E3 Underground: Jake Grizzly Pierce
As part of our E3 2018 coverage, we decided to reach out to a number of indie game developers for a series of interviews highlighting some of the voices that might be overlooked amidst all of the big industry news. It’s a little corny, but what else would we call it besides E3 Underground?
The best introduction one can provide of Jake Grizzly Pierce is that which his work provides; always erring towards the avant-garde and idiosyncratic, Grizz’s brush paints with a very particular style, wit, and sentimentality. Take for instance Obelisk, the second installment in Grizz’s larger microTrash series- as you start the game, you are presented with a question: “walk forward?” A single click brings you forward to the obelisk, surrounded by swaying, mossy-green grass and tall, reedy purple shoots. Another click and the screen darkens: “the monolith sits still, seemingly waiting for your voice.” Below these words, a place for you to write, marked “speak here…” No matter what you write, the grass and reeds continue to sway, the mists surrounding you continue to roil, and after a moment: “the silence continues.” Fade to black, and once again: “walk forward?”
Obelisk isn’t exactly a game; if anything, it’s more “game-as-poem,” or else “game-as-joke without a punchline.” This is Grizz’s brush at work- the particular style, wit, and sentimentality that makes it what it is. Perhaps you typed out some secret wish or prayer, perhaps you typed out gibberish, or perhaps you typed out nothing at all; in all circumstances, the player is only left with questions. What happens? Will something happen? What was I expecting? After that most will have probably moved on with their lives, but for a fleeting moment, they were caught.
Grizz isn’t at all as brooding and serious as it may seem now, though; a quick look at his Twitter can dispel that along with any other similar misconceptions. To learn more we reached out to Grizz for an interview, and graciously he agreed to answer some questions about himself and his current work, as well as what he’s looking forward to from E3.
How and when did you first get into making games? Did you grow up playing games, are there any games or other media that you would consider foundational to you and your work?
I wouldn’t consider myself a traditional gameplayer. I got into games in general through my grandma who is really into RPGs; I played a lot of her games when I was younger like Heroes of Might and Magic, Hexplore, and The Legend of Kyrandia. Outside of that, I rarely sat down and played games because my Mom didn’t let us have a console, but I did play a lot of Game Boy/portable games since we were allowed to play video games on car trips. That’s pretty much how it was until late middle school/early high school, but still I wasn’t playing any “big title” games.
During the end of high school I started studying to be an engineer/architect, I was in like a vocational drafting program. During my junior year I took a summer internship, just like shadowing another architect, and hated it. We were remodeling someone’s penthouse bathroom and I was tasked with drafting their trim. It was so monotonous, I got freaked out because I knew I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. I knew I really wanted to be designing stuff but I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As cliché as it sounds, this was the same year as Indie Game: The Movie, and it really invigorated me to make games after watching it, but I was worried that I had no idea how to start. A few years prior though, I remembered I was making Pokémon ROM hacks, so I was like wait I do know how to make games! After that, I persuaded a local college professor to let me shadow him while his team worked on a biomedical education game using the Xbox Kinect controller. Then I studied game development in college, and now I’m doing indie games stuff while working as a freelance UX designer.
Your New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to play 365 small, weird games and document your experience on Twitter and in a collection on itch.io as you go. What motivated you to start this project? Has it been particularly rewarding or inspiring so far, do you have any favorites among the games you’ve played up to now? Do you think you’ll make it to 365 before the end of the year?
I had two major inspirations for starting this resolution. One of the two inspirations was the alternative game scene in Seattle. Back when I was living there I found there wasn’t an active alternative games scene which was incredibly surprising. Seattle is like this massive city known for their grunge scene and their arts, but their indie game scene is so product-oriented. I wanted to create a visible community that treated video games as an art, which is why I tried to start an alternative indie games organization that would promote this games community. After announcing this and starting to form the group, I was like, “Hold on, I’ve made weird games before, but I don’t know anything about all the million weird games already out there. I guess I have to do some research.”
The other inspiration is just because weird, non-traditional games invigorate me. Seeing other people experiment and break out of the ordinary really inspires me to create. Recently, I was talking to a friend about how literature has no bounds. From my perspective, when someone says ‘literature’ there’s a wide variety of types of literature in mind; it could be a novel, a textbook, a set of poems, etc. Literature and video games hold a similar power to create experiences of all shapes and sizes; however, when people hear the word ‘video game’ they don’t think of that expansiveness. When they think of a video game, their mind instantly goes to commercial interactives made for entertainment. I hoped that, by completing this resolution, it would open my own eyes to the expansiveness of video games (and inspire myself to push them further), while also informing others that may stumble upon my tweets. I also did this challenge because I realized last year that in my entire life I’ve beaten like four games, which for a game creator is probably not good? So after I’m done, when someone asks how many games I’ve finished I can say “369”. Nice.
I will say this resolution has been really difficult — searching for games that are considered “weird” and then playing through them, unsurprisingly, takes a lot of time. I’m really hoping to get it done but it’s a big feat. I love games but I don’t instantly go to games when I look for something to do, especially when trying to be inspired. Also a lot of weird games aren’t really meant to be enjoyable, so it adds to the trek of playing through a bunch (especially in one sitting).
It’s definitely been inspiring! Let’s see, there was a really smart and pretty Bitsy game called The Crying Game (by Sophie Mallinson). You control a tear that you roll down a face, and when you reach a certain point it talks about why you’re crying. So smart and simple. The last game I played, Toadle Muscle Island by Milo Radio, was a really fun, goofy blast. I swear by anything made by svblm. Everything they make is so fucking weird but fun and gorgeous.
Another project you’ve started recently is your microTrash series; what ideas are you looking to explore with microTrash, and how far do you plan on taking it? The concept bears some resemblance to the souvenirs from the WarioWare series, would you cite that as an inspiration for the project?
WarioWare is definitely a big inspiration! Along the same lines, but Work Time Fun for the PSP has and will forever be a huge inspiration for this project and all my work. In Japan it was called Beit Hell 2000 — meaning like part-time job simulator hell? It’s real weird. It’s a similar concept to WarioWare but most the minigames are really monotonous or difficult, and when you lose you earn pennies to spend on gashapon machines. Then the gashapon would give you garbage trinkets, more part-time job games, or “tools”. The tools were not really helpful; one of them was you would put your PSP to your eyes and you could blink the eyes on screen using the trigger buttons. Another was a sexy ramen cooker; you pick a model that would talk you through cooking ramen. So weird, monotonous, interactive garbage is a big inspiration. Another inspiration is just an internal push for me to create content that’s more bitesize.
I think with the series I want to create things that aren’t really worth people’s time? Joking aside, I think it’s more about creating interactives that are toy-like, but also still juggle concepts of dullness and weirdness. Like maybe I have one where it’s a simulator for a hand dryer. Users control some hands and they’re holding them under a hand dryer, trying to make it activate.
I was talking with a friend about how to connect this microTrash line together. I honestly think it’s through this core concept of knowing in advance that they’re intentionally dull and “not worth the user’s time.” Almost a subversion of the expectations of interacting with a “video game” — leaving users almost dissatisfied.
I think one of the problems in games is that we’ve fallen into we’re not experimenting enough with the weird and unorthodox. For example, there hasn’t really been anything new done with game cameras. In 3D, creators rarely leave the bounds of mainstream camera setups (first-person, third-person dynamic, and third-person omnipotent camera). Video games are so beautiful — we can make anything we want that we can’t do in real life — why are we not trying to break the laws of cinema and archaic, traditional game methodologies? So that’s why I’m trying to do: make weird art and ignore past principles. Also I was trapped in an airport and was bored and wanted to make something.
Do you have any dream projects you would like to work on, games or otherwise, and is a Gears of War reboot starring Rick Moranis and Danny Devito one of them?
Oh man, I love Rick Moranis, I really wish he was my dad. Strange Brew is one of my favorite movies, and I would do it some amazing justice in video game form. You play as the McKenzie brothers as you trek across Ontario. Drink some beer and try to solve a mystery in a Canadian brewery.
I’m a huge fan of alternate controllers, and I always wanted to make a game where the controller was a Pringles can and you would have to get it stuck on your hand to actually play it.
I would love to do a project with LaCroix — I drink a lot while working so maybe they would give me a lifetime supply in exchange. There could be like a 10’ tall pop can that’s completely blank, and at night it gets covered in projection maps. Then somehow people control those weird, textured pastel lines and they can move? Oh and maybe the controller is LaCroix you buy at a concession!
I’ve never played a Gears of War, but this is how I would direct the newest release if I could. Gears of War 5, starring Rick Moranis and Danny Devito, would be heavily inspired by the Disney film Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The Locusts are now normal locust size due to something that happened in the book prior to this title. No matter their size, they’re still attacking the humans but they can hide better now because they’re smaller. Rick Moranis is the new lead honcho and he builds a shrink ray so the buff dudes can get small so they can kick insect ass once and for all. Danny Devito plays the role of the lead locus and he can speak English. This game is also inspired by Rocky Balboa, and when they shrink down Devito doesn’t want to fight because they’re all old now after five games. Instead of having a war, they do a boxing match. So the gameplay would basically be Punch-Out and there would be a collectible trading card game in it as a side-quest line.
You recently moved, and you’re currently working on a project about apartments and moving inspired by that experience. How would you characterize your experience with moving, and how has it informed your work on the game? The game looks something of a dreamy pink haze, judging from the screenshots and gifs you’ve shared on Twitter; was there a deliberate thought process behind the visual aesthetic you’ve employed or did you just find yourself wanting pink? Have you settled on a name for the game yet?
The game is about my experience with moving around and personal spaces. For the past half year I was couchsurfing at my friend’s apartment in Seattle, and I recently moved back to Ohio because of personal problems. When traveling back, I realized I’ve never had my own personal space that I’ve felt I could make my own. My family moved halfway through my childhood and even then I had to share a room with my brother for a long time. Since then I still never felt like I’ve lived anywhere that I’ve had control over.
One thing I wanted to do was create this space that felt like my own. Tying it back to earlier, as game creators we have control over environment spaces; we have the ability to create anything of our wildest imaginations. So I was like, “why not make my own digital space that I feel comfortable in?” So I set out to do just that. I’m also trying to juggle concepts about long distance relationships, since similarly I’ve never been in a relationship that hasn’t gone long distance for an extended period of time.
The pink aesthetic is actually a reference to rose-tinted glasses. At first I just wanted to create something cute and pretty because that’s what I want in my space. I later realized it’s representational of like rose-tinted shades, since maybe owning a space isn’t as perfect as it seems to me, someone who’s never had the privilege to own their own space. As far as the name goes, I still don’t know. I’ve been calling it “Apartamento.” When visiting my partner, I saw this gorgeous magazine about interior design called Apartamento and it really stuck out in my mind. I’m hoping to have the game done soon, but there’s still so much more to do with it. I’m almost done with all the environment art and have the gameplay too, but I’m still trying to weave this message into the experience.
Finally, are there any games or announcements you’re looking forward to at E3, or else are there any projects from the indie scene you’re looking forward to?
Last year was the second time actually watching E3, so I don’t know what to expect. I’m a big Nintendo fan, so I’m obviously excited for anything announced by them. Lots of rumors about Nintendo 64 Mini which I would definitely throw money at. I’m getting some vibes that Pokémon on Switch will be announced which would be neat. Honestly, anything for Switch gets me kinda hyped. Ubisoft usually throws something weird which I’m obviously all about; last year they did Mario + Rabbids which was pretty cool. I’m not interested in anything Microsoft, because I’ve never really owned an Xbox. I am interested in Sony’s press release because I have a PS4, but I don’t have any expectations. And naturally I’m interested to see what Skyrim is getting ported to this year, hoping for the Sega Genesis or Atari Jaguar.