How I Became a Games Developer

A couple of days ago I was asked on twitter about how I became a games developer. There’s not much of a short answer to that, for me.

I first became aware of computer games when I was around four years old. Our family was poor, so we didn’t have the latest and greatest. Rather, games trickled down into my life through consoles and computers older than I was. The very first computer I ever owned (and not shared among my family) was an Amstrad that ran BASIC. This was before windows and other GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces). Everything you did, was presented first and foremost through text commands. What graphics the system had were crude and minimal. Alongside the computer came a manual. A huge tome, teaching you how to run games, print things, and write your own programs. That’s where it truly all began; I was about 7 or 8 years old.

I loved making games and programs, no matter how simple they were. But the manual was limited. There was no information available in my local library, and only very few people had access to the internet (I was certainly not among them). At school, computing was limited to teaching a roamer robot to move forward and to turn a bit, and later ‘learning’ using word processors.  The national curriculum might have easily ended my interest in computers, had I not my ancient Amstrad at home and essentially no friends. A lot of kids in my generation were educated in a similar fashion in the UK, and it frustrates me to this day that computer literacy was taught so poorly back then.

When I left high school, I didn’t think for a moment that IT was what I wanted to go into. Instead, I went on to study art at college and university. I was suffering from severe depression and increasing disability at this point and tried and failed many times to get my degree. I dropped out, and focussed on music performance, recording and composition as my career, as well as a welcome return to writing and drawing comics. I still do both.

During these years, computers played a very central role in both my doing uni work and extracurricular activities (and no, I’m not referring to porn). Despite coding and scripting a lot (using Linux and coding websites), and fixing a whole load of friends’ computers, I didn’t really see myself as doing anything unusual. At some point, I decided to learn python. I’d done bits and pieces here and there in different languages, but this was the first time in a long time I’d sat down and actually made a concerted effort to learn a computer language. I can’t even remember why, other than for the reason that I love working with computers. I love tinkering and I’m naturally very, very curious. Some people say I seem to have done a bit of everything.

But I didn’t really see myself taking it anywhere, other than for the sheer love of it. I knew a number of programmers, and they seemed so much more knowledgeable. I didn’t have any confidence my skill, and I’d certainly never studied programming in any official capacity. For me it was a hobby. A really fun, satisfying hobby.

My music career became more and more difficult. I started to really grasp how impoverished most musicians were and who was I, a musician who can’t even climb onto most stages or access most venues, to even think I had a chance? I grew depressed. And somehow, along the way, I started getting pretty good at programming and I didn’t realise it.

In July 2013, I had my first game released: an interactive fiction called ‘My Name is Tara Sue’, made using Twine. Within the first few days, I’d had more reviews for than for all of my albums, EPs and comics over the past five years combined. The coding I did for it was extremely minimal, as I wanted to focus on the writing and design, but the attention that I received for the game made me realise that this was something I could do. Something fun, and engaging something that I could, with time and practice (particularly on my programming skills), integrate my music and visual art into without the need to engage with physical spaces for presentation.

Over the next year and a half I worked tirelessly to learn everything I could about making games. It was like the veil had been lifted. I’d finally been able to tell myself “Yes, you can do it”. I participated in a number of online game jams, submitted an application to receive help from an arts organisation, and managed to get mentoring. Having one-to-one support was really life-changing. I’d never been taught to code in any official capacity and was self-taught. But mentoring really helped me to piece together all the random, loose, disorganised knowledge I had together. I concentrated on learning C++and SDL to train in some of the more complex issues of computer science and games development. Within six months, I’d put together my first game engine. Within eight, I’d made an even better and more complex game engine.

Following my overwhelmingly positive experience with mentoring, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and return to university. This time, to study computer games technology. And that’s where I am now. I’m really excelling at my university work. I recently submitted a game design document and achieved 100% marks, and three weeks later submitted my game.

For me, games are incredibly exciting. Where else can I apply my love and experience in music, art, programming, astrobiology, story writing, critical theory, history and maths all in one? And with such satisfying results?

Everyone’s story is different. My path to becoming a games developer has been a very, very long one. I skipped plenty of details, but the essentials are there. However, if there is one truly definitive moment in my life where I became a games developer, it was when I decided to never let myself or anyone tell me I couldn’t do it.

If you’d like to see my current project, Star Monogatari, here’s a video of it so far:

A huge thank you goes to my mentor, Niall Moody!

If you’d like to see some of his work, please visit his website here.

And if you’d like to support my work, please consider visiting my patreon page!

Manic Depression & The Enemy Within

I’ve tried to write an article about depression for years, but for one reason or another the article never surfaced. To provide some scope to this point, I would like to illustrate two facts:

  1. I have been writing since the age of 5 or so.
  2. I have had (manic) depression since at least the age of 4.

Why I have manic depression, I do not know. Was it the product of a broken childhood? Or perhaps it’s some chemical imbalance in my brain? My life to date has been complex, and attempts to understand why I have depression have always left me dumbfounded. I’ve wanted to write about this for so long, but my mind seems to exist in two states; when I’m not feeling depressed it’s hard to access my feelings, but when I’m manic it’s hard to write. Or to trust myself in either case.

I’ve often heard depression described as something that doesn’t feel entirely part of yourself. And for the most part, I’d agree that it’s like some asshole sitting at the back of your brain telling you what an awful person you are. But in some ways it’s not someone else. It feels all too real, as though it were my feelings and sense of identity echoed back to me in the worst possible light. Writing this, I have to be very careful both to write some of my worst, deepest feelings, and to also edit it coherently. Too often do I begin only to find that voice is no longer distant, but indistinguishable from my own.

And the real kicker is that depression works in such insidious ways. In learning to cope with this disease, I’ve also learned to constantly try to keep myself in check. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “this too shall pass.”. But for how long?

For some, depression appears like a mysterious force, sticks around for a few years and then vanishes. For me, it simply disappears into the background, only to re-emerge and make itself apparent when it’s already done horrible things to my life. I have little control over my depression. I cannot wish it away, nor take painkillers and wait for the tide of agony to subside. Depression, much like my chronic pain, is something that I can do little to, other than learn to live with. When I am feeling low, I have to remind myself of the good things. When I wish to die, I have to tell myself that I actually don’t. Often I feel like I’m lying to myself. The only evidence to suggest otherwise lies in the times when the storm is over- those brief periods of joy and peace that allow me to continue my life.

However, as hard as it is for me to describe depression when I’m not feeling depressed (and would rather think of anything but depression during those times), it’s equally as hard to summon memories of happy times when I’m depressed.

I’ve tried a list of medications as long as my arm. I’ve tried pretending that I didn’t have depression. I’ve tried talking to therapists and shrinks. None of it really helped me. Which is not to say that it can’t help some people. Depression is as diverse as the many people who suffer from it. Over time I’ve come to accept that my depression will not go away easily, if at all. It’s a part of me that is broken and I worry that it isn’t something I can ever fix. I’d love to just not have it, but that isn’t the case, and hasn’t been for as long as I can remember, despite my efforts.

The trick to doing anything in my life is not fixating on the idea of getting rid of it, but learning to cope with it- learning skills that in some way enable me to have something resembling a functioning life. Often there are things I can do to help, but that also means recognising my limits and missing out on things I’d rather not.

This also works in the opposite direction, when I’m feeling manic.

Mania sounds great from the outside and it feels good on the inside. That is, until I’m no longer manic.

It’s taken me a long time to identify my mania. I go from depressed, to numb to manic so quickly sometimes, that it often just feels like I’m no longer depressed. I feel on top of the world, like I could achieve anything. That’s the other voice sitting on my shoulder. And for a while, this voice appears to be a good one. It makes me go outside and want to roll on grass. It’s the voice that tells me to keep painting or writing music. Forever and ever and ever. Why would I want to give up mania when depression is most often the alternative? Why would I want to give up mania when I feel that good? Mania is like a drug that gets you super high, without the nausea, or dizziness. For a while, it can feel like you are invincible, like you can do anything.

In the same way that depression stops me from accessing good thoughts, mania obscures the bad thoughts. Ever see that episode of Star Trek, “The Enemy Within”? Both sides of Kirk become useless, potentially dangerous bastards. That’s what manic depression does to you. There is such a thing as feeling too good, in so much as there is a such a thing as feeling too depressed.

Either way the pendulum swings, it’s easy to justify feelings one way or another. Being rational often seems equally close and distant, but rarely quite within reach.

Moving the conversation back to Star Trek, I realise that from my writing I might seem a bit like Kirk: emotions dominating thoughts through passion, pain and promiscuity(?).

But if I’m like anyone from the original series of Star Trek, I’m more like Spock. On the outside I appear calm and collected. I analyse everything. But inside? I’m restless. I’m half overwhelmed with compulsion and half in control. I don’t want to let in feelings for fear of them overcoming me. Vulcans are like Romulans with their feelings restrained. Humans are like both, but less so. Is it his human, or vulcan nature that makes Spock a more compelling character? Much as Spock is caught between two inner worlds, so am I. Both of these worlds are my nature. Both of these worlds are me. Somewhere in between this duality, I exist, watching myself trying to strike a balance.

But how can I define my sense of self and identity when such contradictory forces exist within me?

The truth is is that they are not separate. Both depression and mania are part of me. Not, may I add, parts of me that I like, nor even trust, but components of my existence. I cannot even fathom what my life might be like without them. Perhaps eventually I’ll escape these destructive cycles. But for this day and the next (and many after), learning to live with them and trying to cope are the only things I can hope for.

Both mania and depression cause emotion to storm through me like an immature child’s might. And in these times I try to treat myself like that child. I have to be stern with myself and recognise where to put my foot down. Equally, I also have to be good to myself and give gentle reassurance. Sometimes I have to let the emotions ride out and distance myself from them as best I can. Sometimes I just have to be understanding and nod sympathetically. However, in reality I know that it’s not a restless child.

This is me. This is who I am, and I’m always, always trying to do my best.

Writing this article has been hard, but it’s been a long time coming. It’s not been edited very much and I want to leave it that way. If I try to come back to it, my desire to delete it and pretend I’m okay will be too great. Being public about mental illness of any kind can be incredibly stigmatizing, and the fear of such stigma can be equally deleterious. Plus if I didn’t put this down, when would I? In another few decades? No. Now is the time- whilst I can.

Mega Update: Pt. 2

Part 2 of my Mega Update largely concerns games development and computer programming. For the sake of readability, I’ve tried to keep these posts somewhat organised and also to not just bunch EVERYTHING together! It’s been a while since I started this post, so sorry it’s taken me such a long time to post it! Without further ado, update number two…

mega-update-II Continue reading

Mega Update: Pt. 1

I’ve been incredibly busy as of late, and if you follow my posts you may have noticed that I haven’t updated in a while. 2015 began with a rocky start, a handful of dreams and lot of rather big decisions to make in a short amount of time. In a series of blog posts, I’ll attempt to catch y’all up on my news: The good, the bad and the ugly.mega-update-1

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Games showreel 2013-14 Showreel

Video editing by by me on a zero-sum budget. Please enjoy!

Features footage from:
– ‘STINK’, game inspired by ‘pong’
– ‘Bubbles Animation’ an animation coded in Python
– ‘Shiro//Kuro’, an entry for Ruin Jam
– ‘Pioneer[03]’, a prototype developed for the Nine Worlds 2014 Game Jam
– ‘My Name is Tara Sue’, a browser-game made using Twine

Most games were created in collaboration with other members of Organ Thief (games development / digital art collective).

An Open Letter to The Person Behind Me

Dear Human,

It has come to my attention (via my peripheral vision) that you are standing directly behind me. Of course, I would turn around to see what you look like but it would appear that you’re directly behind my wheelchair. As you probably have not noted, I also have a table in front of me. And, although I am furnished with the ability to rotate my head roughly 90˚ (give or take 10%, depending on the day), it would place me in a peril that I doubt you would have much experience of. Continue reading

Never Surrender Dreams

walkmanToday has been a really interesting day! Asked Oxfam music if they had any personal cassette players kicking around and was shocked and surprised to discover that they has this absolute beauty stashed away in the back, broken, unused and unloved.

For those who don’t recognise it, this is a Sony Walkman. Specifically, THE original walkman.

I decided that I had to get it, and took it home gleefully. Several hours later of fiddling, transplanting and a lot of figuring out what was wrong with it, I now have it up and running smoothly!

Old tech is gorgeous, and I feel really privileged to own this piece of history and to put it to good use (what, you want me to let it rot away in a display cabinet? No thanks)!

The next thing I need to do now is complete my funding campaign so I can put my own releases into my ears and dance around in an epic display of childhood wish-fulfilment!

The moral? Sometimes you realise that you have super powers. Turns out that one of mine is bringing the dead back to life 😛