A game parents can use to talk to their kids about mortality brings to mind a certain gentle sort of game, one that alights on the subject then flits away to safety. IGF finalist She Remembered Caterpillars takes a different approach. It works with a narrative that cuts deep, and an adorable surface that doesn’t entirely cover the fungoid darkness beneath.
The team at Jumpsuit Entertainment believes it will spark that conversation about mortality nonetheless. So explains Cassandra Khaw, the game’s narrative designer (disclosure: we wrote for the same outlet back in 2012). She’s in large part responsible for taking the game down its dark, disturbing paths, familiar in tone if you’ve read her short stories or novellas (Hammers on Bone; Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef). In an email exchange, she explained why she doesn’t think the game needs to be outwardly kid-friendly to serve its purpose.
It began with an unexpected discovery at the conventions the team attended.
“One of the things we noticed, something we hadn’t expected at all, was the incredible number of children that gravitated to the game. Their parents naturally followed. They’d then sit together for minutes on end, navigating through the puzzles with their children. I was charmed. The game, even in its infancy, was dark and strange and slightly eerie – it came as a surprise to see how many kids were drawn to that.”
Khaw had just lost her father at the point they were showing the game at conventions, and she was neck-deep in rewrites for its narrative elements.
“Somewhere along the way, it clicked, sharp and cold. We already had the foundation there so why not take it all the way? I’d spent weeks, by then, wondering why I was still a non-functioning wreck, an automaton shambling between conventions. Part of it was that no one really told me how to respond to that period between grieving and, well, getting better. You’re told that you’d cry and be depressed and at some point, it becomes okay.
But no one tells you how.
No one tells you what to do until then.
No one tells you what to say, what to say when people are piling platitudes on you, what to do when you’re tired of other people’s sympathies. No one tells you how to react when someone so precious to you disappears. And I wanted kids to be able to have that conversation naturally, instead of having to wait until a grandmother or a pet died. The game’s writing is esoteric enough that most people would miss it if they weren’t looking, but if you had been wanting to talk about this already?
Communicating about grief and loss has been a driving motivation for Khaw since her father passed away. She’s written it into her short stories, talked about how games have helped her through some of the tougher moments, and now it’s made its way into She Remembered Caterpillars.
It’s not that the game is cheerful outside her input. Oh, it’s adorable, if you’re down with the earthy, organic style Jumpsuit Entertainment terms “fungipunk.” But it isn’t gentle. The setting starts out dark and grows darker, the music gets intense, and the puzzles demand careful attention. The narration keeps pace with the game’s increasing difficulty, until you’re beating your head against the challenge of how to get this little spore over there while the unnamed protagonist beats their head against the impossibility of defeating death.
It doesn’t seem like those experiences should go together as well as they do. But I’ve lost a couple people I cared about in the past few years too, and I haven’t forgotten the way my mind would frantically whir at all hours, trying to find some way to fix what had already happened, unable to accept what I consciously knew. She Remembered Caterpillars entwines its narrative and gameplay in a way that feels almost similar. Sharing that feeling, or feelings like it, is part of what motivates Khaw’s recent work, along with a desire to keep something of her father alive.
She recalls a line by author Terry Pratchett (Discworld) that illuminates her motivation.
‘Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?’
I believe that. Dearly. Always have, but over the last year it’s become a bit of an obsession. I’ve adapted the thought, of course. My father’s name wasn’t very gainly and I can’t imagine he’d have enjoyed having strangers repeat it for no good reason. But I wanted a part of him to live.
I needed that.
I still need it.
For all of his faults, he was my father, my parent, and at, at some point in my life, my entire world. I needed him to not disappear. The short story that I wrote – Some Breakable Things – wasn’t crafted with any clarity of mind. It was the day I found out he was gone. I immediately needed to sink into something, to do something because it felt like I’d start screaming and never stop. I hadn’t anticipated his death. Worse, I hadn’t anticipated the fact I wouldn’t even have ashes to claim, to maybe put into a locket and carry with me always.
I hadn’t anything at all.
Writing that story meant I could have a freeze frame of that moment, however strange, and that I would have people who could communicate with it. People read the story. People went and hugged their parents. People came and hugged me. It did what I wanted it to do. The story functioned as a stopgap.
Some Breakable Things reached an audience looking for ghost stories. A Song For Quiet, due to be published by Tor in August, will connect with people who come for its uncanny mix of Lovecraftian horror and detective noir. An article in Eurogamer spoke to fellow gamers, as will She Remembered Caterpillars.
By putting her grief down in prose, Khaw found a way to better understand it — and to have it be better understood in turn.
Strangely, I don’t think the writing ever eased the pain as much as it allowed me to parcel those moments into manageable chunks. It never really made me feel better. I never came out of the writing thinking to myself, ‘I’ve said my peace. I feel marginally more okay.’ But all that writing provided something else: it gave me a way to explain how I felt.
We’re easily fooled into believing that we know exactly how grief hits someone. We don’t. Everyone processes it differently. Some people want endless alcohol and binge-eating. Others are silent. Some cling to their hurts because letting go is worse. People said the damnedest things to me during this period. The worst of it? ‘You weren’t terribly close so it’d be okay soon.’
Every time I tried to talk to someone, there was always the risk that it’d get waylaid by their endeavors to tell me how to feel. It sounds melodramatic, I know. And maybe, it is. But that was how it came across.
With the writing, though, I could let people in. There were no doors. People were drawn into the content, into the language, into whatever I had meshed together. People didn’t impose their views. And at the end of it, they came out a little rawer, a little closer to where I was.
And that made me feel far, far less alone.
More and more, we want our games to speak to us — to have something real to impart. She Remembered Caterpillars wears its message on its sleeve, telling a tale of the bond between parent and child, loss and the cost of denial. If it stumps you with the logic of its puzzles, if it reminds you that death is a reality that must be confronted eventually, then it will be doing the jobs its creators laid out for it.
And in the doing, it might just make people feel a little less alone.