Fionn Keeley is a palaeontologist with a difference, they’re also an Irish video game developer. But let’s backtrack a bit. Fionn’s story begins on a small farm in rural Ireland.
Fionn was born in Dublin and moved down to a farm in Co. Meath when they were about five years old. This wasn’t as drastic a change as it may seem, however, as their own home in Dublin was already quite rural. Both their parents were interested in animals and they had plenty of pets. They also worked in wildlife conservation so Fionn was spoiled for choice when it came to indulging in animal books growing up.
Did they perhaps foresee Fionn as being a future palaeontologist?
‘I’m not sure what drew me to extinct animals more than living ones,’ they tell me thoughtfully.
‘I suppose I’d always liked mythical creatures too, and I think there’s sort of a fantastical element to prehistoric life, especially when you’re a child. There’s some element of mystery to palaeontology that I really like as well – it sometimes feels like you’re imagining the missing pieces of a jigsaw or trying to work out the colours of a black-and-white photo.’
Fionn didn’t originally plan on being a palaeontologist, it was more so a far-off goal in the back of their mind. Instead, Fionn went to UCD where they studied General Science. It was within that degree that they discovered his interest in geology.
‘I didn’t really decide to continue with a Master’s degree until quite a while into the program, and it was probably my time volunteering at the Natural History Museum in Dublin that sold me on the idea!’ they say.
Palaeontology is the study of prehistoric life. While dinosaurs tend to be the face of palaeontology since they’re big and exciting, Fionn stresses that there are many other aspects to their work as a palaeontologist too like research into the origins of life and how life has responded to things like mass extinctions.
Their own thesis focussed on earth’s first animals, and how people can use a combination of fossils and genetic information to work out how these creatures might have evolved.
Because Ireland doesn’t have a palaeontology Master’s course of its own, Fionn moved to Bristol to continue studying after their undergraduate degree.
‘I’d considered quite a few other places including some other European colleges as well as other British universities, but Bristol was ideal for me since they offered a taught Master’s degree as well as an MSc (Masters of Science) by research,’ they say.
‘It’s also where a lot of Ireland’s palaeontologists were trained, so quite a few Irish people still go to Bristol for the same reason.’
‘I ended up doing a huge range of stuff in the Natural History Museum, from glueing broken fossils together to preparing sets for TV shows.’
The budding palaeontologist even helped put together a set for an episode of the TV series Penny Dreadful in 2015.
Bristol has a long history with palaeontology more recently hosting events like the ‘Bristol Dinosaur Project’.
This particular project was based on the discovery of the Thecodontosaurus antiquus. The fossilised remains of Theco were discovered in 1834 in a quarry on Durdham Downs in Clifton, Bristol. It was the fourth dinosaur to be identified anywhere in the world. The word ‘dinosaur’ didn’t even exist back then. Naturally, with discoveries like that, Bristol was well on its way to becoming a palaeontology hub.
Bristol Dinosaur Project is also, in fact, something that Fionn has been heavily involved in while also being involved with the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. From organising talks to arranging various school and public events they describe it as being a really rewarding way to look at science from new perspectives.
But wait, how did games come into the picture? Well, Fionn’s first video games were those ‘edutainment’ CD-ROM games that were popular in the nineties.
Things like Zoombinis and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? still, hold dear to them. Pokémon too was a favourite which they say was probably because it was all about looking for magical creatures!
‘There’s something about both museums and outreach work that really interests me – a bit like the ‘edutainment’ games, I think the combination of natural history, cultural history and media really appeals to me in any context,’ they say.
Despite having a keen interest in the concept of game development Fionn didn’t actually consider working in the field until quite recently. Yet impressively, they released their first game Fadó in October of 2019. Not only that but they’re working on several projects.
Their game Fadó is a retro RPG about Irish myths, a topic and a game genre that they’ve always been fond of. Fionn sees the game as a collection of short stories that were in the kind of books that they used to read as a child.
‘I’m hoping to follow it up with further episodes that add to each story and continue to grow its world – since all of the game’s areas are real places, it’s a lot of fun to build on the larger-than-life versions of them established in mythology,’ they say.
Constructing the game began as a hobby with their main motivation being mostly ‘why hasn’t someone done something like this already?’ From there they looked at making a more concrete story and fleshed-out game. They ended up working on it on a part-time basis for about two years.
Fionn feels like they learned a huge amount while working on Fadó. It was mostly a solo project apart from help from Georgia Lynch and Peter Kelly on the soundtrack whose input they valued hugely.
Fadó was more than just a game, it taught them valuable skills that catapulted Fionn into the game development world.
‘I ended up having to teach myself plenty of things I’d probably never have learned without it. This included stuff like digital art, music composition, animation, marketing and programming – all of which I’d had only a little experience with before,’ they say.
One of the biggest draws for Fionn when creating Fadó was the amount of research involved.
‘I read more or less everything I could find on the people, places and events featured in it, and I feel like only about 5% of that made it into the final version!’ they tell me. ‘I’m starting to understand why so many movies get ‘director’s cuts’ to add ridiculous extra details.’
Fionn is currently helping to develop some educational software focusing on palaeontology and a trading card game. They’re hoping that in future they’ll be able to combine their interests like this even further.
‘I’ve been working on concepts for quite a few natural history or palaeontology-related games over the past few months, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where they’ll go over the next few!’
And so, we have our game-developing palaeontologist!
Despite being abroad, Fionn does miss things back here at home and tries to make long trips whenever they get the chance. It’s tricky to see where they’ll be in a few years as they’re mainly connected to the science communities in Bristol but also the video game community in Dublin.
‘I suppose it partly depends on what I’m working in. There was something quite bittersweet about having to release Fadó from abroad even though I’d been back to Ireland shortly beforehand since it’s something very deeply tied to Irish culture,’ they say.
‘I’d come to think of it as sort of a link to home after I moved, in a way. That said, I don’t regret moving – I think it’s opened me up to a lot of experiences I wouldn’t really have had at home, and it’s been really exciting too.’
You can find Fionn’s game Fadó on Steam here.