Interview with Katharine Neil – Developer of Alone in the Park

When I sat down in the downstairs room of a crowded London bar on a cold September night to play Alone in the Park I had no idea what to expect. I was handed a horizontal iPad, split into two sections like the pages of a book. On one side was an empty page and on the right was an image. As I started clicking on items in the picture and adding words to the story on the empty page I started to fall in love with the story I was being presented with. From the mind of Katharine Neil, ex-audio designer turned indie developer, Alone in the Park is an adventure game woven with a layer of narrative that walks the line between dark and amusing. Katharine and I recently sat down to discuss the game, covering how to develop games that work well on a touch screen interface, the game’s sense of humour, working on games by herself and more.

Laura: Could you start off by telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into game development?

Katharine: I got into game development as an audio designer and programmer for Beam Software (some people might remember it as Melbourne House) back in 1998. Some years and a few companies later I moved across into design. An incomplete credits list for me can be found at Moby Games. In recent years I haven’t been working in studios though because I’ve been trying to live some kind of indie game developer dream. I co-founded an indie game developers’ conference a while back, Freeplay, so it’s a dream I’m pretty excited about. But so far my reality is less indie and more amateur. It consists mainly of sitting in my bedroom in an apartment north of Paris (in what some might describe as a ghetto – but it’s cheap), writing code while in a state of personal grooming that leaves much to be desired. I imagine this kind of lifestyle is more common among 15 year old boys than women of my age, but I’m not complaining. I’d rather implement gameplay than change nappies. And while bug-fixing can be painful, I bet it’s way more fun than a bikini wax.

Laura: What is Alone in the Park?

Katharine: Alone in the Park is an adventure game in which the events are conveyed via a textual narration instead of animations. So it’s very much like a text adventure, except the player interacts with the game via a graphical interface. I used to love text adventures, but the two things that I was always uncomfortable with were a) having to type in (and much of the time guess) player actions and b) not really grasping where I am in the game world, in a geographical sense. So in Alone in the Park you move around a map, and you have a sort of inventory that contains items but also photos you’ve taken during the game. Instead of using conversation trees to talk to characters, you control the conversation using these photos as topics. I was inspired by a similar system used in a game called Touch Detective that came out on the DS a few years back. Fans of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure book series for kids that was published in the 1980s might recognise the influence on some of my puzzle designs. I’m very fond of puzzles that are about geography and time.

Laura: Why do you think the game is such a good fit for tablet devices like the iPad?

Katharine: I find that I use my iPad to do fairly slow-paced, text-heavy things like reading books and newspapers. Many of the puzzles in my game are best enjoyed by taking the time to think and read before you act. Madly running about the place trying every single option and combination will solve most of the puzzles eventually, but in my game in particular that approach isn’t going to be very enjoyable. I’ve tried hard to make the puzzles solvable without requiring any guesswork.

Laura: The game has a pretty unique sense of humour. How would you describe the style of humour? What inspirations did you draw from when writing the story?

Katharine: Friends who’ve played versions of the game have told me they recognise my style of humour in it. My penchant for making snide and sometimes crude remarks hasn’t always served me well in real life, so I hope that within the context of a game it will at last find its place in the sun. When I was quite young I was a big fan of writers like Tobias Smollett, G. K. Chesterton, Jonathan Swift, Saki… I loved their paper-thin characters and surreal plots that went nowhere in particular – aspects that would go down very badly with the story police these days, I suppose. But above all there’s this tone, that I might describe as a kind of “savage whimsy”. This kind of writing was brutal, nasty and vulgar, but light, fanciful and elegant at the same time.

Laura: What sort of reception have you had showing the game off?

Katharine: I rather quietly released a browser version of the game last year (the interface is a bit different though) and the feedback was generally quite positive. People seem to think the writing is good, and it either makes them laugh or feel quite disgusted at me (sometimes both). Friends and fellow developers encouraged me to do an iPad version. As a text-based, 4-5 hour long game it’s much better suited to a tablet. They tell me the interface redesign and touch interface feel is a big improvement. One of the challenges for me is correctly conveying to people what kind of experience they’ll have playing my game. No, despite the way it looks, it’s not interactive fiction. And yet it does not contain point-and-click puzzling with beautifully hand-drawn characters. Curiously, it is neither mysterious, haunting and profound nor is it a rollicking good-natured adventure. And yet it *is* an adventure game.

Laura: What challenges do you face creating a game by yourself? Are there any ways you feel it’s easier or better to develop a game without a team?

Katharine: I really miss working on teams. I’ve worked on small ones and large ones. Recently I’ve been doing some work (music, narrative design) as part of the Lady Shotgun team for a game called Buddha Finger, and though we work remotely, that’s been great. I have no art skills, and I think that’s a big disadvantage for me at the stage I’m at. A friend will be creating some art for Alone in the Park though, and I’m really looking forward to having some decent looking art. Thankfully, I do have a programming background, and that’s what allows me to do things on my own. There are a couple of key challenges a one-person game development operation faces that I think are worth mentioning. One is that because I have to implement everything myself and features take a lot longer to implement, the game designer in me can get sidelined and stale with all the waiting around. When I compare that to my experiences working as a designer on a team where I *don’t* have to implement the design myself, I really feel that difference.

Another factor is the psychology of being the only person who cares if the game is any good or even gets made. You’re your own producer and you have to slap yourself out of periods of self-doubt and procrastination. Having supportive friends helps too but ultimately you’re on your own. Talking up one’s own game too… that’s uncomfortable. Way easier to promote one’s team’s game (by the way, yay for Lady Shotgun!) than one’s own because you don’t feel so sleazy about it. But having said that, here I am putting out my own game for a change, and for the first time in my career it’s not published by Eidos, THQ, Atari, Codemasters etc., nor does it contain cars, ponies, toys, movie characters etc. There are some practical reasons why there are some efficiencies to be gained by working as an individual perhaps, but the main reason for me is that I don’t have any money to pay anyone else and this is the only way to make a game with my own voice.

Laura: What sort of difficulties have you faced promoting your game as a solo game developer?

Katharine: I haven’t really started promoting it yet. But I imagine that as I have no publisher or distributor doing marketing for me it’s going to be super difficult to get the word out to my potential audience. So interviews like this really help.

Laura: Do you have any advice for aspiring game designers or developers?

Katharine: The game designers I know that I really admire are interesting, knowledgeable people. You can talk to them about philosophy, politics, psychology, 17th century French opera, animal husbandry. Be someone like that – don’t just fill up your brain with vocational skills. Also start making games now – don’t wait around for some magical time when you feel confident and ready. I’m still waiting for that time myself to be honest. And if you get a job in a games studio, join your union. You’re like an other worker, performing real labour and you deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Maybe it’ll take you a few years to realise this but the sooner you do, the better for you and your co-workers.

Laura: When can we expect to see a finished version of the game released?

Katharine: By end of November or beginning of December, I hope (on iPad – but also PC and Mac). Shortly after that I hope to release on Android too. I’m encouraging people who want to be reminded when it’s out to follow me on Twitter (haikus_by_KN) if they dare, or ‘like’ the game on Facebook so they receive announcements. Or if all else fails, keep an eye on my website Cheap Drunk Games.

Laura: Do you have any final words for our readers?

Katharine: There’s a bit of a revelation at the end of the game, but it’s quite subtle. Nobody playing the browser version of the game has picked up on it, as far as I know. I’m hoping some people will this time around (hint: go back and re-read the first couple of pages in the game).

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