The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games in this monthly series. We're changing the format of the series this month, but not its mission. Check out our previous entries here.
When Tristan Barona found out he had been selected to receive funds from the Humble Black Game Developer Fund, he didn't know how to react.
"It was like, is this really happening?" he said in an interview. "Am I really going to get to work on a game on someone else's dime because they've seen my work and believe in it? Like, is this really happening?"
The Humble Black Game Developer Fund, established by the Humble Games storefront in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, aims to highlight and propel some of the most exciting projects from Black game developers. That it had chosen Barona's experimental game, KindFolx, was a shock, to say the least. The game pushes the envelope in more ways than one, pairing the complex mechanics of a deckbuilder with demanding real-time combat. It was also a major departure from his earlier work, set in a fantasy world rather than the real one, and divorced from the darker themes that had animated his last project, Don't Give Up: A Cynical Tale.
For Barona, this triumph came after years of toil and hardship. His first ambition in games was simply to be a tester for other people's projects, a job he held for around two and a half years before the studio he worked for shuttered. By then, Barona felt he'd learned enough to make games on his own. He saw how mobile games like Flappy Bird were blowing up, and he wanted in on the gold rush.
Despite having limited cash flow and working full time — he says he was "basically too poor to even be trying to make games," — he put together a handful of small mobile games, flexing his design muscles and trying his first spins of the game development slot machine. None of them took off, and he found himself wondering if he should continue developing games at all.
That doubt contributed to severe depression, but both combined to fuel what he saw as his first real game, an RPG called Don't Give Up: A Cynical Tale. The game followed a game developer named Tris trying to get his life on track while battling suicidal thoughts — literally, as the story was split between the real world and the protagonist's mental landscape.
Barona did just about everything on the game, including all the design, writing, and art, and worked on it on and off for around four and a half years. He poured himself into the game: his humor, his darkest thoughts, and his many disparate artistic influences. The result was an RPG that blended elements of other genres even as it eschewed some of the RPG's classic elements.
"I spent four years busting my butt with Don't Give Up, trying to get funding, trying to get attention, and just struggling, struggling, struggling, struggling," he says.
As hard as Barona worked on Don't Give Up, the game failed to make much of a splash. It didn't receive much media attention, sales were underwhelming, and some players criticized the game for failing to meet certain expectations they had about how an RPG should play.
Barona admits his work on the art was less than impressive. After all, he's not an artist by trade. But he knows how much he improved over the course of development, and he rejects the RPG criticism outright. He compares it to someone being upset that he doesn't fit a stereotype they assigned to him.
"I've heard growing up that, 'You don't sound Black.' What does being Black sound like? Like, I am Black. So why can't my art, why can't my RPG, sort of steer away from all the traditional stuff?"
Don't Give Up may not have hit the mark commercially, but it made enough that Barona could continue developing his own games. It taught him valuable lessons about game design and marketing — he even wrote a postmortem blog about his experience — but above all else, it clarified his purpose as a game designer. Barona has no illusions about making it big as an indie developer. In an ecosystem where only an infinitesimal fraction of games find meaningful financial success, the money will likely never come. But it's not about the money.
"The end goal for you needs to be your body of work and being happy with it," he says. "Everything else may fall into place, and hopefully it will, but indie development is one of those things where the end goal should be just the happiness of finishing something that you cared about."
Don't Give Up also built one of Barona's most important connections. The game was chosen to be a Humble Original, putting him in touch with Humble as he set to work on his next project.
After the grueling development of Don't Give Up, Barona was looking to make something smaller, something a little less personal, maybe something a little more experimental.
"There are so many games out there and so many people making them, I feel like I can't afford to not be experimental," he says.
In time off from his tech support day job, he began working on a game that combined real-time action with deckbuilding elements. Deckbuilders typically require intense strategy, so to push them from turn-based combat into real time is an ambitious move. Barona says making the game accessible was among the biggest challenges he's faced in development so far, but that he's confident players will pick it up. Using a roguelite formula helps, too, as roguelite players are prepared to die constantly on their way to mastering the game.
"As you play the game more, you'll start to learn your cards, you'll know what to play quickly, you'll know which enemies are the bigger threats, and it's totally manageable," he says.
When the chance to apply for various funds came along, he decided to polish up what he had and submit it rather than start up something entirely new. He started building out a world in which humans and monsters had been at war for ages, but a shaky peace had been brokered between the two sides. When that peace is threatened by a new, fascist regime, one monster — raised by humans — rises up to overthrow the oppressors and restore peace.
Ultimately, this new game led him to the Humble Black Game Developer Fund.
Barona describes the help from Humble as transformative. Just about all the funding his games had used to that point had come out of his own personal savings, forcing him to do everything on a shoestring budget. Suddenly he was able to hire contractors to help with animating, sound design, and illustrating.
"The production levels that I have on KindFolx right now are something that I would have never imagined would be accessible to me. Like, the fact that I have a dedicated animator, and custom illustrated backgrounds, and voice acting?
"My trailers have always had to be, without question, just gameplay from in-game because I couldn't afford to do outside custom stuff."
Not anymore. Barona says Humble strikes a delicate balance between respecting its developer's independence and providing helpful feedback. His praise is effusive, to say the least.
"It was a game changer, for sure."
Players will be able to try out KindFolx before release when a demo drops later this year, likely in October. The game is tentatively set for a 2022 release on PC, followed by a Switch port later on, and even more consoles down the line if Barona can swing it. The Switch port is a priority both because Barona already has the experience from porting Don't Give Up, and because completing that port changed how people saw him. Before his game was on Switch, people would take him less seriously when he described himself as a game designer. But afterward?
"I tell people my game is on Switch and the conversation totally changes. "It's like, 'I have a Switch! What's the name of your game? I'm going to look it up and play it.'"
But ultimately, whether KindFolx succeeds or not is secondary for Barona. His journey in game development has taught him to practice what he preaches, and he's just thankful he gets to do what he loves.
"We don't have much in this life, and I think leaving something behind is super important. Not only do I feel like I've done that, I've done that with the one thing I would have wanted to do that with.
"I could have had a legacy for, I don't know, building a building or something. But that's not my passion. I got to leave something behind through my passion. And even if it wasn't a gold rush for me, it's out there."