Guest Post

by Megan bungeroth

How We Turned Infertility Experience into a Video Game About Flying Bunnies

My husband and I didn’t set out to make a game about infertility and IVF,
but Air Hares became richer when we infused that experience into it.

The creation of an original video game and graphic novel about a bunny pilot began the same way my husband and I first started trying to have a baby: casually.

We were playing a Star Wars tabletop game when we first devised the character of Captain Rabbo. We had just moved to Chicago from New York, spending another frigid night inside with pizza, cheap wine and our little spaceship figures. 

I was playing as the Rebels, and my Y-wing ship was absolutely pummeling Tim’s Imperial fleet of Tie Fighters; every dice roll was coming up in my favor. Exasperated after I landed yet another blow, Tim asked, “Who’s flying that Y-wing?”

And I thought for a second and said, “It’s Captain Rabbo.”

Tim has always nicknamed me Rabbit or Bunny or Babs, ever since we started dating in college. He laughed. “Of course! Captain Rabbo. She’s a crack shot.”

“You can’t see her in the cockpit because she’s just a little bunny, but that’s her in the pilot’s chair,” I said.

“Well she needs a booster seat.”

“And flight goggles!”

“How does she control the ship? Does she have opposable thumbs?”

“It’s a mystery.” 

Every time we played after that, we joked about Captain Rabbo. We liked her. It was just an idea.

So too was the concept of “getting pregnant” when we first started, a few years later. We wanted to be parents, but it felt a little abstract. Every passing month that didn’t culminate in a positive pregnancy test build a little more stress, a little more uncertainty. 

By then, Tim had graduated with an MFA from the School for the Art Institute of Chicago, but was failing to land a narrative design job in the video game industry. He had worked hard to get through grad school, and was feeling stuck on the other side. 

We started to talk more about Captain Rabbo and her world. Tim coined the term “Air Hares,” and we loved it immediately. Everyone – friends, family, doctors, people on the internet – was telling us, Oh I’m sure you’ll get pregnant. But every test showed an increasingly negative outlook. It felt like someone was throwing up barriers on every road we tried to walk. One day, Tim turned to me and said, “You know who won’t say no to us? Captain Rabbo. I’m going to start writing Air Hares.” We needed something in our lives to go beyond the idea stage, and this was going to be it.

Tim began attending indie game developer meetups and conferences, and he decided to make Air Hares into a video game. Soon, his notes on the characters and the backstory grew so elaborate that he realized he could also write a script, and then another, and then it was a complete 3-episode story arc that would become the basis for a full-length graphic novel.

captain-rabbo
Captain Rabbo Sunskipper’s character design

We didn’t set out to create a video game and graphic novel about infertility. But Air Hares began to subtly mirror our lived experience, in a way that most artistic work does of its creators, even when you don’t know it. 

The premise of Air Hares is that Captain Rabbo Sunskipper finds herself lost and cut off from her former family after an unprecedented storm, the Black Blaze, devastates the land. She meets her companion, Dirk Doggo, and together they form the Air Hares, a crew of rabbits and other small furry mammals who learn to fly remote-control airplanes. From the skies, they must revitalize the carrot crop of Winrose warren, their new adopted home, and defend its residents against the predatory birds of the Gale Gang.

Captain Rabbo’s world has been upended by natural forces beyond her control. She could give up. But instead, she turns to science and technology to find another way. 

Air-Hares-Kickstarter-poster

I don’t remember the day that Tim and I realized that Captain Rabbo’s journey had the same hallmarks of our own. Was it after I had surgery to remove my blocked Fallopian tubes (the ultimate source of our fertility woes), leaving me with four new scars and a long painful recovery? Or later, when we had to put off our first attempt at IVF so I could get my newly apparent anxiety under control? 

Captain Rabbo doesn’t go under the knife, but she does have a fierce determination to make things better, even when they’re harder than she thought they would be. When she was a young bun, she lived a cushy life as the pet of a wealthy family; she thought she knew exactly how things would go, and then her circumstances changed drastically.

Rabbo doesn’t take Zoloft to treat her anxiety, but she must contend with powerful feelings of self-doubt and fear when the villainous owl Twin Horn tries to convince her that she doesn’t belong in the air, that she’s wrecking the natural order of the world. In the game, Rabbo will have a Fortitude ability that she can level up to ward against Twin Horn’s psychic attacks. He’s a clever foe, and he’ll try to make Rabbo doubt herself and freeze up. If her Fortitude levels are high, she can withstand his barbs and overcome her own fear.

Our real-life story and Captain Rabbo’s tales were fully entwined by the time Tim sat down to draw a map of the world of Winrose that’s loosely based on the female reproductive system, complete with a nod to my blocked tubes in the dams of Coney Creek.

Air-Hares-drawing
Tim’s hand-drawn map of Winrose, where Air Hares takes place

During our first round of IVF, which was ultimately delayed again due to COVID-19 lockdown in our state, we had a standing appointment every night to administer shots to my abdomen and then go for a walk with our dog, Arthur, while talking about the latest developments of Air Hares. When I was injecting Follistim into my belly to stimulate my ovaries into producing a bunch of eggs at once to later be retrieved by a doctor, I imagined the four realms of Winrose superimposed on my four surgical scars.

Tim devised the primary mechanic of the game, shooting seeds and water into the carrot field, to emulate the fun parts of “shoot-em-up” video games without the violence; we were trying to create life, and we didn’t want to make a game about death. When the falcon goons dive at Captain Rabbo, she can dodge them, whap them with her parry maneuver, or shoot seeds to stun them, but that comes at the expense to her seed supply and her ability to grow enough food for the community.

Air-Hares-game-graphic
Captain Rabbo shoots seeds and water to grow the carrots while dodging attacks from falcon goons in the PC game.

The connection between Air Hares and our continuing mission to have a child isn’t just about the story. Air Hares came to life because we made the decision to commit to it. Tim spent countless nights and early mornings writing and finessing the scripts, then working with freelance artists and game developers from all over the world to bring the characters to the page and screen. We diverted money that might have gone to a vacation or a bigger apartment into paying these artists, setting up a website, investing in our project.

My role was largely as inspiration and sounding board in the beginning, but as the video game and graphic novel developed, I stepped in to take on marketing, social media and PR. We decided to create a Kickstarter campaign so that we could accelerate the development of Air Hares and bring it to a wider audience.

Air-Hares-Kickstarter

Once infertility enters the picture, having a biological kid takes an absurd amount of commitment as well. There are many types of infertility, many types of treatments. In our specific case, surgery and then IVF (in vitro fertilization) was the only option. There would be no “maybe it will happen naturally” or “let’s try something less invasive and expensive first.” 

We knew we wanted to be parents before we started this process, of course – that’s why we started it. But I don’t think either one of us felt it so viscerally and deeply until we were in the thick of IVF, in the fog of ultrasounds and bloodwork and hormones and pill and shots and procedures and waiting and disappointment and waiting and waiting and pain and waiting again. The only things that keep you going through that are commitment and hope.

I don’t really believe that “everything happens for a reason.” But I think that you can make sense of hard things, sometimes, by examining them for elements you want to hold onto, by discovering something new about yourself. And when things don’t go as you expect, you can get good surprises, too. We wouldn’t have adopted our dog if we hadn’t been frustrated by IVF delays and looking to expand our family on our own terms. Now Arthur is the model for the character Dirk Doggo, and his personality and antics show up in the story of Air Hares. He’s stubborn and fiercely loyal and a little big scraggly; if he barks it’s probably for good reason. And, let’s face it: he’s simply adorable.

Arthur Bungeroth, the inspiration for Dirk Doggo;
Photo by Gillian Fry
Arthur Bungeroth, the inspiration for Dirk Doggo; Photo by Gillian Fry

We could have released the game without telling this part of the story. Dragging such difficult and personal experience into the light of public scrutiny is terrifying. But it has also been gratifying beyond what I ever expected. Infertility is common; talking about it isn’t.

We decided to share Air Hares alongside our experience with infertility because we hope that it will resonate with others going through something similar. We also hope that people will simply find fun and joy in the game and story, whether or not they know the history behind it. 

Air Hares is about bunnies flying airplanes, a delightfully silly idea. It’s also about determination and commitment, about how technology and science can lead to a better world, and about caring for one’s community. Someday in the near future, we’re going to share it with our family. In the meantime, we hope you share it with yours.

Megan-Tim
Photo by Gillian Fry

For more information about Air Hares, and to download and play the free game demo, you can check out our Kickstarter, visit our website airhares.com, follow us on Instagram @airhares, or sign up for our newsletter, Air Hare Alerts.

Megan-Bungeroth

About Megan

Megan Bungeroth is the co-creator of Air Hares with her husband Tim Bungeroth. She’s a magazine editor, writer, New Jersey native and ardent Cubs fan. Megan earned her MA in journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism in New York and worked as a local newspaper reporter and editor until moving to Chicago. She currently works in content marketing and is the president of the non-profit Association for Women Journalists-Chicago. She loves her dog Arthur, novels set in a post-apocalyptic future, nonfiction essay collections by smart women, and cheese.

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