David OReilly

My name is David OReilly. I'm from Ireland, originally. I grew up there until I was 19. I've moved around quite a bit and I ended up in the U.S. five years ago. I was essentially a self-taught animator and worked in the animation industry up until about three years ago, three and a half years ago. Basically went fully into that in different ways. I was a concept artist and a designer and an animator and then eventually started making my own short films.

So, most people would have sort of started paying attention to what I was doing with the medium of animated short film. My direction or my sort of area of interest was in exploring 3D animation and its possibilities at a time when it seemed everything was getting very realistic and just going down that path, I started exploring minimalism with it and seeing -- finding a way of doing it independently and all of these other motives for essentially making independent 3D animation.

So, I did that for a while, and then was essentially making shorts for a period of about six years and then funding that with commercial projects. Commissions. Those were music videos, I worked on some feature films, and various other things. Most people would probably know my work, if not my name, from working on the movie Her, where I did the hologram sequences and the videogames within that movie. And then I did a special episode of Adventure Time. Both of those were sort of obviously not art projects like the short films were. So, I don't claim full credit for them but nonetheless they reached a broader audience.

I was always interested in videogames due to the -- initially, I suppose, well, I should say I didn't really grow up with them in a videogame culture as probably a lot of Americans did. I was discouraged from playing them. I wasn't allowed to play them for most of my childhood. But I got interested in them as I got interested in 3D animation because of how they use economy in the medium of 3D. It was always sort of parallel, for me, and I always kept an eye on what was going on in games. All of my animation, my independent animation work, is done by real-time rendering, which is the same as with games. So, there was always sort of an overlap and an interest there as I was working in animation.

About five years ago, I downloaded Unity and I started to be in contact with more game people, and then just started playing around. And so, essentially, I think maybe three and a half years ago I was connected with a programmer, Damien Di Fede. I basically put the word out to a bunch of friends that I have an idea for a game, I really want to make this thing, and actually it was a VR project. It was a very early VR project I needed help with. I connected with a programmer, Damien Di Fede. So, he's sort of been my main -- and then that allowed me to start getting involved in this game thing. And so, I've been working in it ever since. We did one game, which was called Mountain. That's the only thing that I've released. We've spent the last two and a half to three years on the next game, which is called Everything. So, I've been working, basically, full-time for the last two and a half years on this new project.

[Laughs.] So, before we started, you were talking a little bit about how this is sort of like a new haircut for you. [Laughs.]

Oh, right. That's one way of thinking about it. It's a strange thing from -- even as a director, I never knew what to call myself because although I love the medium of animation, I am not a great animator. I often don't animate my own stuff. Sometimes I do. Often I'm lucky enough to work with people. So, essentially, the word "animator" is tricky because to most people and to the industry at large, it's somebody that works for an organization and essentially is an actor using software. I was always interested in the bigger thing of the medium itself and what it can say and telling stories within it and just playing around within that space. So, not strictly speaking, just animating characters. There's this term, "animation artist," which is used but kind of frowned upon by some people because it's seen as a little bit pretentious or something. I never knew what to call myself within that space. So, you know, you call yourself a writer and a director because that has more clout to a normal person.

Right.

But -- and so, you know, I've written and directed and produced everything. Even the larger commercial things in most cases. It's always hard to put a name on it. But I think the same thing happens within games. Like, you can call yourself a game developer but, especially on the indie side, most people are involved in so many, like, dimensions of specialty and are there are own -- I said before -- pitchmen. They're their own PR machine and producer and, in many cases, publisher as well. There's even more roles involved, I've found, in games than there are usually in animation.

Hmm.

But anyway, yeah, generally speaking I feel like a game developer now.

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

Well, I remember, when we met, I guess we were both thinking about similar things with different intentions, which is just you were talking about trying to make sense of videogame land in 2014. What were you trying to wrap your head around then and does it make sense to you now? How did you figure it out?

Well, there's different ways of looking at it. There's the social dimension of these gigantic shows that have tons of eyeballs on them and there's sort of, let's say, industry at large. Then there's the medium itself and what that says and the tools available to us and the whole concept of games as an artform and as a mode of expression. And they're different things. I've been wrapping my head, sort of, around both. I feel essentially like an outsider in both the indie scene and industry at large. But I found great joy in just working within the medium itself. I think most indie developers have the same obsession with this new tool that we have and the amount of territory you can explore with it. So, there's two aspects of it. I'm still there, trying to figure stuff out. That's what's fun about it.

Right. Well. I'm sure you knew I was gonna refer to this, but you did that post on Medium at the end of that year reacting to reactions to Mountain.

Right.

I think you mentioned that previously the last time you'd really paid attention to writing about videogames is how people want videogames to be "Art."

Yes.

So, I don't want to cast you as the arbiter of art, but I would be curious to hear you talk about the way you feel the culture around videogames -- like, how that views art. Something I often wonder is is there just something lacking in people's attitudes or the language in the way we talk about it that prevents it from living up to its potential?

Yeah. I think there are a lot of -- I don't know. I have my own definition of art. I don't think it necessarily has to be a very subjective thing. But essentially art is describing the world. So, "Art," which is to say the art world or the industry around fine art, to me, it's totally to games' benefit to not be in that category because, essentially, that's a completely corrupt and backwards art world that has totally lost touch with most people.

So, there are many people that say, "Oh, videogames should be art." But at the same time, most people think of art as kind of a punchline now. It's not -- like galleries and things have lost a huge amount of popularity and just connection to culture. And videogames are the center of culture and they're evolving at a high rate. I feel like it's really good to be in that space. It kind of benefits from not being called art because it sort of secretly is where the art is happening.

But, the fact that it's not encumbered by so many expectations and a system that essentially is just attributing arbitrary value to things based on supply and demand and branding is a good thing. It's where it can really evolve and be flexible. To me, the art world is essentially decadent. It's in that phase where it's making work about itself.

[Laughs.]

That's all it's doing. It's just an internal game of who can outdo each other on commenting about the art world itself. It's total -- it's lost its connection to nature and to people. But videogames are connecting so directly to people and so the definition of "game" I don't think is that important, really. I do think the potential to create real art in this space is enormous. If it continues down this path and it's recognized as such, we'll just have to see. But, you know, a similar problem is in animation. Like, for example, there's a lot of video art that essentially uses the same tools and tricks as animation but it's very rarely, if ever, as good as a well-made animated short. Animated shorts are a kind of ghetto of sorts of hard-working people who really slave over things, often for years at a time. There's no market for it. It's very difficult to make a living doing it. And yet, if you're sensitive and you really look into that world, you can see some incredible things. Truly emotive experiences and transformative uses of the medium.

And so, in a way it's good that it's not -- there's a sort of separation there. So, anyway, we'll see what happens in the next 20 years. Well, we can see now that MoMA and other places are putting in Space Invaders and things like that as works of art. So, yeah. It's a strange -- I do think videogames are in the perfect place to evolve and it doesn't matter whether or not it's called art.

Yeah. Well, what about publishers or gatekeepers in games. You're lucky in the sense that you have relationships with Sony and Double Fine. This is another wearisome comparisons of videogames, to Hollywood.

Yeah.

Something that I feel like I don't see a whole lot, and maybe you disagree, is the attitude of operating in Hollywood of you do one for them, you do one for yourself. Do you feel like publishers and gatekeepers, do they do a good job putting a good diversity of stuff? Or is there just a lot of bowing to the reality of economics and the risks involved?

Well, both of those are very linked, right? Like, the market is a reflection of people's desires.

Right.

So, I don't think that's inherently bad. It's just what people want. And so, I think it's in a really good place. I came out of nowhere. I mean, outside of game developers and maybe only even indie game developers, people don't know my work. So, I came out of nowhere. I didn't know anybody in this world and then I was able to make Mountain and that went out there with no publicity. Mountain sold, now, I think it's over 400,000 copies with no machine behind it other than Greg Rice, who I was lucky to connect with at Double Fine.

Right.

I certainly owe so much to him in terms of explaining the ropes of this thing. But it wasn't complicated. It's like -- I wrote emails to tons of people and I was like, "Here's a demo. I'd love for you to cover or you might be interested in this." Whatever it was. That whole thing, I felt, was fairly and surprisingly frictionless. Certainly there are games that people work on for a long time and they just don't sell so much. I mean, Mountain costs $1.

[Laughs.]

It had the benefit of undercutting most games.

Yeah.

It was conceptually quite, I suppose, out there, and benefited --

It's funny because I would say it's conceptually out there if you're deeply enmeshed in videogames. But if you're not, it seems very conceptually straightforward, right?

Oh yeah.

It's all in the name, even. [Laughs.]

Yes, it's very obvious.

It's one dollar and it's one word.

Yeah, yeah. It's true. It's not complicated, conceptually. But just different, and I suppose subversive in the way that you don't necessarily have to play it.

Right. Right.

But, look, compare that to -- I've never had an experience like that. I do believe luck plays a huge role in these things. I fully believe survivorship bias is a real thing and so you shouldn't listen to anybody that's had success without considerable failures.

[Laughs.]

And I do see games -- you know, people are entering the mobile market now and it's apparently quite saturated and things aren't selling the way they used to. You just hear these things out there, that there's just interesting videogames coming out every week and it's harder to put one's things out there. But in terms of getting onto Steam and releasing through iOS, which are my only experiences now -- and through Humble -- have been essentially frictionless. People were open. They're like, "Yeah, you do the work of getting it out there and we'll put it up here and take our cut.”

I didn't feel any -- to me, that was a lot of work, but it was very enjoyable work. It wasn't hard. I think it's much harder if you're trying to sell a film or something else. I don't know. I felt it was quite open.

Well, yeah, this ties into -- I don't want to dwell on Her, which I know got written a lot about when Mountain was getting written about.

Yeah.

I was curious just to hear, because I don't really know the origins for this or the impetus for this aspect of the movie, but Joaquin Phoenix is playing and there's this other player character in that game.

Yeah.

I don't know if that came from you or from the writer or from some other source. Was that intended as a comment on the audience for videogames, either today or in the distant future?

[Pause.] That's a question for Spike [Jonze, Her's writer-director], I think.

Yeah. I suspected it might have been.

Yeah. But I can -- you know, we had weekly meetings on this for a long period, like, 10 months or something. My honest assumption there is it's just done from an emotional perspective. It's just thinking -- all of those scenes are a reflection of what Joaquin's character is going through. I don't think it's more complicated than that. Obviously, we can infer meaning into it many ways, and that's what makes something interesting and good.

Right.

But I do feel it's done no more than, like, "this is an interesting idea that fits into the framework of the emotional arc of the character." As most things are written. I don't think most good things are intentionally written from an ideological imperative.

Right. Right.

Moreso from an emotional journey. So, you know, I think it was that and also comic relief.

I was gonna say. It's funny but it also does happen to be often true. But yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it is -- and it was cool that that was what was the entertainment in film. It was games. It wasn't going to see a movie. It was really just the default entertainment.

[Laughs.]

Yeah, so there's ways of looking at it that are -- there was nothing weird about that. There was nothing. It felt very natural for that to be the case.

Yeah.

So, yeah.

Insert

This is a similar question about your own work and sort of more broadly speaking. I'm not going to psychoanalyze the symbolism in your stuff. Broadly speaking, do you feel that your work is typically a reaction against something or is it coming from some other place?

I think everything is a reaction to reality. Certainly, I think, when I started in animation, it was a reaction against, in some part, trends in 3D. Dogmas about what animation should be, particularly as that's all colored in the West from the influence of Disney.

Right.

And that's what's taught in schools. And so, you're not supposed to have sharp edges. You're supposed to direct the eye through certain composition. All of these notions of beauty were things that I went about questioning and subverting in some cases. With games, I feel like it's coming from a completely different palette of ideas. Essentially Mountain and this new game, Everything, are really not subversive in any intentional -- they're not subversive about culture or even other games. At least not intentionally. I'm more interested in just exploring ideas of reality and essentially trying to make a philosophy you can experience. And so, it's quite sincere. I should make a distinction that it's not serious but none of my work is serious, which is to say, it has a view that you should stroke your chin about or that you need to be like, "Hey! Wake up!"

[Laughs.]

It's not like that. It's very -- I believe you can be sincere and also not serious. So, there's no irony in these projects. I'd done a bunch of work that was funny and ironic. I explored that space for a while and then you kind of -- you just realize you can't keep that up because, No. 1, it's very easy to be funny and ironic. It's very hard to be sincere. So, it's more challenging. But also, the world itself has -- you know, just hits you sometimes and you realize there's an enormous beauty to what's going on that you distance yourself from with irony. So, anyway. This is coming from a different palette of -- or a different way of thinking. You know, that's also informed by the fact that it's a new medium and it doesn't make sense for me to come along and try to shoehorn in what I was trying to do with animation.

Interesting. Well, I mean, how much of that is just coming from interactivity? Like, I ask this question of so many other people as well, just how does adding interactivity to your tool belt, how does that change your approach or intent? I mean, is that too abstract of a question? Or is that a thing that you sat down and you thought about a lot and can label and identify?

No, it's not at all. Here's what I think: I mean, interactivity is a subset of the nature of games, which is from my perspective, a medium that's unique property is systems. And so, systems -- you're allowed to simulate things in games. All programs are systems at work. And so, one thing you can do with that is let people control those systems. That's interactivity. The systems can also work without control. So, I think there's two -- there's an invisible aspect to games which, well, people could say, "Well, it's just interactive art or it's something else." But when I talk about games, I use a game engine and I play games. So, I think of it all as games. And so, yes, absolutely. I think about this all the time because it's a new tool and everybody's figuring it out at the same time. There's no -- like, in animation, you have this book The Illusion of Life, which is sort of the bible of the medium. Another one is The Animator's Survival Kit, maybe, by Richard Williams. And these are considered the holy books and they lay out of the rules. There's no such thing in games. At least none that I know of, because it's so nascent and evolving. So, interactivity is something that's on everybody's mind. Everybody's sorta doing it differently.

In my case, I like -- I'm obsessed more broadly with the idea of systems and how we can use that. Also, with the idea of limited -- games that take place over long periods of time. Slow experiences: What that does to the player, what kind of states of mind that that can bring out, what kinds of emotions that are possible with that, and so on. So, yeah, I definitely think about this stuff a lot and I love -- it's a whole series of tools that you just don't have in other media, whatever they are.

I mean, there is some work to codify it, but all of it's under the umbrella of: This is early days and we understand this is very much a work in progress. Not necessarily related to this interview, but if you want, there's a couple books that I just as a person who doesn't make games -- like, they're super-interesting to read.

Yeah.

Yeah, I'll be happy to send that along.

Please do. I accidentally stumbled on Ian Bogost as we were -- I don't know I'm pronouncing "Bogost" right.

[Laughs.] That's how I pronounce it, so, that sounds right. [Laughs.]

Okay. Good. But he wrote a tweet or something about Mountain and then a beautiful article in The Atlantic, and I didn't know who he was. Damien explained, "Oh, he's, like, the greatest." So I caught up on some of his stuff and he very kindly sent me a copy of his book about -- I forget the name of it, about object-oriented ontology.

Oh, right. Right.

I enjoyed that and I was also, like, baffled that it was just the same -- it was articulating conclusions that I had come to myself and also things that I hadn't. So, that was great. So, yeah, I would love to have any other recommendations.

Absolutely. Yeah, Ian's in this rarefied air of an academic in the games space who "gets" how to talk to other people who aren't academics about the things that are uniquely interesting in games.

Yes.

So, but, before you started making games, did you feel like you saw games that came close to expressing similar things that you're interested in expressing?

Yes and no. The things I'm interested in expressing are essentially like a point of view that has also been something on my mind in the last four or five years. Not necessarily while I was making independent animation. So, mostly, not really, but sometimes I felt it as within games as parts of them that I would be like, "That's an amazing thing." Certainly the -- I think it might be obvious in Everything, but the quieter parts of Final Fantasy VII, which I played as a kid, which I was lucky. I played at the exact right time, I think, as a kid for that to blow my head off. Just very emotionally captivating. You know, and Dark Souls and Deadly Premonition are two of my favorite things in art, in general.

[Laughs.]

I think that those go about -- essentially the world is breathing there, right? It's really -- there's so much. I would add Grand Theft Auto to that, but I think there's sort of a stranger tone in the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne and Deadly Premonition, where it's really eliciting something. I'm like, "This needed a videogame for me to feel this. It's not an action movie, the way Grand Theft Auto is, but this is something new." That's sort of some of the interesting things that I've certainly been inspired by.

Yeah, Deadly Premonition. I think this may be the first time in two years anyone's ever brought that game up. [Laughs.] It's not like it matters how much people talk about it, but I feel like it was unfortunately kind of forgotten. I think the way a lot of games writers wrote about it was that it was Lynchian or Twin Peaks-esque. That was the depth of what was said about it.

Yeah.

But it's a really fucking weird game. [Laughs.]

It's really weird.

It doesn't surprise me to hear that you say that like that game.

I was really caught off guard by it. I didn't expect it to be so interesting. Because initially you spend the first hour going, "This is ridiculous." And then it's got very ropey sequences in it. But it has a playfulness to it that is amazing, but also a sense of an open world -- of a real world where characters come and go and do things. They're sometimes sitting at home and sometimes they're out getting coffee. The work put into it is so far beyond what probably needed to be there just for the story. that I felt so immersed in it. And also, you know, you think about film and drama -- they say "cutting the boring bits out."

Right.

And in Deadly Premonition, you spend huge stretches of time driving around. And it takes quite a long time to get to some places. And there's just not much going on. There are moments -- and the weather is changing. There are moments where it transcended to this thing where I felt like this is a living world and was obviously entertaining and other things. But the work gone into the simulation aspect of it was brilliant. Yeah. Like, you get to shave in that and you get facial hair and things like that. Things that other games just simply haven't done.

[Laughs.] Have you ever played -- and not to go on a tangent too much talking about specific games, but have you ever played any of the Shenmue games?

No, I haven't. I missed -- that was part of the generation I missed completely. Like, PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast I never -- I wasn't playing back then.

Well, it's notable only in that -- so, Shenmue was interesting in that it was the prototypical first open-world game. The creator Yu Suzuki gave a talk on it a couple years ago about the way that they accidentally created the open-world genre. One of the more fascinating things that they were talking about was how they had to basically tinker with giving the AI in the game free will. So, basically, left to their own devices, every inhabitant in the city -- instead of going to work, would go to the convenience store and just eat all day long.

Wow.

I wrote this whole essay about the interesting missed opportunity that the genre has to shine a lens on different parts of humanity and the way we are that maybe we don't really want to think about, which is the way that machines understand the way that humans operate.

Yes.

Is this the kind of stuff you think about as the potential games have?

One-hundred percent.

One-hundred percent? Yeah.

Yeah, no, obviously, yeah. I mean, it reveals something about us. You know, it reveals things about us on so many dimensions. In creating them, and in these systems that you're talking about, that exposes -- anything that is unnatural in games exposes what our expectations are. And so, when games try and simulate behavior and it's wrong, it's immediately obvious to us that it's wrong and reveals something about us. But on another level, just at the industry at large, the fact that most popular games are essentially killing simulators.

Right.

I don't mean that in a bad way, but it just says something that is filling a certain desire and need in our society. Whatever it is. I don't know if there are exceptions culture to culture in what games are popular. But it seems like as a species, this is serving some function to us. Maybe because we don't hunt anymore. I'm not smart enough to know. It's -- for a burgeoning industry, there are elements of it that are so refined in the AAA space, and that reveals something about us, too.

What do you think it says?

[Pause.] Well, a lot?

[Laughs.] Was it that maybe we're more primal still than we like to think?

Well, that's for sure.

Yeah.

All of culture is essentially us tricking ourselves that we're different from animals. So, the most animalistic things -- sex, food, going to the bathroom -- culture avoids all of these things and we pretend that we're just doing these abstract things all the time. At least from my perspective, we're doing something that we have a rationality for but it's really a totally irrational thing that we just don't own up to. I think there's great value in the Freudian analysis of things. Even though it's sort of unprovable, you just read that and you realize there's an element of truth to this, that we are fulfilling ancient and immovable rituals that we need to be unaware of and that need to live in a blind spot for us to create civilization and have a dialog with people and all of that. It requires all these customs and things that are essentially layers above something more primal. So, killing is the most basic thing, right? It clearly creates a bunch of enjoyment in a way that -- I don't know, a puzzle-type thing wouldn't. I don't come at culture with a notion of "should be this" or "should be that.” I just think it is, and it's always what it needs to be. Even though I have no interest in making games like that, I'm glad they're around.

Insert

Well, also, when we met a couple years ago I remember us talking about another one of my pet topics: Social media and the way reconcile our primal selves with having this abundance of awareness of everything and feelings before you even figure out what it is and how you feel about it yourself.

Right.

So, whether it's videogames or anything else, more generally I'm curious to hear what sort of confounds you about the way that people talk to each other online about games or about anything else?

[Pause.] Well, I've sort of removed myself from so much of social media.

I mean, yeah, I remember you talking about as an experiment, unfollowed everybody on Twitter and also Facebook. [Laughs.]

Oh yeah.

Do you remember this? You told me some anecdote about how Facebook was recommend you friend people who live in your building that you don't know.

Oh, wow. No, I didn't remember that. Yeah. I've exited most of that simply because I think we have a bandwidth problem with information now.

Yeah.

I know what it's like to have a good day's work and the satisfaction I get from just working, and I know that that's interfered with. I have to reduce the -- you know, I take efforts into reducing the kinds of noise in my life in order to make work still possible and to get things done. I think that that's something that I know more and more people are having to do. It's just sort of hit this limit. I think we're essentially exhausting ourselves with things to worry about. We're becoming highly effective at -- you know, we've essentially conquered boredom and we don't congratulate ourselves on that enough. But it's kind of a great achievement. You don't ever have to be bored now. There's enough information looking back in any area of interest that you could ever want in and enough to read for an entire lifetime, and there's also enough things that are happening right now that just can grab your attention and paralyze you with just things to worry about.

So, we've gotten -- as the guy in The Matrix said -- exceedingly efficient at this. But I do think that we're reaching a kind of exhaustion point, or I think within that seeking of distraction, of novelty, there's also another side to that where we just get exhausted with it. We find that it's not productive. I feel like most people are starting to feel this now, particularly with the tidal wave of information about the election for the last year. It seems like -- and I have an outsider perspective, not being American, but it seems like most people are extremely divided and enjoy the security of having a nice out group to define yourself against.

[Laughs.]

And it seems like social media plays directly into all this in a way that I think just expresses a part of ourselves that is not the most beautiful one. So, yeah, it's something that I tend to just stay away from.

Yeah. I wanted to talk a little bit about marketing, which is kind of related to this.

Totally, yeah.

On your YouTube channel, you have a talk about how advertising is important in every industry. [Laughs.] I don't know the context for this talk. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Right. It's the only talk on there, I think. It's actually a Pecha Kucha talk I did in Indonesia about, I don't know, five or six years ago.

[Laughs.]

Obviously, very silly, and ironic and funny.

It's hard to tell. I assumed so but --

Oh, right. Yeah. No, that was just a bit of fun.

It seems like -- well, go ahead. I don't mean to cut you off because it sounds like you have something to say already.

Well, to be honest, I'm sorry I gave you that impression.

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.] But let me think. [Pause.] You know, when you're -- something like that, and I have this free_facts Twitter account and also this line of T-shirts called "dumb stuff," which, all of these projects were kind of popular in their own way but they came out of a sort of frustration and a reaction to the industry I was in. Even though they're not directly referencing that. I never really worked in advertising. I'm much more aware of its influence with what it does. It's a natural thing, I think, when you're young to have things that you're against in order to define yourself. Like, "I like this band and I don't like this band. I like this sports team and therefore I hate these guys."

So, but, for me, I was going into the animation world saying, "This is the most amazing artform where you can recreate dreams. How more amazing do you get?" And then you get in and you see the mundanity of the industry and how it's driven in many corners by just trying to sell cars or washing-up liquid or whatever, and that that's what is sort of a driving force for it. It's like, you see the kind of absurdity of that and then you subvert it. So, anyway, that particular thing -- you know, I've been speaking about my work before I ever entered a film festival. I've been invited to -- I've always been interested in the theoretical aspect of all of this whole world of representation of stuff and 3D and what we're all trying to do and so on. I've done a bunch of -- I've been in a bunch of conferences about this and spoken at them. I'm there usually along with many people. Many of them are in design or animation or more art or more recently games and stuff. I'm around a lot of people that work within advertising. I have a just -- I would realize just how different my point of view on this stuff was to a lot of people. Like, so much of this world is driven by pleasing clients, and I don't have any -- that's not what's exciting to me about it. So, something like that talk was a reaction to just knowing that world and seeing a lot of talks about how you can just please your masters with your work.

[Laughs.]

So, anyway, that was that.

No, no, it's okay. I hate to ask questions that are basically: "Can you let us in on the joke? Is this a joke? Will it offend you if I ask if it's a joke?"

No, not at all.

I ask, by way of context, as you have been soaking up the videogame world. You said so many people in games have to do their own PR, be their own PR machines.

Yes.

I'd be curious to hear you talk about that all the way up to the big-budget AAA-level. Is there something that you feel is harmful about the way that marketing is approached and the way that it may be motivating the types of things people go after and the things that they do? Is there anything you think is harmful?

[Pause.] I don't think so. It sort of just is what it is. I don't know. My perspective on it might change because I'm very new to it and I haven't -- you know, Everything will be my first console game. We haven't done really any marketing yet, so I don't really know what's ahead.

Yeah.

But I do know that already it's just been crazy to me. I think that a lot of people where games are their first industry they've been in sort of take it for granted the amount of general public attention there is on games and the size of the media around it because coming from animation, even though I have a good reputation within that world and a lot of people would know my work, nobody -- like, the media itself does not care about it. It does not get attention. So, there's discussions going on in animation that don't at all reach the public at large. It's just like a very, very small industry even though, like I said before, there's some amazing artists working for years at a time on these just labors of loves.

The same way, that happens in games, but nobody cares as much. So, in games, it's like you have so much media and you have the -- I suppose, you have the magazines and then you have websites and now you have YouTubers and Twitch streamers. The whole discussion going on around it is sort of enormous. That's kind of baffling in a way. I mean, it's amazing. It's a good thing. It's probably the most active in terms of the audience's participation in it. Like, people really care about their games.

Think about, like, in movies, you might get people to care about your movie for a weekend. That's the most you can aim for. But you have things like Overwatch, where there's just a contingent of millions of people that are obsessed with this for a period of three years or more, whatever. Like, a giant cycle of time that you're creating a thing in culture. And that doesn't happen in movies or in music or in other things. Things tend to have a shorter half-life. I think it's amazing.

I think you frame it right when you say that they kind of take it for granted. 'Cause what I hear from a lot of people where games is their first industry, there's kind of this attitude of: "I did something awesome. Why does nobody care." [Laughs.] "Why is nobody noticing this amazing thing that I've done that I really like?”

Right.

Do you know what I mean?

Yeah! That definitely happens. There are -- I suppose there are a lot of impressive games that don't quite sell and, you know, there's that survivorship bias thing where you just don't hear about it that much. That's not a headline: thing that didn't.

[Laughs.]

And then the spotlight and the discussion has these concentration points on things that can also be super-negative, like the whole No Man's Sky stuff.

Yeah.

Which was just, you know, the meatiest thing I think I've ever seen in reading about any kind of project. I mean, before and after release. So, yeah, things to get ignored and I don't have -- look, Everything might get completely ignored. It's just a total crapshoot and I don't know what'll happen. Yeah, I don't know. I suppose -- is that something that you've found a lot, where you're like, "That's a tragedy that thing did not sell?"

I don't know. Only in the sense that -- well, I have the attitude of: Well, if I find it, that's good. But then I also connect that to: "Gee, that would've been really good if that creator got a lot more attention and a lot more money." You know, because that can potentially turn into other things.

Yes.

I think the things I champion typically fall at the Deadly Premonition level of things where it's like, "Oh, this something that's special to me." I think the main thing that I hear from a lot of people through this, and it's something I would agree with, is they really wish that the whole enterprise would decelerate, where a game can come out in February and if you talk about it in October it's not like you're talking about the 1980's. That's something I do definitely agree with, rather than specific gems. I think we have this other problem now of there's such a glut of amazing stuff that I find myself more wondering: "What did I miss from the '80s?" versus, like, "What am I missing right now?” 'Cause I'll get around to it sooner or later but, of course, that sucks for the creator.

Yes. And you know, that's something that I've only been -- up until recently, like, I used to simply play games because they were well-reviewed and I would only play a few a year. So I'd be looking at what are the big -- and I wouldn't care if it was three years old or five years old or whatever.

Right.

I would be as amazed. And I think now there's an incredible thirst for novelty that -- and there is so many interesting things coming out that it's a harder thing to compete with and for things to really have that kind of solid exposure for a long period of time. But that's an evolution of -- that's just simply how it goes. I think the same -- the whole system produced, like, take me. The fact that games grew so rapidly and that caused a secondary reaction, which was the tools becoming more accessible and easier to use and easier to iterate and to create builds, and that in turn caused people like me, who are coming from a parallel industry, to be able to come in. So, I can't complain because I think that this whole outgrowth is causing the diversity you're seeing. Like, the fact that so many AAA things come out is also intimately tied with the fact that indies come out, and successfully indies are intimately tied into the fact that more indie things are coming out.

So, it's -- I don't know. I mean, there's one way of looking at it saying, "Oh, it's a tragedy that it's so active." But another way of looking at it is, "It's amazing that there's so many good things coming out." I do think, in a sense, we're in a Golden Age of games. It's harder to see that. I've read tweets of people saying we're in the Dark Age of games. So, it's just a perspective thing.

But if you don't have any stakes and if you're looking at it as a gamer, let's say, it's a pretty good time. I think it's a very interesting time. I'm talking about a gamer who is totally not involved in the games industry. A person who just bought a console and is like, "What are games like in 2016?" Maybe they've never played a game since they were kid. I mean, they're gonna be blown away. I see that with friends. Most of my friends are in various fields and they discover games at different paces and it's really interesting to see their reaction to what's going on now. Because for us, we're seeing the iteration cycle a bit tighter and you say, "Okay, that's new. This is an outgrowth of this." Because of that constant steadier growth, it's less surprising.

Right. I think there's a disconnect, too, between people who comment it's the Dark Ages of games versus someone from your perspective who has found themselves unexpectedly making games where I think a lot of people, even though there are so many conversations going on, I think there's a disconnect where people don't quite understand the work that goes into them. I think that leads to people making assumptions. We certainly saw this with the No Man's Sky thing that you mentioned.
I mean, for you, that learning process. What do you feel critics or the audience at large: What do they just not grasp or understand about the work that actually goes into making a game?

Yeah, that's a good question. I think you asked a variation on that in the email before. It's a really interesting one. There are things -- things get hammered if they don't have a solid 60 frames a second, you know? That's just one isolated example. There is an impression that it takes a flip of a switch that the developer forgot to hit. But, I mean, the overall complexity of game development in constructing virtual worlds is not very well understood because there's so much to it. Just the learning curve to not even making a game but making good assets is huge. Like, the level of knowledge required to simulate even a simple world is quite large.

So, there's a gap. But that's not necessarily a bad one because it's kind of nice that it's kind of mystifying, you know? Say not every person that reads a novel is a novelist. Most of them aren't.

Right.

It's nice that there's this element -- you know, people are assuming they know how it works. Most people, when you're a kid, you think movies are just people talking. They're just making stuff up as they go along.

[Laughs.]

But that only happens if it's done very well.

When I was a kid, I used to think -- you know jingles? Songs for commercials?

Yeah.

I used to think it was a very bizarre coincidence -- an amazing coincidence -- that there would be songs about life insurance. [Laughs.]

Yeah. Right.

I thought it already existed in that state. "Where did they find this? That's so weird!"

Yeah! So, games are sort of a mystery to a lot of people. That's kind of a good thing. I think there's an element of all art that we are subconsciously seeking, which is an element of this paint stroke seems to not be done by a human hand. That this is somehow beyond comprehension how this was constructed. Or to simply not know how a thing was done. To cover up one's footprints is a good quality in art. So, there's that aspect.

But you were asking more about --

In the email I had used the word "empathy," I think?

Right.

This question is a little bit more about --

Oh, not at all!

Just the way that the audience can be abusive of creators stemming from a place of their just not understanding what the process is.

Right. Yeah, that's an interesting one. [Pause.] Well, the development of every game in general is obviously very different. I don't know if you need any additional information when you're receiving a piece of art or whatever it is. It's like a blog post or a game or a photograph. Like, if you need additional information saying, "Well, that was the last thing they wrote before they died," or something, if that makes an impact on it, I don't know. It's a very postmodern thing, like, changing one's experience of a thing based on information not contained in the thing itself. I don't know. Like, I think I answered that the same way. I don't think there needs to be great sympathy there.

Right.

But, in fact, I think things are quite sympathetic. The fact that I was reviewed at all for Mountain was a surprise to me. The fact that so many websites picked up on it was a shock. I think that it benefited -- from my perspective back then, I'd say Mountain got more press in a week than a decade of animation work got in a decade. So, there's -- you know, indie games do benefit from the fact that the same outlets that are covering these giant, multimillion-dollar franchises are also covering what people are up to in their bedrooms is a good thing, because there's a giant separation in animation between feature animation and short animation. They're not covered by the same people. People just do not care about shorts. So, in games, it's all kind of put together. An indie game can win an award the same way -- can win the highest award in the games world as a AAA thing.

What is that highest award?

I don't know. I don't think there's an Oscar for games.

[Laughs.] I was going to ask you a little bit about awards, but, yeah, I don't know either.

I don't know. I think it's still probably forming. But, you know, the fact that -- I think there's a lot of places that are giving them out. You have, I guess, GDC has one and I don't know. Various -- when I was at E3 it was like every publication had their own award.

[Laughs.]

Some games, you go around, have 40 stickers of awards that they've won: best of show and all of that stuff. You know, the fact that that these giant things exist alongside these very personal, or rather, just independent things is great. The fact that -- you know, I'm making this game essentially, I think of it as a total art project. I'm not at all thinking of the market or the existing audience. There's no genre to it and so on and yet Sony is putting it in their things, in their shows when they're doing them. That's amazing to me. So I think it's good. I think ultimately -- I mean, look, I only know my experience within it.

Right.

So, it doesn't apply to everybody. But I had no connections in this world and I came at it from such a left field. I wasn't giving people anything they necessarily were asking for and yet I managed to have a game and then make enough money to make another one. To me, that's amazing. That doesn't happen most of the time in other things. At least in other things I've tried. So, I have only my experience, but it's been a good one. Coming at it from the perspective of knowing animation, I think it's great. I'm really happy about that the whole thing exists and there are so many people talking about stuff.

Insert

Talking about awards, your shorts have won awards. I'm curious if you have a sense of the correlate for games just from anything you've heard or seen. I'd be curious to hear you talk about: Is there anything measurable that winning awards has done for you? Or does that happen for people in games, where winning an award does something? [Laughs.] Or is it just a thing that you say you've won?

Yeah, I think it probably does different things for different people.

Yeah.

There is an idea, which is as soon as somebody does something good, society conspires to make sure he never does it again.

[Laughs.]

I think the idea there is expressed in awards. Like, you can award somebody to death.

Hmm.

I've seen it happen. I remember my first short -- I've had shorts that won no awards and shorts that have won loads and I don't value one over the other. But I remember with one short that I did that was winning a lot, it got to 40 awards and I had never won anything for my work or for anything in my life. I'm not an athletic person, unsurprisingly. I think most people in videogames may be not.

[Laughs.]

But I was never able to compete in sports and think like that. And so, I went through all of school not having that -- no trophies or medals or anything. And then suddenly I had this overflow of awards. To a certain extent, it's distracting. It's very distracting because what it's saying to you on an emotional and subconscious level is it's saying: "Do more of this." And you might not be thinking that. You might have 10 other things you want to do. As an artist, particularly when you're young and you're just figuring stuff out and you have freedom to do different things, you don't want to do the same thing again. You don't want to repeat yourself. And so, I remember a lot of people were kind of mad at me because I decided to not submit this short for the Academy stuff that year, after it qualified. The reason for that was I read -- I looked up the people that had won the Oscar for short animations. The people who won, I hadn't heard of any of them. That was an interesting phenomenon to me, I thought. I heard some stories from people like: "Oh, they won the Oscar and then they went to LA and they just sort of were flying around from studio to studio and then nothing happened and it's 10 years later." I was like -- there's something about being hungry that awards can poison. I think I tweeted about [not entering] it at the time and people were like -- you could read that as being very conceited. I could totally understand why people would say that's a conceited thing to do, because who knows what would happen? But it's hard. I remember that emotional state of mind being like very, very -- I was unprepared for it. I was unprepared for any kind of success.

So, there is a destructive element to these things. That's the overall thing I'm saying. So, there's that and there's also the fact that I lived for at least a year and I was able to fund projects from actual monetary awards. I don't know if there's any monetary awards in games, but there is in animation. You can -- I was able to fund another short just from award money. That was really beneficial. I think that's the only form of award that has a measurable benefit.

[Laughs.] Money?

Yeah, you get money. Because that's fuel. That can keep you alive. The award itself is just sort of meaningless and like I said -- it's an unpopular opinion but it does have a destructive element to it as well.

Well, oftentimes in videogames, like, whenever the BAFTA nominations come out, I always see people I know upset or feeling like "wrong" things are being nominated or they're not rewarding risks being taken. But the other end of that is -- and I'm not singling this out for any particular reason other than I remember it. Which is, I was sent a copy of Just Cause 3.

Yeah.

I don't know if you're familiar with that series.

Yes. I haven't played it but I know exactly what it is.

So, on the cover of the box it says: "Winner of 12 awards." I think for a lot of stuff in videogames, you know, like, we talked about conceptually is it weird or is it not weird? I see this on a box and there's no context. What does that actually mean? Does that mean something to you? Like, if you go to a Best Buy or a Target or whatever and you see that on the cover of a game box, does that mean anything to you?

Maybe not particularly.

Yeah.

But I do think it has a significance for other people. Say you're buying a thing for a friend or for your child or something and it has some award for art or story, then you'll be like, "Okay, then that's peer approval." You can do that. You know the games industry very well, so you know there's sort of an untrustworthy element to some of these things. So maybe it has less of an effect. I think that that makes a difference.

That's true. That's true.

It's really -- there's still very interesting films coming out of all over the place. They don't have much of a chance to compete with Hollywood -- I mean, art is in a very decadent phase. It's very hard for indie film to compete and to get seen. And so having awards is really beneficial for that. And also for indies. Like, indie developers won't have -- you don't start an indie game thinking, "I'm going to spend half of the budget on publicity." But, you know, you don't have the luxury. So that is definitely beneficial. And so I think that there is a good thing about those.

From a strict perspective as a developer and from the point of view of, "Look, I need to be in a comfortable state of mind to be able to produce things," on some level they're destructive. But at the same time, I think they serve a purpose. There's that element but there's also the fact that you're just there with your friends and everyone is looking for the next thing and they get to celebrate that. That's just a beautiful part of humanity that we do this kind of thing. That we just get together and say, "Here. It's you this time." That's all great.

But speaking more about the emotional perspective again, I remember the first I was ever at an awards ceremony in my life. I was 22 or 23 and I was in Berlin and I had never shown my film in a film festival before. I was at this award ceremony and I remember that there was an American contingency there who had a short, a live-action short. They announced all the awards and when the last one was announced and it wasn't them -- I was talking to these people. You know, you all kind of get to know each other. And, you know, they flew their actors and their producer and probably five or six people out. And when the last one was announced, they just got up and left and they were visibly angry. I just watched them, sitting along the row. I was like, "How sad is that that you really cared so much for this thing that you're now just wallow in self-pity for not having won this thing?”

That sort of was an initial -- I remember back then thinking that this can be a poisoned chalice and can bring out the worst in some people. Some people, you know, like Woody Allen and some other people probably just don't participate in awards at all because of that dimension of it. So, it's very good. It's good and bad. I don't have a fixed opinion on that thing.

Insert

Sure, no, that's valid. Well, just talking a little about that and people's opinions and the conclusions they draw, I sort of want to circle back to something I mentioned earlier, which is that Medium piece you wrote. [Laughs.] I don't know how long ago it feels like you wrote that.

Right.

But you talked a little bit about -- you used the word "ignorant" in the way that some game sites wrote about you, just as far as not doing their due diligence and just copying things other people had said rather than going to your site. I'd be curious to hear you talk about that, but more broadly: Do you remember being struck by the way "games places" wrote about Mountain versus "non-games places" wrote about it? You understand that distinction, right?

Yeah, totally.

Okay.

Well, I should say that, you know, that whole piece came out of a kind of a frustration of being in the middle of two totally divergent opinions. I had never been personally insulted as much as I had with Mountain, but I had also never been praised as much this or had as much validation.

[Laughs.]

So, there was no consensus that ran through the thing. I sort of felt like -- and the consensus overall changed over time. I think I wrote in there that the Steam reviews were initially very negative and then they swung positive when people realized, "Oh, there's more to this and it's actually trying something. It's at least not hurting anybody.”

I was experiencing that from my perspective and trying to communicate that. I definitely don't have anything against people that are going to come to something like that and say, "This is bad. This is terrible." Everybody has their perspectives and to be honest, I have nothing against that. The thing that more energized me was the fact that they were guessing intentions and especially, like, being called a charlatan and things like that were very hurtful to me because I don't know how much -- I was thinking, like: "Look, maybe somebody saw more of my comic-leaning stuff and just thinks, 'He's just joking around.'"

And I understand that. There's a certain trust you have with an audience that's slightly broken when you start messing around with it or you start doing totally non-serious things or not sincere things. So, perhaps that was part of it. But I just thought, "I worked so hard on this that that's just unfair." The discussion around it was just like -- there were some people within games writing that were fully interested and kind of, I don't like this term "got it" or whatever, like there's some sort of secret code. There's not. It's just that they were open to the idea.

And so, that happened inside and outside of games writing. Even recently, there was a video by -- you know the YouTuber Markiplier?

Yeah.

He's a really bigger YouTuber and I actually didn't subscribe to him and I was just browsing YouTube and it was a recommended video. I was like, "Weird!" I thought it must've been old because nothing has come out of him in a long time. He sat down and played it for 15 minutes and I'm expecting the worst because it's like, "Hey guys! What's going on! It's Markiplier!"

[Laughs.]

It's YouTuber tone of discussion. You know, which needs to comment on everything and needs to speak. It's a very interesting video to watch because he actually completely was onboard. He totally had a good time and enjoyed the thing and even though he's trying to fill in every gap with the joke and a funny comment, he towards the end was like, "I like this kind of thing. I think games can be anything and it's cool that something like this is out there and it's just sweet and nice and it makes me feel something." That was the most beautiful thing because I think for a lot of people the YouTuber stuff maybe represents a threat or it's like a not very nuanced reading of things, but this was as much of a good reaction as I could ever hope for or ever feel like -- you know, that's great. I was really happy about that. You know, so, it surprised me, that kind of thing. It would be very prideful or, I don't know, pretentious of me to be like, "Oh, I want serious people to write." I don't care about that.

[Laughs.]

Just being able to feel a certain thing or to have a certain type of thought about something that isn't like, "This is a joke. This is a scam." [Laughs.] Or that I'm a charlatan. That was -- yeah.

Yeah, no, I mean in a way, isn't that the thing that I think a lot of people are pushing for or wanting for in games, is that unexpected reaction rather than this rigid segmentation of: "This group only likes this. That group only likes that.”

Yeah. One-hundred percent. It's very much like -- I mean, I was just at Fantastic Arcade in Austin.

Yeah.

I played a bunch of games on those laptops there and I saw a bunch of talks and I was just amazed by what's going on. There was nothing there you could say, "Oh, that's this genre things." People are really going at the larger project of describing reality with this new medium in new ways that we couldn't have predicted before. So, the larger game going on in indie games I think is more interesting than ever. It's going to be harder and harder to write about this with certain expectations.

That's good.

More and more need to write about it with a totally open mind as these things start coming out and finding audiences. I mean, it's really a truly new thing. You're going to -- it's like we've satisfied so many genre things that you're finding these new branches and tendrils coming out in new directions and you're just trying things. That's a really good thing.

Are there things in videogames that you know you wouldn't make but you'd like to see? Like, in other words, these are things that wouldn't be coming from you or a place you would create but you'd like to experience them yourself, whether it's a topic or characters or shapes? [Laughs.]

That's interesting. Maybe I'm too myopic. I just think about what I would like to make.

[Laughs.]

I really think that's true and I'm not being facetious. I need to think about that. Like, I know what I'm not interested in. I have no interest in puzzles. I have friends who make games like Alexander Bruce, who did Antichamber. It's a great game and I really enjoyed it. But at the same time, I simply -- or, like, The Witness or something. I know this is doing things to my brain that I just don't enjoy and I don't think -- I have feelings about certain areas in games that I have no interest in that.

And I know that many people would say it's an essential component to games, that those things are core things, but my brain doesn't work like that and I think that there's loads of different things. But I don't know. If I really wanted to see it but not make it? [Pause.] I can't answer that. That's a really good question, though.

[Laughs.] Thank you. Well, this last one is going to be similarly unanswerable. What do you think videogames have accomplished?

[Pause.] That is a broad one.

Yeah.

[Pause.]

Typically -- I'll talk so that you can see if there's anything you react to. Typically people will laugh and say "everything" or they will laugh and say "nothing."

Yeah. It really depends. The word "accomplish" is so open and subjective to different people. If you were a producer or an accountant at a game studio, you'd be like -- they would have one story. You have people in story that think, "Oh, you can do all of this branching narrative thing and that's amazing." So, yeah. That's probably why you're asking it. It does benefit by asking different people that question because it's always going to be different.

Right.

But for me, the largest accomplishment is probably the tools themselves, the technology of essentially real-time simulation have expanded just dramatically from very simple -- what it was five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 and 20 years ago. You're witnessing the growth of a medium and technologies used to simulate the natural world that are just breathtaking. That exposes itself in things that don't get a lot of press such as normal maps and various -- using multiple cores. Having integrated game engines that can easily build with just the click of a button. Having a wealth of an increasing library of assets and built-in functionality that can let so many people make something. Like, I guess I'm talking about the technology.

That's part of my attraction to it, is the tools. Like, animation itself? All animation software, with very few exceptions, at least in 3D, their growth has been to simulate the natural world in its shape and in how it responds to light. All of this work done that's been demoed at SIGGRAPH 10, 20 years ago and now it's in mainstream software. All of that stuff has had this other development in real-time that's gone to a place where it's almost indistinguishable now. So, the methods of rendering in traditional 3D stuff, software, is quite different than it is in real-time. But real-time stuff has caught up so fast that there's things now where you can't tell the difference, depending on what you're trying to represent. So, just the power of representation is the thing and the variety within that that's possible within that is the most interesting thing, and obviously the accessibility of these tools. Now you have things like Dreams coming out, which is essentially a game within a game, which is a beautiful evolutionary step where we're starting to create -- you know, that's the main property of life, is to generate more of yourself. This sort of meta thing is starting to happen, and that's beautiful, too.

But, yeah, the shortest way of saying it is what it's doing on the technical side -- the power of representation possible. I don't know how to reduce that, but I've seen it grow and just evolve and it's really impressive.

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