We had a great time talking with Melissa Brinks for this Forbes article! -Hana
Oct 26, 2018, 10:00am
How Buddy System Games Turned Friendship And Advocacy Into An Adorable, Witchy Platformer
Melissa Brinks Contributor
Buddy System Games' mission is an unusual one. Rather than a statement about innovation or deep narratives or world-class graphics or any number of other buzzwords, they mention art, nature, social advocacy, and supporting marginalized people.
Little Bug, their first game as a team—their first game at all—embodies all of the above. This dreamy little platformer is far more than it seems at first glance. It's a story about intergenerational trauma, magic, fungi, and healing, all told through the eyes of a little black girl on a journey between worlds.
"It's a reflection on our true lives and our true struggles and the experience of single moms who are too exhausted to really show the love and the care that they feel for their children, and then what it means to contend with that, especially as a young black girl," says Iman Sylvain, who contributed to Little Bug's story, concept, and character.
"Buddy System" isn't just a cute moniker. Hana Harada and Bela Messex are the duo at the heart of things, but friends lend their talents in music, art, and story direction. It's not so much that Harada and Messex are Buddy System and everybody else is temporary or incidental—it's clear that Little Bug is what it is because of their collaboration, even if it's Harada and Messex listed in their company bio. Harada does much of the management, Sepand Mashiahof and Wizard Apprentice handle Little Bug's music, and Sylvain lends her talents to developing the story and concept, as well as a host of other talented folks. Their game is a combination of all of their talents, not any one person's vision. Though Messex handles the coding, game development, from concept to completion, is a collaboration.
"Bela's the only one who knew Unity, but our team aside from Bela is all people of color and queer folks," says Sylvain. "So in a lot of ways, Bela created access to this new platform where the rest of us could share our stories and tell our own narratives and have reflections of ourselves."
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That environment of support, encouragement, and granting access appears within Little Bug, too. Players control Nyah (a Swahili name meaning "purpose"), a little girl who ends up exploring a mysterious world, as well as a friendly spirit. The spirit, controlled with one analog stick while Nyah is controlled with the other, sends out a beam of light that draws Nyah over gaps and obstacles. It's an nontraditional platformer mechanically, and its story is equally unusual. Rather than the expected simple story of a kidnapped partner or the seeking of a coveted object, Nyah falls into this world through mysterious circumstances, and her trials there help her understand and heal her complicated relationship with her struggling single mother.
"The story came about with me and Hana and Bela really talking about the relationships we've had with our mothers in particular," Sylvain says, "like what it means to overcome the pain that we carry through multiple generations and the experience of trauma and what we do to heal our inner child as well as our parents and grandparents. And we were able to show that in a funky way with the girl collecting tools and trinkets that help her to navigate her world, like her fantasy world, this...spiritual realm as well as her home life, and bring all of those lessons back."
That level of personal detail isn't confined to the story. The team's love for California's diverse landscapes is all over the game, with sections capturing the beauty of the famed Joshua tree, mountains, and deserts. In fact, those landscapes are part of what made the team want to make their first game a platformer, as the genre frequently features large, beautiful vistas for players to appreciate as they jump from place to place. Messex cited part of his inspiration for the game as, "remembering what it's like to be a kid out in the wilderness, going camping with your family, and just sort of like what magical things your mind can come up with when you're that young and out in the middle of nowhere." That experience, the big skies, the imagination, the wilderness, is everywhere in the game's scenery.
But in addition to the beautiful landscapes, the world of Little Bug is infused with unearthly disembodied hands, eyes, and other things drawn in squiggly neon, representing Nyah's mother's emotional state. Because the story is told from a child's perspective, those layers of meaning aren't quite as clear to Nyah as they are to adults. The platforming is fun and interesting for its uniqueness, but it, like everything else in the game, is more than that—it's an experience in understanding, as Nyah learns to trust, try, fail, and begin to heal her generations of inherited trauma.
Players control a friendly spirit who can pull Nyah across gaps and obstacles using a magic beam.BUDDY SYSTEM GAMES
Nobody at Buddy System got their start as game designers—Messex studied art and actually made the first journal he worked on Little Bug's concept in from butcher paper and twine during slow shifts at the butcher shop where he worked, while Sylvain study ecology and microbiology. But games and all forms of interactive media can be incredibly collaborative art forms, and that collaboration is a huge draw for the team.
"We actually had cute long telephone calls, me sitting on the balcony chatting with them about like what it feels like to be a little witch and a scientist, to sitting together in Mexico at Hana's mom's house and... back and forth trips to LA and the Bay Area just to work on our relationships as friends and then also as collaborators on the project," Sylvain says. Making this project together wasn't just about making a game; they built up and maintained their friendships with one another at the same time.
"[Bela and I] were in a band together with Sepand who did the audio," Harada says. "It'd been many years since I was able to collaborate with my friends, and years had passed… [meaning] that we've also kind of gone into different directions, and our interest change and our skills change. Games are something that I didn't expect to work on, but makes so much sense as a platform for uniting all of these different mediums and different creative practices."
What's truly wonderful about Little Bug is that each piece is itself a work of art. The music is haunting and lovely, and is available separately on Bandcamp precisely because it stands so well on its own, even if you've never played the game. The story and its inspiration, the character of Nyah—all of it forms a complete package that sums up the whole of Buddy System. Though Messex might program, Harada might manage, Sylvain might write, Mashiahof and Wizard Apprentice might make music, the game itself is a collection of all of them, a piece of art every member of the team has left a mark on. It's cohesive, but special in how it feels like part of a larger conversation that began before its opening cutscene and will continue after.
That's by design. This is Buddy System's first game, their only game so far, but it's a game made with intent.
"We made this game and told the story of a little black girl, not all little black girls, meaning that this is not necessarily a reflection of an entire people," Sylvain says. "This is one story with complexity and nuance, and this little girl is a magical little witch, and I do believe that... there's magical elements to all of our resilience, but this is a particular story, and there are many stories to be told. I hope that this video game platform allows for other people to take up space, [so] folks on the margins [can] become centered in telling their own stories."