Making Games at the End of the World

Malcolm Pierce is one half of Woodsy Studio; cross-posted from redbirdmenace.com

The Bus Station

At three ‘o clock in the morning, the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is a hostile environment, but it isn’t the passengers at fault. This is a bus station, after all. Some of the people there are sprawled out across a few seats. Others are a day or two behind on a much-needed shower. But there is nothing glamorous about bus travel, especially trips stretching across multiple days and several layovers. Anyone forced to put up with those circumstances deserves a certain level of leeway.

The St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is oppressive because it is a strange little building nestled away behind the home of the St. Louis Blues. Most directions to the SLGTC force drivers to arrive at the wrong part of the facility. The heat (more on the heat in a moment) is turned on. Everyone is sweating, even people who just arrived. And there are no water fountains.

A television above the waiting area blares an infomercial for a product called Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a chemical compound found (in extremely tiny amounts) in salmon and greater, but not terribly meaningful amounts, in krill and shrimp, giving the flesh of these sea creatures a pink-ish hue. It is also produced synthetically and injected into fish-based pet food, to give the cheaper meal a more healthy color. It is not approved for human consumption, but it can legally be fed to other salmon (which is messed up) to improve the pink tint of the inner meat.

The infomercial playing in the waiting room of the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center claims that Astaxanthin will reverse aging. It will remove and prevent wrinkles. It will restore eye function. All for the perfectly reasonable price of sixty dollars a bottle .

At three thirty, the infomercial mercifully ends, only to be replaced with (presumably) the late-night edition of the local news. I hear the stories you expect from the local news in 2017. A suspect has died in an officer-involved shooting during a drug bust. Hundreds of headstones in a Jewish cemetery were defaced. Donald Trump tweeted again. The high temperature today, on February 22, will be in the mid 70s in St. Louis.

I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this bus stop, waiting to go to a conference about making video games.

The bus outside honks twice and I line up inside the stuffy terminal to board. The first thing I hear when I’m inside is a passenger telling someone he just met how he lost his finger on the job and was then fired for it.

Chicago

The 2017 Game Developer’s Conference is still five days away and my bus arrives in Chicago, not San Francisco. I’m traveling to GDC by way of the Train Jam, a game jam on a train. A game jam, for those who don’t know, is an event where developers get together, form teams, and make a small game in a compressed time frame.

The typical game jam lasts 48 hours; this one lasts the entirety of the trip between Chicago and San Francisco. The typical game jam takes place at a university or business; this one takes place across three coach cars, two observation cars, one dining car, and one sleeper car. There are limited stops, limited variety of food available, and no showers. That last part terrifies me.

I arrive in Chicago on February 22, the day before the train departs. I want at least one day of regular rest and regular personal hygiene in between the overnight bus and the Train Jam. The plan isn’t perfect—I’m staying in an 8-bed dorm at a hostel near the station so I can’t guarantee sleep or a proper shower—but it’s better than a train.

The day before the Train Jam is spent, for the most part, at a bar near the West Loop called The Bottom Lounge. During the afternoon, the bar is reserved for Train Jam participants to pick up their materials. At night, it hosts BitBash, a mix between underground video game festival and concert. I would call it a “punk concert” but I am not at all comfortable defining anything as punk, let alone punk music.

After a beer and a few games of Johann Sebastian Joust, I head to the hostel to get ready for fifty hours on a train. One of my dorm-mates watches League of Legends games on his phone all night and makes strange sounds that stir me out of sleep. I don’t know why he’s in Chicago because he doesn’t speak English. That’s fine, but I guess I’m curious since all I see him do is watch League of Legends. I never find out. An L train rumbles by the window every so often, briefly lighting up the room. When I finally wake up of my own accord, I take the longest and most thorough shower possible, trying to somehow make up for the days ahead.

On the Rails

There is no internet access on the train. Amtrak does not provide wi-fi and even cellular data is unreliable during most of the jam. The track snakes through the American Midwest and West, mostly in barren or barely-settled plains, mountains, and deserts. It rises up into the mountains and cuts through the rock face, where signals would be unreliable even if there were towers in range.

Leading up to the jam, I joked that the train ride would be a welcome break from politics and the news. I am addicted to Twitter. It’s not so much tweeting—though I will tweet occasionally—but watching the world unfold in real-time. Constant connectivity has been a masochistic experience for the last year or so, and I hoped the isolation of the train would let me think about other things.

It’s not that easy.

As far as I can tell, the indie games community—at least the indie games community that comes out to events like the Train Jam—are united in their dislike of the Trump Administration, Brexit, and the rest of the creeping nationalism that threatens the world. We don’t talk about it a lot leading up to the jam, but the subtext is there. No one is happy with the way everything is going and, if they are, they’re good at hiding it and likely (rightfully) feeling awful on the inside.

I want to stop thinking about it for a few days but I can’t. On the morning before the train leaves, I hear a proposal to use the theme (unexpected anticipation) to create a game about the anxiety, nervousness, and uncertainty that comes with traveling into the United States. I decide to lean into it and abandon my comfort zone of design/story to be the lead programmer on the project. I have been programming for under a year but I like the idea. If I can’t ignore the problem for a few days, at least I can make a game about it.

My team is Creatrix Tiara on writing/design—the game is largely based on her own experiences leading up to traveling to the US–Charlie McCarron on music, Reuben Brenner-Adams and Roger Smith II on sound effects, and me. I end up doing both the programming and the art. I’m less of an artist than I am a programmer, but I do what I can with some simple 3d models I slap together. It’s a lot of work and I don’t sleep a lot and spend a fair amount of time staring out the windows at the beautiful scenery but we finish the game with fifteen or so minutes until arrival.

Fortunately the game doesn’t have to be submitted for another day, so I have a buffer to work out the last few bugs before anyone can play it publicly. We call the game What The $!#&@! Do They Need Now? and by the end of GDC I was calling it a “pacing simulator”.

You spend the game obsessively following the news, finding out what new travel restrictions will affect your upcoming trip overseas, and trying to manage through it all by talking to your friends and interacting with various objects in your apartment. An anxiety meter slowly creeps across the screen throughout the game. Talking to your friends lowers your anxiety.

The anxiety meter is broken. It maxes out around halfway through the playthrough. Maxing out your anxiety doesn’t do anything but keep you anxious. Just like in real life, I suppose.

It’s a bug but I still haven’t fixed it because it’s effective.

The Last Days

Historically, many people have prophesied the end of the humanity. Historically, they’ve all been wrong. Based on a fairly significant sample size, doubling down on apocalypticism is a terrible bet. Because of this, I won’t say that the world is actually ending—not much more than it’s been ending for centuries now, anyway. Predicting the literal final days of society is overdramatic and, in certain ways, more self-serving than anything else. After all, there’s fear in the idea that the universe will continue without us and a twisted comfort in the idea that we might be there when everything comes to a close.

However, apocalypticism doesn’t emerge from a void. It is a reaction to uncertainty and fear, the vague sense that big changes are on the horizon—changes so large that they might as well be world-destroying. Even if these changes don’t literally split the Earth in two, they could fundamentally alter how we live on it.

At the very least, global warming will likely bring about that kind of change in my lifetime. Unless the future miraculously redeems the tiny portion of scientists who believe that it is a statistical aberration rather than a developing man-made crisis, I’ll see the start of the deadly effects of climate change. Hopefully I won’t see the end. Instead, I pray I’ll see the people of the world respond with the urgency needed (which, frightfully, may have been needed a decade ago) and fix the problem. I don’t know. It’s hard to see that we’re close to the right path when the US just appointed a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s not all. The US government rejecting the scientific consensus behind global warming is just one element of how the recent political developments throughout the west have encouraged apocalyptic fear. For years, we were told that progress was unstoppable. It might be slow, but with each new generation people become more tolerant, more open, and more accepting. It was easy to believe that. The 20th century in America was assigned a certain narrative—the slow and rocky expansion of civil rights alongside an explosion of equalizing technology—that we could see and project into the future. At the very least, we could hope that the old racists and sexists would slowly be removed from society by time and culture.

We were wrong. The demons were not slain. They were not dying. They were lying dormant, feeding off an incoherent media and festering in the places that progress forgot. They were ignored by people who should know better and abetted by those who could use them to stay in power. We’ve seen what these demons can do before and we know, despite our caution against apocalypticism, that they can end the world.

Work or Party

When I arrive in San Francisco, I am not alone. Over the next week, over 26,000 people will attend the Game Developer’s Conference. Some will visit the Moscone Center—a massive four-building complex downtown—every day to attend speaking panels and various niche-focused summits. Others will only show up for a day or two, visiting the show floor. Beyond the 26k+ ticket sales, even more will simply linger in the area to meet with industry contacts or friends, whether or not they visit the conference proper.

All the hotels and hostels are sold out. The only reason I’m able to stay at the nearby hostel is someone canceled a couple months in advance and I bought their GDC pass and reservation. The event is massive and as soon as I can pick up my pass I see them everywhere on the street. It’s not just indie developers in town, but squads of people from console companies, PC parts manufacturers, middleware providers, and semi-related fields. That’s without mentioning the students, as there are hundreds there looking to make connections that will later lead to a job.

There are several kinds of GDC passes. The expo pass will only get you into the building and let you attend the expo floor, which is open Wednesday through Friday. The All Access Plus VR Pass will get you into anything. I have one in between, the Indie Games Summit Pass, which lets me into the building, gets me to the floor on the last three days, and attend the Indie Games Summit—a collection of talks on the first two days before the expo—as well as a smattering of random other talks. It also gets me coffee in the morning and at midday. Not every pass lets people drink the coffee. Exhibitors can’t drink the coffee. I don’t understand why.

While this is ostensibly a professional event, there are multiple parties every night. Parties hosted by console manufacturers, parties hosted by indie games groups, parties hosted by companies tangentially associated with games like GitHub and Discord. Some require an RSVP, some require a ticket, some require an invite, and others just let anyone with a pass show up. There’s often free booze. Even when there isn’t, people get totally wasted.

I mostly hold myself together but the drinks at the GitHub party are stupid strong.

At times, there is so much to do that it is completely overwhelming. Multiple talks I want to see. People I want to meet. People I hope to run into so I can meet. I feel like I have to be socializing, have to be networking, have to be making the most of my time at such a monumental event. Even when I’m not sure what I get out of it—I’m not here to find a job or change jobs like, seemingly, the majority of folks I run into—the pressure to be part of it is intense.

And sometimes there’s nothing to do. Nothing I want to watch. It’s probably just burnout. I spend a lot of time hanging around the Train Jam booth, where the games we made are on display. I know the people there. I have a reason to approach others and talk to them. It’s less exhausting to be around other indies who have at least one shared experience.

Stratified

I’ve never been to San Francisco before, but I’m told it wasn’t always like this. There were always homeless people, of course. Every city has homeless people. I lived in Los Angeles for five years. I’ve seen that. This is different. It may not be the number of homeless, per se, but way in which relentless construction and rising rents have pushed them into full view. I don’t know, but you can barely walk past three buildings without seeing someone asleep or begging.

This is in stark contrast to everything else about the city, which strives to be gleaming and new and integrated with cutting-edge technology. Some of the richest people in the world live and work in San Francisco. Everything is expensive. There’s an area right near where I’m staying—the Tenderloin—literally everyone says to avoid. The second you mention walking anywhere after dark, someone will step in and ask if the route goes through the Tenderloin. A studio apartment there still runs near $2000 a month.

The physically stratified city is a common trope in science fiction. The wealthy literally build a second layer on top of the poor and live there, while the less well off suffer underground. San Francisco has not done this, though I suspect that has more to do with the earthquake-prone region than anything else. It still feels the same.

Our modern world sometimes feels too absurd for a William Gibson story from the 80s or a Neal Stephenson book from the 90s. Our president is a reality TV star who feuds with federal agencies over twitter. The country’s largest retailer is trying to sell us on delivery drones. We feed an antioxidant from salmon to other salmon to make them more pink, then repackage it as a cure for wrinkles. Hackers are hijacking wi-fi enabled washing machines to bring down the internet in Liberia. “Memes” is a word uttered unironically to describe a political force by pundits who never played Metal Gear Solid 2. Despite all this, outside of the UAE and smoggy pictures of China, we still don’t look like the terrible cyber dystopia of the novels in decades past.

San Francisco is getting there. But it’s not physically stratified. It’s consciously stratified.

After a few days, I just have to ignore what’s around me. I have to pretend that there isn’t someone sleeping in the doorway of every other store along Market Street. I have to disregard the smell of urine on the sidewalk. I have to avoid the Tenderloin—just in case. (In reality because of my poor sense of direction, I do a terrible job of avoiding the Tenderloin, even at night, and nothing bad happens). I have to make myself stratified from everything I see.

None of this feels good, especially as I’m attending parties stocked with free food and booze. It sucks. I don’t know what to do about it. I can’t overturn the social order by myself and I have things I need to do and people I need to meet with for myself, for my little studio back in St. Louis that has its own struggles, even if they’ll never compare to what I see on the streets.

Build Your Own Engine

On the first day of GDC, I attend a post-mortem of Thumper, a frenetic and bizarre rhythm game for PS4 and PC that released in 2016. Development started in 2009. In 2009 I was still in law school, which puts a few things in perspective for me. I’m still not sure how to measure the passage of time in relation to game development; it seems to vary wildly from developer to developer.

One of the reasons Thumper took so long to make was the developers—a two person team—built their own game engine from the ground up. This is something I’ve found myself cautioning new devs against since the available tools are so great and save a ton of time. However, building their own engine helped the Thumper devs a ton with optimization in the end. They say they’d do it again, even now in 2017 when UE4 and Unity and CryEngine are easily available.

I don’t know what to think. I’m inspired to do new, interesting things with my games but I’ll never be able to build my own engine. That doesn’t even seem possible to me.

The other talks I attend—on source control, procedural generation, and advice for small indies–

fuel the same two fires inside of me. One of them tells me how much more I can do. The other tells me how impossible it all is. I’m not like these people. I’m just faking it.

I hear the term “imposter syndrome” thrown around a lot at GDC and, ironically, it’s the best evidence that I belong. I’m completely self-taught in everything I do. I teach myself what I need to, damn the fundamentals, and force it to work. I’m not sure I can do what everyone else here can do, and it doesn’t matter that I lone-programmed my Train Jam game. It’s all the inherent usefulness of the Unreal Engine and the handful of tricks I learned over the last few months.

In the early 20th century, there was a rather remarkable horse by the name of Clever Hans. Hans’s owner, both a trainer and a math teacher, believed that Hans could do various kinds of arithmetic and keep track of time. The trainer exhibited these tricks on numerous occasions, delighting audiences by asking impossible questions to the horse and receiving improbably correct answers by way of multiple hooftaps. A formal investigation revealed that the horse was not performing any of these amazing feats, but simply repeating learned behavior in response to learned cues. Even the trainer didn’t know.

I understand how Clever Hans must have felt.

Stage Presence

Unlike the Train Jam, it’s hard to read the political tenor of GDC. The organizers of the event itself issued a statement a month ago in opposition to the executive order banning travel from certain countries. There are multiple talks and roundtables about increasing diversity and representation.

At the Indie Game Festival awards, one winner takes the stage and holds up a Pooh bear brought while chanting “fuck Trump, fuck Pence, this country was built by immigrants.” I am relieved when that I don’t hear any boos, even with (presumably) a fair number of executives in attendance because the bigger industry GDC awards are being held directly afterward. I later discover that pairing the Pooh bear with that chant is an established meme. Even later, while writing this, I realize that I have used the word “meme” unironically to describe a political force.

That’s not the only jab at Trump or the travel/immigration restrictions during the IGF/GDC awards but, ultimately, this is a professional conference. Discussions at parties are often intentionally apolitical, avoiding anything that we’re all truly thinking about, because no one wants to offend a potential partner or employer.

I have it a little easier since, as stated before, I’m not trying to get hired. The game series I’m representing—Echoes of the Fey—is, if not explicitly political in its presentation, thematically grounded in progressive and inclusive ideas. If my (rather milquetoast left) politics get someone angry, they aren’t someone who is going to like my game anyway. Still, the last thing my psyche needs on little sleep and days of social anxiety is a political debate. And I know that, despite all the encouraging signs, the politics of the organization don’t necessarily reflect the politics of everyone in attendance.

The Politics of Games

The gaming community has, especially in recent years, received a lot of flak for its incubation of regressive politics. There’s a theory floating around—a theory I think is far too simplistic and localized—tying the rise of Trumpist nationalism directly to controversy that began in the games space. I won’t deny that a lot of gamergate hashtaggers and sycophants ended up as Trump supporters, but I see it more as a symptom than a cause.

Games aren’t especially different from anything else. I’m also a huge baseball fan and the godawful reactionary bullshit that comes out in sports spaces is equally terrible. Before I made games, I was a lawyer. The legal world is certainly more polished and refined than the gaming or sports world, but the same horrors are there. Sexism, racism, and disdain for anything that steps outside of what ESPN or Fox News has decided is the norm.

The world of games was particularly vulnerable for a reactionary insurgency because it is a relatively new medium. It has attracted an impressively diverse group of people from all walks of life, especially in the indie space. This (wrongfully) spooked the straight-cis-white majority and led to a volcano of toxicity. But even if that toxicity is more visible in games, it exists everywhere. I think the last year has proven that gaming was not unique; if anything, it was a canary in a coal mine that stretches throughout the global west.

But what if the pundits are right and the world of gaming was the breeding ground for evil? Isn’t that all the more reason why progressives shouldn’t abandon it? Games are culture. Games are art, no matter how much we want to make a joke out of that debate being a thinkpiece-defining meme (shit, I did it again). Games reflect the prevailing morals of society. For those of us who feel like we can’t directly change society, shouldn’t we at least try to give it a more useful mirror?

It’s easy to write off the politics of games as an irredeemable cesspool. But to do so is to write off all politics as an irredeemable cesspool. As evidenced by many of the people I meet at GDC and especially before at the Train Jam, at least the games industry has plenty of folks trying to dramatically change what is considered the norm.

The End

On the final day of GDC, I am exhausted. By nature, I am a rather extreme introvert and I have spent 10 days surrounded by people. First in Chicago, then on the train, then in the hostel and at the conference. The only time I’ve had alone to myself is the day I walked two miles to the pier to get In-N-Out, which is totally excusable as a use of time because (as I mentioned before) I lived in Los Angeles for 5 years and I really miss animal style burgers.

Part of me feels like giving up. I’m an imposter. I’m a faker. I can’t be like these people. Part of me is inspired and wants to go back home and work on my game. I have so much to do. I have so many ideas. I’ll find a way to implement them, even if I don’t have the skills. These feelings are impossible to reconcile, especially when they are exacerbated or tempered by fatigue.

What if this is the end? I don’t mean the literal stopping point for humanity but a significant and tragic mile marker in history. No matter what I do, we continue to advance towards change—change that is not progress. Should I be wasting my time making games when I’m not even sure if I have the talent? Should I be doing something else? Can anything I do stop the rising tides, both literal and metaphorical?

If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess I didn’t write 4,000 words to explain why I’m changing course. At best, I want to encourage everyone who reads this to make art—writing, painting, games, film—that reflects how you want to see the world. At worst, I want to justify why this is how I’m using my position of relative privilege.

I don’t know which is true. I’d like to believe that I’m not a monstrous person who sees all the inequality around me and ignores it in favor of doing what I want to do. My goal isn’t selfish; I want to push forward and advance the cause of progress in the only way I feel is comfortable: through art, through games, through entertainment and culture.

I’m not a politician; I’m not nearly polished enough. I won’t be a frontman for the coup; I’m not a soldier or a leader. If I’m insecure about my abilities as a programmer, I certainly don’t trust my ability to carry out or even be a vanguard of the glorious leftist-environmentalist revolution. I don’t think I trust anyone to do that right now in our culture, least of all a white male screenwriter-turned-lawyer-turned-gamedev who has lived his entire life in relative comfort.

Even when I doubt myself, I know there’s only one way I can meaningfully effect change. I need to make things. I need to do everything in my power to nudge society in a direction towards accepting inclusion, accepting progressive causes, and choking out the reactionary weeds that have taken root in our culture. It’s the only power I have.

What else am I supposed to do at the end of the world?