It’s your party and you’ll cry if you want to
Parties are strange, otherworldly places. In a room filled with booze and strangers, emboldened by the paradoxical privacy afforded by chatter and thumping music, people transform. “Once, I went to this party,” artist and game designer Gabrielle Genevieve says. “There was this guy there who I’d never met before. He’s sitting next to me, and he just starts going off about his partner of seven years. He doesn’t know if he loves them any more – and they’re across the room, talking to somebody else, and he’s like, completely letting his whole soul out onto me. It was kind of intense, and I was like, ‘Oh, god’. He looked at me at the end and he said, ‘I can’t believe I told you all of that’. And I said, ‘No, it’s okay – sometimes you need to get it out’.”
This was the first seed of Small Talk, a game set during a party at the end of the world. The condo is populated with curious guests, from a disembodied head to a giant gundam standing awkwardly with a party cup. It’s almost intimidating: we shuffle around the room’s edges, trying not to gawp, studying the surreal animated paintings hung on the walls while we work up the courage to approach someone. “It’s interesting hearing how people’s playthroughs go, because it’s sometimes indicative of how people actually go to a party,” Genevieve says.
Indeed, there’s a not unfamiliar sense of feeling out of place. Eyes and faces follow you: a Doom- style billboarding effect on the characters augments self-consciousness, the mix of 2D people in a 3D world uncanny. “I think part of the ‘outsiderness’ is wanting to explore the things that people don’t feel comfortable about,” programmer Chris
Chappelear says. “Finding a setting that can create a level of comfort around that, as much as is possible. A lot of the time that doesn’t exist in reality, and so having it be at the end of the world helps with this idea that, okay, I might as well let it all out at this point.”
Indeed, one minute we’re making polite chit-chat with an onion as goldfish swim around in its trousers; the next, listening to a man with a plate of eggs and bacon for a face reminisce about his childhood. We presume we’ve hit it off with Breakfast Head when we’re transported into his mind palace, where a mother bird nests peacefully with sentient eggs before presenting us with one filled with ‘Eggman’s Bacon Bits’.
It gets weirder – and steadily more heartfelt. A girl split between dimensions is having trouble reconciling the different parts of herself with the overwhelming choices available to her: we hop up platforms in her head towards a starry sky to meet the pieces of her personality. Another guest pulls us into a maze of bookshelves. At the end stands a strange, inconsolable creature lamenting a lost relationship – it’s slightly silly, but with a tinge of pain. Some spaces are comforting, others unsettling; sometimes they are both. Puzzles are narrative riddles rather than brainteasers, a way to physically work though whatever abstract, often mundane difficulty the character is trying to navigate.
And some of the guests at the party even ask about our life: the hopes, dreams and insecurities we may have. We find ourselves looking inward, prompted by these Barnum effect conversations with friendly symbols. “If you look at the way the writing is structured, it’s ambiguous,” Genevieve says. “It’s worded in such a way where it’s like, ‘This can apply to me, too.’ It’s a very aesthetic-heavy game, so it draws people in with its strange characters and creatures, and it kind of does this bait and switch. It’s bright and happylooking, and then it’s like, oh shit, it’s sad!” she laughs. “That’s exactly what we want – now you’re thinking about yourself.”
This is a quietly revelatory game for the modern age, both entertaining and oddly therapeutic. With so many games designed with escape in mind, Small Talk makes a case – and a space – for gently confronting yourself. “We’ve had people say they’re about to cry in some spaces,” Genevieve says. “It’s just kind of opening that valve, and letting yourself take what you need out of it, which is definitely one of our big goals.”
“It’s bright and happy-looking, then it’s like, oh shit, it’s sad! That’s exactly what we want”
This chap is quite terrifying – we’re pretty sure he’s hiding a set of teeth in his midriff. He does have some nice things to say about the inherent value of life on Earth, however, and his jokes are quite good
From top: programmer Chris Chappelear; artist and game designer Gabrielle Genevieve