It’s December 1993. A young punk group, The Bandshee, take to the stage of a community centre in Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
You use an eraser and wipe away the crowd of denim-jacketed teenagers. Kasio, a woman in her early 20s from Achill Island, pushes and shoves her way to the front row.
The Bandshee are followed by Nosferatwo: “the heaviest band in Mayo”. You use your eraser to clear the scene, Kasio is left in a blank white hall.
Now, wipe away layer after layer until Kasio is back in the uninhabited “big house” where she squats with The Bandshee, stargazing through a gaping hole in the roof.
This marks the halfway point of the video game If Found… by the Dublin-based studio Dreamfeel, headed by Llaura McGee, who also worked as lead designer and co-writer.
It’s the first large-scale game that McGee has overseen as studio head – a story she’s been working on for more than three years, and one that explores Irish culture and identities in the 1990s, after homosexuality was decriminalised.
The Journey Here
McGee, 31, grew up in Killybegs in Donegal with a “familiarity with the internet”, she said, on 11 May over Zoom audio.
“Video games are really interesting because there’s this huge aspect of global culture in them,” she says. She compares the popularity of Japanese video games, like the Super Mario series, to the small number of Japanese films in the mainstream cinema market.
McGee estimates that she’s created more than 100 video games, despite having released just “a couple dozen” publicly.
Train Song is a brief and experimental game about a train journey. Curtain, in 2014, is an award-winner about an abusive relationship between two members of a Glaswegian punk band.
Alongside games, her output also includes the audio-visual exhibition piece Fluc originally showcased at the Fumbally Exchange in 2015.
McGee considers her work to cross the boundaries between different art forms, like cinema and literature. Game development “feels no different than writing stories or creating art”, she says.
There’s so much potential in games to experiment, she says. “Limiting yourself arbitrarily to just being, like, a painter or just being a novelist or whatever is just silly.”
In 2011, she moved to Dundee in Scotland for a Master’s of Professional Practice in Games Development, working with a game development company she co-founded, before returning to Ireland in 2013.
From 2015 to 2018, McGee lectured in Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) – now Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) – again working at the same time.
This time, she was working on a demo of If Found with the game’s artist Liadh Young in her spare time.
Young and McGee connected through Ireland’s independent comic scene.
Although Young had “zero interest in games” at the time, she was impressed by the DIY aesthetic of McGee’s games, she says, over Zoom.
Young, 27, studied visual communication at the National College of Art and Design and was “born drawing”. She worked on watercolour paper for If Found…, scanning her work and colouring it digitally.
“It just felt like Llaura was trying to make sincere stories through games like I was trying to do […] just from another medium,” Young said.
The idea for If Found… came partially from McGee’s master’s degree, she says.
At that time, she was creating games with images players could reveal by moving shapes over a page. She also experimented with interactive fiction like The Infinite Notebook, a performance piece which combines storytelling with text-based animations.
Once she tied these ideas together to create the erasing mechanic of If Found… “erasing a notebook was kind of the next step”, McGee says.
McGee found it difficult to get funding for the game in Ireland and toured the demo around different trade shows. Co-writer and Co-producer Eve Golden-Woods was helping out at the time, but McGee was still lecturing. So there was no one full-time on the game.
They looked at various funding options, like crowdfunding, before putting If Found… aside and working on several ideas that grew too ambitious in scope. “We were getting into this death spiral,” McGee says.
Then, in 2016, McGee’s demo for If Found… won the Grand Prixat the Irish Design Awards.
Making If Found…
In 2017, funded by a scholarship, McGee went to the Game Developers Conference, an annual industry event, where she caught the attention of Annapurna Interactive, an offshoot of film makers Annapurna Pictures, known for their roster of critically acclaimed video games like Florence and Outer Wilds.
With funding from Annapurna Interactive, McGee left DIT in early 2018 to work full-time on If Found… at Dreamfeel’s office in Portobello.
Annapurna makes “incredible, boundary pushing games”, says Colm Larkin, director of Dublin-based game development studio Gambrinous.
“It’s so very exciting to see an Irish game - and studio - working with such international heavy hitters and launch their game on a global stage,” said Larkin, by email.
A core team of nine people are credited in the game.
Brianna Chew, a 22-year-old artist and designer – and a one-time student of McGee’s at DIT – was hesitant at first about getting involved with the game industry. It’s “somewhat hostile at times”, she says.
But Dreamfeel’s “emphasis on people’s health” was “heavily positive” for her, said Chew, by phone on 15 May.
Lead Programmer Tim Sabo says he enjoyed working with a smaller team where he has a larger “sense of ownership”, over the finished game.
“[If Found…] is a work of art and it’s really cool to be a part of it,” Sabo said, over Skype.
Golden-Woods, aged 29, comes primarily from a literary background, she says.
She drew on inspiration from Irish playwrights like Flann O’Brien and John Millington for the game, says Golden-Woods.
There’s “something genuinely interesting” about the interactivity and self-paced nature of video games, says Golden-Woods, who also developed the game Out of Work on the Docks of Osiris, a visual novel about a spaceship captain looking for work.
“(Emerging into) adulthood, I think, is a story that Irish writers have explored before,” she says. But not in a video game. And “it’s very rarely done about queer people and trans people”.
Rooted in a Place
If Found… can feel like an interactive comic book, with Young’s hand-drawn sketches set against brightly coloured backgrounds.
The player uses an eraser to uncover secrets from Kasio’s notebook when she returns home after studying in Dublin. They learn about her life as they journey through mysterious scenarios with an astronaut and a black hole.
It’s also rooted in a vision of Irish culture.
Characters pile up on the sofa to watch The Late Late Toy Show at Christmas. Village life revolves around the local post office, chipper and pub. An astronaut signs off a report to home base by telling them to put the kettle on.
The Irish language features prominently, too. The game was translated into Irish by Mícheál J. Ó Meachair. Tool tips provide international players with translations of words like “GAA”.
It’s an example of the diversity of modern video games, particularly since “few and far between” feature the Irish language and culture, says Peter Lynch, CEO of game studio Fierce Fun and a board member ofImirt, an Irish game developers association.
“It’s great to see and we just want to see more successes like this,” said Lynch.
McGee says the team were conscious not to present a “sanitised” version of Ireland.
The struggles of Kasio’s family to come to terms with her identity is a central narrative theme, rooted in Irish life in the nineties after homosexuality was decriminalised.
McGee wanted to depict this time of change in Ireland, she says. To show how LGBT people could fall into prescribed roles, like “spinsters”, marriage, or the priesthood.
“A lot of it ended in suicide and death and everything as well, and that’s a huge unspokenness that’s there,” she says.
“I think Kasio is the first of a generation that can start speaking up and can start writing a history that’s not just a self-destruction and it isn’t just a self-erasure,” McGee said.
Says Young: “The representation of LGBT people as imperfect is important.”
McGee says that the characters “have their own motivations, they’re not just defined by whatever adjectives or identities they are”.
McGee and Golden-Woods also felt it was important to have representation for non-white people, primarily through the Irish-Indian character Shans, a member of The Bandshee and a love interest for Kasio.
If Found… is “not an autobiographical game”, says McGee. But “there’s an emotional realism there that can only be there from pulling from your own life”.
McGee can feel like “a stranger in a strange land” when she returns to Donegal, she says. Similar to Kasio returning to Achill.
As a transgender woman, McGee finds it hard to imagine life before her own transition, she says. “My life is something that’s worth living now, y’know? I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”
“You can’t really recognise how bad it was until afterwards and how dissociated from reality and from yourself that you were,” she says.
“In some ways it’s made it harder. Being a woman in the games industry and being a woman in general, no-one would choose this,” McGee said.
People that assume she is “less effective” and more inexperienced than she actually is, she says.
Building out a good team was a large part of McGee’s journey with Dreamfeel in recent years, she says.
Going forward, she plans to make a smaller free game in 2020. And to release another large game next year, she says. “I’m just excited to make new stuff. I have so many ideas and so many games I want to make.”
McGee hopes that the punk elements of If Found…, like the hand-drawn art and limited animation, inspires other people to make games: “Everyone should be able to make art. Everyone should be able to read and see art that’s relevant to their lives.”
If Found… was released for PC and iOS phones on 19 May.