Paloma Dawkins is the co-founder of Apocablyss Studios, behind games such as Oceanarium (beta), Songs of the Lost, Museum of Symmetry, Palmystery, Alea, and Gardenarium. Dawkins’ games are praised for being digital spaces that celebrate natural life and rhythms. The worlds and spaces she creates in her games incite creative thinking and wonder, and help expand the medium in a time of great innovation. Dawkins won awards at the Canadian Screen Academy Awards, Fantasia, FIVARS, Cinekid, NUMIX, and North Bend Festival, and exhibited at Festivals, Museums and Galleries around the world including Siggraph, MIF, V&A, MAAM, LikeLike, Garage Museum, Babycastles, and many more.
Find her @mysssterious999 or @apocablyss.
After Paloma Dawkins and I say hello to each other at the Plateau’s Cafe Myriade, she tells me about the nice coat she’s put on for our meeting and about how that morning she got up at 4AM, unwillingly. She is immediately warm and reassuring to be around. We wait for our respective oat milk lattes as Dawkins tells me about her post-interview plans to go visit the Insectarium, and I wonder if most people who own a video game company are this chill.
Dawkins handles the code and visuals, while co-founder Ashley Opheim takes care of the writing. On their symbiotic relationship, Dawkins says, “She’s a Capricorn and I’m a Cancer, so we’re in the very opposites of the spectrum, it’s perfect…I’m almost just trying to impress Ashley and Ashley is trying to understand me.” They had called that very morning, and Dawkins expresses gratitude for the way their interpretations inspires the other. It’s interesting for me to undertake this interview for Writing Beyond The Room with Dawkins rather than the person who wrote the poems featured in their latest game, but it feels appropriate. Our conversation’s objective is to explore the idea of a virtual room, and to examine the power behind the ability to build it. Hearing Dawkins speak convinces me code is its own kind of writing, and it is the intent behind this writing that really structures the spaces people inhabit online.
For one, Dawkins begins by stressing that spirituality is the answer. This is not what many, myself included, expect from someone in the tech sector. But we met at a tarot deck launch, so maybe I should have known better. Dawkins tells me about a conversation she had with a friend the previous night, on how spirituality, or maybe something more akin to faith, was relinquished in favor of a new alternative reality. She brings up The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace by Margaret Wertheim.
PD: Yeah, it’s really cool. She argues that church was a spiritual space that kind of, like– organized religion was a place for us to experiment with a different version of ourselves. Like a spiritual realm. And then she argues that now we use the Internet to do that. The Internet is the only place that we have to explore our spiritual selves.
Our conversation gets even more spiritual. Dawkins explains that the studio’s name, Apocablyss, is no coincidence. That the apocalypse isn’t a sudden event, but that it’s happening right now, slowly. A mundane thing. Dawkins echoes the Jungian idea that we are born with all the information we need to die, and so as a species, we have an apocalyptic vision in us. It is tech companies, with an insatiable drive for development and a tendency to burn out, that are unconsciously manifesting this, Dawkins says.
PD: What if we, like, had a great experience while we were building technology, you know? Then we would be creating blessed technologies. We’re basically creating spaces for people to go and explore this new version of themselves. Instagram is your avatar, it’s kind of like your spiritual counterpart in a way, right, but we just don’t have faith in that reality. Imagine if it was like… like, I love DND [Dungeons & Dragons]. It’s so cool. Imagine it’s like that’s how we treated our social media. It’d be so nice, we’re questing out there in the digital space to beat this, you know, instead of it being like ‘oh, I just do this for likes, now I’ll show my house for comments.” Couldn’t it be good deeds? I don’t know, could be anything. But yeah, I just want to see a reality where we believe a little bit more that our technology could be good for us.
Dawkins makes games that advocate for the ludic exploration of the self. It’s both profound and light, spiritual and impressively down-to-earth. Most importantly, it’s an alternative to the narratives we have been presented on the virtual composition of spaces and personas. On the website, Apocablyss’ products are described as “transmedia, meditative, and transformative.” I ask for an example, and how, exactly one can build such a place.
` PD: We wanted to create a space that made you feel refreshed after, and so the way that we did that is we wanted you to experience all of your emotions. This took us years. Basically, we just wanted to wash you with colors and poetry that was designed to make you feel a certain way. And so the first level we wanted you to feel scared. The color was red…you kind of walked around really scared because we thought it’s scary to be in VR for the first time…. and then you get over your fear and, look, the poetry is like stepping over your fear. And then the next level is like OK, now you’re out of your fear now, it’s kind of chaotic, you know, it’s yellow. There’s character that’s like just like going off, on, off, saying random stuff but it’s kind of cool because Ashley’s poetry is amazing. You’re getting diamonds and stuff, and so, cool, you’ve gotten into that chaotic but fun, interesting realm. And then you go into the green and green is a little bit more- it’s a little bit more like reality. And so we explored how you got in trouble and then you got out of the trouble and then you were made to help some people. This is the longest area because green is the color we see the most…green can make it through the atmosphere like way better than any other color and so our eyes everything is made out of more green than anything else…so we got to explore, what does that mean in the story? You’re watering flowers and then this character kindly tells you to stop. Stop watering the flowers. We wanted the player to have the sense of empowerment to do what they wanted to do. Subvert the expectations at this time. By doing that you didn’t make this other character happy, but you did what you had to do. We’re trying to make people think for themselves. That’s something I love doing in my games. Don’t do it because you’re being told to do it cause it’s almost always gonna be wrong…Then we kind of like put the character in the ocean. Like a washing experience, like you’re gonna be reborn…there’s this amazing poem for the end and it’s just like it’s such a crazy moment. If you go through the whole experience it just feels like such a release at this moment, you know…I’ve seen some people really like respond strongly to it and I think that’s kind of a success for us. It was our first time trying really meticulous storytelling with the space and the emotions and shapes and the sounds, all of these things combined. We wanted to make sure the sound went with the frequency of the color that it was, you know, like yellow has a frequency, right?
I nod, like I know all about yellow’s frequency. I’m taken aback by the level of attention to the crafting of each digital space in Gardenarium. The notion of player empowerment also sticks out to me. As a creator of these places, of the design and rules of the game, Dawkins is not interested in constraining or defining the player. Her earlier words on self-discovery ring truer. It’s built into these rooms’ code.
These rooms are also strikingly natural, for a video game. There’s the ocean, the importance of green. My chat with Paloma Dawkins, in a similar fashion, keeps coming back to her admiration for nature.
PD: Technology reflects natural patterns completely. Like the way that a flower grows. There’s so much we can be inspired by…because it’s so elegant so simple and it’s so strong…so satisfying look at. Yeah, that’s that’s what I want to bring into my games. That satisfaction of seeing stuff bloom.
I then learn about Wampum, all the while being reminded of the night I met Dawkins a week earlier, digital flowers being watered on the wall to our right. That was the night of the tarot deck launch. Amidst all this talk of abstract spaces, I ask Dawkins about the tangible products Apocablyss makes.
PD: There’s a limitation to like what I can do online and it’s not very satisfying for me to only do things online. Community is such an important part of the whole equation for me, and so I really want to bridge that gap between digital space and real space.
I ask what that looks like.
Dawkins mentions her love of events, and that’s how we get to the start of her career.
PD: My friends would throw raves and then I’d be like ‘hey can I like make a dumb game and like put it in the corner’ and then I would watch drunk people playing my games and it was really good feedback. They’d be like ‘woo!’ or ‘I don’t know where to go’…It’s really fun, it was just the best way to do it because I’m working with my friends to make the game and it’s just such a better process. Sometimes now I’m at home, slogging away by myself. I miss that time. I need human feedback in order to do this. I’m not existing in a vacuum, you know, like some games designers think that they can. I don’t know, I guess they like that. I can’t.
Human feedback takes us to mentorship, a topic Dawkins has already alluded to.
PD: I wouldn’t be able to do anything I’m doing without mentorship. Especially being a woman, I got a lot of support from people just being like ‘Oh my God, yeah, you got it.’ It’s helpful but then as I progressed I needed heavier and heavier help because I didn’t go to school for anything. That’s a huge part of the problem. I mean, I didn’t have the right credits to go to like, the right school to learn. Because I was like- I always thought I was… I was girl from the 90s or whatever, you know, they were like ‘oh girls aren’t good enough’ or I don’t know what it was, maybe just me stuck in that, but I didn’t have the credits… So I had to do it on my own. It was probably better because then I got really tailored help. The first thing I did was something called the Artsy Games Incubator at the Hand Eye Society in Toronto, like a six week course, intensive. Every week we would just meet up with out piece, kind of like build on it, and that was really cool because I had animation experience but not game experience. It’s really good transitioning. Then after I finished that one take some time with NSP; that felt like an internship to me, honestly. Then after that to start my own company, it’s a whole other can of worms. You need specific training for that and I’m so grateful Dames Making Games helped me with that part. They have this social impact investment readiness course and they select some women and LGBTQ folks and every minority in the game industry to prepare them… That was really cool and they helped me open my company, like the LLC. They got me a lawyer, they got me an accountant, all these things. It just goes show how much gatekeeping there is because that’s such specific knowledge. It’s not something you can just casually share, you know, it’s like– some guys are just raised with that…The rest of us just don’t even know how it’s actually quite simple, you just have to have the savvy, you just have to have that confidence, you have to know the terminology. The same goes for coding…as long as you have the help, if you have the energy, the eagerness, you could do anything.
We talk about support in the industry, and the big factor money is. Dawkins shares an anecdote with me. Living in Montreal, paying around two hundred a month for rent, “[e]ating…I don’t even know what I was eating,” she posted a listing on Bunz. A comic for a meal. The post blew up.
PD: It was really fun. I went around town with a bag of comics and just got meals all day. People would pack a little meal, all these really interesting folks, and I kind of missed those times. I would get into these really creative ways of making money and that’s around the time when I started doing games at like festivals and raves…I feel like that was a huge part of my process to get to where I am.
She shares her excitement at being paid 750 CAD for her first comic, and over time, seeing it grow for a thousand a game, two thousand, four thousand, twenty thousand. I bring up a link I noticed on Apocablyss’ page, one leading to the entirety of her games on Itch.io. for free. She nods fervently.
PD: I want my games to be free. It feels like they should be free.
Dawkins is only back in Montreal for a couple of days, before heading back to her home in Nova Scotia. I ask her the million dollar question: if she has a room of her own. She does. It’s full of Tatami mats. She lists the things the can do in them: sleep, stretch, yoga, get cozy, watch a movie, have tea. She tells me she loves being in this room, and I believe her. She attributes it to the texture of the mats. I tell her, that it sounds like the sort of meditative space she’s creating for others in her games. She agrees with a smile.
PD: Our environment really inspires who we become. That’s something in nature. If there’s this kind of plant, then the creatures around are gonna be eating them, right, like they’re gonna be evolving with that plant in mind. So if I have a chill room with Tatami mats, I’m gonna become a chill, close to the ground person.
I am curious about the video game industry as an environment, and a space for a woman to move in. I ask Dawkins about any power dynamics or situations she may have encountered. She comes up blank.
PD: I guess I’m a little oblivious sometimes. Others will say ‘oh, that person was doing this’ or whatever, and I’m like ‘oh really, I didn’t notice.’ I guess I’m kind of naive. I expect the best of people but I think that works in my advantage, honestly, because most people wanna be their best. If I don’t give them a chance to be a terrible, cringy person, then they won’t. That’s my hope anyway. It just hasn’t really happened to me…I think I’ve just been really lucky to been working with the NFB [National Film Board of Canada], they’re mostly like asking me about the VR world, you know, but that’s good…I think I’m going to come into maybe some more of those spaces now that I’m on my own and trying to get in the door a bit. So I might have to do some, like, weird hoops and get some weird power dynamics but I don’t know, I feel pretty confident about myself.
What about confidence in the space itself? I ask Dawkins if she’d consider us to be in a post—patriarchal media landscape.
PD: Yeah, that’s cool. Yeah, post patriarchal, let’s go, let’s go. I’m all about it. I do believe that, yeah. I feel like it’s not working anymore, you know, that like… hyperfocused, masculine, nine to five, we need all hands on deck for this… I don’t think it’s gonna become like matriarchy but I think that we can abolish that entire idea altogether, that whole gender binary. We’re just here for humanity, we’re here for creatures, we’re here for plants, we’re here for all the players. Fuck gender because it doesn’t matter, right, we’re inter species. I feel like you can’t expect your people to be kind to each other if they can’t even be kind to animals, they can’t even be kind to their computers. We need to be kind to everything, all otherness, period.
I thank Dawkins for her time and end the recording before she says the rawest thing I have heard all week. I scribble it down furiously.
PD: Defining a space is so anti-nature. What is indoors versus outdoors? We’re in nature all the time. A digital space is nature.