1. Bad Teachers
I was raised in Montessori school until I was 8. This shaped my worldview.
Public school is public school to me. Montessori is school.
Montessori was about learning.
Montessori was to help support us learning the skills we needed to live a curious and engaging life.
Public school was about washed up adults imprinting their shortcomings onto a new generation, so that the teacher’s failings could achieve immortality.
I hate the people who taught me when I moved out of Montessori school.
My life is dedicated to eradicating the kind of bad, lazy, and despotic teaching that they wanted to impart.
I am harsh on teachers. I hold teachers to a high standard. It’s gotten me into trouble. It will get me into more trouble.
Bad teachers don’t like being called out as such.
2. Can You Write It Down On A Piece Of Paper?
I didn’t know how bad it would be, leaving Montessori school, but I knew I didn’t like what was happening.
I understand the logic behind taking me out of Montessori school. The class sizes are small, and as you advance in years, the classes are small enough that you nearly are getting homeschooled out side the house.
Mom wanted to make sure I knew how to make and keep friends, so we needed to get me into schools with more people.
It was a quantity over quality thing unfortunately. But in those days, there was no internet, and the prospects of people of differing locations but harmonic ideas was not on the public’s radar. I’m writing this to you, and you can be anywhere in the world reading it. If we’d known then what we know now, it might not have seemed so dire to get me into a population, since in my lifetime the population would shrink to the size of a handheld smartphone. At the time, it seemed prudent.
I have already, and will talk more later, on the specifics of moving out of Montessori into the general population, but today’s story is about who I was, in my last days of Montessori, and whether that version of me would be proud of what I know how to do.
On my last day of Montessori, I begged the computer teacher for help.
This was the 90’s and computers were not an every day appliance, so Computer Class was not an every day class. It was a curiosity. It was, “here some of you might need this, let’s help you familiarize yourself with these computer things and see if you’re better off.”
I remember seeing the computer teacher’s ability to use Microsoft Paint to paint actual things. Low-resolution pixel shading, and verisimilitude. I envied that skill, it looked like magic to me.
I still don’t know much pixel art.
But that’s because, in my lifetime, pixels sprouted an extra dimension, and instead of painting with cubes, we began to sculpt with cubes. Thinking on it, if Montessori-Me could see the if-i-never-gained-the-stress-weight and my-hair-didn’t-gray version of myself, voxel (a voxel is a 3D pixel, “volumetric pixel”) cartoon avatar that I use to talk to the world, I bet he’d be excited to become a person who knows how to make something like that.
But that wouldn’t be the thing that would have made him happy.
What would have made me happy is that I learned to make a game.
The last few months of my time in Montessori, the computer teacher was collecting our class’s ideas, and he was going to turn them into a video game.
This was the most fun project I had ever been a part of.
It slayed me to leave before we were done.
The help I asked for, on my last day of class, before I was to be sent out of Montessori into the world, was could the teacher, write down what he was going to do to turn our ideas into video games please?
The teacher said, “I couldn’t fit it all on a piece of paper, it would fill several books to explain what it takes to make a game.”
“Oh,” I said dejectedly, and left the computer class for the last time.
3. Twenty Books A Month
I’m in a summer reading program that my sister encouraged me to sign up for, as a way to get embedded in my new community, since my mother and I just moved across the country.
We’re a little over half way through the month, and I have read and logged excerpts from 20 books so far this month.
Every single one of them impacts my ability to make a game.
I made my first full “contains a beginning, middle, end” game when I was 13 years old, so half a decade from when I walked away from Montessori not having a clue how to make a game of my own.
I didn’t make the game from scratch, I used a program called RPG Maker 95 which came with tiny pixel/cartoon characters and buildings that you could use for fairly simple mechanics. Most of the activities in my game were moving around and picking things up. But it was a game!
It had music, and sounds, and story. You could lose! You could finish it! It had terrible typos because I didn’t understand that people vote “Aye,” not “I” and by the time I learned this fact, the game was printed to disc and I had lost the source files to change it!
It was a game.
To be honest, I think if I merely could show off the game I made at 13, to the me who was leaving Montessori, he would have been proud.
If I explained that the next time I made a game with a beginning, middle, and end, would be in my thirties, I think he would have been furious. And then he would have been confused, when I explain that it wasn’t because I gave up on making games, but that rather, every year of my life in that 20+ year period was devoted in major ways to being able to make games, life, just didn’t go in a straight path like I expected it would.
Twenty books so far this month, and each one is helping me a little bit.
One of the books is explaining engineering in our modern world, so that I understand how utilities work, so I can extrapolate which utilities would have to be present on a spaceship.
One of the books is about playing a game like Dungeons and Dragons, but instead of slaying monsters, it follows the life of the adventurers while they’re stuck in a rehab together.
One of the books is about how it took 10,000 or more drawings and pieces of art to create the game that changed my life, Mass Effect.
One of the books is about how better to portray myself as an asshole so that you’ll laugh at me more when I write about my life.
One of the books is about Bloomingdales. I don’t know how that one will help yet. Except it’s about people changing from the old business model to something that people thought was dumb but eventually won out as the prevailing model for consumerism, and I’m working on something that is the Bloomingdales of video game design then!
I wanted to make games.
But what quickly happened was that I entered into a world outside of Montessori, and learned that indeed, I had been sheltered. So while I was in a safe space, the Montessori space, I wanted to make games to tell fun stories, and see them come to life. But by the time I’d acquired enough capacity and skill to make full games of my own, I was a changed person, who had some inkling that the world was fucked up, and might need some un-fucking, and how was a video game going to help with that?
I just mentioned a game called Mass Effect. I mentioned it because the art book for the game is one of the twenty books I’m reading parts of this month, and because that game changed my life, I mentioned.
That game made me realize that you could use games to make people cry.
Mass Effect made me emotional.
Mass Effect told stories that were about real human suffering, and the need for us to do better for one another.
I didn’t have games like that growing up, because most excellent games had not been invented yet. Some of the greatest feats of game design existed, but I was a kid and they were over my head. We were lucky to have Mars Moose and Reader Rabbit.
Steve Jobs said it’s our responsibility to collect the best of humanity and preserve it and proliferate it to the world. That was what drove him when he was trying to get computers into everyone’s hands. He seems like he was a bastard to work for, and that he was short on giving credit to the legions of people who worked for him, and the brilliant minds who could wrangle his demands into the creations of physical products that the world benefited from.
But his intent, I think, was right. We must collect the best of humanity, and infuse it into our work, and make sure that when we use this massive, replicating power, of the technology that can spread our ideas far and wide, the ideas that we leave behind are worthy.
SO that’s why it’s taken fucking forever for me to even get the beginnings of some of the games that I and Montessori-Me can be proud of.
4. Get Rid Of These Rats Please. Then, Your Second Quest.
Having to fight rats, in the basement of the local inn, is such a cliche, used by countless games, that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it parodied.
It’s a lazy quest, and I’m hard on quest designers the way I’m hard on teachers, because the quest designer has the job like the teacher has, of providing relevant information to another person, who will use that information to be better equipped for the tasks ahead.
Fight the rats in the basement of the inn, fulfills some basic requirements for helping the player get acclimated at the start of the game.
You want the player to ease into the mechanics of the game, so you don’t want their first fight to be too complicated, and you don’t want high stakes if they don’t understand yet how to best survive in this game you’ve made for them, so you fight rats because the rats are not dangerous, and the fight will be simple.
On the day I made my version of this quest, I had 7 hours to make a new game, from concept to publish.
There is a practice in game design circles called Game Jams where you are given a set amount of time to make a game from scratch, using a theme or prompt, and in my thirties, after having released no full game for decades, I latched onto a game jam on the last day it was running.
The jam was meant to take two weeks. I had 7 hours.
As hard as I am on quest designers, I know that they are making cheap quests, because they are not paid in such a way as to afford well-thought-out quests, as those would be more expensive for the game publisher to purchase. When you have 7 hours to make a game, you don’t have time to collect the best that humanity has to offer and weave it into the end-experience the user will have.
7 hours means: you benchmark.
Fight the rats is a staple. If I have 7 hours going in, I know exactly where this fight will take place, it’s in the basement of an inn. This tells me I need an inn. I can start immediately on building the artwork for that inn, while I figure out what the fuck else is going to be in this game.
I also know there will be some kind of combat system, or else some system for removing the rats. If there is no obstacle to removing the rats then it is nearly a Power Point presentation with better graphics, so there should be some impediment to dealing with the rats. But I don’t have to figure that out just yet, because I can be focusing on taking the stock, preinstalled version of an inn that comes with RPG Maker MV (still used the same software, just the updated version of it).
In the time it took me to get the basement and the ground floor and the upper floor of the inn together (though I used the default layout that came with the software, I redressed everything in a Cyberpunk aesthetic so that it felt more “my own creation”) I managed to figure out what the gameplay should be.
I have a great many game mechanics that I have concocted but not put into practice. This stems from the 1,000 people that I am not, but which regularly make up the staff who produce professional video games. In the traditional route of making games, one person comes up with ideas, another person programs, another person make the art, another person writes the stories, and also they are teams of persons not individuals, and for reasons I have written about elsewhere, and surely will talk about more in the future, I had opted to perform all of those roles myself. So many of my game ideas were still “in theory,” and it was time to pluck one of them from the ether, and make RPG Maker turn that game idea into a game.
Video games are essentially colonization simulators with a “colonization is good” narrative. You move to a new region, the people have problems, you solve their problems, you’re their savior, you take their natural resources to disproportionately augment your own power, and you move onto the next region.
They’re sadly fun.
Like it’s a really really fun model that is in almost all games, and the real world analog is atrocious.
This is why it’s taken me so many extra years to get a damn game released, because I’m working around some pretty gnarly momentum that the industry unwittingly has ginned up.
(This is a part of why I’m working alone and not in a team; teams have much harder-to-change momentum than an individual has, and I won’t contribute to the momentum we have.)
I love collecting things in games. Love it. I don’t love games where you have to collect every single thing, or you lose, and I don’t like games where you’re punished for missing something and cannot come back, and I do not feel compelled to pick up every single object the designers have placed in the world.
I like picking things up, such that they might be useful for my character’s ability to traverse that in-game world.
I want to explore the world, and get better at helping the world, when I am playing a game. And often the way that works is I fight monsters and get better armor and weapons, so I can survive fights with tougher monsters who were previously blocking my path.
The game I made when I was 13, was about the American Colonists, throwing off the control of the British Empire. It 100% casts a bunch of white guy landowners as the victim because that’s what my history class told me to know.
It is really easy to make a game about white guy victims who struggle to gain enough power to be the author of their own destiny.
So long as you don’t have any context for why that might be a problematic story that ignores a lot of the compounded problems we have on the planet because of how popular that story is, it’s REALLY easy to make that game.
I love running around getting stronger in a game. But I know now that a game which glorifies the theft of resources from one location to augment one’s self, is not the best of humanity, and if we ever have an alternative, really isn’t the kind of game that’s going to elevate us as a culture that feels responsibility to one another.
So my game about fighting the rats, is about collection of a different kind.
6. Apples Get Eaten. Ideas Multiply.
George Bernard Shaw said:
If I have an apple
And you have an apple
And we exchange apples
Then you will have an apple
And I will have an apple
We’ll still each have 1 apple.
If I have an idea
And you have an idea
And you give me your idea
And I give you my idea
Now, both of us have 2 ideas.
Theft of an object is shitty. But the acquisition of more knowledge, or wisdom, or love, is an abstract acquisition that did not require the removal of the acquired object from its original owner.
I wanted a game, where you go around, not collecting the resources of a region, but collecting the experience you have in exposure to the new region.
My rats game, with all 7 hours I had to work with, takes place entirely within the inn, and the inn’s courtyard.
Instead of wandering down to the basement to learn about the complicated combat system the game has, my system is quite simple:
If you have the magic points, you can cast the spell, and the spell instantaneously takes care of the rats, they teleport away, we know not where.
If you want to cast the spell, you have to quest for the magic points.
But instead of siphoning the magic points out of someone else’s possession, the magic points are an analog for your own buoyancy of spirit.
Get recharged enough, and you can cast the magic.
7. Disappointed? Montessori-Me?
I don’t think Montessori-Me would have been very impressed by the implications of my game because I wasn’t old enough to understand the reasons behind my little 7 hour game, and why if it has any brilliance at all, it’s not in what’s included, but in what I chose to abstain from including.
The game plays like this, you wake up, depressed, in some cyberpunk hotel room, with a vague statement about someone important in your life and how they are now gone.
You also state to yourself that you’ve got to get enough energy to deal with the rats in the basement today.
And you walk around collecting that energy.
You brush your teeth, and use the cinnamon mouthwash you got in that care package from home.
You fix the temperature in your room to be a little better.
You turn on the radio.
You read the newspaper.
You take a walk.
You go around the inn, scraping by for any opportunity to put yourself back together (denoted to the player by a fairly obvious sparkle indicating they can interact with an object and gain a point of magic).
When you have 10 energy, or magic points, you go to the basement, and there are two rats.
You have a spell that costs 5 magic, and banishes a rat. You cast it twice.
Small victory. And that’s the end.
Would I have been impressed by this game? I do not think so. My life didn’t turn maudlin until I left Montessori, and I would probably have been confused by the somber tone of the game.
I would have been confused about how, if I made the “fight the man” game at 13, why it would take decades to make this banish-the-rats piece of crap.
But the very next year of my life, I think the game would have made sense.
I think the game would have been my liferaft through the times that were to come.
The pains of leaving Montessori were not that I had a life that was that bad, but that I had experienced sanity, and then had the sanity stripped away.
I’d known what I’d lost. And I had no idea if I could ever get that sanity back.
8. Games About Real Heroics: Maintenance Work.
The theme of my games always center around rebuilding.
Later in the year of the rats-game, I made my first small 3D game, and you put a crashed spaceship back together.
I also made a game about the tortoise and the hare, and how to beat the fast-ones, you must build up your own power first, and rely on the leverage of your development to take big steps and go far.
I care about games that help us do the real work of life.
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” -Kurt Vonnegut
Every 25 years, the roads have to be maintained, I’m told. And that just like our predecessors passed that cost down to the future, with no plan for how to pay for the maintenance, that even as we cheer at our necessary movement to solar and wind, we do not at present have a plan for how to pay for the replacement equipment in a quarter century, nor do we know how to dispose of the used up bits when they’re used up.
Life is not about glorifying the defeat of your enemies. It would have made for an easier career as a game designer if I believed in that crap of hierarchical survival of only the strongest few.
Our reality is interdependence. We all need each other, if we even want to hang onto the luxuries we hold.
That book on everyday engineering in our contemporary world, you would not believe the number of people it took just so you could read this writing. We need each other.
Going forward, we have to better acknowledge that.
Life is not about campaigning for the destruction of your enemy. Life is about making sure the trains run on time (it wasn’t a book, so it didn’t get included, but I also researched trains this month, through a real-world commuter-train simulator program, and let me tell you, getting the trains to run on time is no joke).
I don’t think I would have been proud of myself, I think I would have been bored.
I liked space ships and blowing things up and simple plots that were easy to digest. Turning chores into video game content would have made me believe I’d lost a bet somewhere along the way, and was now living out some pale shadow of the life I was meant to live.
But I’m proud.
I believe in the work.
I think in my lifetime, games can shift to being about taking care of one another, and bolstering ourselves not through the stolen resources of another, but with the exchange of ideas that lifts us out of our own ass-backwardness and into competency enough to be the person we’d always promised ourselves we’d be.
I think Montessori-Me would have struggled to be proud of that very dull sounding, heavy sounding life.
But I know how to make pixel art come to life in 3D.
So he wouldn’t have been that unhappy about everything.
[Above Image: Me and Me, standing on the deck of the MV Spartan, built in 1942, and model scanned into 3D by the Scottish Maritime Museum and entered into the public domain. I didn’t have any sets of my own to work with at the time…]