February 13, 2017 6:30 AM | Joel Couture
She Remembered Caterpillars is a game about handling grief. Not solely, and not aggressively, but through the player's work in helping tiny, adorable forest creatures find their way through these twisting maps of caterpillars and fungus, they share in a story of loss, confusion, sorrow, and death.
People handle grief in different ways at different times. Some want to get away from it. Others seek to confront it or feel guilty about turning away from it. Dealing with it requires many things at once, and Creator Daniel Goffin and writer Cassandra Khaw worked to create an experience that would help in multiple ways.
Whether through escaping to a world of cute creatures who need help with puzzles, or by embracing the story and sharing in the pain of someone else who has suffered, She Remembered Caterpillars is a game that can help soothe the sorrow of loss.
A Game For the Grieving
She Remembered Caterpillars can help players confront grief. This isn't to say that the game was explicitly designed as a means of dealing with grief, but rather, parts of it could be said to aid in the healing process, whatever that might mean to the player.
A cute universe of charming creatures is a fine place to escape to when your life is grim from a recent loss. The bright colors, cheerful creatures, and animated movements evoke a whimsy from the player, taking them to a happy place far removed from their own woes.
When asked about how games can help with grief, Khaw had two replies. "The simple, boring answer is: they can help us in a lot of ways. Distraction, for one. Being able to focus your energies elsewhere can help some people a lot. They can also function as a way of escapism - I did that, still do that with Pokemon Sun and Moon. Whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed, I let myself be bathed in its happiness. Nothing bad can happen as long as I am in that world."
Not everyone needs happiness to get away from their pain. Not everyone wishes to escape from it, or can. In this regard, a cheerful world becomes a mirror that only reminds you how much you're hurting. Their happiness can amplify your pain. Seeing cute creatures may not help, here.
She Remembered Caterpillars isn't just about cute creatures, though. Between stages, the game offers snippets of dialogue and narrative, telling a story in only a handful of sentences. This story deals with someone who is watching a loved one fade away, dealing with the pain in raw, evocative phrases and bits of dialogue that teem with the hurt of loss.
"On the other side of things, we have games that teach us what it is like to lose someone. It's a strange thing to contemplate, I think. Why would anyone want to buy anything that causes them anguish? I used to wonder until I lost my dad." says Khaw.
When one can't hide from the pain or forget it, sometimes just knowing another has suffered like you can help. It can remind that you're not alone in your sadness, and as much as it only feels like people are offering empty words when they say "I know what you're going through.", there are many who do know exactly how you feel.
"There's a kind of fierce ... catharsis, I think, in seeing that someone else can hurt the way you had. Not a sadistic thing. But it bridges the loneliness that comes with grief, provides that idea that you're not alone." says Khaw.
She Remembered Caterpillars deals with both of these ideas, using a mysterious, short narrative to guide the player through a shared loss, and through its charm as a well-made, beautiful puzzle game.
"So, early on, we talked about how we didn't want to impose the story on the player. Puzzle games, if you think about it, are generally about the puzzles themselves - even when you're talking about something like INSIDE or The Talos Principle. There's a rich world, sure. But nothing you can't absently click away from as you get back to what you're doing." says Khaw.
Games can often be an escape from grief - an escape hatch from the real world. Many people choose to lose themselves in an alternate reality - one where they are powerful and can exert change on the events around them. That power is quite appealing in moments of grief or loss, when you feel powerless against the world and its events.
She Remembered Caterpillars lets players have that power, helping guide tiny creatures through color-based challenges, all set in dream-like backdrops and hidden, wooded places. It's a place of bright colors that bring a sense of joy, and the fun of bringing these cute creatures home. It's a place far removed from the throes of grief, with your problems fading away in the somber leaves and stumps. It still offers that escapism someone who's grieving may crave.
Part of this would mean keeping the story to the background. With a large push for story, the game would lose some of the focus on play that drew players to it. Not only this, but it would also force a certain heavy-handedness to the plot, shoving it in players' faces when they might just want to be playing a game. Whether they're forgetting something in the game's world or just enjoying play, imposed story would trip that up.
Some players wish to confront their grief head-on, or at least aren't looking to avoid it. This is where She Remembered Caterpillars pulls no punches, using a story of loss, deftly told, to convey the pain without any buffer. In this, players could find a shared pain, confronting their grief head-on through the pain of another.
Still, how do you do so without spoiling it for those who just wanted a little escape from their pain? How do you balance tackling grief directly and wanting to escape it altogether? Through telling the story in short, carefully-constructed snippets that could be ignored if the player didn't want them, but would contain enough narrative weight to encourage thought and share in the player's pain.
"Everything else would have stopped players mid-level, forcing them to read a bit of text that in this particular moment they might not want to read. It was important to us to make the story cast a shadow onto the mechanic so that both could influence each other without distracting players too much." says Goffin.
The point was for the story to provide a tint to the game's events, not be its entire driving force. "It would have been all too easy to add a story about cute and helpless little thingies living in the forest that needed the players help... *yawn*" says Goffin.
In that tinting of events, not only would story not intrude on the gameplay, but it would encourage the player to think about the story for themselves. The power to make a player think as they play comes from acting with a subtle hand. It comes from giving the player enough information to consider without doing the thinking for them. In this way, not only does the story not intrude on gameplay, but it also encourages the player who does like the story to think upon what they are being told. The grief can be ignored, or it can be examined.
"There was (almost) always a sense of mystery to this game--a thing about tiny weird creatures in a mossy space between large trees. Making everything completely obvious would have hurt that sense of mystery. A normal game would transition from forest to farm land to city and so forth, visualising the old trope of rural innocence versus capitalistic industrialism." says Goffin. "The game is supposed to feel and look like a dream or a hallucination, so therefore the act jumps from mysterious forest to calm sunrise city scape to cold fungi-nouveau glass palace."
Why is the story telling them these snippets of events? Why does everything seem to have this odd hint of sorrow? Through only hinting at their story of grief and keeping the game mysterious, the developers strengthened the player's introspection on grief, and also left an opening for them to ignore it altogether.
"With She Remembered Caterpillars, we didn't want anything to be too overt - it would get in the way of the game. So, we tried building the imagery through the visuals, the atonal music, and the surreal excerpts of story, hoping to create an atmosphere conducive to our other aims." says Khaw.
Telling a story that was only hinted at, giving the player room to think about it or discard it at will, was a challenge for Khaw. "What you're seeing is the consequence of transforming a 50-page script into about 2500 words. If there's a sense that we had a considerably bigger world at some point, that's because there was."
Editing a story down from such a large document down to its barest elements, yet still delivering those story beats with emotional power and narrative cohesiveness is no easy task. It's one that had to rely on carefully-placed mystery, yet also find the most important key moments, delivering them in a way that would tell the entire story whether the player chose to think on it or not. It would be much richer if they thought about it, but that wouldn't be a requirement.
This resulted in the game's narrative style, using title cards and a few sentences between stages to tell the story. Using only a handful of words every level, they would set out to tell a story of grief, using just enough words to tell the story clearly enough that an uninterested player could understand it, mysteriously enough that it encouraged the player to think, and fast enough that it didn't intrude on gameplay or players who wished to ignore the sad tinge to events.
"Oh. God. The act of telling the story itself. You have no idea how much we bickered about that." says Khaw.
The results were well worth it, though. Though challenging, the game's plot skirts the very narrow line between something that can be bypassed and still have player enjoy the game, but still tell an emotional story of personal loss and pain that someone could share in.
In this, Khaw and Goffin have created a tool for helping players deal with grief in their own way. Whether they wish to ignore it and escape, find companionship in the shared pain or another, or to have a quiet space to navigate their grief, She Remembered Caterpillars can help players through times of suffering. Through this, they hope to help people in times of pain, and perhaps, help soothe the grief of the next generation to come.
"Certainly, there's an aspect we're hoping to evoke with a certain category of people. We want to encourage parents to talk about death with their children, about their death, and dealing with it. Because, well, mine didn't."
She Remembered Caterpillars is available for $11.99 on Steam and Itch.io. For more information on the game and developer jumpsuit entertainment UG, you can head to the developer's site, the game's site, or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.