Content Warning: this interview contains references to eating disorders and mental health/illness
Jamie: Today I am talking to Gabriella (Ella) Lowgren about their visual novel Shrinking Pains. A narrative game created during Global Game Jam exploring anorexia from a semi-autobiographical perspective. Ella, please tell me about yourself and describe Shrinking Pains in your own words.
Ella: Sure thing! I go by Ella, and I’m a communications manager by day and indie game developer by night who lives in Melbourne, Australia. I am recovered from anorexia, and am passionate about what video games as a medium can offer mental health awareness and empathy versus more traditional mediums. I believe that games, through immersion and agency, can foster further empathy and understanding in players, especially where mental health issues and illnesses are concerned.
Shrinking Pains is a short, experimental semi-autobiographical visual novel that explores anorexia from the perspective of the sufferer. The player is forced to make increasingly difficult and narrow choices through the game to reflect the mental state of a person with an eating disorder.
Jamie: A noble passion indeed, and after playing through Shrinking Pains myself it is obviously a very personal experience for you. Was there a reason you chose this as your project for Global Game Jam? How did the team you were working with feel about it?
Ella: I always knew that I wanted to make a game about anorexia, and I was lucky enough to have an amazing team that were equally passionate about the project, as half of our members have had disordered eating in the past. The game happened because it was something many of us had shared, and felt was important to discuss through a game.
Awareness was a big priority for us, as it isn’t uncommon for society to (fallaciously) view eating disorders as a phenomenon largely experienced by teenage girls. Unfortunately, this downplays the severity of the illness, as it is seen in people of all genders and at all ages. it is also the psychiatric illness with the highest mortality rate. (And that’s ONLY anorexia, not eating disorders as a whole.)
Jamie: Sounds like you all approached the subject from either places of personal experience, or at least with the right intentions and knowledge. Something that would be great to see from the game dev community as a whole.
From someone who was dealing with their own eating disorder while they were trying to sort out their own feelings on gender I have a lot of respect for what your team managed to accomplish.
While we’re on the subject of gender, at the beginning of your game you get to select your preferred partners; whether they be Femme, Masc, or Everyone. Is there a reason you felt the need to include this choice where so many others would push you into a pre-set relationship?
Ella: It was of particular importance that we let the player choose their preference for two reasons. The first being that we wanted the player to relate more strongly with the protagonist, the second being that we wanted there to more representation in our game for queer players. (A lofty ambition considering the game was made in 48 hours!)
When writing the narrative, I made sure to write the player character as gender neutral, so anyone could play the game and feel represented.
Also, many of our team come from diverse backgrounds, so we wanted to create an experience where any one of us could play and feel represented in the narrative.
Jamie: Lofty ambition indeed, you’ve managed to check a lot of inclusivity boxes in a very quickly made game though. For someone who doesn’t like being constantly gendered in-game it was a relief not to have to fight the narrative to feel included.
Is this the kind of experience you could see yourself working on on a larger scale? SP was made in just 48 hours, have you and your team discussed what you could get done with enough time and resources? Are there other stories that you feel are important and that you feel you could tell well?
Ella: Oh great question! Thank you!!!
A lot of people have requested that Shrinking Pains be made longer, with more endings. However, I don’t think the game would lend itself to a longer play time. It’s a very depressing, raw and bleak experience. As such, I think it could be potentially harmful to spend much longer in the protagonist’s brain as their mental health declines. I’m happy with the game as it is, and would prefer to explore new projects in the future. Speaking of new projects…
I am currently working on a new title, slated for release late December/early January with many members of the same team. This title is longer in length and explores trauma, grief and the effects of childhood abuse in adulthood. It’s another intense, experimental visual novel, because I love how visual novels can explore narratives and have a relatively fast turn around time.
The title, Entrails in her Antlers, is darker than Shrinking Pains, if you could believe it. It will come with a host of trigger warnings. There is a time and a place for games that educate and empower players, but like literature, I believe there is a place for writing that is deeply personal and raw. For some players, this game will be triggering, which is why I will endeavour to always flag its content. However, there is a lot of value to be found in being honest and raw. Not everyone benefits from purely positive experiences, and sometimes these darker explorations can help people feel valid, seen and less alone. Emotions, experiences and people aren’t always wonderful. I think it is okay to create content that reflects this as long as it is appropriately tagged.
On a side note, another thing that I wanted to show in Entrails in her Antlers is the effect that mental health issues and illnesses can have on a sufferer’s support network. These people are often glossed over and their experiences trivialised in media. I wanted to show both the internal struggle of the sufferer, and how this can impact the people around them.
Jamie: Wow, sounds like that you’ve got your hands more than full, and I can’t wait to see how Entrails in her Antlers turns out. It seems like those who want to better understand mental health should be on the lookout for it when it comes to release time.
It’s been an utter delight talking to you about Shrinking Pains today, Ella, so let’s round this interview off with one last big question that I like to ask wherever I go: What do you think the game dev world as a whole can do to better represent those things that are of particular importance to you? Could be queer issues, mental health, body issues, anything you feel is currently under or poorly represented.
Ella: Oh! Another great question! I think that game dev is already moving in a direction that better facilitates games and discussions concerning mental health. I would like to see more representation in terms of gender and sexuality, but I also think that many emerging companies and games (especially indie!) are doing what they can. I am very excited to be working in game development at this crucial time, especially as we see more experimental and personal games being created due to new creation and distribution methods and platforms.
Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me today. ❤
Jamie: Thank you for sparing the time to talk to me. This has been wonderful and I wish you and your team all the luck in the world on Entrails in her Antlers. I’m sure I’ll be back to talk to you again after it releases.
Ella: Thank you! I’d love to talk about it once it is out in the wild. 🙂 We are hoping to have multiple partner options again.
It was written and developed by Gabriella (Ella) Lowgren