Emily Flynn-Jones takes us back to the 90s with CURSES

Content warnings for relative obituaries, suggestions of self-harm and abuse

There’s been a recent surge in 90s nostalgia and the reason for that is pretty obvious. What happens comes back, it was 30 years, etc. But what I’ve found particularly interesting in recent years is how ’90s nostalgia in games often manifests itself in merely superficial ways. The 80s and 90s brought some of the most memorable gaming experiences, both on PC and consoles, and it’s understandable that people would want to revisit those classic gaming moments (which is why Metroid-style games continue to perpetuate itself, after all). But there is an inevitable (pun intended) flattening effect in my opinion, when we focus on things like the pixel counts of sprites and similar game loops from specific eras. We don’t often want to make games that depict not just the aesthetics of an era, but the zeitgeist of that era. Arguably, this fixation on recreating the same nostalgic experiences over and over again is what partly fuels the industry’s current problem of recreating the same open-world experiences and how Ring of Elden threw all those cut-and-paste experiments into relief. But that’s a whole other discussion in itself.

All of the above ran through my mind and more after speaking with Emily Flynn-Jones, head of KillJoy Games as well as writer and designer of CURSEa story-based game that will be released on August 26. CURSE is a Ubisoft Indie Series 2021 Special Award-winning title that focuses on dealing with difficult feelings as a teenage witch known only as Girl, who grows up in the early 90s in an abusive home where she also mourns the death of his mother. The game primarily focuses on a point-and-click experience, not just for accessibility (although that’s a major focus for the studio), but to invoke a LucasArts-like PC gaming sensibility that Emily would have played back in the day. adolescence. In addition, all choices in the game are colored by a system of mixing and matching five feelings (despair, rage, determination, uncertainty and revenge) attached to various magical rituals like anthropomancy or reading tarot cards in using Girl’s personally designed cards featuring her favorite pop culture. heroes and loved ones.


Killjoy devoted a great deal of research and care to ensuring that the dark and gritty 90s of Girl had an authentic feel, emphasizing the isolation of the early internet age, the political moments most relevant to Girl such as riot grrrl and DIY zine culture, and the materiality of media (VHS tapes and mixtapes with custom art labels). Their TikTok page highlights many properties and alternative media personalities that have inspired the game’s atmosphere as well as Girl’s personality and interests. The team even created a glossary of ’90s slang and language that they curated for Girl and her sassy familiar chat dialogue.

When asked who Flynn-Jones’ target audience was CURSE, she says, “Initially, myself. A millennial elder who can be rocked by the 90s throughout the game and had difficult relationships”, someone gay and female, someone dealing with trauma who grew up for a decade where it wasn’t always easy to find and connect with people instantly. Flynn-Jones describes herself as a former gaming specialist who came to game design through her studies and eventually through her therapy sessions. She found typical CBT techniques such as journaling and the like boring and suggested she was better able to communicate what she was going through via game mechanics and systems. “Making games is not therapeutic itself,” she says, but using elements of the game-making process to find a way to work through her personal story was key to coming to terms with feelings tied to her past. “It’s definitely autobiographical,” says Flynn-Jones. When she reflected on the abuse she suffered from her father and the death of her mother, it was clear that the mechanics and narrative of CURSE were the most appropriate solution for Killjoy, his studio-boutique supported by the Toronto accelerator Damage Labs. Killjoy’s MO is to focus on making games that deal with diverse characters, feelings, and themes that are little explored in the industry.

The more she worked on the concept of the game, that of Girl wanting to magically curse her family as they cursed her existence, Flynn-Jones realized that it was important to focus on turbulent emotions and how they reinforce or restrict our actions. “Despair can rob you of free will,” Flynn-Jones notes, but can also force you to look long and deep within yourself. If you consistently choose “unfortunate” actions, Girl also performs magic appropriate to her state of mind, such as attempting to talk to her mother via a ouija board and automatic writing. Our emotions change our intentions, motivations, and actions regarding goal setting (whether or not we prepare to curse our abusive family), not to mention our outcomes and consequences. Flynn-Jones decided to mediate these feelings and the actions magically connected to them for several reasons. The main reason for this is that it characterizes feelings as a non-judgmental force, instead of giving them a moralistic bent (as some story-based games do). Flynn-Jones also mentioned that he’s not sure Girl’s magic and dialogue with her familiar is in her head.


Each of Girl’s feelings is considered valid and part of her processing of her grief and trauma. This game focuses on how Girl comes to terms with herself and moves past old hurts (or maybe not), using magic as a way to channel her feelings about being abused by her father and in-laws. “There is no victory in either end,” Flynn-Jones is sure to clarify. It’s about self-determining your destiny, whether for better or for worse. But even in the game’s darker endings, where Girl deals with her trauma in a less healthy way, Killjoy was very keen to highlight such moments and make sure that none of the abuse or trauma discussed or experienced was n was explicit in nature. This is a game that aims to make players who have gone through such situations or who may still be stuck in such situations realize that their feelings matter and they are not invisible.

“Initially we were going to have a computer in the girls’ room,” says Flynn-Jones, but the team ultimately decided against it as it would give the teenager an easy way to connect with others. people. Or maybe her old friends she drifted away from after her mother died. “[I wanted to portray] how to dream back then,” says Flynn-Jones. How to aspire to change at a time when escaping loneliness (or hiding it) was not so easy. Placing the whole game in Girl’s bedroom was also a deliberate choice tied to that sensibility as well. “[Our] the bedroom is a place where we do much of our identity work. That’s it for Girl,” Flynn-Jones points out. It’s also a way for Killjoy’s game to delineate a safe space, a space where the father figure can’t or doesn’t often enter. And also one where Girl can interact with Familiar, a more supportive (but sarcastic) male figure in her world.

With humor, Flynn-Jones says that Girl’s state of mind is that she “just took off her Spice Girls t-shirt”. She also compares her trip to a mixture of The jobMillennial witches who sought to fulfill their wishes at all costs and The job reboot Gen Z witches who focus on magic for incremental change. The 90s version of Killjoy is somewhat revisionist in this regard and while the game doesn’t gloss over the shittier events of the era, it is dedicated to presenting a period piece that reflects both the aesthetics and systems of that time. work within and against. CURSE is Killjoy’s digital zine dedicated to the grungiest and most cynical 90s.

Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find his work on Unwinnable, Videodame, Third Person and his portfolio. His stream of consciousness can be found at @phoenixsims.

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