We talked with Taylor Swietanski, game designer & artist from Philadelphia, PA, creator of the acclaimed experimental adventure game THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER, about music, looking to the past and clowning on professors.
Inspiration is a many formed thing, are you able to point to any one thing, artwork, or moment and draw a thread from it to the work that you’re doing today?
In 2013 a friend showed me Bandcamp. I started finding local bands and was really
inspired by the DIY process and culture of it all. We have a vibrant house show scene here in Philly where bands play & promote their music, visual artists sell prints or stickers, it’s all super low budget and raw and I wanted to be a part of the artistic community here. Because I was really interested in making games, that felt like my way to contribute.
In terms of games, I think Gone Home was a turning point for me. The whole bait-&-switch in the way it was marketed as a horror game, being a first-person “walking sim” having no gameplay and the controversy of that, combined with Riot grrrl and a queer love story. There was nothing I’d played before it that I could compare it too. It’s still the only game that’s made me cry haha. That made the connection for me between the music I was listening to and games, like “oh, you CAN express emotions in games” and not have it come off as corny or forced.
With the themes and sound of your work heavily infused with it, what’s your relationship to American folk music?
I mean I’m 100% inspired by the folk & punk scene here in Philly. It feels like everyone is really talented and in a band. Some specific local artists that inspired me since my early Bandcamp days being Alex G, Emily Yacina, Pill Friends. There are multiple references to Pill Friends specifically in SBBR. I saw them play live a couple of years ago before the lead singer died. I’ll never forget how he had this image of mother mary stuck on the front of his guitar. There’s just a realness & reality to it all that resonates with me.
Your work has this design theme of emerging into light and then returning to darkness, or a curiosity that leads there, an ambient visual dread. What are your influences in that sense?
There are plenty of references to other media, and scenarios where I’m talking about people in my life and their experiences, but the whole light/dark theme feels like the part of my games that are me. The way you move through & explore the spaces is me documenting my mental imagery, my dreams, and that weird state between being awake & sleeping. I don’t really remember the shapes or colors of things, but I vividly remember the spaces, how I moved through them, and the atmosphere/how I felt.
When I’m making a game, I don’t start with the mechanics or what you’re going to “do”. Instead I design the ideas & emotions I want to express, making sort of an emotional beat sheet, and then I build levels based on a dream space I’ve experienced that had the same tone. After that, mechanics & actions get layered in to support the tones of each space. I think visually, light and dark represent the contrast in emotions between the spaces. Symbolically, they are more about the cycles of emotions I experience, and act as a reminder that even in the darkest moments of my life there’s still light. And realistically, vice versa.
There is a moment in THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER with a television playing archival clips from old public broadcasting art documentaries and cartoons. What impact do you think television has had on you?
Umm, I guess TV is more of a generational gap for me. My parents’ generation will say things like “you’re addicted to your phones, THEY are controlling and manipulating you on social media” and it’s like, honey, THEY have been using TV to control you your entire lives, and you didn’t even know they were. At least with the internet there’s interactivity, and we can create our own content and connect with each other. TV is so passive & depressing, but something like YouTube feels less so? There’s definitely a conflict/hypocrisy there that I haven’t worked through.
Thinking about the shows you chose, there’s a documentary of the artist Georgia O’Keefe that comes up, why her?
Well out of the famous artists from history, she’s one of the only women we talk about. I know there are others like Frieda Kahlo and Berthe Morisot that get attention, but in my art history classes in college it was 99% dudes. Then I’d go to a museum in New York and she’d be the only woman artist on display. Guerrilla Girls already made commentary on this with “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” but 30 years later that hasn’t really changed. I gave her art extra attention whenever I saw her work in a gallery, and I really grew to like her abstraction & colors. More importantly though, whenever I see one of her paintings it makes me consider what it means to be a woman and an artist, and how your work gets perceived differently because of that.
What is your broader relationship to archival sources, where did that interest come from?
I guess it comes from hip hop? I love the way sampling is used to tell a story. I think referencing sources is important for showing your influences, and reminding everyone that the message is the same, it’s just a new speaker.
At the end of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly he creates this conversation with 2Pac, where Kendrick says “Sometimes I can like, get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’mma push out, or where it comes from. Trip me out sometimes”, and 2Pac responds, “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us”
I like referencing history because it reminds me we’re not alone in our experience, and I like making connections to what we’re all facing today & might face down the road. I think all art strives to be a conversation from the past into the future.
You have one game that I can’t not mention, Curb Your Adaption, what went on with that?
Hahaha oh god that game. I went to Drexel University for game design, and we had this Experimental Games elective where we’d make a game in 2 weeks based off a prompt, sorta game jam style. Our professor would partner each of the game design/art kids with one of the computer science kids in our class because “apparently” we needed their help because there’s no way we could make a game without a programmer.
(I minored in CS so I most certainly know/knew how to program) The CS kids were NOTORIOUS for being super stubborn with the design, but also doing zero work towards the projects, so I compromised on designing some weird typewriter game where you’re trying to be a successful screenwriter from your mom’s basement but the light keeps shutting off?
I was always trying to make weird/experimental games in the class, but the professor reallyyyy didn’t like my style, so I would get mad and just troll with the games. So like the music is a sample of the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song combined with a sample from the movie Adaptation with Nicolas Cage? And the one thing my CS partner did was pick out the scripts from movies he thought were really bad, which continued to add to the joke-y chaos, so I was like “YES my professor is going to hate this game” and you know what?? That was his favorite game I’d made all class!
Finally – is there anything you’d like to promote, or any links for people to follow your work further?
I’m working on my next game, but I have nothing to share right now. If you’re interested, play THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER (justadog.itch.io), or follow me on twitter (@justadog_ski) for updates.