Sydney game developers are getting weird, despite the risks

At SXSW Sydney 2023, local Sydney game developers discussed why weird games are so important, and why they persist in spite of risk.
mystiques sydney weird games

Games should be weirder. They should challenge you, and amuse you, and confuse you. They should send you on strange odysseys, into dark worlds, or on journeys filled with strange beasts. In weird games, we can see the boundlessness of creativity, insights into the human condition. They’re often reflective on individual, personal experiences and passions, and tell stories that connect on deeper levels. In Sydney, Australia – and across the country – a movement of strange games is taking place, with developers diving into weirder and wilder territory to tell impactful stories.

At SXSW Sydney 2023, a group of local developers and curators came together for a panel discussing this journey, and the importance of giving time and support to weird games – for their power, and how they tell unique, memorable stories.

Tulpas, and wielded passions

In discussion with journalist Steph Panecasio, Ally McLean Hennessey of Lemonade Games (Mystiques), Pete Foley of Fuzzy Ghost (Janet DeMornay Is A Slumlord (and a witch), Queer Man Peering Into a Rock Pool.jpg), and Jae Stuart of collective Serenade Games kicked off proceedings by talking about their strange obsessions.

McLean Hennessey discussed the topic of tulpas, theoretical beings brought to life by human thought and desire. Foley brought up the inherent boringness of the mundane. While seemingly disparate ideas, they represent the passions of both developers – with these concepts inspiring upcoming games, Mystiques and Janet DeMornay.

Weirdness, as McLean Hennessy described, can be the basis of special, distinctive ideas, with creativity born out of the strangest places. In indulging these passions, art can thrive.

Read: The SXSW Sydney 2023 Games Showcase contained multitudes

But while the entire panel enthused about the potential of weird ideas from weird people being given creative life, and connecting to similarly-minded players in that regard, they also discussed an unfortunate reality for weird games: that they represent great creative and financial risks for their creators.

Image: SweatyChair

Making games in Sydney is incredibly hard, as the panel discussed, largely as there is no formal support structure or dedicated state funding for game developers in New South Wales. While Screen Australia provides grants across the country – and has supported Fuzzy Ghost’s Janet DeMornay – competition and strict requirements means weirder game idea in the state are often left floundering.

But in the bizarre and strange, you’ll often find the most memorable and relatable experiences.

Tingus Goose, a bizarre idle game from Sydney-based studio SweatyChair that involves growing goose trees hatched from humans, was brought up multiple times in the course of the panel, as an example of why weird games should be allowed to thrive. It’s surreal, and incredibly obtuse, but Tingus Goose is compelling and joyful, revelling in its strangeness. Its gameplay is memorable, and rewarding, and it’s the kind of game that stays with you.

For McLean Hennessey, Tingus Goose served as a core example of why weird games are so important – they’re a fascinating source of inspiration, and defiantly push the bounds of art and creativity.

Insufferable women

In McLean Hennessey’s own “weird game” project – Mystiques – she aims to wield her life experiences to inform an adventure-mystery game centred on “insufferable women”. In Mystiques, players will meet four women with a failing business attempting to survive by dabbling in the arcane and recovering haunted relics.

The game is decidedly strange, and filled with supernatural weirdness – ghosts, the mystic arts, and haunted possessions. It’s about the nature of reality, and how the past haunts us all. But while it’s undeniably weird, McLean Hennessey has made clear it’s also rooted in the real world, and her real life experiences and friendships. Through the weird, she aims to explore questions we all face as adults, and the people we meet along the way.

Janet DeMornay Is A Slumlord (and a witch) similarly wields the weird as a storytelling tool, with the game centred on a haunted apartment lauded over by the titular Janet DeMornay, who is a slumlord and a witch, of course.

According to Foley, it’s through the game’s weirdness and humour that players are able to understand its intention – that is, to underline and criticise archaic, restrictive, and privacy-infringing rental laws in Australia.

In abstracting this concept from the real world, Janet DeMornay presents its central conflict in magical, amusing, horrifying ways – with storytelling devices including exploration and puzzling ensuring that players more deeply understand the real horrors of renting. Through the lens of the surreal, these issues become clearer, more emotional, recognisable, and far more relatable.

janet demornay game fuzzy ghost
Image: Fuzzy Ghost

For Jae Stuart, who helps to organise the Sydney-based Serenade Games meetup, where developers come together to share their abstract ideas, weirdness is perhaps the great contribution a creator can make to the world. During SXSW Sydney 2023, they emphasised the importance of showing off weird games in public spaces, to illuminate new ideas, to connect like-minded people, and as a form of creative validation.

Pushing for more

McLean Hennessey sees immense value in the push for weirder, more creative games in Sydney and wider New South Wales, as a means to advance relatable storytelling. She believes a community push is growing, with more local developers seeking opportunities to share their work and their more complex, challenging ideas.

That’s despite pushback on all sides, thanks to that aforementioned lack of financial support – but also a quieter, more corporate culture in Sydney’s games scene, with fewer opportunities for non-commercial works.

“Sydney looks enviously at Melbourne,” McLean Hennessey said, in reference to stronger support structures and funding opportunities in the state. Foley agreed – although he referenced Sydney developers as being more like “diamonds under pressure” in that a lack of opportunities strengthened and sharpened their skillsets.

“Being weird in Melbourne is basic,” Foley said. In Sydney, being weird is defiant and against the grain.

mystiques game weird sydney
Image: Lemonade Games

In future, Foley, McLean Hennessey, and Stuart want to see more barriers for weird games in Sydney and NSW being broken down, with funding standing as the first major roadblock in the way of a new creative wave. Foley specifically called out Screen NSW in his plea for change, as one of the few Australian state bodies with limited opportunities for games funding.

McLean Hennessey specifically called for initiation funding across the country, as she believes a major barrier to more creative works is an inability to kickstart projects with early support. As she described, Mystiques is not currently eligible for most funds, as the majority are only designed to support mid-development or late stage projects.

It’s not only about allowing weird ideas to thrive – it’s also about providing jobs, fostering talent, building transferrable skills, and eventually, attracting larger game companies to Australia. As McLean Hennessey said, if Australia wants to harness the economic benefits of the global games industry, it needs to start by supporting smaller, independent companies to create great and memorable works.

There is much work to do in this regard – but as SXSW Sydney 2023 revealed, the industry is already part of the way there. In Sydney and wider Australia, there are plenty of developers currently working on weird and wonderful games that could be the next breakout hit. They only need the right support to realise their potential.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.