Content Warnings for Mentions of Death of a Parent, Suggestions of Self-Harm, and Abuse
There’s been a recent uptick in‘90s nostalgia and it’s pretty obvious why. What goes around comes around, it’s been 30 years, etc. But what I’ve found particularly interesting in recent years is how ‘90s nostalgia in games often manifests in merely superficial ways. The ‘80s and ‘90s brought about some of the most memorable gaming experiences, both on PC and consoles, and it’s understandable that people would like to revisit those classic gameplay moments (that’s why Metroid-style games continue to perpetuate, afterall). But there’s an inevitable (pun maybe intended) flattening effect in my opinion, when we fixate on things like the pixel count of sprites and similar gameplay loops from specific eras. We don’t often want to create games that portray not just the aesthetics of an era, but the zeitgeist of that era. Arguably, this fixation on recreating the same nostalgic experiences over and over is what partially fuels the industry’s current problem of recreating the same open-world experiences and how Elden Ring threw all those copy-paste experiences into stark relief. But that’s a whole other discussion in itself.
All the above has been rattling about in my head and more after speaking with Emily Flynn-Jones, KillJoy Games’ head as well as writer and designer of CURSES, a story driven game releasing on August 26. CURSES is an Ubisoft Indie Series 2021 Special Prize-winning title that focuses on dealing with difficult feelings as a teen witch known only as Girl, who’s growing up in the early ‘90s in an abusive household where she’s also mourning the death of her mother. The game focuses primarily on a point-and-click experience, not just for accessibility (although that is a major goal for the studio), but to invoke a LucasArts-type PC game sensibility that Emily would’ve been playing as a teen. Additionally, all the game’s choices are colored by a mix and match system of five feelings (despair, rage, determination, uncertainty and vengefulness) attached to various magic rituals like anthropomancy or tarot card reading using Girl’s personally-designed cards featuring her favorite pop culture heroes and loved ones.
Killjoy has put a lot of loving research and care into making Girl’s dark and gritty ‘90s have an authentic feel, emphasizing the isolation of the early internet era, the political moments most relevant to Girl such as riot grrrl and D.I.Y. zine culture, and the materiality of media (VHS tapes and mixtapes with personalized art labels). Their TikTok page highlights many of the alternative media properties and figures that inspired the game’s atmosphere and Girl’s personality and interests. The team even created a glossary of ‘90s slang and language that they curated for Girl and her sassy Familiar cat’s dialogue with one another.
When asked who Flynn-Jones’ target audience was for CURSES, she says, “Initially, myself. An elder millennial who can get the ‘90s riffing throughout the game and who had troublesome relationships,” someone queer and femme, someone dealing with trauma growing up during a decade where it wasn’t always easy to find and connect with people instantaneously. Flynn-Jones describes herself as a former game scholar who came to game design via her studies and eventually through her therapy sessions as well. She found typical CBT techniques like journaling and the like boring and suggested that she was better able to communicate what she was going through via game mechanics and systems. “Making games is not therapeutic on its own,” she states, but using elements of the game making process to find a way to work through her personal story was the key to reconciling with feelings connected to her past. “This is definitely autobiographical,” Flynn-Jones asserts. When she reflected on the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and dealing with the passing of her mother, it was clear that the mechanics and narrative of CURSES were the most appropriate fit for Killjoy, her boutique studio supported by Toronto-based accelerator Damage Labs. Killjoy’s MO is to focus on making games that deal with diverse figures, feelings and themes not often explored in the industry.
The more she worked on the game concept, that of Girl wanting to magically curse her family as they’ve been cursing her existence, Flynn-Jones realized that it was important to focus on turbulent emotions and how they empower or restrict our actions. “Despair can take away agency,” Flynn-Jones notes, but can also force one to take a long deep look inward. If you consistently choose “woeful” actions, Girl also practices magic that is suited to her state of mind like attempting to speak to her mother via a ouija board and automatic writing. Our emotions change our intentions, our motivations and our actions regarding goal-setting (whether we’re setting out to curse our abusive family or not), not to mention our outcomes and consequences. Flynn-Jones decided to mediate these feelings and the actions tied to them through magic for a few reasons. Chief among these reasons is that this characterizes the feelings as a non-judgmental force, instead of giving them a moralistic bent (as some story-driven games do). Flynn-Jones also mentioned that it’s kept uncertain whether or not the magic and Girl’s dialogue with her Familiar is all in her head.
Each of Girl’s feelings is considered valid and part of her processing her grief and trauma. This game is focused on how Girl self-determines and moves past old wounds (or perhaps doesn’t), using magic as a way to channel her feelings about her father and step-relatives abuse. “There is no winning in either ending,” Flynn-Jones makes sure to clarify. This is about self-determining your fate, whether for better or worse. But even in the game’s darker endings, where Girl deals with her trauma in a less healthy way, Killjoy was very mindful of foregrounding such moments and making sure none of the abuse or trauma discussed or experienced was explicit in nature. This is a game that aims to have players who have gone through such situations or who are maybe still stuck in those situations realize that their feelings matter and they are not invisible.
“Originally we were going to have a computer in Girl’s room,” Flynn-Jones explains, but the team ultimately decided against it because it would give the estranged teen an easy outlet for connecting to other people. Or perhaps her former friends who she distanced herself from after her mother’s death. “[I wanted to portray] how to dream back then,” Flynn-Jones states. How to aspire for change in an era where escaping loneliness (or masking it) wasn’t so easy. Setting the entire game inside of Girl’s room was also a deliberate choice related to this sensibility as well. “[Our] room is a place where we do a lot of our identity work. It’s Girl’s everything,” Flynn-Jones points out. It’s also a way for Killjoy’s game to delineate a safe space, one where the father figure can’t or doesn’t often enter. And also one where Girl can interact with Familiar, a more supportive (yet sarcastic) male figure in her world.
Humorously, Flynn-Jones relates Girl’s mindset to having “just taken off her Spice Girls t-shirt.” She also likens her journey to a mix of The Craft’s millennial witches who sought wish fulfillment at all costs and The Craft reboot’s Gen Z witches who are focused on magic for progressive change. Killjoy’s version of the ‘90s is somewhat revisionist in this regard and while the game doesn’t gloss over the shittier happenings of the era, it’s dedicated to presenting a period piece that reflects both the aesthetic and the systems of that era individuals like Girl were working within and against. CURSES is Killjoy’s digital zine dedicated towards the grungier, more cynical ‘90s.
Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find her work at Unwinnable, Videodame, Third Person, and her portfolio. Her stream-of-consciousness can be found at @phoenixsimms.