Play detective while exploring a northern Ontario ghost town

TVO.org speaks with Julia Minamata about her retro-inspired game "The Crimson Diamond" — and why she created a fictional town near Lake Superior
By Matthew O'Mara - Published on Jun 22, 2020
"The Crimson Diamond " is set in Crimson, Ontario, a fictional town near Lake Superior.

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It was on a Compaq Portable that illustrator Julia Minamata played her first adventure game. 

Minamata’s father, Bill, often brought the 28-pound computer home for work; mixed in with his accounting software were a few games.

One of those was Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest (1984), now recognized as a classic from this age of gaming. Minamata remembers how scary it was to play on the small monochrome screen. “There were ogres, goblins, and all kinds of stuff that were out to get you,” Minamata says. “It was really scary for me as a kid, because you’re very vulnerable as that character.”

Memories of dying over and over again in King’s Quest inspired Minamata, who has done illustrations for Maclean’s, Maisonneuve, and The New Yorker, to exchange her paintbrushes for pixels and create The Crimson Diamond, a retro-inspired game with a small-town Ontario twist. It relies on test-parsing, meaning that it asks players to type in commands, which the character then acts out. 

TVO.org speaks with Minamata about what inspired her game, how COVID-19 has affected development, and why she’s gone all in on the project.

Crimson Diamond game painting
"The Crimson Diamond" relies on test-parsing, meaning that it asks players to type in commands, which the character then acts out.

TVO.org: So tell me a bit about The Crimson Diamond.

Minamata: The Crimson Diamond is a text-parser mystery-adventure game styled like an Agatha Christie novel. It’s modelled after adventure games from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is the stuff I enjoyed the most as a kid.

TVO.org: Why set it in Crimson, Ontario?

Minamata: When I was creating the setting for Crimson, Ontario, which is a fictional town near Lake Superior, I was thinking of a reason why there would be a lodge in the middle of nowhere. I was thinking about early settlement in the late 1800s and early 1900s and reading a lot about ghost towns. Because we’re in Canada, we have such an amazing amount of mineral riches, among other things. I thought that it would be great to set it in a place where there was a mine that had gone bust and had resulted in this settlement becoming a ghost town.

TVO.org: You talked a bit about Canada’s mineral riches — but I don’t think diamonds are often found in fish…

Minamata: You watched the intro sequence! Not a lot people have, because it’s really long.

In that introductory sequence of the game, you see a fisherman who finds a giant natural diamond, which sparks off a rush of people coming to the area. The one piece of land that hasn’t been studied is Mr. Richard’s lodge. His sister and her lawyer come to that area, the government sends a representative from Antwerp, Belgium, to evaluate the diamond find, and you play as Nancy Maple, who gets sent up as a clerk for the Royal Canadian Museum, which is basically the Royal Ontario Museum. The sequence shows Nancy travelling up north by train and meeting up with a couple more of the characters, including Kimi. You’ve played through the whole demo, so you know you won’t be staying there just the one night.

TVO.org: You’ve mentioned online that Kimi’s character was based on your grandfather’s side of the family. How are you going to develop her?

Minamata: The number-one thing about each character is how they serve the story. She’s a birdwatcher and has an interest in the natural attributes of the land, so she would not be interested in having Crimson being turned into a pit mine. She’s just interested in nesting cormorants. Secondarily, people might not know that Japanese-Canadians have a long history of settlement in Canada. My family is part of that, and I wanted to introduce that as an idea to people who might not be familiar with it.

When I was in Halifax, I went to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, and I started talking to one of the employees. She went into the databases and pulled up some amazing documents of my marriage certificate of my grandmother and great-grandmother. My grandmother was born in Vancouver in 1917, and my great-grandmother was married in Vancouver in 1916. 

We also found a record of passage for my great-grandfather, who was visiting Japan from Canada in 1929. There is this long history of immigration, and I wanted to include that, because it might surprise some people. It’s a bit of an educational thing to know that it wasn’t just a homogenous society, even back then. That’s another reason for Kimi being there, but everything first has to serve the story.

TVO.org: I was looking at a painting on the wall on the second floor of the lodge, and I thought I saw a Group of Seven piece. Are you planning to include a lot of Ontario-related elements in the final game to educate people about the province?

Minamata: I love to include those little details, but I’m not setting out to make an educational game. I want to reward people who try different things with the text parser, including looking at the artwork. There’s a bit after the demo where you actually get to do a bit of field work outside the lodge, and you learn a bit about minerals. It gives the feeling that the place you are in is fully realized. I try to do that with the characters, as well, by thinking of them as complete people with motivations for the way they act and what they say.

TVO.org: As you mentioned, Nancy won’t be spending just one night at the lodge. So where else are you hoping to take players in the game?

Minamata: The game will take place in that area, but there’s a day-and- night cycle in the game, too. I picked up that idea from the Quest for Glory series by Corey and Lori Ann Cole. It helps to enhance that feeling of the setting that they exist when time passes that way — the idea being that this one place is going to have different things going on depending on what stage of the game you’re in.

TVO.org: I understand that, last year, you attended AdventureX, a narrative-games convention, in London. What was that experience like for you?

Minamata: AdventureX was something that I’d known by its reputation. It was the best show I’ve ever been to from a developer’s standpoint. We were all there because we love telling stories with games. Getting to see people play and enjoy my game allowed me to understand what they like and what they want to see in the game.

TVO.org: AdventureX 2020 was cancelled because of COVID-19. What’s your reaction to the loss of conventions like these?

Minamata: It’s really sad. From a networking standpoint, you can’t beat meeting people face to face. Nothing will replace that. When it comes to actually promoting a project, in-person is really good, but I feel like you can reach more people through online promotion. It’s so much easier for people if they like what they see to share it with their friends, because they just have to press a few buttons. They just did NarraScope a few weeks ago, but it’s just cool to go in person and connect with the other panellists and meet other people. I know it’s one of the last things that are going to come back — these massive public gatherings — but I’ll be looking forward to them.

TVO.org: Speaking of the switch to online, about a month ago, you started live-streaming the development of your game. Why did you begin doing that?

Minamata: While I’m working on this game by myself, I do have a musician who is composing the music for the game. Dan Policar is a professional touring musician. Because touring made up so much of his income, that immediately evaporated when COVID-19 started. He also wondered, when all this is all over, what’s my career going to look like? What could he be building on right now? It’s also a promotional tool. It’s part of the whole idea of showing the process and hoping people will get invested in the project, so, hopefully, when the game launches, they’ll buy it — which is the ultimate goal of the whole thing.

TVO.org: I know that people often say, “Don’t look at the comments,” but I noticed that, in your response to one, you mentioned that you’re living off your savings to develop the game. What spurred you do to that?

Minamata: Momentum is a big thing, and I wasn’t allowing myself to generate any of it when I was doing freelance illustration. I’ve been working on the game for more than 10 years on and off, but I would get busy with other stuff and leave it. 

When I graduated and started being a freelance illustrator in 2008, it was during a recession, and my specialty was newspaper and magazine. It was a discouraging time for me. 

Then, in November 2018 — there is a narrative game showcase in Toronto called Word Play. They do a show at the Toronto Reference Library, and, at that time, I just entered the game thinking, “It’s kind of at a spot where I could almost show it to other people.” When I got into the showcase, I realized I’d have to show it to other people in two or three weeks, so I really focused on this goal of bringing a game to the show in a playable state.

TVO.org: Overall, what’s it been like pivoting to game development?

Minamata: So far, it’s been a really good experience. I’ve met so many new people and gone to events. That’s only been the past year and a half really. The first 10 years, I came up with this demo. Between January 2019 and this time now, I’ve fully developed two of the other chapters, and I’m working on the fourth chapter now. The development of the game has really accelerated, because I’ve decided I’m going to focus on it. Getting those reactions from other people, having people like you contact me and wanting to talk to me about The Crimson Diamond — it’s really cool to have that. I’d love to show the completed project to people because the story is done. Right now, it’s matter of finishing the thing. I want to show people the whole story.

TVO.org: What do you think the younger Julia would think of The Crimson Diamond?

Minamata: Well, she’d probably be terrified to play it. But she’d mostly be surprised to see me as a game developer.

This interview has condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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