Summer in Brooklyn

It’s been a sleepy summer for the Brooklyn Game Ensemble. Nathalie and Eric were out of the country until last week, and though the rest of the team’s been in New York, we’ve had our hands full with other projects, vacations, and summer hijinx. Still, we managed to get together and meet a few times; I can scarcely believe that I took this photo of the Brooklyn Bridge during one such session. How many people get to work on a rooftop with such a great view of the East River and Manhattan’s skyline? BGE programmer Kris Schlachter does on a regular basis, since it’s his rooftop, and I felt pretty lucky too!

Like a lot of independent game development teams, the Brooklyn Game Ensemble is nomadic, distributed and goes without an official headquarters. Earlier in the sumer, Eric and Nathalie were bouncing between Berlin and Paris while setting up their room-sized art-gallery game, INTERFERENCE. We caught up with them on Skype occasionally, and enjoyed a fascinated squint through an iPad camera at the results of their architecture+game-design+art+mischief collaboration: five hanging game boards of riddled metal filigree studded with poplar cylinders. On other days, we’ve all worked from home and instant messaged, but we’ve always found that we can better focus our thoughts and energy on LIBRARY when we’re able to meet face-to-face. Before the school year ended in May, we were convening regularly at NYU’s amazing Game Center, where we’ve now returned for the fall semester. Through most of the summer we were clasically rootless freelancers: meeting in back yards, rooftops, and even hotel lobbies with free wi-fi on several occasions. (Pro tip from Josh: in fancy hotels that like to think of themselves as experts in hospitality, as long as you look like you’re supposed to be there, nobody will ever kick you out of the lobby!)

Over the summer I also had a chance to see Indie Game: the Movie, a documentary that’s been getting a lot of attention in game development circles. I’m still not sure how much attention it’s going to get from the rest of the world; when I talk game development to people who don’t play games, I still encounter mindsets akin to “Oh, there are people that make games? They don’t just magically appear brought by storks from Japan?” Preliminary reports from friends in areas where it’s being screened more widely seem to indicate some astonishment at how BRUTAL the life of an indie game developer seems to be. That reaction doesn’t come as much surprise to me; Indie Game dramatizes a generous helping of struggle and suffering, borne over months and years by teams of white guys in their 20s and 30s as they labor to deliver their quirky, highly polished games to the world.

The games all happen to be puzzle-platformers with lo-fi 2D graphics and quirky themes, practically a cliche of the independent games scene at this point, but each game is genuinely great, each in their own way, and each shows the marks of creators grappling with meaning and creative struggle. More tangible struggles are evident too: Tommy of Super Meat Boy fame grows visibly emaciated, his friends worried by his diabetes, low income, and meager diet. Meanwhile, Phil Fish performs a convincing portrayal of a monomaniac whose every tortured feeling is wrapped up in the make-or-break of Fez. All of the game creators had worked on other games before, although the Super Meat Boy and Fez teams come across as closer to the stereotype of eager, unsullied young creatives surviving on instant noodles and dream. Jonathan Blow of Braid, on the other hand, talks about spending years in the “trenches” of the game industry, working on other people’s games and projects he wasn’t invested in before finally being able to realize his own ideas.

The Brooklyn Game Ensemble has a slightly different approach to independent development. We usually have nearly 40 years of game development experience sitting in the room when we’re talking shop. With those decades comes a lot of useful experience in creative process as well as a desire to explore uncharted territory, since between us we’re familiar with a lot of what’s come before, and helped create some of it. There’s no doubt that a highly exploratory process is hard — we didn’t even stake our initial claims near somewhat familiar shores like “jumping on platforms” to get our bearings — but it’s very much the kind of challenge we want to tackle. Although we’re similar to Jon Blow in that we’re experienced game industry veterans, we’ve chosen not to devote all our time (or savings) to this project. Rather than join the now-popularized “devote your whole existence to the game” model of development, I like to think that we’re working to develop a sustainable but productive way of creating a game, a practice that lets LIBRARY exist alongside other game projects — and other important things in our lives, including teaching, family, loved ones, and getting enough food and sleep.

During most of the week, we’re working on other games which may not excite us in the ways that LIBRARY does. I’ll readily admit that some of the work I do is on games that I wouldn’t necessarily sign my name to — often just because I’m not making the same level of creative contribution that I am on LIBRARY or other major works. Still, it pays the bills! When you’re fortunate enough to make a living doing what you love, you also find opportunities in every project to tune your skills, learn something new and incorporate more ideas, techniques, reflections and even understanding of pitfalls into your creator-owned projects. Plus, it keeps us from having to survive on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or move away from New York City, which has incredibly vibrant scenes for game academics & independent game development — but as everyone knows, boasts a very high cost of living too. (We may be the Brooklyn Game Ensemble, but most of Brooklyn ain’t that much cheaper these days.)

For LIBRARY as a game, the kind of living, working, and creating we’re doing has meant a long gestation and probably a longer childhood as we lock down our core gameplay concepts and start into real production. That’s OK with us; we’re not in a rush to storm the gates of The Game Establishment or prove ourselves to our peers. I think of us as more like gardeners: finding a new seed in strange terrain, trying to see how it’ll grow. Maybe one day it’ll bear strange and delicious fruit, and that’s worth waiting for, cultivating the rich soil of life that will help it grow.

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