What We Make From the Ruins
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #160. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Analyzing the digital and analog feedback loop.
The Archipelago is a solarpunk visual novel that emphasizes world-building via tea-brewing and witnessing your local community’s reaction to a major political event. It’s also a title I believe will, someday, be part of a specific canon of pandemic game development. These games will be ones that people can point to or play when discussing the ongoing systemic themes exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and how these themes encapsulate the late-Capitalist zeitgeist. A lot of these pandemic-themed (whether explicit or otherwise) games will likely be developed by AA or indie developers. I say this as there is still a reluctant attitude amongst AAA studios to fully address political issues head-on, the logic being that too-big-to-fail projects will be compromised by divisive stances or that (a tired refrain to be sure) politics don’t have a place in entertainment media.
Kaelan Doyle-Myersough, the lead game narrative designer and artist of The Archipelago and a part H.Bomberguy’s The Brainmind Residency, is one of the former group of developers however. Such creators are not beholden to shareholders who want guaranteed profits and who are more interested in how game systems can illustrate political situations in unique ways. I reached out to Doyle-Myersough to discuss how their understated and eloquent game design was influenced by the pandemic and their world-building philosophy.
They were careful to state early in my interview with them that their game is not a reductive “metaphor” for the pandemic. But they had a caveat for that statement: since it is a game that was partially developed during the initial lockdown of 2020, they acknowledged it was impossible to prevent some of that mindset filtering through into the game. “[We] are all dealing with this incredible collective trauma,” Doyle-Myersough explained, which resulted in major themes and attendant emotions of the pandemic, such as isolation, societal shifts and intergenerational conflicts making it into their game writing in an “intense way.” As a world-building researcher whose game came out of two phases of collaborative development, once before the pandemic and again mid-2021, Doyle-Myersough is uniquely-suited to perceiving and representing this emotional undertow.
Unlike some larger developers that have created games within the same time frame yet hyper-focused on thriving in spite of the pandemic’s strains, Doyle-Myersough asserts that “[In] 20 years from now we’re [going to] understand all the games that came out around this time.” They followed this up with a half-joke that with hindsight we will be able to chart a sudden upward trend of games that show people alone in their rooms. Or games that include themes of feeling estranged from loved ones and exploring the effects of prolonged physical and psychological isolation from one’s broader community.
The Archipelago’s core mechanics of brewing tea and listening to your local community have resulted in comparisons to cozy hits like Coffee Talk. I suppose one might compare the two games’ retro pixel art style graphics and relaxing soundtracks as well, but Coffee Talk is more strictly urban neon in its palette and accompanied by ambient jazzhop, whereas The Archipelago swatches celestial hues and has a meditative acoustic music style. Doyle-Myersough mentioned that they were careful to avoid playing Coffee Talk which was released during the development cycle of their game. But the two games are only similar in that they started off, as Doyle-Myersough put it “lo-fi chill vibes” as a guiding principle for the initial concept. They also wanted the listening function to be more about intrigue and perhaps even espionage.
Personally, having played The Archipelago with little foregrounding from Doyle-Myersough, the game that first came to mind for me in terms of its narrative style, especially with regard to its tea-brewing mechanic, was Sam Kabo Ashwell’s collaborative interactive fiction project Scents & Semiosis about generating memory and meaning by perusing the elements of an old perfume collection.
As the tea-maker, you choose from several different tea ingredients for a base note, mid note and top note to create unique blends of tea for three in-game days. Different characters show up depending on what your brew is, resulting in various conversations about the goings on of your island. Doyle-Myersough actually made a meticulous tea chart for this mechanic, to make sure there was a realistic balance between character’s tea preferences, what notes reflected a character’s personality and making sure there wasn’t one ingredient that every character was pre-disposed or opposed to.
Each of the ingredients gives you some precious world lore and is often tied to the broader community of Hemera in some way. Like caramel made from the butter of a goat owned by a senior who lives on the tea maker’s island, who can no longer make the trek down to the café. There’s a lot of aesthetic pleasure with the tea mechanic, even at the close of a day when the tea maker uses what’s left of the tea to mop the floors and leave the place smelling faintly of (in my case) “caramel and orange peel.” This elegant touch integrates a player’s individual choices and sensory memories of their play-through with the game’s narrative, making it feel more personal.
During phase one of the development, Doyle-Myersough along with their co-creator and partner Andrew Tran (who handled the programming, sound and music for the game) and another friend of theirs used Doyle-Myersough’s world-building tool “One Hour World Builders.” From this collaborative card-based world-building session the group generated the game’s setting of Hemera (an island in the sky cleverly named after the Greek goddess of day), the cataclysmic event called the Split by its inhabitants which broke the island apart and created huge gulfs between communities, and the institution of the Messengers who started off as a necessary service and gradually became more authoritarian. The lead designer also completed some concept art and mockups of the game at this point before putting development aside while moving to Chicago for the third year of their PHD in cinema and media studies.
The Archipelago evolved over time into a game that dealt with “how different generations would handle the dismantling of power structures or handle societal shifts” according to Doyle-Myersough. They added that this was also a surprising turn during the game narrative design process in mid-2021. Phase two of game development commenced when Doyle-Myersough applied alongside a friend to the highly publicized Brainmind Residency with the early prototype and was accepted, against their expectations. “At that point, I started to think about how I could continue to do the world-building . . . in a way that could incorporate other people in the residency,” they recounted. They decided to share a post via their newsletter that explained the premise of the game and contained a link to a collaborative document using Miro, an online whiteboarding app.
Essentially this document was a map of Hemera with sticky notes about questions and prompts. The anonymous collaborators could pick any note they wanted to develop and add it to whatever island they wanted. “It was super asynchronous” Doyle-Myersough said, “people just got the link and they could just do it. So, I don’t actually know entirely like who posted to it.” They didn’t follow up with anyone because they enjoyed the anonymity of that process and how it inspired “a very compelling feeling” of not knowing about everything that happened on the other islands. Much of that world-building didn’t explicitly make it into the final game, but is part of that world nonetheless.
During my several playthroughs of The Archipelago (the game takes place over three in-game days and takes approximately 20 minutes or so to complete), I noticed that the characters conversations would not only reflect this sense of not knowing the other islands’ people, emerging culture or current events but would hint at each character’s connections to other islands. Similar to Becky Chambers’ Monk & Robot series, which coincidentally also uses tea-making as a driver for its plot, Hemera’s world-building may be focused on one island but there is always more going on beyond the player’s periphery.
The game’s trailer asks the potential player to consider what they would do if “the world falls apart” and what they will make with the ruins of it. The atomization of Hemera’s world is both physical and psychological, which gets at the deep feelings of uncertainty and radical hope in the tangled underpinning of the pandemic. But it’s also about highlighting how someone with a limited amount of agency, like the average player, can help during times of crisis. Doyle-Myersough emphasized that their game was part of a growing number of titles (like Citizen Sleeper and My Life as a Teenage Exocolonist) that pushback against having an overage of agency.
They strongly feel a lot of game designers think that “the best way to give people an overview of a world is to make your character [a] hero, or someone with a lot of agency like a politician or a police officer so that they can go experience all the different people and facets of the world,” but this risks taking a very privileged and objectified view of the world, where everything exists to provide the powerful player character with whatever they need. Javy Gwaltney’s story collection Into the Doomed World explored this type of overpowered hero figure, through a collective narrative, at length. “[There’s] also a lot of potential to make the world feel a lot more realized by showing one person doing only one little thing in it.”
As the tea maker you can observe your fellow islanders, listen to their worries and care for them. You’re not a neutral party, per se, but as with any friend you have “you can’t direct the course their life” with A or B choices. But you do get to choose who shows up and what conversations you overhear. In a way, your secondary role after being a caretaker for your island’s community is to provide a safe haven or relatively neutral forum for them. The cast is diverse, including characters from the older generation who remember life before the Split and the younger generation who only know the island as it is now. Your first major choice in fact is to decide whether your perspective is that of the older or younger generation. Outside of this choice, Doyle-Myersough leaves the rest of how the tea maker is characterized up to the player’s head canon of them.
Some of the cast are of the privileged yet stratified Messenger class, others are engineers and scientists who range from wary, resentful, or intrigued by the Messenger institution. But they are also family members, friends, potential lovers, or respected elders of the community. What results from this is a lot of vibrant and intersectional dialogue about trauma, hope, and sudden change. Conversations in this game are political but get at the messiness of such conversations.
Some of my favorite conversations happen between Mal, one of the older islanders and an ex-airship captain who is perhaps the most resentful of the Messengers and his child Adelei, who’s in their mid-twenties and is grappling with the trauma and grief of the older generations whilst trying to self-actualize. Their divergent histories and perspectives of life after the Split typify how when we have political conversations or arguments, it’s never truly about the topic at hand.
What makes Doyle-Myersough excited about writing conversations that are both political and personal is that they are a way to show that people’s emotions always influence the way that they think about political issues. “[That] may not make your political opinions good . . .but I don’t think that rationality is always the only way to become involved in politics” they state. I agree. It’s a very Western, patriarchal and classist notion that there’s only one way to express and enact political beliefs.
We rarely are in a position to objectively know all the intricacies of a political issue that affects us, nor does it invalidate your opinions if you cannot communicate them in a stoic and detached manner. Though it wasn’t their intention, I believe the most solarpunk thing about The Archipelago isn’t just that it’s set on self-sustaining islands making do with what’s available after the fall of a more industrial civilization, it’s the ethos of Hemera’s inhabitants leaning into the messy yet cathartic process of radical societal change.
Phoenix Simms is a writer and indie narrative designer from Atlantic Canada. You can lure her out of hibernation during the winter with rare McKillip novels, Japanese stationery goods, and ornate cupcakes.