Game Development From The Margins: Deirdra Kiai and Dominique Pamplemousse

Posted by Rob LeFebvre on April 17th, 2013
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Deirdra Kiai is a young game developer with several games to the good, including the most recent, Dominique Pamplemousse, a "stop motion musical detective adventure game" that's available on Mac, Windows, and iPad. Here's a quick preview, with Deirdra's own singing voice as the lead character:

We had a chance to sit down with Deirdra this past GDC week, and chatted a bit about Deirdra's game development experience, the choice of gender-neutral protagonists, and some of the techniques that went into making the current game. Some of the interview has been edited for clarity.

148Apps: How many games have you made now?

Deirdra Kiai: Well, I've been making games ever since the early 2000s. It started out as a hobby in high school. So there are probably maybe at least ten or so games I've done that are available on my website. I have a reverse chronological order portfolio on my site so you can kind of see the evolution of what i've done there.

If you had to describe the evolution of your style of your games in a sentence or two, how would you do that?

Hm, a sentence or two? I started out heavily inspired by classic Lucas arts adventure games, (which is) apparent even today. But as I went on, I started incorporating so many more influences, particularly from interactive fiction and basically narrative-based, choice-based narrative games that aren't necessarily always about puzzle solving but have some kind of interesting story you can explore and some kind of personal twist to it. So a big part of my evolution has been incorporating more of the personal into my work.

So when you say the personal, do you mean the characters or yourself?

Kind of both. The characters I write have a lot to do with myself and the people I know and just thoughts and feelings I have and sometimes the characters I write embody those.

Would you say your work is becoming more personal over time?


So, Dominique, how do you say the last name?

Pamplemousse. It's the French word for grapefruit.

Why 'grapefruit'?

I just think it's a cool word. It just sounds cool. it's like an early detective--a big French detective name and I've always liked pamplemousse. I want a character named Pamplemousse. And what's a good gender-neutral French sounding name? Dominique.

The gender neutral thing is a big part of this game, and the last one you made, as well. Tell us a bit more about it?

Well the genesis of the whole idea of doing a gender-neutral protagonist came with some of my past games featuring female characters and protagonists--I have a very androgynous drawing style for characters. I don't like to sexualize women. I like to design characters who I can empathize with, and that goes for female and male and whatever. And so in (my previous game), Life Flashes By, I had several comments along the lines of, "I didn't know I was playing a woman! Charlotte totally looks like a man! She's got a square jaw and everything." And I was thinking I wanted to play with this a bit. I want to play with this expectation that cartoon characters and gender that you have to explicitly show tertiary and secondary characteristics if you're going to, like Minnie Mouse is Mickey Mouse with a bow on her head and Ms. Pac-man is a Pac-man with a bow on her head.

They're not that different, right.

Not that different at all. It's just weird that you have to specifically mark something as female. so yes, Dominique is a very neutral character. So I was like, "Why don't I just make the character completely neutral?"

I was also partly inspired by the game Echo Bazaar, it's now called Fallen London, and one of the character selection options involved having a gender neutral character. So it's like a person of mysterious and indistinct gender. I chose that as my character and as I was playing my character in this game I felt like oh, I really like this. I'm just playing kind of this sneaky, charming thief-type person and people keep going "Sir, uh, madam, uh, what..."

But that was part of the fun. I just thought that was really cool. I, myself, kind of identify as somewhat androgynous so there's definitely a bit of personal inspiration there. Definitely in the last year or two, my personal sense of style has gotten a lot more androgynous and I really enjoyed embodying that and playing with people's assumptions. It's a more comfortable role for me to play. I was never always comfortable just being a full-on woman but I've never really felt like a man, either. So it's inspired by personal and inspired by people's reactions to my previous work. 

Tell us a little bit about this game and the claymation and all that. It's taken about year to get this together?

Kind of, yeah. I've spent about a year, since maybe summer 2011 or so. I got started prototyping, creating and putting the materials together, making the puppets, and trying to make a set and seeing how that would look. and doing some art tests and gradually over the year. I built the preliminary game engine, I had the music um...

The music is fantastic, by the way. I love the way that plays out. 

Thank you! Yeah, so just getting the music to loop seamlessly for the most part, and getting the musical queueing to work in a way that I am more or less happy with. 

How did you put that together (besides with magic)? Was it a lot of manual tweaking or was it more programmatic?

Well, I sort of programmed a system based on counting the beats per measure, measures per loop, and I had this timer loop running, with every kick at a certain point, like, "now you can queue the music and now you can queue the action."

What was the most challenging part of the claymation itself?

Well, it was figuring out basically what the best way to capture the characters and the background would be. I decided to create sprites like one normally would in a video game, instead of a traditional claymation movie where you shape every frame by every frame. It's really, really time consuming. I wanted to make the best use of the interactive format as I could.

I looked into trying to create a green screen but the way I was getting my characters and the camera equipment I was using, which was admittedly quite cheap, it wound up being more cost effective to use a white background and kind of trace around in Photoshop and create the alpha channel that way. It was a slightly tedious process, but since I wound up doing a more simple animation style, cause I have kind of short-limbed characters, so they show they're kind of moving a bit fast and stuff. It's kind of like a herky-jerky silent film kind of feel. So I was able to maintain that, and that was kind of interesting. 

Did you study up on any claymation?

Oh yeah. I did a whole bunch of research on how people make claymation puppets and how they do armatures. The simplest way to do it is basically use aluminum wire and that's what I did--use a skeleton and put the clay material around it. I used some silicone-based putty that cured but at the same time would also bend. So the wire would bend and the skin would move along with it. 

There isn't a lot of deformation of the characters, right.

Yeah, it was cured material. If I were using plasticine, then there could have been more movement but at the same time a lot more potential for things to go wrong and to really deform and not being able to get it back to where it was. 

How much do you think your final product matches your initial vision? How much of a compromise did you get along the way?

Usually there's always some kind of compromise especially when you're a small indie developer. This was new art technique (for me). I tried to keep my expectations pretty open. I kept it to like, "Alright well, it's not gonna look like Aardman or anything like that, but I'll do the best I can." I'm pretty happy with how it came out.

I wasn't at the very start intending for it to be a black and white game, for instance. But when I was doing color tests and animation tests, I decided to try and see how it looked in black and white. The very very first game I did was also a back and white detective game and I thought I should try that again. Back to my roots! And the black and white style ended up looking really good for the art style, so I decided to keep it. So I saturated the colors a lot more so it really did feel like a silent film. 

A huge thanks to Deirdra for talking with us at GDC this year. We wish nothing but the best with Dominique Pamplemousse and any future endeavors, which--according to a blog entry--include working on an MFA in Santa Cruz, California.