Thursday, June 29, 2017

Five or So Questions with Hannah Shaffer on Damn the Man, Save the Music!

Today I have an interview with Hannah Shaffer on her game Damn the Man, Save the Music! which is currently on Kickstarter kicking ass. Damn the Man, Save the Music! is an exciting, thoughtful, 90s-music-filled game and I hope you all love hearing what Hannah has to say.


Cover by Evan Rowland

Tell me a little about Damn the Man, Save the Music. What excites you about it?

Damn the Man, Save the Music! is a game about a bunch of weirdo outcasts trying to save their '90s record store from collapse. It's inspired by one of my favorite movies, Empire Records, which everyone should go watch right now. What excites me about Damn the Man is that it uses '90s nostalgia as a way to explore the best parts of '90s media while challenging the worst parts.

I watch a lot of '90s movies, and while I love their structure (like where did action-romance movies go? Why aren't those getting made anymore?), it was a weird time for minority representation. Queer characters started to appear in '90s movies, but they were often there just to add a bit of edgy humor. And you'd find people of color in most '90s comedies, but their roles were at best "token" and at worst, the same deal, there for stereotyped jokes. Empire Records is a movie that celebrates the music of its time, but the only reference it makes to hip hop is in a line that disses rap and makes a homophobic joke at the same time.

I love Damn the Man because it provides this opportunity to play out a '90s movie but better. It asks people to think about what '90s nostalgia is all about, and to explore that nostalgia with a critical eye—without even realizing that's what you're doing.

In-progress art by Evan Rowland

What is the gameplay like in Damn the Man, Save the Music!? What kind of action do we see?

Damn the Man is a single-session game and all of the game’s action takes place over the course of one day. The day is divided into a three act structure—the store opening, a big record signing event, and closing shop at the end of the day. During each act every character gets one Schedule Scene. That’s a scene where the spotlight is shining on your character, even if there are other people in the scene with you!

There are a few different things you can do during your schedule scene: you can try to heal a relationship with a friend (all relationships start off damaged in the game), you can try to double down and accomplish a task your boss assigns you, or you can shoot for your goal.

Choosing to heal a relationship might look like taking a smoke break with a friend you’ve been avoiding after learning you’re both secretly gay. Doubling down looks like diving right into a store task, like trying to catch a shoplifter before they make off with an entire rack of new CDs. And shooting for your goal looks like finding the time to confess your love, or pay back a debt, or find the lost cat… right in the middle of your schedule scene.

Every scene ends with rolling dice to see if you accomplished the task your boss assigned you. Winning lets you accomplish the task and functionally prevent a store trouble, losing means you failed to accomplish the task (like screwing up everyone’s coffee orders) and a store trouble escalates as a result.

The game’s action is centered around the scenes. Trying to juggle increasingly absurd retail tasks while also trying to accomplish your heart’s true goal and heal relationships with the people you love. There’s a real sense of not being able to do it all, and things getting wackier and spiraling out of control as the day goes on!

What sources did you pull inspiration from, aside from the '90s as a whole?

The most obvious inspiration for Damn the Man is the movie Empire Records, a movie about a bunch of teenagers working at a ‘90s indie record store, who take a dramatic shot at saving their store when they learn it’s going to be bought out by a big corporate record chain. The game follows the structure of Empire Records pretty closely, but it also follows this ‘90s movie coming-of-age structure, where everyone totally freaks out and then undergoes a major personal transformation in the course of a day.

I really liked movies by Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater during my high school years, so you’ll see that inspiration in Damn the Man as well: Dazed and Confused is a surprisingly poignant movie, Slacker, Clerks, and Chasing Amy, a movie about how things break down when we try to force our own expectations and demands on someone else’s identity.

Finally, I think the game is inspired by my complicated relationship with nostalgia. We’re in a golden age of ‘90s nostalgia right now, but the ‘90s really sucked for a lot of people. Nostalgia can be this way of reframing history through a rose-colored lens that privileges certain types of experiences. I wanted to make a game that celebrated ‘90s music and counterculture that wasn’t just another Buzzfeed “remember when” listicle.

How did you move from "hey, this is a thing that matters" to "this is a game you can play" with the game - did you do a lot of playtesting, or spend a lot of time privately testing mechanics?

I did do a lot of playtesting! The game started as kind of a joke hack of Questlandia, when I was re-watching Empire Records and realized it shared the exact structure of a Questlandia game:

A big personal goal you have to accomplish today, only three scenes before you’ve got to accomplish it, characters who are just trying to do their best with what they’ve got, and then a big collapse—or not!—at the end.

Questlandia was the first game I made, and I think the mechanics need some work. I just kept bringing Damn the Man to conventions and playing it with friends, watching closely for the places where people got stuck. I took away mechanics and added them and took them away and added them until finally I was seeing games that regularly had a great flow, a good energy, and rules that supported exactly the types of stories the game is trying to tell.

Art by Sarah Robbins
Tell me about some of the important themes of the game. Weirdo outcasts, queer characters—what matters about them beyond representation? What strength lies in their stories for Damn the Man, Save the Music!?

I talked a little bit about nostalgia before, and how it paints over the past with these “everything was great” rosy-colored brush strokes.

I wanted to make sure Damn the Man told these stories that captured the feel of a ‘90s romance-comedy, without erasing the experiences of queer people and people of color. Beyond the importance of representation (which is really important), these are coming of age stories, whether or not the characters are teenagers.

Everyone in Damn the Man is searching for something. They’re trying to make things right with their friends, they’re trying to manage the demands of retail and the people who treat you crappy while also trying to find meaning in their lives. I really like telling those kinds of stories. I feel like there are a lot of big hero stories, but not a lot of “people just trying their best” stories. I wanted a story that shines a light on a single day, or a single moment in time, that maybe changes everything or maybe just gets lost to history.

Fictional Damnster Fire band poster by Sarah Robbins

Thanks so much to Hannah for an awesome interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading and that you'll check out the Damn the Man, Save the Music! Kickstarter soon!

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