Melody Watson

We had a wonderful time chatting with Melody Watson, analogue games designer and larpwright.

QRM: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do in the games industry?

Melody: Absolutely! I'm a writer, historian and eternal RPG tragic. I design odd little analogue role-playing games and larps, and do critical readings of games in development.

QRM: How long have you been involved in the game industry, and what projects have you worked on? What are you working on currently?

Melody: I've been playing role-playing games (starting with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) since I was something like five, and have spent far too many hours of my adult life analysing and critiquing them. But I only sat down and started designing properly a couple of years ago, when I realised how much amazing, weird, DIY indie stuff there is out there to which I could contribute.

Earlier in 2017, I released LAIKA, a sad one-player RPG about the first dog in space. I also participated in the 200-Word RPG Challenge, for which I wrote a game called WORTHY. It's another one-player game, this time about a great hero declaring their worth. Most recently, I teamed up with Ash McAllan to release Lonely Engines. I'm not quite sure I'd call it an RPG, or analogue, but it's definitely inspired by my background in those areas. In Lonely Engines, participants take on the role of an alienated robot trying to get messages out to others. You play by posting short videos to Twitter!

QRM: What inspired you to get started in the games industry?

Melody: I think I've always been doing games design, even if I only started publishing more recently. When it comes to analogue/tabletop RPGs, there's such an amorphous line between participating and designing. As players and GMs/facilitators, we're always tweaking games and building new things that go far beyond the text we're given. I was moved to start writing my own self-contained games when I realised that the games I was playing weren't actually designed to tell the stories I wanted to see. So, I suppose the answer is that I was kinda bored and dissatisfied, and wanted to make my own contribution! Games about adventure and mystery are great, but we also need stories about keenly (queerly) felt sorrow, love, reconciliation, revolution, community, and women, to name just a few.

It helped that I discovered a game doesn't have to be a 500-page tome, and that something that takes five minutes or an hour to play is just as valid as an epic campaign.

QRM: In what ways do you feel your experiences as a queer person manifest in the games you work on, and influence the work you do?

Melody: That's a big question! At the broadest level, I can't separate my queerness from my politics. Learning to understand myself as a gay woman has been a process of becoming aware of the tensions, breaking points, and crises of the worlds that I inhabit – of seeing how we're regulated and exploited, and the profound injustice of that. I couldn't escape the political even if I wanted to. As a result, the games I make are both queer and political.

Red Sisters, Black Skies, a larp in which participants play Soviet women bomber pilots in WW2 (inspired by Jason Morningstar's Night Witches RPG), is about an unlikely community of women coming together in a time of conflict. None of the characters in it are socially 'acceptable' by the standards of their time or ours. I wanted to create a space in which people were encouraged to explore stories that are often written out of history, or that no one thinks to record. The characters fly dangerous missions, but the heart of the game is about the relationships between them – many of which are incredibly gay. As queer folk, we tend to only appear in the narrative at moments of great crisis or horror for the sake of someone else's story. I wanted to see what happens when we are the story, especially the mundane and quiet moments that happen inbetween.

Because I'm queer, I want to make games that challenge the world as it (seemingly) is. If people who aren't queer get something out of that, wonderful, but more than that I want to share queer experiences with those I love and depend on. With games, we can imagine a world in which the things we experience and feel are taken at face value, allowed to exist, even if they hurt.

QRM: Do you have a favourite queer character—in games or media more generally? If so, what is it about them that makes them your favourite?
Question asked by @kamienw.

Melody: Oh gosh, there's so many I don't know where to start! Can I nominate the entire cast of Steven Universe? But mostly Lapis Lazuli. I connect really strongly with characters who've been trapped and excluded, and made into something they're not. It's just as important to me that characters like Lapis are then able to go on and be free, but that they're changed forever – new people who come to understand that their world is different, and who make that a part of themselves and find some peace. I adore the character Breq/Justice of Toren from Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy of novels for the same reason – enough that I wrote a whole damn essay about her!

I suppose I should mention: to the best of my knowledge, neither of those characters are explicitly queer? But their experiences are profoundly relatable to me as a queer person.

QRM: Have you ever encountered roadblocks in trying to include queer characters in games? What do you think is preventing greater diversity within games?
Question asked by @dustinalex91.

Melody: Most of the games I've made or played are ones I've made for myself, without any expectation of making sales, so the roadblocks I've encountered have mostly been those I've set up myself. It's super easy to fall into the trap of second-guessing character decisions in RPGs. For example, I always get kinda anxious about role-playing flirty characters because I worry about tropes about predatory trans women. Obviously that's total nonsense and those tropes are toxic, but I just get irrationally worried about how it will be perceived. More generally, there's so many terrible tropes about queer folk that I end up over-analysing characters to see if I'm accidentally being gross. My solution is to make sure that they're people first and foremost, rather than being defined by tropes or archetypes.

Greater diversity in games is such a multi-faceted problem. There are definitely reactionary, powerful elements invested in keeping things [homo]geneous, and that counts for a lot. But when it comes to analogue RPGs, at least, history is a powerful force. Although there have always been women and queer folk playing and writing games, the big, public communities have tended to be dominated by people who're hostile to that. The result isn't that we've stopped role-playing, but that we've often retreated from those public spaces into our own circles where we can expect a certain level of respect and safety. That means that when new people want to get involved, where do they go? Are they able to find people, stories, and groups that reflect their experiences?

Artistic impression of a galaxy.

QRM: Why do you think it is important that queer audiences are able to see themselves represented in the games they play, and in the developers who make the games they see? What can we do to improve the industry for queer audiences and devs?

Melody: Being queer, especially if you haven't figured yourself out and found a community, is like 90% wondering if you're a total weirdo who's all alone. Society tells us we don't (or shouldn't) exist, and we then inflict that on ourselves, too. If we can see other queer people out there, and queer stories being told, it makes it that little bit easier and less terrifying for us to tell our own stories, plus get involved.

In terms of improving the industry, projects like this are a great intervention! But beyond that, I think it's essential for people at all levels of involvement to be open to games, stories, and experiences that challenge or reject the status quo. Queer storytelling and design isn't just about queer characters – it's also about different ways of relating to each other and different ways of creating/analysing/engaging. Queerness is often going to find a home in games that aren't games as we understand them (like Twine games, for instance!), or games that aren't acceptable by society's standards. We gain a great deal, individually and collectively, by having a willingness to engage with them.

QRM: Have you ever mentored somebody in your role in games, or been mentored? If so, what made these experiences worthwhile for you?
Question asked by @pepelanova.

Melody: Most of my games design relationships have been collaborating with people in a similar position to myself, rather than mentoring. It's been incredibly helpful having people to bounce ideas off (hi Luke and Ash!). But I did receive some amazing mentoring and assistance in writing Red Sisters, Black Skies from a friend who's been running and designing games for years (hi Shane!). It made a massive difference to be able to discuss not just the ideas I was working with, but how they might be implemented and received. It also made such a difference to occasionally be told 'You're fine, this is great' when I was freaking out. One-on-one creative collaborations allow a much deeper and more nuanced level of engagement than broad discussions or crowdsourced commentary.

QRM: In what ways can non-queer folk increase and support queer diversity present within games, as well as in the industry more broadly? How can we all work to support intersectional approaches to diversity, and why is this important?

Melody: One of the main things seems really easy, but often isn't: don't be a jerk. Don't make casually homophobic or transphobic jokes. Be thoughtful before commenting on people's character/story decisions, especially if it pertains to gender or sexuality. Even if you think that person is a guy, don't make a big deal about the fact that they want to portray a female character. You don't know where they're at. And realise that your commentary is always going to be influenced by patriarchal, heteronormative forces. You're probably going to assume that women speak up more often than they do, that queer people talk about trauma more than they do, etc. But also, even if they do those things – that's not a bad thing.

A more design-oriented way to encourage diversity is to reach out to queer people and collaborate with them! Include them in your anthologies, work on projects with them, etc.

QRM: Is there a message that you would like to share with the queer game players, game studies researchers, and other interested folks who comprise the Queerly Represent Me community?

Melody: Do what you've got to do to pay the bills, but don't be afraid to make weird, uncomfortable, political things that speak to your experiences. There are people out there who have felt those same things, they'll get it. In your design as well as your stories, imagine not just the world as it is but the world as it could be. The status quo is bad, real bad, but we don't have to let it rule us. Let's build something new.


You can find Melody on Twitter at @magicspacegirl and on her website.
Make sure you check out LAIKA, WORTHY, Lonely Engines, and her essay about the Imperial Radch trilogy, and support Melody's work!