Previously on Kotaku Australia, we had a look at the work of Melbourne indie game developer Olivia Haines to delve into the role of video games as a form of self-expression. This form of video game seeks to be a doorway into the developer’s state of mind, their memories, their experiences, and how they view the world. But what about games that take how a developer views the world and delivers this perspective in a form of political expression? Games like Papers, Please and Oil God?
David Cribb, who works under the moniker Colestia, is a Canberra-based indie game developer that focuses on left-wing theories and subjects in his video games. His work includes A Hand With Many Fingers, A Bewitching Revolution, and They Came From A Communist Planet, with the first tasking you with uncovering a real-life Cold War conspiracy, the second being inspired by the work of Silvia Federici, and the third being a collaborative effort with designer Elijah Cauley about revolution and depression.
I recently had a chat with Cribb to learn a little more about his work.
How did you initially get into game development and why?
Well, I kind of just stumbled into it. It was around second year of university. I had slightly more free time, so I started just working on random, weird games and putting them up on the internet. And that also just kind of happened to be about the time that I was starting reading some of this political material. So yeah, it was just kind of a natural fit that this is what I’m reading about in my spare time, and this is what I’m making in my spare time and yeah, it kind of just came together.
What made you want to start intertwining politics into your games? Outside of the same-place-same-time situation, what made you want to bring them together?
When I started it really was just that, but as I’ve kept going with it I think one thing is just that obviously games are such an enormous part of culture in general. But they’re sort of a cultural space where far left ideas are not very present. And if anything for the last 20 years, at least, the right has had a pretty strong presence in games. So yeah, I thought it was worthwhile to have that leftist perspective in these spaces because otherwise you’re just ceding the ground to the right.
How do you think games kind of stand out as a medium for political expression? Because you’ve got films, TV, and books, be they theory or fiction. You’ve got those mediums, but how do you think video games stand out?
I think that games are fairly well-suited to intuitively explaining systems, as we’re used to playing strategy games with all of these blocking systems. So a lot of my earlier games were exactly that, systemic representations of theory books. I feel like it can be easier to intuitively grasp some of these concepts when it’s presented in that kind of way rather than just like words on a page or something. I think that’s probably the main unique thing with games.
You’ve got quite the catalogue, and I know parents generally don’t like having favourites. In saying that, which of your games would you say are standouts for you in terms of the reception, but also your personal preference?
Well, I guess like POST/CAPITALISM was one of my earlier ones that got a fair bit of attention, which was very nice and sort of indicated to me that I could maybe do this in some way that was slightly financially sustainable. A Bewitching Revolution is another one that I have very, very soft spot for also, because that’s a game that it feels like people keep going back to or new people keep coming to and getting the same things out of it that I was hoping to get across. And then A Hand With Many Fingers as well, which is my latest large game. I’m pretty proud of how that came out. Especially with a lot of my earlier games, you could find either bits of the Marxist theory or that kind of thing, and bits of random true crime stories and unsolved mysteries. I felt like A Hand With Many Fingers was a nice melding of those true crime and left-wing politics interests.
A lot of your work from what I’ve seen is largely solo, so what’s it been like working independently on these games?
It has its ups and downs obviously. The major benefit is that I could just pursue these weird ideas that quite possibly only have interest to me and just work through that and then put it out and hope there’s an audience. I guess I found when I’m collaborating, it’s necessary that everyone has a clearer idea of what the overall project is and what the final product will be. Whereas when you’re working on something solo, it could be very easy to start working on something and then continue working on something and never actually arrive at a clear coherent idea of what it should be in the end. I’d say that’s probably one of the big, big struggles with doing the solo games. It’s like forcing yourself to not just follow interesting tangents and that kind of thing, but actually put a clear idea together in your head of what the game is.
So I didn’t say all your work because you’ve collaborated with Elijah Cauley in the past for They Came From A Communist Planet. What was that like?
Yeah, that was interesting! Eli and I have also worked on a couple of other games. I think our first collaboration was called The Interlude, where you’re sitting in a car as you are waiting on something sinister to happen for like 10 minutes or so. But the main thing being that you’ve got a Nokia brick phone that you can play around with and you’ll get text messages suggesting what’s going on. Just kind of creating that sort of suspenseful vibe of those moments that you wouldn’t see in a movie or something, where someone’s arrived at the meet like 15 minutes early and has to kill some time.
So coming off that into They Came From A Communist Planet and a couple of other collaborations as well, I feel like we work quite well together because we have a similar taste in the thriller genre of movies. We also have similar instincts about like, ‘What are cool things to add to a game?’, and we’d both say, ‘Okay, you are sitting in this car for 10 minutes, you’ve got to be able to fiddle with the review mirror or raise and lower the windows,’ or like all those kinds of incidental interactions that don’t really add anything in terms of moving the game forwards. Yeah, I think we have that same instinct of like, making a believable interactive space is kind of a goal in itself.
The bulk of your catalog is available on Itch.io, with three titles also being on Steam. I’m sorry to pull the favourites card again here, but what’s your experience been like with releasing your games through these platforms? Do you have a preference?
Yeah. I have a strong preference for Itch.io. All of my earlier games are exclusively up on Itch.io, and that was mainly because there’s just such a lower barrier to entry to getting stuff up on Itch.io. Sign up for an account, click the ‘add project’ button, type in some basic details, upload something, and you’re done. Getting something on Steam, it’s obviously more straightforward now than it was 15 years ago or something, but it’s still a bunch of extra steps and like a $100 USD submission fee, which is quite a bit when you’re just making these weird experimental things. Like 90% of my games have not made $100 USD.
I also found a much better kind of culture for experimental games on Itch.io. Like if someone’s downloading something on Itch.io, they probably won’t care if it’s like a two minute weird simulation thing or if it’s dealing with these arcane political ideas or anything. On Steam, there’s much more of an expectation to feel closer to a standard game format and subject and topic. Even like A Hand With Many Fingers which takes 1-2 hours to complete, on Itch.io that’s probably in the top 5% of longest games or so, and everyone seems to understand that’s an interesting and valuable way of structuring games as these short, well contained experiences. I guess on Steam I have had and still get so many random comments of like, “Yeah, I got it for like $0.50 cents on sale, but it was only two hours long. So I don’t think I got my money’s worth,” or that kind of vibe.
I’d say that’s definitely not everything on Steam. And I think Steam has probably let me get my work in front of a broader geographical audience than Itch.io. I’ve had much more interest in my games from places like Brazil on Steam than I have on Itch.io, so there’s that element. But yeah, I think that Itch.io definitely has a sort of culture that is more open to experimenting with the form and subject matter of games.
I feel like it’s, if anything, an issue of accessibility where Steam is more accessible to the player while Itch.io is more accessible to the developer. You know what I mean?
Yeah. And as well, there’s so many other kind of backend things on Itch that it makes it far easier, especially for solo developers. For example, if you make a Steam page, it comes with a discussion forum attached and there’s no option for turning that off or restricting it or anything. So it just sort of requires developers to do their own forum moderation and that kind of thing. Whereas on Itch,io, you can set it up so that there’s nowhere for input, there’s room for comments, there’s a discussion board… Lots more options on that front. I also really appreciate how Itch.io has capacity for pay-what-you-want pricing, because I know my games are often weird and dealing with this strange subject matter. So I completely understand people not wanting to throw money at it or anything. And people who don’t have large disposable income to throw at these kinds of things.
Last but not least, video games obviously can elicit many different things from a player, with developers generally having a goal for what they want players to get out of their games. So what kind of response do you usually aim for players to have from playing your games?
I think it varies a bit from game to game. I think with A Hand With Many Fingers, I was very much aiming to get across that vibe of investigation in a conspiracy-thriller sense. With other games, it’s been as simple as trying to teach people about a particular concept or explain a particular concept in a different way. I think as well, one of the effects of my games that I’m potentially most proud of is that it’s media that people engaged in left-wing struggles around the world can enjoy. I love whenever I get a comment from someone who was like, “Yeah, I was out at this protest earlier in the day and then came back and played this game for a couple of hours and loved it.”
You can find more of Colestia’s work on his itch.io page.