The young graphic designer making video games about memory and longing

Cécile Richard, Melbourne local and hobbyist video game maker

Photo: Emma Hartley

3 June 2021

Few of us would think about transforming a letter addressed to a friend who had passed away into a video game – but Cécile Richard did.

Despite such personal subject matter, Richard’s game ‘Under a Star Called Sun’ delicately touches upon universal themes of memory, longing and grief.

An 8-bit character drifts in a spaceship, reflecting on moments spent with friends while the memories begin to disintegrate, pixel by pixel.

Created during 2020 lockdown, the game aches with that struggle we now understand so well ­– the struggle of distance and separation from loved ones.

Combining art and video games

Richard reimagines the boundaries of what defines a video game maker.

The 26-year-old moved from France to Australia at the beginning of 2018 after a brief visit to Melbourne to meet online friends in 2017.

Richard began using ‘Bitsy’ – a simple game-making tool created by Adam Le Doux – because they had no coding experience.

A graphic designer by trade, they label themself as one of the many “hobbyist video game makers” who call Melbourne home.

Richard focusses on the artistic – rather than commercial ­– purpose of their games, creating work in a way that they say is “very serious and very silly at the same time”.

“To make art and to enjoy it is to have a fundamental curiosity about how other people think and feel,” Richard says.

Niches not riches

Richard is pretty sure the people who play their games are “twenty-something-year-olds who have feelings”, they say.

They laugh and admit that’s a pretty low bar.

“Everything that’s really interesting won’t be for everyone,” they say.

This ethos is a subversion of the AAA approach of game creation with its constant pursuit of profit and exploitative work culture to churn out the next blockbuster title.

Companies such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts dominate the commercial video games industry that, globally, is worth over US$100 billion.

In Australia, the hobbyist and commercial video game sectors have a more fluid relationship compared to the United States.

Due to many of the mid-sized video game companies in Australia disappearing after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, hobbyist and independent video game makers come in and out of the AAA studios.

But Richard remains firmly in the hobbyist realm and when you play one of their games, you don’t just play a game.

Sometimes when you go to click the button it reads, “play elegy” or “play poem”.

It is impossible to tell where one genre ends, and another begins.

This playfulness with form and content is something that Richard would never be able to properly explore in the AAA world, leaving them to explore the video-making craft as they like.

Doing virtual hangouts right

Due to the Melbourne covid lockdown, the 2020 Freeplay festival celebrating independent videogames was held online.

Richard helped design a virtual space called the “Freeplay Zone” where festival participants would create a basic customised avatar and enter a warehouse space to watch livestreams that would appear as if they had been projected onto a warehouse wall.

“For me, it always comes down to that intersection between physical and virtual spaces,” Richard says, “The Freeplay Zone was a way of having a place to hang out during lockdown.”

Freeplay festival director Chad Toprak describes Richard’s creativity as a drawing together of different artistic practices.

Richard’s contribution the Freeplay Zone saved the festival from increasing the “Zoom fatigue” that Toprak says participants were experiencing.

“If we’re not coming together in person, there should be some way of being together,” says Toprak and the Freeplay Zone beautifully served that purpose.

Richard is coming back for Freeplay festival next week and says they hope to “give people the sense of returning somewhere”.

The distance between an artist and their work

Returning to memories of a loved one to create art can be troubling for some but Richard knows how to prevent themself from becoming overly involved in such personal work.

In creating their games, two things are important: knowing when to stop and knowing when it’s good enough.

“You have to understand what it means to make something at all,” Richard says, “You have to put more thought into it than just venting.”

In the case of the lost friend who inspired ‘Under a Star Called Sun’ Richard decided, “I want to make something for this person.”

They find that some of these personal aspects are filtered through the sci-fi genre, and the labour of making the work helps create the distance between themself and the digital object.

That distance also makes any negative feedback less personal and therefore easier to swallow.

But none of this is to say that the lines in the game are any less haunting as a result.

“when a perfectly ordinary day turns into / a perfectly extraordinary day / who do you blame for misfiling a memory / in the file cabinets of your brain?”

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