few of these events by now.
Bahiyya: Yeah, it’s been like a year and a half of me traveling but last year I only went to GDC. This year has been super intense of when it comes to traveling. I feel like I’m always jet lagged. I don’t know what time zone am I existing in, but it’s been really rewarding as well, so that’s good.
Ken: It seems like you’re traveling more the closer you get to the release of after HOURS this coming December. For those who haven’t gotten to try it yet, can you tell us a little bit about what after HOURS is?
Bahiyya: It’s a vignette FMV game that follows the protagonist Lilith Gray, who’s a young woman that was sexually abused as a child, which resulted in her getting borderline personality disorder. That’s all what the game is about.
Ken: You said it’s an FMV game. When I think of FMV, not only do I think of old Sega CD games but I also think more recently of “Her Story.” What made you choose that medium for this story?
Bahiyya: Last year when I started my crowdfunding campaign, that’s when I met Nina Freeman for the first time. I played a few of her games before but just like the Twine games that she made and that sort of thing. Then I know that her…I think it was Starmaid Games, the development company, they made “Sybil,” which is also an FMV game.
Although in Sybil, filmic aspects arches interjected here and there, and in after HOURS the entire game is filmed. I thought it was really cool, especially if you’re showing more raw stories and stories that have a lot of emotion and that sort of thing. I guess it’s like after seeing Sybil, I realized actually this is something that I can do.
Ken: You said it’s a way to convey a more emotional story. As you mentioned, it’s about a young woman who was sexually assaulted as a child and then developed borderline personality disorder.
We’ve talked on this Polygamer podcast in previous episodes about depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, but we’ve never covered BPD before. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Bahiyya: It’s also called emotionally unstable disorder since it’s characterized by unstable moods or behavior and a weird relationship to people and stuff like that.
I have borderline and I don’t feel like there’s one way to describe it because it feels like it’s such a crazy thing that’s all over the place, and even my description of it feels like it’s all over the place. Basically, it’s just a really awful thing to live with. It feels like you’re always living with a demon that looks like you.
Ken: How does that manifest itself? I know it’s hard to generalize but maybe you can speak from your own experience if that’s OK.
Bahiyya: Yeah, sure.
Ken: You said it’s like living with a demon but how does that come out?
Bahiyya: I don’t know. It feels like sometimes it’s things that trigger it. Sometimes nothing happens at all and then you just feel like super sad. I feel like a lot of this can be seen in after HOURS as well where you ricochet between idolizing yourself and totally devaluing yourself, and the same thing happens with other people as well.
I don’t know. For me, I feel like I struggle a lot with trusting myself because I feel like the reality that I inhabit is very different to other people’s. That’s generally the case because everyone’s reality is subjective.
Me, it just feel like, holy shit, everything is like huh, I don’t know what’s happening, super, super different. It feels like the way that I process things are not the same way that other people do. It’s hectic. I don’t know. I just feel like a lot, most of the time.
Ken: When you talk about vacillating between loving and hating yourself, I saw that in the trailer for after HOURS. I haven’t gotten to play the game yet but in the trailer, the young woman in one of the scenes, she’s saying, “I’m so effing hot”, and the next scene she’s saying, “Oh, my god. I hate myself.”
Bahiyya: A lot of the borderline tropes or characteristics in the game comes from my own experience, obviously, because I do have borderline, so I portray some of the emotions that I feel.
Even after making the game, I still felt like it’s shown in the game, sure, but I feel like it’s so much more than that. It’s such a messy and complicated thing, but I’m glad that I did get to put some sort of representation of borderline in the game.
Ken: If I understood you correctly, BPD is often not something like genetic or something that you’re born with. It’s often triggered by an event, like PTSD, it’s something that’s inflicted on you. Is that correct?
Bahiyya: I think so. I’m not really sure if anyone is born with borderline. For myself, it’s because I had a very unstable childhood, so that’s why I have borderline.
I think most people that I do know with borderline have been sexually abused in their adolescent years or as a child or something, so there was a triggering event. Although, I’m not really sure how does it come about, generally, for everyone.
Ken: Why did you decide to make a video game about this topic?
Bahiyya: I didn’t want to make a game about borderline, initially. I just thought that I’m going to be spending a year making a game because I made a game for my honors project last year. The requirement was to make a video game per year, and if I was spending that much of time on my life on something, I need it to be important to me.
There’s a lot of issues that I’m passionate about. Unfortunately, at that time in South Africa, we have one of the highest rape rates in the world, but it was particularly intense during the period before making after HOURS.
That’s when I decided you know what? I need to make a game about all of this. I need to make it because I needed to process a lot of things with regards to sexual abuse and that kind of thing.
I also wanted to highlight what was happening because I felt like I needed to be doing something more than just praying for it all to stop or being there for my friend and like that, being there for myself, whatever. That’s why I made the game.
Also, borderline and sexual abuse is so linked in a lot of ways, so that’s why I decided to make the game have aspects of borderline personality disorder as well. Also, there’s so many elements of truth in that game, and people that I know and my own story in that game. It was natural to have borderline featured within the game afterward.
Ken: During your Different Games talk, you mentioned some of the research you had to do to make this game and how triggering it was. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Bahiyya: Definitely. Actually, I feel like in retrospect, I didn’t need to do any research because as a woman, unfortunately, I have been subjected to sexual abuse multiple times in my life.
All of my female friends as well have been through that, so it’s something that I know about firsthand, we experienced, whatever. Obviously, I also know about borderline firsthand because I’ve had it for years now.
I still wanted to do research because I felt like I needed to know more about other women’s stories. I felt like I almost owed it to them to learn about their stories so they weren’t just like another statistic or another name in the newspaper.
When I was doing all of the research and learning about other people’s stories and how other people was borderline and have been sexually assaulted, generally, like live their live, I got super obsessed because I needed to know everything that ever happened.
I was googling a lot of these stories and feeling more and more sick. I felt like I had to remain in this constant state of sadness or I wouldn’t be portraying the game properly, which is very unhealthy.
I was definitely super absorbed by all of this. It was really triggering because I was sad and sickened all the time.
Ken: I understand that making a game about your own personal experiences or which is influenced by that can be very cathartic, but it sounds like that catharsis was almost offset by how troubling it was to make this game. Would you call this a positive experience overall?
Bahiyya: No. I don’t know. It’s not really black and white because it’s still something that I’m trying to navigate. If there’s any borderline lesson in that’s funny that I said like nothing’s black and white because often we see things in black and white.
Anyway, back to your question, there are good elements that came out of making this game, but it feels like I still have so many conflicting emotions with regards to having made after HOURS.
I’m glad that I made it because it discusses really important things. Many of the people that have played it are grateful that I made it. I’m happy about that. I’m pleased that it helps people to feel less alone and that I’m speaking about it. I’m pleased that I got to travel a lot because I made this game and could speak about it.
Also the surrounding rewards that came with having made after HOURS, like I have a publishing deal with Humble. Because I got to travel to different countries, I got to see different bands like small punk bands that would never come to South Africa, and I got to see these bands. That was cool for me.
The fact that making this game made me want to die so many times. Even now, it’s like the days leading up to it being released, I feel strange, and nervous and anxious all the time. There isn’t any positive or definitive answer about it like, “Yes, I’m glad I made this game. No, I’m not glad I made this game.” It’s a bit of everything.
Ken: How do you think you’ll feel after the game comes out?
Bahiyya: I think I’ll feel empty because it’s like my baby. I’ve been working on it and all of these things from last year, so 2 years of my 23 years on earth have been dedicated to making this game. Especially in the game dev scene, if anyone does know me, they mostly associate me with after HOURS.
It just feels like that’s my kid. We move everywhere together. Now, she’s going to be going off into the world. People will interpret her however they want to. It becomes their game. It could become someone else’s favorite game, which is cool, or they could hate it.
It feels like it’s not going to be my little baby that I work on in my room just by myself. I’ll feel like, “Well, now what do I do with my life?”
Ken: It’s almost like your kid is graduating and now going out into the real world. It’s not going to be just yours anymore.
Bahiyya: I don’t know. I think it was always in the real world, but it does feel like I have to…I don’t know. You know those single parents that depend…I mean, not depend on their kids but just do everything with their kids, and now their kids are going off to college. Now you have to go to the shops by yourself. That’s how it feels.
Ken: Like an empty nester, as they say.
Ken: [laughs] You said that a lot of people know you in association with after HOURS. How is it that you so successfully got this game’s name out there? I’ve read so much about it. I’ve seen you at so many events, including on YouTube videos, for example, of your A MAZE talk. Is it just by going to all these events and getting yourself out there?
Bahiyya: With after HOURS last year, the way that it got out there was it was like a super, super, very broken version of the game that was thrown together and submitted to the A MAZE fest in Joburg. That’s where I stay. It was sent off to this event, and then it won an award there, the Pinkest Game award.
Because there were a lot of international developers at A MAZE, that’s how a few of them knew about after HOURS, because they got to play at A MAZE and also because it won that award. Then my prize for winning that award was the fact that I could attend A MAZE Berlin in 2018.
This year, I went to A MAZE Berlin. I got nominated for another award when I was there. I think Humble sponsored the award. They definitely did because you’re in a publishing deal with them if you won the award.
It was about the best new talent. I won that award. I also did a talk at A MAZE this year. I think that’s how more people actually got to know about me. Also, I tweet about my game quite often like, “Just working it,” random things, whatever. That’s also how some people knew me.
When I won the Humble New Talent Award, that’s how more people got to know about after HOURS. That’s how I got the publishing deal. I tried to submit the game to as many places as possible and speak to as many people about the game as possible. Sorry, I’m saying that a lot.
That’s how I got the game out there. There wasn’t some magic thing that happened. It’s just working hard a lot, and sending it off to as many places as you can, and speaking about it in your talks. That’s basically what I did.
Ken: That’s really impressive. A lot of indie studios, they might, for example, contract with a publicity or marketing firm short term to help get the name out there.
If not that, I know a lot of developers may not necessarily be comfortable on stage talking about their game. They’d rather just be dedicated to working on the code. The fact that you’re able to do all this on your own is quite impressive.
Bahiyya: Actually, this other guy asked me like do I need help marketing and that kind of thing, because he knows a lot about it. Then he was also like, “Oh, you have to pay me a fee,” whatever. I just felt like I’d rather have the money used to pay the people who actually put their souls into this game, like my friends that helped me make this game.
Because there weren’t any white men working on this game, I also wanted to keep it between us, the people that did work on the game, not bringing in anyone new. Maybe it was like a badge or something. I’m putting that in inverted commas, but you can’t see that because of the podcast.
It just felt more natural doing it this way. Maybe we should have hired in someone. I don’t know. It’s my first game that I’m publishing. I’m doing what feels right for me right now.
I’m very young. I don’t know how anything works yet. It’s been a massive learning curve for me. I’m fortunate to have the team that I do who believe in me and believe in this game so strongly that I feel like I can do these things because of these people.
Ken: How did you assemble this team? Are they mostly people you went to school with?
Bahiyya: I’m still currently in school. That is how I met the girl that did all of the filming for the game.
When I started out wanting to make after HOURS, I knew that it was going to be an FMV. My lecturers and most of the people at school were like, “You shouldn’t do this,” but not in a negative way. They were just like, “You shouldn’t overscope.”
Also, no one’s made an FMV game yet before. I didn’t know how to code an FMV game. I did one year of film studies in my first year because I accidentally got put into that course. I didn’t know how to shoot like a professional film of something.
Then I was on YouTube watching music videos or something. Then I came across this video. I thought it was really cool. It turned out it was made by this girl that’s at our school. I’m at art school. All of the different divisions are pretty close to each other. She was also in my best friend’s animation class. I was like, “This is really cool. I’m going to go with him to class and meet this girl.”
I met her and I asked if she would be keen to film the game. She was like, “Definitely, I’ll do it. I always like helping out students because we’re all in this together.” She was really, really nice about everything.
But we still weren’t sure about who was going to be the programmer. We did have someone else helping out for a while but there were a lot of personality clashes and it wasn’t working out. This is during the A MAZE time. I was scared and stressed because I didn’t know where was a programmer going to come in from.
My friend, Sam, said to me that maybe she’ll speak to her boyfriend Tim if he could be the programmer. I’m friends with Tim as well. I’ve known Tim since I was 17. We met at some anti-racism campaign thing. I’ve known Tim for a while.
Tim came in and he was amazing, really helping us through everything. Even this year…Tim works in games. He knows a lot of things — and he’s older than me — about how things should work. I’ve learned so much from him.
I was really grateful to have worked with my friends because Claire, the girl that did all the filming, we became really good friends during the making of the game. I became friends with her sister Abby as well. Abby’s a really good musician and she composed the song on her piano.
She was like, “I don’t know if you guys want to use this song for the game. The game reminded me of the song a lot. It inspired me so I made the song.” That’s the song we actually used in after HOURS.
It became a nice, cohesive friendship that we all formed. It’s weird working with your friends because sometimes you’re working and then sometimes you’re discussing jazz, or BTS, or something. It’s a good weird. It’s fun. I am really grateful for my team. They’ve been the best.
Ken: It’s great that you’re able to recruit so many people who are local to you without having to go online. There’s a global pool of talent out there but there are so many people you don’t know what you’re going to get. They’re people you’ve never met, and here is everybody you needed right in your own backyard.
Bahiyya: Yeah, exactly. What was super nice about everyone is that everyone helped me work on this game, not expecting anything in return, like no one. I’m not saying you should do that, just go and sell yourself for free. I’m saying their kindness because they were just kind people. They were like, “Sure, I like what you’re doing. I believe in this project so I’m going to work on it.”
Then we got a publishing deal. We can make some money from there. No one ever did it from the beginning thinking they would get anything out of it.
Ken: I’ve never been to South Africa. Is there much game development happening there? Other than the people you immediately worked with, is there a community of people who you could go to for resources or guidance?
Bahiyya: There’s definitely a game development community in South Africa. I studied game design here at my school. There’s obviously a bunch of people doing it here. People that I would go to for guidance, it’s generally Tim, or my friend, Ahmed, who I know. They are people of color game devs. I am a person of color. It’s better for me going to people like that.
We have similar experiences. I just feel like they know me quite well. I wouldn’t go to my lecturers or something, not because they are stupid but just because I feel they don’t really…It’s not the people I would go to.
There’s a bunch of people doing independent games. There’s bigger studios in Cape Town like Free Lives and stuff, who made “Broforce” and “Genital Jousting.”
Within Joburg specifically, they do have like a bunch of meetups monthly. I don’t attend any of them because when I went for one it was just white dudes like circle jerking each other off like, “Yeah, all our games are amazing.” It just didn’t feel like the kind of place for me.
I think that the people that are studying game development at my university at the moment, they’re super talented, loads of potential. Definitely everyone should keep an eye on South African games. There are so many cool and unique perspectives coming out from South Africa.
It’s definitely growing. There’s lots of people that do do it. We don’t always have the resources, unfortunately.
It’s easier for obviously white people to get into it because white privilege is a thing. For myself and some other game devs from South Africa, we don’t have access to Internet at home. We have to always come into university to use their Internet and work.
Also sometimes the language barrier is a problem. English isn’t everybody’s first language. Trying to get your game out there or even just pass university, it’s quite difficult.
Ken: You’ve mentioned your university a few times. Do I understand that you’re studying experimental storytelling?
Bahiyya: Yeah, I’m doing my master’s in that at the moment.
Ken: I haven’t heard of that program before. What does it consist of?
Bahiyya: It’s just a pretentious name for something. [laughter]
Bahiyya: You can do your master’s in digital art at my university. Then it’s broken down into animation, or game design, or experimental storytelling. I chose to do mine in experimental storytelling because it seemed like the most open-ended one. I could do whatever I want to do. I really liked mixed media stuff.
It just felt like with experimental storytelling, I got to do whatever I want to do. I didn’t do much work on my master’s this year because I’ve been so busy with after HOURS.
I didn’t expect to get a publishing deal or anything. It threw my plans off a bit, but my supervisor has been really nice. They’ve changed a lot of the due dates for me to accommodate me with the after HOURS release.
Ken: The school where I saw you speak at, WPI, they have a bachelor’s and a master’s program in interactive media and game design where they teach people not only storytelling and interactive arts but also actual game programming.
It sounds like experimental storytelling, what you’re studying, there is no expectation that people know how to make video games. You’re largely self-taught in that respect, is that true?
Bahiyya: Well, my undergrad degree was in game development, but we didn’t get to programming properly at all. Also, the year where we learned how to program, it was probably the worst year of my life because my stepfather, who I take as my real dad, he got murdered literally the day before our programming course started.
I went completely insane. I didn’t know how I was going to continue at school. Aside from being off my head, we didn’t have any money anymore to pay for fees. I was really lucky that I got a bursary to continue paying for my fees. Everything just went bad. I didn’t do any of the programming that year.
My best friend, he was the one that would do both of our work and just be like, “Yeah, she worked on this by herself.” I was grateful for all of the help that came from other people. I don’t know. I have a very massive problem when it comes to programming because I always have this block. It reminds me of everything that happened during that year.
Ken: I’m so sorry for your loss. I had no idea.
Bahiyya: Thank you.
Ken: It’s quite a testament that you were able to persevere through all that and land where you are now with a game, and a publishing deal, and a successful master’s program.
Bahiyya: Thank you. Yeah, I definitely do wish that my father was still around because I feel like he was my biggest fan always. If I’d be in the newspaper, he’d cut it out and stick it up at his job, and be like, “Yeah, this is my daughter. She’s doing all of these things.”
I do really, really do wish that he was still alive and that he saw me graduate and all of these things. On my graduation, I drew a little stick figure of him and stuck it in my pocket. It felt like he was sort of there.
Ken: Did he understand what it is you were doing? My parents, they always say, “Oh, we’re so glad you’re doing something that makes you happy. We don’t understand what it is but as long as you’re happy.”
Bahiyya: Yeah, he definitely understood what I was doing. Like I was saying, I felt like he was my biggest fan. My mom didn’t want me to go into video games. In fact, no one wanted me to in school. Everyone wanted me to go into journalism because I used to write a lot, like write for my local newspaper and everything.
I come from a really shitty ghetto place. No one go into game design there. I understand why a lot of people want me take a safe career, because money is important, unfortunately.
We live in a capitalist town, and especially for minority people, financial security, we need that. My mom wanted me to become an accountant or something like that, but my dad was like, “You know what you’re doing. It’s really cool.”
He used to work at a butchery. He’d always tell me I need to make a game about him as a butcherman doing all of these things. I definitely will do that. I’ll definitely do it at some point and set up like a projector outside his grave and play the game. Yeah, that should be an experience.
My family, they’d know what I do. I don’t let them play my games because oh, it’s too personal. Who are those people? I’m not letting them play it. I’d rather let total strangers play it.
Ken: Yeah, I can appreciate that. I do storytelling here in Boston. The stories that I tell, there may be a thousand people in the audience but I would never want anybody in my family to listen to one of them.
Ken: Speaking of which, you talked about the team that you assembled and the person who did all the filming, but you were the person on the other side of the camera. You’re the one actually in the game. Is that correct?
Ken: Do you have any background in acting or performance arts?
Bahiyya: Hell, no. [laughter]
Bahiyya: I’m acting like a loser everywhere I go. No, I don’t have any acting experience. Luckily, a lot of the things that I did in the game wasn’t acting. It’s how I actually behave a lot of the time.
I felt like I had to be the person in the game because the story felt so intimate to me. I didn’t trust anyone else to portray the way I felt it needed to be portrayed.
Ken: You’ve not only invested so much of your life into making this game, you yourself are literally in the game. Does that make it a more vulnerable experience? Are you more sensitive to what people might think of the game since that can be said to be a critique on you?
Bahiyya: I don’t really care about that aspect of it. I don’t care what anyone thinks of how I acted in the game, whatever. I never ever made it for other people in that sense. Obviously, it’s for other people because I was doing it for a school project.
All of the things that I do are for myself, first and foremost. I was fine with it, the way I portray the character. What did make me feel weird though is when other people play the game. Like if I’m in a festival showcasing the game, they look at me and they look at the person in the game, and they’re like, “Huh? What’s going on?”
That does make me feel weird, and also all of the crying and all of that in the game. I don’t generally like to be around when people are playing the game because it’s not nice for me seeing that.
I feel sad for myself or the character in the game when I see her going through all of this. That’s weird but the actual filming of the game, obviously, a lot of the viewership of the game is quite voyeuristic because it’s like someone watching what the protagonist is going through.
When Claire was filming the game, because she is a woman and a soft person and someone that I trust, that didn’t feel weird for me because we were in control of what we got to show most of the time. Although there are some scenes where I’m like, “Shucks, my pajamas just is so short,” but it was so rushed. There’s no time to edit those parts out or anything.
Also, I did not have the emotional energy to reshoot those scenes. Also, my hair is back to my natural hair color. That would have been lots of discontinuity in terms of editing. When I shot the game, half of my hair was dyed pink. That was going to be a problem.
It feels like when I watch people play the game, I’m sort of standing with all of my guts ripped out and waiting for them to assess what’s happening there. I’d rather just not watch it.
Ken: You mentioned that the game has received many awards at various conventions and conferences, but what has that personal response been when you see people playing the game? How do they react to it?
Bahiyya: Most of the time, if it’s young women playing the game, they start crying, or they ask if they can hug me, or they’re just like, “Yes, this is exactly how it is.”
While it should make me feel good because people are responding — I don’t know if you can say positively if that’s the word — it makes me feel horrible because these young women have experienced sexual abuse, or have borderline, or experienced something that’s happening in the game, which is largely painful.
While people are like, “Yes, this is a good representation of it,” I still don’t want them to be able to identify with it because, shit, it’s awful that they are able to identify with it. On the other hand, if people that haven’t been through it play the game, they’re just like, “Woah, this is really intense.”
Good, because I want to show people who haven’t experienced any of these things what life is like. I want to illustrate and exercise an empathy like, “This is what we go through, so please just be kinder to us. Be there for us.”
Ken: When you talk about the empathy of understanding what people are going through, there’s a lot of intersectionality in this game because you’re talking about sexual abuse, BPD. You mentioned that you are a Muslim woman in the games industry.
What message are you hoping to convey or what do you hope that people would be empathetic about specifically?
Bahiyya: I don’t think there’s any overt Muslim representation in what people would generally associate with Muslims. It’s not like I’m wearing a headscarf or saying, “Yo, what’s up everyone? I’m Muslim, by the way.” Everything I do is always going to be a representation of Muslim women of color because I am a Muslim woman of color from South Africa.
Even if it’s not like overtly there, it’s always going to be there. I did want people that have been through it, like all the things that’s represented in the game, to feel like a sense of solidarity.
I feel like a lot of the time, people with borderline are demonized so badly whether it’s in the DSM — which I hate by the way, I think it’s super problematic — or whether it’s people online saying that, “Oh, yeah, these borderline people are super manipulative, and they like A, B and C,” which is all clearly negative language.
Someone even called us emotional vampires, which is hilarious to me but also like, “What the fuck. How could you say that?” I just wanted people to see that borderline people are actually normal human beings to an extent. I don’t know if anyone is really normal. The fact that we have interests in poetry, or music, or whatever like the girl in the game does, but also just to show how difficult…
I wanted to also show how difficult it is to live with depression, and anxiety, and constant feelings of abandonment and fear of so many things. Hating your body, and then loving your body and hating yourself, and feeling like you have no friends, being pissed off at your partner, whatever it is that’s happening, being pissed off at your mom, any of those things.
I wanted to show that in real life, we should be sensitive to people’s real lives. I often feel like with video games, there’s such a massive fantasy element like an escape. Here, it’s about showing the rawness of real life.
I wanted people to think beyond their own existence as if they haven’t experienced anything shown in the game. How am I treating other people? What are other people going through?
Ken: I read the website postsecret.com. One of the concepts I sometimes see there is somebody being hesitant to get medication for their mental health condition, whether it’s depression, or bipolar, or whatever, because they see that condition as almost being a source of artistic inspiration. They’re afraid that they’ll lose their creativity if they become “normal.”
You just mentioned that BPD, people who have this experience, also love art, and music, and everything else. Do you feel like your creativity would be impacted if your BPD was, say, less pronounced or non-existent?
Bahiyya: I think it’s definitely problematic to romanticize your mental illness into thinking that it’s what makes you all of these things. It makes you a lot of things, but it also, for me, makes me want to tear my heart out in die all the time.
I’d much rather be not as fucked constantly, and maybe not be able to do some of the things that I do now. I don’t know. I definitely think if help is available, you should get it. I’ve had to go onto Ritalin recently in order to focus on finishing the game because without it I was just like there’s so many things that are happening. It’s the whole fucking world is burning.
I don’t know what to do. I found focus on my game when someone’s breaking into my house because that happened while we were working on the game, and it’s I would much rather be on medication and working, feeling a lot calmer and all of these things because it’s not…I don’t know. Everything that I’ve been through before…
I’m on medication at the moment but that’s a very, very recent thing. I haven’t been on medication for most of my life. I only started a few months ago. In my particular experience with the stuff that I’m on, I feel like it’s not detraction or something from everything that I have experienced.
Although this does tie into something that I spoke about at Different Games where I was saying that I think it’s important to have emotional distance from something that you’re making a game about or whatever. Then, at the same time, it feels like if I do have emotional distance, I’m not portraying something as realistically as I would have if I didn’t have emotional distance.
That’s something that I do struggle with, but the logical and healthy thing is to sort yourself out first and not like fucking be crippling yourself and working on something while you feel like killing yourself. That’s horrible. I don’t know. I don’t think that’s OK at all.
Ken: I apologize. I didn’t mean to contribute to that romanticization of mental health conditions…
Ken: I do want to acknowledge that people do that, but you’re right. They shouldn’t because just like you can be depressed and creative, you can be not depressed and creative.
Bahiyya: 100 percent. At the same time, I do understand that fear 100 percent. I get that fear. For myself, because I’ve been so fucked for so long, I feel like who am I actually without this? It’s all because it starts becoming your identity, and it’s this horrible identity. I don’t want to be that person.
It’s not like people make me feel, “Oh yeah, that’s Bahiyya with borderline personality disorder.” It’s the fact that I feel like that. I feel I don’t actually know how to trust anything that is good or happy because I’m so used to things being awful. It’s intrinsically a part of my identity and how I’ve been brought up, like I mentioned earlier, that I had this really hectic childhood.
It’s difficult to recognize yourself or reconcile yourself to a person that is “stable” or you’re a typical person or someone who is happy and normal or whatever.
Ken: I saw your talk on YouTube at A MAZE. It was about creating games under the crushing weight of being alive. I appreciate that BPD can make making games much more difficult even for those who don’t have that experience.
I could hardly sleep last night because we just had an election here in the United States. My stomach was in knots worrying about what was going to happen. It’s not been a good last two years here in the United States.
I sometimes feel that crushing weight of being alive. I can only imagine how it is for other people who don’t have the privilege that I do. There’s a lot to worry about in this world.
Bahiyya: How were the election results, by the way?
Ken: Well, the Democrats — that’s not the party that currently has a somebody in the White House as the President — gained back control of the House, the Congress. They lost some seats in the Senate. They flipped seven governorships. We also elected several firsts, like the first Native American woman to Congress, the first Muslim women to Congress, the first openly gay governor.
There were some ways in which the election didn’t go the way the Democrats hoped but a lot of ways in which it went really well.
Bahiyya: Yeah. That’s really cool how about so many minorities now being in Congress.
Ken: Yeah. I think that’s something that has really started coming to the forefront in the past two years because straight, white, cis men have held positions of power in this country for so long and not necessarily done very well with it.
Two years ago, we started to see more people realizing that there really is strength in diversity.
Bahiyya: Yeah. I feel like a lot of Americans are like, “Oh my god. What’s happening since Donald Trump has been elected?” America has always been fucked. They’ve always been treating people like shit.
With Donald Trump there, obviously he’s insane doing awful things. But I feel like even with the other presidents, it was problematic. You can have me on the podcast another time talking about that. [laughs]
Ken: Absolutely. Anybody who says that their president, regardless of the party or the era, is flawless and is doing a perfect job is deceiving themselves. You’re right. We have problems with every administration. I would argue, however, that the current administration is one of the most problematic we’ve ever seen.
Bahiyya: 100 percent. It’s absolutely atrocious.
Ken: Which actually raises another question I meant to ask you. You talked about how you were able to recruit people locally to develop your game. I’m wondering what other aspects of your own environment went into after HOURS?
I’m speaking of being in Johannesburg. Will there be any sort of cultural gap if someone in the United States plays your game? They’ll say, “I don’t understand what that means,” or, “That’s not how we do things here”?
Bahiyya: I don’t know if they’ll think that. If they think that’s not how we do things, whatever. That’s their problem. [laughter]
Bahiyya: I added subtitles in the game, which I should’ve done from the beginning so it was more inclusive for people that are hard of hearing or can’t hear or anything. Also, one of my friends in America played the game. He couldn’t understand some of the stuff that I was saying because of my accent.
I added subtitles definitely to be more inclusive. I didn’t want to add subtitles initially because I felt like Americans are so lazy all the time. They should work to understand what I’m saying. I added subtitles so it could be more inclusive, I guess.
I don’t know there’s any cultural gaps particularly. There was a South African slang word that I had before, this word “doos.” I took it out, not because I wanted to make the game more easy for American audiences, but because I didn’t feel like fit. I changed a lot of the dialogue.
I definitely do think every single thing that I do ever up until this point is super influenced by Joburg culture because I’m born and raised in Joburg. It’s been my home. I love South Africa. I love our culture. I’m biased obviously. It’s my favorite place in the whole world even when it’s smelly and got problems. Joburg is home.
I feel like non-South Africans have a very specific view of what they think South Africa is, which is a lot of the time very incorrect. They expect South African game devs to make fucking games of us living in the desert with lions and tents and shit. That’s “What?”
Anything that I do, influenced by Joburg definitely is what I mean to say.
Ken: Even with some of the problems you mentioned, like no Internet at home, people throwing rocks on cars so that they can rob them, and also the 28 hours of travel it takes to get to video game conferences, if you’re going to be an up-and-rising star in the video game industry, do you want to stay in South Africa?
Bahiyya: That thing about throwing rocks on cars, it doesn’t happen everywhere in South Africa. It only happens in my particular area. I live in one of the more “hrmph” areas of Joburg. Very colorful place.
I definitely do want to stay in South Africa. It’s the place where I can be the most free and not scared about practicing my religion here. Islamaphobia definitely does exist but when I’m in America, I feel like I’m walking around with a target on my back.
It’s home. I love the people here. I love our culture here but I am open to traveling for work or maybe staying somewhere else for a few months or whatever. I don’t know. I’m 23. I could die tomorrow. I’ll figure things out as it comes but I am open to things I guess.
Ken: Well, it’s good, especially when you’re young. Actually, at any age it’s good to be open to things.
Bahiyya: Yeah, 100 percent.
Ken: I’m talking to you on Wednesday, November 7, a week ago from when the show comes out. after HOURS, when I saw it at Different Games, was going to be out by now but it got delayed a month until early December. What are you doing with that extra month?
Bahiyya: It got delayed. I’m just going to speak about about why I got delayed if that’s, OK?
Ken: Yes, please.
Bahiyya: It got delayed because towards the ending, the due date, I felt like we were crunching. It just felt like I didn’t want to do this.
I felt like I was giving Tim, the programmer, I was putting a lot on him to do things. I didn’t feel OK with it. I gave a lot of the things late to him as well, like asset-wise, because I couldn’t do anything because I was so fucking depressed.
I was speaking to Claire about this earlier today actually, how I feel like I’m a slave to depression. When it says, “OK, Bahiyya you can work now,” that’s when I should do everything. Then it’s like, “Your time is up girl. It’s time to hate yourself and hate everything.” All I could do is give Tim things in increments, not all at once and overload him, or nothing at all.
There’s nothing I could do because even when I had time to work, I physically could not work. I felt completely disabled. I couldn’t do anything but lay on my floor at home and screaming and cry, a sight everyone in my community is very used to, unfortunately.
I asked the people at Humble if we could please have an extension because I just felt like the game was not where should be. I didn’t want to put them under all of that pressure. I was going insane. That’s when I was like, “We need an extra month.”
We got that extra month. Now hopefully everything will be done. I actually have work to do on the game that I haven’t been doing because I just feel super anxious about it. I’ll be spending this month, the beginning at least of November, polishing it, going through all of the bugs. I’m writing out bug reports for Tim. He’ll be working on it. We’re doing all of that.
Then towards the ending of the month…Oh, and doing a bunch of marking because I do at my university as well, but towards the later part of the month I’m going to the UK, not for a games-related thing.
It’s my first holiday not for a games-related thing. I’m going because one of my favorite bands, You Me At Six, they’re performing their 10-year anniversary tour. I have to do this.
This is my dream since I was 17. I have to do it for myself. I don’t care what’s happening. I’m going, and I need to do that. Then I’m going to Cape Town for Playtopia. It’s another A MAZE South African games event. That’s how I’ll be spending November if I don’t drop dead.
Ken: I hope you don’t drop dead because it sounds like you have a lot to look forward to.
Bahiyya: I also hope I don’t die before the You Me At Six tour. Shit, I have to go for it. Afterwards, hmm. [laughter]
Ken: I’m really glad to hear that Humble was so accommodating because so many publishers have this crunch period where people almost literally put their lives on the line to get a game out the door and being able to prioritize an individual’s health as a person is much more important.
Bahiyya: They’ve been really amazing. I’m really grateful. Honestly, I did feel like I wanted to die but it was the time of the due date and all of those things. I was just like “Shit, I would like to die right now, please, because I can’t cope with everything.” Yeah, super grateful for everyone that allows us not to get involved in crunch culture, putting our lives on the line.
Ken: When this game comes out via Humble, will it be for Mac, Windows, and Linux?
Bahiyya: We so far only have a Windows build. I think we’ll make a Mac build as well, hopefully. I don’t even know what Linux is. What is that? I see it everywhere. I don’t know what it is.
Ken: I’ve never personally used it. I understand it’s a version of Unix but it’s all free and open source.
Bahiyya: I don’t even know what Unix is. I don’t know what HTML means as well. What is anything? [laughs]
Ken: No worries. Her Story came out for iOS, I believe. Do you think there’ll be a mobile version of after HOURS?
Bahiyya: Probably not because it’s such a detailed game. There’s all these small details I feel like would be missable playing on mobile. Is that even…? “Missable playing…”? You get what I’m saying, right? It’s not going to be noticed if it’s played on a phone. But maybe, I don’t know, we’ll see. Open to anything, that’s the motto.
Ken: Again, that’s a great way to be at any age. [laughter]
Ken: Can you remind our listeners where to find you and/or after HOURS online?
Bahiyya: If you follow me on Twitter…Should I give them my handle? I guess I can do that. It’s @breakinbahiyya. You can follow me and the other devs that helped make the game, and you can see when the game’s coming out because I tweet about it a lot. There’s also a bunch of shitty tweets, ignore all of that.
If you’re part of Humble, you’ll be getting it in the December monthly thing that they send out. If you YouTube after HOURS Bahiyya Khan, our trailer should pop up. Although I guess I’ll comment on that video when the game comes out, where people can access it.
Ken: Fantastic, there will be links to everything you just mentioned, to Twitter, to Humble, to your trailer on the website for this podcast at polygamer.net. I’ll be sure to update it when the game comes out, so people that are listening to this later, they can find a link to your game there. Any last message you want to leave our listeners?
Bahiyya: Yeah, buy our game. [laughter]
Bahiyya: Definitely, we need that. Be very nice to people, don’t be an asshole. Drink water, very important. Be on time, I have to do that. Oh my God, I feel like it’s my Different Games talk, and I haven’t been on time.
If anyone knows You Me At Six, please tell them about me. Tell them to feature me on their new album and make me best friends with them. Yeah, that’s it.
Ken: [laughs] Well, I think they should be best friends with you anyway.
Bahiyya: [laughs] Thank you.
Ken: Thank you so much for your time, it’s been great talking with you.
Bahiyya: Thank you so much for having me and for allowing me to speak about things that I think are important.
Ken: My pleasure.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.