Why we need to start killing our dreams: An interview with game designer Xalavier Nelson Jr.
Perusing the virtual buffet of panels at Game Devs of Color Expo 2020 made me as indecisive and hungry (for game design knowledge) as the real thing. And if there was an equivalent to the allure of a heat lamp on ready-to-be-cut prime rib, it was definitely a panel titled in all caps, “KILL YOUR DREAM GAME AND USE ITS BODY FOR PARTS.”
Xalavier Nelson Jr. (he/him/his) was the mastermind of this aggressively named, yet incredibly healing talk about facing moon-shot dreams in game design. Their resume scales the indie gamut from the Y2K message board and content police simulator Hypnospace Outlaw to the distressingly cute and obviously radical SkateBIRD. An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, their upcoming project, was also a featured game at GDoC Expo 2020.
I had the opportunity to interview them about the virtual expo, liminal spaces, un-optimized games, and how we can all get on with our lives now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
From the Intercom: Coming away from GDoC Expo 2020, what stood out to you? What did you think about the online format? What did you think about the social scene?
Xalavier: I think that one of the most notable things about participating in GDoC Expo last year was the odd sensation of realizing that you were surrounded by people who looked like you. The sense that your community was right here in that it was atypical to be surrounded by people who looked like you playing games, making games, building universes that reflected the diversity of the developers who truly built them.
From the Intercom: I think that I wanted to respond to that. People who are brown, people who aren’t in the mostly white to all white spaces, are genuinely missing the physical convention setting because of the visibility. Online we see the text, but not the melanin. That’s the torturous needle we have to thread right now. We were maybe on a couple of precipices of a lot of representation in the room, but now we kind of have to settle for a safer, less tangible, less spiritually physical experience together.
Xalavier: You raise something really interesting. In the sense of not just being physically spiritual. What makes you go to an event and not Netflix? One of the reasons you do so is for the content or the panels. Maybe you bought the ticket and you don’t want to lose out on it. But so much of it is focused on community and the people you might run into. The chances of running into someone you know and having a side conversation, and having your day brightened by one person, that can be really hard to replicate that when you are relegated to a Discord or a Twitch chat that is pretty faceless.
From the Intercom: I wanted to move on specifically to your design, your games, and writing. I wanted to talk about your panel on Saturday. In your talk, “KILL YOUR DREAM GAME AND USE ITS BODY FOR PARTS,” you mentioned that your dream game will save you and kill you. Can you speak to the vulnerability that that sense entails?
Xalavier: As I spoke about in the talk, I believe that everyone has a dream game. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, especially if you’ve been to an in-person game event, if enough sleep deprivation or alcohol is provided, eventually people will start talking like–“You know what would be great? -bangs hand on table- We need Sailor Moon, but what if we made it even more gay and interactive dude? It just makes so much more sense. Fire Emblem but gay!” And people go off on these games that live inside of their hearts.
We’ve got these dream games that live inside our heads that in the process have become septic, poisonous over time. Being aware about that in my own process, showing that generalized vulnerability during the talk, felt very natural and comfortable simply because I know it’s so common. We’ve got these things in our head that are turning against us, but if we can make them work for us again, we have the opportunity to unpack our own design processes and ways of looking at a world at a greater degree than we currently possess.
From the Intercom: It really humanizes the experience of design and production and imagination. I’m going to move into Hypnospace Outlaw, actually. I know it’s already been out, but I had the opportunity to play it last night. I was struck by very specific things in the game that I was hoping you could illuminate a little bit. I’m contextualizing this a bit with An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, and I found similarities in that liminal space, that in-between of places, the 90s early internet aesthetics, and the quirks of exploring an airport, which is a place to get to another place. Can you tell me what it is about these re-imagined in-between spaces that pull you?
Xalavier: I think the most compelling pieces of liminal spaces for me is the potential it offers for providing a bunch of emotionally varied experiences feasibly within the same space, and the space itself, and the experiences themselves being elevated by their context. So on a wild and open alternate universe Y2K internet, you’re looking at pages of teens and of adults and of school teachers and of washed up pop stars and everything else in between. You’re looking at meticulously kept wiki and history pages and news articles which you quickly realize are being paid for and also are not giving the people who pay for them very good value. The entire picture and amount of content there gives you a greater appreciation of everything that exists and the context for everything else that exists.
As someone who has traveled a bunch myself, I have circumnavigated the globe by accident as I mentioned in my talk, I have gone through some of my happiest, strangest, and scariest moments all in airports. When you live in a city, city life has that really odd encounter with an unhoused person on public transportation, that found restaurant around a random corner that you can’t find again. It contributes to making these places bigger and something greater than the sum of its parts. I’m a big believer in modular design as a game developer.
You’ve identified something that I didn’t think about before, whether it’s the internet, or an airport, or something else entirely, the thing we’re seeking from these spaces is the idea of life. Life lived, life as strange as it is, as beautiful as it can be, you don’t get the full range of those experiences in a more contiguous, locked down, more game-like space typically.
From the Intercom: Last night I got stuck in the game, and played all the songs I downloaded while a screensaver of falling hot dogs started to animate. This game is just sitting there. It’s providing that in-between space. What physically struck me was the mechanics of lag, viruses, and loading in Hypnospace Outlaw. I couldn’t accept that they were put there just for aesthetic’s sake. What makes that un-optimized gameplay so interesting?
Xalavier: I like the concept of time based gameplay in general, but the idea of gameplay that is built not to be optimized, built to be slightly inconvenient means that inherently as a player you are given a set of tools and choices including just going along with the thread of the world, which is so much more compelling than having an eternal list of tasks to go through.
By virtue of having things you can’t optimize, that are inconvenient, I realized that those things in the game that were [originally] dinged in interviews form the character of the world by their inclusion. I just love that design space. I love playing around in it and love seeing other people play around in it. Even the choices presented by not making choices just means every one of your actions is more meaningful.
From the Intercom: I really think it speaks to the emergent quality of video games specifically as a medium too. This story reminds me of playing Pikmin. You’re on a timer for 30 days before the oxygen kills your little alien spaceman. I think people hated that they couldn’t do whatever they wanted. But he’s going to die! Accepting those interruptions, the obstacles that don’t give you as much freedom as possible add the level of nuance that creates emergent narratives from the games explicitly designed to be a certain way. As a kid, it gave me a lot of anxiety to play.
Xalavier: As a kid, I never played the Dead Rising games because I was like, “You just have a limited amount of time and you can’t do all the quests? That sounds hell-ish!” But then I actually went back and I tried them years after they came out, and I realized– Oh that’s the entire point of those games. Dead Rising is a perfect example of this because over time, they gave you unlimited time to complete missions as a sandbox RPG. Earlier games weren’t about being a sandbox RPG fighting monsters. It was a game about fighting the forces of entropy itself. You are navigating the map, juggling where things are, who you know, what you know; everything in relation to each other. The game exists in the optimization and the lack of it as opposed to simply churning through the list of tasks.
Despite exponentially more money and polish going into Dead Rising 3, Dead Rising 4, they feel less alive than titles that came out during the Xbox’s launch because those [earlier games] existed in your head. If you can make a game exist in someone’s head, you never lose that.
From the Intercom: I also read your article about how time affects gameplay development–which leads into my next question. You mentioned you have a writing background. How has that journalistic background created nuance in your game design career?
Xalavier: I think it gave me a perspective of feasibility and sustainability, in my game design practice that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t literally spent more than two years listening to game developers. I spent two solid years hearing all of the ways in which game development had gone wrong. All of the stories from people whose dream game, maybe they even brought it into being, but didn’t end up selling millions of copies or being on the front page of PC Gamer or the outlets I worked on. It just existed and it came with sacrifices and compromises because of course that happens with any creative project and their life just had to continue past that point.
Coming away from those lived experiences, I made it a deep practice to make feasible games. If a game looks like it is going to take more than a year or so to build, I don’t make it because I can’t think of any of my ideas that is so priceless that it’s worth spending seven years of my life single-handedly. It’s in opposition to everything else in my life including maintaining healthy relationships with other people.
There has to be better ways to build games. There has to be healthier games we can make. There has to be healthier people we can be. And if that isn’t possible, if we haven’t seen it, then we have to find it.
From the Intercom: Last two questions. I know we talked about it earlier, but I wanted to get back to it to give you some time. This is the only question I wanted to ask specifically about the pandemic. In what ways has the new normal, the abject slowness, the inescapable urgency shed new light on your perspective on game design, the industry, or your own self?
Xalavier: I feel like I have this new and constant urge to be an anime protagonist. I feel deeply motivated to take care of my friends and the people I love and make sure they’re okay and that I’m in a place to consistently and reliably address their needs as well as my own. Prioritizing not doing the one-shot-burn-myself-out-in-dreams-of-glory, but instead running the race one at a time. Quarantine just really reinforced it.
Having a situation that inherently forces you to grapple with your own mortality, grapple with the safety of yourself and others, has motivated me to look for, not the version of me that could exist in a few years, but in ten, twenty, thirty years. I can only reach that point if I remain healthy, happy, and safe right now. And I want to make sure the same is true for my collaborators and as many people I love as possible. So that’s what I’m doing, I’m thinking about the next twenty.
From the Intercom: We are living through a shonen where every week there’s a bigger boss with an increasing power ceiling. Maybe it means we’re getting stronger too. Very shonen-esque.
Xalavier: They seem to be having a good time in shonen.
From the Intercom: Last very important question. Will we ever see Monster Hunter with trains in the desert and harvest train meat?
Xalavier: That was the scariest part of the talk actually. I wasn’t going to talk about what Monster Hunter but black meant, but then at the last minute I was like–okay you know what, let’s expose that one bit. There’s enough different pieces of that dream game. Tackling trains tactically and off of deep preparation to confront their evil in the American Southwest. That was living in my head for a while. It was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s something that I had mostly discarded or at the very least deeply pared it down in order to use it as a toolbox and see people’s reactions to it.
I have engaged in an act of necromancy. I have brought it back in my head. It’s there again. And I certainly hope that that will be the case. I want to harvest train meat. I think we all deserve it. If only because we had to go through 2020. If our consolation prize is we get to fight the concepts of trains themselves, then you know what that’s all worth it.
After speaking with Xalavier, I have to remember one thing: game design is fucking complicated. Yet we can hardly turn our eyes away because of how much greatness those experiences promise, both as a player and as a designer. We move through liminal spaces to get somewhere that’s more human. We fight entropy all damn day. But if we can’t get beyond our dream aspirations to even start, then we must kill them, and we’re somewhere better knowing that.
This interview was conducted on a Zoom call on September 22nd, 2020.
Hypnospace Outlaw is currently available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, Macintosh operating systems.
An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs has a release date set for 202X.