Interview: A Taste of the Past, Present, and Future of Sondering Studio with Emily Pitcher
Food has proved time and time again to be a powerful link to our memories… so much so that just seeing it on screen invites many feelings that aren’t always simple. While “food” may conjure up images that differ from person to person, these strong emotions are universal and make life familiar to us again.
Emily Pitcher (she/her) is the Founder, Designer, and Writer at Sondering Studio. Their most recent project, A Taste of the Past, was featured at this year’s Game Developers of Color Expo and served up how memories linger in food, grief, and love. We set the table with Emily to find out the heartwarming, surprising, and tasty origins of Sondering Studio.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How was your GDoC experience?
I had a great time at the Game Devs of Color Expo. It was my first gaming expo that I actually attended as a featured speaker and developer. I had previously gone to GDC last year, which is the Game Developers Conference, but I was just [there] to learn and soak in information. So it was a really interesting experience to come in as part of the talent. I’ve also never been to a virtual conference before, which was very interesting. My GDoC experience was quite eventful, because I was leaving in Tel Aviv in the middle of the conference. So I essentially participated as much as I could then I hopped on a plane, and then left. But as a whole, it was really great to meet other game developers of color. I feel like a lot of the time, I’m pretty isolated in my own team. Obviously, my team is majority people of color, because we make games about being Asian American. But sometimes we get really stuck in our own way of thinking and our own way of perceiving how games should be made. So it was great to see all these other diverse perspectives.
Can you tell me how Sondering Studio came to be?
I started game development by joining acm.studio, the UCLA game development club. At the time, I didn’t know anything about games besides knowing that I loved playing them. I had aspirations to be a writer and designer, but I didn’t understand how interactivity and game narrative worked at the time. I started making games and honestly knew immediately that this was the field that I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. I have been a lifelong reader, a lifelong enjoyer of media. But when I started actually making games, that’s when it felt the most right to me. Sondering Studio started as just the name that I released my games under. It was very unofficial. I didn’t want to have the credits be just a massive list of developers. I thought, “Why don’t we just shorten it to Sondering Studio?” That’s when we started our Twitter. I thought, “Okay, well I’ve come up with this name. I want to promote my game.”
So then the socials became Sondering Studio, and then we got a logo, and then we got a website, and then we got an email at Sondering Studio. And then we decided, “Hey, actually, I want to take my love for games as more than just a hobby. I want to potentially pursue it more professionally, actually get a team and be official. And so Sondering Studio was the name that I ultimately went with because it was already the name I was using at the time. Sondering comes from the word “sonder.” It means that every passerby has their own unique story. I felt like that captured the feeling of our games exactly. We tell extraordinary stories about very ordinary people and now we are working on our second game and it’s a much more ambitious project than A Taste of the Past.
Could you describe your headspace you were in that inspired A Taste of the Past?
Trauma. Familial trauma. Being single and having nothing better to do than tell my story. I was going through a lot of stress because I originally prototyped it in my final year of college when the job market was awful and I had a ton of trouble finding a career or even just any place that would pay me to do anything. All I knew really, at that point, was I loved games and I wanted to tell my story. I was going through a lot of stress in my life with my complicated relationship with my mother, which I’m sure you can assume by the premise of my game. And I just wanted to dedicate myself completely to a project. I didn’t want to think about all the job rejections in my inbox. I didn’t want to think about the fact that I felt truly alone in my life at the time. I didn’t want to think about the fact that my family life was in disarray.
That’s honestly like the origin of A Taste of the Past. I wanted to tell a story that felt authentic to me, but I was kind of tired of living in the constant, “Oh my life sucks, woe is me.” I wanted to find hope through that. And for me, that was creatively through a game. I didn’t want to tell my story exactly and have the ending be all, “I’m just I feel like I’m just a kid still and I don’t know what’s going on.” I wanted to give my character at the end that boost she needs to live the life that she wants to live: to hopefully inspire myself to live the life that I want to live. Thankfully, I actually think I’ve come very far from that game. And I think right now I am exactly in the place that I want to be in life: employed. And not only employed, but really pursuing this games thing that I’ve been doing alone in my bedroom, and sharing it out to the world.
I played the game last week. And I was commenting on how it was so short and sweet. In the end, I noticed that a lot of the mechanics involved in the game teach you and then the instructions go away, actually. I thought that that was such a lovely way to represent that, “You’re on your own, but you can do this” type of thing. So I was wondering if that was intentional, or if that ended up being kind of incidental — that kind of leading someone and then letting them be on their own.
That was definitely incidental, but we’ve had multiple people point it out, so I’m gonna say right now that it was intentional. I should say a lot of the design decisions were incidental because we originally made the game for Ludum Dare. It’s a three day game jam. So what we did is stay up until 3 AM every single day working on the game. So a lot of our design decisions weren’t mulling over what would be better, it was just spontaneous. We need to get this done. This is how we’re going to do it. I’m very thankful that it ended up better. And I think honestly the pressure of a game jam, forcing you to make quick design decisions, is how our game ended up being so creative.
Is there anything you wanted to incorporate in A Taste of the Past that you couldn’t?
A lot of things! So when I first made the game, I never thought that it was going to be at an expo, I never thought I’d be making a million TikToks about promoting the game, I didn’t think it was going to reach overwhelmingly positive on Steam. I didn’t think it was get going to get the number of plays that it did. As I said earlier, the idea came out of a three day game jam where we stayed up late every single night to finish it. We were very surprised by the reception to the game. People were leaving comments saying that they cried, that the game touched them, that they also had complications with their own mother and they found solace through our game. That’s when we decided that we should polish it and release it on Steam. But that’s honestly what we thought we were going to do — make it a little bit better, and then put it on Steam.
I think you can tell the animation is not fully smooth. The gameplay is pretty easy with the fact that it’s just a walking simulator with some simple mini games. The narrative is very linear, even though there are dialogue options, you essentially reach the same ending every single time. So those are a lot of things that I would change if I had the opportunity to. The truth is that we had such mid expectations for our game, we did not think to dedicate years to it. This is a project that we only spent a few months on. And then were pleasantly surprised by the positive response.
Would you consider taking it to, say, mobile devices? Because I feel like a game like this with that in mind would succeed.
We had somebody at Xbox reach out to us and be like, “Would you want to port this to Xbox?” We had many mobile publishers reach out to us. But the frank truth is that our code is spaghetti and we don’t want to deal with that. We’re also so in the midst of our next game that we don’t have the bandwidth to cover bringing A Taste of the Past to other platforms.
Would you ever consider revisiting A Taste of the Past or potentially adapt it or expand it into a larger game when this next game is done?
I actually already feel like a lot of the elements of A Taste of the Past are in the next game that we’re working on. I can’t say that much about it, because we’re very hush-hush. But it does tell an Asian American story. It is about a complicated family and there are certain elements of food involved.
How has your life experience shaped your perspectives and the stories you tell more broadly?
To me, I am inspired by everything in my life. Whether that is the moment when I was in the third grade and my friend told me that we had superpowers, whether that is all the arguments that I have gotten in with my mother, whether that’s being heartbroken, whether that’s eating an especially yummy peach, whether that is listening to a song that I love for the first time… to me everything in my life informs my storytelling. I love games that add meaning to small moments.
For example, one of my favorite games is called Before Your Eyes. It tells a story of a young boy growing up, and there are times where he decides to become an artist, decides to become a pianist. These moments that may seem insignificant, but the framing of the story is vital to how the game plays out. That’s kind of how I like to tell my stories too: small moments. A conversation that you had with your best friend about what you want to be when you grow up. A conversation with your grandma over tea about appreciating life to its fullest. These are the moments that make life special. These are the moments that make life worth living. And that’s what I want to tell in my games.
I’m wondering if you have any other Asian artists, or stories in gaming or otherwise that you would love to amplify?
That’s a great question. I recently read Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. And it was absolutely amazing. I knew her before the book came out because I was just a massive fan of Japanese Breakfast. I’ve seen her in concert, read the book, cried… it was phenomenal. A lot of people compare Crying in H Mart to A Taste of the Past. I should say that when I made A Taste of the Past, I had not yet read Crying in H Mart. But I totally see the connection. And I think that speaks to the universality of certain parts of the Asian American experience — the fact that we made these stories independently, but they can have so many similarities.
I saw Everything Everywhere All At Once and it was absolutely amazing. I am so inspired by the storytelling in that. I also feel like my current game that I’m making right now is partially inspired by that because all the developers and I watched the movie when we were sort of brainstorming our game. So we’re thinking like multiverses, memories. What are all these ways that we can play around with the themes of or the motifs of the movie? I’m very inspired by that movie, because the actor who played the dad, Ke Huy Quan, took a 20 year break from acting, and this was his role coming back. And that is just so inspiring to me because even though I am only 23, I definitely struggle with having to get things done right now.
Supergiant Games is one of the studios that I really think is amazing. Jen Zee, one of the artists, is also Asian. The founder, Amir, decided to start that studio when he was 25. He convinced all his friends to quit their job, and they worked out of his dad’s living room. And I’m thinking, oh my god, I’m 23. I have two years until I have to quit my job and work out of my living room. So for me, it’s actually really refreshing and comforting to see people who find their fame, find their footing a little bit later.
I am a sucker for stories about complicated mothers. I love mommy issues. That is my bread and butter. Every game I will ever make will have some sort of familial issue in it. I love Asian American stories that are fluffy and light like anything by Jenny Han and stories that are more gripping like Crying in H Mart.
Any upcoming projects you can share with us?
Yes, there is an upcoming project. It’s not going to be released for the next four years. So don’t be on the lookout, is what I’m saying. We are in an accelerator called the Solstice Program run by Code Coven. It’s for marginalized gender game developers to create a social impact prototype. So for us, our game is about mental health and cultural diversity. Although I’m not allowed to share what the game is about, specifically, I can say that it has a strong narrative. It is Asian American. And it is a lot bigger in scope than A Taste of the Past. A Taste of the Past is very simple, easy, short. The mechanics in this are a lot more complicated. It is a more difficult game, although it’s not going to be a Dark Souls game. But it does still tell a very touching, emotional story about growing up and discovering yourself.
The biggest thing for me right now is working tirelessly on our next game. We hope to have something to show by GDC. Either a short trailer or a 10 minute demo. Another one of my big focuses is growing our social media presence. I started my TikTok in about May or June, and we’ve already grown to over 20,000 followers since then. So I’m trying to take that momentum and continue onwards. I will say our social media is branded very differently from our Twitter. Twitter is Sondering Studio as an organization. I make TikToks about whatever and then also happen to promote my games. I love the casualness, I love the spontaneity. I love that I don’t just have to talk about my games or my studio. I can commentate about inclusivity in gaming, game industry news, just my thoughts on games that are coming out. So a big focus of the future is also just harnessing that audience and growing our community there.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, virtually on October 5th, 2022 as part of our coverage on the Game Devs of Color Expo 2022.
Emily Pitcher is a Founder, Designer, and Writer at Sondering Studio. They are currently working on their follow up project to A Taste of the Past. You can play A Taste of the Past for free now on Steam.