I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative (mostly narrative) direction of my current 3D game, BlueSuburbia.
How do you approach building a large thing, without disappearing into the development void forever?
These long projects can eat a lot of time, life, energy… and even relevance because it’s all you do for the next few years… how do you manage that?
Sometimes I feel like I’m banking everything on a gamble, because it’s such a beast of an endeavor.
When you’re a solo-developer, you have to constantly think about scale. If I make this too big then it might never release.
From my experience, the best approach for an individual developer is to have a demo out, that you are iteratively adding to, so that you can keep drumming up support for it while you build it. It’s much easier to get press, or people talking about it, if you do it this way… rather than releasing a final thing and hoping that the VERY SMALL window your game is allowed relevance for actually “hits”.
When you try to get people talking about your game (whether it be players, press, or festivals) you really only have a sliver of a chance. If you wait too long then it’s considered “old news”, and you can’t really get that momentum back. There are exceptions, but it is hard!
This is especially true when submitting to festivals. Most festivals take games only recent within a span of time, if they are too old then… oh well.
It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that you will spend YEARS working on something, but you are allowed only a very small window of relevance where people will find it appropriate to give it attention.
When I made “Everything is going to be OK” I released it iteratively. Adding pages to it, and documenting all the things happening. This kept it relevant. I could keep talking about it, so it slowly gained momentum. By the time it was finished, enough people had already heard about it, and it was getting the attention it deserved.
I know that if I just released it, as a whole finished thing, it would be much harder to get attention for it.
The entire lifecycle of a game, just how that functions, often seems opposed to the idea that games are art.
Art stays relevant, even years after it is “released”.
Often the only games that get talked about years after release are the ones that have a GOOD publisher that knows how to drum up interest for it, a AAA budget, or really just AAA games. Multiplayer support helps…
It’s a consumer driven medium. Sometimes it feels like the pinnacle of capitalism. It’s difficult to navigate for artists treating it as their art.
So that’s all been on my mind while I’m building this, trying to come up with an iterative structure. One where the first release, which will be treated as a “demo”, will have enough substance to it to get people interested in it… but I can also build on.
Since BlueSuburbia was always about “interactive poetry”, a world that you explore and experience poems in, I will be treating it as a book.
I’ll add pages to it as I go, and there will be an overarching story.
The story will be something like a spiritual successor to “Everything is going to be OK“, and it will be inspired by my struggles of coming forward about my sexual assault… in the game industry… which is hard enough to exist in as it is.
I talked about it before, so I don’t want to get into that history here, but I think there is a commonality in what I experienced and how society in general treats people that are abused and spend years recovering from it.
If I make the experience abstract enough, you see that it is something we all go through.
The stigma from having had a hard time, fighting with this type of evil, and all but becoming “invisible” because of it.
Homelessness, and how we treat the poor, is very similar to this. When someone struggles long enough it just becomes “who they are”, and they become invisible.
How often do we walk through a city, passing by poor people that we view as “begging” (actually they are asking for help, but that’s been stigmatized), and we just walk past them. Their struggle has made them invisible to us.
The aftermath of sexual violence is very similar.
Being a refugee is very similar.
Experiences similar have been part of my life… things that I overcame, or still struggle with not being completely destroyed by. I know that the end result of evil is basically all the same, and I think this can be a space of solidarity.
This is the general artist direction going into this.
BlueSuburbia will open in these very abstract environments that you navigate through. The first set are smaller, each wildly different, and each with poetry that you can find. The poems are short. As you collect them, you get the gist of what this journey is about.
Once you make your way through the opening set of worlds, you are left in this very large open world (the part that I am still building). You can spend quite some time exploring it. There is already a lot to see.
You get the idea that you are in this grand ancient place, where things have happened, gods forgotten… And it’s just part of your transience. It’s not your home, you are traveling far to get to where you are going.
As you travel to the center of the open world you find a place that is in ruins. You talk to something there that acknowledges that you have traveled very far, carrying a heavy burden that is eating you. It knows that you want to bring it to “the place that destroys those that seek refuge in it”.
It points you down this path that becomes dreadfully dark. It’s part of the darker part of the open world…
As you finally reach your destination you are at the foot of a giant old temple, with statues of others that came before you, and searched for shelter here… they came to lay down their burdens.
The statues are vandalized, with words like “liar” written on them. It’s almost humiliating.
You enter and walk down the corridors, vandalized with hate… and finally find the place to put your burden.
As you do that you are separated from your body, and cast into hell.
Your body is put on display, next to all the other statues…
The demo would end here, but the point of the game is to navigate through this “hell” to earn your body back.
There will be monsters, but you will not be able to fight them. It’s not a power fantasy. Instead, the only way to get past them, is to convince the monsters that you are human.
The experience will be largely about fighting to have your humanity acknowledged.
During my experiences I wrote a lot of poetry. It’s been collected over the many years, so I think this will be a good delivery for them.
“Hell” will be a series of worlds, spaces, surreal dreams… that you go through. All with their own surrealist themes about struggling through the battle of regaining your body. It’s basically about reclaiming agency over yourself after it has been absolutely and fundamentally taken from you.
The same way that “Everything is going to be OK” was about coming to terms with how not OK things are… accepting struggle and being a type of “anti-power fantasy”… this will be about staying true to your humanity. That no mater how much the world takes from you, there are very intrinsic things that cannot be taken, and that is how you survive.
For example, it is important to me that there be these awful horror type monsters… just disgusting powerful wretched things, and you can absolutely not do anything about it. You cannot defeat them. You can only convince them that you are a person, and that’s how you move forward.
I’m kind of considering also having the player regularly return to a place in the world where they have to proclaim they are a person… but I’m not sure if that’s too close to what I went through. I don’t want this to be explicitly about my experiences. I want it to be abstract enough that anyone can read themselves into this because I think a lot of people have gone through similar. The awful things this world, abusive people, abusive power structures… all share a similar toll in what they do to people.
I really want to make something that offers a space for healing. A story about reclaiming yourself.
The thing I love about games is that you can call them many things. “Everything is going to be OK” was an “interactive zine”. When musicians make games, the games are often like “interactive music” with the design reflecting play centered around song.
Games are often equated to theater, because of the involvement of the player…
Whatever you call it, it’s a broad space and the fact that they are an “interactive artform” makes these messages all the more impactful to experience.
“Play” is not just about fun anymore. Play is deeply meaningful.
In this little interview for the MoMA I mentioned that,
“Video games are all about the subtle art of interaction. They are about our relationship to input, feedback, and exploring a language for which there are no words. It’s the art of participation.”
And I think, if you view game design through that lens, you see how much it is an interaction based language that is very subjective. It’s interpretive, and we’re far past the point of needing something to “beat” for them to have meaning.
It’s also a broad possibility space for exploring emotion. This is my main interest in them, because I love when people come away from a game crying, thinking about things, all raw and reflective.
That said, it’s going to be structured like a book of poems. About surviving, overcoming, being unbreakable, and finding your way back to your body.
I’ve been struggling quite a bit lately in the aftermath of surviving all the things I went through. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes I want to die.
A few days ago a journalist reached out to me wanting to talk about my metoo allegations.
I was sent into a panic and cried a lot. I chewed him out in my reply… Suffice to say that he treated me like a person and it was a very different experience to have with a journalist about that particular thing. I’m actually blown away by how respectful it was.
Even so, it was hard. Working on this game has been keeping me strong. I’m pouring everything into it. I want to see it become a real thing that I get to release into the world. It will have made “staying strong” worth it.
This post features a ton of screenshots from it, to give you an idea of the art style.
I still have a lot to add but I’m aiming for “Death Stranding meets net-art”.