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.

2012: Gaming Year in Review

I usually do a “Year in Review” post each year around Christmas Eve where I reflect on games that I have played and name a personal game of the year. In celebration of the successful funding of LA Game Space, I am publishing this blog post early.  

My taste in gaming has changed substantially over the past year, I am no longer satisfied by epic narrative experiences and find myself seeking out brief, esoteric, and quirky interactive experiences that I’ll never forget. On my previous site, I wrote “Year in Review” posts where I would reflect and wax poetic on games that I’ve played and pick out a game as my personal game of the year. This year’s post will be a little different as it will include more nondigital and alternate reality games, giving us a broader range of experiences to discuss. My criteria for selecting games has also changed, and the games that I am about to discuss don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of “fun”, but under that of “impactful”.

Games That I’ve Played

For the sake of readability, I won’t write about the games I played at the Global Game Jam, but will just say that Chelsea Howe’s To What End is totally worth the five minutes it takes to play.

I started the year off by playing both the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Both games were smartly done. While I felt that Skyward Sword suffered from a poorly paced introduction and midsection, I took note that the Impressionistic art style suited the spirit of the series perfectly and that the game’s motion controls finally made good on Nintendo’s original promise to create a game based around true 1:1 motion swordplay, and in many ways, it was the best motion-controlled traditional game that I’ve ever played. Skyrim was brilliant in it inspiring breadth, while narratively it sucked and there were a great many things that broke my immersion into it’s fantastic world, I was consistently driven to adventure for eighty hours with my Nord character Pixels. Alas, I eventually got bored raiding dungeons and hunting for improved loot, and went on a murderous rampage in Riften leaving much of the town’s population in pieces.

Journey
Journey

Then Journey entered my life.

This is the part where I sit at my keyboard and stare at my screen, not quite knowing what to put down to post. In many ways, Journey has become an important McGuffin in my life. I first played it days before I was accepted into USC’s Interactive Media Division and my life changed forever, I discussed it at length with my codevelopers at Subtle Stone before we separated for good, I played it to meditate before I left for college, and when I arrived at IMD, I discovered that it touched and inspired the souls of the colleagues that I was about to share my career with. Somehow, we had gathered around Journey collectively as an experience that had shaped, defined, and moved our infantile career in gaming.

But yes, Journey was something special. It touched my soul and shook my very being by speaking in a universal language transcendent of cultural boundaries. Play it.

After Journey I played Bastion. If I could find a word to describe this game, it would be luscious. Its rich coloration and enthralling music captivated me, its fluid combat and simple character customization was fun as hell. Most intriguing was Bastion’s narrator, Rucks, whose grizzled voice is as memorable to me as Morgan Freeman’s or Liam Neeson’s. His narration contributed much to Bastion’s emotional overtone, and I found myself invested in the story and found the ending to be clever in its self-reflexivity.

Up next was Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. I played this game on my laptop, and missed out on a lot of the tablet & touch exclusive features. While I didn’t quite like the game’s puzzles and found them at times illogical and strange, its aesthetics and ambitions appealed to me. Give this game a try if you’re into the esoteric.

I liked Dear Esther, and you have every right to call me pretentious, but you know that that’s not true. It didn’t strike me that the island was a manifestation of the protagonist’s subconscious until the very end, but that made the second playthrough much sweeter. It reminded me much of Inception, it’s a brainy game that will make you think and dig deep into your intellect.

Dear Esther
Dear Esther

Itching for a shooter, I downloaded Crysis to my Playstation 3 and enjoyed how the first few levels encouraged creative ways to deal with combat situations. It was unique, fun, and reminiscent of the original Far Cry, one of my favorite shooters out there. Alas, when aliens were introduced, the game became far more generic, linear, and unfun.

I Arrive at USC & Meet IMD

IMD 2016, The Settlers of CTIN, The Unnamed Game Development Group, The Indie Circlejerk. I have met no group of people quite like my colleagues in my undergraduate class at the USC Interactive Media Division. Their drive, ability, initiative, creativity, kind-heartedness, and courage are above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen, they’re both good as developers, but even better as people. It is both an honor and a joy to work amongst them for these short few years, if not for the rest of my career.  They’ve already done a lot by introducing me to a few games, surprisingly, nondigital ones.

SCA 2016
SCA 2016

Two of the first folks I met from IMD got me into Dungeons and Dragons, having loved computer role-playing games like KOTOR, Fallout, and Chrono Trigger, it was necessary to discover where these games got their roots. When I signed up to join them one Friday night for DnD, I had no idea what I was getting into. The game’s ability to collectively pool the imaginations of a diverse group of people, bond them closely together, and leave them with inside jokes galore is astounding. I was a schizophrenic, dark-skinned rogue named Pixels with long purple hair and a goatee, and the situations that I have plunged my party into will stay with me for some while. Situations like rolling a critical miss on a disarm device check and nearly killing half my party. This game has brought together my adventuring party, and we’ve played many things together outside of DnD, like Uncharted 3 and the Jak & Daxter trilogy. 

Speaking of which, what was the deal with that ship scene in Uncharted 3? C’mon, seriously.

Shortly thereafter, I was introduced me to Cards Against Humanity, a party game for horrible, horrible people. That game has the unique ability to reveal facets of a person’s personality that you would have never expected. Its good fun and consistently hilarious.

Indiecade!
Indiecade!

Shortly after, a friend introduced me to this digital web game called Frog Fractions, which taught me… things… Its best that I don’t talk about it. Play it, you’re never going to forget it.

I also got to replay the Mass Effect trilogy as part of a charity speedrun. Bad stuff happened, Garrus shouldn’t be tech expert and Miranda is in no shape to save the galaxy alone.

Reality Ends Here

The most pervasive game in my life at USC was this alternate-reality game that Jeff, Tracy, and Simon dreamed up called “Reality Ends Here”, of which the entirety of the first semester of Freshmen year is based around. It was introduced to us minutes after we met each other in the courtyard of SCA with a mysterious message coded into fortune cookies that we received at our lunch leading us to a mysterious URL on the web. After a bit of snooping around, we were led to a secret unlabeled room in the School of Cinematic Arts called the “Game Office”. We were given our cards and were set off on our own to create things. Less than 24 hours after the Dean of SCA welcomed us to the school, I found myself operating an expensive DSLR video-rig for our very first project.

I formed an impromptu team and for a brief month, was obsessed with competing with other groups to win each week by producing high-scoring media. We won two weeks in a row, our reward experiences: a tour of Jim Henson studios by Transformer’s producer Don Murphy, and an advance viewing of Gates McFadden’s (Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: TNG) new play. But most rewarding was the experience of playing the game itself, the anarchic and chaotic spirit of running around the residence halls with expensive camera equipment and a script that we wrote in a few hours has been an unforgettable experience.

Reality Ends Here Cards
Reality Ends Here Cards

Reality Ends Here won the renowned Impact Award at IndieCade for showing the most potential for games to do social good and change some facet of society. G4TV did an excellent piece on the ARG:

ARG? Card Game? Film Project? It’s all of that and more. Reality Ends Here started out as a project for USC freshmen looking to do something a little different. As the story goes, the Reality Committee will be keeping an eye on you and judging how you play the game. Players work in teams as they put together groups of cards that they receive in a packet. Cards combine to develop an idea that the students need to make happen either through film, animation, or game. Cards tell you what kind of story and what will appear in said story. Cards add points to your project, but make it more challenging with each additional item you need to include. You make it and send it in.

More than just the motto for the USC School, Reality Ends Here gave freshmen an education that extended far outside their classroom. Contestants got to meet special mentors and got their “missions” viewed by some of the top players in the business. For some it might look like a game, Reality Ends Here showed a handful of students the beginning of a wonderful life.

I fell out of the game for a good two months when life got in the way, but I do have a wonderful concluding piece for my participation in this project, and for many of the people who dedicated much of their first semester to the game, it has been a life-changing experience that truly set off their careers in film in an epic way. Consider for one the Xander Legacy team, whose project The Sci-Fi Supercut managed to find its way onto the front page of Wired. The team has since decided to reconstitute itself into its own production company.

Game of the Year

Naming a game of the year is difficult this year, simply because I have decided to encompass nondigital games into the mix, diversifying the already wide range of experiences that I could have through games. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of the procedurally generated story and the simple fun that could come out of collectivized imagination. Journey exists in my life as both a mysterious symbol that has the tendency of showing up at significant times and a game showcasing the potential of video games to make us better, more loving people. Reality Ends Here made my first-semester of college truly one-of-a-kind.

Indiecade Impact Robot & Game Designer Jeff Watson
Indiecade Impact Robot & Game Designer Jeff Watson

What is different about this year’s batch of GOTY nominees is that each of them has rubbed off on me and has changed how I live in some small way. I’m not judging these games purely on their fun, but on their overall impact on me. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of role-playing games, the potential of collaborative storytelling, and introduced me to a valuable group of people that I expect to spend time with in the foreseeable future. Journey transcended the emotional ambitions of most games and touched my spirit in a way that I would have never expected from a piece of art. Reality Ends Here reenergized a creative side of me that atrophied over the summer and introduced me to some incredible collaborators at USC that I wish to work with for much of my life. To choose one of these games would shirk not only the other games that I have nominated, but the incredible people that were involved in my experiences with that game and impacted my life in some way, shape, or form. Playing these games with other people and gathering around the significance of these games in our worlds made these games great, and the people that I have met and shared this chapter of my life with through these games have been impactful on me.

To that extent, I must say that, with great apologies to both my adventuring party and the people of my IMD class, Reality Ends Here stands boldly as my personal game of the year. Wearing its dream on its sleeve, it exists as a shining example of how pervasive games can alter our perception of reality and change how players connect, compete, and interact with each other, fundamentally changing how we go about our everyday lives at SCA. Ideas come randomly and through the right team-chemistry, become realized in amazing ways. It is a unique experience and a highly sophisticated ARG that has changed the lives of its most dedicated players in huge ways. With escalating interest in pervasive and ARGs amongst the public, Reality Ends Here can set off a shockwave of positive social change throughout the world.