The Download: Feature Articles
Meet NYU Game Center Alum, Winnie Song
By Nicolas LeBrun. Video by Jayson Miller | February 27, 2020
For some people, playing video games isn’t simply a matter of having fun: it can be serious business. Since 2012, the Department of Game Design at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts—also known as the NYU Game Center—has set out to redefine the field of gaming by fostering the next generation of game designers, developers, entrepreneurs, and critics.
Someone who certainly fits this mold is Winnie Song, a NYU Game Center graduate who throughout her career has managed to get to know “every corner of [the industry] at almost every scale,” as she explained in a recent NYU Game Center Lecture Series talk. Now an independent game developer based in New York, Song joined the NYU Game Center faculty in the fall of 2019 as an Assistant Arts Professor and is training as the visual design area head.
Video Games as a Canvas for Visual Design
Being a new type of game developer means maintaining a hyperliteracy around gaming culture and history that can only develop when you have been immersed in gaming since childhood. “When I was young, my mom was like, ‘You should be playing video games because that’s the thing of the future.’” Song recalled. “‘Oh, is this a new console? You should have it because I don’t want you to fall behind.’”
Far from falling behind, Song always seems to be ahead of the curve. At the age of 28, she’s one of the youngest full-time faculty members at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a member of the NYU Tisch Class of 2015, she was also one of the first NYU students to graduate with an MFA in Game Design. During this time, Song combined the rich and distinctive visual style she developed as a graphic design undergrad with her talent for creating engaging and thought-provoking games in order to forge a strong identity not only as a gamemaker but as an artist.
“I feel like [schools like the NYU Game Center] have given birth to a set of values in a way that there hasn't been before,” explains Song. “I think that gaining the will and pride to actually become artists is, like, literally the only reason why art schools should exist.”
During her final year in the Game Design program, Song was given the space to explore her craft to its fullest potential when her capstone project was selected for the second cohort of the NYU Game Center Incubator. This summer-long development initiative helps students navigate the commercial realities of creating and releasing a game. Under the guidance of an advisory board and with financial and production support provided by the NYU Game Center, Song was able to complete Badblood, a local, split-screen, one-on-one game of hide-and-seek with life-and-death stakes.
In Badblood, players’ avatars face off in a field, creeping through bushes and stalking their opponent in order to sneak up and attack when least expected. One of the game’s major innovations is the way it deals with an act disparagingly referred to among gaming circles as “screen peeking.” To get around the possibility of a player gaining an advantage over their opponent by looking at their side of the screen, Song constructed the game so that each player sees the field at a different orientation. Not only is it possible to look at your opponent’s screen, the game almost begs you to—as long as you’re confident about its orientation.
Song self-published Badblood through Stream and itch.io, popular independent game-sharing platforms. Following its release, the game attracted a good deal of attention from high-profile gaming festivals. It was an official selection at the 2015 Evolution Championship Season (EVO), an annual e-sports event in Las Vegas that showcases the best combat games. As an official selection, Badblood was featured alongside classics such as Street Fighter and played by some of the most highly-skilled and competitive gamers in the nation.
Seeing Badblood played at such a level led Song to reflect upon the game’s appeal in a new way. “I actually didn’t know what I was making until I went to Evo,” she recalls. “We think about [violence] in a very abstract sense—we ‘monstercise’ the act.” Song began to understand the way the game can make its audience come to terms with the fact that the desire to inflict violence is such a common human trait. “That capacity will exist in humans forever. We can’t tamp that down. What we can make is systems that make the player feel something when they do that,” explains Song. In this way, Badblood isn’t just a thrilling experience in gameplay, it’s also a tool for “exercising and exorcising” the violent impulses we have ingrained in our beings.
After graduating, Song worked briefly as a visual design instructor at the NYU Game Center before taking a job at Square Enix Montreal, a Canadian outpost of the Japanese gaming studio renowned for producing the Final Fantasy series, along with other console and mobile games. In many ways, this opportunity represented a step into unfamiliar territory. “I came from a place where being ‘indie’ and being really critical of [those types of games] was the norm,” she recalls. “I think what I tried to do by going to Square Enix Montreal was to get rid of that prejudice.”
The types of games Song worked on at Square Enix Montreal wasn’t the only difference. She also worked in an entirely different manner. The NYU faculty advocates for individualism in game design; a way of working which Song fully embraced. With the exception of a musician whose song was featured in the game, she was the only person who worked on Badblood, handling all design and programming duties herself. At Square Enix Montreal, she was one of dozens of team members working on a single project simultaneously.
The collaborative aspect of her time at Square Enix Montreal was one of Song’s major take-aways from the experience. “Even students who want to be indie: work at a studio for like a second,” she insists. “What you’ll learn is that people are everything. A game getting made and coming in front of you is the result of people caring, people putting in the time, and people realizing that this game is bigger than their life at home; it’s bigger than their family. It’s more important that the game goes out there than that they eat!”
Despite the scale and resources that working at Square Enix Montreal afforded her, ultimately, the values they embodied proved to be incompatible with what Song envisioned gaming should be. After her time at the studio, she returned to independent game development and not too long after that began working at NYU. When asked about this decision, Song replied completely unapologetically that she learned “[she is] prejudiced and [she is] pretentious and that a lot of things that the mobile scene cares about are things that [she] can’t really get on board with.”
This trajectory is indicative of a larger set of moral convictions that animate every aspect of Song’s game-making practice. A credo Song expressed more than once over the course of our conversation is that the sign of a good game is when a player starts thinking about themselves. Returning to the NYU Game Center equipped with lessons like these, she’s now in a position where she can take an active role in helping the next generation of students entering the industry to follow their own creative convictions, wherever this might lead them.