[Interview] Women/Nonbinary Individuals in Horror [Ria from Karnstein]

We sat down virtually with Ria, lead singer of the metal band Karnstein, game developer of 2-bit platformer, Destroy the Shogun, and lover of the sympathetic monster in the movies she consumes.

Monster Thoughts: You’re the developer for indie 16-bit action side scroller, Destroy The Shogun. We know this project took 2 and a half years to get to this point. Congratulations. Can you tell us a bit about the process to create the game and a bit about any problems you encountered during the process? 
 
Ria from Karnstein: Thank you so much! I started the game very shortly after making a much simpler platformer called A Squirrel’s Tale using the same engine. I made that game in 9 months, beginning with absolutely no knowledge of how to make a game and learning as I went. So, when it came to do something new, I had a much better grasp of how things worked, how art assets should be formatted in order to look right etc. I knew I wanted to have a character that could run fast, use a sword and some kind of projectile, and swing like Spider-man, and figured that basing it around a ninja in feudal Japan would be a natural fit. The rest of the game essentially came out of choosing that setting, researching the real-life history and folklore surrounding the time period and playing as many other ninja games and action platformers as I could to see what I liked and didn’t like about them (there was a surprising amount of high-profile ninja/samurai games in 2019/2020, I still haven’t played all of the ones I already own).

In terms of problems, it was mostly standard beginner mistakes (I’m still relatively new at programming even now) that would cause things to not quite work properly until I went over them a few times. The biggest problems always came with the wall climbing and the grapple hook, because the speed of the game would cause the character to get stuck inside of walls constantly, but lowering the speed ruined the whole flow of everything I had created. I’ve yet to see anyone bug out with the grapple hook in the current version, but the wall climbing will still occasionally break in very specific circumstances (don’t worry it’s on my list of things to fix). I’m pretty happy with the amount of bugs and awkward gameplay quirks I’ve managed to overcome throughout though.

There are some moving platforms in a couple of levels, which sounds like they wouldn’t be that difficult to code, but when you’ve got to factor in the fact that the character needs to move with them in a variety of different ways depending on the players actions, which is complicated by the fact that you can hang onto the side as well as stand on top of them, I actually had to consider a lot of scenarios to make it work without causing the character to constantly get stuck inside. Overall, that took me a solid year or so to figure out, even though it’s not all that much code, but I’m very proud of that aspect of the game. I’ve actually started writing up blogs on the making of the game and the influences behind it, so look out for that on my twitter. 

Ria.

Expression is definitely the main thing for me.

MT: This sounds a lot like writing. I often have to go back and rework paragraphs or whole chapters that aren’t working. This is still something that’s incredible to have completed! Having made a game, what you would tell aspiring game devs who are struggling to finish their game? 
 
Ria: If you’re truly struggling then you most likely need to downsize and streamline your game. I know it sounds like I’m telling people to aim lower, but you’re not going to make that perfect open world RPG you’re had in your head for years on your first few attempts. Set yourself reasonable goals and boundaries, and then do as much as you can with them, learn from what works and what doesn’t and put that into the next thing.

During most of Destroy the Shogun’s development the player also had the ability to block and slide like in Megaman 3, there were hidden medals that could be collected to unlock costumes and a top down overworld that you could explore to find hidden areas, mini-games and push the story forward. Now none of that is bad by itself, but to have any of it flow properly within the game that was already there would have taken me at least another couple of years. I stripped it out, simplified the game down to just a pure level-based platformer, and it’s much better for it. Now I can use those other ideas as the basis for their own thing in the near future, where they can exist in a game with its own identity instead of trying to cram every idea into one thing. There’s a really good video by a Youtuber called Snoman Gaming called ‘Using all the Buffalo’ that explains this concept really well, highly recommend.  

Destroy The Shogun Artwork.

MT: See that’s so smart. To go back to my writing analogy, we do the same for parts of the book that aren’t working – take out scenes or chapters and set them aside and they might come in use later or in another work. You’re the lead singer of metal band Karnstein. The band’s Twitter says you “write about horror subjects from a queer perspective.” How expressive would you say creating music is as compared to creating a game? Can the two not be compared? Do they each have different merits/good things/bad things? How so? 
 
Ria: Because games are inherently interactive, the true expression typically comes from the player, rather than the actual creator(s). In games made with some form of player choice or freedom in mind, such as Breath of the Wild, Dark Souls or Prey, my experience of them is likely very different to most other players.

The time I avenged my horse in Breath of the Wild after it got killed by a Guardian, which I defeated in a blind rage having never even so much as dented a Guardian before that point, is permanently etched into my memory because it’s a moment I created with the toolbox the game provided, and hopefully when I’m a more experienced level designer/game programmer I can create something like that for others.

In terms of expressing myself with the creation of Destroy the Shogun, it’s honestly not much deeper than ‘this is the kind of gameplay and visual aesthetic that I enjoy.’ I suppose there is something to be said for choosing a 16-bit art style though. Sure, it’s a practical choice, it’s way easier to create and edit than actually drawing every frame and texture by hand, but it’s also a throwback to the 90’s when I was just a kid and games were short, simple and almost always focused on fun above anything else. It’s definitely meant to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for those that grew up with the SNES and/or MegaDrive. Games can be way more than that now, which is great, but sometimes they don’t need to be more.

In regards to music, I relate it much more to writing a book or film/show than making a game (at least the way I do it). In live performances I like to make it so that several songs can flow naturally together as though they were one larger song with many parts. I treat them like chapters in a book in that way. In fact, one of our most recent releases, A Plague Upon Four Houses, is exactly that, 4 songs that flow together with no stops that create a consistent narrative. I think the biggest difference between making music and making games definitely comes from the fact that all the expression in music comes from the making and performing of it, whereas with games it comes much more from the actual audience experiencing it.  

Ria in Karnstein makeup.

MT: That’s so interesting and inspiring. Favorite queer horror movie to date? Why that one? 
 
Ria: Oh that’s a really good question! I often get attached to films where the queerness is more subtext, or there isn’t any but I’ve found my own reading of it. Pretty much any ‘sympathetic monster’ type film is great for this, the old universal monster movies such as Creature from The Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc. are full of ‘monsters’ who are demonized and hunted by the ‘normal’ folk for their mere existence even though they normally only end up hurting others as a reaction to how people treat them first, and what queer person can’t relate to that? Interestingly both Dracula’s Daughter and Bride of Frankenstein (direct sequels to universals Dracula and Frankenstein respectively) managed to get actual overt queerness into these films despite the fact that that was all but illegal in film at the time, and they rate highly in queer horror for me.

The Carmilla Movie (the 2016 one based off the webseries), The Moth DiariesAlucarda and Vampyres (1974) are all fantastic lesbian vampire movies that all fans of the genre should watch, but to actually answer the question, it’s Interview With The Vampire. I’m sure I don’t really have to explain why to anyone reading, but it truly is the height of Vampire fiction. The conflicted angst over their existence, the fraught and complex relationship between Louis and Lestat, and later their adopted daughter Claudia, Louis’s lonely journey searching for others like him, the depiction of the actual transition from life into death, the amazing visuals and acting. It really has it all.  

Interview with the Vampire (1994) | The Geffen Film Company

MT: Okay, you said the magic words! I love a sympathetic monster (cough cough that’s why I write ’em in my vampire series) but Interview with the Vampire is up there as one of my top vampire films of all time! Okay, I gotta calm down. You also illustrate comics. Your current work, a reimagining of “Carmilla,” reimagines the classic lesbian vampire as a sort of queer liberator. Why did you want to tackle this classic story and what were you hoping to show with this viewpoint on the story? 
 
Ria: I first read the original novella in early 2019, and utterly devoured it in one sitting, which is something I basically never do with books as I’m normally a fairly slow reader. I was absolutely pulled in by the title character. She is described as never being seen before 1 in the afternoon, she is only ever seen drinking hot chocolate and never seems to eat or drink anything else, she has a great love of the arts, she goes by a name that isn’t her birth name, she’s more active at night, she has a single-minded romantic obsession with one person and she’s overtly gay all the time.

I related HARD to these aspects of her in a way I’ve not related to any other character in media. I have a weird sleeping schedule and am rarely up and dressed before the afternoon, I’m very active at night, I don’t eat a large variety of food and chocolate is something I eat too much of etc etc.

There’s also Laura, the narrator and victim/lover of Carmilla. A lot of people think of her as straight, but a lot of what she says is actually kind of mixed, and I think it’s just as valid to read her as someone who has a lot of internalized homophobia because she exists in a time and place where she’s never even encountered the idea that a woman could love another woman. Early on there’s a scene where she wonders if Carmilla is secretly a boy in disguise because of the romantic way she acts towards her, and thinks how wonderful it would be if that were true. I find this so interesting because it speaks to this weird frame of mind where Laura clearly wants a romantic relationship with this woman, but also has never conceived of a same gender relationship and so tries to invent ways in which her feelings make sense to her. So, my basic starting point was ‘what if Carmilla didn’t actually die at the end of the book, and she returns a few years later and is now completely upfront with who she is and how she feels about Laura.’

The ending of the book has always frustrated me, because everything seems to be leading to Carmilla essentially ‘coming out’ as a vampire and turning Laura so they can be together as immortal lovers, but instead things shift to focus on all these male characters (several of whom are only introduced right at the end) who kill her off screen and relay all the events back to Laura afterwards. So, in essence the comic is a way for me to expand upon the thoughts and feelings I had when first reading it, steer it where I hoped it would go, and essentially reclaim this world in all its queerness.  

 MT: Okay, I’ve never read Carmilla but I’ve heard about it constantly from lovers of vampire literature and queer individuals. I can see how you’d want to explore more of the story. What is your goal for of all your creative pursuits? Are you looking to just express yourself or do you have a larger picture for your art? 
 
Ria: Expression is definitely the main thing for me, especially with Karnstein. Generally, with any creative project I set myself to, I’m making the kind of thing that I want to see more of in the world, regardless of the medium. Destroy the Shogun is styled after the games I loved as a child while also taking on some of what works in modern games, Karnstein is an overtly queer, leftist band in a straight male dominated scene that can often be pretty far right politically, and my upcoming comic is a way to reinvent something that I love but want so much more from. I guess I am always trying to pay homage to things I love while also rejecting trends I find boring or problematic. I wouldn’t say there’s a real ‘larger picture’ of sorts, beyond a vague hope to get to do art/music/game development as an actual career, but I definitely try to pull from my own experiences in order to say something, even if it’s as simple as ‘hey I’m just one trans woman and I put together this whole game or band, you can too.’ 

MT: I love that message. I too love telling little Black girls, “Hey I wrote this thing or did this thing and you can do it too!” Well, we want to thank you for wanting to be part of this interview and we wish you success with all your creative endeavors!

Ria Wigley is an indie game developer, illustrator, metal musician and TOTALLY not an actual lesbian vampire. She seeks to be a loud queer voice even in the traditionally straight male dominated and sometimes conservative worlds of gaming and metal music.  

You can find Ria at any of her links below!

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