The Portland Indie Game Squad and Pixel Arts Game Education, in partnership with Portland State, hosted a talk by famed game designer Brenda Romero on Saturday at the Native American Student and Community Center. Admission was free and the talk was open to the public.
Romero is known for her work on the fantasy-based role-playing computer game series Wizardry, released between 1981 and 2001. Recently, though, her work has veered away from digital games and into the realm of the physical.
Her talk, entitled “The Expressive Power of Games,” revolved around a strange question Romero had received in a telephone conversation with another game designer: “What mechanic do you use to add emotion to your games?” She said the question made her consider her process for designing and building games.
“Games really have infinite expressive power, but there’s a caveat to that, and it’s a tremendous caveat,” Romero said. “You cannot transmit a feeling that you do not have. If you are trying to make a game about something and you have not tried to feel what those people felt, and do what those people have done, your game will fail.”
Romero spoke extensively about the board games she has been building from scratch. The games are part of her series, “The Mechanic is the Message,” which aims to capture and express difficult experiences through the medium of game.
One of those games, Síochán Leat, deals with the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland, where the English brutally confiscated large amounts of Irish land. Romero, who is of Irish decent said, “everything you need to know about me is in that game.”
Síochán Leat is played on an elevated glass board supported by pillars. The pillars are held in place by a burlap sack. Romero said the pillars were originally going to be supported by living grass, but the prospect of players having to water her game was daunting.
One Falls for Each of Us, a game about the Trail of Tears, is still being prototyped. Romero said when the game is finished it will include close to 46,000 figurines, one for each native person affected.
“You can say that’s utterly ridiculous,” Romero said. “Yup, it sure is. Blame Andrew Jackson, I didn’t make this happen.”
Romero was invited to speak by Elizabeth LaPensée, a designer, writer and researcher of indigenously-determined games. LaPensée said Romero was happy to speak at the NASCC partially because of her work on One Falls for Each of Us.
Romero said, just prior to being invited to speak, she had come to the decision that she needed to commit her time to refining a single game. That game ended up being One Falls for Each of Us.
Within 24 hours of making that decision, which she revealed to no one, Romero said she was invited to speak at the NASCC and a native technology conference. She has given hundreds of talks, but never in a native community or with an indigenous focus.
“You can call it coincidence,” Romero said. “But I think the universe believes I’m ready for this now.”
Additional information about “The Mechanic is the Message” and the games of Brenda Romero can be found at romero.com/analog. More information about the Portland games community can be found at pigsquad.com.