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Author Interview: Veve Jaffa
2016-10-13 · by Kerstin
Veve Jaffa is creative director at award-winning transmedia games studio Peardrum, producing interactive installations and playful art experiences exhibited around the world. Specializing in narrative design, FMV games and VR experiences, Veve’s work focuses on resurrecting and repurposing old and forgotten media as a basis for technical and emotional experimentation.
Veve is the author of this week’s story, “Which Passover Plague Are You?”
This interview was conducted via email in October 2016.
Kerstin Hall: So you are ordinarily based in Germany, but then you were in Cape Town last week, and now you are in Tel Aviv? How is the whirlwind international travel going?
Veve Jaffa: Though I do warmly consider Berlin a fluffy little Germanic nest of sorts, my window seat 30,000 ft above whatever city is next in my international tour is the closest I get to a home these days. I’m afraid I’m of one of these real-life ‘digital nomads’ you may have heard about on the internet. Nearly every week is a new destination and with it, the opportunity to introduce my work to a new audience.
Kerstin: You mentioned to me that you were setting up an exhibit in Tel Aviv. What are you exhibiting?
Veve: Well, it’s actually “Which Passover Plague Are You?”! You see, since the game’s release in July, I’ve been trying out its potential as an interactive theatrical experience and I must say, so far so good! It’s a rollicking good time, mostly because the audience never knows what to expect and to be honest, neither do I.
Since there’s very little of this particular kind of thing out in the wild—is it theatre? Is it a game? Is it an honest-to-goodness religious experience?—each play-through is unique, depending on the setting and culture and tone of the place. Suffice it to say, the only thing that stays the same is my heavenly get-up (did I mention I play the role of the big guy himself?) which you can see in all its glory here, at the game’s first live performance in Berlin.
Kerstin: What projects are you working on, IF or otherwise?
Veve: My workflow as a game developer tends to focus my energy on one large project while I create smaller, scalable projects within 3 month periods. For the last year, I’ve been working as Creative Director at independent games studio Peardrum on a number of awesome projects. including my directorial debut, 16-bit, 16mm adventure game, Shoot to Kill.
Since June I’ve been working on Nakam, a VR series following little-known tales of uprising and revenge from oppressed communities throughout history. Each chapter takes place in a different geographic location and time in history and has been an absolute adventure to create. The most harrowing but certainly rewarding experience was putting together a crew of urban explorers to visit a former SS bakery in Germany. The experience was as haunting as you’d imagine, especially since it’s been abandoned for 70 years, but in doing so I realized how necessary to the creative process visiting and interacting with these physical spaces has been. When we release the game next year, I hope players will be able to feel that extra attention to detail and textural tangibility.
Kerstin: “Which Passover Plague Are You?” is a little crazy and a lot of fun. Where did the idea originate?
Veve: The idea came from a desire to see more Jewish stories inspiring contemporary media, and creating one that could be both accessible and enjoyable regardless of familiarity with Jewish history and culture. That’s where the ‘cosmic quiz’ format comes in. Based on those cheesy Cosmo quizzes attempting to answer such pressing questions as ‘Are you Good Girl Hot or Bad Girl Hot?’, I incorporated a healthy dose of contemporary pop culture and cinema into the story to balance the narrative with instructions like, “Choose your plague’s ultimate ensemble.”
I’m also very interested in the verging-on-obsessive mysticism that has pervaded much of history’s perception of Judaism, so I knew I wanted to incorporate a mystical mathematical element to the game in the form of a Gematria puzzle. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi or the Coen Brother’s work (specifically A Serious Man), I wanted to give players the opportunity to clamber deep into the rabbit hole of Jewish numerology should they choose. The game takes place across the expanse of the universe, so I wanted to make it feel like a big world even in a small game.
Kerstin: This may be a dangerous question, but the piece invites it. Where do you personally stand with regards to religion, and (how) does this influence your art?
Veve: Trust me, the content gets a lot more dangerous when I’m standing in front of a room of unsuspecting humans sporting an impressively voluminous beard and claiming I’m the omnipotent creator of the universe.
In preparation for my upcoming show in Jaffa (shout-out to my namesake), I was working with some friends to get the trickier modern touches translated to Arabic and one of them simply had to step away because the content clashed considerably with his beliefs. I didn’t create this game with the intent of making people uncomfortable or as a sweeping commentary on spirituality or religion as a whole. Like everything I make, the heart of the story comes from a deeply personal place, and mine is one that draws on a divisive upbringing.
I was raised by an Orthodox Jewish mother and a formerly Christian father who converted to quite literally keep the peace. I often felt stifled by rules and judged by my community, and coming out as queer and transgender as an adolescent didn’t help matters. Judgment and exclusion from my community led to a pretty standard teenage rebellion where I rejected all things religious and spiritual and sought connections with people that would treat me with love and respect regardless of my identity. I was lucky in finding amazing communities of queer and trans Jews—people I could healthily process my feelings of exclusion with, and slowly find ways to reconnect with Judaism and incorporate its rich history and tradition into my life on my terms.
Passover is a remarkable tradition that calls for an intentional gathering to both acknowledge the oppression that the Jewish people have endured throughout history and celebrate our freedom from bondage today. Its spirit is one that deeply resonates with my own lived experiences, and so it only seemed natural to serve as a canvas to work through my relationship with the holiday and my newfound identity as a Jew. I suppose most people would seek spiritual counsel in the form of a therapist or a religious leader, but I make games. I made a game where a half-Arab queer Jew could stand at the front of the room and say, “I’m God,” and it’s accepted as the gospel truth. Surely that’s radical, but I don’t believe for a second it’s disrespectful. I built an unapologetically Jewish space to safely critique and explore my roots and I just hope it can serve a similar purpose for other people who have felt excluded or forgotten in their own communities. I plan to keep playing this game at every Passover seder to come and I couldn’t be happier that I created my own holiday tradition.
Kerstin: What do you do for fun?
Veve: Does my job of making games count as fun? When I manage to take time off, I’m likely to be found near the sea, snorkeling, surfing, or simply happily subsisting on sunshine. Other favourite pastimes include playing basketball, collaging, and plant-tending—especially succulents and mint.
Kerstin: Give me one unusual factoid about yourself.
Veve: I don’t sleep.
Kerstin: Describe yourself as a developer.
Veve: If you handed Jean Vigo and Vincent Van Gogh a Vive and left them alone for a month, I like to imagine the results wouldn’t stray too far from my playful little experiments. My dev toolkit includes a Bell and Howell 70C, a crowbar, and a lot of movie-ready makeup—not exactly what first comes to mind when you think ‘game developer.’
Kerstin: If readers want to read more of your work, what would you recommend as a starting point?
Veve: “Which Passover Plague Are You?” is the only IF I’ve released thus far, but narrative design is a crucial element in all of my games. Shoot to Kill for instance, uses a branching narrative mechanic that I originally designed using Twine, leading players to multiple paths based on their choices. My forthcoming games are all narrative-based as well and the best way to keep up to date on what I’m releasing is to follow me on Twitter where I regularly post updates on development, as well as my itch.io page where I post nearly all of my newly released games and transmedia projects.
Kerstin: What would you say to an author of traditional fiction who was considering trying out IF for the first time?
Veve: Take risks and be patient with yourself. Learning new things takes time, and luckily we live in an era where tutorials and resources for making IF are readily available and accessible.
Kerstin: What are your goals for the future?
- Release all these games or die trying
- Not actually die
- Be the first person to conduct a purely chromatic conversation with a bioluminescent animal
- Eat all the tahina.
Kerstin: When you were six years old, what did you want most in the world? What do you want right now?
Veve: When I was six I wanted more than anything to be a squid. Now that I’ve achieved that goal, I mostly want to continue being as cool as I was when I was six.
Kerstin: Interplanetary travel or time travel? Substantiate.
Veve: I’d rather embark on a vast interplanetary adventure than travel time in a discrete location in the universe. Luckily in ‘Which Passover Plague Are You?’ I can do both.