Jordan Jones-Brewster is the narrative designer of We should talk., a short-form narrative game available for Steam and consoles. During a single night at a local bar, players will interact with several characters while maintaining a conversation with their girlfriend via text message. Using an innovative “sentence spinner”, players can choose from dozens of responses to each prompt, leading to one of nine possible endings.
In this interview, I ask Jordan how We should talk. challenges traditional transactional romance in games; how We should talk. represents gender identity and sexual orientation; what constitutes the “good ending”, both in video games and in relationships; how the pandemic affected the game’s development and Kickstarter; what their role is in the annual PixelPop Festival, this year being held online; and what we should expect from their script, Saving the Day.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for links to resources mentioned in this episode and a full transcript.
Full disclosure: I backed this game’s Kickstarter at the $7 level.
- We should talk.
- Kickstarter for We should talk.
- Jordan Jones-Brewster on Twitter
- Polygamer #33: Francesca Carletto Leon
- “All the Feels: Empathy in Indie Game Narrative” (PAX East 2015 panel)
- “We should talk. is a Game That Could Improve Your Real Life Relationships” by Marielle Bokor for Third Coast Review
- Other narrative games:
- PixelPop Festival — Sep 12–13, 2020, online
- Saving the Day
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 podcast Episode no. 103, for Wednesday, July 29, 2020. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. There are so many wonderful indie games out there, and so many of them are exploring topics of narrative empathy and things that we traditionally have not seen in mainstream media. But a lot of them still offer very traditional or binary choices as far as narrative goes, with one exception, a game that just came out called We should talk., it’s a game I first became aware of a few years ago when former Polygamer guest Francesca Carletto-Leon showed it to me and it just came out for Steam and all major consoles. I’m very excited today to welcome to the Polygamer podcast the narrative designer of We should talk., Jordan Jones-Brewster. Hello, Jordan.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Hi. Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Ken Gagne: I’m so glad to have you. I enjoyed playing the game. And I know it’s a small team, so the fact that any one of you could take the time out to talk to me, I really appreciate it. Congratulations on the recent launch.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Thank you. It hasn’t hit me yet, it’s still not real. It’s been a week, but-
Ken Gagne: What will it take for it to feel real?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I don’t actually know. I think three months from now, when I’m opening my Switch or my Steam account, and I see a game that I made, I’ll remember, oh, yeah, that’s the thing that I did.
Ken Gagne: And this isn’t your first game, have you worked on other titles before this one?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, this is the first game that I am releasing into the world. I’ve made several games as a game design student at NYU when I was there, this being one of the games that started at NYU, but it’s actually the first game that I’m currently releasing now. I’m working on things now, I contribute to writing for Insecure, the come up game from Glow Up Games, and other things that I cannot talk about at the moment, but this is the first game that I’ve worked on that’s kind of seeing the light of day and getting a mass release.
Ken Gagne: Cool. Let’s put this right up front. For those who are interested in those other projects, where do they find you online?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: You can go to twitter.com/versiphied, that’s V-E-R-S-I-P-H-I-E-D.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. There’ll be a link to that in the show notes. So, your most recent release, your biggest release to date is We should talk., I got it on the Switch, I’ve played it through a couple of times. Not everybody listening to the show has had that pleasure yet. So, for those who haven’t, what is We should talk.?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, We should talk. is a short form narrative game where we encourage players to think twice about the words that they choose, you as a player, go into your favorite local bar, talk to a couple of people in your bar while also texting your partner at home. And the things that you say between those people kind of determine the state of all of your relationships at the end of the night. It’s about 20 minutes to 35 minutes long. And the crux of it is our sentence spinner mechanic, where instead of making specific dialogue choices like you would in a traditional narrative game, your dialogue choices are separated by parts of a sentence where you’re crafting as each part of a sentence, that sometimes split into two or three parts before you make your statement.
Ken Gagne: There are a lot of different choices when you’re spinning those sentences, how many different combinations or permutations of this story are there? Is there a finite number that you’ve calculated?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It’s so funny, I think about that a lot. And there’s definitely numbers out there that change… Three months ago, I would have been able to tell you a number, like in one conversation, there is 12,000 theoretical choices that you can make. And then, every time I add another choice, or if there’s a patch, or as a part of the Kickstarter that we ran for this game, we allowed some backers to customize a particular choice in the game, which adds a number of other potential choices as well. So, I think what I would say to that is that your average choice, a sentence is split into three separate parts, would have about 27 options there for your average choice. Some have a lot more, some have a little bit less, but generally speaking, every individual choice you have is that. And there are several, many ways that a particular conversation can go. And there are nine endings to the game.
Ken Gagne: Wow. Because when you have 29 options, or a three to the third, each one of those 27 options can itself lead to another decision which itself has 27 more options, right?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Exactly. A lot of what we call the process of writing for that game was often kind of puzzle design in just finding the right way to express a thought that many ways that grammatically makes sense every time.
Ken Gagne: And even though you have those many, many options, the game also constrains you in some ways, this is not top-down where you’re walking around a bar and choosing who to interact with, the game guides you from one interaction directly to the other, both with patrons in the bar, and with the people on your phone. So, how many different people do you interact with in this game?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, you talk to four people total in the game, there is your partner at home, Sam, who you talk to exclusively through text messages. And once you enter the bar, you’re greeted by Steph, the bartender. During the conversation with Steph, you kind of have an option to talk to either this stranger that’s kind of checking you out, or a seemingly old friend that you used to come around the bar with. And that’s the extent to which you talk to anybody. All the game is encompassed in those four people, in those multiple conversations. Now, the people in the bar you only speak to once, while Sam is spoken to a number of times throughout the experience.
Ken Gagne: And one of those nine endings takes about… What would you say? 10 to 20 minutes to get to?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It depends on your play style. If you’re the type of player that immediately chooses a choice to write when they see it, I’d say it’d be about 15 to 20 minutes. But if you’re the type that kind of looks through all the options before making a choice, that might go from 20 to 35 minutes.
Ken Gagne: So, since we’re talking about all these options, let’s talk about what it means to be a narrative designer, which was your title in this game. I have not had a narrative designer on this show before, although I’ve spoken with several of them on PAX panels. In some capacities, I thought it meant primarily like writer, author, script producer, but in this case, you actually designed that sentence spinner dialogue system. So, what does it mean to be a narrative designer?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, We should talk. specifically… I want to give credit to everybody on the team because the sentence spinner in its inception was a combined design effort of the entire team when we started making this game for the NYU class. However, to more specifically answer your question, I saw someone on Twitter write this very well, and I wish I could remember their name so I could credit them. But what they said was, the difference between a writer and a narrative designer is that a writer tells his story, and the narrative designer designs the way in which the story will be told. So, with We should talk., I was the primary writer as well, as narrative designer, where writing the dialogue was a thing that I did. But I also chose the rules for that dialogue. I also worked to design, the do’s and don’ts of what we could and could not write, and the way that we would express these characters, the way that the characters express themselves.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I was working with the wonderful art team to decide what expressions that they show on their faces and how their animations should look, and things of that nature. And it’s kind of crafting all the different ways that the story is told to you. Well, a writer, or an author, or something like that is directly just writing, as the narrative design part comes from the way that the story is told from all angles, in a holistic view.
Ken Gagne: And one of the things I like about how you went about writing this story was the person on the other end of the cell phone is Sam, the main character’s girlfriend, what is the gender of the main character?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, we never really specifically, say it in the game, because it’s not necessarily kind of the purpose of making this choice. But like myself, the main character of the game is non-binary. There are non-binary woman, I’m a non-binary man. A part of that was for me, and I brought this to the team when we first started talking about the game, was just me beginning to realize that that was what I was, and wanting to write about it in the story, but also wanting to write a story that could represent some of the experiences that the women on my team would have as well, and kind of trying to combine those experiences into a specific character. And I think everyone was kind of on board with that, which was something that I was really happy of at the very, very beginning when we were creating the alpha of this game, which we had a little less defined before we just had it created, like the full fledged character and what their background is.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: But when we start to talk about it, we were all on board for this particular thing, and what that would mean for the character, and what that would mean for the rest of the game as well. We just wanted to make the main character as well as everyone else in the game representative of who the team was, so that we could kind of see a little bit of ourselves in all of these characters.
Ken Gagne: And what does that mean for the main character, and how does that express itself? Because when I was playing, I got the sense that it was likely a woman as the main character. And yet, as someone who identifies as a straight cis man, I had no issue inserting myself into the story, it was very easy to do so.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Well, the interesting thing about the main character is that, the player character in We should talk. can still be an analogue for anyone that wants to put themselves in that role, or rather, they can represent anyone that wants to put themselves in that role. Because the general parts of the story is kind of ubiquitous, you’re a person going to the bar, you might have some relationship troubles, you might have an ex, you might have some flirty conversations. But the difference being, when you see that character, first, the player might ask, “What is the gender of this character?” It’s not specifically stated. Part of why it’s not specifically stated is that, I think it’s a good way to kind of help people put their selves into the character. That being said, I don’t want to erase the fact that they’re non-binary because that’s a really important part to who that person was as I was writing them.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: But the nature of their relationship with Sam without getting super squarely, kind of hinges on the fact that their gender identity, but also their sexuality is kind of fluid, the main player character dates both men and women. And how Sam sees you kind of is representative of how she feels about that, and the things that she might ask you in the game sometimes bring those things up, and the way that the other characters in the game talk to you also hinge on that. But she’s a non-binary woman, she can still get the unwanted attention and grossness that can come with being a femme in a bar. It’s important to have all those kinds of experiences available. And it allows for not only the character to exist in a certain way, but the way that the other characters in the game respond to her.
Ken Gagne: It’s interesting, I don’t make it a habit of going to bars, I don’t drink. But being in this bar, that’s not the part of the game that made me uncomfortable, everybody in the story was either very nice to chat with, or very easy to avoid, in my experience.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: That’s part of a long conversation with the team. So, in the original alpha version of We should talk., I’d say that the bar patrons were a lot more confrontational or just not welcoming, or you wouldn’t want to be around them, you wouldn’t want… There were less characters and more ideas of experiences that you might have in a bar. In the alpha version, there was an X character, completely different character, who would just kind of badgered you to get back with them, that was the entire nature of that experience. The bartender was a little bit too much prying into your relationship, and the stranger that you met was just gross. And it’s kind of important because the first person you talk to in this game is def, the bartender. And kind of the role of what a bartender plays in a bar is to be welcoming, and to make you want to be there, and to make you want to feel comfortable in that space.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And I wanted most of the characters, or rather all of the characters to have some permutation of that happening. That might not always be your experience with the game, sometimes your experience may still be your choices, it might lead to some of the characters to be not great to be around. But everyone needed to have both moments where they are welcoming or you wouldn’t want to be around them. And the crux of why that’s important is because pretty much every time you pick up your phone to talk to Sam in that game, you’re going to have a conversation that probably becomes intense, or probably becomes vulnerable, and makes you vulnerable. And sometimes, I think in real life, the powerful things in the nuance of how text messaging works is that eventually, you and the person you’re talking to are going to want to put the phone down for a second.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Sometimes you’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be right back,” or “Oh, I got to do this other thing.” And sometimes you really do have to do that thing. Sometimes you just had a rough conversation, I need to manufacture a break. And when you have that break, you have to see a face that doesn’t also put you into that same type of vulnerable point, the same type of intimacy that you were having in that other conversation. You’re exploring what other things can be to you in this world.
Ken Gagne: Yeah. And I want to talk about the interactions I had with Sam and how that made me feel. But first, I want to ask about the game more broadly. And it’s view of romance, which is present in the bar, it’s present in the phone and the discussions with Sam. The website says that this game was designed to challenge traditional transactional romance in games. So, what limitations have you observed in game romances to date that you were trying to break out of?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Let me go into a little bit of the history of the game. So, this game started in a class called Studio 2 at the NYU Game Center, where the students come together, they all go to whiteboards, and a bunch of students write design challenges on that whiteboard. And everyone in the class looks at all these design challenges, and then comes together as a team based off of the groups of people that decided they want to tackle that specific challenge. And the We should talk. team all came around someone writing how to make a game that shows romance that is not transactional. And that later evolved into a game that challenges the transactional nature of our romance, which is a little bit different. And the reason that we wanted to go for that is… The beautiful way that the team makeup came to be is that, about half of the team members play a lot of traditional romance games, automa games like visual novels and stuff like that, and the others didn’t really care for a lot of those traditional games.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And the reason being that, one side likes kind of getting to understand and learn characters in that type of format, while the others feel like it’s all about getting the boyfriend or girlfriend points, and then seeing the character that you like. So, choosing that you’re going to go on that route, and then saying or doing the right thing to get the right ending, the good ending, the true ending. And we, as a team, don’t really like the fact that that’s the general representation of relationships in games. I mean, relationships are not as clear cut. So, when we were setting for We should talk., we wanted to kind of include some of the gross parts, or the uncomfortable parts, or the mean parts, the parts where you don’t get immediate feedback on whether or not you said the right thing, or the wrong thing, or the thing that you’re trying to express.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: With We should talk. specifically, when you make a choice, the player might respond… I mean, the character might respond, you might even get a little cute reaction animation out of them. But you don’t really know the long term effects of what’s going on, and not in a… I didn’t talk to my dog, so now the world ends, like in some games, but in the fact that sometimes in relationships, someone internalizes a statement that’s said to them, and the effects of that come much, much later. The game is not about having a good route or bad route, it really tries to have a holistic view of what you’re saying to people, and decide, how would this character progress in their relationships based off of the person that they were in this 20 minute night?
Ken Gagne: So, it’s not just the decision you’re making right now is going to have an immediate effect, it’s that this decision will have consequences, and you might not see it until later in the evening, when it comes back up.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Exactly, what you’re doing is designing how this conversation goes, but you won’t immediately know what that means for the rest of your conversations for later, you don’t know what… And the video gave me part of it, which I like, is that you don’t… Just like video games, you say a thing, and then you say the right amount of things, or say the things in a certain order, and then you unlock another conversation, which is why it’s so fun to talk to other people that have played it one or two times, because it’s almost universally a different experience. Because that’s kind of how conversations are in relationships, both intimate and platonic. You say things in a certain way and then your mind remembers something that brings something up. It’s not going to be the same for everybody.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Which is kind of the fun part for me when it comes to… I’ve been watching a lot of streams of it because I really like watching people play the game, particularly with a crowd. And sometimes, I’m seeing people get the same endings, but the conversations that are happening within the chat of other people playing the game is always so interesting, because they find a conversation or a bit of story that they never knew about the characters, that kind of encourages them to play it over and over again. And the nature of relationships is that you say a thing and people react to it, or people internalize it. And you always wonder, what if I said something else? What if I just tweaked? What if I said we, instead of you? And that’s kind of the whole concept of the game. The idea that relationships are both enduring but can be fragile. Conversation is very nuanced in what you’re saying. And all that comes down to how intimate you can be within those conversations, within those relationships.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, the immediate response isn’t necessarily true to how relationships work, which is what we were trying to kind of build. Which is also part of why it’s a shorter experience, it’s much easier… Or rather, it’s much more interesting to me to convey that in a little bite sized 20 minute…. This is how what you’re saying does, affects this relationship in this time period with these people. Let’s see if it changes if you do it again.
Ken Gagne: And hearing you describe this, I’m starting to realize that traditional video games have conditioned me to play a certain way, like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, those aren’t girlfriends, they’re virtual pets, you treat them right and they do well by you. Mass Effect, you can choose who to romance almost without condition as long as, as you said, you make the right decisions. And so, playing We should talk., I interacted with Sam subconsciously wanting to get the good ending. I wanted her to be happy, I wanted the relationship to blossom, even though, in real life, that might not be what I would do in that circumstance. But that is what traditional video games have taught me to do. And now I’m going to wonder, what are those other eight endings look like?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah, I think that’s what I kind of expected with a lot of players. So, I think there’s a couple of types of way to play this game when you first interact with it. I think there’s a lot of people that also have that same conditioning. I think, if I were to encounter this game having not played it or known about it, I’d probably play the same way, or like, what is the good ending that I’m trying to get? And then, there’s other players who are like, “How would I respond to these questions?” And there’s other people that want to burn everything down. And the game allows for all of that, and I want it to allow for all of that. I want you to play this game how you want to play it, even though I have my own personal intentions with it. It’s because of that nature, that seeing the breath of choices is kind of important, because almost universally when I was watching those streams that I was mentioning, you were like, “Okay, I’m trying to get the good ending. Let’s marry Sam.” Whatever people expect out of a traditional romance game.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And the reactions that they get to the other choices are often… I feel like this is what I’d really say. But that might not lead to the answer that I want, which kind of leaves them often finishing their playthrough. Because it’s short, they think, I think I can go again, let me feel more like me this time. Let me choose my own route. And I hope that when players play this game, or people play this game, that type of thing is what happens more. Not only do you… I want this game to encourage people to think more about the words that they’re choosing in conversation and in dialogue in real life, but really look back at how they experience games in general, and how they experience the choices that they make in games. That you could want a little more in how you’re expressing yourself in a game, so that you don’t make yourself think that it is limited to what has preceded it.
Ken Gagne: Marielle Bokor at the website thirdcoastreview.com had a very positive and nuanced review of this game, and the headline is, We should talk. is a game that could improve your real life relationships. So, you were talking about encouraging players to think more non-binarily about the decisions they can make in games, is this also an empathy game where it may have some spillover into real life?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I hesitate to call it an empathy game, only because there is a lot of conversation of what that means, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it myself. But I do think it is a game that I want people to take lessons from in their real relationships. That was a major goal for this game. One of the extreme design goals that the team all agreed on, is that we wanted this to be a game that’s playable by lots of people. A person that has never picked up a game before, we would want them to be able to experience this and kind of want to. That’s part of why it’s short, that’s part of why the game starts with a very, very clear route for our tutorial. But it’s also because we want people to be able to look at this and really think about how they respond to people in their own lives, and see the cute, funny, or intense ways that their actions affect others.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And it’s not really a thing that we allow for in games without servicing a different greater plot. In Mass Effect, you are talking to people, romancing some, but you’re also saving the universe, and the other parts are optional, and that’s par for the course with the larger game. I’m not saying that Mass Effect is bad for that, but we wanted this particular one to be for all those other people. In addition to the people that play the Mass Effects, the people like me that play other smaller narrative games, to see the different ways that I can relate to this particular one, the way that I feel like, “Oh, that’s why my last ex girlfriend didn’t like what I said there. That might have been a jerky thing to say.” Let’s put it that way. Well, it’s nice to have this little relationship playground, that’s the thing that I’ve called it before in We should talk., where I can kind of experiment in ways to respond to different social scenarios, and see how those words are really affecting it.
Ken Gagne: No, that’s great. The game is an opportunity to practice a relationship. And I think that maybe just like in the game, sometimes in real life, maybe I’m trying to get the good ending. And just how I played the game, the main character, me, was too accommodating and allowed negative behavior to enter their life when they could have just said, “Hey, look, I’m going to walk away from this.” And that’s not necessarily a bad ending, walking away from an abusive situation.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: AND that’s exactly what… I’m glad that’s what you took out of it. That’s the experience. Because I mean, it’s not much of a spoiler to say there are endings where you and Sam go on to do other things in life as a couple, but that might not be your happy ending, that might not be your good ending. For me, as an individual, if I were to play this game, that would not be a good ending for me, that I don’t think I would want to be with Sam. I think I would want a nice… I was going to spoil another ending just there. I think I just want something different out of that relationship and that is fine.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: The game never tells you that you’re doing the wrong thing, the game never says this is bad. It may say that this character doesn’t like the way you’re talking to them. Or this character isn’t prepared for what you’re bring to them, or you’re surprising them. But it’s not meant to give you… Say that you are bad or good or anything like that, the ending you get is just representative of who you feel this person needs to be.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And there’s nothing wrong with going through those conversations and thinking, I don’t want to be here. Or going through those conversations and saying, “I want to give you everything.” But it is important to note that the game allows for both very positive nurturing and growing relationships, and also toxic relationships, that all the characters kind of can slip into. And they all have some toxic behaviors that can be addressed or spoken about or talked about within the game. But it’s also meant to show that you don’t have to be acquiescent to the whim of everybody that’s here, which is kind of one of the downsides and the critiques that I have of traditional romance games. The goal in those traditional romance games is to do what the character wants you to do. Give them the thing that they like, so that you get the plus three instead of plus two points that you connect to them. Talk to them the way that they want to be talked to all the time.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And the downside of that is that, what that does is enable whatever behavior they’re exhibiting. You’re giving them exactly what they want, and sometimes what they want isn’t good for you. We Should Talk allows you to address that and sometimes tackle that.
Ken Gagne: It’s really interesting that you wrote a primary romantic interest that you yourself would not want to be with. Now, given who you are, and the kind of game this is, that’s not surprising, but in the larger context of the video game industry, so many video games are about wish fulfillment. I mean, we’ve heard stories about Lara Croft being a woman because the main characters want to look at somebody’s rear as they’re running around all day. And so, to have a character like Sam who, yeah, we wrote her, and we wouldn’t choose to be with her, that’s very divergent from mainstream gaming in a lot of ways.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah. And I think part of why that was not a tough decision for me as I was creating a lot of who these characters become, is because I do see myself in other parts of the game. I think naturally, because this is a fairly personal game for all the team members, there are bits of personal experiences that all of us have had in many of the characters. I get to have my cake and eat it too, I get to put myself in parts of the game, whether it’s having, Dante, one of the other characters have this very specific weird interest in experimental theater that I like to watch. Or where Carol Mertz, one of the other developers on team makes poop jokes. I also make poop jokes but Carol Mertz wrote this really good poop joke along the conversations. And that’s like a little bit of putting ourselves into it.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, I don’t need to see myself doing the things that the characters are doing, because it’s not… This is me telling a story at the end of the day, even though there are bits of me in it. And as a result, I don’t have to be a part of every experience. For example, there is a conversation in the game that is one of those conversations that the stranger character can have with you, which is an experience of someone trying to pick you up at the bar, whether you want it or not. And part of the ways that conversation can go is directly based off of experiences that are not mine. And I don’t want to see myself in those experiences, those are not my experiences to really talk about or have, which is why I spoke to other team members and got their input about how it would be right on that conversation.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And early versions of the conversation that I’m talking about where you’re pushing away, you’re trying to get rid of an annoying person that is trying to flirt with you, or pick you up at the bar. Because that early version of that conversation wasn’t really great. There weren’t the best caliber of writing, because it was… Before I started to get the input when I first had the original draft, it just wasn’t a believable experience, because it’s experience that I have no idea the inner workings of what a person who is experiencing that is thinking when they’re trying to respond. And a lot of what We should talk. is centered on is the various thoughts that can go through your mind of, how do I respond to this particular thing? And how the various ways I can say it. But when I have a limited experience in that, it’s not my place to tell that story alone, I need to get help, which is what ended up happening.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And I think the conversation is better for it, because I don’t need to… I think a problem that can happen in various art forms is the need to be the art holistically, as an artist. The conversation of, should you separate your art from your artist? Comes up often, but not often enough in the context of a lot of artists are telling different variations in different parts of their story and making themselves in all those variations. I think Judd Apatow puts a lot of himself in a lot of the main characters of his movies. And I think Kevin Smith does the same thing, and that’s fine for the stories that they’re telling. But with We should talk., that wasn’t the story that I think we needed to tell. I didn’t need to put myself in every aspect of it, because I really liked the characters that we created, and I wanted them to have stories.
Ken Gagne: We often use the advice, write what you know, as an excuse to limit ourselves to writing only what we already know, when really, what the advice means is, if you’re going to write something, go learn about it and expand your horizons and go outside your comfort zone, so that you’re not writing about something you’re uninformed about. And it sounds like that’s what your team did, you brought all your discrete experiences together, filling in each other’s gaps, to create this wonderful narrative.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Writing is a beautiful experience in learning both about yourself and what you can expand your mind on. And I think, particularly, with We should talk…. But with everything that I do, I really try to make it so that I’m learning as I’m going, and the characters kind of grow as a result.
Ken Gagne: Popping the stack a bit here, it was very interesting to hear you say that you were hesitant to use the phrase empathy game, because to be honest, so was I. I did an entire panel at PAX East 2015 about empathy games, this was only a year and a half after Gone Home had been released. And since then, there have been so many wonderful indie narrative based games, like Life is Strange or Firewatch, and some of those are big budget, but at the same time, the idea that you’re putting yourself in other people’s shoes is no longer this niche that is the exclusive realm of indie games, it almost seems like it’s become pervasive and no longer needs its own label. And so, I wasn’t, to be honest, sure if this game qualifies as an empathy game, because I don’t know what an empathy game is anymore. Five years ago, I did, now I don’t.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah, I think it’s the thing that models a lot of genre specifications in games, in general, where like… To go on a mild tangent, most big budget games are RPGs, but you’re not going sit down and watch someone play Madden and call that an RPG, you’re going to call it a football sports game simulator. But there’s so many RPG elements of it that it’s like… It’s clearly an RPG — there’s stats! And that’s the same for what was originally referred to as empathy games where I think the… Part of the goal of indie games for a lot of people is to experiment in a mechanic or an experience that isn’t getting a large budget, so you may do with what you have.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And sometimes, when that becomes clearly a good thing, and great art comes out of it, not necessarily a successful art, but good art, critically acclaimed art, you start seeing it in other places and people take their interpretations of it. And that’s one of my personal goals with We should talk., that someone sees this game, plays it, and thinks, oh, this is cool, I wonder what I could do this. or oh, I think I could do this better.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Because that’s where the most interesting parts of game design comes from, I think. I think some of the best games, movies, art in general comes from someone seeing a thing, and thinking, I could do this better. Or, I want to do this my way, which is part of what I was explaining before with our interpretation of romance game. We wanted to do this kind of our way.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, with the empathy conversation, I think a much larger conversation is, if someone uses this game for that purpose, great. I don’t want to explicitly say that that was the entire goal of us when we were making this. Because at the end of the day, our truest most original goal for this game was creating a thing in three months that we could make to pass a class that we were taking. And all the other goals that I mentioned, were also there, but I think intentions with empathy games become weird to me. Because it can definitely teeter the line of beautiful, impactful and pretentious at any given moment, which is one of the reasons why I don’t really want to refer to it as such. But if other people did, I wouldn’t have a problem with that either.
Ken Gagne: We briefly talked about budget for a moment there. I want to talk about this game’s Kickstarter, which full disclosure, I back for $7 to get a Steam key, and then I also paid another $7 to Nintendo to get the game on the Switch. So, the Kickstarter had a goal of $5,000 and raised a little over $13,000. And in terms of Kickstarters where you back a game and if they stick to their schedule, you get it two years later, if they don’t, you get it five years later. That’s what happened to me with Kentucky Route Zero, I got it eight years after I backed it. This game, the campaign closed June 11, the game released July 16. Whereas most Kickstarters use those funds to fund the game’s development, can you talk about how this campaign was different from that model?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Sure. So, I think that COVID-19 and the worldwide pandemic that we’re currently in, affected a lot of indies in many different ways. So, by the time we hit, let’s say, around March of this year, February or March of this year, I say that We should talk. full time development was mostly done, we were certainly still working on it. But the game could be completed from start to finish. A big goal with the team this year was the indie event circuit where we listed all the events that all the people of the team could go to, to then show off the game, and that was going to be the way that we really spoke the word of the game into the world, and would be able to pay ourselves to do that. And because that wasn’t really possible, tons of event cancellations, programs that we were part of no longer existing, and things of that nature, we needed to find a new way to not only market the game, but to kind of pay for those funds. Because they were all going to be coming out of pocket for plane tickets and stuff anyway. Beforehand, plane tickets and hotels and such.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, since we were no longer able to get the game out to the world in person, we needed to take a more digital route, and we felt that Kickstarter was a good way to help fund other parts of the experience that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Thanks to Kickstarter, we were able to get We should talk. merchandise and be able to give that to the world. We were able bring it to the face of so many different people that we wouldn’t have because COVID destroyed all of our other plans. So, that was kind of the main thing with Kickstarter for us. We wanted to get as many people to see We should talk., see if people believed in the goals that we were trying to lead in the experience, and helped get that game that extra push towards release. Because for a lot of indies, that event circuit that I was mentioning, is how your game gets known.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Full disclosure, most indies don’t make a lot of money for their games, there’s not a lot of extremely successful indie games out there, a lot of people are getting by. And most people making indie games are making less than they put into the game. So, when they lose the biggest bits of marketing that we were going to have presences at a series of events this year, I think, I was going to be traveling once or twice every month through August, showing this game, we’re doing talks about this game. And when that couldn’t happen anymore, that would have been a big blow to us. So, I can’t even imagine how big of a blow it was to other games in similar scenarios. It was really trying to kind of make up for that and allowing us to find other ways to bring We should talk. to the world.
Ken Gagne: And one of the stretch goals for this Kickstarter, several of them were various online events like retrospectives and live streams. I see your name on one of them a We should talk. seminar, you and Carol, is that going to be happening anytime soon?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, those have happened already, but I can provide you with the links and we can put them in the description below. A lot of what I wanted to do at these events, I didn’t get the chance to, many of the events were canceled. I was willing to do several talks, seminars and such, and we kind of just took that into our own hands and then put it in a digital format, which is another thing that the Kickstarter did help, because a lot of the events that I was going to go to, I was going to be paid to go out there, and that was going to make it possible for me to do so. So, we did a ton of seminars, we did some retrospective streams. We did a before and after stream of showing what the alpha looked like, versus what the current version of the game ended up being, and kind of the journey. And we all were able to kind of do that and kind of pay ourselves for that work as a result of those stretch goals.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. So, you talked about how this funding was used primarily for marketing. And you also, way back, earlier talked about how the game’s branches can change when you patch the game. When I look at the metadata on my switch copy of this game, it says it’s at version 0.1, does that mean it’s still in development?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: For the most part, We should talk. is completely finished. When small bugs come up, we fix them, and that’s to the extent of which it’s still in development. For example, the Switch version, we’ve already submitted a patch for a little bug that was found, that’s going through certification. And I think that’s really all that’s referring to. For the most part, We should talk. is done outside of, if we find bugs, we’re going to fix them. Some of which being narrative books, some of which being code-based bugs, but We should talk. for the most part, all things considered, it’s done. Now, do I write my own We should talk. fan fiction on the side? Absolutely. But that’s not going to make into the game, maybe, probably not.
Ken Gagne: Because if you were still developing the game, the one request I would have is when I’m spinning the sentences, sometimes I want to choose the option that’s above the current one, so I push up, but it spins the wheel up and moves the bottom one to be active. So, it’s the opposite of what I expect.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It’s so funny that you mentioned that. That was a very long tested decision between us. And what we learned from various amounts of playtesting, various amounts of discussion with mentors and advisors for the game is that, it’s kind of a 50/50 shot whether or not people are going to be comfortable with the way that we’re deciding. Because some people see you holding a thing and lifting it up to go further the below option, and some see you doing seeing video game I want to go up, so I’m pressing up. It’s kind of like the old inverted controls versus non inverted controls thing.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, it’s a very interesting feedback, I want to take that into consideration and who knows what more accessibility options we will be able to add in the future. We definitely want to be able to do that type of thing. If there’s clear accessibility options that we should have in the game, we definitely want to put that in there.
Ken Gagne: Because in the game, the sentence spinner most often appears in the context of the phone you’re using to talk to Sam. And in that context, it makes sense, because a phone is swipe up to move things up. But in my case, I’m not playing on a mobile device. This game isn’t being ported to mobile devices, so I’m not using a touch interface. And that’s, I think, what threw me.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah.
Ken Gagne: One of the things you mentioned was that indie games are born from seeing other games and saying, “I want to do my own version of that. I want to do my own take on that.” That’s one way to seek inspiration. One of the games I was reminded of when I was playing this was Emily Is Away which I have interviewed the developer for my other podcast, IndieSider. So, I’m not asking you to critique other games, but for people who did play We should talk. and enjoyed it, what other games similar to it would you recommend, if any?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It’s funny you should mention Emily Is Away — Kyle Seeley, the developer of Emily Is Away, was a great supporter of We should talk. when we were coming up with it. So, like I mentioned before, it’s a game that debuted at the NYU Game Center at the end of the year, the Games Center Student Showcase, he was there, and he played it. And he walked up to us and said, “When is it coming out? Where can I buy this?” And afterwards, we’re able to create a good dialogue and have a couple conversations with him that helped kind of influence some of the decisions that we were making. So, Emily Is Away is a great one. It’s also one that definitely inspired us. The way that they kind of simulate aim texting, enable instant messaging is part of an inspiration for us for sure.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I think as an individual, myself, I… Also One Night Stand is a great short form game. I’m really a fan of these smaller, shorter, bite sized experiences for narrative games, that I feel like they have a different kind of impact than having to remember details that you would in a book. It’s a different type of way to experience that. So, One Night Stand is a great example of that. I think both Emily Is Aways are good examples of that. I think Florence is a good example of that. Which does, I think, successfully, expresses emotion without words in a very beautiful way, and its tone through texting. That is another thing that We should talk. tries to accomplish that I think Florence does pretty well.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And this is a very different answer than the rest of them. I really like the Telltale Batman series because a big part of me still likes comic books. And one more, there’s a great FMV game that I played the summer that we were developing We should talk., didn’t really influence it, but I was trying to experience all of the different types of narrative games to kind of help influence me as a, just, writer in general and it was called Late Shift, which is a great FMV action thriller game that you can find on, I think, all the things.
Ken Gagne: Excellent, I’ll include links to those in the show notes. I love that you mentioned Florence because I just played that myself earlier this year and loved it. One of the producers on that game was Kamina Vincent, who was formerly of Tin Man Game Studios, they made The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as well as To Be Or Not To Be, the choose-your-own-adventure game based on Hamlet, both of which are awesome and which I interviewed her for on my other podcast, IndieSider. And you mentioned both Emilys Are Away, but I believe that there is a third one coming out soon. I saw it at PAX East in the Indie Megabooth this year.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah, I do believe that there’s another one coming up that tackles, I think, Facenook, something like that. It sounds amazing, and I’m excited for it.
Ken Gagne: Yeah, I’m looking at the Steam page right now, it says release date soonish. And you are correct. In fact, I didn’t get a chance to play it at PAX, I only saw that it was there. And it has this mock interface of a thing it calls Facenook. I love it. Awesome.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Thank you.
Ken Gagne: Cool. So, we’ve been talking a lot about We should talk. naturally, that’s right in the name of the game, but I want to spend a few more minutes before we hang up on some other topics. The Kickstarter for We should talk. is based on St. Louis, Missouri. Another thing that’s also based out of St. Louis, Missouri is the PixelPop Festival, which debuted there in 2014, joining the ranks of such diverse game conferences as Different Games, IndieCade, Gamer-X, what is your role with PixelPop Festival?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, for PixelPop Festival, I am the sessions manager. And what that means is that I’m the general liaison between the speakers, panelists and presenters and PixelPop as an organization. I do the general outreach for them, I kind of let them know what’s going on, and what they might need, I try to attend to during the conference. That also doubles as the emcee for the event when it’s live.
Ken Gagne: Now, I didn’t realize what a burgeoning scene of indie game development St. Louis has, it has hosted the 14th largest Global Game Jam in 2017, I believe. But if I understand correctly, you’re in Brooklyn, so how did you get involved with a St. Louis event?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: That is a wonderful… Like I mentioned before, the We should talk. team all met together at NYU, at their MFA for Game Design. And one of the developers on We should talk. Carolyn Mertz is also the executive director of PixelPop Festival. And we’ve worked on several projects together at this point. This is a good friend, in a lot of our private conversations, I expressed my desire to go into event organizing. Because before I was in the game industry, and when I was in college, I did a lot of organizing of events that particularly, catered to, educated and supported black communities in the Greater New York metro area. And I wanted to do the same type of work in games. And at that particular moment, she was also looking for a session manager for PixelPop, and thought that I’d be a good person for that role.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, we met in Brooklyn, and I didn’t have really any much hesitation, I said, “I’d like to talk to you a little bit more, I’d to talk to the other picks about team members and see what this is, and how I could fit in there.” And everyone on the team seemed to get it, the idea of kind of fostering a space where people from different backgrounds and people with different experiences can come and create new and interesting ways of play. And my individual goal as becoming a greater event organizer was pretty much the same as the event organizer I was before, where I just want to make sure that black people had opportunities to both learn and grow in whatever space that I’m in. Because PixelPop, I feel, was already doing a great job at that, and was… Phenomenally, black people from marginalized groups in general. I was happy to come and join that effort.
Ken Gagne: Oh, that’s great. You wear so many hats. You’re a narrative designer and a session manager. That’s a lot of work for one person.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It tends to be. I like to fill my plate with… I have a lot of things that I want to do in the world. I am a narrative designer, I’d like to write a book, I’d like to write a movie, I’d like to write a TV show, I’d like to write a play, I’d like to just write out all mediums. I’d like to organize different events for things. I’d like to start organizations that then help young black kids get into the games industry. These are all large goals that I want to work towards. And a lot of these other things are smaller active things that I can do to start touching at those goals, and also expanding my capability of achieving those goals later.
Ken Gagne: And that’s great. A lot of people just are drawn to the nearest shiny thing, but it sounds like you have a plan. You will do this to acquire these skills, that next you can do that. That’s very self-aware and more than I think most people have.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah, it was actually my motivation to going to NYU, going to Game Design school. I mean, before I was in the industry or going to Game Design school, I was working like an administrator at a community college. I had virtually very little game industry experience. But I did organize a ton of events, and those events I did a lot of role playing experiences, and it’s a little bit timely now, but I did a lot of role playing experiences about what to do as a black person when you’re stopped by police officers. And I didn’t recognize them as role playing experiences at the time, I didn’t understand that the concept of play could be extended to those things. But after doing research and finding out about NYU, I learned that that was definitely a thing, that was game design that I was doing. It wasn’t the type that I wanted to continue doing the rest of my life, like I mentioned before, I want to write on all mediums but games are the ones that I care about the most.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: So, I decided, I am older than someone immediately coming out of college. I am going to go to this school with these particular goals in mind. I’m going to choose NYU specifically because I have done research on the professors there, they’re all people that have various levels of experience, but they’re all kind of brilliant. I want to learn from them specifically, not necessarily just in the classroom, but I want to be able to talk to them, learn about the industry that I’m kind of just shoving myself into. I want to be able to use the connections of going to a university to have some stability if game design doesn’t work for me. If I couldn’t get writing work or We should talk. immediately after NYU, I still have a terminal degree, maybe I could teach somewhere.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I choose NYU specifically, because it has great Game Design program, but the program is also in the Tisch department, which is also a screenwriting department. I can increase my screenwriting skills, which will then help me as a narrative designer and writer in the games industry, while also giving me skills that I can use to attain my other goals that I want to have. Everything is very important because it all started with NYU because that was a important thing to plan for, because of how expensive graduate school is. If I was going to put down all that money for an education, I wanted to make sure that I had as much of it in my hands as possible to achieve my later goals. And I think I’m taking that philosophy with everything else I do in life as well.
Ken Gagne: That’s brilliant. I’ve been to grad school, I agree, it’s very expensive, and I didn’t realize, though, that the NYU Game Center is part of the Tisch School that has a legendary reputation in the performing arts world. That’s very impressive.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah, what attracted me to that, not only was its reputation in the other programs, but the idea that at NYU, they are coming from the perspective that this is an arts degree. So, be as experimental as you want to be, and you can do that. And as a result, I was able to do that. They didn’t bat an eye when I made three games about poop. Because I wanted to make things about poop, that was funny to me, so I just did it. So, I’ll make my games about poop, then I’ll make my games about gentrification, then I’ll make my game about emotion dependency, and all those could exist in that same place, which is a big part of that, truly.
Ken Gagne: Well, that is an impressive litmus test, will this school let me make games about poop? Yes, or no?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Exactly.
Ken Gagne: So, one more question about PixelPop Festival, like so many events, it’s been affected by the pandemic, and I’m speaking to that, personally. Today, the day that you and I are recording, I was supposed to be flying from one conference in Philadelphia, to another conference in Kansas City. Instead, I’m spending the entire week in Montana on Zoom. So, I can appreciate that a lot of transformations are necessary, a lot of decisions need to be made for PixelPop Festival, those decisions are still being made, but the event is going ahead for 2020, it will be held correct?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yes. So, we’ve already announced the dates which are not at the top of my mind. But the submissions have gone out for PixelPop Festival, it’s definitely existing in a digital format. We’re still figuring out what exactly that means. But yeah, it’s still moving forward, because I think personally, that it’s not more important than ever, but it’s extremely important to maintain the communities that are underserved. And like you said, PixelPop is in St. Louis which has a budding game design and game industry both indie experimental student, and started some companies as well. They deserve to not be forgotten about because of this. They kind of deserve to continue to exist in some respect and be able to show off their work, show the information and knowledge that they’ve gathered about games and bring it out to the world. So, we still want to be able to provide that for people and kind of help maintain that space, even in times when it’s hard to see exactly how that’s going to work out.
Ken Gagne: That’s awesome. People who want to find out more about PixelPop Festival which is being held September 12 and the 13th, Saturday and Sunday, can go to pixelpopfestival.com, and by the way, depending on where you Google, National Video Game Day is either July 8, or September 12, the day of the festival, so that’s just perfect timing.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Perfect. I wasn’t aware of that. That’s seems pretty cool.
Ken Gagne: I wouldn’t be aware of it either, except it’s on my calendar. For some reason, I put it in there 20 years ago as a recurring event, and I’m like, “Well, it must be true.”
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It’s such an important day, those two of them.
Ken Gagne: Right? There should be more days than that.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah.
Ken Gagne: All right, one last question before we go, you talked about all these different media that you want to perform and to contribute to, tell us about one of your projects, Saving the Day.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I mean, NYU is a constant in my current life.
Ken Gagne: Clearly.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I wanted to take a screenwriting class, and so I… There was a class called Writing Across Mediums I believe, where you’d go in, it was a very short class, I was the only game design student there and a bunch of screenwriting students, masters and I think, one undergraduate student, and they just said, “You’re going to come in here, you’re going to pitch a movie or a pilot, 30 minutes or an hour, it doesn’t matter, whatever you want to pitch. And we’re just going to work through it and we’re going to make this a writer’s room. We’re going to have five people in here because that was the size of the class, and this is going to be your writer’s room for the rest of the semester.” And I wanted to tell a story, a superhero story about a black superhero whose family is from Barbados, who grew up in Flatbush or Crown Heights in Brooklyn, because that was an example of me wanting to write a story kind of about me, if I became a superhero.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: And the struggles of being a person who wants to do good in the world, and particularly, a black superhero who wants to do good in the world, while the gentrification is happening and your culture is being erased where you are, and as a result, your identity as a hero is becoming erased as well. People are caring about you less because you’re not what’s new, you’re not the new juice store, you’re the old mom-and-pop shop down the street. So, I began writing this story in that class, and I actually haven’t revisited the script maybe a year. However, it’s something that I am asterisks, asterisks, continuously working on, because it’s a project that I want to really make a thing. I don’t know in what medium, it originated as a 30 minute TV show pilot, but I want to make that a real thing. And I’m kind of shopping around ideas of what it will become later, though.
Ken Gagne: That is awesome. I love how you have your hands in so many different projects, and as soon as one is done, whether it’s We should talk. or a PixelPop Festival, you don’t even have to wait to be over, because you’re already starting your next project. You’re not letting any moss gather on your rolling stone.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Yeah, I mean, I’m even working on some tabletop stuff that I just haven’t announced yet. When you’re an artist, I feel like, in all types of the word, when you’re creating content for any type of medium, the idea has just come. And so, eventually you start writing something down and like, eventually I’m going to work on this, eventually I’m going to work on this. I just happen to have a couple of those things already in the pipeline.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. And once again, for those who want to keep abreast of all these many projects you’re working on, where can they find you online?
Jordan Jones-Brewster: You can find me on twitter.com/versified.
Ken Gagne: Also, there’ll be a link to that in the show notes. Jordan, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Thank you for having us; this was fun.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.