Renee Nejo

Welcome to She Builds Games! Renee Nejo is an independent video game developer. Since 2010, she has worked on Ever, JaneGravity Ghost, and her most recent passion project: Blood Quantum. Renee spoke at GDC 2016 on “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” about empathy and the Native American narrative.
(Interview edited for brevity.)

Game Artist and Designer  
3 Turn Productions 
Art Institute of Phoenix - Bachelor's Degree in Game Art and Design 
Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy IX, Mario Kart  

1. What was it like growing up with video games for you?

I grew up on games in a time when they weren’t connected to the internet, so it was always a solitary experience. I can still get a little nervous about playing games around people. As I got older, I was a closet geek trying so desperately to be cool – I failed miserably! But I tried really hard to be a cool, pretty, popular girl, but I am just geeky through and through. So yeah, games for me have mostly been a solitary thing, like reading a book. If you say, ‘Let’s play a game together!’ it feels like you’re asking me to read out loud. Like, I’ll do it, but it feels awkward.

Now, I like playing games with my husband a lot! But it still feels like kind of an intimate experience. We’ll play almost any RPG together by taking turns. Anything by Naughty Dog is fun to play with somebody, because those games are entertaining to watch, even when you’re not the one playing them.

2. On your website, it says, “Game Artist and Designer.” Do you feel like you’re more one than the other?

I’ve had more training as an artist, but “design,” for me, has always been kind of this nebulous, magic concept that only magical creatures like Brenda Romero and Erin Robinson do. But the truth is that you shouldn’t wrap your identity around your job. Jobs will come and go. People change their careers all the time, and it shouldn’t be an identity crisis to do that. So when I say, ‘Am I a designer?’ that’s hard to say out loud, because I don’t feel like a very successful designer. BUT I’m designing stuff! So that makes me a designer! You must tell yourself that.

3. Can you tell us about the Blood Quantum game you’re working on?

Excerpt taken from Nejo’s blog post:

“‘Blood quantum’ is the amount of Indian blood you possess as determined by the number of generations of Native people you descend from, and it’s the process that the federal government uses to say whether they consider you a Native American or not. […] Its origin was basically to bring about the extinction of the Native American people.”

Blood Quantum is a top-down, 3/4 Perspective Godlike, with a few tower-defense elements, developed in Unity. The player interacts with little ‘Drawplets’ to further their growth in their villages. At first, the gameplay involves leveling up the player’s Drawplets by hunting, farming, and building. By giving Drawplets ‘purpose,’ or a job for their class, the ‘Spirit’ of the village goes up. With the ‘Spirit’ high, new baby Drawplets appear. It takes time to grow the village. Unlike a real-time strategy game, the loss of a single Drawplet is a great one, and death in battle is permanent.”

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Blood Quantum, the game, is my love letter to my identity and family. Being half-breed is a special kind struggle. The point of my game is to tell those stories in this small way that might show what it feels like to see the segregation happen. The human element has been the hardest part to try to convey in this game.

It starts off from an “Us vs. Them” perspective, but I’m telling it through a Native and Indigenous protagonist. I’ve taken all of the Native American imagery out of it, because I want a player who’s non-Native to go into this little world and be able feel that it is a story about them. Really, we’re all humans. It’s finding those similarities that we have to focus on, if we’re ever going to bridge that gap.

4. Where did you get the courage, or the inspiration, to turn a deep conversation into a game and follow through with it?

I still don’t have the courage – but I’m doing it anyway! I think it was being around game designers. When I would tell this story, they would be like, “Blood Quantum? That’s a cool name for a game!” […] I have a network of wonderful friends, and they’re very supportive, and I think they planted a seed in me. “You should make a game about that. Just get it out.” And I went, “I SHOULD! I should do that!”

Outwardly, it sounded like a great idea. Internally, it was like, “Oh God. Look at this white girl trying to tell a Native story!” Like, that was the dialogue going on in my head! I’m a Native American and that’s what I was telling myself! But I do think that there can be a correlation of “how scary something is” to “how important something is to people.”

5. What advice can you give about networking?

“People change their careers all the time, and it shouldn’t be an identity crisis to do that.”

I must stress that networking is vital in this industry. If skill is King, networking is Queen. There’s a science to it, sure! The more people you know, the more likely you are to be in contact with someone who can maybe get you a job.

I have participated in the Conference Associate (CA) program [at GDC], the International Game Developer Association (IGDA), and Women in Games (WiG) networks. People who knew me well would say, “I know an artist that’s looking for work right now! I’ll put you in touch with her! You might be a good fit.”

If you go into it with an attitude of “I’m only here to get what I can get from people,” then that’s going to come off as slimy. I think it’s common with students who are used to their teachers always being available for them. They’re going to professionals in their school, and their professors might say, “Yes, I will stop everything I’m doing to help you get better at your skill, because that’s my job as your instructor.” When students expect that behavior from other developers, like at GDC or other conferences, they don’t realize that they’re coming off as off-putting.

Renee Nejo's talk at GDC

Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability

6. What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

This is a hard one, because I don’t necessarily want women to know anything different than what anybody else wants to know. But, I think that a woman’s scenario is going to have a little more adversity than if she were a guy.

I would be lying if I said I haven’t felt burnt out sometimes. There are problems with this industry in how we treat our employees as an expendable resource. Replaceable. We can wreck them because we can hire new and enthusiastic young people who would kill to have that job. And that is a dark truth, but I don’t think that you have to lose your love of games. I had a teacher tell me that “Working in video games is going to ruin them for you.” I think that all he was saying, was that working in video games had ruined them for him. Because they haven’t ruined them for me.

People have different backgrounds. You can’t just tell ALL young people, “Just change your career.” I mean, I have students trying to get off of Indian reservations to go to school, and they can’t just change their minds and go into aerospace. They can’t just say, “Well, I put in $30,000 into my education, I’m going to go live with Mom and Dad and figure myself out.” That was not an option. Maybe it is a privilege to grow up in a fluid situation where you can change your mind, and that is a wonderful thing, but not everybody has that.

7. Going back to what you mentioned earlier about internal struggles with identity, how do you reconcile what you are with who you are?

I don’t feel like I have a cool Native American backstory. I feel kind of unworthy of what I actually am. “Identity” is a discovery of what you already are. You don’t get a say. You can’t be somebody else. Them’s the rules. So, identity is discovering yourself – finding what you are and embracing ALL of it, not just the cool parts.

“I have students trying to get off of Indian reservations to go to school…”

When you’re a kid, you usually adopt the beliefs of the people raising you.
When you’re a teenager, you start trying out different identities; you’re trying on hats. And pretty much all you have to work with was cultural identity: Hip Hop, Punk Rock, whatever.
In your 20s and 30s, you realize that you’re going to like what you like, and dislike what you dislike, and you are who you are. It just gets a little more interesting when you go digging into your heritage.

Embrace how you think, how you feel, how you process your stuff. Talk to your family. If you have that chance, if you have the means, talk to your grandmother! If it’s healthy for you. We all have different scenarios. Sometimes when you’re adopted it’s harder to find out where you came from. I just think that these are important aspects of your identity, and getting to know yourself without applying meaning that isn’t there.

8. What is your idea of success?

“Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small.”

People define success differently. You might think that you just need to ship a game, and that’s going to be success. Or you might think that you just need to make more money, and that will be success. Or, I need to be able to fund my own game, start my own studio, and that will be success. Well, success kind of seems to be a carrot on a stick that always moves a little further away.

Remember that you are doing this because you love it, and you want to. Don’t belittle your actual achievements. I know that if I could speak to 22-year-old me about all the things that I’ve done, young me would be doing backflips. I’d be like, “HOLY CRUD! WOW! You talked at GDC! WHAAAT! I can’t believe that’s my future! So cool!!!” But, here, right now, I’m like, “Oh my God. I haven’t done anything cool at all. I submitted a talk and got lucky. I managed to make a few games.” You know? It just doesn’t feel like I’ve achieved these things.

Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Remember that success is a nebulous concept, and to not wrap your identity and your career up in reaching that goal, because I really think that when you realize you’re still you, and you’ll always be you, you have to be okay with who you are, at any point.

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