The Madison-based game developer co-created “StarCrossed,” due for release on February 11.
Image: Gameplay screenshot from “StarCrossed,” courtesy of Contigo Games.
StarCrossed is a big, bright, magical, gay space adventure. Madison-based developer Francesca Carletto-Leon, who has been working on the game for the past four years with her colleagues at the indie studio Contigo Games, has a knack for creating inventive game-play experiences, but also raising questions about who is represented in video games and who has access to them.
Carletto-Leon’s past projects include several smaller ones created for game jams—events where developers are tasked with whipping up games in a limited amount of time, sometimes just a few days or even a few hours. StarCrossed, an action arcade-style game following a group of rag-tag voyagers on a quest to save the galaxy, is her most ambitious project yet as an indie developer. Contigo’s developers and artists all work remotely and balance the company with other day jobs (in Carletto-Leon’s case, designing educational games at Madison studio Filament Games) or school obligations, so the process has been slow and at times cumbersome. To work around these issues, each developer primarily focuses on the tasks they feel best suited to handle. Carletto-Leon handles Contigo’s social media and marketing presence, as well as writing and narrative design.
StarCrossed is due out Tuesday through online gaming marketplaces Steam and itch.io, and Contigo plans to release it for Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One at some point in the future, through game publisher Whitethorn Digital. Several other games Carletto-Leon has created solo and with other development teams, including the forthcoming language-driven narrative game We Should Talk, are also showcased through itch.io. For those a little more deeply enmeshed in the games industry, Carletto-Leon will also be giving two talks at the Wisconsin Games Alliance’s M+DEV conference on February 14 at the Alliant Energy Center. One talk will cover her work with Contigo, and a second will explore soft circuits—an emerging field where textiles are integrated into electrical engineering—and their applications in game design. M+DEV’s roster of speakers from local game companies will cover a range of subjects including sound design, workplace culture, and a keynote address from Felix Kramer (they/them), producer of the self-described “cyberpunk taxicab confessions” game NeoCab.
StarCrossed is designed around two-player, local co-operative gameplay, also known in games jargon as “couch co-op.” That’s a fancy way to say that it’s played by two people in the same room on the same system—not a new approach, but one that reflects the Contigo team’s devotion to the intimacy that video games can create. The team created the initial, smaller version of StarCrossed for a game jam. They found audiences reacted well to the gameplay, so they set about expanding it into a full game. As the scope of the project increased, Contigo doubled in size to take on the workload required.
The game draws visual cues from magical-girl animes such as Sailor Moon, and its characters have a variety of different body types and genders. The focus on accurately representing the diverse cast extended through to the development process. Contigo focused on hiring non-binary and PoC voice actors to correspond with the characters they would be voicing. The bright, sparkly, feminine aesthetic, and the fact that Contigo’s team isn’t all male, make StarCrossed a welcome addition to an industry typically dominated by a cisgender, masculine perspective. The reactions to StarCrossed at game conferences and festivals demonstrate the importance of representation. “At MAGFest, a family came over with two young girls who came over screaming, ‘they have cool girls!” Carletto-Leon recalls.
In 2018, Contigo launched a Kickstarter to fund the game, raising over $12,000. Funds from this Kickstarter helped fund travel and lodging expenses, as well as paying contractors brought onto the team. Despite the successful Kickstarter, the team does not expect the game to fully recoup the costs of its development. Carletto-Leon and colleagues consider the game successful anyway. “It’s important as a small team to define what success looks like for you,” Carletto-Leon says. “If success is ‘I want to make enough money and fund myself,’ then you need to be focusing on that. If success is releasing an alternative sparkly pink magical girl game on consoles, and that’s your first big indie release, that’s good too. It’s making sure your team is on board and understands what is happening.”
After the release of StarCrossed, Contigo will be going on a short hiatus, to give the team time to recover from four years of working nights and weekends. After that, they’ll decide what their next project should be.
Within the games industry, Carletto-Leon is best known for making a game you play with your butt. Hellcouch, co-developed with Carol Mertz, uses the couch itself as the controller—one of several ways in which Carletto-Leon has upended conventional ideas about how gamers physically interact with games. Players are tasked with completing the “Sacred Butt Ritual” (sitting on cushions lit by LED lights) to release a demon trapped inside the couch. Even though it’s a playful riff on the idea of a “couch co-op” game, Hellcouch completely removes the screen from the experience of playing a game. Instead, the feedback comes from lighting and sound embedded within the couch itself. The game aims to force players into breaking typical social norms around furniture. To follow the couch’s demonic cues, players have to get active and jump over one another.
Hellcouch and its interactive design also force players to question what a video game even is. With no screen or “game over” point, the piece challenges typical assumptions about the nature of the video game experience. “We don’t think of it as a ‘video game’ usually—what we say is ‘Alternative controller game’ or we just say ‘game,’” Carletto-Leon says. The idea of “beating” a game doesn’t apply here. More and more developers are questioning such conventions with games that focus on narratives and experiences, rather than on challenges to be overcome.
A game like Hellcouch also doesn’t fit neatly into the conventional economics of video games. Because the game’s controls are custom-built into a couch, it can’t be easily mass-produced. That means there’s currently no way for consumers to get Hellcouch at home, though the game has won several industry honors, including a slot at the Game Developers Conference’s 2019 Alt.Ctrl.GDC showcase. Carletto-Leon’s other witty experiments with alternative controllers include Shark Attack!, in which players use “custom-created shark gloves” to swim about and bite each other.
Carletto-Leon credits at least some of her interest in unusual game-play experiences to a game called Skipping Stones, from Montreal studio KO_OP. “It was a first-person game where you stood at the edge of a body of water and skipped rocks, and that was it,” she says. “And it was just this experience—I didn’t know that you could make a game like that. I didn’t know that was an experience that was worth having digitally.”
Video games are big business, and it can be difficult for independent developers and unconventional games to break through and find an audience. “Who is technology for?” Carletto-Leon asks. “Not only who is it made for, but who can interact with it, who can make it, who can build it?” Language around things like electrical engineering can make the industry daunting and opaque. While there are many resources online to help an independent learner get the basics of these concepts, advancing in the industry requires a level of literacy that can be costly to acquire, both financially and in time spent learning.
Carletto-Leon is just as interested in the barriers that prevent people from playing games. A modern controller like the ones that accompany an Xbox or PlayStation may seem simple to someone already versed in how to play. But for older people, or people who just haven’t had much exposure to games, it can be confusing to make sense of how the buttons and sticks work together. Oftentimes the tutorials that come with video games can be perfunctory, because they assume that the player has either played games in a particular series before or has already played games of a similar style. Alternative-controller games help to alleviate these problems. As goofy as the “Sacred Butt Ritual” might be, it closes the gap between what a player is physically doing and what’s happening in the action of the game. The way Carletto-Leon sees it, this approach can make the world of gaming more inclusive: “In terms of alternative controllers, they’re more accessible in that sense for people without that sense of games literacy.”