Header and all images of 29 courtesy of Humble Grove
The rain didn't let up all night. By morning the streets are sitting in water, the sodden brown leaves sticking to my shoes as I walk to the cafe where I'm meeting Tom Davison and Hana Lee, the two person team of Humble Grove. The clouds hang low and there's a constant, heavy drizzle in the air, the kind that soaks you through and chills your bones. Davison asked if we could meet in south east London partly because their current place is too temporary to accommodate guests but mainly because this is the area where their games, Friary Road and 29, are set. And fortunately for me, this is also where I live, only a damp ten minute walk from my front door to the cafe.
Later, as the rain cedes, we'll traipse across south London picking out the landmarks of Davison's and Lee's life that are finding form in 29. But for the time being, it's coffee and chatting in a space familiar to the pair, our conversation framed by the soft lull of Leonard Cohen drifting from the speakers, a few days after his death.
Davison and Lee aren't long out of full time education. Having studied at Camberwell College Of Arts in south London, five minutes down the road from where we're sitting now, 29 is a reflection on those precarious few months surrounding the end of university, channeled through a point and click aesthetic in the vein of Kentucky Route Zero.
The game is bittersweet, celebratory of that time yet riddled with the anxiety of leaving that life behind, and, for Davison and Lee, deeply autobiographical, with versions of themselves acting as the main characters within the game. Davison's character, Bo is struggling to deal with Ao's imminent departure back to Japan, while simultaneously having strange semi-hallucinogenic episodes in their flat. And when we meet, Lee themself is actually scheduled to fly back to Tokyo a few days later, the fallout of which will continue to be explored over the upcoming episodes of the game. But beneath the substantial personal pain underpinning the game, 29 is a love letter to a place the pair describe simply as "home."
Above: Official trailer for 29. Courtesy of Humble Grove "For me, my time at uni was the most that had ever gone on in my life. The fact that it was ending was really strange and I wanted to document it somehow," Davison explains, sipping on a mug of tea. "But because it's semi-autobiographical, I can kind of abstract parts of it and maybe make things that don't seem that big, bigger."
Fittingly, there are moments where the game takes on the form of a confessional; drama wrought from the smallest of the details. In 29's case, the narrative thrust exists around an upcoming barbecue that Ao and Bo feel uncertainty over, a skeletal framework designed to explore the pair's relationship and, importantly, to contextualize the social anxiety Davison experienced in the house.
That social anxiety is conveyed through the game's presentation with 29's dioramic perspective sitting in an empty space. It exists in a spatial vacuum and you shift them around the walls 90° at a time, hemming in Ao and Bo to an almost suffocating degree. "You can't leave the house until the end of the game and that's a choice we made. It's not a case of the character not wanting to leave, it's a case of them not being able to leave," says Davison quietly. "I'm trying to get across the feeling of disassociating, that sense of feeling outside yourself and kind of not feeling real."
There are moments when this particular feeling of disassociation is brought to the fore as Bo stares into the bath tub and a fledgling galaxy appears in the water, or when a skull emerges from a microwave. Time stretches for those few moments giving the player just a little insight into Davison's own dissociative experiences.
Representation of Davison and Lee's own lives, and the difficulties they've undergone, is crucial not only to 29's setting and story, but also to the motivations for making the game. "At least with our game, I think it's important to represent stories that aren't usually told," Davison tells me. Lee nods in agreement, "Like, from the viewpoint of transgender people and coming from a different race, I think what we don't really like about a lot of media dealing with this stuff is that it becomes the main focus. If it's a story with two gay people it's, like, just the story of two gay people, so it doesn't really become anything casual anymore."
For Davison and Lee, both of whom identify as non-binary, the game is a means of exploring their own feelings on the subject but, very purposefully, it isn't the point of the game. In 29, the only reference to the Bo's non-binary identity is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it use of personal pronoun 'they,' during one of the game's fleeting conversations. It is, though, an aspect that will grow in importance throughout upcoming episodes just as it did in Davison's own life. "So Bo is going to start wearing more feminine clothes just because that was what actually happened in my own life. What I want to do is make it gradually more obvious, and then, if they're not wised up on gender politics then maybe something will click."
That sense of normalization is also present in 29's magical realist elements. Bo and Ao have a monster living with them in the game, one that lounges lazily taking up almost the entirety of the room it has just moved into. Lee describes their practice of illustrating monsters as a "mechanism to keep stable and calm", but one that allows the pair to tackle diversity in an explicit manner within the game. "The protagonist treats him as just a normal person and is completely cool with the fact that he's a monster," Lee explains, taking out a sketchbook to show me more of the monsters. Davison echoes Lee's sentiment, "I really like the idea of having these fantastical things and just treating them as everyday and mundane. I think it's a really interesting way to celebrate the everyday."
With our teas and coffees finished, we decide to head out into the wet and grey of London. The cafe sits on a busy main road, one that dissects the south of the city from east to west, and we quickly get off it onto the wide, leafy backstreets. The houses here—Victorian, detached, extravagant—are a mixture of the newly bought and renovated intermingled with the dilapidation of the permanently rented. And as we get a little into our walk Lee and Davison open up about the discrimination they've faced personally, people they've met in real life less tolerant than Bo and Ao in the game towards the monster.
London, Davison tells me, is far from the pocket of liberalism it's often portrayed as in the media in the wake of Brexit. "It's definitely not. I think it's very easy to think of London as this liberal outpost if you don't see it [discrimination] and you don't experience it yourself. And I know a lot of people who do think that and people like to say, 'oh we're so much better than the US', but I've definitely experienced a lot of discrimination. I get cat-called and I get really personal questions from complete strangers. I think it's a kind of a British thing that we don't discuss things. It might seem OK because it's not discussed but in actuality there's a lot of hideous stuff under the mask."
Lee's describes experiences similar to that as Davison's, the cat-calling as well as occasional "racist remarks", but feels it's Tokyo that represents the more stifling of homes. "So first off, gender's not even discussed. Racism isn't discussed either because it's so homogenous but it's a really discriminatory country. You assume Tokyo's such a free city where people can dress up as wacky as they like and it's really futuristic and all but it's actually quite dystopian. It's still very misogynistic and people expect things from genders."
As Lee finishes the train of thought we round the corner onto the street in which the 29 is set. A sea of a Edwardian terraces present themselves, the red of the brick blurring each house into the next. Davison tells me they used to be residential accommodation for the doctors and nurses working at King's College Hospital, the site of which the street backs onto, but the houses were sold off like many other public service buildings of their type. With both Davison and Lee moving back to their parents in London and Tokyo in order to help fund the game, the city that birthed the experiences of the game is becoming increasingly hostile to its creation due, in no small part, to the city's living costs. Davison describes the situation as "very challenging," adding, "I think it's a real shame to not feel like this country or this city really enables us because I feel very at home in the community here."
We take a few photos before leaving the Edwardian terraces, weaving our way back through King's College Hospital and up towards Denmark Hill Station where Davison and Lee are catching their train. As we talk for the last time the pair discuss their plans for Ao and Bo to revisit the house in the game as we've just done. Themes of urban dislocation will crop up in later episodes of 29, just as Davison and Lee have experienced the pinch of rising rent, priced out of the area they love. "There's gonna be a bit where you kind of return to where the flat 29 is set in," Davison tells me as the rain starts up again. "It's going to be kind of overgrown and it's going to be a place you can't live anymore. To me that feels like what this place could become, a place where communities and everyday people can't really live because of the prices." 29 is due out in late 2017. Follow Lewis Gordon on Twitter.