Interview with Jennifer Diane Reitz - 28 April 2008
This is the second in a short interview series which began in March.
I would normally start by asking you to tell your own story and define your own legacy, but you've already written extensively about how you got into the video game industry in the credits of your hit puzzle game, Boppin'. I won't make you write all of that again! Could you, instead, briefly tell us about some of the games you worked on before Boppin'?
The first game I ever worked on was my own, Multiverse, which was never allowed to be completed. I just went in to Activision, made a proposal, and bam, I was 10K richer, and had a project going. The old days. Sigh.
However, things did not work out (politics), so instead they farmed me out to other projects while stringing me along about my sold game.
For Activision, I worked on:
Crazy Rabbit / Pharaoh's Revenge
Some damn Mac game I can't remember
Gary Kitchen's Gamemaker (I did the Sci-Fi expansion pack)
After Activision, I did piecemeal work for many companies, such as Epyx (background art... for something. I can't remember anymore), Electronic Arts (I helped on Legacy of the Ancients, for example), Interplay (tile work), and Broderbund (more tile work, as well as level construction for some Robin Hood game. I think it was Broderbund). There was also some tiny crap work I did for other little companies that I'm not sure I even remember the names of anymore.
And of course, there was the utterly farged-up deal with Apogee. What a nightmare that was.
The whole time, I was always trying to get my original game, Multiverse, made somehow. The rights reverted to me when Activision went down in flames over a stock scandal, before it reformed. I went through a lot of alternate names for the game, it never got made. Basically, Elsewhere was going to be a side-scrolling game that would best be described as a blend between Pitfall 2, an RPG, and Spore - it used procedurally constructed, tile based worlds, set in a Multiverse of different universes, each with their own unique physical laws, galaxies (or an equivalent), planets (or an equvalent) and landscapes filled with stuff to do and see. It sounds very huge, but in actuality the algorithm I came up made such random-repeatable content generation trivial. In it's day, it was considered impossible, which is why it was eventually cancelled altogether. Today, the basic principles I invented have gradually, over time, been discovered by others (its not difficult stuff, really) and are commonplace in game development.
Are you a programmer yourself, or is your contribution to gaming your artwork and ideas?
I am not a programmer. I just do not have the temperament or the memory. My specialty is art and design. Graphics, and game and level creation.
Boppin' has an interesting concept: conquering evil turned out to be a bad thing, so Yeet and Boik set out to rescue imprisoned monsters to restore balance to the universe. The concept of a balance between good and evil is ancient, but seems to be most prominent in Eastern culture, such as the famous Taijitu, the traditional symbol for yin and yang. Is there an underlying subtext of Taoism or other ancient philosophical or religious thought, or am I reading too much into a video game?
You are exactly right. My goal was to play with the concept of Duality in the backstory of Boppin, the basic fact that without dark, there is no contrast, thus one would be as effectively blind in a room of pure white light as one would be in a room of pitch black dark. The mind can only define things in relation to other things, one thing in relation to an opposite.
This was, I expect, my response to the (at the time) massive attacks against all sorts of gaming media of the time, especially things like Dungeons and Dragons and so forth, but also towards computer and video games, as being only about Very Naughty Things like killing and destroying and such. While this is, to a degree, a valid point (in games, as in life, it is easier to destroy than create, even if it is merely the erasure of a sprite from a screen in response to a collision) it is also true that without destruction, or loss, of something, it is very difficult to come up with excitement or drama. One ends up with the very difficult task of making ordinary tasks exciting or interesting, which can be done (Harvest Moon, Cooking Mama), but does not feed directly into our hunter-gatherer need to.... hunt and gather. Kill and take. We evolved to want that, to need that. If we cannot actually kill and take, then we gain relief from something similar... the warfare that is business, real warfare, or... more pleasantly... media. Books, movies, and games with much excitement, chasing and being chased, enemies to defeat, and spoils to be won.
People, some people, seem to want this fact of our hunter-gatherer nature to Not Be True, and go off on a tear about how anything that satisfies that drive is evil. It happens in cycles, the most recent being the current 'protect our children!' fuss about video games, despite the fact that, overwhelmingly, most gamers are adults.
So, when I designed a puzzle game (the idea was to raise money to fund -what else- Multiverse), I needed to make a statement about duality.
Freeing a Dalek in Boppin'
Most of the monsters I've rescued in Boppin' look original, but I distinctly recognized a Dalek, as well as the pink, yellow and blue ghosts from the Pac-Man games. Are you a Doctor Who fan, and do you have a favorite Doctor? Besides Pac-Man, what are of some of the games that inspired Boppin' and other games that you've had creative input into?
Oh, I adore Dr. Who. I have two favorite Doctors (Jon Pertwee and Sylvester McCoy), and one least favorite (Colin Baker). I am enjoying the new Dr. Who, although I wish they would get the hell off earth. I am getting very tired of Wales.
To list my inspirations with regard to games would be to list all the games I have ever played, or collected, which would be well into the thousands. I have been very influenced by Japanese game design of all sort, primarily because that culture seems to have long placed real value on the art of games, and not relegated games to be 'kiddy fare' as is the case in America. I also have great respect for many of the early UK developers, who showed such great heart and imagination in their games.
In Boppin', since the goal was to free the enemies of all the other games in existence, I did my best to reference other games without getting in trouble in terms of copyright. So my versions are always a little different, and each is not intrinsically important to the game, thus safe under the Fair Use doctrine. Or at least were at the time. The laws are increasingly becoming Draconian and fascistic, for the benefit not of Mankind, but for the almighty Corporation. Very sad.
I'm glad that someone else likes Sylvester McCoy's Doctor. Most people seem to have given up on him because of his early clowning around with spoons and such, but he really became a dark and interesting character before the end. And yes, Colin Baker's Doctor was unpopular.
Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are probably my favorite Doctor and Companion pairing of all time. Seriously. I just loved them together. I find it interesting to hear that I am not alone in my dislike for Colin Baker. As for Sylvester's clowning and spoons... why that is a direct reference to the second doctor, Peter Troughton, which, while I haven't seen much of (not much has survived) I have loved every bit I have seen. I thought Sylvester adding those touches was nothing short of brilliant. But then, I like touches of continuity.
Yes, McCoy's blustery Doctor and free-spirited, explosive-wielding Ace were a great odd couple.
Blueprint, looseleaf and vector levels.
Some of the levels are so original that I feel a bit like I've ripped through the fabric of reality and seen the inner workings of a Matrix-like universe. There's a level that looks like a blueprint, one that takes place on a sheet of looseleaf paper, and one with "vector graphics". Every level looks completely different from the last. Where did you come up with all of these ideas?
I...am considered to be rather creative by the people who know me. I just thought them up. I figured that really diverse levels would be, well, cool. Awesome. That kind of thing. So I just... used my creativity. I don't know how creativity works, it... just does.
There's a bonus that looks like a goban in level 9 of the first episode of Boppin'. Are you a Go player? Do you play traditional Eastern games like Shogi and Xiangqi?
I...love...Go. Go is my game. I suck utterly at it, I am probably the worst Go player on earth, but I just adore the game. It is almost impossible to find someone to play with though, darn it. Yes, I know, I could do the internet Go thing, but one of the things I really treasure about Go is the sensuality of it. By that, I mean playing on a nice, thick Kaya-wood board with really thick stones that go TUNK! when you place them with determination. I love the ancient feel of it, and the smooth wood and stone, the resonant sound, and the weight of history behind it. Can't get that over an internet connection.
To me, there are many joys from computer games, and I love them beyond measure. But there are also very special and singular joys from tabletop, in person games, that no computer experience can ever give. The joy of a tabletop Warhammer 40K game, with painted miniatures battling over hand-made terrain, or the wild camaraderie and whimsical fun of a tabletop RPG, the dice smacking on the table, people laughing, and acting out their parts. A computer can give beautiful worlds and moving, living creatures, but it cannot give human closeness, the feel of real things, the wonder of a shared mutual space. Each have their beauty, the computer, and the tabletop.
But for me, half of Go is the sensual delight of the board, the pieces, the company, and some really fine green tea.
Sorry, I went poetic, I suppose. But that's how it is for me.
I also like Chess, don't get me wrong, but... Go is special.
Since you've been so poetic, I think I should at least explain to our readers what Go is! Go is a game for two players, who take turns placing stones on the intersections of a (usually) 19×19 grid, attempting to surround the most territory. A piece or group of connected pieces is alive as long as they have one or more spaces around them or inside of them (called liberties), and they are said to have found "life" if they surround territory in such a way that capture is impossible. The game is so simple to learn that children may begin to play at the age of 3, but the strategy is so complex that computers still can't master it. The game originated in China perhaps 4000 years ago, with the oldest surviving references to the game about 2500 years old. In many East Asian cultures, Go was considered one of the most important skills a civilized person could learn. Go is enormously popular in China, Korea, Japan, and throughout Asia. It also has a strong following in the United Kingdom and California. According to some sources, Go is the most popular game in the world. According to Wikipedia:
"The traditional Go board (qi pan in Chinese and goban in Japanese) is solid wood, from 10 to 18 cm thick. In Japan, it is preferably made from the rare golden-tinged Kaya tree (Torreya nucifera), with the very best made from Kaya trees up to 700 years old. In the Japanese style, the stones (go-ishi) are kept in matching solid wood bowls (go-ke) and are made of clamshell (white) and slate (black). In China, the game is traditionally played with yunzi stones, which are single convex (i.e. flat on one side). The stone comes from Yunnan province. Historically, the most prized stones were made of jade, often given to the reigning emperor as a gift. It is permissible to strike the board firmly to produce a sharp click. Many consider the acoustic properties of the board to be quite important."
I think that explains the sensual aspect of the game that you were talking about. I fully agree with your comment about the weight of history. I enjoy playing ancient games like Go, Chess, Checkers, and Backgammon. When one works in the computer industry, always looking to the future, it's important to keep one foot grounded in the past. When I play Go, that's something I have in common with every generation of humans going back 4000 years.
The fifth episode of Boppin' is called "Aleph-Zero Hunnybunz!", which lets you play the infinite number of custom levels that can be created with the editor. Aleph-zero (or Aleph-null), is the cardinality of the set of all natural numbers, representing any set of numbers that is countably infinite. Who was the math nerd on the project who came up with that name?
That would be me. I am utterly terrible at actually doing math, at all the boring stuff of calculation, but visualizing higher math is fun. Basically, I am fascinated with higher math, so long as I can approach it from a purely visual method. If I have to do actual calculation, it... hurts. Seriously, it feels like torture. But, give me a non-Euclidean space to visualize, and I am happy as a clam. I especially like the mathematics of infinity and higher dimensions. Georg Cantor is a hero of mine.
Do the names Yeet and Boik mean anything?
They are a nod to Trurl and Klapaucius from Stanislaw Lem's 'The Cyberiad'. It may not seem so, what with the names being so very different, but in my strange mind, that is what inspired the names of Yeet and Boik.
The differences between the Amiga and DOS versions of the game seem to be that the Amiga version had 32-color graphics and superior music and sound, while the DOS version had 256-color VGA graphics, 160 levels instead of 150, and a different set of graphics. You later released a version 2.0 of Boppin' for Win32 which uses the DOS graphics and the Amiga music and sound, and removed all censorship. You're up to v2.03 now. Other than recompiling the game for Win32 and restoring the Amiga audio, are there any other noteworthy changes between v2.03 and the DOS and Amiga versions?
We updated the music a bit, and smoothed out some minor compositional errors.
The Deady Bear
Let's talk about the Accursed Toys Manifesto. The preamble states that 60% of all computer and console gamers are over the age of 25, so you've chosen to target your games at that larger and more sophisticated audience, which seems to make sense. The mottoes of the manifesto are "Determined to Disturb" and "Adult Games for Adult Minds". The meaning of "Determined to Disturb" isn't immediately obvious until you explain the concept behind the Deady Bear in the credits of Boppin'. You say that the Deady Bear "shocks, just a little, in a weird wake-up kind of way. It forces a part of the brain to start thinking about the acceptance of violence in our culture."
Yeet and Boik also commit suicide when they run out of lives. Boik commits seppuku (Japanese for "stomach cutting"), a traditional form of suicide among the Samurai which is achieved by falling on one's own sword. Yeet puts a gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. About the suicides you write, "Full Frontal Funny, but pause to think why am I laughing? Good art raises questions. It challenges, it disturbs habitual responses. We at Accursed Toys intend to entertain you, but also to poke your brain with a sharp stick from time to time. But in a good way. Because we all need it, on occasion, lest we become ORDINARY."
I agree with everything you've written. The best art in every form, from paintings and sculptures to plays, television shows and movies, shock us by doing things that are brilliantly original or far outside of our normal experience of reality, or by doing things that aren't supposed to be socially acceptable to show us that they should be. George Carlin made a career out of telling us that words are just words, and we should use them as tools instead of being slaves to them. We went from a culture where women had to hide their ankles to a society that regards the human body as beautiful -- a work of art. It looks like Accursed Toys is trying to be a trailblazer in the video game industry. I would agree with all of the choices that you made in this experiment if the nature of Boppin' was inherently unsuitable for children. If it was going to be PG anyway, then why not stimulate the players' minds? But it seems to me that the problem Apogee had with it is that it was taking a game that ought to be suitable for gamers of all ages, and deliberately making it unsuitable for children to make a point, at the expense of sales to younger gamers. Doesn't it seem like Boppin' wasn't really the type of game to apply the Accursed Toys Manifesto to?
Very much the opposite. Any game, just as any book, or any movie, is capable of having powerful content that moves, teaches, or enlightens. The genre does not ever matter. Puzzle game or adventure, or FPS.... all can equally communicate, if one bothers. Remember the days when it was considered amazing to have a first-person shooter with a story? Nowadays, this is standard. There is no genre of anything that cannot be used to powerful effect. There are no weak games, only weak game designers.
Apogee had the idea that all puzzle games were for tiny children and very old women. I disagreed, and still disagree, because, unlike the young men at Apogee, I was experienced in the games the rest of the world played. Puzzle games were, and are, played by people of all ages, including, yes, 20-something males filled with testosterone. However, for those at Apogee, puzzle games were just kiddy-girly stuff.
Even when puzzle games are targeted for all ages, in nations other than the rather provincial United States, the content is surprisingly mature compared to what Americans would find acceptable. Puyo-Puyo, one of the most famous and popular puzzle games of all time, is set, in it's backstory, in hell. Specifically Puyo-Puyo hell, a hell where souls damned by obsessions fall into. Hell being a spiritual place, the puzzle aspect, matching Puyo, or wee blobbies, actually stands in within the mythos of the game for demonic magic, casting spells, the material component of which requires the annihilation of countless living beings, the aforementioned blobbies. Quite grim, actually. Yet Puyo-Puyo, and the comics and anime supporting it, were originally geared for a 13 year old audience. It just happened to catch on with adults, and in a big way - there were, at one point, very serious adult competitions in Japanese arcades over this game.
Because I think in terms of the world, rather than, say, just Texas, which is where much of Apogee came from, to me a dark puzzle game was just fine. In fact, better than fine, it was fresh and interesting. To Apogee, it was an abomination against Jesus and Christian thinking, as they put it. To their defence, the boys at Apogee were just kids at the time, mere 20-somethings, and childish behavior, such as badmouthing us on forums, punishing us by failing to live up to their agreement to promote Boppin', and calling us faggots and fuck-heads over the phone are, perhaps, to be expected. Not expected in my generation, of course, but, perhaps expected in theirs. I wish they had all had better parents, is what I think I am trying to say. And less religion. Definately that.
In the end, Boppin' was relegated to the dust-bin because we refused to dumb it down. Apogee wanted us to remove all Pagan, Eastern, and other non-christian imagery, the suicides, and to completely redo the story to make it 'child friendly'. They especially wanted us to remove the entire notion of freeing monsters because it was 'disturbing'. Above all else, they wanted the suicides (which I took, by the way, from early Warner Brothers cartoons, I should mention) entirely. Clearly all of this violated our 'determined to disturb' effort to raise gaming from being seen as only something for small children. We couldn't win, but we fought. The one concession I made was to remove the suicides. However, this galled me, so I made sure that a code was installed that would permit people to restore them if they wanted.
Yes, if I had simply submitted and sucked up to Apogee, done whatever they wanted, treated making games as a business and not as any kind of art, and given up all of my principles and artistic integrity, Boppin' might very well have succeeded, and I might still have a career.
That is often the choice in life — sell your soul, or not. I chose to keep my soul, but it came, as it always does, with a price. Souls are very expensive. To keep them, you must often sacrifice your ambitions and dreams. The whole time with Apogee was a non-stop nightmare. Just horrible.
So there was ill will between Accursed Toys and Apogee over their insistence on censoring the game? What were the arguments for and against?
Total ill-will, on the part of Apogee. When we found out they were bad-mouthing us on forums and in interviews, we finally understood just how seriously we had annoyed them. It wasn't just the foul-mouthed berating on the phone we got. They had some serious issue with us.
For our part, we just wanted to get our game out there, intact. We saw games as art, we saw that games had an adult audience, and we saw that genre was not age-related.
Apogee did not see any of this. Despite being well documented, and despite our efforts to educate them with countless reports and statistics from the industry itself, it was pointless. In the end, we just gave in on the funny character suicides, and gave up. It was just too depressing to fight such foul-mouthed and belligerent people. Only later, did we find out just how much they went out of their way to savage us.
I don't think I will ever understand, ever comprehend, how they could act the way they did. It just doesn't make sense, not rational sense, anyway.
I am a bit bitter about it all, to the extent that it was just awful, and it pretty much ended my game career, but what can one do? Nothing. I could do nothing then, for they had the money and the control, and I can do nothing now, because what is past is past.
Sigh. At least we were always polite, if firm, and in the end, I chose art over commerce. It's good to know that about oneself, I think. I now know that even if everything is on the line, I will not sell out.
I also now know I will never be rich ^.^
So Apogee was thinking about sales. Do you believe that the censorship helped or hurt sales of Boppin'? Have you had a change of heart in the years since that decision was made?
The censorship hurt Boppin', but what destroyed it was the petty actions of Apogee. Their punishment for us was to breach their contract and refuse to promote, and eventually, even to sell, Boppin'. That is what hurt sales... people not knowing the product existed, or if they somehow found out, being denied the right to purchase it. That pretty much will kill off any product. Apogee sure showed us. They punished us but good for our lack of obedience.
Of course, they also hurt themselves, because they likely lost money on Boppin' doing that to us. I guess it was worth it to them. They had money to spare, back then. They could afford arbitrary vengeance, I suppose.
As for me, no change of heart whatsoever. If I had surrendered all integrity to Apogee, I would not be happy. Even if, by some miracle, I had become wealthy by doing such, it would be an empty wealth where I would always know that I had given up on my ideals for the sake of cash. For some, that would be OK. It is not OK for me.
Some of the visitors to our forum have fond memories of HappyPuppy.com. What was the site about, and what was your involvement with it?
HappyPuppy.com was, for a while, the number one games site on the entire internet. HappyPuppy was the model for later sites such as Gamespot (our first rival, in fact), Games Domain, and all the others that have come since, from Blues' News to 1Up. Among the things we innovated was -for good or ill- the banner ad. We don't get credit for it, but it was us, or to be more specific, Sandra Woodruff, one of us, who designed and implemented the first banner ads. She defined their size and shape.
You have to remember, this was back when just having graphics on the internet was new, and we were among the very first to even try to make a games website. HappyPuppy was the place to download demos, shareware, and free games back then. This is why we were bought out by a larger company - we were on the rise. But, long story short, they screwed us but good, and stole the investor money, then sold HappyPuppy off. Never trust a fake corporation based in the Cayman Islands. Not that we had any way to know.
In the end, we made 2.1 million of the 5 million we were contractually promised, and much of that was eaten up by lawyer fees in the horrific fight that was needed to get it at all. Because of that legal battle, we are one of the very few people to ever make money off the internet back in those days. Our tiny fortune was later almost entirely lost in the big internet stock crash. Our investment firm was specifically instructed to not put one penny in internet stock — we saw what was coming — but they did anyway 'for our own good'. Their argument was that we came to them to manage our money, and we could not know what was the best thing to do. So they stuck our money in internet stock anyway, and, when everything collapsed, we ended up with a few tens of thousands, a bitterness that lasts to this day, and no way to sue the company for any sort of compensation.
That's how things go. We learned an important lesson, which I will impart to you; if you are clever enough to make millions of dollars, then you have to be clever enough to do your own investments. Never trust anyone, even an investment corporation, to do what you say, or tell them to do. You are better off trying to make your own investments, because only you care about your own money.
Now you have a website called Otaku World. As I understand otaku, it refers to fans who are obsessed with certain aspects of Japanese culture, particularly manga and anime. I've been impressed by anime for the better part of two decades now, particularly the well known stuff like Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus, Ninja Scroll, Street Fighter V, and Wings of Honneamise. I've delighted in seeing anime raise the bar for animation in the West, and the influence of anime in such post-Disney adventures as the 1997 Anastasia movie and Titan A.E. Japanese video games have dominated the industry since the video game crash of 1983, and I get a laugh out of some of the more mainstream otaku culture, like Danny Choo's Tokyo Dance Trooper. I can certainly profess to be a great admirer of Japanese people and culture, but I don't think I would be comfortable using the word otaku. I feel like I've only glimpsed the surface of a world that goes deeper than I dare to explore.
An otaku, in Japan, can be any person who is obsessed with a hobby or interest. Thus, in Japan, there are camera otaku, and gun otaku, and toy otaku, and games otaku, and of course, anime otaku. An otaku is basically a nerd. If you like something other than nascar and baseball, if you like Warhammer, or comic books, or D&D, if you are a science fiction fan, or a fantasy fan, then, basically, you are not mainstream, you are an otaku. In Japan, where conformity is king, the term has many negative connotations, it is not a compliment.
In America, though, the word otaku has been borrowed and redefined to pretty much only refer to anime fans. Serious anime fans, at the time that Otakuworld was created, delighted in calling themselves otaku. The term became a flag for a subculture for a while, a culture that enjoyed Japanese animation before it became commonplace.
'Anime' is a borrowed word, it is French for animation. The Japanese, just as excited by the new and the exotic as anyone, borrowed the word and added it to their language to describe the types of animation they were coming up with. Inspired by the cartoons shown them during the American occupation after WW2, they took animation in a very different direction. In America, animation, cartoons, remained mostly fodder for children. In Japan, and later in Korea and China, animation and comics were seen as a legitimate media for any age. Thus, in these nations, such things are used no differently that ordinary books or movies are used in America, and a big-budget blockbuster anime movie is considered just as legitimate and worthy as, in America, a big-budget blockbuster live-action movie would be.
I like anything powerful and deep, and so I was naturally drawn to anime and manga. Since these media are used universally, there is a lot of it that is just for children - though it must be said, just as with the Puyo-Puyo game mentioned earlier, the content of anime even for children in Japan is vastly more mature than its equivalent in America. Truth be told, this is mostly the case in almost every other nation... America is rather backward compared to much of the planet.
Now I like the cute, childlike stuff, but I also love the very serious, mature, adult anime, that deals with philosophical, political, psychological, or scientific themes.
Otakuworld.com grew out of my initial love of such animation, and the site was created just when anime was first starting to become known in America at all. We keep the site going as an archive for all of the cool stuff from that time, most of which has vanished from the internet. The small subscription fee we charge is just barely enough to pay for our servers and bandwidth, a significant cost. We keep the site up because people want it.
And, yes, I still watch and love anime. It's brilliant.
Many people know you for your artwork outside of video games, such as Unicorn Jelly, Pastel Defender Heliotrope, and To Save Her. What have been some of your greatest successes with your webcomics? Have you won any awards?
I've never won an award, and my comics remain very obscure. However, that does not mean I have had no successes.
Unicorn Jelly now exists in book form, both soft and hardback, and the only way that happened is because about 35 people from all over the globe decided to work together to put the work into book form. They labored for almost a year, and it was not easy, because I had no idea of my comic becoming a book, and had never designed anything to be easy to transfer. Quite the opposite, in fact. So they got together, and they did this, purely out of love and respect for the story.
I consider that to be one of the greatest successes of my life. I somehow, by luck perhaps, created something that moved people that much. That's magic, and it is more valuable than any amount of money.
My next works, Pastel and To Save Her, will someday be books. I made them from the start to make this possible, based on what I learned from Unicorn Jelly. I would say that another big success is merely being able to spend my life drawing comics. That alone is success, in my estimation.
On your website, Jenniverse, you have a comic called Cosmo Chronicles which you created when you were 11. You weren't Jennifer Reitz at the time, though. Who were you then?
Yes, and no. I wasn't Jennifer, I hadn't chosen that name yet, but I was myself, whatever my form. You are, of course, referring to my status as a transsexual woman. I transitioned as soon as I possibly could, which in my case was at ages 21-22 (it's a process, it takes a bit). The best, and most biologically correct way to think of it all, was that I was always a girl, always female, but I was horrifically deformed until I was 22. I coped as best I could with that birth defect.
So who was I in that state? I was an 11 year old nerd-girl, very horrified at the cruel trick nature had played on me, and struggling with the problem. I naturally was myself in the world, which is not how others saw me, so I got beat up constantly by other children who were frightened by such a contradiction. My answer was to increasingly withdraw into myself, into books and stories and art. The world was pain and misery for me, the shape of my very body was a constant humiliation to me, so science fiction became my only salvation.
CosmoChronicles is interesting, as I look back on it, because of the nature of the story in it. This is not a science fiction story drawn by a boy. There are no space battles, if there is conflict it is inevitably resolved by talk and agreement to create harmony, and the action that occurs is centered around exploration mixed with helping others. The characters are sexless and androgynous, the colors soft and pretty, the creatures, cute - if bizarre. I think, if I had not had the burden of incorrect flesh, I would have been quite the Pippi Longstockings type, outgoing and a bit odd. Instead I was utterly withdrawn and odd. After a while, of course. The beatings turned my initial gregarious joy into sullen hiding, as best I could.
Right. Around 1998 you publicly revealed that you have undergone a male-to-female sexual reassignment. Aside from physical and chemical differences, does being a woman change your perspective, and has it affected your work?
It affects my work in only one way — I include minorities, especially sexual minorities, in my works as regular characters. Having gone through oppression, I now champion the oppressed. I think that is reasonable.
In the credits in Boppin', you mentioned your polyamorous group marriage. It seems like anyone who has the courage to openly discuss a lifestyle that the broader public doesn't understand or agree with becomes a target for criticism that, oftentimes, is unfair or based on uneducated opinions. Issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, and marriage philosophy must make you a target for intolerance. A person should never be summed up by a few labels, but you are Jennifer Diane Reitz, a bisexual, polyamorous, transsexual woman. Has that led to unfair criticism of your work, or made it difficult to find work or get your games/stories/artwork published?
Oddly, no. Not in and of itself. Now don't get me wrong - there is an awful lot of really, deeply vile crap about me on the internet. There are folks out there that seem to have made it their life's work to stalk and harass me. But I don't think my way of living in a family, my sexuality, or my gender history are the primary cause of it. Certainly the sheer strangeness I represent as a whole plays a part, but I seriously do not think that I get much abuse because of these things.
I am not sure why, to tell the truth. Perhaps it is because my antics overshadow my history.
I think that most of the abuse I get comes from me opening my damn mouth. As noted, I grew up being pummeled into withdrawing from the world. So my world became books, and the art I did. As a result, I never really learned all the rules of socialization that most people take for granted. I certainly never learned all the rules expected of a woman in the world (sit down, shut up, laugh at the men's jokes), how could I? More than that, after having seen the other side, how could I even stand such rules?
I speak my mind. More than I ought to, really. Worse, I have this notion that it is somehow noble to have an opinion and state it with strength and conviction, until proven otherwise. Whereupon the new opinion is to be stated with equal strength. I also feel that knowledge learned from experience should best be stated strongly, because it is validly one's own experience. These attitudes are.... very wrong.
What is expected, demanded, I have found, is constant, never-ending uncertainty. About every statement. What I should be doing is prefacing everything I say with 'I think that' and 'Maybe if' and 'I don't know for sure, but...', and ending every statement with 'or so I imagine' or 'that's what I heard, anyway' or '...do you think?'.
I often fail to do this. Sometimes I cannot stand to do it. This seems to piss some people off, especially if the opinions are about things that appear to be very emotional topics for some folks. Politics, certainly. Religion, beyond my expectation. But also a whole minefield of things from guns to foods to traditions to morality.
I have very strong opinions, observations, about most everything, and all of them were hard-won by thinking about the subjects and coming up with my own take on them. I was not strongly influenced by church or society or other people. My thoughts are almost exclusively my own, derived from being very lonely, thinking far more than is healthy, and reading far more that is considered acceptable.
So, I think that my spouting off about things, unaware that it might bother anyone at all, is the primary reason for my having not only dedicated fans, but dedicated haters, too.
I take some solace in the notion that even if there are those that hate me as strongly as those that like me, at the least I made an impression. At least, by definition, I was non-boring. That's something, I guess.
What do you think of the video game industry today? Has it moved closer or farther away from the goals you hoped to achieve with the Accursed Toys Manifesto?
The video games industry is both more vibrant, and more repressed, than it was in my day. It is more vibrant, in that as it has become closer to being mainstream, there is enough money to permit works of art like Ico, and Shadow Of The Colossus, Okami, Katamari Damashi, Portal, the upcoming LittleBigPlanet and Spore and others to exist, and to be published worldwide, but it is more repressed in that innovation in general is often crushed in favor of sequels to sequels of genres so overdone that they are boring piled on top of thick.
There is a general rise of content to more adult status, but the media chafes at it, only comfortable with games being for small children. This absurdity confounds everyone, and causes no end of troubles. But in the end, it can only be that gaming will be universally embraced as a pastime for all ages, including adults, and in that way, the Accursed Toys Manifesto will be vindicated.
Let's face it, games, by sheer expense, are increasingly the province of those with jobs. Children can't afford a lot of games and consoles and a nice computer, adults can.
Do you still play DOS games? Do you have any favorites?
I cannot easily get my DOS collection to run anymore, so I content myself with remakes. In particular, I love remakes from the games of the 80's, such as Head Over Heels, Space Taxi, Imogen, and the other classics of the bygone days of the C64, DOS, and the Spectrum. I wish I could get my DOS copy of Star Control 3 to work again, as well as Archon Ultimate. Just to see them again. Some programs seem to defy even the emulators, at least on my machine! The Chaos Engine, Populous (the original!), The Sentry/Sentinel, Spindizzy... oh, there are so many wonderful games.
And Jumpman. Good old Jumpman. Loved Jumpman.
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
I am utterly a dog person. I adore dogs. Cats love me, and I don't dislike them or anything, but I am terribly allergic to them, and ultimately, I don't feel a connection with a cat. Cats always seem distant and indifferent to me. But a dog is faithful and true, loyal and companionable, and a dog is part of the pack, which is the family, which is a social connection.
Is there anything else that you'd like to say or anything that you'd like to promote?
It would be very nice if folks would check out my work. Everything I ever do, on any website, can always be found at my portal site, jenniverse.com which leads to all of my works. I feel confident that I have made stuff that will delight and/or enrage most anyone who gives it a serious look. My stuff seems to either entertain or piss people off. See which category you fall into! It's fun and free! I look forward to your enjoyment and/or hatred.
Thank you very much for your time, and best of luck with your future endeavors.
Thank you, DOSGuy. I have to admit I like being interviewed, because it makes me think about the past, and remember things I would otherwise have lost to time.
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