DEEP-ROOTED GAMES: An interview with Kevin Snow (Bravemule)

DEEP-ROOTED GAMES is series of four interviews with four game developers from four different continents who looked for narrative inspiration and found it in unusual places: In the folklore of their own people, region or family, and in other storytelling-corners of the world which are too often neglected by the mainstream.

Kevin Snow uses the moniker Bravemule to publish games in collaboration with a group of like-minded artists. His platform of choice is Twine, which he uses to tell complex (if often short) stories adorned with unusually lush illustrations and soundscapes. His first interactive fiction game The Domovoi – distributed for free – took inspiration from Slavic folklore to ruminate on the nature of storytelling and truth. His second (still free) game Beneath Floes puts a creature from Inuit mythology front and center and was translated into Inuktitut, thanks to Kickstarter. Currently, Snow is raising funds for Southern Monsters, his most ambitious and most personal game to date, and another one strongly influenced by myths and (urban) legends. We talked with Snow about his background, his sources of inspiration and the potential of the videogame as a medium not only of storytelling, but of preserving age-old stories and tales.

Since you mostly work with Twine, I’d like to begin by asking you what you would call yourself: Do you consider yourself a writer, a game designer, a story teller – all of those things, or none of them at all?

I’ve started to call myself a narrative designer, because that title suggests a combination of systematic design and prose. I also code, direct the other artists, and a ton else, but that’s just how independent development goes.

Could you tell me more about your background? Considering that one of the piece’s focuses is on how people can rely not only on different cultural backgrounds, but also cultural backgrounds they are familiar with: do you have any Slavic or Inuit roots?

I grew up in the state of North Carolina, but I’ve lived in Arkansas ever since I got out of the military in 2010, so I’ve always lived in the South. I’m twenty-seven and a recent graduate of a college history program. I’m white, and have no Inuit or Slavic ties.

Do you know where you interest in folk tales and myths does come from? Is it purely a “bookish” thing or do you, by any chance, have a background in which story telling is a “living and lived” thing?

Since I’m from a rural area of the South, I lived and breathed folktales, superstitions, and monsters as a child. I never believed in them, and that interests me. My dad controlled the household I was raised in (my mom and I weren’t allowed to have friends, and he spied on the neighbors with binoculars), and I didn’t even recognize that as abnormal or abusive until I left at nineteen. Folklore exists in this kind of liminal state of truth I find emotionally calming. Sounds like an abstract connection, I know, but I’m fixated on how stories are told over time, and their power to change people.

How did you come up with the ideas for the The Domovoi? And what kind of reserach did you do for the project?

The Baba Yaga has some presence in the states, and she was my gateway to Slavic folklore. My research for The Domovoi focused on Soviet folklorists, especially in the late 1930s when they started to rebrand folklore to fit ideological trends.

You said that Slavic folkolore is not part of your heritage. Since you are not “of the culture” you are tapping into for this project, do you feel a responsibility to be careful not to fall into the trap of cultural misappropriation?

Cultural appropriation must be at the front of any outside creator’s mind. It’s not enough to read books; Western academia is tied up with colonialism and appropriation. Outside creators should never feel comfortable with themselves or their work.

According to the Kickstarter page, Beneath Floes started as a collaboration with Pinnguaq. Could you tell me more about how that collaboration came to be? Was it you who approached them or the other way around? And how did the collaboration work exactly? Also, was the idea to translate it there from the beginning?

I contacted Pinnguaq because I knew I’d need a collaborator to have any chance of writing about Indigenous history in a way that didn’t perpetuate colonial depictions from the past. I did a few months of research and made a prototype, then cold e-mailed them with what I had, my mission, and how I’d do all the work and run a Kickstarter to fund their localization if they were interested in overseeing my work and distributing playtester builds to folks in Nunavut for feedback. Luckily, they were incredibly generous and genuinely seemed to believe in my approach. I knew from the start that Beneath Floes would need to be available in Indigenous languages.

Do you think that the interactive form has a “special” potential when it comes to telling folk tales, or to continue the long, polymorphous tradition of story telling? If so, what would that be?

You know, I’m cautious about applying any specialness to games, because I’m afraid people overlook what games can learn from novels, theatre, sculpture, and other forms of art. Most games take too much inspiration from Hollywood films. But I do believe interactive games can contribute to folkloric traditions … I’m just not convinced it’s different from other forms of art. A painting of a domovoi is interactive, too.

Both The Domovoi and Beneath Floes do tell seemingly “traditional” stories set before a more “modern” background -- 1962 in the case of Beneath Floes, and post-revolution Soviet Russia in the case of The Domovoi, with its unreliably narrator who basically slaughters the “old superstitions” in the name of progress. How important is it to you to “update” traditional stories? Is it something that makes them more interesting to write for you, or do you think that it is vital for the survival of those stories to change and adapt? Could you imagine writing a “folk tale” set in your own present age?

Both The Domovoi and Beneath Floes are about how stories are told, so it made sense to include narrators who are emphasized as historical actors themselves. There’s a risk of a clusterfuck when you have a narrator from 1938 telling a story set in 1920, but I think it was essential, and it also de-legitimizes myself. Like the fictional Soviet folklorist, I’m another writer in the chain with some thoughts about old stories.

The idea for this piece came with my frustration with how “mainstream games” endlessly reproduce the same generic tropes (which, ironically, are often based on reinventions of folk tales themselves), while ignoring the endless richness of folk tales, legends and myths of different cultures (even the developers’ own). Are there any games -- commercial or not -- that you like for the way they deal with those kind of story elements?

Let’s see! Of course, all of Emily Short’s work comes to mind. Meg Jayanth (Inkle Studios) does amazing work decolonizing genres like Steampunk with historical research. I don’t think Michael Lutz (the uncle who works for nintendo, my father’s long, long legs) would be too mad if I said his work is about modern folklore. A more commercial example, I love the Witcher franchise’s deep love for Slavic folklore. That game has a vibe unlike most studio games, because they don’t mimic Hollywood.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I just launched a Kickstarter for Southern Monsters. It’s about a disabled person in South Arkansas who posts on a messageboard for cryptid hunters. The scope is larger than my first two games, it’s much more overtly autobiographical, and it’s about the folklore I grew up with.

Good luck with your Kickstarter and thanks for your time!