Interview with S. Kaiya J. of Mirror Lock
Welcome back, everyone!We have another great treat for you all, an interview with S. Kaiya J. of Mirror Lock. Maker of such great games such as You, Beyond the Pale, Untitled Moth Game, Her Odyssey, and more!
Alright, let's start!
Kaiya thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about RPGs, your process and Solo RPGs. I’d love to hear how you got introduced to Table-Top RPGs, who introduced you, and what was your first RPG?
When I was a kid, whenever my mother took me to the mall, I would beg to be allowed to sit and read in the bookstore while she shopped. In a sense, my first introduction to TTRPGs was reading bits and pieces of all the D&D 3rd Edition sourcebooks available at that particular Borders Books & Music. I spent years just imagining what the experience of playing Dungeons and Dragons might be like, scribbling notes for characters in the margins of my notebooks with what I could remember of the rules.
I did eventually get to play D&D 3.5e, after the person I dated in high school pulled me into an entire nerdy friendgroup that also introduced me to video games and Magic: the Gathering. Needless to say, it was not quite the same as I had imagined! Still, I continued to play in D&D campaigns (and eventually Pathfinder campaigns too) whenever I found them, in college and beyond.
I don’t exactly recall what the first game I played that could be termed an indie RPG was. There are several that I was exposed to at around the same time: Dread, Fiasco, and one interesting one called Witness The Murder Of Your Father And Be Ashamed, Young Prince. For a long time I didn’t even mentally categorize them alongside D&D or Pathfinder. I’d gotten too used to the notion that TTRPGs were necessarily multiplayer long-term campaign games that you need multiple pricey rulebooks even to start playing. It’s heartening to see that indie RPGs have gotten a little more mainstream exposure these days, but there’s still plenty of room for them to spread.
What is it about TTRPGs that interests you and keeps you in this industry? Why have you devoted so much of your time to it?
This is an excellent question, and it prompted no small amount of soul-searching! To the extent that I can be called someone who’s “in the TTRPG industry”, none of it was pre-planned. I went from being a first-time DM for a group of friends, to being a part of the Curse of Strahd homebrewing community on Reddit and Discord, to being a player on the Curse of Strahd: Twice Bitten actual-play, to being a part of the greater TTRPG community on Twitter. I more or less stumbled into becoming a first-time TTRPG designer after one of my Twitter mutuals, Lex/Titanomachy, published their Caltrop Core SRD and I was ambushed by an idea too compelling not to work on, which eventually turned into my first game, Her Odyssey.
At every step along the way, it’s been less about the industry per se and much more about the specific people around me - being grateful for the warmth and enthusiasm of fellow TTRPG-lovers and trying to find ways to delight them and give back to the community. Even now, after five full games and an SRD under my belt, it’s still about hoping to hear that someone discovered something new through my games or that one of my games made them feel seen.
You’ve created a number of games including Untitled Moth Game and Her Odyssey. What do you like about designing these solo games?
Solo games have this very interesting property that I haven’t seen in any other form of media, which is that the designers have almost no control of the narrative.
You see, a book or a movie is a linear and defined experience; you write the narrative, and then the audience consumes that narrative from beginning to end. You have total control over what the audience experiences and when and how. Most RPG video games and many TTRPG tables also offer a more-or-less linear narrative structure with a few branching paths. There’s a little less total authorial control, but it’s still a lot. In fact, lots of time and effort is invested into figuring out how to highlight those moments of player choice and make them feel more impactful, or how to make false choices feel like real choices (if you’ve heard the phrase “quantum ogre”, you know exactly what I mean).
Solo games, on the other hand, are a form of media where you write the ingredients of a narrative, put them into a box, hand the box over to the player, and step away and entirely relinquish control. It’s a unique kind of design challenge. I think of it a lot like creating a set of Lego bricks. You have to think hard about how to make each piece modular and how any combination of them might fit together if the player happens to come across them in that conjunction. You can put a nice picture on the marketing materials of the shape you’d personally make out of them, but you absolutely cannot guarantee that any player will end up putting the pieces together in that way. It really makes you think about the soundness of each individual piece and what it brings to the game, both by itself and as a part of the whole.
There is, of course, a spectrum of how much or how little control the designer can choose to keep for themselves in various ways. You can write instructions for how to stack a deck, or write a dozen contingency instructions, or write hyper-detailed prompts that read more like scenes than prompts. I tend not to do any of those. After all, if you want to write a linear narrative, there are plenty of other media forms that accommodate that much more naturally. This co-construction of narrative between a single designer and many players that the designer will never even meet, is a feature unique to solo games - why struggle against it?
What is it about journaling games that makes them such a deep and personal experience?
For solo journaling games - which is the context I’m using; I know that multiplayer journaling games exist but I’m not nearly as familiar with them - I think it comes down to two things: the array of loose disconnected pieces that you’re given, and the feeling of privacy.
As human beings, we’re inherently narrative-seeking creatures. We look for patterns and echoes and cause-and-effect all the time among unconnected events in daily life. If a journaling game gives a player four prompts in a row, it’s a rare player indeed who will keep taking each of those prompts on its own terms rather than start drawing connections and correlations. And since the prompts in a solo journaling game are generally very modular, ideally there’s a lot of ways they could fit together and not a lot of ways they must fit together. It invites players to draw connections in patterns that are familiar and meaningful in the player’s own life.
And the game isn’t a shared story or a performance (unless the player is explicitly livestreaming their playthrough or something like that). It’s being played by one person, the player doesn’t need to worry about reactions or interference from anyone else, nor do they need to worry about how their character, plot, or decisions will affect anyone else. It’s an open opportunity for players to explore personally meaningful topics and resonant themes without judgment or censure. I think journaling games end up being an important outlet for many players for whom those opportunities are rare.
You recently created an SRD for the Aspire system and are hosting a game jam. What motivated you to put your collective knowledge out for use?
Part of it is simply wanting to pay it forward. I would never have designed my first game if it hadn’t been for Lex publishing Caltrop Core, and I probably wouldn’t have gone on to design a second game if it hadn’t been for the Caltrop Core jam that Lex ran in April 2022. I’d love to be able to inspire other new designers in the same way.
The other part of it is that the Aspire SRD is essentially drawn from a number of design tenets common to my games, such as drawing cards and rolling dice against their face values, and the concept of some cards that serve as narrative turning points and change the rules when they’re drawn. I think that these are valuable and underused tools in narrative and game design, and I want to see other people writing games that use them!
I often describe your games as stunning and are prime examples of artistic design in TTRPGs. Your games, Untitled Moth Game and Galatea being prime examples, look great. How do you go about setting your artistic vision for your games?
I’m very flattered, thank you! I am very much a self-taught amateur in terms of graphic design, but pinpointing and evoking a specific aesthetic feeling with a game is important to me, and it’s often one of the first elements I decide on. For example, the text of my game You, Beyond the Pale can be briefly summarized as “you’re a lonely monster trying to figure out how to interact with people” - but I wanted to make sure the aesthetic that came across was not a cartoonish or gory one, but rather a wistful and contemplative atmosphere. Similarly, with Untitled Moth Game I wanted to strike visual notes of old-school fairy tales where fantastical events often happen for no discernible reason, in addition, and contrast to the gothic horror setting expected by the people who know that the game uses the tarokka deck from Curse of Strahd.
To build these aesthetics, I focus on harmonizing elements from three categories: art (which includes cover art and key art), decorations (which includes frames, corner decorations, and text dividers), and fonts. I always use public-domain art and decorations, which means I end up browsing through and bookmarking a lot of, say, scans of woodcuts and engravings from books from the 1800s. Then once I have my finalized text for my game, I spend even more time looking for the perfect set of body font, heading font, and title font to match. Again, I’m not a professional graphic designer, but with a little bit of research, you start to develop a sense for what a font says: casual, sci-fi, breezy, elegant, esoteric, bureaucratic. Matching suitable fonts to your message, and to each other, is just as important for setting your desired tone as choosing the right art.
How do you match the artistic design to the story you expect players to create within the game?
It’s just the other way around, actually - crafting the aesthetic design of my game is a tool I can use to try to persuade the players to choose a certain kind of tone for their story. It’s not at all a guarantee; players have perfect freedom to decide to play You, Beyond the Pale as a cartoonish monster having wacky adventures or as a genuinely terrifying monster. But I know that the rules aren’t set up to support those kinds of stories as well as they’re set up for a story about loneliness, otherness and reflection. So I chose art that consists of sweeping landscapes with no people or animals, fonts that give a sense of creativity and dignity, and decorative dividers that, to me, evoke a feeling of being a little lost. Ideally they will put the players in a certain mindset while reading the rules that they hopefully bring forward to their gameplay.
What advice would you give to people who are interested in creating an indie RPG?
You don’t have to make a sprawling masterpiece from scratch with your very first game - you just need to get a game written and finished! Find an SRD you like, write a hack or a fan-game based on another RPG, join a game jam, and generally make use of all the tools available to you. Then once you have that experience under your belt, you’ll have a much better handle on where to keep researching, how to find more resources, what kinds of game ideas have been done before and what lessons you can learn from them. It may be tempting to try to write something gigantic and totally unique as your very first game, but I guarantee that you’ll be much better-equipped to structure a giant project and figure out whether an idea is actually unique after you have some experience already.
Thank you so much Kaiya and I very much appreciate your time.
Wow, what a great interview! Be sure to check out Kaiya's Itch page and her games!
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