Xalavier Nelson Jr. has been on an experiential and emotional rollercoaster over more than a decade in the games industry, though the winding path that brought him to his current project makes a strange kind of sense.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz at PAX East, Nelson says he began by reviewing games when he was 12 years-old through a "crappy WordPress blog." He was afraid he would get in trouble for reposting actual game screenshots, though, so instead he drew "artistic interpretations" of the images he wanted to show in Microsoft Paint.
Nelson continued to write about games online for several years after that, but around the age of 17 he had a series of realizations: first, he realized he wanted to leave games; then he decided he wanted to write stories for games; then he realized he wanted to tell stories with games; and finally, he determined that he wanted to focus more on the big picture of a game than on its individual parts, leading him to production.
"Burnout is so endemic in this industry because every single project carries the potential consequence of your career being over"
"I was a wizened 21 year-old coming into the end of last year deeply tired and cynical," Nelson says. "I'd seen that the world was becoming a less kind place, and I had been doing a lot of parachute jobs -- I come into a project on a very tight deadline or under very bad conditions, I put out the fires, give them the tools to fix their project, and I move on. That's exciting and interesting work. I love that I can get games shipped.
"But it also made me very aware that...games aren't real. All of this is fake. And the only thing holding it together is collective belief, and somehow we release games at some point. And releasing games -- turning the work into a passion, something I cared about -- was what I thought was the way to move forward in my career."
Nelson has been a games writer for outlets like PC Gamer, been nominated for multiple awards for his narrative work on games like Hypnospace Outlaw, and runs his own studio, Strange Scaffold. Technically, Strange Scaffold is just Nelson alone -- he has no employees. He thinks of himself more as a "micro studio," a single person working within several interconnected networks of fellow creators and contractors to get games made.
"Part of the reason that I think burnout is so endemic in this industry is because, especially when you have the traditional model of studios working on a single game, every single project carries the potential consequence of your career being over -- you having to move across the country, across the world, hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment going down the drain," he says. "The burden of development, psychologically, is not just bringing one good thing into the world, but the fact that one good thing contains every dream that you have and the hope for your future.
"Given that perspective, all my contractors and collaborators are working on different things. Instead of having a tower of good people beneath me, I feel like I instead have a constellation of good people around me that I can continue to collaborate with and connect the dots in whatever order makes sense. And to be frank, it makes me feel safe. I value all of those people, and on an indie level, I see significant reasons for this to be the way we approach development going forward."
"When I hit play for the first time, an eight-foot-tall Jack Russell terrier was towering over me, asking if I wanted to get to Uranus"
Specifically, that leaves Nelson free to work with other studios on single projects, while he has multiple projects of his own that he collaborates on with different groups. One of those, started with the support of NYU Game Center's annual No Quarter event, is An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. It's a game about the last two human beings in the galaxy (who happen to be engaged) trying to find one another by traveling through a series of space airports that are designed for aliens, but are being run by dogs.
"Having spent too much time in too many airports, I have had my brain thoroughly broken," Nelson says. "Airports are made for humans, but absolutely not designed to be used by humans. They are strange, growing, eldritch, constantly evolving ecosystems that are totally artificial, yet utterly human in their imperfections and flaws. We're all there to not be there anymore. We're all there specifically to get out of La Guardia.
"And having that experience, I have for a long time wanted to make a game about an airport for aliens -- being a stranger in a strange land that you can kind of interact with because the systems are the same... they're familiar. You can't read the language, and you can't interact with the people until you become part of that world."
The project began, Nelson says, as a fairly serious game with no dogs whatsoever. But while he was working on it, he used a stock photo of a Jack Russell Terrier as a temporary placeholder for the airport receptionist. At the time, he didn't realize the scale that the image needed to be in relation to the player.
"When I hit play for the first time, an eight-foot tall Jack Russell terrier was towering over me, asking if I wanted to get to Uranus," he says.
But, Nelson continues, a funny thing happened. The addition of the dog stock photos added a level of humor and joy to the game that he hadn't expected -- one that helped to tell a more interesting story, and made him happier in the process.
"I can't remember the last time I worked on a game that required me to be a better person to make it"
"The more I went down the path of making a serious game about being in airports and navigating strange places, the more I asked myself, 'Can making a game make you happy? Is that supposed to happen? Can I do that?' So much of games, and especially indie games, especially when they're personal, is built around this concept of pain. Pull from yourself and pull from yourself and pull from yourself, and if you pull long enough and hard enough, eventually, even if there's nothing left, the work will at least be good and you can be good because the work is good.
"The experience of making An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, and pivoting to dogs from this serious foundation, was one of the first times I ever considered that creativity in a commercial format can be a healthy and joyful process for the person making it."
The realizations Nelson went through have helped him find some internal stability after several years of bouncing between personal career goals and philosophy. He now believes he can be happy making games that are not only creative and interesting, but are also commercially successful. Still, he concludes that while commercial success would be great, it's not his ultimate measure of success.
"The idea of success for Dog Airport Game is me growing as a person. Because of the range of tonal balances that it has to hit -- and hit just right so the whole thing doesn't turn into a meme-y mess or fall apart -- this is a title that requires complete sincerity at all times, and being completely sincere is difficult.
"Ensuring that the game that comes out on the other side of this is good requires me to go through a lot of my own shit. Writing a dog who isn't sure if he loves his wife anymore, or building a thread about finding small but meaningful times to connect with your fiance despite and because you cannot be there for each other in person, requires me to work through things. Like my difficulty expressing gratitude, or how being vulnerable scares me. And [if I write those characters], the rest of the day, I might not work on the game. I just have to work through that.
"Deep introspection about being a better person makes this game better. And I can't remember the last time I worked on a game that required me to be a better person to make it. I feel like I found Excalibur and every day I have to prove that I'm worthy to pull the sword out of the stone -- to be a person who's worthy of, well, dogs."
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