Why real rental horror stories are part of this spooky comedic game

Award winning developers Fuzzy Ghost are making a game based on one of the most relatable and horrific experiences we've all had; renting.

March 14, 2023 6:30 AM

Everyone has a horror story to tell when it comes to renting, there are some downright scary experiences out there, and Sydney's Fuzzy Ghost are trying to collect the best of the worst for their next game JANET DEMORNAY IS A SLUMLORD (AND A WITCH), or JDM for short.

Award winning Australian developers Scott Ford and Pete Foley join us to share the found family of renting, why CONTROL and THE THING are strong influences and the paternalistic feeling of jumping to a landlord's demands.

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ADAM: Hello and welcome to Lightmap from SIFTER. On Lightmap we explore what it takes to make video games and interactive media from creative teams all around the world.

My name is Adam, thanks for joining us this week. On every episode you get to meet new developers, artists, musicians, researchers and more.

On this week's Lightmap, our guests this week are the award winning duo behind game studio Fuzzy Ghost, Pete Foley and Scott Ford. 

PETE & SCOTT: Hello. Hi.

ADAM: You may know them for their game, Queer Man Peering Into A Rock Pool.jpg.

Well, they're currently hard at work on a new game called JANET DEMORNAY IS A SLUMLORD (AND A WITCH).

It promises to explore the anxieties and horrors of what it's like to rent in a world run by landlords.

So I guess that means right now.

Excited to have you both on the show. We're going to dive into the nitty gritty politics and the body horror of your game. I'm very excited about it all.

But before that, let's find out what's been making the news on Walkthrough SIFTER's weekly news podcast.

PROMO: Join the SIFTER community on discord at forward slash discord

ADAM: I thought I wanted to start off with the idea of horror comedy which is something you've described this new game JANET DEMORNAY IS A SLUMLORD (AND A WITCH) 

SCOTT: Yeah I it's tricky because we don't have a lot of things like we talk about beetlejuice and poltergeist as being inspirations for the game but they neither of those kind of fit nearly into horror comedies.

I guess what's the most recent example like Shaun of the Dead or something like that? I can't think of a more recent film.

PETE: No, I think that's one thing that really draws us to this mix of tone is that we don't get a lot of it at the moment.

Horror films tend to set themselves up as it's horror, you're going to have a tense time, the end, which is great. But, I like to be a bit scared and then I want to laugh and then the human experience is so varied in tone all over the place.

I don't see why our, our games can't be the same. Yeah.

SCOTT: And I often think of ones that have social commentary as well. Like George A. Romero's is a Day of the Walking Dead (sic Dawn of The Dead), the original where it's set in the shopping center.

ADAM: The classic sort of capitalist consumerism critique through zombies.

SCOTT: Yeah. Yeah. And that has everything like that.

Yeah. it has horror, it has just the mundane, it has hilarity as well.

So that's definitely one that I think of from time to time. So that's kind of the zone that we're thinking of.

ADAM: I wonder also, if we can maybe also add into that zone, is there an element of camp coming out of this as well?

I think of Janet's hand, her name, she's a very, I'm getting big shoulder pads in my mind already, just like a very powerful 80s lady, owns millions of apartments, does not care about you.

PETE: She's a faded shopping channel star, like, this is camp. Janet really is our attempt at putting our entry into the, like, the diva canon, the monsters that you love to see on screen.

ADAM: I love the diva canon, and so that's quite exciting as well. How about we talk about her inception and how she came about? You've mentioned the diva canon, but what was the drawing board, the very beginning starting points for this character?

SCOTT: Delia Dietz, I think, from Beetlejuice was a big influence because we love Catherine O'Hara, the actress who plays her. That was definitely one of the main ones. A bit of Trude and Prude from Kath and Kim as well. A lot of Big Girls Blouse, actually, which is the show um that they made before before that um so get like getting a little australianisms in there in terms of like the television shopping network and like glossy 90s ads and a bit of cheese and stuff so that's all in there as well.

PETE: and in terms of the witchiness there's a bit of like Isma from Emperor's New Groove and Cruella de Vil like that kind of like fabulous gay icon witch monster they're clearly a villain but you're not mad about it 

ADAM: Yeah what I what I almost like to think of in a lot of ways is Disney's unintentional queer coding of its villains sort of thing that sort of oops uh it's actually a drag queen that sort of vibe that comes through I think a lot of the times with I mean 

PETE: I don't I don't know how oops that homophobia is but yeah

ADAM: I say oops with air quotes okay good good good let's let's talk about some of the easy stuff with the themes uh in this game uh I'm assuming this game is influenced by the current current cost of living, inflation, rental affordability, and availability, how homing house crisis that we find ourselves are meshed in right now. What made you want to explore those themes and unpack them through this game?

PETE: We were talking about after Queer Man Peering, which is not the most accessible of games. Like our friends that don't play a lot of games would be like, oh, cool. You know and then we were thinking about wanting so what can we make that would involve them that would excite them and want to play with and one one genre that we always play together with these friends is horror games even if they're not controlling we kind of have this like lovely family experience of sitting around while Scotty kind of plays and we all scream together and have a lovely time so that kind of was the intro to horror.Then we were like okay well what kind of horror would we do and you have a great story about this Scott

SCOTT: Uh oh yeah we we ran here and have rented for 15 years in Sydney and um we've been in this place for two years but I have these massive cracks on our bedroom wall um that i've been trying to get fixed for a long time and I was kind of like oh you know we if I want to get those fixed you have to take it to the next step like you have to start talking about um tribunal and you know all these extra steps and there's an element of fear in that because it's like they can in in New South Wales especially they can get you to leave, for no grounds, no grounds eviction law. So in 90 days, we'd have to be out no matter what, like no reason given.

PETE: And we don't think that they'd necessarily do it, but it is knowing that they do have the power that if you kick up a stink to just be like, we don't want to deal with that.

SCOTT: Or just ask for something basic, like a crack fixed and make it just, so there's fear there. In all, in every interaction with real estate and landlords, there's an element of fear for a lot of people, I think.

PETE: And so, yeah, while we were trying to think up what's something relatable and terrifying, renting was very quick to emerge as the clear option.

SCOTT: Yeah. 

ADAM: Yeah. And I think it's a very universal experience for a lot of younger people as well and a lot of queer people as well, who, you know, because of the nature of queerness, sometimes your ties to family, your connections to inheritance, et cetera, may be all thrown out the window. Even if you come from a place of privilege, the act of being queer means that they may all be severed and you might find yourself in precarious living conditions, social conditions, et cetera, which leads you to be more within, I would say, the large majority of people these days that are priced out entirely of the housing market and the ability to rent.

So it feels like a very universal experience that definitely also hits on, I guess, a lived experience for a lot of queer people as well across this country too um tell me a little bit about bringing in some of those themes as well because I noticed that you've mentioned that this game is set in a city terrace house in Sydney um and it has a particular queerness about it it's going to have gay on gay relationships and queer characters throughout um how are you going to make this game feel queer um in terms of its environments its locations the house itself 

SCOTT: Yeah, sure. I mean, it's set in the share house in Chippendale that we lived in for 10 years and shared house in happily. So there's a lot of stories just in that space and from personal experience in there.But yeah, I think to go back to your point about it affecting queer people, we are including a lot of stories in there about how queer people found family, all that kind of thing coming together and the difficulties of that and also the joy and the pleasure of that as well.

PETE: Yeah, and in terms of how, like, it's quite queer because it is a share house of three queers, two cis gay men and an enby, and they're all just this gorgeous found family that have each other even amongst fighting amongst themselves

SCOTT: And we're determined to kind of show them in the spaces living together as well. Well you know often in a horror game um and early on actually we were just going to be like they would disappear or you had to recover them but Pete was very much about no we want them there we want to see them we want their bodies and to see queer different kind of queer bodies and relationships and touch being a part of it yeah throughout 

PETE: the physicality and the the physical proximity they have as queer found family I feel like we don't see that almost ever in games um just that a different physicality and a different closeness where you don't have to be like, that's my girlfriend. So therefore we are like, I need to care about her if she's in danger. Instead, these people just care for each other because. They're good people. 

ADAM: And I feel like that's something that we're only just beginning to even see on like smaller screen, like the silver screen and on television as well.

It's like, it feels like we're only just starting to see a couple of TV shows come out there and really portray the idea of queer families, queer found families, queer share housing groups living together in their homes. I can only think of like a couple of shows, Pose being a big one for me, that really kind of shows the dynamics and relationships of a found family, kind of living in a home together particularly like a rented home or a home that like at times feels like it might be dealing with neglect because of landlords and so it's exciting to see a game that really wants to portray that space in in an authentic way um so I guess with authenticity and about all of this you've mentioned that this is based on a real home I'm assuming you've modeled it on your old share houses 

PETE: oh yeah like anybody who visited us in that that time sees the trailer and is like, oh, oh, oh, like every one you, it is even down to a lot of the furniture. It's pretty, it's pretty accurate. 

SCOTT: Yeah. And it's located on a very central main road in inner city Sydney as well. So I wonder, I suspect a lot of Sydneysiders will recognize it as well. 

PETE: Yeah. Hopefully not too many. Not too much.

ADAM: Tell me a little bit about some of the other ways you're, you're bringing that authenticity in, because I know that there's a call out at the moment for people to submit their horror stories of renting. How is that process going? And then how are you converting some of those stories into actual horror experiences in a game?

PETE: Yeah. So we mostly, we started, we did this call out because anytime we'd talk about the premise, even very early on talk about, it's about being haunted by your landlord.

There'd be this big smile and this like knowing nod and fairly universally, then a story would come out of like some horrible time, whoever we were talking to had had. And so we're like, well, we could... We kind of liked this, there's this kind of shared experience when you tell these horror stories that you've lived through, you've made peace with, and now you're just happy to like laugh at the horror of what happened to you, knowing that everybody will laugh along with you with the kind of, I'm so sorry that happened to you. And it's this very horrible, but very beautiful kind of shared bitch session.  And so we thought that if we did a call out and then we put it in the, we'll have it in the game 

SCOTT: as case files 

PETE: as case files, 

SCOTT: riffing on Resident Evil, Silent Hill Control, which we loved the case files in that one. Just this really great documents that you collect as you go around in the game.

PETE: So like something happens to the real estate agent in the game and their office gets disembodied and so um you'll be going around and you'll find yeah like real people's stories as though we all have the same real estate and then you might get comments from the real estate that are just I guess what probably what happened in real life and which is just so neglectful and not caring and um yeah I think the idea of well it's a very fanciful game you're going through these these sparkly, haunted, acrylic-nailed-filled environments. You still know that it's all based on, it's certainly based on a seed of truth and these stories are true. That's kind of horrible. 

ADAM: I love the reference to Control, which was really one of the first games where I actually felt myself reading every single bit of case file or text.

PETE: Same


ADAM: It was just so wonderfully written and so inventive. It captured that feeling of like, oh, these could all be great episodes of the X-Files. There was one about someone who was trapped in the telephone wires of a telephone system and how they were calling people being like where am I how do I get out of the phones and I just feel like that's such a wonderful little slice of of horror that you could expect from like you know some sort of Stephen King book to pop out about yes um and i'm excited to see what you're gonna do yeah it sounds like you're gonna have a lot of fun with lots of the stories that are coming through uh from people as you sort of reassemble them into these little case files are there any stories that have really stood out for you so far from the submission ones that popped to the top of your head that you'd like to share or.

SCOTT: Um yeah absolutely we had one um of someone who had gotten a place on their own um I think it was during lockdown got it because it had a lovely lush green backyard because they had a dog as well and then for whatever reason they just the owner decided to get rid of the weeds and the grass so it was all spray but then all the grass died and then the rains came and mud dirt washed away and there were white bits that were revealed probably from construction. There's white bits or leftover materials were asbestos.

So they, yeah, they went over this lengthy thing trying to get it proven and the owner was denying it.

And so eventually they lost the case as well.

PETE: She spent hundreds of dollars getting professionals out to test it, had it verified and the tribunal refused to believe the professionals.

And so she had to leave the house and so there's probably someone living there now with grass and a thin layer of dirt over the top of asbestos in their backyard.

ADAM: Wow. I mean, these are real horrific stories that have an ability to really impinge on people's bodily autonomy, their health, their safety.

I think we talk a lot about black mold and about mildew and dampness in rental accommodation as well, as well as the idea of of like heatwave prone homes too.

I think Better Renters just put out a report this week about the fact that there is a large proportion of people that are living in homes across Australia at the moment where there is just no support for heatwaves.

These houses capture heat and don't let them go and it's something like 40% plus of renters are in conditions where they can't control their temperature to safe levels when it gets too hot.You know, side note from that, let's talk about what I'm calling from the trailer the goatse oven um and I don't know if that that that internet deep cut hits you um in the way that you're intending to go but um there is a particular moment in the trailer where an oven is opened and we see what is it like what I would describe as a red hot portal to some sort of body horror realm that feels very physical feels very very bodily. Um, it reminds me a little bit of, of the quick, the crawl space portal in being John Malkovich that leads to a portal to his mind. I get a bit of that.

What I'm really interested about though, is because it specifically feels like the body anatomy about the internals of a body.

Um, and you know, we could, we could go into details about like passages and various other other stuff I'm sort of curious like why the internal body here being represented in this in this portal or this tunnel is it about sort of like the idea of the landlord or your body not even being like something that is out of touch you know if that makes sense like you know landlords have the ability to extend their reach even into the innermost workings of your body itself.

SCOTT: Yeah, great, great work.

PETE: You are kind of foreshadowing a lot of the themes of the game.

And that is very unexpected and very well done.

SCOTT: Yeah, yeah, good job. Because when I was thinking of the game, we were thinking of the game and kind of just jotting down ideas.

Of course, the cliche phrase came like living rent free in someone's head and I kind of we kind of just went from there. And yeah, love body horror, like the director of The Thing, whose name has somehow has disappeared from my brain, even though I love their work so much.

The original The Thing John Carpenter. Goodness, got my brain. Like we were watching through a lot of his films as well, like going back to Christine and The Fog and stuff like that. And yeah, just great body horror stuff. So that really played into that as well. Yeah. A lot of hands, a lot of weird hands doing a lot of weird things to people is very much part of the game.

PETE: And it just, it has that, I guess, if someone feels like the roof over your head is their property, how you live your life ends up becoming part of their property.

And so they're worried about it. And that's why there's a big theme of the game of doing chores and like being really patronized in terms of having to clean your own space because it's not your space.They're very aware that it's their space and so there's this element of patronizing and control that they have over your choices and what you do with your daily life 

SCOTT: invasion in every way 

PETE: huge invasion 

ADAM: yeah and so which is like a regular experience for renters as well because we've all had to go through that process of the the very regular rental inspection process where they're coming over they're making sure that the house is clean you get the nice little passive aggressive card at the end if your landlord wants to give you a card saying thanks for cleaning and then maybe like in my case at one place a candy was left like a little wrapper candy that you could like eat

PETE: What a good boy!

ADAM: Eat as a treat like good boy you've cleaned the house um which can feel very paternalistic in a lot of ways or just patronizing as you've if you've described as well um you've mentioned chores um what are some of the other mechanics of the game um tell me a little bit bit about gameplay in JANET DEMORNAY what are people doing I guess they're walking around the house and and interrogating black mold but what actually does it feel like 

PETE: it's very um, kind of similar to gone home in many ways I guess in that it's first person narrative driven um we're trying to make it a little a little more open-ended than our previous games in that in terms of you can walk around and, kind of tackle things at your own leisure 

SCOTT: Because the house is held together in many ways by um Janet de Mornay's magic um but it's also crumbling much like real how a lot of real renter houses are so um doors can be kind of messed with and take you to different places kind of like in um uh Howls Moving Castle um because I love the book of that and also the movie as well in their own different ways but yeah that kind of enchanted door where if you do it a particular way it'll take you somewhere else but we're kind of doing a messed up broken broken down version of that where you have to kind of navigate to get around almost like an escape room kind of vibe like the the simple puzzles from Resident Evil and Silent Hill like that that reward knowing the space 

PETE: yeah yeah and then you'll you'll open your bedroom in the morning to go out and then the hallway won't be there it'll be like another cavern or an underground car park or something and you've kind of got no choice but to keep walking and try and work out what way you've ended up and why and that's kind of the big it's kind of the main the main gameplay of the game I suppose 

SCOTT: yeah 

ADAM: I love that a lot it reminds me a lot of some some really wonky share houses I've lived in one particular place had a doorway to nowhere it was just a door that never opened uh just at the back of a uh sort of a hallway that got smaller and smaller as you walked down it which is very sort of weird trippy experience was a terrace house that just had a strange hallway that shrank.

SCOTT:  I love it. It sounds like when they try to rebuild Ned Flanders' house, it's just that tiny, tiny hallway that Barney Gumble's eye.

ADAM: Yeah. It sounds like there's going to be a lot of fun with playing around with the actual physicality of the space of the house itself and warping and twisting it too, which sounds like there's a lot of potentiality there for making people feel disorientated as space changes around them too, which I think can also sort of mirror that experience of renting and the power imbalance balance there between renter and landlord. 

PETE: Yeah, very much. Very much. 

 ADAM: Well, thank you so much for talking us through what looks to be a very exciting horror game.

I really can't wait to play this one and to play it with people because I think as you mentioned before, horror games are best experienced with a group of people.


It's a horror comedy game that is being worked on by Fuzzy Ghosts who are Pete Foley and Scott Ford who have joined me today on Lightmap.

Where can we go to find out more about this game? 

PETE: You can just search it on Steam at the moment, we have our call out for more real rental horror stories, and you can find the link to that on our website, which is slash Janet.

ADAM: Awesome. And I believe you're also at underscore fuzzy ghost underscore on Instagram and Twitter as well.

So if you're on socials and want to check out a bit more about that game, you can head there as well. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

PETE: Thanks so much for having us. 

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ADAM: SIFTER is produced by Fiona Bartholomeus, Daniel Ang and myself Adam Christou. Mitch Loh is our senior producer and GiannI DI GiovannI is our executive producer a big thank you to Omny Studio for their support of SIFTER's three podcasts you can find links to everything we talked about on today's show on our website which is and you can read more about various other games and guests we've featured across the Sifter network as well.

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Janet DeMornay Is A Slumlord (and a witch)

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Fuzzy Ghost
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