Two Can Play That Game by Leanne Yong (published by Allen & Unwin)
Review and author interview
“I want to create something that makes people gasp in revelation with each new level.” (Two Can Play That Game)
Review of Two Can Play That Game by Joy Lawn in Magpies magazine, March 2023 (reproduced with permission)
Leanne Yong is an Asian-Australian author of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Two Can Play That Game is her debut novel. It is an addictive reading experience that achieves the ideal balance of keeping our attention and making us think. Described as a romantic comedy, it is so much more.
Sam Khoo has finished school (and lockdowns) with distinction and won a scholarship at Queensland University of Technology. However, she is wrestling with how to tell her parents that she wants to work as a full-time indie video game designer. Facing discrimination from males because she is a female gamer and forfeiting friends and a social life, Sam spends most of her time developing her own game ‘Vinculum’. She is one of only a hundred young creators invited to the ‘Futures Devs Showcase’ where she hopes to meet an industry professional who will publish her game. She also craves one of the limited tickets to an exclusive Art of Game Design workshop at a pop culture convention where she might be able to pitch ‘Vinculum’ to some legendary game developers.
She encounters Jaysen Chua when they both grab the last box with a ticket to the workshop. Jaysen is a year older and studying chemical engineering. They know of each other through their interconnected Malaysian communities, where the ‘aunties’ assess and comment on their children’s varying successes. Both Sam and Jay have a reputation as hard-working and respectful. When Jay tricks Sam into securing the ticket for himself, she threatens him with loss of face if the aunties discover he hasn’t behaved honourably. They decide to play five classic indie video games, with the victor winning the ticket.
Alongside the family, church and cultural references, as well as banter during Sam and Jay’s burgeoning friendship, an outstanding feature of the story is the gripping depiction of game-play and what this reveals about the smart, caring protagonists.
Teens interested in video games, as well as others, will be captivated by the story. The characterisation and pacing of the writing are superb. Set pieces in escape rooms are highlights. Two Can Play That Game will no doubt be highly popular as well as critically acclaimed. It is a winner!
Thank you for speaking about Two Can Play That Game with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Leanne.
What is your background, and what was your path to publication of Two Can Play That Game?
I graduated with an engineering degree, worked as a business analyst in IT, and now I’m the co-owner of an escape room in Sydney. Probably not the path my parents expected for me – certainly not one I expected of myself – but here I am!
It’s been a long road to publication. I sent my first query back in 2012! Two Can Play That Game is my seventh manuscript, and one I wrote for myself at a time when I was watching others around me signing with agents, getting book deals, and there was a sad, quiet certainty starting to set in that my writing would never be ‘good enough’ for any of that.
The irony is, this was the book that ended up getting me signed with an agent in New York through a Twitter pitch event. After many edits (including a HUGE one to age it down from end-of-uni age to YA), it was sold to Allen & Unwin – I joke that it went to the other side of the world only to come right back to Australia.
Two Can Play That Game is set mainly in Brisbane, with a pivotal scene in Sydney. What do you love about Brisbane?
I make fun of Brisbane as being a country town masquerading as a capital city, but that’s the reason why I love Brisbane so much. It still feels small and cozy, with a laid-back lifestyle you don’t really find in bigger cities. Yet there’s still fantastic restaurants, most big musicals and performances make it there (eventually), and there’s great coffee to be had!
Your title Two Can Play That Game is apt. What is its double meaning?
At the start it’s used as a challenge, as per the saying—Jaysen wants to be cunning and strategic about things? Sam can play that game too! Then by the end, the meaning shifts [slight spoilers] to refer to how it’s okay to need support, like how a game can be more fun, or challenges overcome more easily, when played co-operatively.
As a bonus, there’s a triple meaning in ‘game’ referring to video games!
What is the hook into your book?
My blurb is floating around everywhere, so let me try to hook you in tropes. Diaspora feels, eldest sibling angst, rivals-to-lovers, a lot of fun banter, and supportive parents! Also a number of run-ins with the Asian Gossip Network.
Blurb: Two Can Play That Game
Funny and romantic, an upbeat YA novel about gaming, goals and getting even from a fresh new voice in contemporary fiction. Sam Khoo has one goal in life: create cool indie games. She’s willing to do anything to make her dream come true – even throw away a scholarship to university. All she needs is a super-rare ticket to a game design workshop and she can kickstart her career.So when Jay Chua, aka Jerky McJerkface, sneakily grabs the last ticket, it’s war. Knowing how their Australian-Malaysian community works, Sam issues him an ultimatum: put the ticket on the line in a 1v1 competition of classic video games, or she’ll broadcast his duplicity to everyone. Thank you, Asian Gossip Network.Meeting in neutral locations, away from the eyes and ears of nosy aunties and uncles, Sam and Jay connect despite themselves. It’s a puzzle that Sam’s not sure she wants to solve. But when her dream is under threat, will she discover that there is more than one way to win?
How have you integrated humour into the novel?
There’s some situational humour, but a lot of it comes from the dynamics between Sam and the people around her. Whether it’s competitive banter with Jay, the teasing between her and her sister, or joking around with her best friend, most of the humour is drawn from how they interact.
How does Sam and Jaysen’s relationship develop and change?
The two of them definitely start off antagonistic after Jaysen’s opportunistic move to snatch the last workshop ticket off Sam. Even then, there’s a mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Even when they’re trash-talking, they never underestimate each other.
This antagonistic respect gradually transforms into a dynamic that’s still competitive, but in a way where they’re pushing each other forward and supporting each other as a result.
What is distinctive about their families?
Sam’s parents, while still concerned about her future, are also super supportive of both her and her sister. They want them to do things that will make them happy, whatever that looks like (but ideally, also able to afford a roof over their heads).
We don’t see Jay’s parents much, but in my head they’re the kind of parents who will freely talk to their kids about traditionally awkward subjects like sex ed, to the point where both Jay and his brother are begging them to please stop talking!
Your characters attend church. Sam’s sister Eva attends two! Is this purely cultural or does it influence their values, attitude or behaviour? If so, how?
In the book it’s portrayed as another part of Sam’s everyday life. It does, however, subtly underpin expectations from her family such as finding ‘a good Christian boy’. It also underpins her comparisons to her sister, where she sees her sister is more involved with church life while she has been too busy with her game to do so.
The scenes where you describe Sam and Jay competing against each other while playing classic indie video games are highlights. Do these games, such as Time-Twister, exist? Whether real or invented by you, which in the book is your favourite, and why?
Originally, I used actual classic indie games that I wanted to share with the world and hopefully have them fall in love with them too. Unfortunately, it would’ve been a massive pain with copyright, so I changed the games to references to those classic games instead. There’s a chart at the back of the book directing you to the actual game!
As for a favourite… I’ll go with Theseus (a reference to a game called The Swapper), because there’s puzzles, philosophy, and a compelling mystery!
You mention different game genres, such as “Shoot-y, puzzle-y, social dynamic -, competitive, co-op” …
Could you please tell us a little about one or more of these?
Shoot-y games: run around, shoot enemies, this is the type most people think of when they think games!
Puzzle-y: Generally there is a core mechanic (eg. Rewinding time) and you use this to solve puzzles to progress through levels.
Social dynamic: Games where interaction between players is what drives the game. For example, Mafia-style games, or party games like Jackbox
Competitive: You’re competing with each other – exactly what it says on the box!
Co-op: You’re cooperating with the other players to complete the challenges
Have you created your own video game? If so, what genre is it and what is your concept?
I have not, but maybe one day! My focus at the moment is making escape room games!
You write incredibly well about indie games. It is a real skill how you put images, particularly of playing visual games, into words. And I notice that you elevate these sections even more by interspersing ‘real life’ into Sam and Jay’s thoughts and actions while they are playing.
Here is an extract from Two Can Play That Game when Sam and Jay are playing Time-Twister:
I sent my guy into the first world at about the same time as Jay. There’s a series of tapestries on the walls that tell the story if you click onto them, but today is not about story. It’s not even about how beautifully the central time-rewind mechanic plays into the theme of regret and learning from your mistakes and, eventually, how some mistakes are irreversible.
As I move my little sprite through the levels past medieval weapons and nebulous balls of emotion that turn deadly and bloodthirsty, I wonder if I’ll truly be able to convince my parents that giving up on the uni scholarship for a gap year isn’t an irreversible mistake. If the central mechanic in the game of my future is ‘having a successful game’, will I be able to use it to achieve my bigger-picture goal of going straight into being an indie dev, or will I need to avoid any objections they throw my way?… [pp52-53 proof copy]
Scenes like this are extremely well crafted. Is there a strategy you use to get them right?
Thank you! It might sound odd, but I feel like this is a skill honed from reading a LOT of sports manga. Bear with me here. Some of the best sports manga (shout-out to Haikyuu!!, Yowamushi Pedal, and Eyeshield 21) use what’s happening on the court or field – the technical and psychological aspects of the game – to develop character arcs.
So I start with asking myself, what do I want to convey about the character through the game, or how they play the game? How can I use elements of the game to challenge the character, have them reflect, push them in a different direction, or have them learn something about themselves, others, the world? It helps so much when I have an underlying purpose or motivation for the scene!
You write a little about video game art. What is a style you like?
Oh no, I can’t choose! There’s SO many. But some favourites include the hand-sketched lineart look of Sable. The gorgeous colours and shading in the background of Hollow Knight make the clean inked style of the characters and creatures pop. The detailed and intricate picture-book look of Gorogoa. I’m going to stop now or this will be the entire interview.
You also mention cutscene art. This is such an interesting part of a game. Could you please briefly explain what it is? Please give an example of excellence from a game you’ve played.
A cutscene is a cinematic sequence where the player can’t interact with the game, only watch, and tends to happen during key narrative moments. Sometimes they don’t look any different to normal gameplay graphics except characters are moving and talking on their own, and sometimes they’re separate pieces of art, more stylised and/or detailed than the main game, that are specially drawn and perhaps animated.
In the book, the characters are specifically referring to the latter. A classic example is Super Meat Boy, where transition moments between stages are animated in a clean cartoon style that still fits in well with the more pixel-y gameplay art. Spiritfarer also does cutscenes beautifully in the way they animate key emotional moments (and the MUSIC!), though the art style remains the same as the main game.
I was so excited to read your escape room scenes in the novel, and then to discover that you have an escape room in Sydney, Next Level Escape, which looks incredible and even has an Ex Libris room for ‘literary heroes’. Please tell us about it. What is unique about it? What do you love about it?
Next Level Escape is a company I own together with my business partner Aaron Hooper. We design and build all our games ourselves, with a focus on unique game mechanics, storytelling through puzzling, and interactions with your games master who is a voiced character in the escape room.
I love coming up with puzzles that also convey story, and bringing in influences from video games or board games or books or musicals to the story and the overall structure and mechanics of the games. It’s also fun watching people play through, and seeing the moment when things click for them and they get really excited!
Have you read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin? It’s generally for an older readership than Two Can Play That Game but has some similar themes of playing and designing video games and discrimination against females in the field. If you’ve read it, what do you think of it?
Yes, I’ve read it and I really enjoyed it! It is certainly a far more literary book than Two Can Play That Game, with a reflectiveness and turns of phrase I deeply admire. I loved how it read like an in-depth analysis piece on the history of a company, and also all the small details about video game development that made it feel so real! Finally, I loved how it posited the idea that a collaborative working relationship can be just as valuable as a romantic relationship.
What are some books you’ve enjoyed or authors you admire?
I also read a lot of SFF (mainly adult these days), and I’ve been gravitating toward cozy, healing stories like The Goblin Emperor, the Wayfarers series, and The House in the Cerulean Sea.
Finally I want to give a shout-out to all the Asian-Australian writers, because I deeply admire how they’ve blazed that trail before me; authors like Alice Pung, Rebecca Lim, Ahn Do, Wai Chim, Vanessa Len, Shirley Marr, Shelley Parker-Chan. And many others I’ve not mentioned! Much respect to all of them.
What are you writing now or next?
I’ve recently finished edits on my next manuscript! This one’s set in the musical theatre world (another love of mine), and is about three teens who are the leads in a community theatre musical, and the drama that ensues.
Forget the love triangle, this book is about the angst triangle. Friendships are as valued (and cause as much pain!) as romantic relationships. But I also wanted it to be warm and uplifting, and an exploration of what it is to be ‘enough’, especially when we feel like we aren’t. It sounds odd to admit, but it’s been a comfort read for me lately, so I guess you could say it’s another book I wrote for myself!
How would you like people to contact you?
‘I only wish I could fix things for everyone that easily in real life. I mean, isn’t that why you play games, so you can pretend it’s possible?’ (Two Can Play That Game)