The Unexpected Joy of Giving up on Your Dreams

My Time as an Art Game Developer

June 3 2023

I am Captain Kirk on the bridge of the starship Enterprise and my friend Avery is my second in command in a Rey Mysterio mask. We’re engaged in an absurd pretend scenario in his backyard, fusing Star Trek and professional wrestling, and, through the magic of childhood, it makes perfect sense. I’m explaining the details and environment of each planet we arrive at and providing phaser support while Rey wrestles the imagined alien bad guys. Somehow in the flurry of activity we make contact. One of Avery’s wild kicks lands on my arm and I drop my phaser, which is really just a stick.

As the years went by, my imagination moved from backyard play sessions to the fantastical world of “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion”. Instead of my friend Avery, it was a team of game developers at Bethesda Softworks guiding my imagination. I spent hours every evening immersed in the world of Cyrodill, finding new swords, joining guilds, and saving the world from chaos. At each step, I imagined where the story would go next and what feats I’d be able to accomplish. In a way, I found this to be even more fun than the game. I’d spend hours explaining my ideas for how to expand the world to my friends.

One day while discussing my ideas for an expanded “Oblivion” universe, my cousin informed me that games are made by teams of people using a tool called code. I knew right away that I needed to learn to code myself. I wanted a way to express the entirety of my creative ambitions. I wanted to make my own “Oblivion”. At the age of 12 I picked up a book on writing C++ code, and spent months teaching myself to make basic programs in my room on a humble hand-me-down computer with a big bulky CRT monitor.

This article is about why modern videogames are not art. Or it was going to be, anyway. It still kind of is. I originally wanted to find a good definition of art and then show how almost all commercial games don’t fit, but I soon realized the futility of trying to find a definition. If you ask a hundred people what art is, you will probably get a hundred different answers, forming clouds of vague, overlapping ideas. I started to feel very alone in my point of view, and questioned my place as an art game designer. I started to think that, after over a decade of chasing my dream to become a professional independent game developer, it might be time to give it up.

I finished my first major game project after many failed attempts when I was 15. I made a trailer and promotional material and shared it everywhere I could think of. The game was not great. In fact, it was a mess. It was my first try. Since I posted it anonymously, people assumed I was an adult and they criticized me like I was one. Being ridiculed on the internet is something that I hadn’t yet encountered much in my life, and it really affected me. People were accurately telling me that the game looked amateurish, and I didn’t really know how to do any better. I saw a wide trench between my abilities and my ambitions. For a few weeks I thought about quitting, but came to the realization that I had plenty of time to figure game development out and achieve my goal of being a successful indie developer.

A few years later, my interests began to change. I was no longer fascinated by the soap opera of the WWE, and when the sequel to Oblivion came out I noticed that the game didn’t have the same magic. I became interested in Latin, Philosophy, Film, and Literature. My interests shifted away from Halo Reach, and Call of Duty: Black Ops and towards the films of Stanley Kubrick, and the novels of Albert Camus. I didn’t want to stop making games, but I was having trouble merging my interests with game concepts. I spent several months in a strange space where I knew I wanted to make games, but wasn’t sure how.

During this period, in my late high school years, I came upon several speeches from Chris Crawford, legendary game designer and one of the original founders of the Game Developers Conference. In his ‘Dragon’ speech, Crawford describes his vision for mature videogames, artistic expressions of their creators. He described “computer games encompassing the broad range of human experience and emotion. Computer games about tragedy, self sacrifice…” I loved it. I was convinced that game development was a growing art form in its very early stages. This was the beginning of my interest in ‘art games’.

What I took away from Crawford’s speeches was a completely different outlook on games. Videogames aren’t merely a fun pastime, they are a medium through which you can express complex ideas and emotions. I discovered unique, innovative games that inspired me and demonstrated how I could merge my new interests with game development. “September 12th” is a game that criticizes the American War on Terror by letting the player try and fail to eliminate terrorism by brute force, “We Become What We Behold '' demonstrates the dangerous nature of news cycles by letting the player stoke a war by subtly influencing groups of people, “The Marriage” describes the dynamics of a relationship purely through gameplay. “Dys4ia'' presents players with minigames expressing some of the trials along the path of a transgender woman’s journey. These games all impacted me in a way that big budget AAA games never had, and I believed they were the future. I thought I would make my indie dreams come true by making art.

In the book “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy wrote “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art”

Tolstoy believed that art is the way we communicate our emotions to each other. As with any attempt at defining art, his definition fails to really capture the whole breadth of the word, but the essence of his argument is important in its own right. In a world desperate for more empathy, art enables us to bridge the gaps between our different perspectives. It’s incredibly rare to see games made with that goal in mind.

The most common response to this argument is to point to the emotional stories of modern games. I really enjoyed the story of “Halo: Reach”, and would certainly say it made me feel a range of emotions. The minimal stories of the “Dark Souls” series are particularly great at inviting the imagination of the player. I’m told “The Last of Us” tells a very emotional and powerful story.

So that’s it, right? Games are art. Well, I’d argue that while the writing in games is an art form that’s very similar to writing for any other medium, the actual act of designing games is not treated as art. In these games, what do you actually do? What is the gameplay part of the game, that is not story or visual, and how is it expressing emotion? What is the game doing that a movie can’t? How is the game designer communicating their feelings?

In all of these games, the game designer has placed enemies and shaped the geometry of the levels to provide an adequate challenge. Players must survive each level by killing their enemies. The designer is concerned with the ‘fun’ and ‘flow’ of the level they design. In almost all modern games, the gameplay exists to deliver a lighthearted sense of fun. The gameplay does not come from a designer who wants to articulate a personal feeling, but rather someone using a formula to keep you having fun for as long as possible.

It took a long time to find my footing as a designer, but I managed to produce several games that I was very proud of during my early college years. Some of them were recognized in exciting ways, I was given a chance to show a game off at the Game Developers Conference. Another game which I made with a collaborator was played by Markiplier in a video with over a million views. My games were picking up steam, and I felt my dream of being a professional independent game developer coming nearer and nearer.

In my third year of college I burned the candle at both ends. I worked long days to finish my demanding computer science course work, and long nights to develop my ambitious personal game projects. In the calculus of how to utilize my time, I did not account for sleep. I was coming off of a streak of rejections from every game company I had admired growing up because (in my eyes) I hadn’t proven myself enough to them to even earn an interview. I needed to prove myself to them. I pulled an all nighter, then another. Then a few weeks later I stayed up for three days. Then, the next week, I did it again. Eventually I stopped keeping track, going long stretches with no sleep in an effort to finally prove myself to the universe.

I never proved that I was good enough. Instead I spiraled out of control. I stopped turning in assignments because I would get panic attacks from just thinking about school. I became obsessed with the idea that I was being watched. I had paranoid delusions that my professors had organized a campus-wide game centered around me. Crowds of students checked an app which told them how to interact with me that day. Smile at him. Talk to him. Walk with him. At one point, I asked my therapist if he was an actor, if he knew how to stop the game. He encouraged me to check myself into a psychiatric hospital. I was suffering from a manic episode brought on by an extreme amount of stress and a lack of sleep. It took an entire month of medication and therapy to convince me that the game never existed. It took even longer to explain to me the details of Bipolar I disorder, and longer still to convince me that I had it.

I was back in school less than a year after the episode. I had stopped making games in my own time. I simply lacked the mental bandwidth. It felt like my brain was moving in slow motion. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. The doctors claimed it had nothing to do with the medication. I didn’t admit until much later that this feeling was depression. I dragged myself through my last year of college. I was a stellar student before the episode, getting more A’s than anything else, but afterwards I was happy to simply pass my classes.

I managed to graduate, but struggled to get interviews, and struggled even more to pass the few coding interviews I did land. This was due to a combination of the depression and simply not understanding the nature of coding interviews. I also didn’t have the right experience. It doesn’t really matter how passionate, creative, or talented you are at making games. Game Studios primarily care that you know the right combination of tools, the right workflows, and that you yourself will be a reliable tool that they can integrate seamlessly into their machine. I was so focused on making games that interested me that I never stopped to make sure I was checking all the boxes needed to make it in the industry. I ended up moving back to my hometown and starting a job as a programmer for an insurance company.

About a year into my new life as a Software Engineer, I finally figured out my medication, and things started to turn around. I had more energy, and my brain felt like it was moving faster and faster. I channeled my newfound energy into the development of my first major game project in years, an interactive exploration of my manic episode. I spent about a year working every weekend to develop the game. I wrote in chronological order, reliving much of the story for the first time since leaving the hospital. I experimented with different ways to express the feelings with every aspect of the game. Confronting those emotions was tough, and it took a lot of effort to write the game, but I was immensely proud of the finished product. I felt like I had accomplished my dream of making a great indie game, and was excited to watch it blow up and change the game industry.

My goal with this game was to release it for free so that I would gain followers to make marketing the next game easier. I made a presskit and a trailer, and reached out to dozens of bloggers, websites, and youtube channels to see if they would help promote the game. To my surprise, Only one person wrote about it, a small blogger. I followed up on the emails I had written several times and when I finally got a response from a journalist it simply said ‘[The game] seems possibly interesting, but I don’t think I can write about it’. When I followed up to ask ‘why not’ I got no response. My hope that this game would be a big hit started to dwindle.

The game was positively received by the people who did play it. All 25 reviews are very positive, but hardly anyone bothered to play the game in the first place. Previous games of mine which took far less effort to make got at least a couple of thousand plays each. This game didn’t break 300 until recently.

I spent the next couple of months learning more about indie game marketing and the industry around promoting games. The failure was in large part my own fault. I should have put the game on steam a long time before it came out so it could accrue wishlists over the course of months. I should have spent those several months trying different strategies to communicate what the game is to people somehow. I should have reached out to ten times as many journalists (though it is pretty hard to find journalists who would write about art games). I should have been more active on Twitter and TikTok. While all of these things would have helped, I think the biggest takeaway from my failure is that there just isn’t a strong desire in the gaming community to experience games like the ones I want to make.

A common mistake indie developers make on steam is being in the wrong genre, and whatever genre my game was in (art game perhaps, if that’s a genre), it was not topping the steam charts. The Steam marketplace in general favors games that are in a popular genre, that can be compared easily to other games, and that look good in screenshots and video. My largely text-based, story heavy game which is hard to compare to any existing games simply didn’t stand a chance. My big mistake was not understanding why and how people buy games. The key selling points of my game are that it is unique, honest, and personal. While those selling points might work for a movie or a book, they don’t make people want to play a game.

A few months after the release, I read this reddit thread about the failure of a more emotional game to sell well. Specifically, this comment was interesting: “C'mon, quirky sad indie game about depression is a meme since at least 2018, and journalists loving them while people being tired of them is exactly what always happens”. I realize that it’s silly to give reddit comments any power to influence my feelings or thoughts, but this comment tapped directly into a message I feel the world has been trying to send me for years. It reminds me of the disinterested and skeptical replies I typically get when I explain my interest in art games to people, something I typically avoid doing. It reminds me of a youtube video of one of my games where the player said “This game is kinda making me think about life, which is annoying because it’s a game”.

When we watch a movie and it makes us feel sad, we allow it to make us feel that way. We have accepted that movies do that sometimes, and frequently even seek that feeling out. Because of this, movies can explore a wider range of emotions. We don’t typically extend the same affordance to games. The stories of games can make us feel a certain way, but not the gameplay. The gameplay must be fun and exciting.

Why don’t people make games that explore other emotions? Part of it is certainly the risk of straying from the pack. AAA studios spend millions on their games, and they take several years to come together. Game studios need to have some promise that their game will sell, and one way to do that is to build on a previous successful title or formula. It’s also true for professional indie developers, who have to do market research to determine which genres are currently selling to ensure that there will be a market for their game.

The problem is not that games are incapable of using their interactivity to share emotions, it’s that gamers don’t care if they do. It’s not that we are having trouble figuring out how to grow the artistic horizons of game design, it’s that there’s no real desire to. The game developers who are experimenting with expressing their feelings through game design are (mostly) not being rewarded for it. The market doesn’t encourage innovative and artistic games. It is an inhospitable environment for them.

Since the release of my last game and learning more about marketing games, I discovered a strategy that has some potential. I decided to make a game in a popular genre, but to try to sprinkle in elements of artistic game design that are exciting to me. I started building a farming game where players breed their crops, with gameplay and story that are meditations on the things we pass on from one generation to the next.

For the past 4 months, I have spent every spare weekend building the prototype for this game. Every weekend I have sat down and thought of what I wanted to work on, but then realized that I instead needed to attend to the massive backlog of programming tasks involved in making a multiplayer farming game.

I’ve felt a familiar sense of burning the candle at both ends lately. I’ve been spending my weeks at my programming job, and 16 hours on my weekends making my game. It feels like a job at this point, I have requirements to meet in order to make a farming game that I feel has a chance at success on the market. I recently began to wonder why I’m doing this. What is the point of achieving my dream of being a successful indie developer if I’m not even enjoying the process anymore?

I think the time has come in my life to give up on the notion that I will make a career out of my indie games. I know that I’m capable of making good games, but I’m facing the reality that maybe people just won’t buy them. There’s simply too much involved in making a successful indie game: market research, a long concentrated marketing effort, and also a lot of luck. Trying to figure out marketing a game is like I’m standing at the tall gates of a city and nobody’s willing to let me in. I just see a big wall. I don’t even have enough information to know what to do next. I’m not saying that I’ll never touch a game engine again, but I’ve changed my perspective on my games. I no longer look at game development as a structured journey to success, but rather as a loose, meandering stroll with no promise of a reward.

The last few months have felt like a long dark night spent far enough away from civilization that every time I look up, I see the purple glow of the Milky Way and it reminds me how little and insignificant I am. As this long night ends, I turn toward the sunrise, promising in its pink-orange haze a vast open backdrop of pale blue, a clean slate full of new opportunities. At 26, I still have plenty of time to figure out what to do with my passion and creativity. I can now spend the 16 hours of weekend I’ve devoted to game development doing whatever I want. I can tackle my backlog of books, movies, and games. I can experiment with expressing myself in different ways. Most importantly, I can spend more time enjoying life, and taking things less seriously.