dys4ia post-partum

after friday’s romero’s wives reading, i unwound by delivering a post-partum of my game dys4ia with liz. parham gholami was gracious enough to not only record the thing, but to edit it – my slides weren’t quite working, so there was a little fumbling. you can download the audio recording right here, and the transcript is below. thanks to parham gholami again for creating a transcript of liz’s talk.

i also gave an improvised talk on thursday at the lost levels unconference which was held in the park next to GDC, for free. my talk was on zines and rethinking game distribution. it was recorded, along with a bunch of other talks, although many of my friends’ brilliant talks weren’t. you can see it near the beginning of this video. lost levels was rad, especially in opposition to a conference that charges thousands of dollars for admission – i want it to happen every year.


this is going to be a post-partum for dys4ia. not a “post-mortem.” i know that videogames are really violent most of the time but your game isn’t dead when it’s finished. in fact, when it’s out in the world being played, that’s the only time your game is alive. before that it’s merely gestating, deaf and blind. only when it is interacting with people does a game possess life.

that’s lesson 1.


so what is dys4ia? or


well, to wrap it in a cute, accessible videogame metaphor- actually, it’s hard to put in videogame terms, because videogames are one of the few places in life we’re asked “what gender would you like to be? what would you like your body to look like?” dysphoria exists where that choice does not: it is seeing the reality that has been shaped around you like a wax coccoon, and feeling utterly helpless to change it.

but i did attempt to put it in videogame terms.


dys4ia is an autobiographical game, or “not a game” if you ask someone with a thick enough beard. raph koster called it “a powerpoint presentation.” by his definition, a game is a puzzle to be unraveled. it is a system to be understood. an enemy to be defeated. a country to be conquered. but


is none of those things. what it IS, i need to believe, is a relatable human experience. and what a game actually is is


this is why, if you were paying attention, your game isn’t a game until someone’s playing it. because someone needs to be EXPERIENCING it. well, the experience of


– and the experience of dealing with the gatekeepers one has to go through to start dealing with dysphoria – is one that’s characterized by FRUSTRATION. and i expect i don’t have to prove to anyone in this room that the rules of videogames are capable of creating the experience of frustration.

so to be explicit, dys4ia is a game about the experience of being a transgender woman, which i am, and undergoing hormone replacement therapy, which i have been for over a year. at the time i started making the game dys4ia, i had been on HRT for a few months, and by the time i finished it, i had been on it for about six months. the game became a record of all the different frustrations and transformations i was experiencing, it made sense for the game to be constantly changing scenes, shifting to different facets of the experience. i reached to warioware as a model, because that’s a game that borrows from the player’s existing learned vocabulary of videogames to establish a format that’s in constant flux and yet playable.

so yeah, dys4ia was conceived as a game in the same format as warioware and so, unsurprisingly, it borrows some of the same tricks that warioware uses to be accessible despite its constant flux. here are some of those tricks.


every scene of dys4ia is different, plays different, has a different context. one scene is about shaving, another’s about navigating a maze, another’s catching pills in your mouth. but what’s consistent about the game is what buttons are used to play it: just the arrow keys.

the game may have just changed into something completely different than it was a few seconds ago, but the player has some idea of where to start, because the same buttons she used in one s ccene are the same she uses in another. and the arrow keys are buttons that suggest things, because they represent ideas about space that make sense in a two-dimension image.

the arrow keys are established as the player’s means of input as early as the title screen. instead of press ENTER to start, or SPACE, or click the word “START” with the mouse, i put the player’s hand on the place the game needs it to be. if i had used the spacebar as the “start button” game, that would have introduced the possibility that SPACE is part of the game’s vocabulary of input. every screen, the player would try the spacebar before she tried the arrow keys.

if the game involved pressing the spacebar, i’d have opened the game by making the player press the spacebar. if it involved HOLDING DOWN THE SPACEBAR FOR THREE SECONDS, the game would begin with the player holding down the spacebar for three seconds. if the game was about clicking on brightly-wrapped christmas gifts, you can be the game wouldn’t start until the player clicked on a brightly-wrapped christmas gift.

the frame screen, the screen from which the player selects which acts of the game to play or re-play, is also designed to emphasize, and to be navigable with, the four keys that the player uses to play the game. i want the player’s fingers to stay on those keys, remember. i see a lot of games that play exclusively with the keyboard, and then ask the player to remove her hands from the keyboard between stages, to click on the next stage with the mouse. and then to move her hands back to the keyboard. don’t do that. if the game is designed to be played with the arrow keys, let the player advance the game with the arrow keys.

at this point in writing this talk i had to pause and swallow a spironolactone pill, a testosterone blocker. i take two a day, every day: one when i wake up every morning, and one at eleven p.m. every night. i have an alarm set on my phone to remind me.


here’s one of the reasons warioware is as accessible as it is, given that the player has seconds at most to internalize the objective and rules of any given scenario. it’s because it puts those rules in the context of games the player’s already familiar with. that’s why a third of warioware’s scenes are based on basketball and volleyball, a third of them are based on nintendo games like super mario, and a third of them are based on everyday tasks like cutting hair and washing dishes.

the player who comes to your game has expectations and learned knowledge that can be exploited.

the first scene in dys4ia is about fitting a tetris block into a hole in a wall. this is my metaphor for dysphoria, and the reason i use this metaphor is because it’s one that gives the player expectations: about what to do with this block, about where to put it.

the “i feel like a spy when i use the women’s bathroom” scene contextualizes anxiety over using the woman’s bathroom as a stealth game. the player expects that the goal is not to be seen.

in another scene, my nipples are flashing and moving through a field of spiked balls. players know that flashing objects are sensitive and spiky things are dangerous.

the reason you want to communicate the rules of your game as quickly and succinctly as possible…


…is so you don’t have to resort to exposition. exposition is when you interrupt your game to explicitly tell the player something you could have guided her toward learning yourself. it’s when you have a portrait of THE COMMISSIONER pop up the screen and say “by the way, agent, word’s come down from on high that you can use the UP button to leap over obstacles that might get in your way.”

never explain to the player how to move the story forward if you can lead her toward moving the forward herself. partly this is a matter of choosing stories that you can tell through the vocabulary you’ve established: “cutscenes” mark those places where designers have failed to do this.

on the subject of vocabulary, let me provide an important corollary to my earlier lesson…


…about piggybacking on existing player knowledge, which is: exploiting player knowledge is different than being dependent on it. when the game requires certain knowledge on the part of the player, that makes a game less accessible. and, frankly, i’m sick of games that require twenty years of previous videogame-playing experience in order get anywhere. there are enough games in existence that pander to those people. i’m more interested in making games for the people who who don’t have a master’s degree in strafing while shooting. and on that subject,


if you’ve played dys4ia you may have counted the references to the valve software game “portal,” for example jokes about cakes and about deception involving cakes. there are ZERO. when you put a portal “joke” in your game, and hopefully you can hear from my voice that “joke” is in quotes because there’s nothing inherently funny about the phrase “the cake is a lie,” what you’re actually saying is “i want only nerds to play my game.” if that describes you, i suggest you leave because the things i have to say will hopefully be of no use to you.


I just have a few minutes here, but I wanted to talk about doing the audio for the game, because I believe that audio is extremely important and something that a lot people don’t really take seriously. It’s kind of like an afterthought and a lot of times it’s contracted out. I think it’s important especially in serious games. There’s a tendency in so called “serious games” to be very heavy handed with the audio and try to manipulate people emotionally. I wanted to have something that was very emotionally resonant, and very emotional; but, not manipulative and very true to the experience.

So, I had to take from my own experience as also a trans woman, who has been through what Anna’s been through to some extent. I don’t really want to talk about the original inspiration for the audio right now, since that would take up too much time. But basically, the audio combines Anna’s voice sounds, which are the sounds that bring you through the game, that respond to the actions that you’re doing and then, in the background, there’s a soundtrack, which is a meshed together blob of ambient noises, talking, closing doors, and there’s this tentative melodic thing that starts and then as you move through the game, I treat it as one continuous piece, but it’s split into four parts– five, including the title screen. It’s all part of the same progression, the same instruments.

By the end, when she’s starting to feel more like things are starting to move forward, a melody takes over. This game is sort of a patchwork-like game; it’s very difficult to score something like this. I wanted to just do something that encompassed that patchwork-like feel in the audio. It’s frustrating because this is a game that does something that other games have not done before and because of that people focus on that. But, I think that the aesthetics, both the visual style and audio, are extremely important. It’s always frustrating to me that people don’t really talk about it; don’t really understand how to talk about it in a vocabulary that makes sense. Hopefully, in the end, it really contributed to the experience and made it more emotionally resonant with people, even if you haven’t been through that. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say.


think about the rules you introduce in your game as characters. characters develop, characters grow and change, characters face conflicts and are transformed by the experience. we can watch a character develop over the course of a story.

in dys4ia we revisit characters, symbols. try having the player move around your “level select” screen the same way she moves around the levels. the practical benefit of this is that you get to reuse things, and that’s economical. you don’t have to redraw this brick wall, you don’t have to code a new way for the player to move a character around. the benefit to the player is that she’s actually watching the characters and her relationship to them grow.

i could go into how super mario bros. is actually about the developing relationship between mario’s horizontal movement and mario’s vertical movement, but i think i’ll leave that as an exercise for you instead. play the game and notice how the relationship between moving left/ right and jumping develops over the first world alone.


dys4ia takes five to ten minutes to play. that’s exactly how long it takes to express the ideas in the game. in a contemporary super mario game, once you’ve figured out how to grab the bomb from over here and carry it all the way back over here and throw it into the boss’s mouth during the short time that it’s open and hurt it, you still need to repeat the same sequence of actions five more times before you can go on with the game.

an eighty-hour game is one hour of ideas padded out with seventy-nine hours of bullshit. i want you to get past the idea that “more play time is more value.” the most valuable thing a player has is time. the most harmful thing a game designer can do is waste the player’s time.


and here’s my last lesson. when i started working on dys4ia i was only a few months into hormone replacement therapy. i had no idea how the game was going to end. but i kept taking time off from the game – to spend time with friends, to work on other projects, like KEEP ME OCCUPIED. when i came back to dys4ia, time had passed, things had changed, and i knew how to finish the game.

this industry has unreasonable expectations for the time and labor of all of us. we’re taught that working hours and hours of unpaid overtime without seeing our families is part of the culture – “crunch time,” we call it. but it’s not part of the culture, it’s not a rite of passage or a mark of pride. it is corporations disregarding our human needs. let’s not be naive and let’s not be fooled.


the story that i like to tell is when i was working on lesbian spider-queens of mars. the game was almost finished – i had just added the boss and was getting ready to show the game to adult swim. i was so close to getting the game complete. i had work to do.

my partners begged me, pleaded, dragged me muttering and protesting and snapping at them to a beach house on a cliff at sunset beach. the next morning, instead of tweaking numbers on my computer, i was building sand dongs with my loved ones on the beach.

what we need right now are videogames made by human beings, not machines. people care about dys4ia because it’s a personal game that drawns from my personal, human experience. when we lose our ability to be human, we lose the ability to create games that are relatable by other humans. let’s remember to be human beings. don’t let corporations dehumanize us. this is my last advice to game developers: go outside. kiss someone who loves you.

18 thoughts on “dys4ia post-partum”

  1. A quality read. I wish I could have seen your talks at GDC but I was busy corporate droning in the expo hall (the only way I can afford to go at all is with my employer).

    Some of these points dovetail very nicely, I’ve written many a game engine as a personal project but only once rounded it off into a full game because I the time I was spending in development (at the cost of everything else in my life) was too great, and I just abandoned the project. This sense of development time sink may be one of the reasons people pad out games to fill more time with repeated ideas. They feel like they need to deliver a longer experience to reflect the time spent in development.

    I think every game has a certain amount of experience to deliver. You’ve boiled months of experience down into 5 minutes, which is a very intense experience, whereas some people take an hours worth of experience and pad it out to 60, to suit a price tag.

  2. Das Rheingold is the shortest of the ring cycle, at 2 and a half hours. Siegfried is about 4 hours and both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung are a whopping five hours long. That seems like a long time to spend watching an opera and would likely exceed my patience.

    The entirity of Der Ring des Nibelungen takes about 16 and a half hours to watch. It’s a little over 20 hours if you count the travel time of going to those performances.

    I’m not going to summarize the Ring cycle here, nor am I going to summarize any of the individual operas, nor am I going to spend the time summarizing even one act of any of those operas. Suffice it to say that a lot of stuff happens over the course of the four operas.

    I could have watched the entire ring cycle in the amount of time it took me to collect those stupid green question marks. I can summarize that more than 20 hour storyline in a single sentence. Batman picks up green glowing question marks for 20 hours.

    Just because you can use a few clever mechanics to turn off the player’s ability to get bored doesn’t mean it’s okay to use that power to waste their time. I think the gaming community needs to start making a distinction between games that are fun and games that are “addictive”.

  3. I just realize I didn’t provide any context for my comment, sorry. I agree with all the things you said, even the cake thing. The game I was referring to was Arkham Asylum.

    I’m really worried about the industry, particularly about Zynga. They’ve got games that will penalize you for going longer than four hours without checking in. That’s abusive.

  4. Dys4ia to the Ring cycle in one comment thread? That is totally surreal. I love them both.

    On topic — thanks for taking the time to write this post-partum. Dys4ia is a game that really changed the way I think about videogames and how they can speak about human experience.

  5. I like this a bunch. Dys4ia was a good game and an interesting experience, but what’s even more interesting to me is the discussion it’s spawned beyond the game as a vehicle for change. Even on Newgrounds around the time of the Sarkeesian abuse game the comments and discussion it sparked on newgrounds were both heartening and fascinating, and it’s pretty awesome that the discussion continues to happen in places like the GDC and people like Koster are being forced to confront viewpoints outside their own.

    Also you’re a celebrity now anna!

  6. This is all really full of great advice. The parts on game vocabulary were really sharp.

    I also really liked the last part, about going outside, about games being made by humans. Dys4ia is a very human experience as a game, and other games with that human touch are far between. Some gamers don’t know how to approach games made with a human touch, because it’s something they’re so unfamiliar with. What an alienating way to be. I feel like passing this article forward to all my game-dev wannabe friends, but I feel like they’ll just say things like “I can’t not crunch that’s just the way things are”.

  7. Crunch is part of corporate culture though.

    Anna’s arguments against crunching are to live a life which will inspire further creativity down the line.

    In ‘the industry’ studios are sausage factories and creativity on the part of the end developers is often the first thing to go when a deadline looms. They don’t need us to have fulfilling lives, they just need us to churn out the magic numbers which turn their heavily market tested ideas into ROI.

    That’s my experience anyway.

  8. CRUNCH is a mythical dragonbeast based on the EXCITEMENT of a closely finished project
    its almost done!
    im so close!

    all industries that try to mirror creative talent are like YES SINCE WE’RE ALL CREATIVE THERE IS OBVIOUSLY A CRUNCH TIME BEFORE OUR PRODUCT COMES OUT

    but oops
    all creative control is lost
    nothing is personal
    you’re making a brand
    you’re crunching for nothing
    you’re crunching for numbers
    listen to your bones crunching under the pressure

    whatever you do, it will be watered down, focused grouped, profit bricked, graphed, charted, excel filed

    you will never force a monkey to write a novel

    give up

    FUND the artists to work on their own time and FUND the writers who stay up all night weeping over their keyboards
    FUND the designers who quit their jobs and are starving yet RELEASING NEW CONTENT EVERY DAY


  9. Part of the length issue is an age thing, too- I saw games being a bajillion hours long as a selling point when I was a teenager because I had lots of time and no friends local enough to hang out with. Now that I’m older, I definitely see the benefit of ‘long games’ that are a couple hours and ‘short games’ that are ten or fifteen mintues.

    Horror stories about working conditions and crunch time are one of the major reasons I never seriously pursued an industry job. I feel like more often than not, it’s an artificial construct created by corporate entities out of a misguided notion that more hours worked = more productivity* and leveraging “Working 26 hours on end for months at a time is the price you pay to be working at a dream job”-style memes to keep employees from jumping ship. It’s a fake construct aimed at getting cheap labor and improving the bottom line without regard to the stress and burnout it inflicts upon employees.

    The rest of the article was definitely an interesting read with some good thoughts and lessons. Not sure whether to interpret the swipe at Portal as a specific example of general criticism of inside humor/reference gags or one of Anna’s usual potshots at “nerds”; I’m going to will myself to read it as the former, because mistaking pop culture references and inside jokes for cleverness is a habit that a depressing number of writers need to be broken of.

    – HC

    * I believe current conventional wisdom is that both overall quality and marginal quantity of work produced drop off pretty sharply when you’re regularly asking people to work more than 40 hrs/wk; this does not seem to have taken root in the software industry. :/

  10. I like you and your ideas- I hope they become more known and influence people who make games in a positive way

  11. Thanks for posting this talk! Lots of really valuable ideas here. A little stuck on Lesson 8, though. Sure, there’s nothing good to say about padding, but I think there’s an unhealthy tendency, especially among developers who make a point of making an Art Game, to craft games that are as brief as possible in order to be “succinct.” That tends to lead to games I usually find unsatisfying–three-minute experiences that whirl me through a few rules and verbs and then end with a cryptic conclusion. Games that only spend a little time with their vocabulary make the mistake of thinking they can be as didactic with meaning as they are with rules. I think there’s a lot of value in instead letting players experience a vocabulary long enough to develop their own relationship with it.

    (By the way, I think Dys4ia is an exception here because every new microgame has accompanying text set alongside it. If I played a wordless version of Dys4ia I probably wouldn’t have much of an idea of what was going on.)

  12. This is excellent. I believe I was always hoping that you would compile a list like this, on what makes a great game.

    Side note- I am now echoing agreements with #9.
    In the cubical farm where I worked as a qa tester in the game industry there was a meeting when one contractor was praised by the managers in front of the entire test team for working more than 70 hours in one week. I just shook my head while everyone applauded. Worth noting- they were compensated for OT in this case.

  13. So this is sort of like a manifesto then. Cool! Fits right there with tale of tales manifesto, Jason Rohrers, and others. Although I do think that crunch time can help artists, or perhaps that despite crunch time artists create great games. Obviously many companies have been stressed when creating and shipping their products, yet have lived through to see another day and also delivered wonderful experiences. Now that’s a different thing from advocating crunch time though.

    To finish off, as Naomi tells Snake (and Kojima tells us): “Human beings can choose the kind of life that they want to live. What’s important is that you choose life… and then live.”

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