Game on: English prof delves into art of indie video game creation
When you play a video game, do you ever stop to think about the work, time and energy that went into creating it? In some cases, a game takes years of imagining, creating, developing and fine-tuning.
Adam Hammond, an associate professor in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts & Science’s department of English sees the beauty of artistic creation in video games and believes it’s one of the most demanding and challenging art forms today.
Exploring that passion, he’s written a new book where he shadows the creator of an independent video game called JETT: The Far Shore, following the path from its inception to launch.
In addition to recounting the at-times tortuous 10-year development of the game, The Far Shore: Indie Games, Superbrothers, and the Making of JETT also delves into the history of independent video games and how they relate to other forms of independent art, such as music and literature.
“It's not a ‘how to design a video game’ book,” says Hammond. “It's more about the people and what they go through, and how the act of creating a video game is similar to the act of making any other form of art.”
Created by designer Craig Adams (a.k.a. Superbrothers) and programmer Patrick McAllister (a.k.a. Pine Scented), JETT was released in October. In the game, you’re tasked with scouting a new home for a humanoid people after they’ve destroyed their native planet. However, once on that new world, players must plan their survival while contending with the consequences of environmental destruction.
The inspiration for the book comes in two parts. The first is Hammond’s love of all things indie.
“I'm a lifelong fan of independent music,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I was in a punk band. We believed that you have to do things yourself for them to be as ideologically pure as possible, and that any other form of creation is compromised. I never fully abandoned that thinking.”
The second source was an indie game called Sword & Sorcery, released in 2011 by Superbrothers. This music-inspired cosmic adventure game was at the forefront of a new era of indie games, and Adams was called a visionary.
“I had heard about indie games, but I hadn't played one that I liked,” says Hammond. “But I got obsessed with Sword & Sorcery. I don't think I’ve ever liked a video game as much. There's something magical about it.”
That adoration led Hammond to invite Adams to speak at one of his classes, which sparked the idea for the book.
“It was a mind-boggling experience to meet someone who I consider to be a major artist of a new form,” says Hammond. “He was telling me everything about his next project — which at the time was mostly ideas — but it was extremely interesting. I got totally sucked in.”
That was in 2013. And then for years, the game’s progress slowed to a crawl. In fact, it took another eight years of development before the game was released. Over that time, Hammond only spoke with Adams and McAllister occasionally, sometimes just once a year. There were plenty of highs and lows.
“Increasingly, the narrative was not one of, ‘Here are my amazing ideas’ but one of, ‘We don't know how we’re ever going to finish this game,’” says Hammond.
During this long stretch, Hammond learned about the complex intricacies of video game design.
“You have to have music, visual art, moving pictures, you have to have text and you need a story,” he says.
He recalls one discussion about some of the game’s sounds, in particular sounds for “ground control” – the headquarters for people on their new planet.
“They had a spreadsheet of all the sounds they needed for ground control,” says Hammond. “For just the sound of a footstep, you have to create the sound of one person's footstep versus another person's because they should be different. And then you have to do the programming to make sure the right sound is triggered at the exact right time. It's just crazy how hard it is to make a game.”
Visually, it was just as demanding.
“Imagine a space outpost where a character is walking down the hall,” says Hammond. “If the person turns around, what does it look like from that perspective? If it's at night, how much light is coming in? What if they turn on the light? These are the things that took them years to figure out.”
Eventually, Adams and McAllister realized they needed help. They conceded they needed more people and money, so they worked with Sony and Epic Games to bring the game to fruition. At one point, Hammond guessed there were as many as 30 people working on JETT.
“That's what it took to finish the game,” says Hammond, noting both Adams and McAllister were a little disappointed that the game took a “big business” turn and strayed somewhat from its independent roots.
JETT has had mixed reviews since its launch, which Hammond believes speaks to its independent origins – because, like any piece of independent art, it’s not for everyone.
“But I think it's amazing,” says Hammond. “A lot of people are still not sure about the game, and I get that. I mean, it takes on about the heaviest themes imaginable – it's about colonialism and environmental destruction. It’s not straightforward entertainment. But for me it couldn’t be more satisfying or timely. And I think it will find its audience eventually.”
In the meantime, Hammond feels we’re embarking on an exciting time in independent video game creation, “where new artistic possibilities are opening.”
“Now, small groups of talented people can make games just because they have something they want to express,” says Hammond.
“And I think in the next five or 10 years, we're going to start seeing people use the form of the video game for new purposes and that's going to be amazing.”