AJ: What's your relationship to video games?
Cara Ely: I was a player as a kid. I started working in the industry in 2000. I worked for Sierra Online as an associate producer, and I have an older brother who's more on the hardcore side, so that's how I found my way [in]. I was much more of a casual player, so it made more sense for me to work on [casual] games. I'm a big believer that one shouldn't work on a game he doesn't want to play. I went from associate producer to producer, started doing a little bit of design there. I was there until 2005 and then I started at Oberon, which is the parent company of I-play.
AJ: Have you always tried to work on games that have to do with love and romance and things that appeal to women?
Ely: No, not initially. When I started working in games I focused primarily on game shows like Ripley's Believe it or Not and nothing that seemed female-centric. I moved pretty early on within Sierra to the Hoyle games team, which was all casino, card, board games, electronic versions of things that were well established and those were fairly gender neutral.
When I started in Oberon, we were still working on a lot of more puzzle based games. One of the first things I worked on from the design side was a game called Bubble Town, which is sort of a bubble popper game. I'm sure you know, the industry skews much more heavily male than female, and [while] I was working at Oberon, it became more and more apparent to us that the demographics for casual games are actually skewed more female. The core demographic is thirty to sixty. We know that all these women are playing, so I [thought] that it would make sense to at least explore doing some games that thematically aligned with something that women would be interested in.
Plenty of women like puzzle games too, but there was just nothing very female friendly, or very few games that lean that way. For core games which skew more heavily male, you obviously have a lot of [shooters], a lot of racing games, and I didn't feel like we were doing the same thing on the casual side. That's where this all came from. The more I learned about the industry the more I started thinking about it.
AJ: There's an argument in the games industry that it's impossible to capture the complexities of what it is that defines a love story in a video game. I'm wondering if you found a magic way to do that that would help other developers.
Ely: [That reminds me of] this famous EA ad from the '80s: "Can a video game make you cry?" My goal with this game was to really focus on the true story aspect of it. So I think that if I really tried to make it complex, and try bring out all of the drama and the nuances of a love story, there are things that I probably would have changed just for dramatic purposes.
In this game we see their lives in these five to ten year chunks, so there is no way we can get the full story. I think that basing it on a true story is different than something that would be completely created. I think what all games struggle with is this idea that games are by their nature interactive, and how much do you want to force the player into a linear path. When do you dole out the story, how do you doll it so it doesn't interrupt the experience they want to be having? It's not passive, you don't have people enclosed in a movie theater where you can be very manipulative with what they're seeing and when.
I would never say I solved it and that this is what it's all about, but I do think that there are some emotional moments within the game that I've never been able to hit before in [another] game. My brother, who I mentioned, he actually did some of the script writing as well. There were a lot of things that came together. Since it is about my grandparents there was a connection. Hopefully it will resonate with people.
AJ: What research materials did you use? Pictures? Stories your grandparents told you?
Ely: I was really lucky with this project because my grandparents kept a lot. I had access to a lot of information. Not only photos, but letters they wrote back and forth in the '40s and '30s. I have my grandmothers wedding scrapbook, her scrapbooks from before they even met. And my grandfather -- about twenty years ago, he wrote a collection of his memories that he gave just to the family.
I think for most people, as you get older, you start to think more about your family, and realize that your time is limited with you family, so I spent more time with my grandparents. I went back and reread that little book he put together and it just all resonated with me more. When I was working on the game I used all of those resources available to me and then just thought about what would be the most natural way to structure it for the game. So it has this blend of the scrapbook of their lives together, interspersed with you planning the 70th anniversary party. And my parents did have that party this year. When you have the real letters and his writing. I used some of his writing verbatim in the game. That puts you in a time and place.
AJ: We're almost out of time. Any thoughts for the road?
Ely: It's interesting to me that there are so many bleak games. I like those games. I'm a huge horror movie person, and I love to be scared. But I do think there's a place for variety. We kind of try to find a balance with Dream Day where if nothing else it's a palate-cleanser for all the mystery thriller games out there. For me personally, this has been one of the most satisfying games I've ever worked on just because of the personal connection. I never thought I'd be able to do something like that. I'm really excited to see my grandparents reaction to it.
This story, "True Love vs. Six Days" was originally published by GamePro.