This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
The Hole Story isn’t a typical game, and the Negatives aren’t traditional game designers. They’re one of the teams that attended the inaugural Girls Make Games summer camp in California, a space designed specifically to encourage young women interested in all aspects of making video games. They took the Grand Prize at the first Girls Make Games Demo Day with The Hole Story, and since then raised over $30,000 through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to polish up their game even further and make it available sometime this year on as many gaming platforms as possible.
The Hole Story begins with Wendy: an archaeologist and unabashed digger of holes. One of Wendy’s favorite spots to break earth is near old trees, so, since you’re the one controlling her, you click around to poke a few holes in the ground—and that’s when things get wild.
Wendy manages to shovel herself through dirt and time to an unfamiliar kingdom that has problems of its own: their princess Alonna is missing. The King and Queen of this land promise Wendy a way back home if she can help find their daughter. It just so happens that Wendy is a pro at digging up clues and solving riddles, so a deal is made and you and Wendy start an adventure stuffed with riddles, puns, unicorns, and much more.
The Negatives showed off their work at the recent PAX East video and tabletop game convention in Boston. Representing the eight-person team was Serena Rusboldt, a multi-talented artist who is wisely diversifying her interests. She carries a spiral notebook everywhere for all manner of notes, thoughts, lyrics, and fiction, but often peppers in some sketches of ghosts and trees, which have also spread onto her arms. When pressed to consider her plans for the future, she said, “I would like to be a therapist, an artist, a musician, a game designer, a poet…” and so on, accepting no limitations.
One might assume then that the Negatives came in to the camp as friends with an established interpersonal rhythm, but Rusboldt says this isn’t the case. When asked if having been brought together as strangers contributed to their successful group dynamic, she said very much so: “We didn’t know each other at first, so we couldn’t just find our one friend and talk only to them. Being in this group really helped build my people skills, which was something I wasn’t really good at before.”
Rusboldt is an eloquent and expressive 15-year-old, so this confession was a little surprising. But she insists this is a recent development that resulted from the fact that the Negatives were in fact such an accepting and warm environment, so much so that her co-developers helped her “come to terms with my own identity crisis.”
She adds that each aspect of The Hole Story, from art through programming, was handled in some way by each member of the Negatives, making this a game-wide team effort. Character art, level design, music, programming, and everything in between has been collectively shaped by the group, with some technical assistance when needed.
The idea itself emerged from a combination of brainstorming jams early in the camp. The Negatives were often meeting around lunchtime, so a lot of their inspiration came from food, including “one idea about having a maze of cheesecake that you had to eat your way out of.”
In the end The Hole Story came out of two other sketches: one where a princess was kidnapped but her brother was too lazy to do anything about it (“that was based on my brother,” Rusboldt adds), and another about an aspiring archaeologist who wanted to dig through the earth to China. Together you get a story about a girl with a shovel digging through dirt and puns to help someone in need.
The Hole Story is still getting tweaked with help from Charlotte M. Ellett of c63 Industries, though she explains that she’s mostly around for programming backup and that “the design is being handled by the girls entirely.” What they’ve released so far certainly has the feel of a first work, but at the same time the ideas are fresh and the execution original in that way of not being saddled by the baggage of video game history.
This is the kind of dynamic shift that emerges when girls are encouraged to create games on their own terms, and The Hole Story promises to be the first taste of potential in a multi-course career for each of the developers involved.