Interview: ‘Birth’ Creator Madison Karrh

In August I travelled to Gamescom 2022 in Cologne, Germany, to experience the world of videogames on an industry event scale. At some point I was crossing the Rhine in blazing heat, wishing for death, and now here in Scotland I’m wrapping myself in blankets by 5pm as Autumn draws in.

My first appointment after arriving at Gamescom was an interview with the creator of Birth, a game I’ve been excited to see more of since its trailer in one of the publisher preview broadcasts this year.

I hadn’t eaten all morning however, and my plane had gotten in late, so I first took to the refreshment carts in one of the tarmac areas around the exhibition centre. I bought fries covered in several different condiments, sat down on grass to eat hurriedly, and proceeded to spill curry sauce down my shirt.

This kind of thing happens regularly, and I tried my best to hide this as I rushed through the massive halls to find the indie booths. While captivated by a band of kids in fedoras playing Guitar Hero on a stage in the retro area, I had no time to stop, and ended up in the indie zone. This was the region of the show with the most concentrated number of new games to play, dozens of monitors and marketing boards all squashed up besides each other.

In one of those lines I found the preview of Birth, and standing nearby, watching people play the game, the game’s creator Madison Karrh.

Even in my sauce stained state I was warmly welcomed. After a few failed moments of trying to find a quieter place to talk than the show floor, the interview took place around the game’s display laptop as I explored Birth’s intricate world.

Automatically I was engaged with the visual aesthetic of the game, an illustrated collection of bones, bodily organs and whimsical mystery in a palette that’s like taking a bath in a pile of autumn leaves.

This game, about living in a new city and constructing a creature of bones and organs to quell loneliness, Karrh describes as a personal piece, born from experiences over the past two years.

“I moved to Chicago at the beginning of the pandemic and lived in a tiny studio, and didn’t touch another human for like, a year. So I think it’s pulling from the loneliness and excitement cocktail that comes from moving to a new city on your own.”

This is a deeply relatable feeling. I’d moved out to Glasgow during this time, and while back in a smaller town now, being in that kind of environment was an odd mix of separation and connection.

The exteriors of buildings in the game, Karrh reflects, are very much inspired by the architecture and colour palette of the buildings around her in Chicago. In the game’s environments, this connects to a real focus on what the lived-in interiors of the city could be, one which Karrh explains came from walking around and being curious about the apartments she was surrounded by.

Laughing, she tells me, “I have a deep, almost unwell, curiosity about what is in people’s apartments. So this is a healthy way to explore.”

In the game you play as a character in one such apartment, going on scavenging and exploration walks similar to those imaginings, but with a broader level of access to what’s going on inside these places.

As I continue I get to the character creator, which Karrh is surprised at how much people have enjoyed using as she’s watched players engage. She has also seen a lot of people try, as I do, to turn on the sink in this environment.

“As a solo developer, there’s not a lot of QA going on, not a ton of people playing it.” She says, reflecting on how it’s been seeing people play the game in ways she didn’t expect, “It’s been interesting to see people finding bugs, and how they like to interact with things. I can stand back and I can tell what they’re trying to click, and that’s been very useful.”

Across my interviews with developers at the show this is a common thread, seeing players uncover things about their game that they didn’t know. With Birth, Karrh says that she’s also seen this experience, when people enjoy the game and want to play more, as a confidence boost.

Getting into the part of the game in which you begin your construction of the creature, I ask if there was anything ‘real’ behind these more visceral aspects of the game.

Karrh laughs, “No,” and explains the origins of the creature creation aspect of the game in thinking about dating apps and desire.

“I didn’t do dating apps during quarantine, but there was, when I thought about dating apps, this weird, I don’t know, it’s almost as if you can summon another human somehow. You can look through the options, and not that they’re all great, but you can find one.”

“I think obviously there’s the desire there, like most humans have, the idea that ‘I know the person that would be so perfect for me,’ and if I can just create them – personality wise, not necessarily Frankenstein wise – and so there’s definitely a desire in my head during quarantine to have a very specific person for sure.”

Reflecting on the focus on such a niche and personal idea, Karrh says there is something about being a solo developer that gives you a freedom to explore ideas like this over games where “You are the chosen one, and you have a gun, sometimes, almost all the time, and if you don’t have a gun you have some other magical weapon.”

Karrh is a programmer by trade, but is also the illustrator for the game. In the drawing style is an undeniable charm, reminiscent of the kinds of children’s books that future horror freaks cherish.

As someone who has been drawing all my life, I was surprised to learn that this approach to art was a more recent development, and came as a determined type of visualised self empowerment and skill building.

“This is like, the longest game I’ve worked on. I’ve worked on this for about a year now, and to see stuff that you made a year ago, when you’re growing so much, you can see that it was you that made it, but you don’t like it anymore. I do think I’ve fully developed a style.”

As I play through puzzles in the game, and come up against a particularly tough shape laying type puzzle, Karrh reflects that several people have struggled with moments like this, and that creating puzzles where people understand the intention is one of the harder parts of designing.

“It’s like a weird form of psychology that you’re trying to figure out, like, how can I draw something and have someone understand what I want them to do with it.”

“I want puzzles to be simple, and I know the point of a puzzle is to make you work your brain, but I don’t want you to be that frustrated.”

This is a historic difficulty for point-and-click game creators, and one of people’s major issues with the genre, Karrh included.

“That’s the saddest thing is I have a lot of point-and-click games where I’ve just got stuck, and then if you quit and come back you don’t remember what you were doing.”

Karrh talks about considering these conventions and expectations, and how she thinks about it in terms of designing novel experiences.

“You’re in the city, you can choose whichever of the buildings you want to go in, and so there’s no way to know who is going to do what first. I do think that, games targeted at big audiences, there is a kind of responsibility where you have to handhold a lot more, so it is hard to find the line between handholding and giving you enough leeway.”

“I think when, while you’re doing a lot of the same things in the game, a lot of the visual pieces are unique. I really value novelty and, maybe there’s a lack of design experience where I didn’t feel like I wanted to design something where you do the same things over and over.”

She then explains that this approach, which divests from convention, also comes from not growing up playing games.

“I found games in my twenties so I feel like I don’t have the video game background knowledge that you’re ‘supposed to have’ as you play. So probably a lot of it came from just not really knowing how it’s ‘supposed to work’ either.”

Talking about the games that got her into games, Karrh mentions the games that Birth has been frequently compared with as her inspiration.

“The Rusty Lake games, they’re here,” she nods over to the stall behind me where Rusty Lake are showing their new game, “I remember playing Rusty Lake Paradise and then instantly being like ‘Oh, I can do this, I can make this!’ and then I downloaded Unity. I get a ton of feedback that it has huge Rusty Lake vibes.”

“They [Rusty Lake] are great, we’ve talked, and they’re very sweet about my inspiration and stuff and so it’s very nice to have confirmation of ‘Wow, I love your thing and you’re also telling me you love my thing?'”

Continuing to play, Karrh points out the decision to use real world physics. It means some game objects in puzzles can collide and move and be interacted with dynamically, which has added a kind of humanity to it for her. I would agree, in playing there’s a kind of clumsy joy to it, and it’s feeling that the game has overall, where morbidity, curiosity and playfulness meet.

I ask about the motifs that the game uses, of bones, disembodiment, a kind of animal transhumanism all transposed into the world of the city. While Karrh doesn’t have a specific pinpoint origin she reflects on a kind of philosophical grounding for the things she creates.

“I do think about death a lot. I think that as a creator you have this responsibility to not waste people’s time, since we only have so much time on the Earth. I think about the length of time we have a lot, and how death is a reminder that you only have so much time. I’m getting melodramatic almost, but the the fact that you are here, that you have chosen to talk to me specifically, you’ve played this, it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world to make something and have other people play it.”

“It’s less the decay of death, though it is that, but the reminder of the life you have to live.”

If Birth’s design is perched on being a ‘Memento Mori’ I certainly left the interview with the paradoxical sense of joy, curry stain or not, that that approach can create. Birth seems meticulously crafted to evoke these kinds of contradictions, and after speaking with it’s creator, I’m excited to spend more time in its world.

As of this writing Birth is planned for release in January 2023.

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