Revisiting BlueSuburbia in Unreal (an update on what I’ve been up to)

I have been heavily invested in learning Unreal and Blender. I announced that I wanted to make a 3D game, so this is my trajectory for the foreseeable future.

I’ve been keeping a development update thread on Twitter. It’s fun to track it!

So ok… This post is my first about this project: I’m re-making BlueSuburbia!

(This is the very old trailer from 20 years ago)

Here are a bunch of screenshots from the Flash version (20 years ago)… to give you an idea of what BlueSuburbia used to be about… (note also, in my defense, that I was 16 when I wrote most of these poems…)

“Who who who who broke the refugree?”

“The butcher, the hater, the great big decision maker, turn them out! Traitors all three.”

“Cast into a twisting chaos / Madness left me no relief / Except in darkness where / I found a map and single key.”

“Like the look on his face moments before death. / If this is what we’ve become… we never should have been. / Trapped in that same darkness I found a light and fled. / Into the asylum of a strange window I entered, an uninvited guest.”

“Stir now, sleeping consumers! / Discomforted by unthinkable acts of self-preservation. / Another sacrifice to the Greater Good left bloody bodies that blatantly clog our conscience with their memory.”

“And the rich shall inherit the earth”

“Smile now, oh self-proclaimed elite! / Leaders that make fools of your people / and cannibalize life”

“Your holy men do unholy things then hide behind their holy scriptures. / If they speak the truth then god must be a hypocrite!”

“numb me… please”

“I met an angel that had two wings / Now they’re broken with dreams that remain unspoken / Silenced, for dreams carry you to high / And when you look down / You might not like what you see / You won’t come back once you’re free”

“I saw an angel that was too free / And disregarded authority / He leaped past his gates of captivity / They sawed off his wings so he wouldn’t fly”

“Bleed the people”

“I am obliged to willfully receive my portioned existence / With the least or no show of resistance / I am expected not to know / For knowledge makes one’s mind grow / And there is no room for individuality in status quo”

“I’ve been trying so hard I forgot what I’m fighting for”

“The promised land was never promised me”

“Where those that eat to live are preyed on by those that live to eat”

“Here it’s easy to mock the needy for being weak”

“Curse us for what we leave them!”

“An unforgiving place. Infested with sorrow”

“I will be no god’s fool! No leader’s belittlement. No man’s mean to the end.”

“I feed the machine because the machine feeds me.”

“Cold, Cold, Cold, / …How I feel alone in a crowd / Crying inside because Me is not allowed.”

“A broken book / Written with pain, bound in a reality of scorn, cataract eyes, nuclear cancer, and rot… / Its pages crumbling and worn / It begged the question ‘why?’ with every word wrought / Only fools dare provide an answer, all lead to naught.”


That said, I will ALSO be working on continuing to maintain and build the Electric Zine Maker. I’m not abandoning it. I just need to make a new game. There are things that need to be expressed.

The creative direction for the new BlueSuburbia…

In my last project blog post, where I announced the horror game that I intended to make, I mentioned that Electric Zine Maker is very closely tied to the horrible shit that I was going through. I had been working on it while going through all that torture… so having something new will help me refresh, put all my experiences to some constructive use (making art about it helps a lot), and just have something new to hold on to. You have to fuel your sources of hope!
It’s the reason why this needs to be done.

As I started learning Unreal I realized that I have a lot of assets, art, writing… just basically A LOT of forgotten work that died with Flash. BlueSuburbia was one of these early pieces. I have so much to use, why not find a new life for that?

(The beginnings of the current Unreal version)

BlueSuburbia was a cult classic and hugely popular in the era of the early web. It had fan pages on MySpace dedicated to it. Yahoo even included it in its web directory when web directories were still a thing (I never asked or submitted), and search engines didn’t really exist yet. It goes way back!
I still get emails about it today, asking how to play it after Flash’s death, and if I have plans on bringing it back. This is novel because the thing is only two decades old.

I think it would be sad to just let it disappear. There’s so much art I could port over to a 3D context. I think it would be beautiful. It certainly would be easier than starting something completely new.

So I’m merging the horror game I was planing on making (about surviving all the cultural horrors surrounding sexual assault) in with BlueSuburbia. The story should be part of it.
BlueSuburbia was always a personal autobiographical work unpacking topics of refugees, war, genocide, moving to the US, and just the history of people that survive these things. I think what I went through in games will add some important meaning to all that too.
I want it to be about transcending, strength, and the passion you find for life despite a culture (history, society…) that tried (and failed) to destroy you or your people.
Passion comes from pain. When you transcend pain you get passion and with that a fierce love for life. The tenacity to keep going will lead you to it.

I think I said it best in my writeup of BlueSuburbia on youtube, so I’ll just copy that description of the work for better context:

Flash website and interactive poetry project BlueSuburbia:
This was the very first net-art / game / interactive literature project that I made. My family had just moved to America, in the middle of the war in the Balkans. Before moving to the US, bombers were flying over our house, and the stories about how bad things have gotten were in everyone’s conversation.
In many ways this was normal to me. My family survived concentration camps, labor camps, and moved from one home to the other to keep fleeing what seemed like non-stop war or political drama. It was a fairly deeply ingrained narrative that I grew up hearing. My parents work centered on helping people afflicted by this too. My parents worked a lot with refugees, so my personal family history aside, I grew up with these stories.
When we moved to America it was a huge culture shock for me, especially since I was dropped straight into highschool, no real context of American culture.
I discovered Flash and net-art and this became my escape. I made BlueSuburbia. It was about all these stories that hovered over my family and friends. It was both my coping mechanism and way to talk about something I thought people should hear.
The project itself was hugely successful (at least to me), and enjoyed a cult following.
At the time I marketed it as a “commentary on American education system” because I didn’t think American’s would understand a commentary on conflict that happens in other countries.
This is still a project that’s dear to me, in many ways, it’s where I started… Many vignettes strung together to tell personal stories, angsty teenage goth poetry that you can read too much into, but what it’s REALLY about is subtly there, hovering in the background, it’s honest and personal… some parts clumsy (maybe even cringey lol), others extremely well articulated (even for today).
BlueSuburbia is interactive poetry, mixed with heavy animation, and sound work. Everything reacts and the literature reveals itself according to where you’re going, or where your mouse is. It’s interactive art. Literature that you’re meant to experience through interactivity, and maybe it will be more personal to you than if you JUST read it. It’s meant to be involving.

I kept building on it from 1999 to 2005. I officially quit in 2008.

When I first made BlueSuburbia, I was just a teenager completely new to America or American culture. America exports a different culture about itself to the rest of the world with pop-culture. It’s nothing like advertised.
When we first moved here we lived in a shack in the back yard of a wonderful family that gave us a roof over our heads so we could… incorporate?
I started working on BlueSuburbia in highschool so I could cope with all these experiences. I was just 16 when I started. Nobody knew I was making this thing. My friends or teachers had no idea. I was just some goth punk that people liked to bully for having a thick accent and eating weird food… People would shout “freak” after me in the hallways, and I secretly enjoyed being seen as that by peers who I thought were too vapid to really get to know someone.
BlueSuburbia ended up taking off and having this cult following. It was so bizarre to get people sending me their resumes (really impressive folk too), wanting to work for whoever was behind this project. I was just a kid, responsible for it. Nobody knew.
I would tell people that the project was “a commentary on the American school system” (it is how I pitched it) because I didn’t think people would understand the themes of refugees, genocide, poverty… that it was loaded with. I didn’t want to get in trouble for being “anti-american” so I described it as commentary about school.
I stopped working on it when I got into games (this horror story is why I quit it)… so it always felt like unfinished business. I still feel guilty for abandoning it.

BlueSuburbia was about “interactive literature”. It went by many names that were popular at the time, especially from the netart scene… literary hypermedia, net-art, interactive poetry…
I wanted to bring my poetry alive in a way that let you really experience it. So I chose to do that through these “worlds” that you explore. Each poem was a different highly animated space. You experience the writing through animations. Following things through these animated environments. Words would react, meaning would change based on what you did with the space. It’s hard to describe, but I think it was always a beautifully unique way of experiencing writing. You can see my recording of it here…

Since abandoning it, over all these years, I accumulated more poetry… and am definitely more confident in how I communicate these things. Teenage me was very shy and angsty. Maybe, in revisiting how I do this, I can make it more mature.
I mean, when I showed BlueSuburbia at my very first E3 showcase (I included it with the Tetrageddon collection), one of the guys that stumbled into it said that it was like “someone dropped a big stack of goth poetry” on him… then walked away very quickly. I GET IT.

There’s a lot I would have done different with BlueSuburbia if today’s tools were available to me. I originally chose Flash, and the heavily animated Disney Fantasia aesthetic, because 3D tools were not available. I always wanted it to be an actual world.
Staying true to what I originally wanted, I chose Unreal this time. I think that’s what I would have gone for if I had the choice back then. Indie development tools have come a very long way. I can finally realize this the way it should have been!

(The beginnings of the current Unreal version)

This time, when I make BlueSuburbia, I want to stay true to who I am, what it’s about, and how that’s expressed.
Music was always something that I think I didn’t do right.
I wanted American (Westerners) to understand and accept my work. So I chose classic music (like Beethoven) to be something like a soundtrack for it. I don’t think that was true to where it’s coming from.
My own culture (coming from my family’s background) has this rich history of music. I would argue that it’s some of the most beautiful music in the world. I made a small thread with some of it here.
It drives me up the wall that such music, despite its history, is written off as “folk music” or “ethnic” but westerners get to laud their own music as “classic”. Like that is the true sophisticated history of music. I find what gets written off as “ethnic” much more profound than what is lauded as culturally meaningful here.
I did work with musicians back there that have frequently sent me their beautiful albums and demos. It was a breath of fresh air every time. I wish this type of music got more attention.
All that said, that’s the direction music will be going for this work. I want it to capture the cultural relevance of all these experiences. I really want to honor this.
I’m not too sure how I will do that yet, but I definitely don’t want to fall into the “classic music” trope again.

Putting your own lived experiences in context of your art is a way of surviving.
It’s therapeutic, but it’s also your right. It’s your way of reclaiming a narrative that the world (historically, culturally, and socially) tried to take from you. To lie about you. Dehumanize you. Eradicate you. When you make art out of that, you assert yourself. It’s all you have sometimes.

(The beginnings of the current Unreal version)

I feel like I spent the last two years of my life trying to wrestle back my own narrative from a space (game journalism, and the game industry) that really didn’t care if I live or die. They didn’t care about the truth, or about the impact that they had on someone’s life. They just cared about their power structure and status quo.
It’s been really hard coming to grips with how they succeeded in separating me from my support network, and former friends, for example this instance was the most dire. Sure they won in alienating me to that extent… but I’m still alive, and I will take up space here.
Either way, these things have a tendency to make alienation feel like the truth…
I think about my own family’s history, and how we’re just lucky to have the life we have in America, and know that if you persevere you can get past any abuse. I lost a lot of friends because of how journalists with their very large platforms pushed a dishonest narrative, but I gained truer friends too.
I want to frame all that in my work. Making something that successfully captures the spirit of perseverance (hope, overcoming, strength…)… it is a great “fuck you” to all those that tried to destroy you.

(The beginnings of the current Unreal version)

So that’s my stated intention… I’ll be working on this for a long time. I have big dreams for it, and (like the original was) I hope it will end up being meaningful to a lot of people.
As far as plans for the future go, I’m pulling back from participating in things and am going full recluse. I struggle to do basic things like answer emails, or interact with people to any reliable capacity. I decided not to fight that anymore and just give in. If I feel like I need to fully distance myself from the world then I will do that and just work on what I love.