Porpentine is indisputably one of the most important and challenging game designers and writers of recent memory. Her 2012 game, Howling Dogs, won the 2012 XYZZY awards for “best story” and “best writing” and her 2013 game their angelical understanding won a XYZZY award in 2013 for “best writing.” (And this barely scratches the surface of her extensive and varied body of work.) Part of what makes Porpentine’s work so important is her ability to communicate emotion within narrative and ludic structures in ways that respect the player’s emotional intelligence. Porpentine can be found on her super-rad website, Tumblr, and Twitter. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about Trash Babes, writing, hanging out in the Pink Zone, and angels.
Porpentine: 1. I like how the ambiguous graphix means anyone can look and see a different thing. My chasm is your lake.
2. Shapeshifting into animals and spending time with them, like a cyclopean bat flying with its swarm as they migrate from jungle to wasteland. It feels v cozy to do that, to have no goals and just chill as part of the ecosystem. Surrender yourself to the swamp!!!
3. I love the randomized text on the mission outcome, it’s kind of this parallel story of what you did.
4. Mashing these little critters together so they talk in gibberish feels like playing with toys to me. Pink Zone is about projecting onto stuff and using your imagination, which I try to do with a lot of my games.
5. The muuuuuusic. The spaceship song is so warm. It’s nice to have cozy safe interstitial areas like that, someone should make a list of vidgame lounge rooms.
FPS: Agreed, that music is phenomenal – how did you and Neotenomie start working together?
Porpentine: We met online and I asked Brenda if I could use some of her songs for Armada. Later she did music for Love is Zero, and Pink Zone, and other projects. She’s really good at taking an incomprehensible description from me and making exactly what I didn’t know I needed.
FPS: I turned into that aimless dunebuggy spacecar thing and trucked around for a while. This is not a question, but the power-ups are really fun!
Porpentine: Yeah the car is fun. Honk honk!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
FPS: You’ve also started something called Trash Babes – could you tell me a little bit about that and what your goal is?
Porpentine: Trashbabes is a trash-bodied trans-centered art collective. We’re focused on material outcomes, like, we sold a zine to help our friend escape Texas, and we do Twine workshops, and our health comes first. We make comics and games and zines and everythiiiing, you can see our work posted on trashbabefuture.tumblr.com!
And speaking for myself, there needs to be a space for people like us to make art. There is a wound so many years long, gouged #000000 deep. I am a survivor of that wound, I speak from experience.
We need trans feminine and non-binary people to stop being treated as secondary. We need to not be stigmatized for disability. We need artistic fields so vast you have somewhere to go if you’ve been assaulted or abused. We need radical politics that aren’t co-opted by ego and violence. We need transparency. We need safety. We need love. We need cross-generational trans-communal healing and insight. We need to record our history. We need our own culture. We need pragmatic ways to survive and make money without coming into competition with each other. We need food and shelter and hormones and health care. This is not theoretical.
FPS: This leads into a little bit of what I wanted to ask about Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone. I found the structure of this game to closely resemble that of a poetic elegy – at least as far as the -/+ actions echo the idea of apotheosis, where players will press + to sort of “rise” through the different passages. Except, the longer I played the game, the more I felt like it wasn’t an ascension so much as a horizontal movement. A sort of way to illustrate that grief isn’t something you rise from but are carried along by (as in a current), or drag with you, or push through. With its focus on bearing witness to the socio-cultural vicissitudes that support and foster suicidal ideation and those that have been claimed by it, I read Stone as an almost formal work of mourning.
Porpentine: Suicide game def felt horizontal to me, but also like a field of coordinates.
Trauma is one coordinate in an infinite plane. It is very far from the illuminated coordinates where people are laughing in the sunlight. It is the black hole coordinate. Even if I’m in a room full of people who love me, that coordinate intersects with the coordinates of my physical body. That is why the numbers are so vast. When you’re in the millions and you’re maybe panicking about finding your way back to the “safe”, smaller numbers–that’s trauma.
It is a work of mourning, both for myself and for others. Think about what it takes to make someone want to kill themselves. To lose hope so completely. That is a kind of death in of itself, whether or not the body dies. And then being made illegible in death by weak and cowardly people. It’s my act of solidarity, in a way.
We are taught to be uncomfortable with pain. To see feminine pain as manipulative or crazy. Not many people want to think about what suicide rates actually say about the world we live in. I understand why someone would set themselves on fire. I think I understood when I was 13 or 14.
FPS: I found some of the critiques of the game very frustrating – particularly the ones that approached it from a more standard game studies perspective of a presumed authority, a pretension to objectivity or attempt to find some form of tactile “message” to take away beyond your preface to the game where (I believe) you pretty coherently explain what the game means to you. Do you think games writing is a thing that’s worth saving from itself? Your work with Live Free Play Hard and freeindiegam.es has been particularly inspiring in terms of bringing to light games that would otherwise be marginalized or ignored. Are there things you’d like to see more of?
Porpentine: I don’t believe games writing is real. I think it’s one of those apocryphal histories. Plague of snakes. But ummm, here’s what I care about: writing or curation that covers art like mine or what I covered in my column, that doesn’t exploit your subject, done out of love, not the accumulation of social capital, that is confident to speak in a new language or create a new conversation.
FPS: This part is less a question and more a grip of observations and thoughts I’ve nursed for a while as I’ve played your games. Exploration of strange spaces has been a recurring theme with much of your work, but a sort of elegiac mode occasionally pierces these beautiful, funny, strange spaces. I’m thinking here of the references to a dead friend found throughout Armada, some parts of ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, and much of the tone of their angelical understanding also hums with a profound sadness. I’m always amazed at how deftly you’re able to juggle tone while also constructing these dreamlike but quite cogent places.
Porpentine: Thank you, I appreciate that. Well like, that’s my head. It rains and the sun comes out and it rains in the sunshine and the desert is dry because it’s flooding somewhere else. It’s weather. Everything is part of the same system, it’s no contradiction.
FPS: With works of mourning, there’s not a lot someone outside it can say – grief and trauma are supremely personal experiences that even if one were to write critically about those works, they are incapable of writing with anything approximating authority. They’re forced instead to turn to their own experiences and thoughts on death, which forces their criticism into a radically subjective territory. (It’s partly why some of these questions have such long preambles.) I suppose if I were to shape this paragraph into a question: have you been pleased with the reception of your work?
Porpentine: INSERT LOVE. INSERT CASH. WATCH ME GROW THIS MAGIC RASH. *sung to Robo’s Theme*
FPS: I’ve also noticed that you’ll sometimes refer to divine or angelic elements in the context of these elegiac moments. Could you talk a little bit about your use of the angelic in your games?
Porpentine: Well in some of my stuff angels are hooked up to smoothie machines and milked for their cum, so I’ll focus on how I used them in their angelical understanding:
1. Association of whiteness with purity is something I’m trying to get away from.
2. Cornel West said, “justice is what love looks like in public.” Angels, unable to conceive of terrestrial harms and struggles, cannot show true justice, only mutilating purity.
3. The idea of being violated by an entity beyond reproach has informed a lot of my life. Imagine the despair of knowing your attacker is “perfect” and no one will believe you or care.
4. One of the worst things I’ve seen in my life is certitude, a reality-destroying poison. Look at this video about the Detroit water shutoff, and listen to the people talking at 2:28. That stone-hearted confidence. Angels are fucking assholes.
5. It’s interesting to me that the purest thing in the world and the most evil (angels and demons) are just different versions of the same thing. In John Wesley’s Sermon 72, he calls them what they are, “evil angels,” because they are derived from the same material. It has me thinking of the overwhelming Good Ones/Bad Ones dichotomy that trans feminine people are subject to.
6. Obviously I’m a deeply spiritual woman.
FPS: You occasionally refer to other authors in your games – are you reading anything currently? Anything you want to call out?
Porpentine: The last few things I read were Nevada, The Sluts, and Under The Skin. They are all super good. Under The Skin is like… this alien is surgically altered so she can look human and lure masculine-presenting humans to their death and she has lots of chronic pain and dysphoria. Book got more into the pain and dysphoria part, the movie was incredible at conveying alienated sensory overload. Amazing soundtrack by Mica Levi. I’m making a little twine based on it.
But let’s talk music! Here’s what I’ve been listening to. Divine my mood and shaping destiny from this:
FPS: To that end, you’ve done some phenomenal work in the past advocating for and writing about games that are frequently overlooked. Are there any that you’ve played recently that you’d like to talk about or mention?
Porpentine: Really into micro worlds and toys right now. Play Lilith’s Fantasytopia and Your Favorite Song, and thecatamite’s house series (Jackie’s House is my fav) and his SnailSim 4000. He said, “2014 is year i finally admit that i am not interested in videogames so much as just dopey little virtual playhouse diorama things”, and…yes!
I played this Twine recently by Jamie Berrout, At The Courthouse. Poetic and affecting. She resists many assumptions in very few lines. “You are not responsible for any of this, you think ill of no one, and you have done nothing wrong.”The voice is weary, which I find interesting. Like she just wants to rest. Some of us don’t want to cackle over the bodies of our fallen enemies, we just want to lie down and take a nap in their blood.
FPS: Very cool. I’ve been meaning to sit down with thecatamites collection of 50 Short Games they put out last year. Finally, I know you’ve just released a game, but anything else you want to mention/talk about?
Porpentine: Uh what else. Me and Brenda just released a zine called Trashgasm #2, it’s trans erotic scifi with a focus on non-normative intimacy and femme on femme relationships. I’m working on a suite of shovelware trans desktop apps and micro games that I’ll probably release through my Patreon, like a forest clock and a trans auto-ritual for Purifying Your Zone. I’m working on some long term projects right now too, which are the hardest thing for me. Pray for Porpy.
FPS: Fantastic! Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us, Porpentine.