culture / Jessica Schultz / September 2016

Eat Your Gender, Clean Alien Trash—All In a Day’s Work for Sundae Month

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From the Diaries Steam, featured image from the Diaries tinyBuild.

After two years of planning, designing, programming, and writing, Sundae Month—a Vermont-based game design collective—is ready for today’s release of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor through their publisher tinyBuild.

Diaries is an “anti-adventure” game about being a genderqueer janitor on a planet called Xabran’s Rock. As the release date rushed closer, I sat down with Isobel Shasha, one of Sundae Month’s three owners and the Lead Programmer, Art Director, and Contributing Writer on Diaries, as well as Bradford Horton, Writer and Producer, and Sundae Month’s Social Media Manager to talk about the game and their two year journey to bring it life.

Back in August 2014, Shasha and Horton had the idea to create a game like they had never seen before—a game where the player is more of a background character rather than a hero. As alien janitors, the main character spends all day picking up trash for measly wages. The term anti-adventure comes from the lack of a storyline typically seen in popular video games—there’s no missions explicitly laid out, and much of the game’s meaning and purpose is left to the imagination of the player.

“It has all the elements of an adventure game, like interacting with others and the tropes one normally sees in adventure games,” stated Horton, “but you’re not really an adventurer. You do the most adventuring out on your daily routine, so we coined the term ‘anti-adventure’ to describe it.” This sense of anti-adventure forces the player to make a relationship with their own routine and the planet they live on, as well as encouraging the player to form superstitions about how their actions affect the outcome of the game.

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From the Diaries Tumblr.

So where did the inspiration for the game come from if it’s the first “anti-adventure”? Shasha in particular was very inspired by Porpentine, a game designer responsible for Skulljhabit, a text-based game based around shoveling skulls every day and pushing through a mundane routine. The repetitiveness allows players to build their own ideas about the meaning of the game and the significance of their actions. The game’s maps are built to confuse and lose players in the market, inspired in part by Shasha’s sister getting lost in a bazaar in Morocco.

“I have been working on this game nonstop and I know the map better than anyone,” laughed Shasha, “but I still catch myself getting lost sometimes!”

One particularly unique and new feature of Diaries is how it sees, or doesn’t see gender. In the game, the player is genderqueer, meaning they do not follow traditional gender distinctions. A recently added mechanic makes players go to “gender kiosks” to purchase gender, which is edible and will change the player’s gender to a variety of things. Without “gender-shifting”, as it’s referred to in Diaries,  the player will experience wobbly vision and will quickly figure out that gender-shifting increases the player’s happiness in-game. Since alien gender isn’t analogous to Earth gender, players will find themselves transformed into anything from Dirt to Susan Sarandon, instead of traditional human genders.

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From the Diaries Tumblr.

When asked about gender in Diaries, Shasha said, “Gender was always something I wanted to incorporate more into the game, and in the game it’s seen as a bit of a nuisance, because you have to buy it. But according to the status bar, it will make you feel better.” Being a genderqueer janitor isn’t a dream of many, but for some players it is a fantastic experience getting to wander around and pick up alien trash. If your dream isn’t to be a genderqueer janitor, then don’t worry—one of Shasha and Horton’s main goals was the open the eyes of more traditional gamers to what video games have the ability to be–works of art.

Shasha and Horton agreed that the game is better today than it ever was before. This is in part thanks to their publisher tinyBuild, who discovered Sundae Month through an indie game website called TakeSource last year. It is uncommon for indie game companies to find a publisher so early into their lifespans, as Sundae Month is barely two years old.

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From the Diaries Tumblr.

So what has Sundae Month done right? The secret, revealed Shasha, was knowing early on what tools were needed to succeed as a game design company. Thanks to their publishers, networking, and strong online presence, Horton said Sundae Month was able to carve out its niche early in college, and take advantage of the tools and resources at the school.

For the younger generations of indie game designers, Shasha and Horton encouraged the consumption of all forms of art. They stressed how important it was to be well-rounded artists and creators before making games. People who see games as a form of art are the future, Shasha stated. It is also necessary to make as many games as possible. Making complete, albeit short, games will give anybody the tools they need to make longer games in the future. “Don’t work on your dream game right now,” said Shasha, “work on 10 small games, then 20, then more. Get a day job. Save that dream game for when you’re 40.”

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