When Brie Code took to the stage in Tunis, Tunisia, she was greeted by a rapt audience of twentysomethings ready to hear her vision for the future. But she wasn’t there to lecture on politics, religion or recent news. She was there to talk about video games.
“I told them I love games because we can use them to change the world, and I want to change the world,” she says, adding, “I don’t like problems with easy solutions.”
I love games because we can use them to change the world, and I want to change the world.”
Code has been circling the globe since late 2015, after leaving her position at industry heavyweight Ubisoft, where she worked on major action-adventure titles for seven years. While her original plan was to rent out her Montreal apartment and purchase an open-ended airplane ticket, she scaled her strategy back a bit – but not much – to attend international video-game conferences, with occasional stops home to unpack and reconnect with friends. So far this year, the self-described workaholic has been to Austin, Beirut, Berlin, Istanbul and Stockholm, to name a few.
Yet even before her plans for world domination, Code regularly spoke at tech events and game jams, already noticing how local culture shaped the tone of each experience – for example, she says the Nordic Game conference in Malmö, Sweden, had an especially high number of female attendees and that presenters were just as likely to document their failures as boast about their triumphs.
But while she lives and breathes gaming, many of her friends consider them an off-limit art form. Therein lies the real mission of Code and the studio she founded, Tru Luv Media: to make games for people who don’t play video games.
“When I started doing focus groups for Tru Luv, I realized I couldn’t just research underrepresented groups, I had to make games with them, because what they wanted to see was so different from the norm.”
Often, participants’ reluctance is about a lack of leisure time, aversion to clichés of sex and violence, or just the feeling that they’re not the target market for mainstream game advertising. Code works with these first-time creators, as well as a rotating team of independent art directors, to develop the kinds of games they want to see in the world – and in the App Store.
At the moment of writing, in between a trip to Turkey and a stop in New York, Code has about six games on the go, with each game genre shaped by its topic, and each topic chosen by her collaborator. They range from a Japanese-style, left-to-right scrolling adventure game about ocean pollution, to a Zen point-and-click phone game about “self-care” that includes a breathing GIF to help control panic attacks. Beyond the workload itself – she’s always programming, whether she’s on an airplane or in a cabin in the woods – the task she’s facing is imposing in an industry that adds $3 billion to Canada’s GDP alone.
“Skeptics tell me, it’s hard enough to get the attention of people who want to play video games. How can you expect to get the attention of people who don’t?”
As a child in British Columbia, Code was hardly immersed in the industry. She wasn’t allowed a console, and she only had access to a handful of computer games. But this only pushed her more (“I don’t like being told what to do”), and also gave her a skewed concept of the industry. Her favourite game, The Colonel’s Bequest, was created by pioneering designer Roberta Williams, starred a female protagonist and contained no fighting – just exploring.
Still, Code didn’t consider making video games a potential career until much later, at Vancouver’s Relic Entertainment, where she realized her work could combine her programming degree with her creative drive. From there she went on to develop AI at Pandemic Studios in Australia, then joined Ubisoft, where she worked on the Assassin’s Creed franchise and, most recently – and notably – Child of Light, as lead programmer. It’s an ethereal dreamscape of a game whose hero, a little girl named Aurora, must solve puzzles and gain allies in the land of Lemuria. Among rave reviews, one critic noted: “[It] isn’t the type of game we’re used to from Ubisoft, but it’s the type of game this industry needs.”
Like Child of Light, Code is a rarity in a business that’s still heavily dominated by men, and she’s intent on making diversity more than a buzzword. “When I built my team for Child of Light, it was 25 percent women, which is incredibly high. But I also looked at things like age, interests, how long they’d worked in the industry. It’s not just about adding new viewpoints – studies show everyone feels freer to share more unconventional ideas when they’re in a more diverse group.”
Of course, now Code has nothing but diverse viewpoints, from her collaborators (including a Turkish architect, Iranian-Canadian entrepreneur and, full disclosure, the writer of this profile) and from the people she meets in her travels. Additionally, being a stranger in a foreign land has helped her empathize with what it’s like to be an outsider in an established culture – and to value a warm welcome.
After all, Code’s approach has always been more carrot than stick, mentoring and inspiring as much as she critiques. She wants to change the industry because she believes in the value of video games as works of interactive art and as a bolster to ailing economies. As for her own life, she’s waiting to see how her games do in the App Store, once they’re released.
“In a way, I’m being selfish,” she admits of her project. “I want new creators to make games I wouldn’t get to play otherwise – to tell stories no one else can tell. I want to see what people can do when they get the chance.”