Quantcast
Finding the Subtle Code in Knitting Games

How one player found her way towards the art and code of knitting—and her nana—through crafty games.

My nana used to knit. She started lots of projects—blankets and scarves, mostly—but rarely finished them. She keeps a trash bag full of unfinished projects, feed for the moths that live in her crawl space of an attic.

I picked up knitting in college, but I didn't learn from my nana. She'd stopped a decade before. ( Oh, I don't know how, she used to tell me when I asked for lessons.) YouTube ended up as my teacher and my greatest ally.

Pattern screen courtesy of UCSC

Knitting is an exercise of binary code: knit or purl. One or zero. Knitting patterns—and patterns for other yarn crafts—can be considered some of the first programming languages. "Computers ultimately started off partially inspired by weaving and the Jacquard loom," electrical engineering professor Karen Shoop of Queen Mary University in London told Mind/Shift in 2013. "Arguably, some of the earliest programmers were the people making paper punch hole patterns for weaving patterns."

Though it's a relatively abstract idea for those who've considered yarncraft a grandmother's art, the video game industry is beginning to notice the connection. Writer Laura Hudson documented a few a the video games including yarn elements in her 2015 Offworld piece A brief history of yarn in video games: the Super Mario Sweater, Broken Age, Yoshi's Woolly World, Little Big Planet, and, most recently, Unravel.

Many games with a craft influence—namely, Nintendo's Yoshi's Woolly World and Kirby's Epic Yarn—explore the idea as a literal aesthetic. April Grow, a game designer and lifelong crafter, looks at it differently. Grow has worked on two games that have a craft bent: Patternand Threadsteading.

Pattern screen courtesy of UCSC

Pattern is a PC puzzle game that simulates the act of crochet. (Crochet, for those unfamiliar, is like a sister craft to knitting. One hook is used to create knots, rather than loops.) Using a console controller, players mimic the finger gestures needed to perform crochet stitches; players aren't simulating actual movements, but instead, demonstrating the sort of dexterity needed for such a craft. Ultimately, it's a sort of rhythm game, but without time limits.

Threadsteading is a competitive, territory-control game built on a quilting machine. The game is played on a hexagonal grid printed on cloth, using the limitations of the quilting machine to define gameplay. Two players act as the leader of a team of scouts, exploring towns marked on the cloth map, and they take turns choosing directions. Each player must pick up where the last player began—a restriction tied to the nature of the quilting machine—and travel until their crew gets tired, when a tile is awarded to the leader. The more tiles a person controls, the more likely they are to win.

Both games use craft in its literal sense—the act of making something—as well as as a storytelling theme, in a more abstract way. They bridge the perceived gap between technology and craft, a perception that Shoop discusses, too: "I loved the fact that there is a perception—usually wrong—that there's a world of computer (soulless, technical, 'geeky') and a completely different domain such as knitting (traditional, 'female', craft)—yet there is a clear overlap."

Pattern is knitting as binary made literal, using crochet as the craft of choice. Like knitting, crochet uses patterns. Grow's game intends to teach players to decipher a pattern's programming-like expressions; she wanted to highlight the math, systems, and equations she saw in crochet—the ones and the zeroes.

Threadsteading image courtesy of Disney Labs

Pattern might as well be about teaching its players to craft a line of code. In the same way, Threadsteading is highlighting the similarities between craft and code; it's a "fuck you" to the perception of gendered hobbies. "Quilting is a craft that's predominantly and historically practiced by women," fellow Threadsteading developer Gillian Smith told Gamasutra. "Gaming is a lot more balanced in the gender of participants, but societally still seen as quite masculine. So some of our interest is also in juxtaposing these two differently gendered activities."

This isn't to say, however, that elements of maternalism and nostalgia—two themes consistently prescribed to knitting and other crafts—don't have a place in video games, or that they're inherently bad or wrong ways to think about knitting. (In fact, I'm feeding into this narrative with my own musings on my Nana and her knitting.) Double Fine's Broken Age is a game that abstractly adds meaning to world and to character through the symbolism of knitting and crocheting.

Released in 2015, Broken Age is a point-and-click adventure game that centers on two teenage characters—Shay Volta and Vella Tartine. Shay and Vella don't know each other; they live in two totally separate worlds. Players switch between them throughout the game, but they never really interact, though they will, eventually, play important roles in each other's lives.

Shay—the teenage boy—is trapped inside a spaceship, the Bossa Nostra, with two computer systems acting as his parents. The sun, also called Overmother, acts as, well, his mother, with the moon as the father. They're never around at the same time, either; they switch duties as you'd expect a sun and moon to rise and fall. 

Overmother is very protective of Shay—she knits him friends made of yarn, called Yarn Pals, in an effort to keep him from getting bored. She feigns danger by allowing Shay to go on missions to "save" the Yarn Pals, none of which are ever really in trouble. Bossa Nostra's onboard navigation system is essentially a knitting machine, using patterns to knit a fabric to be used as a navigational map. Everything about the Bossa Nostra, coupled with our preconceived notions of craft and knitting, demonstrates Double Fine's evocation of comfort and safety.

Double Fine could have used different imagery to evoke similar emotions regarding safety and comfort, but it wouldn't likely have had the same maternal connotations. Knit elements subtly point to Shay's infantilization at the hand of Overmother and those controlling the spaceship setup. Broken Age's craft elements are the abstract implementation of Overmother's protective—or controlling—softness.

Broken Age screenshot courtesy of Double Fine Productions

Handmade items—born of the hours and hours spent trading loops—are the pinnacle of warmth and protection, both literally and metaphorically. Historically, knitting was a way to shield human bodies from natural elements—to keep folks warm. Knitting, in its current state, is more of a hobby than a necessity for many.

It takes hours upon hours to complete complex garments. I've spent well over 20 hours on one sweater. Maybe one hundred on a blanket. Each of Broken Age's fictional knitted pals probably took at least a few hours apiece—knit offscreen by Broken Age's Overmother. Time spent means something. I wouldn't spend so much time on a project for someone else if they didn't mean something to me, you know?

Broken Age's transportation system, the Space Weaver, is the closest Double Fine gets to actually implementing knit mechanics into the game. One particular part of the game forces players into hacking Space Weaver using a crochet hook to pick and pull individual strands and adjust the sort of DNA code woven into its navigational fabric. Of course, this mechanic isn't exactly fleshed out in a way that highlights the technical aspect of knitting—but it begins to tease the idea of knit fabric as code; again, bridging the gap between technology and craft as Grow, Pattern, and Threadsteading do.

Yoshi's Woolly World art courtesy of Nintendo

My nana gave me one of her unfinished projects after I learned to knit—scratchy white acrylic yarn dotted with pastel pinks, blues, and yellows. It was, maybe, 12 inches of basketweave stitch. Pinned to the 12 inches of blanket, a handwritten pattern instructed me on how to finish it. Twelve knits, 12 purls. Do that over and over and over, for more than a few rows. Then swap it—12 purls, 12 knits. Over and over and over. Repeat. My nana started this blanket over 21 years ago, before my youngest sister was born. Before my papa had died.

I don't remember her knitting the blanket, despite practically living at her house. But I do remember my papa sitting in his faded brown recliner, probably with a newspaper in hand and a six-year-old me sitting at his feet. Nana was likely nearby—maybe chatting with my mother on the couch to the left of papa's chair, their curly blonde hair bobbing as they laughed.

Since receiving my sister's unfinished blanket—nearly 22 years delayed—I've started to picture my nana in these memories with knitting needles in her hands, despite no clear memories of having seen her knit.