Contigo Games' Francesca Carletto-Leon talks gaming, girls and the gender binary – Interview

StarCrossed is an arcade space shooter developed by Contigo Games and published by Whitethorn Digital. The game has two players dodging projectiles and bouncing a shiny star between one another, lining up shots to defeat wave after wave of enemies. It’s a charming mix of Pong meets Tohou Project, and certainly a breath of fresh air for fans of the bullet-hell genre. To learn a little more about StarCrossed before you read on, you can visit the successfully funded Kickstarter page or watch the trailer below:

Following the games’ recent release, I sat down with Francesca Carletto-Leon, co-founder of Contigo Games and narrative designer of StarCrossed,for a chat regarding the title’s stunning art-style, the influences behind her cast of diverse space-faring sprites, the impact of her work as an educator and her opinions on the current state of the games industry.

Fun with friends:

What made you decide early on to build StarCrossed from the ground up as a co-op title?

“The answer is pretty simple; we’re big fans of cooperative games and want to see more of them! Games made specifically for 2 players are quite rare. Personally, I find it quite difficult to find games to play with my partner. We love local multiplayer games but often feel like they’re designed to be played with a group of people and we’re not having the optimal player experience.

I believe there is something intimate about playing a game with someone. We’re sharing a goal and learning how to cooperate. Communication is important and we adjust our play to accommodate another participant. Our goal as a studio is ‘to create games and playful expereinces to bring people together’. StarCrossed was intended to fulfil this purpose.”

A story to tell:

Implementing visual novel style cut-scenes must have meant a lot of extra writing and with all those words, what kind of story is StarCrossed going to tell?

“During development, we actually cut StarCrossed’s Story Mode multiple times. As a part-time, self-funded, and remote team we were finding it difficult to create a large independent project. In our desire to have the game finished, the team had a lot of difficult conversations about scope and Story Mode, which was daunting and by far the more complex part of the game, was scrapped. However, as we began showing the game publicly, we realised the importance of including a Story Mode to explore the characters, their relationships to each other, and the universe of StarCrossed. It was a ton of work but I’m so glad we were able to make Story Mode happen and I hope our players enjoy it!

The plot of StarCrossed is what players have come to expect from the magical girl fantasy-genre; a group of chosen heroes must band together to defeat evil and save the universe. We wanted the story beats to feel familiar. What makes the story engaging to players is seeing the situation presented through the different lenses of each character. Each combination of characters has their own unique dialogues and, sometimes, additional scenes with our cast of supporting characters and villains. Each time you play, the dialogues change depending on the selected characters, so it ended up being quite a bit of writing!

The final StarCrossed script is actually over 20,000 words! It’s a novella!”

Eye candy:

The art-style seems to be a blend of fantasy and futuristic sci-fi. It’s eye-catching and adorable, but what ultimately do you hope to express with the way the game looks?

“Fantasy and sci-fi are both settings that our team really enjoys! We wanted the game to feel stylish and magical, but also contemporary and relatable to players.

If we’re digging deeper into our thinking, we see StarCrossed’s aesthetic as a reimagination of these established genres, which are often male-centric and standardised by cis white creators. Think about your favourite fantasy stories. What would they look like if marginalised people were involved in their creation? Just to state very clearly, I’m not saying these works aren’t vitally important and valuable, they totally are! But, we need to understand how much these genres could expand in the hands of different creators. There is no reason to not be inclusive in our design of fictional worlds.

Starcrossed‘s style and characters are cute and sparkly but the gameplay grows to be quite challenging. We’ve noticed that players make quick assumptions about the content of the game due to its visuals. Feminine games are often dismissed for being easy or ‘casual’. We hope to challenge those stereotypes.”

The aesthetic has also been clearly influenced by Japanese Magical Girls, what inspired you to bring this popular manga genre to a video game?

“Before we really solidified StarCrossed’s visual identity, we knew the game was going to be a cooperative local multiplayer game. When we began looking into designing the setting and context for the game’s mechanic, we were excited about the idea of making a game with feminine aesthetics. For many members of our team, Magical Girl shows and comics like Tokyo Mew Mew, W.I.T.C.H., and Sailor Moon were an important part of our childhoods. These are stories about young heroines who are tasked with saving the world, but are also growing up and dealing with the drama of being human! Between battling aliens and monsters they also deal with heartbreak and complex emotions.

The Magical Girl genre is centred around themes of teamwork and collaboration. In most examples, strangers from different backgrounds come together to achieve a common goal. These stories are about young girls being powerful and finding strength in being together. Anyone who has been a teenage girl knows that friendships at that age are terrifying and it’s common to feel alone. You’re also grappling with internalised misogyny that dictates girls are sneaky, bitchy, not to be trusted, so it’s so important to have media that shows girls uplifting each other and collaborating in positive ways!”

Following on from this, does the game aim to subvert the Magical Girl genre and, if so, how does it differ from other genre subversions we’ve seen before?

“We purposefully wanted StarCrossed to borrow common Magical Girl tropes, so we started from what we knew and expanded from there. It was important to us that we keep the playfulness of the genre and have our characters explore not only their new magical powers, but also their emotions. In Story Mode, each character navigates their relationship with their partner, with themselves, and with the universe.

We made it a goal to create an inclusive Magical Girl story, which includes people of colour, non-binary people, and body diversity. This is our way of subverting the genre and building upon the existing core themes.”

Star-crossed lovers:

Are the relationships between characters entirely platonic? To put it another way, can we expect to see some romance emerge as the story progresses?

“The romance in StarCrossed isn’t overt, we intentionally wanted there to be a bit of nuance to the relationships. If you’re reading the relationship as romantic, it’s definitely there.

We wrote StarCrossed to be a gay space romance!

This was actually something we struggled with, so it’s a good question! Our team had many discussions about how explicitly we were showing romance between characters, keeping in mind that these characters are representing players. Since this is a game about negotiation and cooperation, the consent of both players is important and we didn’t want to force a relationship the pair of players might ultimately be uncomfortable with.

When demoing at events we see lots of couples come to play, but we also see parents and their children, platonic friends, and strangers. Having the characters enter a relationship that doesn’t mirror that of the players, and which they did not choose, can create discomfort. At the same time, we absolutely love when players want to pair and ship our characters! The design of the game is totally encouraging that.

Ultimately, we didn’t want to make a statement that the height of all relationships is romance. Close platonic friendships are just as meaningful and powerful as romantic ones!”

2019 has been an amazing year for non-binary representation across the world of TV and gaming. It’s great to see that ​StarCrossed ​ will feature non-binary characters but do you think AAA developers should aim to be more inclusive in their projects?

“The obvious answer is yes, absolutely. There’s absolutely no reason to not be inclusive in our storytelling. We are designing fictional worlds of our own creation and they reflect on our values. If you’re not being inclusive in your cast/characters and worldbuilding, you’re blatantly saying you don’t care about certain people and their stories.

I believe the way we achieve this as an industry is to diversify our workforce. Offering opportunities to marginalised developers is immensely importan, but we also need to make sure they are thriving and supported once they are here. ​Harmful workplace practices like crunch​ are rampant in the games industry and ​are inherently ableist​. Developers of colour and marginalised genders also experience burn out and ​leave the industry more frequently due to inflexible work spaces​.

As consumers, we can encourage change by supporting the work of marginalised developers and games with inclusive content. Throw your dollars at these awesome people and projects!

What to take away:

Finally, you have a great deal of experience as an educator. Did your experiences influence StarCrossed – even though it’s a video-game, can players still expect to learn something from playing?

“I have to challenge the “even though it’s a video game” because I work in educational games as my day job! Interactivity and gameplay loops are extremely conducive to learning and I believe all games teach us something. Games exercise our brains, improve our reflexes, and provide players with a safe place to explore extreme situations!

StarCrossed is a game centred around collaboration. Players practice communicating and trusting one another. Frequently, we’ve astounded parents by getting two young siblings to play together nicely after a day of wandering an expo floor fighting over controllers and who was better at playing games. The parents look at us like, “How did you get them to stop arguing?”. Game design is so powerful! It can influence our relationships and communication styles.

We hope that StarCrossed can offer a playful space where people come together and feel good about collaborating.”

Where to play:

Grab your friends, team up and get sparkly!

If you want to help bring greater diversity to the world of videogames, and have some great fun with your friends while you’re at it, you can support StarCrossed by picking up a copy of the game on Steam using the link below:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.