I’d sort of be lying if I said it started with a single picture, but that’s when it really became concrete. That’s the moment I can pinpoint. I’ve been drawing and writing since I was a kid. The dream was to become a comic book artist. But as I grew up, I fell more in love with books, and comics started to take a backseat. I started writing poetry. I began learning to play the guitar and bass. All those poems were songs in waiting. Eventually, some friends and I started a band and we kept at it for almost 8 years, with two albums under our belt.
Those things came to an end. Not so much because I hated music, but as soon as I got close enough to the music industry to see behind the scenes, I wanted no part of it. Then one of the members died, and that was the nail in the coffin for me. At some point in my mid-twenties, I had a chance encounter that led to me trying to shop a screenplay I’d written called Beer Run of the Dead. That fell through but a couple years later, I converted the thing into a book. By age 26, I’d written the dumbest novel on the planet that basically asked the question, “What if the cure to a zombie bite was booze?”
Years of partying essentially wrote the book. I’d been trying to write it since high school, but the lack of actual living always left me with something hollow.
Fast forward. I started a publishing house with a guy, a tiny indie one. We had no idea what we were doing. At this point I had two books, Scary Fucking Stories and Beer Run. We traveled the country. We went to horror conventions. I got to meet horror idols I never imagined meeting, much less talking to and having a drink with. The realities of success were pretty much summed up by an actor who has been in nearly every Sam Raimi movie. He said over drinks, “You see all these folks here? The ones who made it? It’s not because they are the most talented, or they’re best at what they do. They made it here because of one thing… they didn’t give up. At some point, nearly everyone here had to either sleep in their car or on a couch, but they kept at it. They kept showing up.”
I already knew deep down I would die before I stopped, so this message of perseverance only confirmed my suspicions.
My books sales were pretty good for a nobody from the sticks, but this was 2012 and we toured aggressively. The markets were flooded then but not to the extent we see now, and Facebook could still be used effectively for marketing for people with no money. My personal bubble lasted about 2 or 3 years, but I was also falling out of love with the concept of the novel. Not so much reading them, but writing them. The final blow to me thinking that I may write novels full-time happened when we myself and my business partner, an extremely talented artist and writer by the name of Nicholas Day, took over a small indie press. I love books, always will, but enslaving myself to this idea that I had to churn out book after book in a dark room by myself had lost its appeal. And that’s not saying I won’t ever write again, but for the moment, something else has my eye.
I’ve had this itch since I can’t remember. It’s always been there. This yearning to learn and explore and push my limits. People collect all kinds of things, but I tend to collect skills. It’s the only way I’ve found to avoid hell, and by hell I mean boredom. I am a restless, squirrelly motherfucker. I may not look it, or act it, but there’s a swarm of something awful inside me and it screams DO SOMETHING until I give in.
It’s not as horrible as I make it out to be. I mean, it does bring hell to romantic relationships because of the ghost I become when I dive in and say yes to that Do Something Swarm. However, the lack of sleep and constant fire in my belly usually tends to land me in places where I probably shouldn’t be. Exciting places (to me). I’m constantly out of my element, over my head, and probably seem like an idiot.
And I am, fully I am, but that’s by design. I go into nearly everything with the thought that I am probably wrong and that I’m going to fail. A lot. A whole bunch. I just make those cuts right at the beginning and accept that I suck. It’s a humbling and opening process so I can absorb techniques and info quicker, hopefully. It also softens the blow by coming to terms that I’m a big piece of shit walking around a space rock circling a nuclear inferno. I come from shit, I will return to shit, but I swear to god I will polish this fucking turd until I stroke out or wander into traffic looking at the clouds like a doofus. Because without challenge there is no growth. I don’t want to do the easy thing. The easy thing is over quick. The easy thing allows boredom to creep in. So when most people see a pile of shit and instinctively avoid it, I spring into action, run as fast as I can, and dive face first into it like a big dumb animal. Then I wrestle it. I wrestle this piece of shit with my brain and my two hands until I have conquered it or until it has conquered me.
And that’s how I got into making video games. One, because video games are fucking cool. Two, they require so many goddamn skills to even begin the attempt, that it may drive someone to insanity, drug addiction, or an early death.
I see you turd.
Most of the time, I’m guessing people see what kind of time it takes to make one and they go, “Well, fuck that.” And that’s a pretty sane reaction. In my case, I knew I needed help but I had no fucking clue where to start. Coding was way out of my league at this point so I just burrowed in and figured I was in for the long haul.
So back to the picture that started it. It was an attempt at making my first bit of pixel art. I was so used to traditional styles that the constraints of pixel art were kinda sexy. Plus, it’s way easier to animate at that level so I figured that’s where I’d start. This was probably two years ago. I started learning game design and animation. I made a couple tiny tutorial games and realized I needed my own art for them.
I posted that pic on Facebook, and this young cat in the Bizarro circles (Sean Kelly) saw it. He goes, “Hey man, that looks awesome. If you ever want to try and make a video game, I’m a programmer.”
I rarely feel things, and when I do they are usually these distant echoes washing over my hardened armor of apathy. But not on that day. That day lightning shot out of my pants. We were on an adventure.
Within a couple of days we were already testing and building a game. I enlisted one of my best friends (Greg McCoy) to learn animation with me. Members of the old band came to make music for it (Jonathan Sterling and Bruce Bonebrake II). We found another programmer about 6 months in (Jadan Bliss), and now with a year or so under our belts working on this thing, we have made it to Steam. I’m writing this still riding a high from the night before where we finished up the submission process.
We did it. We made a game. A crazy, frenetic explosion of death and pixels and lasers and shit. We called it Heckpoint because of a typo but that typo captures the insanity fairly well. I would be lying if I said I was excited. It’s more like I am contented. It’s more like an addiction. The allure of building your worlds within the confines of a novel held me for a bit, but to be able to play in those worlds, to see them evolve pixel by pixel and line by line of code, to watch them walk, talk, and murder…
That emotion is not a dull echo. It is something else. It is more full, more rounded, more encompassing. It is sustaining. I think it’s close to what God must feel like – looking down at your creation, fine-tuning every atom, and then hitting the start button to see what’ll happen next.