It was an uncharacteristically cold day in San Francisco. A few blocks away from the commotion that is the annual Game Developer’s Conference, I sat down with Toronto-based game developer Yifat Shaik to chat about her life, her game making journey, and her latest game, Real Army Simulator.
Originally developed in 2015 with Derek Quenneville, Real Army Simulator is a narrative-driven game exploring the life of an army personnel. As a player, you get to dive into such exciting and epic choices as getting coffee or smoking a cigarette. This mundanity is deliberate. The very tagline of the game emphasizes this: “Adventure. Excitement. A meaningful existence. The Army craves not these things.”
Real Army Simulator draws its inspiration from Yifat’s own experiences in the Israeli army from 2002 to 2004. As part of her mandatory military service, she served in the army’s IT helpdesk department. Away from the front lines, the game parallels her experience of army life: often mundane and monotonous.
“My army experience was waking up everyday, going from Jerusalem to Ramat Gan (where my base was), answering phone calls (because it was a computer helpdesk) and then going home,” recounts Yifat.
The game is firmly grounded in reality. In Real Army Simulator, there are no explosions, gun fights or victory marches but rather just the everyday choices of trying to fit in, getting through the day, and keeping yourself intact in a system that essentially acts as a “big, slow, and cumbersome” corporation.
The game’s initial seeds were planted during a conversation between Yifat and another Toronto-based game developer, Andrew Carvalho. “We were talking about my army experience and [how a game could] make fun of what it was like,” Yifat recalls. “Andrew suggested that I do TOJam [a notable Toronto game jam] and to try to think about a frame of telling my experience in the army.” Yifat reached out to Derek Quenneville to help bring the idea to life.
Derek is Yifat’s most frequent collaborator. Introduced to game making when his family got a Commodore VIC-20, he points to high school as the pivotal moment when he “made something that felt ‘real’.” It was here where he developed a fighting game where he “filmed a couple of friends against a white blanket, used a parallel port capture device to grab the VHS frames, then manually erased backgrounds in Photoshop 3.0.”
Meeting each other through a local makerspace and mutual friends, Yifat would later form The Really Serious Game Company with Derek. They became fast friends after Yifat spent 3 hours frustratingly yelling at his TV while both were watching the rifftrax of the Star Wars prequels.
Seeing each other going to the same game jams, a collaboration ultimately developed. Early in that year, both had spent a disastrous Global Game Jam together, having not completed their game (Gothic Forklift). This time around though, with the concept in tow, it seemed more feasible. As Yifat approached Derek with the idea, he jumped on board as he “liked the idea, and the initial version seemed like a better fit for the scope of a game jam than [their] previous attempt.”
Initially, the game leaned more towards a point and click adventure. On the first day of the jam though, it transformed into a more narrative game. Yifat wanted to explore the idea of “the army as a corporation” as well as the idea of “Charlie Chaplin and Modern Times where everything is automated.”
This idea spilled through the character movement found within the game. Functioning as a type of side-scroller, the game changes scenes as the player’s avatar moves from left to right, mimicking the movement of a conveyer belt. As Yifat explains, she “wanted the background to change” although without the complexity of having “a completely different and complicated background.”
The conveyor belt system seemed to solve that issue. “I wasn’t 100% at first about the ‘conveyer belt’ style movement when Yifat described it to me,” recounts Derek, “but I think that it works with the themes and the aesthetic incredibly well.”
I first saw Real Army Simulator at last year’s Pixelles Teacade, an indie game showcase in Montreal that’s open to the public. Its Saul Bass-esque aesthetic and its unlikely colour scheme drew me in. Asked about the game’s distinct style, Yifat tells me it evolved throughout the development process but ultimately she wanted to be able to do the style quickly while still maintaining the quality.
“I wanted something that I could do in a weekend [during TOJam] because when I do a game jam, I don’t stay up. I go to sleep in my home, and I wake up the next day,” explains Yifat.
While exploring different art styles, she looked at pixel art. While not entirely sold on the style itself (“There’s a lot of bad pixel art out there!”), she saw the work done for Sword & Sorcery.
“It really is a beautiful game and [I love] the way the characters are constructed – with the characters being different and lean,” gushed Yifat. Seeing those characters inspired her to design her characters in a similar manner. At the same time, she wanted the “squareness and the quickness of pixel art” as that style of squareness appeared to “fit in with the idea of the army and being non-unique.”
She went through the same process while designing the background. “I looked at games that used pixel art in different forms. I looked at the squareness and when I started, I remembered seeing how a tree was done in Fez. While [Real Army Simulator] evolved afterwards (there’s a lot more rounded lines nowadays), [those inspirations] started it all.”
The colour scheme also followed a similar path as she deliberated between a more traditional army palette versus an unconventional one filled with pinks and greens. “That was actually, probably, the longest time I spent on the art just looking for colour schemes as it’s a really important part of the game,” she explains.
trying to figure out if I want to go with a traditional army like color palette, or should I go crazy #tojam
— Sela (@yifatshaik) May 2, 2015
She put the question to Twitter and following the wisdom of the crowd, the game ended up with the unconventional colours. “[The colours] were a big part of what made the art,” says Yifat. “Especially in episode 2 and 3 of the game, they start to mix up. They change according to my mood or they deal with how the day progresses – starting with evening colours, for example, or depending on the time that you have, the colours are darker.”
Real Army Simulator‘s aesthetics then is not a product of accident. A meticulous process, Yifat confesses that “a big chunk of the game was just figuring out how the game would look.”
The other chunk was integrating her experiences within the narrative of the game itself. The initial motivations for the game was to parallel her army life by creating this mundane and boring experience where “you just have to survive the day.”
Often, whenever her military past is brought up, there is this set of implications of what that life entailed. She explains to me though that the truth is far more ordinary: “[That job] is not interesting. Even people I know who were fighters in the army, unless you’re in a war situation, in most cases that’s how it is. It’s kind of boring. There’s nothing heroic or exciting. It does prepare you in a weird way for modern adulthood in some ways. But it’s a 9 to 5 office job.”
“Aside from the implications of an army being an army and, especially in Israel, when you know that something that you did might have a chance that it could have killed someone, the army is mundane and boring,” says Yifat. “People think I’m critiquing the army, but the army is what it is. I’m only one person, I’m certainly not going to be able to change it.”
Yifat sees the army as a big corporation where “everything moves slowly and everything takes a while.” For her, people do not often think about this because they get their notions (of being in the army) through games. What she is critiquing then is these misconceptions portrayed in games: “I made a game making fun of games. It’s a satire about games and what games think an army is.”
As an example, Yifat brings up games like Modern Warfare. In these games, your actions appear very heroic while you kill a lot of people, but at the same time, “you [never] realize how much consequence there is to even kill just one person.”
“I’ve been to the army. I’ve been to war. I grew up in Jerusalem. I’ve seen some stuff…” says Yifat as her voice breaks. “There’s nothing heroic about it. And people I know who have been to war, I don’t think they think of it as particularly heroic.”
Expanding on this, she recounts Waltz With Bashir, an Israeli animated movie she watched where the director explores his memories from the first Lebanon war. In this movie, there is a scene where a soldier talks about a war memory that has haunted him for 30 something years. For Yifat, this scene is poignant because “none of the soldiers are talking about heroism…they’re all talking about memories that haunt them.”
“I’ve met many who have served in wars and were really into the army and fighting beforehand. But they too have memories that haunt them,” she says. “You don’t go out of war as the same person. It’s really rough and there are very few moments of heroism.”
To fend off this misconception then, she made this army simulator to show what the “real” army life is like (at least based off the experiences she had). Without the fallback of the guts and glory typical of modern war games, she infused the game with a lot of humour and relatable moments.
“I didn’t want it to be serious because I’m not. I make fun of things. I joke,” she explains with a laugh. “That was the main idea for this game, to show my experience and make fun of games.”
That approach to this subject has seen countless players, including army veterans, giggling away while playing and saying, “I remember that!” to the many moments within the game.
Jeff Watson, Yifat’s previous supervisor during her days at OCADU, describes her as someone with “total seriousness and dedication with self-effacing humour and genuine warmth.” As our conversation switches from the lighter to the more heavy side of things, I couldn’t help but notice that same dualism in Yifat – of showing total conviction and seriousness (especially when asked about her thoughts on war) but also peppered with humour softening what can sometimes be a polarizing subject.
Real Army Simulator and other works in her practice take their cues from satirical shows like M.A.S.H. or Blackadder. Works that use humour and satire as a way to comment on the absurdities of human life.
“My inspiration comes from [those anti-war shows] which show just how ridiculous the army can be,” she explains. The audience are more likely to at least listen when these messages are delivered through humour rather than if you have, for example, a movie forcing the message that war is bad. Because, as she points out, “those who already think this will react, but people who think otherwise might say, ‘Well, you do what is necessary.'”
In Blackadder, for instance, she explains how while it is a comedy show, it was powerful TV. During its ending, the montage showed the characters in battle – with everyone knowing they’re going to die. Those scenes bring up such powerful and emotional messages about “wasted lives and of war.”
“I want to make something like that,” says Yifat wistfully. “Something that makes you feel something, but also makes you laugh.”