I have a dream in the games industry.
It’s pretty simple: my dream is to work on the kinds of games that made me want to work in the games industry.
I realized I wanted to make games when I was 8 years old. It was the moment I beat Ocarina of Time on the N64 and saw the game credits. As developer names faded in and out over the panning vistas of Hyrule, underscored by the gentle melodies of the "End Credits" track, I had an epiphany: PEOPLE make games. I could be one of those people, someday.
It was perfect. I loved to read and write stories, and I loved to play games -- so I would be a game story writer, of course! My path was set from that moment on: find a way to write for the video games I loved. And it was an important beacon, because the reality of my day-to-day 8-year-old life was not for the faint of heart.
At that young age, games -- and Zelda, in particular -- were a special escape for me. Growing up, I was the child of bitterly divorced parents, one of whom had terminal substance abuse issues. We were well below the poverty line -- food stamps, Section 8, free lunch, the whole song-and-dance. I subsisted on fast and junk food (because it was cheap), and I was very overweight for it -- clinically obese by age 10, in fact. I had bad acne, thick glasses, crooked snaggleteeth, and a bowl haircut. My clothes came from the Kmart sales rack. I was teased mercilessly about my appearance and economic class. I was on the autism spectrum, to boot, and severely socially anxious -- in other words, no one's first choice of friend.
The one thing I did have -- or at least had access to -- was an N64. It belonged to the son of my dad's girlfriend, and twice a week during visits, it was the portal to a life where I wasn't picked on, I wasn't less-than, I wasn't the butt of anyone's joke. I could hide away from the noise and fear and vitriol that suffused my days. In Hyrule, I was a hero. I had friends and loved ones. People counted on me. I had a measure of control over and say in how I spent my time. And when I failed at some task in that world, I could open my save file and try again, as many times as it took, with no one judging or berating me.
I don't have many good memories of my childhood -- save for the stories I consumed as a voracious reader of books and player of games. That's where I found joy and fun in a life that was largely lacking those key adolescent elements.
My subsequent career in games has been varied and fortunate. I’ve worked in four different countries alongside some amazingly talented game developers. The words I’ve written for DragonVale, June’s Journey, and Lily’s Garden have been read by millions of players -- each. The number of words I and my team produced while I was Lead Writer on June’s Journey amounted in the hundreds of thousands -- several novels’ worth of story. I might not have written a novel in book form, but I’ve written the equivalent of a novel a few times over now.
Yet, the dream remains unfulfilled. I repeat: my career in games has been fortunate. But I haven’t achieved my goal. It’s been 26 years since I had my epiphany and set my sights on making games like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Every additional game I played and loved in adolescence went onto that dream-come-true list -- games like Paper Mario, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Dark Cloud.
Are the stories in these games always amazing? Not necessarily. I think we can all agree that Kingdom Hearts’ lore is a bewildering fustercluck -- but they’re fun games, at least to me. That’s sort of the keyword, “fun”.
I’ve worked on games that other people find fun -- but I’m not necessarily the target audience of those games. I’ve yet to work on a game that I, personally, would pick up off a (digital) shelf and invest 40+ hours of my time into. The games I’ve worked on are good, entertaining, well-made games -- do not misunderstand me -- but they don’t appeal to my gaming interests, personally.
I think passionate people do their best work. Look at the indie labors of love that have reached critical acclaim -- Celeste, Stardew Valley, Super Meat Boy, FEZ, The Banner Saga. These games were born of passionate people making the types of games they want to play.
It’s a little harder to be passionate about the development when it’s not a game in which you, as a player, are invested. It’s your job to care and to do your job well, of course, and if you’re a conscientious developer, you’ll try your 150% damnedest to do an exceptional job, even if you, personally, don’t find the game you’re making to be particularly up your alley.
So, while I try my 150% damnedest to make games fun for other people, I continue to dream. I dream that, one day, I’ll make a game that I, personally, find fun.
My tastes nowadays continue the trend started when I was a kid -- I still gravitate towards Nintendo games, and Nintendo-esque games with cheeky, flavorful dialogue. But as I’ve matured, and games have matured, I’ve also found a love for darker, grittier storytelling (which was arguably there all along, given my love for Majora’s Mask).
Here’s a list of the sorts of games that I, personally, find fun, in no particular order, and certainly missing some that I wasn’t able to recall off the top of my head:
- Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- Zelda: Majora’s Mask
- Zelda: Twilight Princess
- Zelda: Skyward Sword
- Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Paper Mario
- Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year Door
- Super Mario 64
- Super Mario Odyssey
- Final Fantasy
- Kingdom Hearts
- The Stanley Parable
- West of Loathing
- Disco Elysium
- Persona 5
- The Life is Strange series
- 80 Days
- Device 6
- Crying Suns
- Cultist Simulator
- Gone Home
- This War of Mine
- Sunless Sea
- World of Horror
- Monument Valley
- Baba is You
- American McGee's Alice: Madness Returns
- Trover Saves the Universe
- Heroes of Might and Magic
- Age of Empires
- The Banner Saga
- Neo Cab
- Stories Untold
- Little Nightmares I & II
- The Flame in the Flood
- Kentucky Route Zero
- Portal & Portal 2
- What the Golf
- Rhythm games, of course (Beat Saber, DDR, Pistol Whip, Pop'n, IIDX, Dancerush, myriad others)
I don’t know if I’ll ever get lucky enough to work on those sorts of games. I’ve certainly applied for the roles (many, many, many of them over the years, to heartbreaking results), but experience begets experience begets experience -- after a while, you find yourself trapped in a niche of your experience's making, your dream hinged on the whim of some hiring manager who might be willing to give you a shot at something that isn't yet on your resume.
If no studio will give me the chance, it might be that the only opportunity I’ll have to work on a game that I, personally, find fun is to make it myself. Which is something I’ve been considering for quite a while -- although the obvious pitfall to solo development is needing a paycheck to put a roof over your head and food in your cat's bowl. Admittedly, I’m lacking in my backend engineering skills. To completely craft a game from the ground up would be a cliffside learning curve that I just can't afford to tackle.
So, I’ll keep dreaming. Keep trying. Keep improving my skills. Keep doing my 150% damnedest to make games that other people find fun. Keep hoping to get lucky. Keep being grateful to have any role in the games industry -- that, importantly, too.
What else can you do? Some dreams just never come true, but you have to keep on going anyway. As long as you keep going, there's a chance, however small, that the dream realized is right around the corner.