Gamers are all around us, and I was reminded of this when I was chatting with a co-worker of mine from when I was a bartender. Aura and I had known each other for weeks, talking about all sorts of random nonsense, before I even knew they played games. So it seemed perfect that they would be one of the first people I chatted with about prioritizing play in your life. I’m so glad I did, because I was reminded about how problem-solving in games can help you problem-solve in real life, which is a much needed reminder for many. Active players, I present to you my interview with Aura Belle, game designer and podcast producer in Savannah, GA.
RP: Tell us a little about yourself and what got you into the gaming hobby?
AB: My name is Aura Belle, I'm a non-binary femme (they/she pronouns), and I've been role-playing since I was very, very young. My brother used to play D&D with his friends and I would watch, trying my best to understand a game with no board or pieces, yet dice for some reason. And people just kinda saying whatever they want. I started playing all kinds of games as I got older, then eventually got into the game design scene a few years back, as well as publishing an Actual Play podcast with my group called Vantage Point of Death, which you can find on iTunes, Google podcasts, and most other places.
RP: Cards on the table, you and I know each other from a previous, unrelated job, but you never told me you were in game design! Tell me more.
AB: I made my first official game called Producers back in 2014. I still play it at parties. You play the part of movie idea pitchmen, suggesting movies to the group at large, except the specifics are fed to you by the other players so you get these really stupid, off-the-wall ideas that you have to defend. It's a lot of fun and the success and support of it led me to keep going with other things. I had a long-running Patreon which gave me about 1/3 of my monthly net income. There I made games about queer sex, gender identity, loneliness and connection, and our expectations of each other as people.
In addition to the podcast I've published several games (most under the name Caitlynn Belle) including Our Radios Are Dying (which has been played on multiple podcasts), Singularity, a transhuman and gender non-conforming dating sim released through Ginger Goat Games, and A Real Game, which won the 2016 IGDN Game of the Year award at Gen Con. It's a game rulebook that you print out that instructs you how to play itself, except as time goes on, this stack of paper gets existential dread about its purpose and fear about its inadequacy as a game. It gets really meta.
RP: Your games sound super unique, where do you get your inspiration?
AB: As I was making games, I was interested in playing with the form of "a game" itself, trying to find new ways to present play and new topics to explore. I talked about my stuff early on in an episode of the Backstory podcast (which is a very good podcast) hosted by Alex Roberts. I took a lot of influence from performance art and works of art that played with their own physical form or demanded special interaction from the viewer. I was looking for something that engaged back instead of simply being on display.
Queerness is a big part of everything I make. I have trouble viewing the world through cishet eyes, so I make characters that see the world how I do. I want beautiful, messy queer entanglement, gender exploration, non-traditional relationship structures, and really just people who look like my wonderful queer friends. A lot of what I make demands that you make it queer and abandons you if you won't. A lot of them require movement, because I need to move to think. And they're all more or less about one person needing to communicate someone with others but not necessarily knowing how, and the problems that arrive from that.
RP: What are some of your favorite games and why?
Fall of Magic is a big favorite of mine and my group. We play it once a year in the holiday season, it's become tradition. It's a role-playing game about how magic is dying in the world and this powerful wizard is travelling across the lands and the ocean to the birthplace of magic to try to figure out what's what, and everyone plays their companions accompanying them. You play the game on a large scroll map, unraveling it as you go to explore new lands. It's absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking and conjures such strong visuals. It lets you play with metaphor and imagery naturally and lets you dig into the identities of these characters who start out as vague brush strokes and become just these beautiful, heart-breaking narratives by the end of it all. I've cried so much playing that game.
RP: Are there any types of games you haven’t played that you would like to?
AB: I have a soft spot for games about armies and conquests, things like War of the Ring or even Twilight Struggle. I'm not really a history or military nerd so I don't know why I like them so much, maybe it's just the scale. But I'd really like to dig into more of those. Especially miniature games, I'd love to build and paint squadrons and move them around these big, tactical maps, I'm all about that.
RP: Do you consider gamer an integral part of your identity?
AB: I consider myself someone who sees "play" as a necessary part of human life, be you child or adult. It's something you need to tease your imagination with. You never stop needing to play, but most people fall out of it. So, in the sense of looking for ways to filter life experiences through mechanics and narrative, I would say so.
RP: What is the relationship between gaming and your mental health?
AB: A lot of my gaming history and design philosophy comes from the indie publishing scene that surged out in the mid 2000s. This kind DIY ethic of making sad, strange little games that examine what big publishers wouldn't. All of the games I've designed have, in some way, been about myself - about personal trauma, or loneliness, or my need to communicate, but my desire not to. Embodying a character and playing out experiences I can't parse effectively helps me get a new perspective on it, and writing about things I don't know how to talk about has been invaluable. I'm an anxious wreck, but I would be more of one had I not had a bunch of weird game designer friends out here making weird games about queer identity, love, and isolation.
RP: How do you balance gaming with your real life?
AB: Not very well. I used to attend regular board game meetups, but with working multiple jobs and everyone getting older, those fell by the wayside. My podcast group and I basically force ourselves to find time to get together and record, but it's not always easy. It can be hard! That's a running joke about role-playing groups, the hardest part is getting together on a schedule that works for everyone. You have to make concessions one way or the other.
RP: Do you have any advice for people looking to get started with gaming?
AB: Hit up game stores and meet people and try to go to a local con if you can. Cons can be stressful, but they're also usually fun. You get a lot of energy and inspiration from it. Try different things also - I know several role-players who have never tried any other games besides D&D, for example, and are shocked to find out there's this entire world of millions of cool games out there. Keep yourself open.
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