Now in its seventh year, the Indie Series helps independent game studios in Ontario reach new heights by offering cash prizes and mentorship. In the run up to this year’s Ontario Indie Series final in February 2023, we’re catching up with some of the past winners to see where they are now and get a glimpse of what they’re working on.
Emily Flynn-Jones is the founder of Killjoy Games, a boutique studio dedicated to creating games for diverse audiences that explore different and difficult emotions.
This dedication and incredible storytelling led to the studio winning the National Bank Special Prize during the 2021 Indie Series in Ontario. Since then, the studio has released CURSES, a hand-drawn visual novel about a girl with troubles and dark feelings.
When we spoke to Emily, she shed light on how her studio was formed, the creation of CURSES, the studio’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, where the studio is now, and her hopes for the future.
Q: Can you tell us about your journey into game development?
EMILY: My journey to game development started as a teacher. I’ve taught game design at universities and in underserved communities on and off since 2009. I made tiny secret projects but never thought of myself as a “game maker” because my little projects didn’t feel “legit,” and I wasn’t sure if I had anything to say as a designer.
I really started using game creation to explore my feelings and describing my problems during a mental health crisis in 2016. It was important to create scenarios where different responses would create different outcomes, so I could explore my options – good or bad… I don’t think making games is inherently therapeutic since it’s work, but it did help me think through recovery.
A few months later, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to be a traditional academic. I took a job running the design lab at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford. I managed the development of 7 games for partner organizations, ran several game jams and started to trust my instincts as a creator. I started taking freelance opportunities but the idea of CURSES was persistent.
I took a business preparedness program for developers through local lovelies, Hand Eye Society. I learned so much and loved every second of it. This program makes you eligible to apply for Ontario Creates funding. I scraped together a small amount cash and asked Ontario Creates to match it so we could prototype CURSES and they gave it to us! Me and Thadchayani Kupendiran started prototyping in March 2020, a truly unremarkable moment in time. The whole process was a dream. I knew I couldn’t stop trying to make this project come to life.
Q: What is your vision for Killjoy Games?
EMILY: The vision for Killjoy Games has always been to make small, emotionally resonant things. I say “things” because we’re not committed to making traditional games or working in a single medium. We’re platform agnostic and want to use the right tools to tell the best possible stories.
I’ve found the most wonderful collaborators in the process of making CURSES and hope that one day we will be in the position to go co-op. It seems like the most ethical way to do business. In the meantime, we are going to remain focused on developing experiences that are rooted in emotion and finding novel, meaningful ways for people to engage with those feelings.
Q: Looking back at your Indie Series application, you mentioned that you exclusively hire marginalized talent and value diversity as its key to the creation of strong and resonant stories, equitable working conditions and more inventive problem solving. How has this had an impact on your approach to running your studio and making games?
EMILY: Killjoy Games is nothing without amazing collaborators, so finding the right people to work with is critical. When I first came to Toronto almost a decade ago, the communities I connected with were all marginalized game developers. People with an abundance of talent but not always the access to opportunities. It made sense to me to commit to creating opportunities for marginalized folk.
At Killjoy, this has played out in several positive ways, and I hope for our collaborators too. Specifically, most of the game developers working on CURSES were chronically ill and/or disabled folk working. We established flexible work structures, a reduced work week, and how we communicated with one another about limits and boundaries.
I talked about some of our approaches to prioritizing health during production in a Game Developers Conference talk earlier this year.
Q: Your studio won the Indie Series Special Prize in 2021 for the game CURSES. Tell us about CURSES – how did you come up with the idea for it? And why is the game important to you?
EMILY: CURSES is a personal project. It’s semi-autobiographical. In a sense, it’s about me working through and accepting old persistent feelings about growing up in an abusive household. Much of the game crystallized in one thought: “What if I could curse him (my abuser) as he cursed at me.”
It’s a game about a girl, known only as Girl, who is trying to deal with her domestic discord but also has magic or magical aspirations. Magic is empowering yet threatening because it’s a power in women and girls that has been historically feared. The magic gives Girl a sense of agency – something that teen girls don’t possess and that is stripped from you when you’re experiencing abuse.
The game is rooted in emotions to validate the intense and abundant feelings of teen girls who are often dismissed. You explore Girl’s world through her emotions (rage, despair, envy, uncertainty, and determination) and since magic is about intentions, the mood(s) you choose change the type of magics you do. In the end, Girl gets to do the type of magic that she needs emotionally, and the player chooses whether they want to curse or practice self-care. We want to offer a moment of catharsis.
Q: How has Indie Series supported your studio and CURSES’ development?
EMILY: Winning the Indie Series has been life changing for us. It’s a terrible truth, but it takes money to make money. We really needed money to get CURSES into production and pay the beautiful people on the team fairly. This prize money allowed us ask for match funding from Ontario Creates along with investment from Dames Making Games’ Damage Labs program which gave us a viable budget.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of the video game industry?
EMILY: I want a lot of things: unionization, more diversity and inclusion funds, transparency about access to those programs, greater diversity all around especially in leadership, and the death of crunch culture – a culture in which indies can properly value their work and products and survive.
Q: What’s next for Killjoy Games?
EMILY: We’re post-launch of CURSES so Killjoy Games deserves a nap and some self-care. When we’re feeling recovered and refreshed, there’s a couple ideas I’d like to tinker with in a sustainable way. I’d like to get the gang back together and talk through how we’d like to proceed and figure out best practices. Whatever we end up making will be relatively small. We want our stuff to be approachable to novice players and embody our emotion-informed ethos. We’ll make you feel things!
I need to give massive thanks and love to all the wonderful humans who helped make this game happen. To our prototyping team, Thachayani Kupendiran and Sagan Yee, you rock and we’d be nowhere without you being up for playing with a weird wee idea. To the people who were bold (and, perhaps, bonkers) enough to come on the full production journey; Amanda Wong, Carole Chan, Kas Millard, Kylie Caraway, Andrea Cross, Hailey Rowe, and Steph Guthrie; you wowed me each and every day and never want to curse without you!
Registration for the Ubisoft Indie Series presented by National Bank is still open! To apply, visit the Indie Series website. Applications close on Tuesday, December 13, 2022, at 11:59 AM EST.