We’re excited to bring you an interview with a long time supporter of prosearium.net. Natalie Cuthbert is a co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of an African fintech startup, Stitch. In her free time, she enjoys making games. Before the pandemic, Natalie would also help organize punk game parties with Super Friendship Arcade. The pandemic also inspired a recent game she worked on called Search Questival based on a live music festival, Search. Get to know Natalie, what inspires the games she has worked on and how her life experiences feed into her art.
Tell us about yourself Natalie
I’m an openly transgender, pansexual woman. I grew up in the small South Africa town of Knysna, but for the past few years have been living in Cape Town. I enjoy making games in my spare time, and in the BC (Before Covid) times, also helped organise the punk games party Super Friendship Arcade.
How did you get started in game development?
Like many kids growing up in the 2000s, and especially many kids who would later find out they’re trans, I was very online. I was lucky enough to have access to a shared computer (my parents’ work computer) and dial-up, but my parents didn’t really have much money to buy us games. So I played a lot of tiny, weird and really janky free games in the Wild West that was the internet.
I suppose that normalised the idea that making games was not only possible, but also that they didn’t have to be these mass produced, perfect artifacts. I tried various times to learn how to make games throughout my childhood but it was kind of tough back then, there just weren’t as many resources available as there are today, particularly to someone with just a dial-up connection. I remember actually printing out a whole programming book once at the copy shop. Unfortunately it was for a language that no one actually used anymore 😄.
It wasn’t just games that I was interested in back then, I was fascinated with digital art and drawing, and writing. These were a lot of skills that would later come in useful for game development. The first real game I made was for a first-year computer science course in 2013. They asked us to make Minesweeper, and instead of doing the normal, sensible thing, I turned it into this slightly terrible, third person, top-down game where you played as an actual minesweeper. I think it was really the small, but vibrant Cape Town game development community that kept my interest and motivation alive. It’s hard to make things in a vacuum. Having people around you making these funny, provocative, or beautiful games is both challenging and inspiring. It’s only been quite recently that I’ve become a bit more confident in my skills, and it was a long, almost 8-year journey to get there.
What inspired Search Questival?
COVID. Search is a music festival and New Year’s Eve party that happens every year just outside the city. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the festival had to be cancelled. My collaborator, Terry Gryffn Kahn, is quite friendly with the Search crew, and so the team reached out to Terry to find out if it was possible to create a digital experience that could capture some of the essence of the festival. I actually haven’t been to the real Search, so I probably have a really weird impression of what the festival is like after having helped make the game. I think more broadly, we were trying to capture the liminal feeling of a music festival, or even a really good night out. I’m not sure if we fully achieved that, but I think live music more generally is such an important escape valve for many people and has been something in scarce supply in the past year and a bit.
The music in Search Questival is amazing. How was the music selection decided on?
The organizers of the Search curated the music for the main stages, reaching out to a number of the artists who would normally perform at the real life version of the festival.
Are you a fan of festivals? What festivals are among your favourites?
I love live music but I actually haven’t been to many festivals. The most memorable one I’ve been to was Field Day, which had some of my favourite artists perform.
What other projects have you worked on that you would like to tell us about?
This game was made for Super Friendship Arcade. It’s a party game made for 4 players, playing with twin-stick controllers. It’s a really tiny game, but I am still quite proud of it because it really stretched my art, animation and gameplay programming skills.
The character design and premise were derived from my vague Christian upbringing. I grew up with all these Bible tales as a kind of background noise, but my parents weren’t especially serious about making sure that I went through confirmation. So there is this sort of hazy mythology that is intertwined with my earliest memories. I find it funny to put strange, sci-fi twists on this.
In Monks, the premise is that humanity has long wiped themselves out, and replacing them are these laser bird people. They discovered the trappings of Christianity, but like myself, they don’t quite understand it either, but have adopted the aesthetic as a sort of cargo cult. The character design was one of the first times that I had properly engaged with animation, so it is a little janky, but the dynamism of the monks (when for example they take damage) also started me down my current rabbit hole, where I am exploring how to build a sort of stop-motion/freeform animation workflow that goes beyond skeletal animation.
I’ve been working on Exit very sporadically for a few years now. The game started off as a response to being let go from an abusive job, which forced me to question my relationship to work, along with shattering this stoic, robotic persona I’d been carefully cultivating. It also became a form of therapy, as I added to it after the loss of my mother.
It’s hard to work on it again, as I think my skills have grown since then (it was my first full 3D game), but I would like to add a coda that deals with my experience transitioning and grappling with the hard questions that raised about my identity and understanding of myself.
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Exit because it feels very self-indulgent. I remember once having a slightly inebriated argument with someone about the purpose of games, and a game made mostly for yourself definitely raises certain uncomfortable questions, particularly when a lot of the design is deliberately opaque, and frustrating, and even sometimes monotonous as I tried to capture the feelings of my personal journey.
What do you think can be done to encourage more South Africans to be a part of the game development industry?
Investment. I think a lot of other problems pale in comparison to this. The South African game development community is predominately very white and very male. I can’t see that changing very soon unless there is enough money in the industry as a whole to make this a more viable career path for people without the privilege of a safety net when getting started. It’s basically Maslow’s hierarchy in action. There are lots of talented South Africans in game-adjacent fields, so I think the industry could grow fairly quickly if the capital was just there.
What would you like to see more of in the game development scene in African and globally?
For this question, I’d just like to preface my answer with the fact that I’m not a professional in the industry, so this is really just based on my incomplete understanding of things.
In Africa, my perception is that the funding environment is such that it’s easier to get funding if something either looks “African”, meaning it is unchallenging to a western audience’s homogenous view of what Africa looks like, or is packaged in a way that it could be considered an amorphous product of globalization. This is obviously a bit of a reductive analysis, and of course there are tons of exceptions to this, but I think generally it’d be nice to see much more content being funded that has the freedom to engage with the continent on its own terms.
Globally, I think that there could be a lot less navel gazing in the industry as a whole. I really appreciate creators who take their inspiration from beyond games or blockbuster films. Trying to replicate blockbuster movies or endless revisiting certain kinds of gaming experiences is boring (unless you’re trying to subvert them), and that’s without raising the historic structural and representational problems of either.
Anything else you would like to tell us? A fun fact about yourself?
I don’t actually consume that many games, movies or TV shows. I am not the most neurotypical person and get quite easily emotionally overstimulated. When I do play things, it is usually in quite short bursts, and mostly in the puzzle or arcade genres. This used to make me feel a bit like a fraud when listening to other developers talking about all the games they played, but is something I’ve mostly come to terms with, and means that I can spend just that much more time making things, rather than consuming them.
Play Search Questival for free here: https://searchfestival.itch.io/search-questival
Check out the trailer below: