Geek Speak: Lara Kehler, artist and designer at Frogtoss Games

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On Saturday (August 20), Lara Kehler will lumber around downtown Vancouver as part of a crowd of bloody undead hungry for human flesh. The 34-year-old artist and designer at Frogtoss Games will be at the 2011 Vancouver Zombie Walk in order to promote their new release.

Zombie Minesweeper: A Love Story, made for iPad and iPhone, landed in Apple’s App Store on August 9. The puzzle-adventure game is selling for an introductory price of $1.99. According to Kehler, the new title stems from the original Zombie Minesweeper game, which they quickly developed and released on Kongregate in February. An independent developer, Frogtoss is also launching a spoof dating website for zombies and humans, called Nec-romance, to help market the new game.

Kehler joined the company two years ago and works from home, where she is raising her almost-two-year-old daughter. She previously worked at Threewave Software and studied at the Art Institute of Vancouver and Capilano College.

The Georgia Straight reached Kehler by phone at her home in Vancouver.

What was your role in the development of Zombie Minesweeper: A Love Story?

It was as artist and codesigner with Graham [Jans]. So, I had an idea that I wanted to make a game based off the Minesweeper mechanic. I felt like it was under-explored. Minesweeper itself was extremely boring, but the mechanic was really interesting. I’ve always wanted to see an explosion when I’ve missed. When I’ve screwed up, I’ve wanted to know I’ve screwed up.

Graham was excited by that idea and then started talking about the idea of adding pressure—adding this kind of external pressure and force. So, we came up with the idea of some sort of slow, lumbering something that kind of motivated you, as a character, to run through this minefield. So, zombies seemed like the easy and obvious answer for that, although zombies have been so overdone. We’re tired of hearing about zombies. But blowing up anything else that was living with a minefield felt just too uncomfortable for us.

So, we just kept coming back to zombies. We tried to make it more interesting and different using animals. So, we have zombie creatures like snails, and there’s mushrooms and zombie trees—things that don’t really make any sense. We’re trying not to take ourselves too seriously with the zombie theme. I was kind of making fun of it by using tree zombies, which totally don’t make sense.

What’s it like to play Zombie Minesweeper?

I think it’s a really nice fusion between puzzle solving and action, like having to do quick responses and make quick decisions to defend yourself or escape a situation while trying to solve the puzzle. For me, that’s where the fun factor is.

Are you afraid of zombies?

They don’t keep me up at night.

What are your plans for the Vancouver Zombie Walk?

We’re going to dress up. I have some experience with zombie face paint, because we did a big photo shoot for our Nec-romance website, which is basically what we’re going to be promoting at the Zombie Walk. How this connects with Zombie Minesweeper is we’re basically building a community for people who love zombies and who are zombies or who think they’re zombies, where they can share information about themselves—pictures and stuff. We’ll use it to kind of promote our game on the side. But we’ll kick it off with the Zombie Walk.

How do manage working on video games and raising your baby at home at the same time?

It’s been extremely hard. There’s all the daily aspects of managing her and making sure there’s food in the house for her and we’re all well-fed and slept, and also jumping onto my computer every few minutes to answer emails. To be part of the team, I guess it’s really important that I show up and add my creative input and enthusiasm every day for [studio head] Mike [Labbé] and Graham, even though I can’t be there necessarily 9 to 5.

So, I have to constantly juggle being a mom and being happy and excited and enthusiastic about my daughter’s life and what she’s doing, and being the same for a completely different thing. It’s like a completely different child, I guess. It’s more the emotional juggling that I find challenging. There’s other issues, like getting everything done in between.

But the biggest help for me has been my family. The grandmothers have been extremely supportive. My daughter is the only granddaughter on both sides of the family, so I’ve gotten a lot of support there. It’s really important to me, even though I’ve following my dream and doing something I’m passionate about, that I’m not neglecting my daughter’s time with her family. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to use daycare at this point—that her daycare is her extended family.

Does your daughter play games yet?

She loves my game. She plays it on the iTouch, and she calls it “Zombies”. She’s quite good at talking. She wants to play Zombies.

I’m not so sure how I feel about her playing the game at this point in time. I watch her expression and the way she observes the little characters blowing up, because it is kind of gory. It’s cartoon gore. I’m a little bit nervous about how that impacts her. But she seems to just not be affected in any negative way at this point. It’s not like it’s a daily activity.

But she definitely knows about Mummy’s game—it’s called “Mummy’s game” and it’s called “Zombies”—and she likes to see it and she likes to see me drawing on the computer and help me do art in Photoshop. She’s a part of what I’m doing. She sees me on the computer a lot.

Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Hui on Facebook and Twitter.

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