Sensitive subjects are not out of bounds for award-winning Brenda Romero and her team of developers in Galway, writes Graeme Lennox
As a video games industry veteran, Brenda Romero does not do false modesty. Instead of hiding her Bafta in the loo or using it as a doorstop, her British Academy of Film and Television Arts golden gong takes centre stage in the conference room of Romero Games, the firm she runs with her husband in Galway.
The prize is flanked by a vintage Remington typewriter, a repicla vintage speaker, and dozens of board games. The designer, artist and Fulbright scholar may be rightly proud of her achievement, but for Romero and her spouse — celebrated games director, designer, developer and programmer John Romero — their work is all about play.
This month, Romero was given the Bafta Games Awards’ special prize for her lifelong contribution to the industry, her passion for training the next generation of game-makers, and her advocacy of an often derided medium as an art form. She has attended countless award ceremonies in her 36-year career, but there was something special about being recognised by her peers.
“When I got the email I checked to see if it was fake,” she admits. “The only reason that I believed it was legit was because I had been to a previous Bafta event and recognised the font on the letter.
“I’ve won other awards and my family were proud of me, but when I told them I had won a Bafta they lost their minds.”
Romero, who in additon to creating games is also director of the University of Limerick’s MSc course in game design and development, has worked on 49 video games, including the Wizardry series and titles in the Def Jam, Ghost Recon and Dungeons and Dragons franchises.
Her six-part physical board game series The Mechanic is the Message has won acclaim for its handling of sensitive subjects such as slavery and the Holocaust.
Romero began working in games in 1981, aged 15. The role as a tester at Sir-tech Software was her dream job, playing games around the clock so she could memorise every level and pass on tips to callers via a hotline. Spurning highly paid jobs to remain in the industry, she graduated to product development, and writing and designing games.
“When I first got into it, I knew of five other female developers in the whole industry, but it was what I was used to,” she says. “When it came to writing Wizardry 8 [her first game], I felt a tremendous amount of internal pressure. Not only did [the series] have a devout following, but I was a player and fan, and the people who worked on it were my role models.”
Romero’s family ‘lost their minds’ when she won her Bafta this month
Romero, a New Yorker, was lured to Silicon Valley in 2009, but her concerns about the unethical practices some companies employed to tempt gamers into paid-for content loops meant her time there was short-lived. “When I first got there, I felt exactly how actors do going to Hollywood for the first time,” she says. “I met a lot of my heroes, but I was there at a time when it was transitioning from companies making great experiences to firms making games to take money from people. It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
A passionate advocate of gaming as a boundary-pushing art form, Romero’s work has blurred the lines between genres. Her Mechanic is the Message board game series — including The New World, about the slave trade; Síochán Leat, a chronicle of Irish history which is exhibited in the National Museum of Play in New York; and Train, in which players load pawns into model carriages and transport them to concentration camps — challenges gamers to question their actions.
“Every other art form can cover difficult topics, so why not games? Some of the best photographs you’ll ever see have to deal with difficult subject matter — it’s part of their power — but, for some reason, we got stuck with this idea that games have to be fun.
“I would never approach any of those topics lightly. The questions Train asked are, will people blindly follow the rules, even if the outcome is horrific? And how are we all complicit in letting this happen?”
She is pleased to see more games are being developed to have a social impact and make players explore emotional situations, such as That Dragon, Cancer. The latter was created by Ryan and Amy Green based on their experiences of raising son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer aged one: “A beautiful tribute to their son that just happened to be told as a game.”
Yet Romero adds: “There are subjects to be avoided, unless you’re prepared to put everything you’ve got into making them a respectful treatment of that subject.”
Tough subjects are helped by good characterisation, and she believes writing in games has improved dramatically. “We are starting to see realistic relationships,” she says. “Games give you a sense of ownership no novel can — but we still don’t have a Grapes of Wrath or an East of Eden.”
Romero, whose great-grandfather William left Skibbereen as a stowaway aged 12, was given the chance to trace her roots when awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2014. What began as a three-month road trip in Ireland became a permanent move.
“When we settled in Galway, I was told that people who move here are blow-ins, so that probably makes me a blow-back,” she says. “Everyone in gaming is a funky, weird person, and Galway is a funky, weird city. There’s always a festival and it’s great craic. That is what games are made of.”
Last year, the Romeros teamed up with their 12-year-old son Donovan to make Gunman Taco Truck, a comedy action game. The title was such a success that it will fund Donovan’s college fees.
“I remember seeing him watch his favourite YouTuber playing the game and the smile on his face was worth its weight in gold,” says Romero. “He bought himself a Nintendo Switch, which, for a 12-year-old, is like buying a Ferrari.”
Not taking her lifetime achievement award too literally, she has no plans to hang up her joystick and instead is working on a secret project she says will fulfil a long-time ambition.
“John and I are at an age where we should start thinking about retirement,” she says. “But being told we had to stop making games would feel like a form of punishment.”