Guest contributor Alec Holowka is an independent game developer, podcast host and composer. In 2007 he released Aquaria, created with Derek Yu. His latest release is Planet Punch for Adult Swim. He recently moved into Indie House Vancouver where he collaborates and shares tea with other indie developers.
Mike Kime cautiously opens his eyes. Unfortunately the email is still there, glaring back at him through the blue tint of his monitor.
Mike works for Epic Games as a character artist on the Gears of War series. In his spare time, he creates impressive 3D models of well-known video game characters for his own amusement.
The email is simple and to the point; Mike is wanted in his superior’s office. But he’s still concerned. Maybe “they” have finally seen through his charade.
Mike strokes his bushy beard and closes his eyes again. It’s probably nothing.
Piercing sirens burst through Mike’s thoughts. The window next to his desk shatters inward and his cubicle walls are knocked to the side. A S.W.A.T. team climbs over the remains of Mike’s workstation towards him. They can see Mike for who he truly is and there is nowhere left for him to hide.
Mike opens his eyes. The email is still there.
It’s probably something routine. Nine times out of 10 it’s something complimentary.
But he can’t shake the feeling that he will be revealed as an impostor.
Many people in creative fields share, to varying degrees, a psychological phenomenon known as “impostor syndrome.” Those who experience this syndrome doubt their own competence in the face of overwhelming evidence of their skills. They have difficulty internalizing their own accomplishments.
Alexander Bruce, sole creator of the multiple award-winning, $1 million-plus grossing Antichamber, travelled to the Game Developers Conference all the way from Melbourne, Australia. Instead of enjoying congratulatory conversations with the developers he admired, he decided to sleep most of the week away in his hotel room. Alone.
“I go to something like GDC and everyone else is way more excited for me than I actually am for myself. Because I’m only seeing problems.”
Alexander, often referred to as “Bruce” by his friends, developed Antichamber over the last three years as a team of one. He lived with his family, often sequestered in his room, not noticing when his cohabitants left for work. This isolation contrasted with his frequent trips to game festivals. He would travel halfway around the world, don a loud pink suit and boisterously proclaim his ambitious design intentions as spectators gathered to see his unusual game in action. This outgoing version of Bruce earned him plenty of new friends and contacts. Later, this aggressive approach to self-promotion would make Bruce question whether his design abilities were truly responsible for his success.
Antichamber is a game that toys with perception, placing the player in a labyrinth filled with unconventional puzzles that require exploration of non-Euclidean spaces.
In order to make the game everything he wanted it to be, Bruce had it tested often and forced himself to stay open to all critical feedback. He would let his peers “gut” every decision he made. He’d head back to the drawing board and try to fix the idea. Then he’d present it for another gutting.
“It’s ultimately better for the game but [it] really fucks around with you emotionally, constantly until you just believe that nothing that you’re doing is any good.
“You lose track of everything.”
Corey Nolan came to GDC with a work-in-progress version of her first solo indie game, Growing, created as a way to reach out to her mother. Corey was concerned about how her game would be received. Instead of venturing out to share the game with her peers, she decided to hide in her loft and contemplated catching an early flight home to Tempe, Arizona.
Growing puts the player in the role of a gardener tending to plants on a cloud. By watering seeds and rearranging the garden, the player can affect another character who begins the game as a child, crawling beneath the cloud.
“[My mother] doesn’t know it exists and won’t until it’s finished.” she explained. “A lot of the less abstract parts of the game are actually about my relationship with her specifically. As such, there’s actually a lot of personal content in there which I turn off for public builds with a [variable] called ‘momMode.’”
Programmers often have variables that can be switched off to disable entire features. Corey had effectively built in a kill switch for all the personal content in the game.
“Before GDC, there had only been two people who had playtested.” One of them was her boyfriend. “It didn’t feel like a ‘real’ game because of that.
“I was stuck in that weird tunnel vision — like when you say a word too many times and it ceases to even feel like a real word.”
Alexander Bruce had no end of “pure, raw ambition” driving him to complete Antichamber. “I’m going to fucking make this thing.”
Over time, he realized his bravado wasn’t always earning him new friends. “You have people being like ‘Who the fuck is this guy? What the hell is he talking about?’”
He levelled off his approach, but still believed in “crazy, passionate risk.” His desire to prove his doubters wrong only added to his desire to succeed.
“You’ve got to constantly push back against people trying to pull you down.”
Over time, the pressures of working on the game began to affect Bruce’s sanity.
“It sounds like a joke, but I was going batshit crazy doing it. I started worrying that something would happen and I wouldn’t be able to get it done — I’d die or something.
“I’d be driving in the car, coming up to a turn and I’d wonder, ‘What would happen if I didn’t turn?’ I had to start fighting more and more not to just crash my car.”
Growing, if and when it is released, will be Corey’s first solo effort.
“I started getting into game development in college, but didn’t seriously start making games until after I graduated.”
She did freelance game design, including games for Adult Swim (Hemp Tycoon), and picked up her programming skills working on an educational game for Arizona State University. She also became involved in leading the Phoenix IGDA chapter.
“I feel like I should have started making games and art a lot earlier than I did, and now I have to play a lot of catch-up to become an effective solo developer.”
Corey left the educational project due to the heavy workload and stress, ending up in a web development job. The fact that she was working as a web developer contributed to her anxieties about showing her game to other developers at GDC. Despite the work she had put into Growing and her leadership in the indie community, she was having trouble seeing herself as a “legitimate” game creator.
“I’d like to get to the point where I can sustain myself as a full-time independent developer. I’m driven by the fact that I have a lot of game ideas I want to see out in the world. I’ve had a lot of prototypes that lose steam and eventually stop. This is why Growing is so important to me; I have to finish it or else I feel doomed to never see any project through to completion.”
It is also why, when Corey’s laptop was stolen a year ago — along with the only copy of her project — she was compelled to redo all of the work from scratch so she could continue.
Alexander Bruce originally submitted Antichamber to the Independent Games Festival in 2010, receiving an honourable mention for the Nuovo Award. Encouraged by the recognition, he entered again in 2011. This time he secured a nomination, but ended up losing to Messhof’s Nidhogg.
He was upset, believing that Antichamber contained more innovative ideas than his competition. He submitted the game to other festivals and showcases, gaining accolades and valuable exposure. But an IGF win remained an important milestone in his eyes. He re-entered in 2012. Again he received a nomination, this time for Technical Excellence, alongside Polytron Corporation’s Fez.
“Throughout the show I had people coming up to me saying, ‘Good luck at the awards’ and I was like, ‘For what? Fez has won.’”
He had grown detached by his past loss to Nidhogg and by the process of working on the game for so many years. He assumed that Fez would beat Antichamber.
“There was no emotion or anything, it was like, ‘Fez has won.’”
He didn’t know how to react when Antichamber was announced as the winner of the Technical Excellence category.
“When we ended up winning it was just… shock. I honestly didn’t believe that this was even possible. I didn’t know how to process that information either because I didn’t consider it.”
Not knowing how to internalize the event, Bruce began doubting his own abilities, wondering if he even deserved to win the award.
“Did I get that one because I did something good? Or is it just because I know people and I have past successes? Am I just changing people’s psychology?”
Corey managed to rebuild her game from scratch because she was driven by her desire to share her feelings with her mom.
“I have always had a hard time expressing affection to my parents and I don’t know why. I’ve always loved them and I think they know that, but as an adult now I can see how my reticence was tough on them, my mom especially. She’s constantly been more supportive of me than I am of myself, something I thoughtlessly dismissed as a teenager.”
She moved across the country and became non-religious, despite her family being “very Catholic.”
“It feels as though a rift has grown that no amount of ‘I’m sorry’s or ‘I love you’s can bridge. I don’t know if a game can do it.”
Corey is interested in the idea of small games serving as interactive diary entries. She believes these games can offer a unique glimpse into another person’s mind, where a translation of those thoughts into language would be difficult or impossible. She hopes to become more adept at expressing herself this way.
“Ideally, I’ll become proficient enough that any time I would have written ‘Dear Diary…’ as a kid — I’d be jamming out a simple game to describe how I feel, instead.”
Growing is the first big step on this path.
“I want my mom to know how much I appreciate her, and how I’m thankful for the way she raised me.”
When Antichamber finally released this past January, Bruce was “absolutely exhausted.” He had expected it to be a big weight off his shoulders. But his work tripled by the interviews, complaints, and bug fixes.
He soon became stressed from the seemingly endless slew of emails. “Even if 95% is positive, that remaining 5% just totally fucks your entire day over. It’s great, it’s great, it’s great — but then you get an email that’s like, ‘Fuck you! Why did you make this?’ and it’s like, ‘Why did you send that to me?’
“Give it time and I’m sure it’ll look worth it. The moment I actually start spending money on anything it’ll be like: I have this money because I worked really hard to get it. But it does take a bunch of time to get over that shit.”
He hadn’t created the game for the purpose of making a profit, but perhaps he was set on finding demonstrable ways of measuring success. Was he incapable of feeling satisfied with his own personal accomplishment in completing the game, despite the great reviews and sales figures?
“That’s the same as the awards. You only get a day or a couple of minutes when you think, ‘Yeah, I did it.’
“I was always the kind of person where I’d get 98% on a subject and I’d go to the office and be like, ‘Where did I lose two marks?’ They’d be like, ‘Who the fuck cares where you lost two marks? You got 98% correct. You’re the highest in the class. It doesn’t matter.’ But I needed to know where I lost two so that I could get better. How can I improve if I don’t know where I failed?
“It’s a stupid way of looking at things.”
Corey decided not to give into her fears of being ostracized.
”The thing that pulled me out of that was indies.”
She was sharing a loft with a few other developers at GDC. Among them was Max Temkin, creator of Cards Against Humanity. Max’s interest in her game gave her confidence. She found herself inspired.
“The first time I showed it, I was incredibly nervous. But I realized [he was] picking it up and playing, and genuinely interested in what it meant. Watching someone who had no familiarity with the game, playing it for the first time, was what made me finally see it as a game.”
Unlike her previous years at GDC, Corey didn’t attend many parties or sessions. Instead, she spent her time jamming and sharing meaningful conversations with other developers.
“This GDC was more valuable to me than any other I’ve attended.”
The aftermath of Antichamber’s release became too much for Bruce to handle.
“[I’d say] fuck it I can’t deal with this I’m just going to go drink, which is something I would do often just to turn my mind off.
“What does that mean? I’m drinking every day because I don’t want to deal with this? And then I get hungover and I’m feeling like shit in the long term, then I have a bunch of caffeine, then I’m getting sleep-deprived and it’s just this cycle where you end up feeling worse and worse and worse and it’s really difficult to break out of and I ended up just ultimately being like, ‘fuck this’ putting my hands up in the air and walking away and just doing nothing for a week.
“And whatever damage that does, I don’t care.
“If I’m sick, then I can’t fix it, anyway.”
Unlike Bruce, Corey hasn’t gone through the process of releasing a personal indie project yet. It remains to be seen whether she will succeed at becoming a full-time indie game developer.
“I don’t know if my goals will change, but I could see the route I take to get there changing. Right now, I assume I’ll want to make games forever, and that’s really just an extrapolation from the present. I have no idea if that’ll be true when I’m 40, or 60, or once I’m a parent, or whatever.”
When indie game developers reach middle age or become seniors, what happens to them? So far there are no examples.
“It’s a little scary to think about when game development is your main identity.”
Alexander Bruce feels lost between the lingering release of Antichamber and the potential start of a new project.
“There’s relief that I don’t have to work so hard now. But I’ve noticed if I’m just in the car driving along, I’ll find myself literally thinking nothing, just doing a dead stare.
“There’s emptiness here, there’s nothing to think about now because I haven’t given myself something else to be busy about. Which is then just weird to me. Because before I would have been constantly thinking about work.
“Time will make me care about other things, fix chemicals in my brain, give me other things to work on.”
Bruce is not sure if he can start working on a new game straight away or if that will mean neglecting his commitment to Antichamber. He’s adrift without a clear sense of purpose, having lost the goal that was driving him for the last three years.
He admits that from an early age he was largely motivated by spite. Being teased regularly in high school became motivation to prove his detractors wrong. By achieving his dream of completing Antichamber, Bruce came to the realization that his motivations were “hollow.”
Perhaps Bruce was motivated more by a desire to prove his own preferred identity as a successful indie game developer — to himself. In hindsight, he finds his achievements unimpressive. He takes the fact that he was capable of accomplishing this feat for granted, but there was no way to know for sure at the time of conception that his game would have been as successful as it was. Perhaps this was a journey he had to take.
It took a month after the IGF for Bruce to realize “the trophy at the end doesn’t mean shit. And it was never going to mean anything. It’s just a symbol of three years of work. It’s not three years to get this stupid symbol. I’ve learned a lot over three years. When I reframed it like that, I felt much better. And I’m sure I can do that with how successful the game was.
“It is a pretty big accomplishment to go from being absolutely no one on the other side of the world to then having sold 100,000 copies of a game and having met all these people.
“When you’re caught up in it, you’re not really thinking about things in hindsight. You’re thinking: I’m going to reach this milestone. I’m going to feel a certain way. But nothing changes. You feel worse because nothing has changed.
“It’s the same. And I associate ‘the same’ with ‘putting myself through hell for a long time.’”
Impostor syndrome became the theme of my trip to GDC. It was a new concept for me. The topic sparked a lot of conversation among friends. It felt liberating to openly discuss our fears and doubts, encouraged by finding the correct label to pin our feelings to.
Mike Kime related, “I wait for when other artists will open my work and be like, ‘What the fuck!’ Almost like pulling back the curtain in [The] Wizard of Oz — they flip around some of my models and see that I’m a hack. I get emails like, ‘Do you have a minute?’ and ‘When you have some time can you come by my office?’ and I have a quick panic and anxiety about how they will say I need to catch up.
“I still have that feeling like something bad is going to happen in a meeting.”
Together, we had riffed on this concept, adding the idea that police sirens would sound if and when he was found out. Maybe the cops would break in and arrest him. Soon Mike’s story had been embellished to the point where it felt like a fantasy sequence out of a Terry Gilliam movie.
I realized that this creative reworking of a real life story was just an extension of what we did everyday at work. My colleagues and I are in the business of cooking the ingredients of our life experiences together into entertaining packaged dinners for public consumption.
We fall prey to impostor syndrome, afraid that at some point someone may see through our illusions and realize that we’re struggling everyday to create something that we won’t have to feel ashamed of later.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to be driven towards a focused goal are lucky. It can be frustrating at times, maddening and frightening, but when we’re engaged in the pursuit of that goal, we flow. The work can consume us in a way that helps us forget about the inevitable.
We’re fighting to shape a little bit of reality into something that we admire. We’re meticulously rearranging bits inside a computer so that we can express something intimate. To communicate with the outside world.
We create illusions so that we may share true experiences.
We tell tall tales so that we can make real friends.
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