Interview with Laney Berry, who’s behind the Kickstarted game, The St Christopher's School Lockdown

By Peter Rootham-Smith

GB:      How did you get into making games?

LB:      Honestly, I have been playing games since I was two years old. I started with educational games on the Apple II, my parents used to buy these Mac games with bears in them... The "Sticky Bear" games, I think they were called? So I started on the Apple II. I remember one of the very first times I played an adventure specifically was after I was in the hospital with pneumonia... My uncle gave me “Loom”, by LucasArts, and that was the first adventure game I really played. I just fell in love with the idea of being able to tell a story through gaming. That really left an impression on me. I ended up studying comic book design which is a very weird thing to study, I suppose, but I studied it for the exact same reason -- I really loved writing, telling stories, but I wanted to do it in a way which combined story and visuals. That, joined together with my love of gaming, made me realise I wanted to make a game. I loved the idea of being able to make an interactive story, too... A story where you could influence all the decisions, and so on...


GB:      You’re an artist and also?

LB:       I’m the writer and designer of the game. I do have a team who are with me here at Gamescom, though, of course. I am the lead writer, but let me tell you, there is a LOT of text in the game... For example, you’ll be able to pick up newspapers and read them... Or school textbooks... Or web sites created by the students in the game... My team helps me with that. We all try to create a rich, meaningful and coherent world together.


GB:      What games do you like playing?

LB:       Well, I am hugely into adventure games, as might be expected. I love all the traditionals from LucasArts (for example Loom, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle) and Sierra of course (Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Police Quest). Recently I’ve found I actually really love some of the modern, big-name role-playing games... Mass Effect, for instance, is a pretty obvious one, or stuff like Dragon Age: Origins. Anything where you get to play as a player-created character in a previously defined world with a pre-existing plot. The plot of a game is important to me. I don't find myself too interested in platformers, or puzzle-based games, or stuff like that. I like the story, I love characters, I love seeing them grow throughout their journey. I think everyone wants to play a hero. Everybody wants to play a game so they can be the big hero and save the prince or princess.


GB:      There are games with anti-heroes.

LB:       I love those. That is actually what I’m trying to write. None of my characters are good guys. They all have their flaws, they’re a bit weird in different ways. Kayleigh, for instance, the main character of St. Chris's first episode -- she is a bit of a pathological liar, and she’s the star of the game. She also suffers from bipolar disorder -- which, by the way, is not a negative trait, but rather, I feel it makes her more relatable. We’re exploring bipolar disorder in a very honest way; I’ve known several people who have been diagnosed with it, and am using their own experiences as a guide... In any case, I definitely don’t think heroes need to be perfect, I love anti-heroes.


GB:      Do films and books influence you?

LB:       I adore films and literature. For instance, “Lord of the Flies” is really a huge influence on this game for me thematically. I love the idea that human nature in itself is slightly corrupt. I like the idea that people have this nastiness in them. I'm enjoying exploring how the politics between different kinds of people in different kinds of intense situations play out. So the politics of the people stuck in this tightly confined, locked-down school (which is my game) for twenty days, running out of food, the electricity going off... Just examining how people would interact with each other, and how stress would grow, what kind of conflicts would arise, and so on.


GB:      Your game made me think of Lindsay Anderson’s film “If”.

LB:       I’ve heard the reference, I haven’t seen it, but I would love to! Someone messaged me about it telling me to check it out, I hear brilliant things about it.


GB:      You’re full-time on your game?

LB:       Yes, and I do arts as much as I can on the side. I do freelance artwork, graphic design, commissions, illustrations when I can. Aside from that, yes, I’m spending all my time making this game.


GB:      Do you ever wish for a 9 to 5 job?

LB:       NO! ...Although I wish for the money from a 9 to 5 job!


GB:      Where do you do your work on the game?

LB:       At the moment I’ve just relocated from Chile to Scotland. It’s a bit up in the air at the moment, mainly in my office at home. If I work in my bedroom, I get too distracted, I start surfing the Internet, looking at Facebook... I feel when I’m in my office environment it’s business time.


GB:      How do you plan your game development?

LB:       I’m the kind of person who just really likes to take a lot of notes, and sit around with my notes. I’m very disorganised, I have a million text files on my computer. Yeah, I’m not somebody who has a lot of charts and graphs and fancy things, it’s all very loose and rather disorganised, But it works. Eventually I manage to structure it in my head, and tell my team what they need to do.


GB:      Who are you making this game for?

LB:       A big part of it is because I need to express myself. This game really shares plenty of my personal views of the world, my visions, and my weird style. I feel that by sharing my art and writing with people, it’s like sharing my own self and brain with other people.


GB:      What excites you about the “St Christopher’s Lockdown” game?

LB:      I just love the theme of it. I first had the idea when I was living in Chile back in 2006, so, ages ago. In Chile, the school protests were actually happening there at first, before they began actually happening in the UK itself. My cousin was involved in one, he was locked in with a bunch of other students for four days. It was crazy; the police came, sprayed tear-gas everywhere. It was insane, but at the same time, the way he told the story to me sounded like so much fun, so exciting, like big weird revolutionary sleepover thing. As soon as he told me that, it just sparked all these ideas in my head. I just think it’s an idea that has so much potential.


GB:      You’re just working on this game at the moment?

LB:       I am just focused on this game, yes. I can’t spread myself too thin because St. Chris already takes a lot of my attention.


GB:      What are the important features of the game?

LB:       The music is beautiful, we have a composer who blows me away with everything he shows me, but the story is the base on which it’s all built. I hear a lot of people saying the art is very unique and stands out. As an artist, that is important to me, but story comes before anything else.


GB:      How do the puzzles and story relate to each other?

LB:       We’re trying to make the puzzles organic, so that it doesn’t feel like a 'find the key puzzle' has been inserted just to make the gameplay longer. We’re trying to design them so that they make sense, so they don’t seem just thrown in there. We’re working the best we can, it’s always hard when making an adventure game to make them completely natural, especially when you’re combining one inventory item with another, but we’re doing the best we can.


GB:      How important is support from the fans?

LB:       Completely important. Sometimes I wake up and I see a nice comment on Kickstarter, or a message from someone on Facebook, and it just absolutely inspires me to get to work! It’s why I’m doing this.


GB:      Is now a good or bad time to be making games?

LB:       It’s perhaps not the best time for adventure games. There have been far better times, but I think they are starting to come back now - I hope. It’s starting to be a better time for indie games, though. I really am not one who can judge the state of the industry myself, I only have my own observations about it. It's hard to make a definitive claim one way or another-- things are always changing.


GB:      Would you recommend making games as a career?

LB:       Absolutely! I recommend being creative in any way you are able. If you can write,  write, if you can draw, draw, if you want to make games, make games.


GB:      Can games say things?

LB:       They can have a strong political message, a message about human emotions, about human dynamics. They are no less able to say things than a book or a film or a piece of music. People say games are not a viable art form and that’s not true at all.


GB:      So games can be art? One definition of art is what an artist calls art.

LB:       It really does depend on the view. There are some very narrow views-- I actually took a course in university “Philosophy of Aesthetics”, it was the philosophy of art, and the conclusion I came to is that art depends on the viewer. It’s all about who is observing the art, and their own individual relationship with a piece.


GB:      Will you be making games in ten years time?

LB:       I would love to be! I hope to be, I hope I’m done with “St. Christopher’s” then! Joking -- well, slightly.


GB:      Did you realise what you were getting into by making a game?

LB:       No! But I’m glad I did.


GB:      But you’ve made lots of contacts by making this game?

LB:       So many. I’ve met some of the most incredible people I never thought I would meet. For example Charles Cecil from Broken Sword, I met Al Lowe last year... It’s been great.


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