Itch.io – https://stef-pinto.itch.io/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/stef_pinto_gd
Official website – https://www.stef-pinto.com/
Q: How did you get your start in making games?
A: Making games had been my dream since at least the second grade, but for a good decade and then some it was just something I tucked away in the corner of my mind, occasionally reminding myself that I was indeed gonna get to it at some point. There weren’t many kid-friendly resources for making games in the 2000’s, especially if you weren’t fully computer literate, so to me a career in game development was this nebulous concept that would just pan out eventually. Fast-forward to high school, I began taking programming classes that covered Visual Basic, C++, and GameMaker, with the latter solidifying my decision to take game development seriously. After graduating, I enrolled in the Game Development program at Algonquin College, with the hopes that I would obtain a career in the games industry. The following is a significantly abridged retelling of what ensued.
During my third and final year in the program, October 2018 specifically, I began experiencing what would eventually be diagnosed as OCD. At almost every hour of the day I was bombarded with relentless intrusive thoughts, the contents of which will not be detailed, which provided for intense periods of self-disgust. To make things worse, I developed a compulsion to search up the things I was thinking of online. Maybe it was a misled effort to ease my mind by affirming that my thoughts weren’t possibly as bad when actually faced. Thinking back to this day it still doesn’t make too much sense, but nevertheless this went on for a few months. An unending cycle of subjecting myself to awfully graphic images and videos, all to scratch an itch I could never reach. I was always miserable, scared to use technology, and my motivation to do anything was virtually non-existent. It was only through repeat therapy, cognitive behavioral exercises and a loving support circle of friends and family that I eventually got my life back on track.
Fast forward to Summer 2019. I was in a much better place physically and mentally, but even though my compulsions and anxieties were done away with I was still being plagued by obsessive thought patterns. They didn’t cause me stress anymore, and most times went away as quickly as they came, but their presence left me frustrated. I had a lot of bottled up feelings and needed an outlet to vent them. Making a game immediately dawned on me, but I wasn’t much of a programmer in college. Asking pals for help was an option, but I wasn’t too bent on sharing a project as personal as this with anybody. Thus, I felt I had no choice but to just make it all myself.
This led to the creation of Exit Mask, my first project.
Q: The reason I approached you for this interview is the strong presence of industrial/noise music elements in certain of your games. How would you define your relation with industrial/noise and game design?
A: What initially drew me to noise and industrial were their unabashed rejections of elements we’ve grown to comfortably expect in music: song structure, rhythm, melody, harmony, the need to be catchy, or even just “listenable”. Hallmark “don’ts” of music production, be it distortion, compression, feedback, and, well… noise, were instead championed to create ruthless musical pieces that fully demanded your submission. It made for a soundscape that was simultaneously monstrous and viscerally human. Impenetrable as it may be, there is perhaps no better vehicle for the expression of psychosexuality, transhumanism, and mortality than through its candidly hideous sonics. As I became more familiar with these forms of music, I came to understand noise and industrial as an ongoing artistic protest. A savage, provocative deconstruction of yesterday’s comfort zone, which spoke to me heavily.
As for my own work, the allure of noise and industrial music’s ethics have influenced my design by eschewing similar traits of non-conformity. As mentioned, I received a formal education in game development, where I spent three years being taught the fundamentals of programming, 3D art, and design. Given that the course was generally intent on suiting students up for a career in the professional games industry, lessons were tailored to the “right” way, or rather, the industry standard of making games. Making UI legible and communicative, implementing mechanics in an empowering manner, creating engaging gameplay loops. For the record, this was all totally fine, and I became the developer I am today because of it. But on the other hand, I believe the tenets of “good” game design should always be interpreted as guidelines, not gospel. They shouldn’t have to work for everyone.
When designing my games, I don’t put much thought towards cohesion, readability, UX or any preconceived conventions. Pacing is disjointed, level geometry is harsh, visual effects border on sensory overload. I’d even go as far to say many individual aspects of my work could be seen as needlessly obtuse, held together only by the justification that it’s all about “the experience”. Yet, for the kind of stuff I enjoy creating, any other MO would risk feeling contrived. The human condition is a rather volatile, chaotic state of being that ceases to explain itself, and noise/industrial speaks to that. It’s in this same vein that my game design owes itself to.
Q: Would you consider your workflow as DIY?
A: Very much so.
I’d say most indie developers resort to DIY workflows in some capacity for their projects, whether by choice or out of necessity, especially within more niche circles. Like a lot of folks publishing on platforms such as itch.io, I’ve got very strict monetary budgets to abide by. Experimental horror games aren’t commercially viable, so in lieu of paying for plugins, programs or contract work I have to get real creative with regards to overcoming technical limitations. It can be a handicap at times, but it’s equally just as gratifying to conjure something special with the limited resources at hand. I really like both collages (also common in noise works) and multimedia art, so tackling game development in the manner I do feels like a digital continuation of that.
Textures are amassed from entomology forums, medical image archives, movie prop screenshots, even my own amateur photography. Due to the lack of a recording studio and professional equipment, Exit Mask’s sound effects were created from random objects at my disposal. The Fumigator’s deep breathing sprung from me pressing a tall glass around my mouth and inhaling deeply, whereas the Cowled’s murmurs came from shoving a dish cloth into my mouth and recording my muffled screams. Even my research is handled through a very hands-on, ad-libbed approach. I borrowed data from a friend in geographic mapping to assist in modelling swamp topography. A reference for mouth blood spatters was made by flossing too harshly and spitting into my sink. At one point I even read some rather unsavory manifestos to better develop a domestic terrorist character.
In short, my workflow is anchored by the idea that solutions can appear around any corner at a moment’s notice. My favourite example of this concerns Cookies’ soundtrack. While I handled all the ambient tracks for the game, I had my buddy Johar make the themes for all four boss encounters, the first being the skinhead’s. For this track we took inspiration from Manhunt’s opening sequence, incorporating 80’s horror movie synths and drones, but what really sold it was an Emergency Broadcast System sample. Unlike the other three tracks, I wasn’t present to offer real time feedback, so the sample was entirely his idea. I don’t even remember what drove him to use it, but this implementation that was ad-libbed “just because” resulted in an awesome tune. Many who played Cookies ended up loving that little detail, so haphazard as it may have been I’m grateful he made that decision.
Q: What is your position about the exponential increase in games published since 4-5 years? Does it have an impact on your practice?
A: As a whole, I believe the increased volume of work being put out there is a direct testament to the radical democratization game development has undergone the past couple years. Much like how the internet paved the way for bedroom-recorded mixtapes in lieu of label contracts and 360 deals in the late-2000’s, it has now fostered an ecosystem in which budding creators can develop their own games on their own terms, free of mainstream mismanagement and pressure. This is, in no small part, due to engines like Unity, Unreal, and Godot being made available free of charge, alongside the trove of learning resources one can find online.
However, that’s only half the story. Similarly, in the past decade there’s been a shift in the culture towards how consumers perceive video games, with a more concentrated effort to recognize games as fully realized, legitimate works of art. Though entertainment and “fun” will always have their place, now more than ever is there an audience willing to engage with smaller, intimate, more experimental pieces of content. Aspects of a game tied to budget and manpower, be it scope, graphical fidelity or production value only hold as much bearing as the developer intends, allowing them to focus specifically on what they feel is crucial. All this to say that personally, I don’t think the influx of published titles is a symptom of a low entry barrier, or a lack of gatekeeping. Rather, we’re seeing individuals manifest their visions through a creative will that has always been present, but finally given the proper space to grow.
As for its impact on my own practice, the effects have been a net positive. It’s natural to assume that with a much larger pool of games to choose from, there’s that many more projects competing with you to be noticed, but I never liked looking at it that way. Even though deep down I know it’s technically true, viewing like-minded individuals passionate about art as merely a potential diversion from my own content just seems hostile and combative. It’s antithetical to my reason for creating in the first place. Besides, I find it much more productive to instead embrace the wide berth of experiences and inspirations that drive these games forward. I’ve got a mile-wide selection of lesbian-themed dungeon crawlers at my fingertips, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Q: Do you feel the term “video game” is still adequate or too limiting for more experimental form?
A: I do agree that it’s too limited, but also have no viable alternative to propose. A lot of preconceived notions surrounding what a game can be stem specifically from the word itself: “game”. When you think of games, be they digital or not, a few things probably come to mind: rules, objectives, win states, lose states, strategies and amusement. It’s applicable to practically all sports, tabletops and even video games.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it does much justice to more experimental work. I can think of several instances where I’ve told adolescent relatives that I’m a game developer, only for them to be disappointed when they find out that doesn’t mean Fortnite. Similarly, I’ve been met with responses like “So…what’s the point?” or “How are you supposed to beat this?” from confused yet well-intentioned family members upon seeing my work. Even going beyond a casual audience, there seems to be a dismissal towards projects that willingly opt out of traditional gameplay experiences. There’s not much “gaming” to be had in an interactive body-horror poem, despite being just as valid in my eyes, so referring to projects along those lines as “video games” only seems to set them up for misplaced criticism.
Still, I don’t know what I’d do about it. I have mixed feelings towards the employment of terms like “graphic novels” vs. “comics” for example. I’m aware the distinction aims to differentiate between your short, typically hero-related publications vs. longer, self-contained narratives, but it doesn’t always come off that way. Though nobody ever outwardly says it, sometimes I get the vibe that “comics” are used to refer to simple mindless “capeshit”, and if it’s more “artistic”, serious, or intellectual, then it can be deemed a graphic novel. It’s not unlike people scrambling to say a horror film is more akin to a thriller whenever it’s more “sophisticated” than your average slasher. I don’t doubt normalizing other terms to classify interactive pieces besides “video games” would serve some artists well, but I’m worried that language would go a similar route.
Q: Video games are often considered as very self-referential as a media. Game designers often invoke other games for their own creation. Would you consider it true for your own practice?
A: I’ll preface this by saying there are several individuals within gaming whose outputs I hold dear. Edmund McMillen got me hip to alternative art back in the eighth grade, and was my introduction to indie gaming as a whole. Puppet Combo is great. Mason Lindroth is a genius. Terri Vellmann’s style kicks ass. I have a deep respect for the game design and art of Keita Takahashi. There are no doubt others I’ve forgotten, but the point is that it’d be dishonest to say I’ve never looked to other developers for my own work.
Nevertheless, typically I find it more compelling, albeit challenging, to take from non-gaming related sources and see how that assumes form. Seeing how I can translate Death Grips’ Government Plates, v-cinema, and Cormac McCarthy into something interactive is a process I find incredibly fun, not to mention fulfilling. This is partially because it’s a reflection of what I love to engage with in gaming. When I see somebody deploy an aesthetic or idea rarely seen in games with pure passion I can’t help but root for it. For example, earlier this year I played a game by the name of Cuccchi, an exploration title inspired by the artwork of Italian painter Enzo Cucchi. Even though I had not been familiar with his art at the time, seeing the care the developer, Julian Palacios, put forth to share his love of Italian neo-expressionism was just so endearing. It was something I’d never expected to see as a game, but I am incredibly grateful that it exists now.
Currently I’m working on a short narrative game inspired by the photography of Andres Serrano, aesthetically, and perhaps thematically. That’s not exactly the most gripping pitch, and definitely not something that gels within a gaming context without a bit of elbow grease. Regardless, I’d like to think that somebody, somewhere, hears about that and goes “that is my shit”, because well… I would. With the aforementioned cultural push to recognize games as art, I think it’s more important than ever to keep them from wallowing in a self-imposed bubble. Sometimes I feel there’s a reluctance to look further than the groundwork video games have laid for us, for good reason obviously. They’re established, no doubt easy to iterate upon. But while there’s no shortage of incredible work to pull from, why stop there? Psycho owes itself largely to Edward Hopper paintings. Groundhog Day’s main inspiration stems from vampire literature. Going back to industrial, it was author William S. Burroughs’ “cut-up” writing techniques that influenced musicians’ use of noise and disruption. If games are to be art, they should openly welcome the art forms that precedes them, and observe the effects they’ve had on our culture, for games too, are culture.
Q: You mention in the postmortem Exit Mask was an attempt to “translate personal ordeal into something palpable.” Do you consider video games as an efficient media to share personal, even traumatic experiences?
Video games have the unique capability of placing the user directly into the fray. It’s the single most defining quality that separates them from films, literature and art installations, despite how convergent they’ve become. Be it an open-ended RPG, or a comparatively linear walking sim, there’s something to be said of the power to control, progress and exist within a narrative. For a brief moment in time, you are given the opportunity to engage in an artist’s showings beyond spectatorship, playing an active role in its unraveling. To play a game is to accept an open invitation to parse a person’s feelings, relive their experiences, and navigate a world they’ve constructed. They’re not fully there, but I find games carry the most potential in art to serve as two-way communication, making for an incredibly effective tool to share personal, oft unpleasant experiences.
Tying it back to Exit Mask, being a game made it significantly easier to share feelings I found difficult to verbalize. Rather than convey the stress bundled with invasive thought patterns through exposition, I could instead subject the player to an assault on the senses, both visually and audibly. Players could directly experience the double-edged facets of caving to obsessions, and the condition of breaking free from compulsions would only come to fruition should they, and only they, withstand all the game throws at them. Whether that was successful or not remains a case-by-case basis with everyone who played it, but I doubt Exit Mask would be as effective in any other state.
Q: The music of Exit Mask has been isolated and published on YouTube. It absolutely works by itself. Could you explain the composing process? For example, does the game come first or the sounds?
A: Thank you! I actually wasn’t aware that somebody uploaded the game’s soundtrack to YouTube until reading this question, so that’s a pleasant surprise.
For better or worse, I tend to implement a game’s audio near the end of development, just before the polishing phase. Sound design is the discipline I’m probably the least well versed in, so while I really shouldn’t, I almost view it as a luxury, icing on the cake even. “Yeah, I need to get sounds in, but at this point as long as they do the bare minimum I’m straight. If it actually ends up well, then it’s a nice bonus.” Because I don’t hold myself to high audio standards, it’s significantly less stressful than creating assets, programming or designing, so it almost feels like treating myself when I’m at the point in the project where I’m adding sounds.
Composing Exit Mask’s music was a very improvised process. I don’t have much knowledge of music writing or production, nor can I play any instruments, so I largely stuck to the creation of ambient tracks. It began with recording any sounds I deemed potentially useful with my phone. Examples included the wind, my car engine, power tools, basically anything that could produce a continuous droning. Then, I scavenged the internet for any soundbites to add into the mix, be it a choir, medical devices, ringing glass, before chucking it all into Audacity. I wanted the soundtrack to make the player feel like Exit Mask hated them, like it was out to get them, so I worked with that in mind. I basically just experimented with speed, distortion, noise, and graphic equalizers until I had three ugly, menacing pieces of ambience that I felt fit. A pretty unrefined process admittedly, but I was happy with the results.
References are clearly mentioned in your games : the Death Grips and Hellraiser posters in Exit Mask, the names of certain characters in Cookies, etc. They are mostly extraludic references. How do you mix those elements together to shape your games?
As far as references go, I pull from all kinds of sources. I maintain that it is crucial for developers to possess a diversified media diet, so I try my best to engage in films, albums and games of all kinds, alongside a casual interest in modern history. If given the opportunity I could ramble on for hours about what I choose to reference and why, but I’ll just settle for a few examples.
One of the game’s many antagonists, Ichi, is directly inspired by the titular character of Ichi the Killer, directed by Takashi Miike. An awesome film on its own from one of my favourite directors, the reference serves to be more than just homage. Known for its motifs of extreme violence and bizarre perversions (sometimes simultaneously), Miike’s filmography caused me to reflect on the relationship I have with violence and the art I consume. More specifically, how violence, beneath its blood-soaked sheen, can be used to express feelings of love and compassion, in its own fractured way. It altered how I approached what could otherwise be seen as vile and exploitative (Visitor Q and Gozu, for instance) and view it in a more constructive and appreciative light. To me, Ichi the phallic-daggered ninja gimp isn’t just a nod to Miike fans, but a manifestation of my appreciation for creators willing to go against the grain. The inclusion of the Death Grips, clipping. and Danny Brown records in Exit Mask follow the same spirit.
Much of my inclusion of extraludic elements in characters and environments are based off the concept of syncretism, the amalgamation of various beliefs and customs into a single attempted unification. It’s something you see regularly within new age cults and conspiracy theories, and much like the diverse makeup of Florida it’s a phenomenon I find very interesting. It sort of captures the same aesthetic outlandish cultural movements like QAnon have built up, and I get a lot out of replicating that spontaneity. The Children of the Shine cult from Cookies for example, borrows from: Dianetics, Heaven’s Gate, Hare Krishna, Jim Jones, The Witch, Waco, the Knights Templar, and Pulp Fiction. A priest by the name of Huxley, a tribute to the sci-fi parallels of UFO religions, serves as the cherry on top for a group of characters that are just as eccentric as their real-life counterparts. I use it for lighter purposes too. In another of the game’s sections, you can encounter nods to Videodrome, Halloween III, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Earthworm Jim, and the Kool-Aid Man all within a few metres of each other. It’s a varied mix in what’s supposed to be an incompatibly dingy apartment suite, but it plays to my broad-ranging interests and looks to how oddly coagulated our cultures sometimes are.
Q: You reference Trash Humpers as a strong reference for Cookies. Was it only on an aesthetic level, or also in terms of energy and intention?
A: The visual influence Trash Humpers had on Cookies was strong no doubt, but what really captivated me regarding the film was Harmony Korine’s ode to what he saw as the “American Landscape”. As he put it, the “parking garages, back alleyways, and beautiful lamp posts that light up the gutter” were the real backdrop of your average American citizen. For various reasons, there’s a tendency to hyperfixate on the more “iconic” cities in media: your New Yorks, your San Frans, your Washingtons. It paints the scenery of America in a particularly grand light, but as always the reality is far less stellar. Dirty strip malls, sketchy gas stations, cities in the midst of industrial decline, these are the things found dotted between metropolises. They’re rarely pretty, with many opting to pretend they don’t exist, but like any other place they have bodies to house, and stories to tell. There’s a certain kind of beauty to the understated mediocrity of our surroundings, and Trash Humpers’ depiction of a discarded Nashville was profoundly striking.
This energy directly influenced my decision to stage Cookies in the nationwide social experiment that is Florida. Despite being a Canadian suburbanite, Korine’s statement regarding American landscapes resonated with me greatly. I’ve got a lot of family who vacation down in Florida during the winter so it’s no surprise when it’s brought up, images of Palm Beach, Orlando and Miami instantly spring to mind. But for every beachside glamourized by Scarface mythos, there’s a squalid neighbourhood flooded with meth, or a backwood town strung with Confederate flags. It’s an eclecticism I find obscenely fascinating, so much so that I felt no other location could accurately capture the bizarre sense of filth I sought to depict. Writing for DreadXP, Jans Holstrom described Cookies as “a love note to urban squalor”, and if any one work was responsible for that love, it was probably Trash Humpers.
Q: I find very interesting the choice of environment for your games : the home transformed into an impossible escher-esque space, the apartment building, the office space in Tzimtzum (co-designed with Vivian Rousseau). What is the role of “real space” in your games?
A: In all three of my released titles, there’s a common thread of physical spaces functioning as imperious, disdainful entities.
With Tzimtzum, Viv and I’s outline of that project was rooted heavily in the philosophy of liminal spaces. We were of course drawn to the “cursed images” subcultures littered throughout Twitter and Reddit, but moreover we wanted to examine the ability man-made structures had of ripping any purpose or direction from their transgressors. The office space the player traverses through is empty, bland, and serves no purpose other than to push the player forward, hopefully to something more akin to civilization. As they progress, what begins as the backdrop for the player’s everyday life slowly morphs into a reactive organism flouting space and time. The environment plays by its own rules, and the player has no choice but to coexist within a world never meant for them.
For Exit Mask, going along with the themes of the game, I wanted to create a landscape that made the player feel small and insignificant. A frequent motif was structure with scale, for obvious reasons, but I also spliced Escher-esque design principles (the Ward’s vertically labyrinthine towers) with carefully crafted set pieces (the Coil’s symmetrical spinal cords) to both bewilder and confound the player. The inclusion of the house at the start (modelled directly after my family’s home) reinforces this. A setting of love and comfort warped hideously beyond recognition, with the surgical intent of being weaponized. At once, players are trapped inside an impossible space whose workings defy logic, yet somehow seems sculpted just for them. Impartial, but equally explicit.
The Orange Grove Houses in Cookies is far more grounded in reality, but much of the same applies. I put a lot of effort to instill an absolute sense of dejection a la Combat Shock within the confines of that building. Every square inch is coated in trash, mold and decay, the tenants themselves not much better. Indeed, the ensemble cast of organ harvesters, corrupt cops, and cannibal rednecks are well-suited to the role of antagonist, but I think that misses the big picture. Any upward mobility these characters could have, be it through snuff film production, drug dealing, or debt collecting, is confined to the limits set by the total poverty upheld in the apartment. I see it as a modification of sorts to Rorschach’s “You’re locked in here with me” line from Watchmen. The plight of these residents exists only on a micro-scale. Whether you’re a yakuza member, a fast food worker or even a drug baron, the day-to-day rat race doesn’t change that “we’re all locked in here together”. Though the context differs, like Exit Mask, the scenery of Cookies serves as a faceless being imposing itself upon everybody it houses.