Interview with Caitlynn Belle: Game Design, Singularity, and Mixology
I am thrilled to interview the amazing Caitlynn Belle, a game designer who has written some of the games I’m most excited by lately and who is the co-designer of a transhuman acting/roleplaying game called Singularity that’s Kickstarting right now! Singularity is really innovative and fun, and I got to write the bio for a contestant on its transhuman dating game show: an Uplifted Tortoise. I love Caitie’s take on sci-fi, her writing is crazy evocative, and it turns out she has a keen mind for cocktails as well.
DR: Hi Caitlynn! Please tell us a little about yourself for our readers.
CB: Sure! My name's Caitlynn Belle, I'm from Savannah, GA, and I design small games and other fun stuff out of my lovely apartment. I have a Kickstarter going currently for a transhuman dating sim called Singularity with the very talented Josh Jordan, and I'm very excited for it!
DR: Your games often explore new territory in the analog games world. You are incredibly skilled at evoking setting, theme, tone with just a few words - haven’t been able to get “Our Radios are Dying” out of my head for months. How long have you been designing games, and what got you started doing it?
CB: I've been designing games since around 2011 or so, mostly small card games and the like. Not much survived. My work really took off, I think, around 2014 when I started releasing some of the small ideas I had that I didn't think would be really well-received or marketable – however, I was proven wrong!
I've grown up around a lot of roleplaying and games in general – my brother was roleplaying when I was very little, I was always investing in board games growing up, and I made friends at one of my FLGS in high school that enabled me to try new, weirder stuff. I really just had a huge appetite for trying new games and new systems, I was always reading up on things and asking questions, and eventually I figured I'd try my hand at making stuff! Probably the same progression a lot of people had. What really encouraged me to push that stuff out was finding the indie roleplaying scene and seeing how many wonderful ideas were coming out of that and how welcoming everyone was about it. It really pushed me along.
DR: Do you feel that you have an overall goal for the experiences your games produce, or key themes you like to play with? Or do you view your games a little more separately?
CB: All of the things I've made are trying to do one of two things – sometimes both:
- Say something that I have trouble saying myself,
- Take an existing trope or established mechanic and finding out what happens if you mutate it.
Really, all my games are just trying to start a conversation - “Does anyone else feel like this? How do you solve this problem? Has anyone else ever thought of doing it like this?” It's therapeutic, in a sense. I feel more at home creating a thing that says what I want to say rather than just saying it!
I look at the things in my life that I have questions about, or the people around me, and I try to give an immersive experience that will hopefully let the player see where I'm coming from. It all stems from me wanting to connect with others.
There's some themes that stick with me: identity, connection, voice. But probably it's just whatever's pressing me at the moment.
DR: What are some big influences on your game design? Other games, designers, books, TV shows, etc.
CB: Music has the biggest impact on the things I'm making, but I couldn't pinpoint exact bands or artists – it changes depending on what I'm working on. But music is a must! I have something looping whenever I'm working to help influence the feel of the text.
I read a lot of other peoples' work and spend time wondering why they did what they did and how it all fell together. The list is enormous, but in particular I look at people who take simple ideas and expand them to great big concepts. The recent 200-word RPG challenge, for example, was a huge source of inspiration. I like the Nordic larp scene and all the fun things they're doing, as well as all the American Freeform stuff that I've seen in the past few years. Porpentine's twine games are also highly influential.
DR: You and Josh T. Jordan have designed a new game being Kickstarted called Singularity, the transhuman analog dating sim. I’m really excited for it, and extremely pleased to have written a little contestant bio for it. How did this project and collaboration come about?
CB: Thank you, by the way, I love your bio!
Josh literally just said on Twitter one day, “Man, Singularity would be a great name for a transhuman dating sim,” and I was like, “PLEASE MAKE THAT GAME!” He asked me to work with him on it, and now here we are! We settled on a format and general page-length and worked from there, with a small idea of who the characters were.
DR: What are you most excited about for Singularity?
CB: The characters! They're all incredibly well-written and surprisingly beautiful. I didn't think these strange little things Josh and I conceived could really be so affecting – although that's really more so because of the writers than because of us. I want people to be able to experience these characters and try to immerse themselves in their bizarre skins and wring heartbreak from them.
DR: When I inevitably hack Singularity to be a Bioware dating sim (Meghan Dornbrock, you know what I’m talking about), which ‘ships’ are you rooting for? If you’re not a Bioware gamer, any other fandoms that you'd be excited to play with in an analog dating sim?
CB: Oh man, all I've played from Bioware is KOTOR and the old Baldur's Gate game, but I'd love to see some hot jedi action. What happens when you pair up the stoic, zen-like jedi master and the wild, fiery Sith apprentice? Probably it's really hot.
I'd be happy to see people take the game and put in whoever they want, particularly original characters. The whole theme of the game is identity and love without borders, whatever you think best demonstrates that!
DR: Do you have any advice for would-be game designers seeking to stake out new analog game territory?
CB: Talk to people who are already out there. I went from silently hoarding my designs to getting recognition from really great people in the community all because I just put things out there and talked to others. If I ran into a designer I liked, I'd send them an e-mail and ask them questions about their design philosophy or their approach (imagine me up at night writing an e-mail to Vincent Baker, saying, “Why does Poison'd do what it does! I don't understand! How did you make these pieces fit so well!”). I'm talking just random e-mails from a stranger – but turns out a lot of people will talk to you about their work, and I think it's because, as a community, we want to help each other succeed. We're all out here doing this ourselves, sharing our work, and we want to watch each other grow. So literally just talking to someone about how and why they do what they do gives you incredible insight into the process.
Another thing is to just be weird with your stuff. Not weird for weirdness' sake – although that's perfectly fine! - but don't restrain your ideas. Try to figure out what this game does to turn the entire design culture on its head. I've had this conversation too many times to remember, but don't be afraid to mix it up a little. Ross Cowman's Fall of Magic uses a dang scroll, for crying out loud, a full actual scroll, and while that doesn't make it the great game that it is (it's an incredible game because of the narratives it asks you to make and the transformations you witness over a few hours), it's an extra touch that has lasting emotional impact on you: This is the scroll. Pay attention, because this is important. We're going to unroll it, and this a map. Yes, it's incredible, but wait until you see what comes along later. It's like pulling a holy artifact out. It transforms the game into something else. So what are you going to put in your game to make it something else? Do it and don't pull your punches, never ever.
DR: I love your idea for “artifacte,” a game which would produce a cobbled-together object that could be kept after the game as a reminder. Our Radios are Dying also requires the use of wheeled office chairs to simulate floating around in space. Do you often find yourself bringing physical objects into analog games? What do you think it adds?
CB: I try to – I think it provides immersion that isn't overbearing. Having props is fun and it gives you a sense of connection to the game world you're playing in. Larping as a whole already does that, by having you get up and embody your characters and explore the physical space around you. With Our Radios Are Dying, it was either going to be rolling around in chairs or dancing, and the chairs won out. It had to be a game about the physical poetry of weightlessness and the surreal movement of being lost in space.
Back in my high-school gaming days, I'd made a physical note that the characters were to find, and when they did, they both argued over who got to read it, pulling at it until it ripped into two. It was still quite readable, but I quickly took it back and told them it had been ruined, and we were all pretty excited about that. The idea that our outside-the-game choices affect the in-world environment is a situation that I don't think we look at often enough!
DR: Cocktails w/ Caitie is my favorite new series. Discovering a recipe for the Black Yukon Sucker Punch (mentioned briefly in Twin Peaks) is my mixology white whale. Is there a cocktail you’re most excited to master?
CB: I'm obsessed with gin & tonics! It's such an easy drink and such a blank slate, you can really go places with it. I've seen “Spanish G&Ts,” which incorporated rosemary into the final product, and I'm working on a strawberry and basil version, since you've already got the lime in there and strawberry and lime is so great. Gin & tonic, when you look at it, is quick and cheap: get some tonic, put gin in there, squirt a lime and be done with it. I want to take all that and push it weird places and see how much I can distort it but still make it a gin & tonic. I want to make the fanciest, most ridiculous gin & tonic I can!