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Screenshot from Animal Agency 2020 by Uma Breakdown Image courtesy of the artist

In Conversation: Uma Breakdown and Lesley Taker



Part of the The Living Planet season

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Uma Breakdown has made a visual novel in the form of a downloadable game for FACT Together, released earlier this week, called Animal Agency. Lesley, our Exhibitions Manager, had a chat with them about horror, critters, love, and how this commission altered Uma’s approach to world-building in the game space. This is a transcript of a conversation with some post-editing and add-ins after the event.

Animal Agency bar drift

Above image: Uma Breakdown, Animal Agency, 2020. Screenshot from the game. Courtesy of the artist.

LT: Let’s start talking a little bit about how this [commission] has changed your approach to making games. Because you wanted to use the time for this commission to look into different sorts of game engines than you usually use, to push your practice, and finally found Adventure Game Studio (AGS)?

UB: I wanted to experiment more with software that allows games to integrate images and text, because I was using things like Bitsy and Twine which are predominantly text-based. So I had the idea of what I wanted to achieve and tried loads of different types of game engines - Gamemaker Studio, Godot, Unity, GDevelop, Visionaire etc. But nothing was either geared towards bringing image and text together in the way I wanted or had a language that I could get on with. And then I found AGS and realised that a click and point game (which I wasn’t even considering as a format) would work really well. Because it relies so heavily on the text but allows for much more visual exploration. It also reminded me of when I would build things on the internet using flash animation features. It has the same sort of system where you create things and then define their functions, which worked really well for my style.

Installation shot Screenshot from Title 2018 by Uma Breakdown Image courtesy of the artist

Above image: Uma Breakdown, Janusware 2nd Cycle, 2017. Installation view at Res. London. Courtesy of the artist.

LT: It feels like a very 'cosy' sort of game style, for me it's a little bit like home and nostalgic in the same way. I think that process of making things first and then defining their function really works - it parallels the way you approach art-making, this idea of producing lots of things first and then finding the way they all hang together…

UB: Exactly. When I make art, the system I use involves accruing a heap of materials which have a relationship to each other (e.g drawings, bits of text, clips, bits of theory, captured feelings), and then I make diagrams to explore the possible connections between these related resources. I try not to over-interrogate the way they relate to one another, but try and rely upon the fact that they’re making me excited and all come from a personal interest, it's then that connections form. It’s art-making as divination.

Similarly, I was really into revisiting that nice genre of game, like Monkey Island, where you can’t lose - you can get stuck but you can’t get permanently stuck - you can get so much out of it if you keep playing. You can find new connections. In the same way, Animal Agency takes place in a mansion environment, which means a room can feasibly connect to any other room. This means you can play with the flow a lot more as the game is developing and the idea and plot are fleshing out. Using this ready-made system allows you to fit your thoughts in quite nicely, and take an experimental approach. I was keen to reference or use lots of different game-systems, like there's bits of first person perspective in there, or allusions to inventory-heavy games.

Monkey Island 2 09 Woodtick street

Above image: Still from Monkey Island.

[UB continued] There’s a few reasons for this. I see the process of playing games and making games as part of the same thing rather than two opposing processes. Game theorist Mary Flanagan proposed that when we play a video game, particularly one that allows movement through space, we the player are creating something new from that movement through space. All those choices about where to move and when, and where to not move, make up a very subjective experience that is specific to us. Flanagan borrowed a term from philosopher Jean-François Lyotard to describe this “rendition”, as in when we play a game we perform a rendition of the game, like we would if we were playing a piece of music or a part in a play. That rendition is expressive and unique. So having bits of broken Bitsy games in Animal Agency, or bits of text adventure or comments about Resident Evil, is an attempt at bringing forward that player agency. The game Animal Agency was made from playing games, and playing Animal Agency should feel a bit like making a game.

LT: Speaking about using other forms of gameplay, there were lots of games we talked about whilst you were making this, about what inspires different perspectives for the player or types of gameplay. You talked about Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s games?

Sticky Zeitgeist hyperslime

Above image: Porpentine, Sticky Zeitgeist game. Still from Episode 1.

UB: Yeah, Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s mansion exploration game “quest of mansion: ferment of down and clover” definitely, as well as the Sticky Zeitgeist games: 8-bit RPG games which are about the exploration of an environment which is falling apart. There is a game called Neofeud by Christian Miller, who runs Silver Spook Games. He does everything in the game - apart from some of the voice acting - and I really liked that. It’s actually where I came across AGS. I was also playing Lone Survivor, which is quite old now, like ten-years, and a Lovecraftian horror game called “Return of the Obra Dinn”, I was also thinking about things like “World of Horror” that have a similar approach. It’s a 1-bit horror game which actually looks a lot like different game systems and it switches what exploring the world feels like, sometimes playing an RPG, sometimes reading a Juni Ito manga. Finally, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with “Pathologic” which really makes the player feel like a creative agent because the game is so janky you’re basically holding it together as you play. The writing of the game designers is something I’ve been looking at a lot too.

LT: One thing that’s really important in the game, and to your whole approach is this really unique attention to the lives and world of animals. It was one of the reasons we were so excited when we read your proposal for the FACT Together open call - your focus on the concept of ‘a-human’ and a more mutually beneficial human-animal existence. And I wanted to go into that a bit - to talk about animals and non-human creatures in the game, and in your life.

UB: It starts from Patricia MacCormack’s theory of the "Ahuman", focusing on not having an ‘us and them’ relationship to other beings, but removing both categories, i.e. ‘this is a thing, and that is a thing’. She relates this to an encounter with art. When art pulls you in, it’s not doing so with a new idea, it’s also the absence of an idea, the bit where you can’t comprehend what this new experience is. Your brain has to scramble to make sense of this art, trying to fit things you already know to make it make sense.

But the bit right at the beginning, where you don’t have any words for it yet, that's a process of what MacCormack says is “becoming Ahuman”, because when you’ve lost grip on what you’re engaging with, it can destabilise you as well. Break open that category of “human” into something less clear and defined. For her, this is a useful way to think about dealing with other creatures: allowing yourself to encounter them as unknowable, instead of trying to jam them into your own prior understanding of the world. It’s like when I am sitting here and I suddenly look up and the cat walks past the doorway, off on it’s own mission. It blows my mind that we share a house with these 'people' who have a totally different experience of life.

Animal Agency 2

Above image: Uma Breakdown, Animal Agency, 2020. Still from the game. Courtesy of the artist.

[UB continued] So, a lot of my work, and this game, is a crossing over between an experience of art and an experience of critters. Earlier this year, one of our two dogs died. They were rescues who had obviously gone through a lot and when the mother died the boy dog left behind needed us so much more. So I had to change the way I worked and slept, using software I could run off my laptop, being in constant contact with him. He can’t really see or hear so I’ve often been sleeping with my hand resting on his head so he wouldn’t panic when he woke up. When the older dog had been very sick, I slept close to her so she wasn’t on her own at night but I couldn’t stop focusing on the sound of her breathing. I couldn’t deal with being constantly present, so I had to put headphones on and just play this same album over and over to get some kind of distance.

Before I moved to Gateshead, and lived in London, we had loads of rescue cats. I was having lots of trouble with my brain and just waking up at around 4am every day. I got into this routine of getting up and dressed for work and going down to the kitchen where this 19 year old cat lived, because he didn’t really like the other cats in the house. I’d go and sit on the sofa and this loud, ancient ginger cat would appear from the darkness and clamber with his big claws onto the sofa next to me and loudly purr and I could just get some sleep there until I had to leave for work at 8. Even though I’m sleeping sitting up, fully dressed on a sofa, it was a restorative and reparative thing. In the same way, the game ends with a moment of understanding, of grounding.

LT: That idea links to the cat which follows you round from the greenhouse in the game but that, for quite a lot of the narrative, you forget is with you?

UB: In a way, the game implies an inventory system, but you don’t get to see or check it: alluding to things that you carry with you but you’re not super aware of their continual presence. I’m also interested in how there’s a relationship with death and this proximity with animals. The theory text for the game, for want of a better phrase, was Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Especially the section “The School of the Dead”, which thinks about encounters of death and grief as creative ways of refiguring the world, and how you constantly reinvent people who have died in your ongoing life by interpreting things through their memory. In it, Cixous reflects on mostly horror or horror-like stories, like Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”, and “The Black Cat” and Clarice Lispector’s “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor”, “The Buffalo”, and “The Passion According to G.H”. Animals feature as agents in a lot of these stories, even though Cixous doesn’t really set out to define what animals mean to her. They act as witnesses or agents, they are folks we need but we never really know. The stories are often dependent on them, but they exist in a complex way.

Cixous doesn’t talk about the animals directly as much as talk around them. There is a really powerful line early on where she quotes a paragraph from Thomas Bernhard about a butcher shop and writing. She then folds this image back to her own childhood: “As future skinned animals, to go to school we must pass before a butcher's shop, through the slaughter, to the cemetery door. Through the cemetery, our hearts beating from so much death, until we reach young life.”

Part of what Cixous seems to be trying to get at in The School of The Dead is writing and reading as something that overwhelms you, that could be horror or it could be desire, but it is so indescribable and powerful as to not really matter which it is. The animals Cixous talks around seem to always be across both love and horror, like the cat “Pluto” in Poe’s “The Black Cat” is such an overwhelming force that they completely destroy the protagonist by showing so much of themselves.

My favourite part of the text is Cixous on dogs, which she says are a “threat” because of their “terrible love” that’s exhausting because it is so limitless and “doesn’t fit our economy”. There’s this relationship, but it's always more than, or different to anything we might be familiar with. It doesn’t fit our language. So I understand the idea of us as “future skinned animals” is about trying to find ways of engaging with writing and reading or making any kind of art through overwhelming emotions and ideas. Finding things that “don’t fit our economy” and dealing with them as they are, instead of replacing them with the closest thing that we already had a language for.

Illustration of The Oval Portrait Edgar Allan Poe

Above image: Illustration of The Oval Portrait, Edgar Allan Poe.

LT: We get so bogged down in characterisation and needing to relate to the protagonist in games - which Animal Agency refuses. But, even so, you get a constant sense of the ongoing emotional landscape of this person you’re with, or being, and you have a total emotional connection with them, removed from categorisation and binary identity.

UB: The animal is as much an agent as anything else - agents can be whatever - and I kind of hope that’s seen in the game: the character protagonist is ambiguous enough that they’re kind of human but also kind of not. This is something that I’m really interested in, character’s slipping out of definition or being fragmented rather than either being fixed or being the 'white cis able straight male' default. I like characters where there is enough detail to have them be present, but then lots of missing pieces, transformations and contradictions. Kathy Acker’s interviews on her process of writing and character in this regard are really important for me, and this folds into the part-animal, part-something else quality. I like characters that are unstable in their character, where you could feel emotionally invested in them, but you can’t really know them.

In Porpentine’s Sticky Zeitgeist games there is this really wonderful approach to characters. Something unspoken is that some of them are a bit animal and some are a bit robot but it’s never addressed. In terms of the game’s lore they are all the same, they are all “girls”. The characters have very archetypal roles that they are introduced as, there is a “leader”, a “loser”, there is a “big sister” and a “little sister” and then there’s other non-playable characters like a therapist and an AI. The character’s roles point at something that feels familiar, but so much is missing, or left unsaid, or broken, or hidden behind humour and that makes the characters feel really alive to me. They are made up of gaps, just in the same way as they themselves seem to be lost for words all the time and we are just left with these “...” ellipses instead of dialogue.

LT: Sticking with archetypes, let’s talk a bit about horror, specifically how you approach and use it in your work, and the way it’s present in this game, which isn’t something you would describe as a horror game in any way, I think… I’m interested in how it mimics the same layering of hidden moments and hidden narratives, and how much you bring with you to any encounter or journey.

UB: There are so many things within the genre of horror that are about care. As much as horror can be purely about violence, it can be about care or empathy for something that’s unrecognisable or incomprehensible - which comes back to the idea of the ‘Ahuman’. It’s the point in a horror film when you encounter something that’s completely incomprehensible and doesn’t fit what we already know about the world, that’s part of why it’s horrifying. It’s particularly relevant to what I think of as “speculative horror”, so not horror that’s grounded in something that we’re familiar with like a realistic threat, but instead something more like science fiction or folklore.

Ringu by Hideo Nakata

Above image: Still from Ringu, 1998. Directed by Hideo Nakata.

[UB continued] When you encounter something and you don’t know what it is - meaning you can’t quite understand its form, its biology, its ethics, you can't even understand it visually, or the way it moves - it’s that moment that’s scary. For example in the Japanese film, The Ring (Ringu) when something comes out of the TV, part of the horror is not as much the idea of a person coming out of a television, but the way she moves - it feels broken. It’s part of what does that 'thing' to you.

My interest in horror is also that it could also be reparative: more about love than revulsion. It can be about learning to deal with stuff that’s unexaminable: accepting that you can’t completely consume or know another person, but that you just have to deal with them as something that will always be ungraspable. I like the idea of not taking things apart and just engaging with it as it is and how it says it is. Right at the start of her career, originally in her PhD thesis, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s wrote her summation of the Gothic as a genre that is rooted in paranoia and suspicion. In the Gothic, nothing is what it seems, and the truth needs to be drawn out. Right at the other end of her life, another of Sedwick’s many big contributions to theory was the concept of “reparative reading”, a reversal of that approach to knowledge born from the Gothic. Reparative reading is not suspicious interrogation but instead curious, creative, led by desire.

I’m very much into the idea of a Reparative Horror or a Reparative Gothic: not asking why the ghost is there, but looking at what the ghost does, what its feelings are, and the ways it emotes, what this means to everything else that rubs up against it. Not questioning this strange thing’s existence but revelling in how it excites and disrupts and breaks things out of habit.

I don’t think I use the materials of horror in a way that conforms to the storytelling of that genre, i.e. there’s no three act structure of normality that’s disturbed. Instead the normality you reach is accepting that you cannot fully grasp what’s around you, or happening to you. In the worlds I create, I want people to approach this unknowability not with suspicion, but solidarity and care.

LT: This is something I’ve always been interested in too. Like you, I’m obsessed with the ideas of horror but essentially quite squeamish. I get very freaked out about certain textures and sounds. Even if I hear something through closed eyes, I recreate it endlessly in my imagination and feel physically nauseous. Particularly when that violence is about consumption or ownership. So, I’m naturally interested in how you move past horror as a space which needs to break bodies apart or open, or which needs to consume, to something more productive and slippery. How can you use it as a process to encounter ambiguity and find a surprising form of care?

UB: Totally. There’s definitely another way of horror being delivered. I think what feminist and queer analysis of horror cinema has known for ages is that if we change the assumption of who this film is for, and who it is we’re meant to identify with, everything changes. The way horror can easily exist on multiple layers makes this a really interesting approach. You have that gut feeling of the affective qualities of it - of something really visceral happening on the screen that actually does something to you - and then within that narrative you’re forced to ask yourself ‘where am I in this?’, ‘who am I meant to be identifying with?’. We’re once again in a period of horror cinema where that idea of the subject and the ethics around it are frequently being muddied. When watching a lot of recent horror films we’re not always sure where our empathy is or where it might end up.

Border by Ali Abbasi

Above image: Still from Border, 2018. Directed by Ali Abbasi.

[UB continued] There’s a Swedish film called Border - a kind of fantasy horror film loosely based on trolls - that’s a really wonderful film. It’s got some really abhorrent ethical decisions made in it by characters you can empathise with really strongly. The protagonists aren’t really human and so it moves you towards that opening up of uncertainty, and pulls our emotional engagement into places we wouldn’t have gone otherwise. It's really emotionally absorbing and uses some familiar codes of narrative to direct that empathy but ultimately refuses anything as clear cut as a ‘final girl’ (i.e. the Western horror trope of who gets to live and why). I feel that it's a horror film that asks for a reparative reading.

My favourite horror film of the past decade is Us - Jordan Peele's film. It’s such a phenomenal film not least because of its ambiguity. It is beautifully edited and flows so well, but there are massive bits that are left open, and things that are only pointed to and never clarified in the film. It builds a framework for you, but you’re not actually that sure what it’s based on or what’s really going on, but because of how it’s put together you are totally fine with being taken into this place with no certainty. It’s really highlighted by the ending, where this leaves the protagonists, and what happened to them and the rest of the planet. It is so excellent at merging things; it used the visceral-ness and affect of horror (the thing that lets you just watch a film for the ‘cinema’ of it, because of what it's doing to your body) to lead you along so you don’t always notice that things have been pulled out around you.

Us by Jordan Peele

Above image: Still from Us, 2019. Directed by Jordan Peele.

LT: I like how that cuts through your work: encountering ambiguity not as a state of terror but as a state of ‘there are no rules’ and we can lower the bar (in a positive way) in terms of productive engagement and productive associations resisting that cultural coding...

UB: And there’s that question of how minimal can you make that scaffolding and still get engagement, whilst effectively handing the agency to the viewer or the player. I think it’s similar in fiction and world building. There is a quote that William Gibson has written about from the John Carpenter film Escape from New York where very early in the film when we the audience meet Snake Pliskin the protagonist and he’s being interviewed by a character called Bob Hauk. There is this throwaway line where Snake asks, "Who is qualified to do this job?" and Bob says "You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?" And this is a thing that’s never come back to in the rest of the film. When Gibson talks about it, he points out that that’s the whole purpose - it implies an entire world of events outside of the film which the viewer/audience/player can only speculate on, and flesh out themselves. That’s made even more clear through the fact that Gibson misheard or misremembered the line from the film. It has totally moved from paranoia to a creative, reparative thing.

Uma Breakdown still from the video TFW The Formless Wastes 2 2018

Above image: Uma Breakdown, Animal Agency, 2020. Still from the game. Courtesy of the artist.

[UB continued] It’s an interesting structure to use: will the audience write their own story just with the bits that you’ve given to them, rather than assuming that something is accidentally incomplete? It's like handing off tools to fix something, rather than providing a fully fledged experience that leaves nothing to speculate on. And that’s the broken-ness thing that I really like. I love the idea of making a game like patchwork - it doesn’t matter if you think i’ve left something out on purpose, or accidentally missed something or not rendered it properly; there’s no real difference. As a viewer you can still work with any of that. What I’m really trying to do is be welcoming enough, caring enough that an audience feels invited to make something with those bits rather than perhaps feel tricked and alienated. A lot of the worlds I build are just about that: how much can you make the floor collapse out from underneath someone, whilst still encouraging them to reconstruct it using their own personal tools, to build their own way through it. It’s even how I try and approach making the work: don’t interrogate things too much, but let them exist together - if you overthink exactly how they should fit together, you’d talk yourself out of doing anything.