EMBED WITH… BRENDON CHUNG

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This month I escaped to LA to stay with Brendon Chung, who is the centre of a small group of developers who work together in a space called Glitch City LA. Brendon makes, under the guise ‘Blendo Games’, some of the most interesting PC games in our PCscape. Fellow Glitcher and Hyper Light Drifter guy Teddy Diefenbach was my stringer.

I got out of E3 like Dufresne out of shit and went straight to Glitch City Los Angeles to bathe in something that hasn’t got the stink of commercialism all over it, and it was there in all its post-E3 glory: Glitch City Demo Night II.

A night of diverse people talking about their inspirations and giving advice, held in their little venue off West Washington Boulevard in Culver City. The lights are dim, the people are mild and friendly, IGF Chairman Brandon Boyer slinks in the back with a glint in his eye and a melting half-smile like something good is going to happen. Talks that are five minutes long, are positive, and that don’t sell anything. Fuck selling anything for now. There’s beer and later, the Indiecade afterparty.

The speakers are excellent, heartfelt, charismatic even, the last three in particular illustrating something I see so little of through the lens of the games press. Game creators have talents that aren’t just making games, and producing them can be the least important aspect of who they are. They are bringing what they learn from the arts in other areas to make their work spectacular.

It is easier to see people as people here, in this space. It’s easier to look at people within a broader context, as people who live in a broader culture. They aren’t just this one obsession. Your life does not need to be in an eternal wrassle with the concept or purity of the word ‘game’ in order to produce something good. Here games seem less the obsessive compulsive burden of one person, but the shared process of people supporting each other.

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The third-to-last speaker Lisa Brown (first in the video), for example, radiates a kind of energy that if you tried to ignore it it would just sneak up and noogie you. A designer at Insomniac Games, she also spends time on smaller projects at Glitch City. Glitch City isn’t just a place for people who consider themselves ‘indie’, but a place for people who share similar values of artistic cross-pollination.

As you can see by her Glitch City talk, not only is Lisa an excellent presenter, but she’s also capable of adorable, emotive illustrations, and sometimes those illustrations include the level design dragon that lives in her brain.

Nina Freeman, visiting from New York, presented a talk on vignette games. For her, vignette games are an extension of poetry, her first love, and she reads out her favourite poem. Games that can paint mood or feeling are important to her.

Though he’s known primarily for his work programming Hyper Light Drifter, Teddy Diefenbach is a trained singer and studied music. To finish the night, he wrote a song about his anguish reading internet comments on his solo game project, Kyoto Wild, and then sung it to the Glitch City crowd. Though I’ve known Teddy for years, since we met as Conference Associates at our first Game Developers’ Conference, I never knew he could sing quite like this.

The shared cooperative studio space at Glitch City isn’t a unique idea, but it does play host to game creators who go out of their way to be welcoming and support a community - not just of game developers, but any kind of creator. After it was formed a year ago, it was an accident that the community was populated with people who primarily make games, but the space welcomes any kind of artist. ‘Glitch Knitty’, for example, is an event that happened in the Glitch City space on the 20th of April. People were invited to come to knit, crochet and cross stitch together.

There’s a healthy diet of not-video games going on. This will become the most pleasant realisation, one that happens over and over, for the next two weeks.

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Brendon Chung, better known on the internet as Blendo Games, is the talented, unmurdery Godfather of Glitch City LA. I know this because Teddy tells me when I arrive, “If you know Brendon, you get in. All you need to do is know Brendon.”

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I got in because of Teddy, so that’s the first thing you need to know. That Teddy isn’t always right.

The second thing you need to know is that I wanted to write about Brendon. This isn’t because I thought Teddy is uninteresting (he’s making two games at once, can programme like a motherfucker, is trying to make a game that approximates Bushido Blade and he might do it, he can sing R&B better than almost any man I have ever met). It isn’t because I didn’t think anyone else at Glitch wasn’t worthy of attention. It’s because I had never met Brendon, and didn’t know anything about Brendon apart from that he made Thirty Flights of Loving, one of my favourite games. You have to indulge your own curiosity sometimes.

Brendon is currently making a game called Quadrilateral Cowboy out of Glitch City, and along with other founding members of Glitch City such as Ben Esposito [Unfinished Swan], Alex Preston [Hyper Light Drifter], and Seiji Tanaka [TURBOCATS], is primarily responsible for bringing people together here. It’s on a very wide quiet street in Culver City. The ceiling is pinned with large squares of yellow and grey fabric that give the workspace a tent-like feel. It is cool and quiet inside, and, (this is important to a Scottish writer) has tea and coffee making facilities.

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It also has a bathroom that has been painted with blackboard paint and provided with large stubs of pastel-colour chalk.

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(I am left to wonder for a while how it is possible that it is not populated with various fancy drawings of phalluses, but Brendon tells me later that this is because they instituted an early ban. “Pretty quickly we had to enact the no penis rule, because it was getting out of control,” he explains. “It was blossoming out of penises… Okay guys, very funny, it’s on a motorcycle, it’s eating cereal, it’s doing all these things, very funny…”)

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A week later, all I have done is sit quietly in Glitch City silently cursing my broken baby, a MacBook with a malfunctioning hard disk drive cable. It is strange to have your only lifeline to the world be unresponsive, sitting there in silver shame, attempting to avoid my bitter stares and staring at me cheating on it with a Chromebook. Brendon has been quietly modelling new objects for Quadrilateral Cowboy, which is his new project. I think I’d fallen in love with it before I ever played it. He tells me later one of his favourite filmmakers is Robert Rodriguez, and it all makes sense. Their DIY aesthetic is in tune.

It is a game Brendon calls twentieth-century cyberpunk. There are a number of ‘jobs’ you can undertake, something to steal, something to find, and you have a suitcase deck to hack switches, or a little remote robot on legs to do your bidding.

But instead of the worn neon Bladerunner cyberpunk universe, it is a square, classically Blendo Games-style universe in the vein of Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone, his previous games. Things are often in sepia tones, cassette tapes lie around, there’s a refined, almost screwball comedy feeling to the game - though the main characters are all women and they do not talk. There is a strong feeling of the working class around Quadrilateral Cowboy, an emphasis on what hands do, make and use. Objects feel solid; when you connect wires to hack something, twentieth-century style, they do so with a satisfying reel and click, the keys of your suitcase deck sound like they respond to your instructions with the whole of their thickness. It’s like you are in a quirky heist movie directed by Hitchcock, but Dr Emmett Brown from Back to the Future has given you your tools.

It is relaxing; at its heart it is a puzzle game that never punishes you for experimenting or making mistakes. It is about the joy of putting a set of instructions in and getting something spectacular out. It can make anyone feel like a hacker.

In fact, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a game so flexible in terms of what you can do with it that other people can get carried away with their experiments. One afternoon in Glitch City Teddy was procrastinating work on Hyper Light Drifter, and attempted to get the computer in Quadrilateral Cowboy to produce a series of beeps approximating a pop song.

It turned out not bad.

Brendon does live development streams every so often: he is very open about letting people see the inside of his code. You can see some of it here:

Part of me wonders if Brendon is very open about how he overcomes development problems because he, like me, grew up a PC gamer, in internet communities where knowledge of how to make things was not proprietary. Where conversations were often hostile but never uninteresting, where the extraction of what and why were important. Where Quake II ruled the world. (We play Quake II one afternoon at Glitch City; it has never lost its thrill.)

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One night we go to dinner in a nice place in Culver City annoyingly-named ‘Lyfe Kitchen’. “How did Glitch City start?” I ask Brendon, wondering if I can vandalise the ‘y’ out of ‘Lyfe’ on the front of the restaurant. In fact, perhaps the whole name.

“So I started with [a work group called] ‘Strawberry Jam’,” he explains. “Every Sunday, a group of us would meet at a coffee shop and we would bring our laptops, and just start working. And we liked it. Because it meant we were out of our houses. It meant we had to wear clothes. It meant we had to smell okay.”

I laugh in the way that only freelance writers can laugh at this statement.

“We were thinking ‘Why don’t we do Strawberry Jam more often instead of trying to bum a table every time?’” he continues. “So then some of the guys started actively searching. It was two groups of people, and Ben Esposito was the common bond from the two groups and brought the two groups together. That’s when I met Casey Hunt and Alex Preston. And we were looking for a place, we found one in Downtown, which was scary and was in a bad part of town, then we found Glitch City.”

“And it happened to be across the street from the best burger place in LA,” I say.

Brendon’s voice goes all low and surreptitious. “It was uh… A very good location. And Pinches’ tacos… We have a lot of tacos. I don’t know if you’ve noticed.”

I have been eating tacos for lunch every day since I got here.

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It’s Teddy’s birthday halfway through my stay here; I buy him the last copy of Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut from the Gamestop near Brendon’s house. We buy beer and I laugh at almost every reaction Brendon and Teddy have at the game - it is extraordinary, as if David Lynch made a game - and with the leftover beer the next night, I sit with Brendon on the couch and interrogate him about his thoughts on making things.

Brendon Chung is easy in manner, mostly a quiet, unassuming and amiable person. Something both frustrating and wonderful about him is that you know that a good library of films and books sits in his head and he is keeping all of their secrets until he needs them for his work, and then it goes into whatever game he is making. He rarely starts conversations, but he seems to like having them. It is natural for Brendon to think that games sit in a cultural spectrum like every other medium: He grew up in Los Angeles, where everyone, whether they want to or not, is exposed to movies, and his whole family is creative.

“My mom played a lot of music when she was younger,” Brendon explains to me. “My dad liked drawing stuff when he was younger. My brother was film inclined. My sister works in graphic design.”

Brendon made his first game in elementary school in QBasic, and he’s always been interested in games, but his need to make games never seemed like the only strand running through everything. He went to film school in San Diego; he’s made films he’s proud of.

He says when he began work at the late AAA game studio Pandemic here in LA, before they closed and he went solo, he found that everyone else was also cross-disciplinary too. One of his team mates was an ex TV cameraman, for example. Here in Glitch City, Teddy Diefenbach also has a film background, the same for Casey Hunt, who also works on Hyper Light Drifter.

For Brendon, making things seems like something necessary for him, but it doesn’t really matter what medium they are in as long as he can keep making connections with people.

“There is something about having people play your stuff, enjoy your stuff,” he says to me. “Knowing that you’re making some sort of connection out there. For me, I love with when someone makes something just for me. there are some movies out there that I think, ‘You made this just for me. You made this movie to appeal straight to my senses.’ I like to try to make stuff for people who don’t have stuff made for them.”

“Gravity Bone was my attempt at ‘Can I make a story game?’ It still had a lot of janky platforming and missions and objectives. But for Thirty Flights of Loving I would try to make Gravity Bone but without traditional gameplay things. Can I just make this thing that is purely about ‘feel a certain thing’, make a certain mood in the world? Is that enough to make this something that someone will enjoy? Because not everyone likes shooting things. …The idea is: what if it was nothing but mood? Cut out exposition, cut out objectives, cut out everything that games do.”

“There’s no dialogue in your games,” I say.

“Yeah. Other games do it. I don’t like competing against other people. I’m not going to win against Planescape: Torment, or Bioware, whatever they do,” Brendon replies.

“Games are an underestimated means of telling a story,” I say. “You can tell a story in a game just by making an action available.”

Brendon nods. “The onus is on the player to be the thing that drives things forward. Something that’s important for me in story is that not everyone likes story, so it’s important to me that if you don’t like story you can skip all of it or most of it. When I play games I skip past text bubbles because they don’t generally interest me, so games like Thirty Flights or Gone Home, if you want you can totally speed run it. For me, what irks me is when games force you to read every precious word or cutscene which I don’t ever want to do.”

I ask if there’s a particular game that affected his outlook.

“The huge inspiration for me was Another World by Eric Chahi,” he says.

“It’s really interesting. It’s called Another World in Europe, Out Of This World in America. It’s a side scrolling game but it’s told with zero words, and the art is very vector-based. It’s made by one guy, and the gag is that he just started making this game, a scientist in a laboratory gets zapped by his own experiment and gets teleported to another universe, and the gag is that he made this first sequence as he went along. The game has this feeling of spontaneity, like he has no idea, that kind of energy. It’s amazing - like, now you’re in a death arena, now you’re in a … It’s just amazing.”

“Thirty Flights has that feeling,” I say, “of - you know when Raymond Chandler says when you’ve run out of stuff to say, ‘have a man come through the door with a gun’? Thirty Flights is the same - it doesn’t waste any time. It never occurred to me that you could literally move the player, just do a jump cut.”

“In college I was a film student,” Brendon says. “I love movies, I like watching them and I like making them. But games, we talked about this [we talked in the car about how we hate that games’ only cinematic takeaway is cutscenes] - they take this movie stuff and you’re like well great. But you want them to use it in a different way I guess. For me I wanted to use movie stuff without pausing a game, without making players watch a cutscene. What if you could integrate them seamlessly while you’re playing - you can leave your hands on the controllers and you’ll be okay. So that’s the kind of approach I try to take with that.”

“Are you a storyteller?” I ask him.

“I worked in AAA for a while,” he begins. “And the company I worked for [Pandemic], they made really bold choices in things, but as the company got bigger and bigger and bigger, I felt the company started specialising in the same thing over and over again. I’ve always been interested in storytelling, like at elementary school and making shitty Doom mods and Quake mods - so for me it’s near and dear to my heart. But I don’t want to be the guy that does story stuff. That’s why the first thing I did was not story stuff - like Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher. Because I find it more interesting to do something you’re terrible at, because the results are more interesting.”

“Why don’t you develop for consoles?” I ask.

“There’s something about console development that’s super cumbersome,” he says.

“Closed?” I ask.

“Yeah there’s all this paperwork you have to do.”

“The PC seems so egalitarian. So open. You can distribute games for free,” I say.

“When you say open,” Brendon nods, “It’s also… The files are just sitting there. You can just click on them. You can just click into the directory and see what all the files are doing. Like I was playing Farcry 3, and there are some things I didn’t quite agree with, and some people out there went ahead and modified the files to remove the minimap or whatever. And that’s a thing you can do here. I think that’s great.”

“Quadrilateral Cowboy is very nostalgic for that era of the PC games command line,” I say.

“I mean that’s the era I grew up in. Messing around with autoconfig. Trying to make this stupid game work on my computer,” Brendon smiles.

“There’s a romanticisation in my head about the jankiness of getting computer games to work,” I say, frowning. “I had an ATI Rage graphics card that never worked. It shaped my ability to play games because some things didn’t work, and some things did. For example, Mechwarrior 2 loaded. But P.O.D. never loaded. Mechwarrior 2 wasn’t an amazing game, but there’s a tiny shard of wonder left in me for that game just because it loaded.”

“If you asked me at the time I would have said I hated it and just wanted it to work,” Brendon says, “but looking back on it as that Dwarf Fortress feel - you’ve gotta earn your fun. You gotta fight your way through.”

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I guess I’m in love with Brendon’s bookshelves. There’s such a huge variety of stuff there. Not just science fiction and pulp, but instruction manuals, ‘The Grammar of Architecture’, a book on the history of Chinese and Japanese civilisations, a whole host of Prima strategy guides, Michael Chabon, C# manual next to Mark Twain.

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I love personal libraries because it is like opening up someone’s brain and having a look inside. These pictures are the inside of Brendon’s brain. And it has a lot of stuff going on.

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LOVE SOMETHING

“Why are games special?” I ask Brendon. “Are they special?”

“For me it’s not about where video games are right now,” he says, reclining further into the Glitch City couch. “More like what we could do with video games. We play these games right now and they do things, but it’s that feeling… We are at that stage in film where you just see the train coming towards you and people are freaking out because they think they’re going to run over by the train. Just thinking about where we’re going to be in twenty years - games are going to be freaking crazy. There’s something about that that is really exciting.”

Part of me wonders if film were easier to get into as to whether games would lose Brendon completely.

Actually: I know we wouldn’t. His bookshelves are full of Prima guides and C# manuals, he’s the Tarantino of video games. But he tells me that if it were easier to live as a film director he might have done more of it.

“I like being able to pay for my roof,” Brendon says. “I really want to do video games, and I am really interested in doing film stuff. But I couldn’t ever figure out how to make a living doing film and video projects. I was pretty confident about the games, you make a game and then you sell it directly to people, it’s digital. But with film I felt with some practice I could eventually make something good, but there… wasn’t any direct way to sell it. Like do I sell it to a studio, do I put it on Youtube? How does this work? I had no idea.”

Perhaps there are some ways in which games are winning - that is, our young auteurs - they have a way to sell their work directly to the people who want it. They hold the sweat of their own brow.

“It is okay to make a living off what you’re making,” Brendon says, very certainly. “There are some developers out there who think it dilutes the art, making people pay money for your thing, or doing some sort of financial transaction for your art.

“And if you’re an artist and I like your work, I want you to continue making your work. And you’re not going to be able to do that if you don’t have some attempt at asking for something. It’s nothing to be ashamed of: to be able to put food in your mouth and pay for your rent. …I hope that becomes more accepted.”

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The intimation is always that I should hate Los Angeles. When I came here before, I always assumed that there was something I was missing that would show LA to be some sort of cheap drunk tarted up on the sort of nail polish that stains your nails orange, a city where the movies and the lyrics of Hole’s Celebrity Skin push all griminess to the surface so you can see it.

But this has not been my experience any time I have come here. I spent all my time in Culver City and Hollywood this time, and I always thought I’d hate LA, I always thought I’d come away with a thin filthy layer of it on me; everyone outside of LA gripes that it is shallow and awful, that people value terrible things here. Perhaps I don’t hang out with the right people. I never hang out with the right people. Or maybe I always hang out with the right people. Maybe, out of all of my excruciating flaws, this is my one redeeming virtue. I went to dinner with the writer Tom Bissell, who is writing some big budget blockbuster game as is his wont, the sort of thing I never play any more. We sat there and looked over at the sunset on the Hollywood Hills. Later he’d tell me I fall in love with the wrong people and he’s right, he’s right, but you never know how you feel about something until you’ve had to live there. You go there and you live there and then you work out what it is later.

When I first got here I got hit on by a fedora-wearing movie director of some documentary in a rooftop bar in Downtown LA. Teddy said this was the one true Los Angeles experience that I’d had. I only thought: It seems like there’s a lot of acceptance for strangeness, difference here. As if the whole of Los Angeles is just, in itself, a museum of personalities, of eccentricities. As if it is just Brendon Chung’s eclectic collection of weird and wonderful books. It just opens at the movie page more often than not. And I think in the hands of someone smart, that book can make really great games.

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A Brendon sketch

HIGH SCORES: 

BLENDO GAMES
QUADRILATERAL COWBOY

BRENDON ON TWITTER

GLITCH CITY

HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER