Symposium of Grief - An Interview With T-Dog Extreme

July 14, 2019

As I mentioned in my Symposium of Grief video, I asked the developer, T-Dog Extreme, a handful of questions about their gamedev history and specifically the development and writing process of Symposium. Their answers were some of the most interesting and in-depth I've ever gotten, and add so much depth to the game and its story that I felt they needed to be shared here. Without further adieu, here's a slapdash post of my interview with T-Dog Extreme, creator of Symposium of Grief!

Nevyn: Digging through your Itch page, it looks like you've been making games since 2016, with the first game published being Oliver the Inadvertent Werewolf. Did you make anything before then? What got you into gamedev? 

T-Dog: 2016 was my first year of university studying a Bachelor of Design (Games), and 2015 was when I graduated High School. So that’s why my itch pages starts in 2016!

During High School I was more into making films than games, but reflecting on that it seems more because I grew up in a remote suburb that didn’t really have accessibility to any game design things rather than being disinterested. I made some crappy GameMaker in some IT classes, but they were ones where we had to follow page by page weird tutorials to make pong in GameMaker. The only one I made without following a tutorial was this really mini walking sim where a snake follows you and I had ripped all the sprites from deviantArt and open game art sites. So, the background was pretty minor indeed.

I remember in one of my English classes in 2015 everyone was talking about where they wanted to study following high school, what uni they wanted to go to, all that. And I had no idea, so I just googled game design degree on a whim and whatever the first result was, I was like, yeah that sounds fine. It was literally that basic. No thought into it, just ‘games are fun, I guess.’ And I was very lucky that I got in because I absolutely did not have a back up plan.

Then I had my first year of Uni, and ‘Oliver the Inadvertent Werewolf’ was the first thing I made that I was legitimately proud of, and something quite a few people enjoyed which was so strange to me, and still kinda is. I realized that I really liked game design, so I stuck to it.

I need to make more wolf content though, I think wolves r neat. Might add a big wolf to symposium tbh, I’m not even messing with you.

Symposium's tone leans into a kind of tongue-in-cheek/sardonic? It's very much a tone that shows an awareness of the deep nature of its core themes, but maintains a personal flair/sense of humor that makes these topics not only easier to approach, but also more relatable. What lead you in this direction? How important is comedy in your writing? What thoughts do you have on the relationship between depression, grief, and comedy?

Well you kinda said it yourself, the humour in it means that it’s accessible and opens people up to the message of the game.

I think humour is a huge part of the idea of accessibility. There are so many games that explore ideas of grief and sadness and all the introspective beef of the world, but these narratives (in film as well) usually follow some really patterned tropes:

They make you feel really bummed out and nihilistic, like nothing’s ever going to get better and the human condition is that of selfishness and depression blah blah sad shit. We should all avoid relationships, etc.

There’s a sad event and the person who is dealing with the sad thingy cries once and then hears one motivational speech from a mate- now they’re going out, they’ve lost weight, they’ve gotten into modelling, they’ve been offered a million dollars and are riding elephants in Bali while staring at the sun for some reason, and wow life is so good if you just fucking believe in yourself.

Then there’s the revenge narrative where one person’s been wronged, and their current state is totally dependent on destroying someone else. The person at the end can also have a realization that they were wrong the whole time for seeking revenge, and they should’ve just meditated and gone for a walk in a hoodie or some shit to chill out a little.

Then you have Ghost who’s starting at rock bottom, and although determined to stay there, only has one real way to go. It wasn’t an active choice where I thought, "Hey, I’m going to destroy all these narrative tropes and change the world!" It was just like, I want a character who goes through shit and realizes they were wrong. And I wanted that wrongness of Ghost to be weird and challenging, like sometimes Ghost seems right because the world is mean, but then Ghost takes it too far and even though you understand why Ghost does what they do, you can’t truly justify it. But even though that seems nuanced, that’s still a depressing sad shit humanity narrative, you know? So, I was like, "make funny."

I have many thoughts on comedy, many things ideas, tips, tricks and life hacks that make you go "WOW!". One of those things is we can use comedy to cope, but holy shit sometimes people take things too far. I’ve been to so many stand up shows where a comedian comes out on stage and is literally just sad. They grab the mic and just talk about how sad they are — that’s not funny, that’s really sad. I think a lot of the times we say we use humour to cope; we can make some really self-degrading comments without challenging it. We really have to be aware of the line of coping through humour vs. totally ripping ourselves apart because the laughs of others at our misfortune feels oddly cathartic. That means we have to change our idea of what comedy is in this context.

In Symposium, that idea of comedy to cope is less Ghost being self-deprecating, and more using really weird fetch quests to highlight Ghost’s lack of direction. We can understand that Ghost is lost and struggling, and that is fundamentally sad, but we see Ghost cope by shoving a set of teeth into a Priest and it’s great.

The other thing is challenging the self-deprecation that Ghost has, or changing the context in some way. There’s a line as Ghost leaves the Post Office that reads something like, ‘I should go to the Therapist, instead of internalizing my emotions and lashing out at loved ones,’ which was an implicit challenge to comedy that features intense self-loathing as the punchline. Let’s make the sad sad sad a tad constructive.

Comedy is one of my greatest passions, and I think there are some major flaws in it which I did try to *actively challenge, and I still do. I really can’t emphasize enough how much I love comedy. I just think there’s a really weird attitude we have where it’s like, if something is a joke then it is O K. And that’s a very bad and destructive attitude, I feel.

I remember I had to stop playtesting directly next to people, I had to start sending builds to people online. And this was because I would start cackling at my own writing. Like, constantly hearing a very gentle chuckle from behind is probably not the most ideal playtesting setting. But I think it’s really cool that I’ve written something that I find absolutely hilarious, like this is my kind of top tier comedy, 100%. And the fact that other people also find this funny is great, I had someone tell me after playing ‘this is very you,’ which is a great compliment to me, I feel, because this game is my own personal pinnacle of comedy.

Nevyn: The main through-line of Symposium's plot is about a breakup and Ghost's process of dealing with that, and it's framed clearly around the 5 stages of grief (woah!). It feels like a deeply personal experience, made into something easily relatable thanks to how you handled writing. If you don't mind me asking, how much of your own experience is woven into this? 

T-Dog: Pfft, most of it. This is, uh, going to be a long answer, so brace yaself.

This game was made in my final year of uni, and I was going through an absolutely terrible break up, like just awful. The breakup happened during the semester break, and my ex was someone who was doing the same fucking course as me.

Side note: don’t fucking date someone you work or study with, like damn that was fucking stupid.

Anyway, so I was constantly having to see them, like week after week, they’re hanging around people I also want to hang around and there was more stuff to it that was gross. It was also a really bad relationship, from my end too. And then a lot of my close friends were coincidentally also going through some really tough break ups, or just major relationship issues. I wanted to talk about my issues a lot, but I also didn’t want to trigger them, or to overshadow what they were dealing with. It was a really tricky situation because I really just wanted to be a good friend. It was just a lot, I was dealing with a lot.

So, there were a few things happening:

A breakup

Seeing this person constantly, having minimal space away from them

Realizing that I had played a major role in a toxic relationship

Seeing eerily similar breakup patterns in the experiences of my friends

All of the coincided with the fact I wanted to make a dialogue heavy RPG for my final year of uni, (destiny). I had struggled a lot with coding in the prior years, but in the first semester of the year I really pushed myself with my projects and started to understand the logic of programming. I realized if I ever wanted to make a dialogue-based game, now would be the time, I could code well, and I had a deep itch to test my writing skills, and I was going through intense sad shit.

I needed to desperately channel all of the intensities I was feeling into something constructive. I needed to fundamentally change how I dealt with negative feelings, and I felt that trying to channel it into a #relatable game would be helpful. People write songs when they’re all shitty, so I was like, hell yeah, let’s make a game!

You need to understand that the first bits of dialogue I wrote for ghost were super heavy and not very funny at all. It was way too much what I was feeling, and it wasn’t entertaining, it was a point for concern. You know when an extremely sad person makes a very self-destructive joke and no one laugh’s, and they’re like ‘ugh, why aren’t you laughing? It was just a joke,’ It was very that.

So when people played and said that they didn’t like Ghost and couldn’t relate to the character at all, I took that really personally, and realized that the inner voice shit thing that was in my brain was super awful and I had to stop thinking that way. And so, I maintained the fundamental nature of Ghost, but I also ensured to write a world that implicitly challenged Ghost’s thinking. Whether or not the character was receptive to these challenges wasn’t as important as the player understanding the flaws in the character’s thinking.

In the end it turned into a thing about mindfulness training, you know? Like here are these gross thoughts I’m having, but those thoughts are really quite separate from me, I can just watch those go by and it’s fine. I dunno if you get that Headspace YouTube ad about watching cars go by or some shit, but it’s kinda like that. Here’s a thought, I’m going to use the thought as content, and then challenge the thought. And those thoughts went into Ghost and turned Ghost into this poster child for denial and loneliness, but with belly lint and teeth for some spice.

And then some terrifying things started happening. My friends began to have stories that were grossly similar to mine. In fact, they were starting to relate to Ghost. They started to relate to all of Ghost’s cruddy experiences with characters in the world, and understood Ghost’s only wish of wanting to be with their heart again. They experienced similar patterns of toxicity and odd communication post breakup, too. Ghost’s fluctuation of feeling seemed to mirror their experiences, too. It was very strangely patterned.

More people played beyond my circle of friends, and more people told me that it really captured their feelings during a breakup. When I ran playtest sessions at ACMI and GCAP people would stay on for 20-50min at a time, and then they would come up to me and talk to me about how something about the narrative really resonated with them in context to breakups they’ve had.

Ghost began to grow simultaneously closer and further away from me as I had a big realization. And the realization was that what I was feeling was in no way unique or special. And that really comforted me.

It was normal to feel super sad and alone, it was normal for my brain to have an intense feeling of missing the other person, and it was normal to suddenly hate them and suddenly not. These were things neither me nor my friends could control. It was about how we responded to these intrusive feelings and thoughts that counted, and that is the biggest message that the game presents. I was really glad I’d invested my time in making the game and getting out all my frustrations and all the garbage I went through, because it felt like by the time Ghost had gotten through their grief so had I. That and uni finished, that definitely helped.

And then I played the game again, maybe a few months after uni finished just to add the final touches and finish publishing the game. And I genuinely couldn’t believe that I had written that entire game because I simply couldn’t relate to Ghost anymore. There was nothing about the character that resonated with me any longer. There’s always a little piece of me in the character sure, but that’s true for every character, even Condom Boy. Ghost used to be a big chunk of me, but they’re just not anymore, and that’s the best ending I could’ve hoped for.

        *There was a bit where I said that the narrative trope wasn’t an active choice, and I just want to emphasize the separation here between narrative and comedy just in case it sounds like I’m contradicting myself. Humour was always the thing I wanted to use to challenge Ghost, but the narrative is separate to that. The narrative just flowed however it did and I was like, damn this is pretty ok.

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