Editorial note: The following article was written as part of the Animationsinstitut’s anniversary publication "20 Years 20 Projects". This commemorative publication celebrating the Institute's 20th anniversary featured 20 iconic projects from the Animationsinstitut’s eventful history. The interview below was conducted by alumnus Julian Jungel who asks alumna Lea Schönfelder about her diploma project PERFECT WOMAN.
Julian Jungel runs the “Labor für Digitalität” at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where they focus on the space in which storytelling, craftsmanship, and theatre meet digital technology. Together with the M.A. “Spiel und Objekt”, participatory theatre, mixed reality games and other formats are created to question social aspects, our life on planet earth, and the roles of humans and technology. Julian also helped build Tinkertank, a non-profit initiative aiming to revive creativity with the help of agile technology. Tinkertank works with companies, cities, and incubators to find fun and inspiring ways to discuss the context of technology, culture, science, and digitalization.
Lea Schönfelder is co-founder of the Berlin-based games studio Fein Games, which develops games by women for women. She has international experience at companies such as ustwo games, where she was awarded a BAFTA Breakthrough as Lead Game Designer for the Apple Arcade title ASSEMBLE WITH CARE. Already during her studies, Lea was interested in the female perspective in the once male-dominated medium of games and continues to contribute to the development and opening of German games culture through her work.
In order to write about PERFECT WOMAN (2014), I had a conversation with the director of the game. Lea Schönfelder founded Fein Games, a female-led games studio developing games for women, with Franziska Zeiner in 2021.
Julian: Hello Lea, great to see you again!
Lea: Great to see you again too!
J: PERFECT WOMAN came out eight years ago. Looking back now, what do you think is the best thing about it and what should players take from your game?
L: Good question. The game is basically about “dancing” a more or less perfect life story. The player has to give a performance that is evaluated by the Kinect movement sensor. The game is full of humor and slightly ironic, and it’s easier and you have more fun if you lead a less-than-perfect life. I still find this key point important – of asking “How perfect do you actually have to be?” And, to be honest, I still find it a tough question, especially when we are talking about women because it also has to be possible to have a career and children. It would be too easy to say “Yes, just choose one of the things, you can’t have both”.
I still find this key point important—of asking ‘How perfect do you actually have to be?’Lea Schönfelder, Alumna Interactive Media
I’m proud that this fundamental question is so tightly interlinked with the game mechanics in PERFECT WOMAN. You feel this difficulty physically when you attempt to be a perfect woman. The fact that the game is still played at festivals or in venues such as Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karlsruhe today shows its current relevance.
J: And how “perfect” are you yourself today, as measured on the PERFECT WOMAN scale?
L: Haha, it’s not so easy to say. I’d like to say that I’m not perfect but I also know I’m not completely free of pressure. So, for example, right now I’m completely exhausted because the last six months have been very busy. Our own company. We lived in London because my partner also has career ambitions. The move back to Germany. And with a small child. It was all far too much and I think I need four days lying on the couch. But I mean, you do what you can: at Fein Games, for example, we have a 6½-hour day in order to achieve a better work-life balance. At the moment, we’re all working remotely but I’m not sure whether that is more beneficial or detrimental to mental health, probably a bit of both. It certainly makes it possible for us all to organize our lives with relative freedom. Of course, as a founder I still have plenty of stress despite that—but also a lot of fun!
J …and your first game is coming out next year, correct?
L: Yes, that’s right. We’ve been funded since mid-2021 and have been able to hire a couple of people to make a vertical slice. As a result we found an investor. We’ve built four levels and we’re just about to have our first soft launch so that we can test in the ‘real world’—in the Netherlands, in our case. So just starting small to see: what do players like, at what points do they check out, is it going down well at all?
J: Your current game is about three women of different generations. I read somewhere that it’s a kind of interactive novel?
L: That was our early concept. The game mechanics is a hidden-object game. The narrative is very important to us, and that’s also one of the areas in which we set ourselves apart from our competition. We tell the stories of three German women in Berlin: the first one lives in the 1940s during the Nazi period, the second in the 1970s during the flower-power hippie movement, and the third is of our generation. It’s all about individual fulfilment and to what extent we are influenced by our environments. It’s certainly a serious theme and one we trust there is an audience for. We go further than pure—let’s say, slightly frivolous—entertainment, which also has its place of course. But we believe that there is also a market for stories that go deeper. Another way we set ourselves apart is our art style, which is more modern and in my opinion fancier than much of what’s available in the App Store right now. Of course, we now need to validate that.
J: The first woman from the 1940s is very much trapped in the social context and marries the German soldier; the woman from the hippie generation rebels against everything. What about the woman who lives in our time?
L: The contemporary woman is in her late thirties, lives in Berlin and has a good job at an advertising agency. She is free to do whatever she wants, but she lacks a sense of meaning to her life. She doesn’t dare to quit her job to realise her dream of becoming a performance artist. She is a woman in whom we, and many people of our generation, see something of ourselves reflected. And that not only in Germany. Above all else, I think the last woman shows how global everything has become, how similar the people of our generation are—even when they live in different cities. And that feeling of ‘you really can do anything’. But what is the right life really? It’s not just people in Berlin who feel like that, but probably also people in London or New York and other cities.
J: But at the same time it is a very western picture. In other countries around the world, society is even tighter than it was in Germany in the 1940s. Did you consider showing other cultures too?
L: Yes, that’s a very interesting issue you bring up. When we talk about our current concept, it strikes me that I sometimes feel almost ashamed of myself that we are telling such a German story. But at the same time, I think it is justified in the sense that these are the personal perspectives of Franziska and myself that are being narrated here. We were the ones who founded the studio, after all. And these stories about the three German women are personally inspired by our mothers and grandmothers. But looking forward to the future, for the next game we are seeking to appoint a new game director, a woman from Afghanistan or Turkey or another cultural sphere who can share her perspective. Here at Fein the focus is on telling real and personal life stories, and representing real women and real problems experienced by women.
J: As a man, I have to say that I can see myself in your current game, just as I could in PERFECT WOMAN. In this day and age, these themes are relevant to all genders, not just women.
L: Yes, absolutely. That was the underlying idea for PERFECT WOMAN. If you tried to become the perfect woman, the game became harder and harder, and it’s always easier if you, how can I say, had unconventional life goals. In life, it’s not enough for us these days to have an amazing career. You also want to have a great family, a great relationship and to have exciting holidays all the time, and always be up to date with the news and so on.
Everyone is on a self-optimization trip all the time and I think you sometimes really have to ask yourself whether, firstly, that’s possible and, secondly, whether it’s desirable. And a lot of people crack under all the pressure: they might post amazing pictures on Instagram but you also know the reality is often not that nice. I think it’s fascinating that you, as a man, also feel that the game speaks to you.
As a matter of fact, people often ask us why we make games for women, why can’t men play these games too. And I think this question also came up with PERFECT WOMAN. The problems are not actually typically female problems. And I’m always happy when men say, as you did, that they too feel the games are relevant to them. But having said that, we are firmly committed to developing games by women for women because it is, quite simply, something special to have women in mind while developing games. As a woman, when I watch films about men, or play computer games about men, of course I also feel they speak to me, but it’s a different kind of identification when I see someone that is more like me. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes is an intellectual endeavour so I really welcome it when men take on the roles of the women in our games.
Perhaps there is no such thing as “male” or “female” problems per se, but there are certainly experiences that women have more often. For example, the woman in the 1940s who is pushed into a certain role by her parents-in-law and her own parents, by everyone basically, and who also allows herself to be pushed. If men manage to put themselves in these shoes then I would take that as a success because I believe this could also lead to a greater understanding and ultimately also to new ways of thinking in society.
Everyone is on a self-optimization trip all the time and I think you sometimes really have to ask yourself whether, firstly, that’s possible and, secondly, whether it’s desirable.Lea Schönfelder, Alumna Interactive Media
J: The women in your game show the reality of life for your grandmother, your mother, and yourself. What do you want to see for your daughter?
L: I would like my daughter to be able to pursue her own goals and to also have the freedom to actually achieve them. Of course, she might also discover that perhaps not all goals can be achieved. But I would like to see a society that at least offers the same opportunity for everybody to find happiness.
J: Dear Lea, many thanks for the wonderful conversation!
L: You’re welcome, it was my pleasure.