This is an edited version of an interview/conversation conducted by Dennis Carr, who asked me some questions for a presentation they made for a class.
Reproduced with permission :)
So first, if you'd like, you can introduce yourself and talk about how you got started making games.
Rylie James Thomas
I'm Rylie! I think it might be useful to give my age, so I'm 36.
I feel like I started making games soon after I first started playing them, maybe when I was eight? We used to get these big piles of used dot-matrix printer paper, the kind that all stuck together with perforated seams and spool holes you can tear off. I remember drawing lots of game maps and making instruction booklets for imaginary games. I think a lot of inspiration for that came from the way game maps were presented in magazines. So I'd draw these levels with pits and spikes and ropes you swing on and typical power-ups and things like that.
We got a computer when I was in my teens, and that's where I first got hold of shareware versions of game making programs. I think the first one was a Windows 3.1 thing kinda like MacVenture. I've never been able to find the name or any mention of it since. But it made first-person adventure things with very Windows 3.1 graphics. You pretty much just made a map layout and placed items like ‘yellow key’. The first one I used a lot was called Game Build Lite, which made Sierra-like adventure games. I was always really intrigued by the scoring, and it had a really ace paint program built in. That one's still real easy to find and download (even the registered version) now. Then later a friend gave me a copy of Klik & Play, and I made a bunch of games in that. I was messing with 3D Studio R4 at the time, and rendering out graphics for games and stuff. I remember a game called Mr Tank (a birds-eye versus tank thing), one called Mr Bouncey Ball (a Breakout clone)—lots of things like that. Later I got involved in the RPG Maker scene. Never finished any games, but had a little 'group' and I made graphics for people, MIDI music, and wrote tutorials (that I sometimes still see floating about D: )
I kept messing with game making, but it wasn't until… maybe 201x that I started being more active on Glorious Trainwrecks. Then in 2013—the last year of my fine art degree—I was getting disillusioned with the course and art world stuff in general, so started making games as a break from that. In the last semester I let it turn into my main project—mostly using other peoples' games as spaces for performances, then started making games specifically for that purpose. I wasn't really happy with the results, but I've been focused on games ever since then. Well less so for the last year though.
That relates to a couple of things that I was planning to ask you.
First, I had noticed in going through your websites that you have a fine arts practice. Can you talk about that practice also and how it informs or doesn't inform your games? Or do you see your games as a more seamless extension of the same work?
Secondly, it seems like you have a particular interest in tools that make game design easier for people who aren't well-versed in programming. For instance, I've noticed that you've made games in Klik n' Play, Vertex Meadow, Kool Tool, Flickgame, and even compiled a wiki of similar programs. Do you consider your use of these tools to be an important part of your creative process, or are they more a means to an end?
I definitely consider game making as a part of my art practice, yep. I certainly think I approach any creative thing now ‘as an artist’, though I'm not sure how concretely I understand that. Ever since I started thinking of myself as an artist, and started studying it I've always worked across different mediums, and have always got a lot out of how they inform each other. Maybe I wrote this on a blog or something once, but I tend to think that I approach painting as sculpture, drawing as painting, game making as collage … maybe not super accurate, but it has a certain ring of truth to it.
I guess by ‘as an artist’ I mean a certain kind of rigour. Though that's not always true—like I said I started using game making as a break from that. But there are a few things I would consider finished works, or maybe more accurately kinds of end-points of a process.
I think making games still seems really inaccessible to lots of people, and I guess I take every opportunity to encourage people to try it. Especially anyone outside of the nerd-dude stereotype. It's definitely one of the wierdest things about the games scene. Like all through my art training it was like 70–80% not-cis-guys, and suddenly I meet a bunch of game people and it's like 90% male (even though I've met plenty of lovely ones!).
I also just really feel like working at a computer really doesn't help my creative process. Unlike painting and things where're you're using your body and really tied to yourself, I feel like when I'm on my computer my brain and my body are seperate things. I feel like i'm always drawn to game making tools where I can at least working quickly. Being able to test what I'm working on helps a bunch too. Because my usual process is mostly play-based already. I need to have something to do with my hands that isn't typing to help me think through things. I especially like stuff like Vertex Meadow because most of the process is just drawing. I think I have a 'drawing' category on the Game Making Tools Wiki actually, 'cause those kinds of things are my favourite.
One thing that just occured to me about my game-making compared to other-thing-making is that with games I'm often pretty happy to release whatever, but most of my other stuff I don't share online. Even things I'm satisfied with.
Trying to think of connections……I do tend to use games to explore stuff I don't think works in other mediums. I was using a lot of scavenged Youtube video for a while, but I've really enjoyed using games as a way to collect together Internet debris. Like if you put some 3-D scans in a Unity world playing that game is, for me, a really great way to spend time with those things as objects, to touch them and think about them, and become familiar with them. There was this thing I was working on for a while which was just a big world made of 3-D scans from 123DCatch. All portraits of people. It got too demanding for my computer, and then Unity changed things so mesh colliders have to be much smaller and it was too much tedious work and too much crashing to do much more with it.
Oh, there's a clip of it in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yKPbDe98MA
It's the second-last clip.
If I do another video like that maybe I'll use that Thank You For Being a Friend song
Aaaaa I love this idea.
I've thought about the difference between making games and drawing or painting as well (I also come from a fine arts background.) I think the general creative process is really similar, but there are a few unavoidable differences. The use of physical space and bodily effort is obviously much different between physical media and working on a computer, but there's also difference in directness of application; in making a game there are so many more layers of separation between your physical action and the end product. I think this makes it more difficult to work intuitively with games. It makes sense that using tools like Vertex Meadow can help bring some of that directness to game design. There's one more difficult thing about working on a computer, though, which is the ease of distraction that comes from proximity to the internet. For me, this makes it very hard to obtain that tunnel-vision focus that is ideal with creative work.
I'm curious about your use of found 3D assets. I've noticed more and more games cropping up recently which have made the use of 3D models found or purchased online an important part of their game's meaning; most notably Oikospiel by David Kanaga and The Norwood Suite by Cosmo D. In your games, the use of found assets feels different, maybe because the models that you use seem more divorced from the context of their creation and distanced from any obvious narrative subtext. What attracts you to this type of asset, and do you have any philosophical or ideological ideas about how you use them?
Haha, yeah Internet can be a hindrance. I'm preeeeetty good at structuring my time though. How to use a studio was probably the most important thing I got out of art school. I get more distracted messing with Linux configs :(
I hadn't heard of The Norwood Suite, but I like Oikospiel a lot!
I think care is an important part of my practice, and maybe that comes through in the way I treat the models (except maybe You Are A Fireball)? I guess that's part of what I was saying before. I would even classify it as a kind of love. So when I use them I think of them less like things in a game and more like things I want to be around. Like if I could just get a giant 3-D printer, or shrink myself, and be able to jump really high and move through walls I wouldn't need to make these things probably.
Actually something I realised this year (I think) is that I'm pretty happy just plonking things in Unity or Godot and moving them round. That's like my favourite part of game making. I've been working on these video things that are just my videos rendered to a texture and 3-D objects that you move round and through those videos. I feel like they're going somewhere else though, so I haven't released any of them.
Did you make games as part of your fine art course?
Sort of! I mainly went to school for drawing and painting but I ended up slowly transitioning into digital/mixed-media stuff, getting interested in image processing, using some of that in screen prints, and then realized I basically knew enough to start making games.
I can tell that you arrange 3D models with a very sculptural type of care. In games like 100 Free Assets they feel like they're used more for their formal characteristics rather than their imagery, but I guess that's not the case in things like Japan Game. Even Japan Game, though feels very tightly and intentionally composed in a spatial sense.
Actually, I wanted to ask about Japan Game. Is that game (and other games with similar imagery, like Mango Game) made up of 3D scans that you generated yourself or are they also sourced from the internet?
I was looking through your websites and I noticed that you have some blogs where you collect discarded photographs, and it struck me that in some of your games the imagery has a similar feeling; divorced from the original context of its creation and from its author's intent. And when I play your games I feel very little push from you to tell me how I should interpret something or to provide a narrative. So when I play your games I have a very ambiguous feeling with regards towards how I'm meant to interpret them. It gives these spaces a very beautiful empty feeling, like they're little pocket dimensions which exist for their own sake.
Oh that's kinda that same! I first did a diploma where i ended up majoring in sculpture, but mostly painted. Then for my degree I was in the drawing department, but mostly painted, which shifted into mostly digital video via sculpture then performance, then games.
I actually worry my things games are kinda cold. I think that's why I'm particularly happy with Japan Game. All the 3-D scanned things—in the games I've released—were sourced online, yeah. I think my first experiements with the stuff were my own scans (using an extinct website that you could just upload videos and sequence s of images to. Actually… dunno if you can see the model viewers in this post? I assume they've been taken down: http://antiphons.tumblr.com/post/37454546358/make-sure-to-look-at-the-underside My browser's too full of ‘blockers’ to be able to tell for sure.
I guess it generally fits the way I work, moving things into different contexts. like even if I'm feeling a bit stuck I'll just move what I'm thinking about into a different medium to see what happens. Digital stuff is especially great for this I guess because it's all made out of the same ‘stuff’, ya know? And of course also great because you can just stuff all sorts of things in there as long as you digitise them.
Hmmm I guess in a way that's also a negative. Like when you hop between sculpture and painting there's lots of satisfaction and stimulation in the differences.
I'm glad you feel that kind of openess in the games. Like, really, I make them for myself. I want to get something out of the experience of playing them. I think it's a way of keeping them alive? I guess that's a part of why procedural generation's a big thing right? Keeps the designers interested, keeps giving them those little surprises. The surprises you get when making stuff are super important I think!
I'm pretty suspicious of 'concreteness' in general. I don't like talking or writing much because of that 'concretising' effect words have.
‘Pocket dimensions’ is a good term. Like that's the beautiful thing about games right?
(not sure how education terms differ where you are: diploma is like a two-year course at a TAFE—which was a heaviliy government subsidised, generally employment-focused kind of training. Like it cose me $40 or something like that. I think in the US degrees are four-years? Here mine was three, with an optional ‘honours’ year which I didn't both with).
It's very different here. The least expensive option is ‘community college’ which is government subsidized but will probably still cost several thousand dollars if you get a full degree.
I understand what you mean about concretising meaning. I have noticed that it's impossible for me to really explain what I'm trying to say with my games without reducing or minimizing it somehow. Especially because art can usually contain multiple or conflicting meanings, or I can have several intentions while making it, or it comes from a place that even I don't fully understand.
I noticed that you refer to some of your games as performance spaces, and I've also noticed that you have several let's play videos on your youtube channel. I think your games make sense as spaces that players can perform against and push against to create their own meaning.
The general feel of many of your games reminds me of ‘broken’ games.
Games where the systems don't function as intended, where the player is able to break out of bounds and see the edge of the modeled environment, or push against the physics system.
In those games, there is maybe a sort of performance space created unintentionally, by the authorial intent being subverted and the boundaries around the game's critical path collapsing.
So those broken games put the player in a situation where they have to find their own meaning, or their own critical path, or just experience the world on it's own terms rather than as something broken.
I am right in making that connection?
I was also wondering about how important it is to you that your work is received as ‘games’ rather than art. Because I think your work lies on a boundary where some people would argue that they are not games because they often don't have goals, clear rules or conflict.
But your earlier work, like Castlevania 10 or the Break Out studies seem much more rooted in traditional game culture and logic. Do you want your work to be regarded as video games or is are you ambivalent to this type of conversation?
I guess I view those ‘performance spaces’ as a particular body of work. Where it ends is a little fuzzy of course. But that was the stuff I was working on at Uni. Those ‘Let's Plays’ were a part of that too. Not that I think later things are less performance spaces, but it was a helpful kinda box to build at the time.
Your ‘broken’ idea is how I think about them, yep! Particular RE exploring / meeting the world on its own terms. Like it's endlessly frustrating to me how quickly a set of rules about game making has sprung up—how condified and bland it got. It's like thinking of games as a design problem. YUK!
I guess I'm pretty Formalist in that sense?
I really don't think about if my games are game things or art things or whatever. If it didn't sound so clunky I guess I'd just call them toys or video-toys?
If someone were to tell me they weren't games though I would probably vomit on them.
I still dream-up lots of very designy kinda games, I just tend to not have fun making them. All the ones I've finished have been quick things, and I never really finished exploring any of those ideas.
I bought a $30 flight-stick and really want to make something where you're a jet speeding round, and all the buttons do fun things. Maybe most of them just shout. I tried making a sequel to Castlevania 10, but didn't get more that a few screens done. Would like to make a 3-D one where you can jump on the whips like they're platforms. That was going to be an upgrade in the sequel, and I thought it would be fun if upgrades just carried over between games instead of that always starting from square one thing games do. Also I really like drawing cute little RPG sprites but…
I guess for me all my different game ideas are coming from the same spot, so I don't really draw a destinction. For a time I put my real name on some things and ‘Blueberry Soft’ on others because it made sense to separate them, but I don't really understand that anymore. Hmmm. I've also stopped going to ‘white cube’ type places, and I think part of that was thinking about things that would work in that kinda space. Though I never really found that it felt right just sticking games in there anyway. I think they're better just as a thing between a person and their computer.
Yeah, games really don't show well in a normal gallery environment. They always feel out of place, like a novelty and/or people just don't want to play them. everythingstaken & I have been talking about ways of creating gallery-like experience but for games, and the model we keep coming back to is the arcade. The key there is that the games are designed specifically for that context, and for the arcade cabinet format. Most of the indie/art game events that I've seen just show games that were really meant to be played by one person on a PC and it feels very weird to stand there in front of a screen with a controller wearing headphones and playing a walking-sim type game. It feels like the event is saying, ‘look at all these interesting games’, and everyone is walking around saying ‘yes, that's very interesting’, but no one is really engaging with the games on any deep level.
Are there any games which have inspired you in particular? Or even if they have not inspired your work directly, been a significant presence in your life?
I can't really think of particular games that've been inspiration. Really everything I play gets me thinking about game ideas. Maybe tonally films have more of an effect? But I tend to think that I like the things that I do more because they make sense to me as having been done the way I would like to do them. That's pretty self-centred I guess!
Gamestuff that I feel like I remember often is: Destroy Your Home, like everything that's been on and will ever be on Glorious Trainwrecks, the music from F-Zero, Animal Crossing, looking at drawings made in Qix, the tank in Earth Defense Force called Armored Vehicle Grape, Soukyugurentai Otokoiyo's bold letters and melencholic optimism,. Tetsujin-28 Go, the cute little sprites in NES RPGs, bumbling about in old shareware CDs, Bomberman 64. I feel like I could go on forever—
Interesting, so taste in games is pretty diverse! How about in other types of media, though? Are there any fine artists or film people that you consider an influence?
And yeah, definitely agree about imtimate stuff in not-intimate places. There's a cool place here called BarSK that doesn't good job of showing things that work. Lots of stuff that benefits from interaction off the screen, or is interesting in a performative way. The main guy makes custom controllers and setups for things too. I assume Babycastles is like this too? (I think you're in New York, right?)
Yeah, still don't really think of anyone as an influence. I guess I stopped making music 'cause I thought I'd never be better than Beethoven, that's kinda influencial…………
I can mention some artists that've really affected me though!
Babycastles is more of a DIY space… so if people come to them with proposals for setting up a show, they'll facilitate it but they don't really put it together themselves.
I still think that no one's really been able to find a model that works for showing games, so the shows there are pretty scattered.
Most of the events they hosts are concerts, though they usually have at least one cabinet set up to show games.
They do have some interesting interactive art or game-tangential things there, though.
Oh okay! That's pretty different than I thought. I thought it was like half games, half parties/gigs, kinda mingling with each other.
I really like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Edward Yang, Claire Denis, hmmm. With art the main thing that grabs me is paintings. Velasquez, Rembrandt, Turner—pretty generic taste. But I don't have that much opportunity to see really good painting in this city, outside of big touring exhibitions I'm kinda afraid of; it's mostly when I've travelled. There's one really good, unfinished Turner though. I like organ music a lot. Mostly French composers it seems. I feel like I just listen to goofy pop music these days though.
That reminds me, I listened to some of the music on your bandcamp page, and I was curious about the Best of J-Pop album
Those songs make very good ringtones and alarms FYI
I actually love them
I don't know enough about J-Pop, so I couldn't tell if these are real songs, or done in the style of specific artists or original.
They're all real songs. I kept the original titles. I just really love the intros to ~80s J-Pop songs, so as a test looped them and listened to them for hours D:
I have a very long list of J-Pop intros still to try~
oh, so they're just the intros to different songs looped?
Well, I think I've actually managed to touch on all of the main things I was planning to ask you.
Oh actually, I'm curious about what you've been working on recently that's exciting you.
In any type of media.
Just the video+primitive 3-D shape things. Otherwise just been learning lots about linux and working on wikis and web stuff.
Nothing i'm actually super excited about yet
yeah, I'm in one of those phases myself I think
do you find that you tend to slip back and forth between different media in phases?
Well editing Linux configs is kinda exciting~
Yeah definitely. Usually it's about every six-months?
Haha yeah, I used to do the same thing.
I think one of the things that's stressful about going to school for game design is not being able to do that.
I think that's what the video things are really, moving away from games. Looking at my older video work.
Yeah I imagine! Are you able to take courses in other areas at least?
Theoretically, but in practice it can be hard to make time
Right now I barely even have time to get my game design work done
Yeah. I guess game projects must get pretty demanding at that level
Yeah, I'm working on my thesis project
plus a game that I'm working on on my own, which kind of feels like another thesis
Is it due this year?
next year, in May
it's a group thesis so it always ends up taking precedence over the things that I'm doing on my own
I'm looking forward to it!
Oh a group thesis, I've never heard of that
Yeah, I don't think it's very common in other types of art
but it makes sense for games
I just really wanted to see what it was like working on a collaborative creative project
it's the first time I've done it for anything major
I'm not much good at those. But I like facilitating them
It's pretty hard
Like this Kings Field one I'm doing has been going for yeeeeears
yeah! how's that going?
the screenshots look incredible
I know, right. What's been done so far really knocks me out. But there hasn't been anything new for ages I guess, so i have to do some chasing up.
I guess I hoped I wouldn't have to be like a boss, but that's how it's worked out :(
Most of the people haven't made a game before, so I'm determined to see it released in some form, at some point though
Before I forget I should say that it's been fun to think about this stuff because of your interview. You should interview everyone on Glorious Trainwrecks and make a book~
I'd love to do that
At some point I was thinking about doing that as a podcast, (or a let's play series?) maybe I'll still do it at some point
everythingstaken and I have been working on a compilation of RPG Maker games for… about 3 years now?
we started it before either of us went to grad school and work has been really spotty since then, but we're still committed to finishing it eventually
maybe Moonlit Corpse and our RPG will be finished at the same time 😛
Yes doooo ittttt
Is that the RPG Maker project that's on GT? Or is this something with just you two?
Yeah! It started out as a month long game jam, and then we started putting the games into one compilation and got maybe a little bit carried away
the compilation is an open world game with about 6 hours (and counting) of things to do
it's really good in some ways, but also kind of fascinating in how incongruent it is with itself
we changed & learned a lot while we were making it so there are many different styles, points of view, storylines, and ideas bolted together which sometimes contradict each other
our goal in finishing it is to unify it a little bit more without taking away anything that's already there
I cant remember why I missed that when it started, but I enjoyed reading updates; it sounds really really interesting.