lea.jpg[In the latest in a series of independent game interviews for GameSetWatch, German game designer Lea Schonfelder, creator of IGF 'honorary mention' title for 2011 Uta, discusses last year's IGF Student Showcase nominee and stark homeless-themed game Ulitsa Dimitrova.]

“I want the player to feel bad. They should feel unhappy.”

Lea Schönfelder’s strawberry blond curls bobbed slightly as she talked. Her sinewy voice paused from time to time, stretching for the right words. During this pause in particular, the term schadenfreude popped into my mind.

We were discussing Ulitsa Dimitrova, a short game Schönfelder made with her boyfriend at Kunsthochschule Kassel, an interdisciplinary art school in Kassel, Germany. Ulitsa Dimitrova is the quintessential art game: one for which the term “game” is a misnomer. The player can do certain things – beg for money, steal, vandalize Mercedes and trade their emblems for cigarettes – but any sense of achievement is lost. Progress isn’t an option. Causality has been omitted.

“What I like about it is the player is treated badly. He always loses. I think it’s funny,” she continued.

Indeed, Ulitsa Dimitrova can seem like a bad joke, both to its players and its characters. Pjotr is a chain-smoking kid. He steals glue and trades it to his glue-sniffing friend for cigarettes. His mother is a prostitute. He sells stolen vodka to her so that he can buy more cigarettes. And to top it off, Pjotr will freeze to death if the player stops playing. The only option is smoke or die.

The game occupies an uncomfortable niche between humorous and disturbing. When I first booted it up, I didn’t know whether to laugh at it or be offended. It didn’t hit me that Ulitsa Dimitrova was portraying something real – something I could hop on a plane and see in real space – until later.

“I visited St. Petersburg two years ago,” Schönfelder explained. “My brother did his civic service there working with homeless children and disabled people.” The trip later became the inspiration for her game. Ulitsa Dimitrova is set on a fictional corner of St. Petersburg. Russian cities have an unusually high number of homeless children, and it’s estimated that St. Petersburg contains 30,000 alone. Many of these children are abandoned by their families for economic reasons. They live in condemned buildings and in the sewers.

“It’s not a problem particular to Russian cities. It exists in a lot of other places,” Schönfelder was quick to point out. This footnote appears to have been added in a subsequent revision to her artistic statement. It was a reaction to goings-on in a realm she had initially failed to consider – the political sphere. A number of blogs have cited an Independent story that speculates Ulitsa Dimitrova could fall prey to Russian Parliament’s imposed ban on video games which portray Russia in a negative light.

Schönfelder downplays Ulitsa Dimitrova's political and sociological implications.

“The game shouldn't be taken as such a political work. I do think the problem is severe, but I am not a specialist, and – I must say – the story is more of an illustration,” she said.

“So, you don’t consider your artwork social commentary?” I asked.

“Of course it’s social commentary. It just wasn’t my first aim. My initial goal was to make a game that was very disappointing for the player. It just fit so well with the system – the story of little Pjotr freezing to death. I hardly play computer games. I’m not so much into the scene. I just wanted to see what was possible.”

“If you’re not into computer games, why did you chose to work with interactive media for this project? Wouldn’t film be more appropriate?”

“A movie would make the experience much less intense. I hope that when someone plays the game, they will feel unhappy at the end. And that needs the participation of the player.”

“But why unhappy?”

“They should be a little bit shocked about the fate of Pjotr. That’s why they feel bad. Because they took the role of Pjotr.”

If Ulitsa Dimitrova is not a social-driven denouncement of homelessness – Schönfelder claims she didn’t see a single homeless child during her stay in St. Petersburg – and it’s not a silicon-fueled equivalent of Nietzsche’s proclamation that “beggars should be abolished entirely,” – the unhappiness Schönfelder kept referring to faintly rung of compassion – then what is it?

Ulitsa Dimitrova’s truths are subtle, and thus harder to define. The greatest proof of their actuality emerged as I described my initial experience with the game to Schönfelder. I told her my first instinct was to laugh. I knew something horrible was going on, but I wanted to laugh. I felt conflicted.

“It’s okay to laugh,” she reassured me. “I think Pjotr laughs sometimes as well.”

She was right. Pjotr does laugh. Never audibly, and not very often, but underneath Ulitsa Dimitrova’s themes of hardships and depravity, one can almost hear genuine laughter – not the mocking or cynical kind – winding down the sidewalk, and it makes Pjotr's plight seem bittersweet. The prostitute kisses her son for stealing the vodka. A rich girl kisses Pjotr also. She accepts his gift of a cigarette, and her mother snatches her away shortly. A babushka who works at a newspaper stand looks at him endearingly.

It’s the friction between the harshness of life on skid row and the humanity of it that makes Ulitsa Dimitrova such a powerful illustration. It’s easy to veer into extremes, but Schönfelder is deliberate. She told me how it took her a long time to find the perfect shade of blue to draw the city.

We talked at length about St. Petersburg. She told me about the Neva – how its black water cuts through the cold, white light of the city.

“The light is different there,” she said. “Different from the south where the light is yellow and warm. It’s really bright and blinding. It was very beautiful when you stood on the river and looked to the other side.”

She told me a quaint story about how she had to change into a skirt and veil in order to go in the city’s famous cathedrals.

“I don’t know if the homeless children are allowed in the churches,” she said.

I asked her if Pjotr goes to heaven.

“No,” she said.