Tactile Cave: My First Game

This month marks my fourth year making games. This was my very first game, Tactile Cave, which was made four years ago this summer.

In San Francisco, there is a children’s science museum named the “Exploratorium” in the Palace of Fine Arts. Within, there is an attraction named the “Tactile Dome”, which is an indoor maze left completely unlit. Visitors must rely on their sense of touch to move about the maze to the end. This game was heavily inspired by this attraction, featuring three levels of dark, tactile goodness.

~ August 2nd, 2010

 

I originally thought I would be a journalist, but when I ended up spending a summer at the COSMOS Summer Camp at UC Santa Cruz studying a games course, taught by then Ph.D candidates Anne Sullivan and Gillian Smith, things changed. I worked with Davis Huang and Daniel Xu to make a Processing-game called “Tactile Cave”. So I decided to take the videogame thing and go as far as I possibly could with it.

Screenshot from an updated version from 2011

Later that year, I wrote an open-letter to Leland Yee and the Supreme Court defending videogames during the Brown v. EMA case, which got his office’s attention. Soon after, I tried multiple times to make a dream game I had come true, enlisting the help of Bard Sodal and calling ourselves “Subtle Stone”, which was a pun on Bard’s name. I moved down to Los Angeles that fall to study at USC Interactive and met some incredible people, and now I’m in Dundee, competing in Dare to be Digital for a BAFTA.

I don’t like to think in capitalistic narratives of “progression” and don’t think they’re right for most creative folk, but I see this game as a bit of a turning point in my life. A catalyst that led me to where I am now.

Tactile Cave started as a rougelike, and it isn’t very good in retrospect. Your choices are very limited, and success is mostly a matter of trial-and-error. It doesn’t work on most machines without an annoying Java plugin, and the art is ugly, and the music, stolen. I couldn’t program at the time, so I was then responsible for handling art duties and designing levels using graph paper.

i was planning on putting a picture of me from four years ago but eh,
i was planning on putting a picture of me from four years ago but eh,

To be honest, I don’t really feel too different now from how I felt four years ago. I’m a much better designer than I was back then, programming comes to me much easier. Maya can be great fun when it cooperates. I know Unity well now, and I’m teaching myself Unreal 4 for Advanced Games.

But I don’t think mastery ever comes, there’s still much to learn and so many things you aren’t ready for. Emergent mistakes that you learn from but aren’t prepared to make. Project-to-project, you never are really certain what you’re doing. Its never easy, and as you’re moved up and up and up, never really sure what people see in you and how you could possibly be qualified for anything, more and more weight is packed onto your decisions. You don’t quite “master”, but “discover”, as you tread down and down and down this microcosmic rabbithole. You grow to love that uncertainty, live with it, make it part of your identity and come to embrace that precariousness with a new name: “excitement”.

The decisions that my team and I make over the next week will determine what happens to Chambara and, if our decisions are good, what happens to us.

 

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The Pilgrim: Game & Postmortem

Play The Pilgrim free here at itch.io! 

This postmortem was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever written. I’m good at clinical, analytical writing, but stuff like this is tough to put out and might not be well edited or clearly communicated. Nonetheless, this postmortem deals with my latest game, The Pilgrim, a short-form game codeveloped with Catherine Fox for Richard Lemarchand and Peter Brinson’s Intermediate Games class, a cross-country collaboration between USC Games and the Berklee College of Music.

The Pilgrim was originally intended to be a personal game about religion and my feelings towards it. Through mechanics and story, I wanted to deal with the courage required to have faith in uncertainty, the changes we must make to the direction of our lives to uphold ideals, and the sacrifices that we must take to back those convictions.

An introspective,` intentionally-frustrating platformer about purpose and destiny. [designer]
The first encounter in The Pilgrim
In making this game, I wanted to come to terms with my own confusion, frustration, and hesitance over my agnosticism, as well as emphatically communicate through play those exact feelings. I believed that the medium and design that I chose was apropos for such subject matter because videogames, as Anna Anthropy states in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, are uniquely capable of confusing and frustrating players.

Primary inspirations for our metaphorical mechanics were Thomas Was Alone and Dys4ia, as well as Metroid: Zero Mission and Zelda, the latter communicate the monomythic hero’s journey narrative in their gameplay, and the former metaphorically utilize game feel to depict social systems.

Why I Wanted to Make it

In my nebulous understanding of it, religious faith requires adherents to make a lifelong sacrifice: the alteration of one’s life purpose to fulfill the ideals and tenets of a particular religion. It requires one to cease pursuing one overarching goal and start pursuing another.

Cutscenes were a late, post-beta addition.
Cutscenes were a late, post-beta addition.

My beliefs in my purpose on Earth are strong. My understanding of it has become my credo, it is the thought that I wake up every single day with, the dream that I work towards with every waking hour. “I want to be the greatest game designer”. My hesitance towards religious belief isn’t grounded in doubt of the existence of God or any higher power; my hesitance is grounded in the fear that I would have to alter that conviction. The idea of letting go of that purpose and living out any other one terrifies me.

Granted, that deluded dream has been problematic on a number of levels. The desire to be the very best has made me paranoid of failure and humiliation. I eagerly take on leadership positions and obsess over whether or not my team trusts and respects me. I’ve held passive-aggressive rivalries with some of my best friends at IMGD. These delusions have been responsible for a number of problems that The Pilgrim faced during its production, and as a student, I’d be better off without them.

The people I make games with.
The people I make games with.

And yet, a meme that you’ve ingrained into yourself every day for years is a hard one to unhand. To accept any other purpose as your own, religious in nature or not, is a tough sacrifice to make. Living for God and creed rather than aggressively giving games to the world, that’s a huge change in my life’s direction.

The sacrifices we make to fulfill our perceived purpose is the main theme of The Pilgrim. Hopping around the first level, feeling empowered may be fun to do, but that’s not what players must do to fulfill the overarching goal of the game, at least under the lusory attitude. In order to fulfill the Pilgrim’s purpose of descending to the bottom of the Temple and ousting the Shadow Beast below, players must choose to accept the sacrifices, their associated penalties, and the intentional frustration that comes from clunky and restrictive locomotion. Taking comfort in fulfilling their purpose in the gameworld, and leaving with different interpretations based on their life experiences.

The Pilgrim was valiant, but didn’t nail this goal precisely.

What went wrong

We ran into a number of production issues during development, the first came from the fact that both Catherine and I were juggling work on The Pilgrim with numerous other projects, including theses,pitches, and other demanding classes. Both of us were only able to dedicate a fraction of our time to the project and were not able to test or prototype as early or often as we would have liked. Up to the final hours of the project, we were making substantial changes to the game that we weren’t able to playtest.

Another issue that we faced was communication problems. This was largely my fault, as I would often work on my own and make changes without communicating them to Catherine. I often have a hard time listening when I’m working “in the zone”, and sometimes unintentionally forget or ignore suggestions made by my team members.

The earliest version of the first level was structurally very different from the end result.
The earliest version of the first level was structurally very different from the end result.

These communication problems caused us to waste time in a number of ways. I spent two weeks working on a single visual effect that was ultimately cut. We weren’t able to playtest and get feedback as often as we would have liked. The game was intended to subvert and disrupt usability heuristics with intentionally frustrating and disruptive design, but we weren’t exactly sure how to quantify and observe that quality in our playtests.

Furthermore, my attitude towards the game would change frequently. Making something personal and introspective requires you to be in a certain mood, its difficult to create good work when you’re not in that introspective lethargy. Working on a four-month project, I was oftentimes outside of that mental state and had difficulty keeping motivated and maintaining the right vision for the project. Oftentimes, I would look at the game’s design and intentionality and hate it, feeling that it was the embarrassing byproduct of a transient phase of my life.

The game’s final encounter was one of the hardest things to design. At the end, the Pilgrim arrives in a dark corridor and must defeat the Shadow Beast. We were decidedly against creating an explicit combat encounter, as violence could detract from the game’s tone, but the limited range of player abilities restricted our options. We should have tested different iterations of the encounter, but lacked the time to experiment with stuff like AI, enemy projectiles, and complex level design. I’m still not satisfied with how the encounter turned out.

The game's climax was an extremely difficult and rushed design.
The game’s climax was an extremely difficult and rushed design.

I often feel that I’ve been selfish in making a personal game as a collaborative project. The themes of The Pilgrim were relevant to me as it was a game that I really wanted to make. Catherine holds vastly differing views from me, so I feel that I pulled her onto a project that wasn’t relevant to her life and used her help unfairly.

What went right

We responded well to feedback. While the game’s controls were designed to degrade into something clunky and frustrating, playtests would often indicate that they didn’t serve the game well overall. As a result, we iterated through three 2D shooting systems and rewrote major parts of the character’s controller. While I wanted to use game feel metaphorically to convey the story a-la Thomas Was Alone and Dys4ia, players still needed narrative contextualization to explain why they were becoming increasingly weak. We iterated between several dialogue systems before ultimately settling on traditional cutscenes and making our protagonist silent. The stairwell in the first room was one of the most difficult things to create, as it had to be traversable by the player at two different stages without taking up too much space in the environment.

The game’s audiovisual style also worked very well, lending the gameworld a distinct feel. One of the design goals for the game was to create something atmospheric and immersive, much like the action-adventure games of my youth. Adaptive sound design by Austin DeVries nailed that presentation, and Catherine’s moody, textured art and level design allowed us to succeed in our worldbuilding goals. Incidental assets populated each room, showcasing an explicit dramatic arc for the characters that lived in the Temple.

A cut feature would have populated the scene with hundreds of intelligent moving creatures ate up a lot of our time.
A cut feature would have populated the scene with hundreds of intelligent moving creatures ate up a lot of our time.

The interplay of light and dark is one of the most important aspects of The Pilgrim’s background, serving an important gameplay purpose in some of the encounters: being exposed to darkness drain’s the player’s health, thus, players must stay near light crystals to survive. The use of textured planes and cubes allowed us to exploit Unity3D’s realtime lighting system, allowing us to create a dreamy, surreal atmosphere that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve using self-illuminated sprites.

We both grew as game designers. Both of us took on tasks that we had never done before and learned much about different aspects of game-making. Catherine took up level design, character animation, UI design, and scripting. I took up programming and ended up doing more programming and scripting tasks than I knew I was capable of. While we faced issues in project management and didn’t polish the game as much as we could have, both of us are far wiser and better game makers because of it, and move on with a great deal more skill and confidence as we graduate from game-jam style projects towards more structured methodologies of production and distribution.

The takeaway 

I don’t know if I delivered on the game’s vision and I’m not sure if making the game has resolved what I wanted to deal with in my own life. Yet, through all the problems we faced during development and the stress of juggling the Pilgrim with other demands in my life, I must say that the project was an overall positive experience that I grew from.

I don’t think I’ll be doing an intensely personal game for the immediate future, as the projects screaming to be made in my journal are not artgames. The questions I went into the project with have yet to be resolved conclusively despite what progress I’ve made as a person.

An early control mockup from two months before production began.
An early control mockup from two months before production began indicated overs coping.

Since we make art to make sense of reality and our place in the world, then I think I will return to The Pilgrim in the future. New life experiences will distill my perspective, giving me more to draw upon in crafting this microcosm of my reality. Tempered design skills will allow me to communicate with greater ludic nuance and grace. And life’s finite nature, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots any hesitance towards game creation. I’ve grown from The Pilgrim, and journey forward onto new projects, people, and classes.

As I conclude this project, I would like to thank Peter Brinson, Richard Lemarchand, and Riley Piestch, who gave us the structure, support, and wisdom we needed to realize this project. Catherine Fox for her extraordinary patience and skill as we both went on this crazy journey. Austin DeVries for recording and mixing the game’s atmospheric soundscape and communicating with us remotely, and finally Steven Li for coordinating playtests and giving us the feedback we needed to make the right design decisions.

Nascence: A Reflection

This is a reflection about my first year at game school. Its long and reflective, deal with it. 

I try not to have second thoughts about entering this industry. We’re riding the wave of Ludus Florentis, the massive sea change, maybe even movement, that James Portnow predicted three years ago, a term that I’ll refer to a lot in this article.

While as a player of games, I welcome the earthquake of creativity that is shaking up the industry right now, I remain concerned about what that could mean for my career. Right now, more people than ever are entering the game industry, and the old guards of yesterday can not possibly employ all that talent that’s flooding out of game schools. Independent developers like the ones I admire seldom look to hire or expand, and the few ones that do rarely seek applicants in design. As the bar to entry lowers, the bar to be competitive inches higher.

Chelsea Howe’s diagram of the factors that contribute to “Ludus Florentis”, a phrase that I’ll use here to describe what’s going on right now in gaming.

To be competitive in this world means to make necessary sacrifices, everyone is going to give up a little bit of themselves. I personally, ended my political outspokenness and stopped distance running, two facets of myself that I thought important to who I was. In retrospect, the former won’t be missed and the latter was mooted anyway by life in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, anyone entering game school can expect to work harder than they ever have in their life. They must expect movement, and must be ready to relocate to get the necessary experience that would fulfill their goals. And challenge, those entering this industry must be ready to confront the stark reality of crunch time, demographic homogenity,  limited compensation, family separation, the crossover of social and professional life, and a brief career likely lasting less than a decade.

But that’s barely an issue.

Maybe I’m being overly idealistic or something like it. To be part of this snapshot of time means that I’m part of a greater whole, and only with the combined creativity of game developers everywhere will we unlock a grand future. Being part of the microcosm of USC Games means that I am intrinsically part of this movement, and that the person I form myself to be in this moment in time will determine the direction of this movement and what the medium will become in the future.

What happened over the course of my first year at game school has sent me on a journey of my own (sorry), while I’m far from that designer that I want to be, I’ve already met strange new people from walks of life radically different from my own, I’ve traveled to the conventions and met the visionaries of the medium that I only dreamed of years ago, I’ve joined and worked on projects continually pushing the boundaries of what games could be and what they can do for the world.

And Things Got Strange.

By stepping into unknown territory, I opened myself to the risk of failure. But the finite nature of our existence, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots success or failure in any professional domain. What really matters are our relationships to the people who are closest to us with whom we share our brief journey through this wilderness. ~ Jeff Watson

I worked on the next iteration of my 2012 game of the year, Reality Ends Here. A message went out that Jeff Watson was opening up an experimental class to design future iterations of the ARG, having received a grant to expand the game that had changed many a freshman’s life, connecting them to the friends they would paint the future with. I joined the team as a narrative designer, and was in charge of designing an overarching environmental narrative to create the atmosphere of subversive, self-motivated creativity that the future of entertainment demands from its practitioners.

A typical Reality Ends Here dev meeting.
A typical Reality Ends Here dev meeting.

Most of the details about what exactly we did to next year’s iteration of Reality Ends Here has to be kept under wraps, because, hey, spoilers, but I will say that working on it reminded me of the necessary constraints that time, manpower, and budget placed on these projects. When we began designing the narrative, we had this grand vision of an epic participatory story involving immersive theater, hundreds of audio-logs, story-rich spaces, fictional characters, and a simulated conflict. We ended up cutting out most of that content to only that which would maintain our laser focus on creating the desirable atmosphere of discovery and excitement that we want to provide to our players. Film school is a rabbit hole taking those who choose to explore it to strange lands of magic and adventure, we want to reinforce that aesthetic with this narrative.

I have great hope for Reality Ends Here. We made a huge number of fundamental changes to the game and expect to see the payoff in the quality of students that partake in this school. And given my knowledge of some of the plans we have for the game, Reality Ends Here may end up making some great difference in the world as a whole. Keep an eye out for us.

And Even Stranger.

Around the afternoon of March 28th, I received a phone call from my friend Esteban.

“Hey Kevin, wanna come up to GDC with us?”
“Uh, sure, I guess…”
“Great, meet us at New/North in an hour.”

So began an impromptu road trip.

We took the Highway 1 to San Francisco, the grand road running along the California coast. To our right lay rocky, grass-covered cliffsides hundreds of feet tall, to the right, the setting sun shimmered off the gold-tinted ocean, painting the sky an incredible orange-pink. A few hours later, we were in the grassy farmlands of the Central Valley, I  reclined in my seat to look out the window, and saw stars brighter than anything I’ve ever seen.

I was born and raised in San Francisco, city lights and fog would drown out any sight of the night sky. To see hundreds of glittering specks in the sky and ponder the vastness of the universe was a strangely cathartic experience that I could never have in the city.

The road trip up to GDC
The road trip up to GDC, oddly moving.

I knew that GDC took place in San Francisco annually for several years by now, and as much as I wanted to go, even if only to meet people on the other side of development, restrictions caused by age and school would always prevent me from doing so, and frustratedly, I would watch the online coverage of the events and talks that were occurring only a few miles away. When I finally arrived to the crowded convention floor, I took a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the conference: hundreds of booths from every conceivable gaming company in the world, renowned visionaries like Ian Bogost, Robin Hunicke, and Keita Takahashi scuttled around the Moscone Center, and facial hair.

Sony made an incredible indie push at this year's GDC.
Sony made an incredible indie push at this year’s GDC.

And yet, something was different. An ecstatic energy pervaded the hundreds of developers at the conference, as if they were anticipating something huge to happen.

Evolution was in the air, everywhere you’d go, there were symptoms of the nascent renaissance. You’d see it in Chris Hecker’s wordless GDC rant, you’d see it at the crowdedness of this year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, you’d see it in the pervasive frustration over gender exclusivity at the major talks. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the GDC Awards, of the 14 available categories, only two were won by AAA games, and at the IGF, a poverty-simulator named Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier won Grand Prize. Being around for the Friday of the conference, I was surprised to see that the keynote speakers at the Game Career Workshop weren’t business executives for major publishers giving advice on how to get hired, but independent developers like Robert Boyd or Anna Anthropy.

The indie presence at GDC has been around for years, and while Ludus Florentis has been brewing in the waters a while now, I can’t help but think that something massive happened this year at GDC. We’ve moved down that metaphorical junction point, all that’s left to do now is to continue. All I have to say is that I’m grateful to be part of this moment.

Final Games.

After GDC, I returned to USC and joined a final game called Proving Grounds as a community manager. Given my experience dealing with blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages for projects in the past, I decided that I would make my most useful contributions doing community management for the project. Proving Grounds was an isometric action game focusing on emergent uses of the environment to resolve combat situations. Vines, explosive barrels, unstable floors, breakable walls, hanging lanterns and wires could all be used in combination with each other to damage enemies, and the relative weakness of the player’s avatar would force creative use of the environment, making survival a battle of wits rather than numbers, channeling almost a Shadow of the Colossus-esque aesthetic. My job, make sure that the world recognizes the game as a unique and creative project.

Pitchin'
Pitchin’

Proving Grounds was part of the Final Games sequence, which could be summed up as a microcosmic simulation of the game industry as a whole. Advanced Games students would assemble teams to prototype a game, build an audience, and pitch it to a panel of professors and industry professionals. Of the 17 or so games that were pitched, only seven were selected. Only by passing the extremely competitive pitch sequence would a project get greenlighted to be developed, the goal: exhibition at major festivals, creating the very best student games in the world. Two games from last year’s sequence got major attention, Core Overload and Scrapyard were picked up by Intel and exhibited at their booth at GDC 2013. The Unfinished Swan and fl0w both owe their genesis to similar processes at USC.

All was going smoothly, I brought some great people onto the team, and each of the teams on the project worked incredibly efficiently. I connected with the community manager of thatgamecompany for advice on how to effectively create a public aesthetic around the game and effectively convey our vision to the world. Pitch day arrived, and the team’s producer and director put out a stellar presentation selling our vision for the game effectively. Things seemed to be going well, and while each of the 17 games that were pitched were unique and innovative in their own right, I was pretty optimistic in our chances of being selected.

The Unfinished Swan owes its genesis to a similar program at USC Interactive.

But we weren’t chosen. The team disbanded and the project was shut down, the constituent members of the Proving Grounds team split up and joined the seven accepted projects, the process of which to join had grown substantially more competitive, requiring interviews and resumes of prospective contributors. Disappointment pervaded as I saw a number of very interesting projects like The Kingdom Cold vanish with their rejection from Final Games.

I ended up with a project codenamed Maestros, an experimental real-time strategy game directed by a number of undergraduates, the first of its kind at USC Games. I again, was brought on as a community manager, fitting for this kind of project, as Maestros sought to create a competitive scene inspired by e-sports, and effective community management would be critical to the game’s success.

Camaraderie.

Oddly enough, I spent most of this semester sick. A nasty case of pnumonia that affected me over the course of four months, which I’m still currently shaking off. I think it might be in part stress-induced, but that doesn’t matter. Antibiotics yo.

But I owe a lot to my friends for getting me through this. When I stubbornly held onto the notion that I’d be fine and my sickness would pass, they persuaded me to see a doctor. When I was too sick to leave the dorm for a week, they brought me soup and medicine. On the many weekends where I was too weak to do anything outside, they kept me company and hanged out with me. I think we blew through the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender in a number of marathonic sittings (probably one of the best animated shows I’ve ever seen). But for that, my awesome friends, I thank you all.

at the 5D conference
at the 5D conference

When I was strong enough to get out of the dorm for a weekend, I ended up at the 5D worldbuilding conference with my good friends Catherine and Esteban, a SCA-sponsored event utilizing collaborative imagination to project the future given different sociopolitical, economic, and environmental circumstances. Our job at this conference was to create a fictional world in a day, a 2020 Los Angeles informed by the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the replacement of snaking highways with miles of elevated rails, and a substantial rise in ocean levels. On our team was Jenova Chen.

Yes, that Jenova Chen. Through all the interviews I read with him, I finally got to see his leadership style in person, forceful and direct and more than willing to redirect the entire conversation towards a different, more interesting direction. Working with the wonderful Richard Lemarchand and a number of upperclassmen from IMD, we built a wildly detailed and imaginative vision of a realistic future. Certainly one of the more unusual and interesting weekends of the year.

Aside from that, I’ve found myself doing an incredible number of things with some awesome friends. I’ve competed at the 2013 Global Game Jam, watched The Who in concert at LA Live, met Nolan Bushnell -the father of digital gaming, as well as Louis Zamperini -a personal hero of mine, attended a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with the cast and director, danced to experimental interactive digital installation artwork, got an article published on Gamasutra, set out plans for an innovative new gaming channel, and unsuccessfully attempted to crash a virtual world’s economy.

I had an idea for a photobombing game. This is us prototyping it.
I had an idea for a photobombing game. This is us prototyping it.

Ludus Florentis.

Maybe this is the best time in history to enter gaming. A confluence of bold new ideas, and a consumer base hungry for something different welcomes an incredible disruption to preconceived notions of what the game industry represents. The big ships of today are beginning to reach over to academia, game jam, and the indie communities, indicating that having the most open, accessible platform will determine the outcome of the next console cycle, which will mean only incredible good for our medium. Being part of an incredible community at USC Games, I live amongst the friends, mentors, and infections energy that will enact that change we wish to see in the world.

Richard Lemarchand referred to our present moment as a “ludic renaissance” at a division meeting. Self-centered concerns about this career aside, I can’t wait to see the outcome of this chapter in history.

A tidal wave has come, let’s ride it.

Life in IMD

I want to try out something new with this post. I have never posted highly personal stuff about my life on any of my sites. While I started with a professional vision for this blog, I spontaneously felt the need to break from intended purpose and write about my first semester at the USC Interactive Media Division. This post may or may not be successful in achieving its goal, make what you want of it. 

It was around 3 PM on March 29th, 2012.

I was in my Honors Physics class working on a crappy egg-drop contraption. Will Campbell, student body president, who was supposed to be in the library for his free period, comes in uninvited and says “Kevin, you should probably check your Facebook”.

I assumed that it was probably some embarrassing status or picture that I was mistakenly tagged in, no big deal and certainly not worth dragging my laptop out of its case to check. Against better reason, I did. It was a wall-write from my brother, “you got accepted to USC game program! congrats! its like getting into the hunger games!”

What… the… hell… happened…

I knew that I wanted to go to USC’s Interactive Media Division more than anything else in the world, I would be satisfied going to no other school.

USC Interactive Media Division

I knew that it was the most competitive game design program in the world and, having heard that only fifteen students were admitted a year, I was doubtful of my chances. While I invested the most work into my USC application, years of middling grades and a passion for nothing else but games and cross country made me believe that the application was nothing but a throwaway, a one-in-a-million chance thing I was doing just for fun. But somehow, through some alignment of fate, I found myself at the doorstep of a dream that I had sought for the last two years.

I went to a small school, and rumors and stories spread like wildfire. That week, I think I was congratulated by practically everyone at my high school. “Shit man, you’re on your way to great things.” one guy said, giving me a strong pat on my back. “Dude, that’s beyond words.” said another, “Congrats!”, “Congratulations Kevin!” shouted a throng of girls as they passed me by.

For a good while, I sat on cloud nine. It took some time for me to finally believe that what I was feeling was real. When reality hit me, it hit forcefully.

I got good financial aid from my other schools. Rochester Institute of Technology offered me a $12000 a year scholarship, Drexel, $15000, Renasselaer Polytechnic, $15600. I received nothing from USC. To go to USC would be to turn down up to $64000 in awards and aid. I questioned myself strongly, was joining IMD worth it? Would I be doing my family a huge disservice by placing upon them a great financial burden? An unprecedented opportunity sat before me, but to take it, I would have had to make a sacrifice.

Going against what reason told me, I took the plunge. I registered, submitted my deposit and let fate take its course.

My metaphysical and religious beliefs are complicated to the point that even I don’t understand them. I’m not entirely sure if I believe or don’t believe in there being anything “out there”. But since I took this path, I have detected some subtle change in how I perceive the world around me. Its hard to qualify exactly, but I am somehow more optimistic, more grateful of those around me and what they’ve brought to my life, more attentive to the subtle impacts that my choices have on the world around me. Maybe there’s some force out there that has placed good things and bad things in my life that have led me to where I am now. Maybe I was destined for this. Whatever it is, its beyond my comprehension.

SHAKING OFF STAGNATION

Fast forward several months, Subtle Stone, a game studio I founded, dissolves, Dark Deception fails, my (awesome) codeveloper Bard returns to Norway to become a priest, I suffer through a lazy summer and watch my creativity atrophy.

August 23rd arrives, I’ve been waiting for this day for a while and have been eager to meet the people of the division, hosting a movie night to watch Indie Game in my apartment. I was introduced to the Reality Ends Here alternate reality game and had a good

The Dark Deception Project

time creating small interactive and visual projects, including one screenplay, two nondigital games, and two short films.

Yet, I was despondent. I needed to be working on something big. Dark Deception gave me something to live for in the last months of high school, it gave me purpose. I believed it was the very foundation of my soul and identity in high-school, I was “the guy behind Dark Deception”, I dedicated everything I had to the project and named it in my head as “my life’s purpose”. The inevitable failure of the project shook me to my core, and for a while, I felt my time at USC was purposeless. I needed Subtle Stone. I was frustrated and spent copious amounts of time dreaming of the day that the old team would be reunited and Dark Deception reborn. For the first seven or so weeks I was afflicted with this dispassion.

I like books, I have a bunch of them stacked high on my dorm room table. Among them was my high-school yearbook. One day, I picked it up for a read, having not done so before. People had left many warm messages of gratitude and affection in it, and knowing these people, I knew that those messages were sincere. Then I noticed something, while there were messages commending me for courage, creativity, and drive, not one mentioned Subtle Stone or Dark Deception. The love that I received from my family and friends was not centered around what I did, but who I was. My narrow-sighted preoccupation over Dark Deception had somehow warped my perception of the world around me.

It was a realization that hit with gravity and sank in deep: Subtle Stone was not my fate. I would probably never make Dark Deception, and it wasn’t worth sacrificing my humanity to create. Maybe letting go of a dream that has consumed you whole isn’t such a bad thing. I was not destined to be Subtle Stone, I was destined to live as a member of IMD.

Maybe judging the success of my existence in this world on basis of the success of Dark Deception was misguided from the start. Gatsby paid a harsh price for living for a single dream, maybe I averted the same fate.

ADVENTURES

A few days later, my opportunity to do something exciting came. We have this secret

Reality Ends Here Cards used to prompt creative projects
Reality Ends Here Cards used to prompt creative projects

Facebook group for IMD students called “The Settlers of CTIN” (CTIN being the course prefix for Interactive Media classes), and one day, in the middle of 400, a group message sparks within the group. I’m not the only itching to create something it turned out, the other people in the program were thirsting to create a game. We decided to meet together and we assembled a great team. We ended up trying to assemble a cooperative first-person stealth game built in Unity. While our meetings have been somewhat disjointed due to other commitments by team members, I have set my personal goal for this project to create a team that sticks together for years and lasts beyond college.

There’s a certain, palpable giddiness about the people of IMD that bleeds forth into everything they do. These people love what they do. They know their purpose in life and live their dreams with pride.

at Zocalo Public Square
at Zocalo Public Square

There’s Esteban Fajardo, whose giddy excitement about games inspires us all. There’s Catherine Fox, whose courageous honesty exhibits a quiet strength. And Chloe Lister, whose snarky and abrasive sense of humor has never failed to make me laugh. Trevor Dietz is practically a fountainhead of awesome ideas. There are still many others in this great group of people that I wish to connect more with, and I am truly honored to work amongst them. Everyone I’ve met here has friggin’ amazing taste in games and pop culture, and in the short time I’ve spent here, I’ve been introduced to awesome things such as Firefly, Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Jak & Daxter, Frog Fractions, alternate reality games, Super Hexagon, the list goes on.

Journey was somehow important to us all

One thing that practically everyone I’ve met from IMD has in common is a veneration of Journey. Maybe its because thatgamecompany is comprised mostly out of IMD alumni, but for one reason or another, this game has touched each of us spiritually and has united us around a common emotional experience. For us, it provided an example of what we could potentially do with our work in games: each of us had the potential to create games that could have remarkable positive impact on our players.

And then there was Indiecade, oh wow, a lot happened there. There, I met such inspirational people like John Romero, Brenda Braithwaithe, and the entire cast of Indie Game: The Movie, as well as Davey Wredren and some old friends from UC Santa Cruz. I’m just gonna share a highlight.

So I went to Indiecade as a volunteer, and I was assigned to the Sony tent to work as a bouncer, sending people who didn’t have passes off on their merry way. All was going well and I did not need to bounce very many people. Then a young, Asian man in a sky-blue jacket came up to the tent.

IndieCade
IndieCade

“Excuse me sir, do you have a pass for this event?”

“um, I’m just here to sign books.” he said,

Then an electrifying realization surged through my body.

“Oh…” I said, “um, by any chance are you Jenova Chen?”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, “I actually have to move my car right now…”

and with that, he left. I’ve been a fan of Jenova’s work for years now and have been itching to meet him for a long time. I’ve never read an interview of his that I didn’t like and was inspired by his studio’s dream, so much that I wrote about his work in my application essay. Most of the people in the film school dreamed of meeting inspirational figures like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or Robert Zemeckis. I had met my inspirational figure, and I bounced him.

Crap.

ONWARDS!

I use Gmail’s Priority Inbox, and sometimes miss out on important emails when they get forwarded into the wrong folder. Before he left, I sent my old codeveloper Bard an email containing copy of the Humble Indie Bundle 5 and a kind message thanking him for his work and what a honor it was to work with him. He responded to my message, but it got forwarded to the wrong inbox, and as a result, I was not able to read it until a few weeks ago when I was doing a periodic cleanup.

Thank you so incredibly much for having me on your team this year! It has been an honor working with a pioneer like yourself, and I have learned so much that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise… I truly believe that you will find amazing contacts your next four years that you can work with to increase your knowledge and drive for video games. I will always be proud of the fact that I have worked by your side. It has been an incredible adventure. If you ever lose your belief in yourself, you should know that I won’t: you are exactly what this world needs!

God bless you!
Bard Magnus Soedal

I’m probably never going to work with Subtle Stone again and Dark Deception might never come to fruition, but I’m totally okay with that. Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching that “Those who rush ahead don’t get very far. Those why try to outshine others dim their own light. Those who call themselves righteous can’t know how wrong they are. Those who boast of their accomplishments achieve nothing.”  I guess that’s one thing that I’ve learned the full value of through my experience this semester.

My first semester with IMD had ended just a few hours ago when I started writing this post, and life is hopeful. The “One Street Corner” project that I did for the Reality Ends Here ARG with Caroline, a good friend of mine from Production, had just won the award for “Most Inspirational”. My time has come, these will be the best years of my life, and with a killer group of friends tied together by a common destiny, I find myself on the first steps of another great journey.