By: Stephanie Chan
Ciara Burkett’s work ranges from experimental pieces of interactive fiction to side-scrollers. Each of her games contains a dream-like quality, leaving them up to interpretation. She describes one of her games, “orun,” simply as a “wandering simulator.” This sense of wandering seems to be a central inspiration as Burkett invites players to explore a landscape that is both surreal yet familiar.
“With the invention and popularization of video games, even our entertainment is determined to keep our brain’s activity at its maximum,” Burkett writes in her developer’s log. “And beneath this scramble for our attention, there are those who just want to wander.”
The spaces Burkett creates are often contemplative. They capture a flash of emotion and memory, like holding fireflies in a jar.
“Zurnapa,” for instance, is a short, unsettling reenactment of a dream. The description of the game is cryptic: “When you laugh, the game is over.” The text crawls slowly across the screen as you wonder what that means. The tension rises higher and higher as the rain starts pouring down around you.
“The dream made a big impression on me, and when I told a friend about it he said excitedly, ‘You’re becoming a shaman!’” Burkett recalls. “So I guess that’s what zurnapa is about: self-acceptance and the road to self-discovery.”
The road for Burkett’s own self-discovery started in 2009 when she learned how to code, though she’s always had a passion for games.
“I’m a second generation gamer, and I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember,” Burkett says. “Making games, however, seemed like a mystical art form bestowed upon you by the universe.”
In 2014, she took the plunge and released her first game, “The Jugular Fish,” a magic realist exploration of a fictional man-killing fish. It’s a satirical piece of interactive fiction that crackles with an electric wit. The way the jugular fish kills its victims? With heat vision. And what do teenagers do with it? They use its toxins to get high. Of course.
In addition to coding her games, Burkett also does all the artwork for them. One of Burkett’s current projects is “oku,” which features a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and the everyday. Early artwork features the main character, Gnana, in her cozy red brick apartment — with her hover scooter parked out back.
“Without giving too much away, the title of oku is a double entendre which refers to the region in Cameroon and a bastardization of a Turkish word meaning ‘to read,’” Burkett says. “And it could refer to many other things! I wanted to give the player a polysemous sense of vastness and otherworldliness with a touch of familiarity.”
The theme of a familiar otherworldliness is echoed in Burkett’s other current project, called “we walk the dirt sea,” which is still early in its development. Its artwork evokes a number of things: sigils of protection, paintings on cave walls, alien glyphs.