Interview with Karina Popp, developer of 10 Mississippi.

So my name is Karina, I’m a game developer currently living in New York. As of right now, I’ve been making games for 3 years, 2 of which were spent earning my Masters degree in Game Design at the NYU Game Center.

I began grad school with the intention of becoming a game studies scholar, and to that end, presented papers at conferences like the Games and Literary Theory Conference and DiGRA. However, I found that I preferred making games to talking about them.Probably the most exciting job opportunity I’ve had was to make games for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that creates Sesame Street. I also teach game studies and history classes at NYU.

These days I mostly freelance to support myself and I’ve started focusing more on making my own games. When people ask what I do I like to say I’m at least mediocre at most things. Which maybe is too self-deprecating. Perhaps I should just say I’m a generalist.

Question: What did you study and why. How has it helped you develop games?

Answer: I studied English Literature for my Bachelors degree in university. I lived in Mississippi at the time and, to be honest, didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I liked literature class in high school and was alright at writing, so when I had to pick a major I went with that. At first I had no aspirations beyond getting through university. I thought that by the end I’d figured out what I wanted to do.

Which I guess I kind of did, in a circuitous manner? I found that I really loved university. I’m a first generation college student. I had never had so much access to knowledge and the validation that comes with existing in a scholarly community. I was especially enamored with critical theory and gender studies. Analyzing films and novels felt like solving a puzzle. I’m also a very quiet person with a lot of things to say, so writing essays felt like a safe and more accurate way to express my thoughts. It felt natural to me to transition to game studies! I loved writing, I loved researching, I loved games. So I applied to some graduate school programs and ended up at NYU. Although it was a creative program, focused on game design, my logic was that I needed to understand how games were built and functioned in order to properly study them.

And, like I said, I found that I liked making games more than just writing about them. Having that academic background, however, has deeply informed the games I make. It isn’t always the case, but often I’ll go into making a game with some question in mind. How can I make a game with just photographs? Can I create a meta game about making games without outright describing my own parody? What does the sensation of fullness feel like and how can I show that in quick Unity scene? I want to make games and experiment at the same time. This sounds overly serious, perhaps, and honestly most of the time the games I make are very, very silly.

I also think being adept at research is helpful. Learning to learn during my time as an almost-academic has been invaluable. I may not know how to do something right now, but I’m assured that with some time and the Internet I can figure it out.

Q: What did you wanted to be when you were a kid?

A: Everything. For a while I wanted to be a paleontologist. An inventor. Then a movie director. A chef. A cartoonist. For all of high school I was very into theatre and certain I was going to be a stage actress. I desperately wanted to do comedic acting. I was super into Zelda when Ocarina came out and then I wanted to make games for a year or so. In one class, we had to pick a career and write a letter to someone in that career about how to do their job. I wrote mine to Nintendo. They sent back a really supportive letter and some merch. I imagine they get letters like that all the time, but it felt so special back then. After that I didn’t really see making games as a door that was open to me. But, it turned out that making games was really kind of like being everything.

Q: What was your first impression of the game industry?

A: Mostly positive. My introduction to the game industry was also my introduction to city living, graduate school, and living far from my family, so it was a huge culture shock. Meeting so many people who were just as enthusiastic about games as me was so cool and being around people overflowing with creativity was awe-inspiring. Many people are eager to help newcomers, which is important, I think. Sometimes getting into the industry can seem difficult, but in my experience there are wonderful folks who are happy to let you join their community.

Q: Why did you apply for Stugan and how did it help you?

A: I applied to Stugan because I wanted a space to focus on making 10 Mississippi. I had been picking at the project for months, but was unable to make much progress. Stugan seemed like the perfect chance to focus on just creating and getting out of the city for a while. No other work, no bills, no distractions, no worrying about where my next meal is coming from. Plus you get to be surrounded by brilliant, creative people.

Honestly, it gave me the inertia I needed. Post-Stugan I’ve been fastidious about working on 10 Mississippi, even if I’m back to teaching and hustling for work. All the time I spent at Stugan and with the other Stuganeers was valuable not just as actual work time, but as an investment into what the game can be.

Q: 10 Mississippi is very unique, one of my favorite games. How did you come up with the concept?

A: Aw, it really means a lot to me for you to say that!

The initial prototype was for a class where we had to make one game every week, based on a theme. That week’s theme was 10 seconds. I feel like the instinct would be to make a game that’s really chaotic, sort of frantic. Instead, I wanted to cultivate a peaceful, contemplative space. To really stretch 10 seconds so that you feel every moment passing by. I thought to make a game that examines the mundane and small parts of our lives, to see what could meaningfully be contained in 10 seconds.

For the photos, I had been thinking a lot about the film La Jetée. I had studied it in college and had to make a short film that used the same technique of using photographs and not moving pictures. I thought to take a crack at using that aesthetic again for this assignment.

10 Mississippi is a stop motion game about a day’s routine, played over and over and over and over again.

Q: You’re recorded stuff in Stugan as well, how did you mix it with the content you had before Stugan to make it look coherent? Or it’s not that different?

A: How I’m going to use photos from Stugan has evolved over the course of this project. Initially, I wanted to create a narrative in which the player character was switching through different lives. There was a convoluted sci-fi plot and everything. So, the photos would juxtapose city life versus rural life and I would compose them so they’re visually distinct.

However, after getting feedback at Stugan and just through development, I discovered that that really wasn’t the game I wanted to make. It would be too long, too drawn out, too boring in a way that I didn’t want. I think I had also gotten this idea from what I thought Stugan would be like, but I found that I was inspired by Sweden in an unexpected way. The dreaminess of the forests and mountains really struck me. So, instead, I’m using my photos from Stugan as dream sequences, teasing out some of the internal world of the player character.

Q: Are you happy with the progress you achieved? What difficulties are you facing right now?

A: Well… I don’t know if I’d say happy, but I’m ok with the progress I’ve made. My largest hurdle has consistently been self-doubt. I’m never sure if I’m taking the right picture or making the right design choice. So instead of testing stuff out, sometimes I get caught up in my own head trying to anticipate what’s best. I’ve wasted a lot of time this way.

The game plays with the taboo of film envy in games while telling a story by browsing through life’s interstitial moments – drinking a cup of coffee or waiting during the morning commute or composing an email to an old friend.

Q: I think I’ve heard you say that you don’t want the game to be like an artsy thing. Why so?

A: Haha! There are a lot of reasons for this. Perhaps it’s childish of me because 10 Mississippi is artsy. Like, obnoxiously so.

Usually this is my way of hedging critique about 10 Mississippi being too artsy or difficult to understand. I get really self-conscious when I make this kind of game around a bunch of people who are making things that are really fun and exciting and my game is more atmospheric or experimental. One of the most important lessons I got from Stugan was to stop doing this in the context of showing my game. The fact is that it is artsy and I should own that. Setting expectations is good, but I can’t do so to the detriment of my game.

Sort of an extension of that, people frequently suggest that I shift from showing 10 Mississippi in a games context to an artsy digital media context. And while I’m not opposed to doing both, 10 Mississippi is 100% a game to me and deserves to be acknowledged as such. To me, it’s basically a minigame – it’s Warioware. Just because the reward to successfully completing a mini game is viewing the whole content rather than a character saying YOU WON! doesn’t change that for me. If someone says I don’t think this is a game when they play 10 Mississippi it really hurts! Probably for petty reasons – like I want to belong – but it also feels a little sexist and unimaginative. I’m a game designer. 10 Mississippi is a game.

Q: You’ve showcased Space Kitty at A MAZE Johannesburg. Tell us a bit about it, please.

A: Space Kitty is basically my magnum opus at this point. I made it with my colleague Alex Duncan. The game itself is super simple – it’s a local infinite-player arcade shooter. Players use flashlights to zap dogs that are attacking the titular Space Kitty.

It’s a really simple, silly game. We made it in a weekend and tuned it a little bit after, but it was supposed to be a one-off thing. But people love it. It’s so exciting to watch players wildly wave their flashlights. We’ve had groups of upwards of like twenty people all massed around a tiny Macbook screen. I’m so happy it got the chance to be in A MAZE Johannesburg. A MAZE is such a cool show.

Q: What kind of games would you like to do in the future? What are your expectations for 10 Missisipi?

A: I hope that 10 Mississippi is played. By someone, anyone. Ideally I’d like, like, a lot of people to play it, but I’m not expecting that. I want to release it, I want to feel satisfied with it. Art’s less about the end product and more about the process of getting there. I want to feel good about that process.

As for games in the future… I would like to continue making small, weird web games. I tend to be very precious about my games, totally terrified of putting them online, but after 10 Mississippi I’m making it my goal to get over that.

Q: What are games for you?

A: Games, for me, are what we call games. If another person thinks a thing is a game, then I agree. It is a game.