Madison Karrh’s booth at Summer Game Fest 2022 was on the far right side of the demo area, hugging a wall at the front of the small industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. Her game, Birth, was one of the first projects you’d see after grabbing a swag bag, but it was easy to overlook in a sea of neon pixels and mainstream names like Street Fighter, Cuphead and Sonic. Birth is a thoughtful game of bones, puzzles, loneliness and decay, rendered in earth tones and captivating, hand-drawn vignettes. In a Day of the Devs cluster at Summer Game Fest, the Birth booth was a bubble of respite from the fast action showcased on surrounding screens.
“Showing Birth at conventions feels like putting my whole, raw, beating heart on a table in front of a bunch of strangers and asking if it is enough for them,” Karrh told me a few months after Summer Game Fest.
Birth is, essentially, a game about death. It’s an introspective experience with an entire city block to explore and small surprises in every scene, and it invites people to play with their deepest insecurities. Physics and logic puzzles are hidden in cafes, apartments and bookstores, each one welcoming players to engage with thoughts of mortality and loneliness. Build your own companion out of scattered bones and organs, peel back bandages to remove foreign objects from human limbs, interact with skeleton creatures, let your mind wander while organizing eyeballs, poke at all manner of decaying animal carcasses.
Nothing about Birth is harsh; from color palette to gameplay, this is an experience built for slow afternoons and sleepless nights. Even in the middle of a busy game convention, it’s a soothing way to play with terrifying topics.
“As humans, we know that we will die,” Karrh said. “Yet there is so much joy and art and love that gets created regardless of this looming fact. Maybe even because of it. I think about the limitations of mortality every day, and I want my portrayal of death and decay and loneliness to be as soft and gentle and genuine as possible.”
Half a year after Summer Game Fest, I still can’t get Birth off my mind. The themes are heavy, but the game is not, and this balance is a testament to Karrh’s eye for design and visual appeal. When it comes out on February 17th, Birth will be her third release on Steam, and her largest project to date.
“Day-to-day loneliness can be an embarrassing thing to admit to feeling,” Karrh said. “I hope the tender art style and the silly physics of the game make it feel more like having a contemplative, clumsy conversation with a friend.”
After Summer Game Fest, Karrh took Birth to Cologne, Germany, for Gamescom, the largest video game convention of the year. There, it was one of 130 games in the Indie Arena, sandwiched between sprawling adventures, city builders, sci-fi combat and metal music. Thousands of people streamed past her booth, some stopping to play for a few minutes and others lingering for an hour. Karrh never rushed players through their time with Birth, even though it meant fewer people ultimately got their hands on it.
“I was just so honored and smitten with the fact that people chose to spend so much of their time with my game in a sea of other delicious games,” Karrh said. “Birth doesn’t appeal to everyone, of course – I think the minimal, dark art style of my booth filtered out the humans who wouldn’t be interested. It is a slow, intimate game and I didn’t want anyone to feel rushed. People waited in line, people brought their friends back to show it to them. It felt like everyone was giving me a big giant hug.”
After Gamescom, Birth made its way to San Francisco for the Day of the Devs showcase in November. This was its fourth convention appearance of the year, adding a trip to London for WASD in April. Birth is a small game that’s been on a worldwide tour, and in the process it’s plucked Karrh out of her own isolated game-development hole. Even after Birth comes out – and even though it’s a single-player game that’ll likely be consumed by people sitting alone in dark rooms – this game represents true human connection for Karrh.
“I have lived most of my twenties in tiny studio apartments surrounded by other tiny studio apartments full of strangers,” she said. “As a solo game dev, I spend a lot of time sitting alone at my desk. It took me a very long time to accept that if I wanted to create as many games as I could, that I would need to spend a huge chunk of my life alone. I used to worry that I was wasting my life making games, and that I should be running around the city and kissing humans and falling in love. Fortunately, I have grown out of this insecurity and I think I have connected on a deep level with humans through making games.”
In the end, Birth is designed to be played solo, but it’s a game about the most universal shared experiences that humans have. In this sense, it’s impossible to truly play Birth alone.
“Loneliness is, oddly enough, a shared feeling,” Karrh said.