Creativity is a fickle thing.
Professional creatives everywhere have experienced at least one dead-end during their careers. Writer’s block plagues even the most talented authors, painters’ blank faces mirror equally blank canvases, and musicians find themselves falling into the same old chord progressions time after time. Fickle as it may be, creativity can be tamed, trained into subservience and bound by ritual. People often resort to repeatable maneuvers that get them into the right frame mind to work. Some seek solitude and quiet, some need the TV on for background noise, some prefer the presence of other people and so attend co-working spaces for company.
Those that work on contract for clients often talk about the concept of creative control, usually in reference to it being taken away by those that also control the money. They long for the freedom to be truly creative, rather than being shackled by externally imposed constraints, binding them to old, safe, reliable… boring ideas.
The thing is, though, people are amazing at solving problems. It’s a key component of our survival and evolution. Creativity flourishes under pressure, which means you can teach yourself to view your constraints as opportunities to make decisions and make things that stand not only despite adversity, but due to adversity.
A game jam is such an exercise in applied constraints: A tight time limit, untested new collaborators, surprise themes, award categories; all seemingly designed to add pressure and stress. In reality, these constraints are actually either functional or designed to be helpful. Without a theme, jammers would be asked to make a game with no direction, nothing to focus their thinking. Time limits allow developers to make decisions about scope, and excuse a lack of polish. New collaborators challenge your thinking and develop your ability to expand your creative boundaries, lighting neural pathways previously unexplored.
So, what happens when you add a moving train to the mix?
Train Jam is a travelling game jam that happens on the California Zephyr, a passenger train that covers the 2,438 mile route from Chicago to San Francisco in time for the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). This year, more than 200 jammers descended on Chicago to make friends (and games) on their way to GDC. Train Jam organiser and indie developer Adriel Wallick has strong feelings on the subject of constraint and creativity thanks to what she has learned from the event, and her experience in transitioning from programming satellites to developing indie games.
“I was working as a software engineer at Lockheed Martin, working on weather satellites,” Wallick told me as we sat in the café car, frowsting in the odours of microwaved hotdogs and pizzas. “Thing is, I realised I wanted to work on my own things and work for myself. So that’s when I quit and became a freelancer.” This was Adriel’s first foray into being a solo indie developer, but she soon realised that the freedom that came from working for herself was crippling. “It turned out I actually wasn’t doing anything, I was just staring at a blank screen, browsing Reddit, looking at Twitter, looking at Facebook. I couldn’t get anything started, because I didn’t know where to start.”
Wallick’s partner Rami Ismail, co-founder of indie studio Vlambeer, observed Wallick’s struggle, and suggested she should take whatever game idea was in her head, work on it for one week, and then move on to something else. “I did that for a week, and it was terrible,” Wallick admitted, “but I did it for one week, then another week, and it ended up spiralling out of control and I did it for a year.” Over the course of those 52 weeks, Wallick learned how to identify and apply a set of constraints that motivated her, and drove her to create a very broad set of games. Suddenly she didn’t have time for Reddit or social media, she had deadlines. Her constraints helped her out of the creative paralysis, and the fear of the blank page.
“It’s really hard to think outside the box, when you don’t have a box.”
“A lot of what makes people good at things, and what makes people motivated is having something to push against. If you have nothing to push against, you lose your inspiration to be creative, and the need to schedule-out your time.” Wallick saw that in herself at the beginning of her time as an indie developer, and used Game a Week to help break those habits, and to find the constraints that worked for her. For Ismail, the topic of constraint can be applied more broadly to game design and development. We set up for our interview across from one another in the dining car, a portable restaurant that fed Train Jammers three square meals a day. Ismail sat confidently looking out the window, absorbed by the beauty of the passing Midwestern landscape.
“Here’s the thing,” Ismail said, his eyes tracking a mountain goat standing impossibly on an outcropping, “everything about game design is constraint. Even the first line of code you write is a constraint. All we do as game designers is set constraints on our players.” We’ve already learned that constraints can help us to be better creators, but it seems that constraint can also help players to find creative solutions to the challenges presented by the games they play. “When you start a game, there is nothing. And then we say there’s gravity, and now we’ve constrained you. You can move left, right, up or down, we’ve constrained you.”
“The same thing goes for writing,” he said, gesturing toward me. “The first word you write constrains the next. So all you’re doing continuously is constraining. So the idea of too much constraint is like, what does that mean?” At the beginning of our conversation, his eyes would flick back and forth as they tried to soak-up as much of the continual beauty parade Middle America served up to California Zephyr passengers. But as the conversation wore on, his eyes slowed. They glazed-over as he became absorbed by this line of thinking.
“Too much constraint is a notion for people that are afraid of creativity. They’re like ‘Oh no, what if I feel limited.’ Gosh. Figure it out! If you can’t find something interesting within constraints, well then what are you doing?” He paused for a moment. “I guess there are also imposed constraints, those can be shit. You obviously have economical constraints, geographical constraints, cultural constraints language constraints. Hmm.”
Ismail’s seemingly unfiltered verbal thought process oscillated between constraints that can be used, and those that truly bind. He went on to ruminate on the idea that some people use constraints as an excuse to give up, while others are forged by the fire into something stronger, more resilient. To him, though, one thing was clear:
Constraint is universal.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on the topic of constraint, but perhaps they haven’t spent a huge amount of time truly considering it. During both Train Jam and GDC, I raised the subject with various people, across a wide range of roles and experience. Every single person had an opinion, but few of those opinions overlapped. Everyone had a different perspective. Some believed that the most successful developers of the last five years were just lucky or in the right place at the right time. Others believed they personally had more constraints than most, and as such have just been hamstrung by fate or circumstance. Others still internalized the issue, seeing fault in themselves and their process.
Sean Vanaman, co-founder of Campo Santo and creative director on Firewatch, decided to do Train Jam in order to decompress after shipping the game. It was a decision made on a whim, and presented challenges he wasn’t necessarily prepared for. “I’m making a game that’s not dissimilar to the opening of Firewatch using Unity and Twine, and all the bits and bobs that connect those two together. As a ‘professional game developer’,” he said, throwing up airquotes, “it makes you feel like your skillset is really small, your wheelhouse is really small, y’know?” As Vanaman voiced his insecurities, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had that morning on the train with a pair of students, who were freaking out over the fact that Sean Vanaman—someone they clearly idolised—was doing Train Jam with them. “That’s so stupid,” Vanaman said when I told him about it, “I don’t do shit. I need the people around me to be good, I need Jake Rodkin basically. I’m used to working with people whose first pass is just pure polish. I guess my stuff can be like that sometimes, the stuff I’m responsible for, but doing this whole thing by myself is really different.” Train Jam was an excuse for Vanaman to go back to his creative roots. He wasn’t responsible for creative direction on his jam project, just the writing. He constrained himself to his primary skill, and allowed his team to take responsibility for the broader project.
Even outside of the game jam context, constraint was a tool used by Campo Santo to help get Firewatch over the line. Whenever the team felt bogged-down by constraints–time, money, viability, scope, etc–they would stop and have a conversation. “Alright let’s say we have all the money in the world, all the time in the world, what do we do? Vanaman recounted.
At this point, Vanaman described the ending of Firewatch in some detail to illustrate his point, so if you’ve not finished the game yet you may want skip the following paragraph.
“Take the ending of Firewatch for instance, so a helicopter shows up, and a guy grabs you and pulls you in.” This wasn’t the ending the team had originally written, but Vanaman wasn’t happy with what they had, and thus the discussion began. “We said, ‘what if it didn’t end that way? What if we could do anything we wanted? Would Henry meet Delilah? No. That would be really untrue to the character.” During early development, Jake Rodkin suggested that maybe the best way to end the game was like in the film Predator, with the protagonist flying out of the situation, dazed, conflicted, and confused, exhausted by what just happened. “So during one of these discussions, I said ‘what if we do the Predator ending? Well, we’ll need a helicopter, and a dude in the helicopter. They’ll need to be animated. What are our constraints? Time? Yes. Financial? No, we’ve saved our money for this moment, we can dip into the war chest a little bit.’ So what if we just bought a really fucking fancy helicopter on the Unity Asset Store, and a fancy fucking fireman dude?” By removing constraints, the Campo Santo team found themselves naturally landing on something that was completely in scope, and according to Vanaman, it improved the game. “I love the ending. I love that scene. The first piece of chosen human contact you have is with the person at the end.”
Vanaman and fellow Campo Santo developer Ben Burbank worked on their Train Jam project, Discharge, with Emily Dillhunt, a senior studying at the University of Wisconsin–Stout, and Samuli Jääskeläinen, gameplay and VR Unity developer from Mindfield Games in Finland. During the trip, the pair worked diligently and late into the night, and told me that they were tired, but having fun. “It doesn’t really feel like work, y’know?” Jääskeläinen said. The bags under the pair’s eyes belied his enthusiasm, but their constraints were working for them, and it showed. The finished product is one of the most polished games to come out of the jam, and exhibits the complementary skills of all four contributors.
I doubt Dillhunt and Jääskeläinen would have expected that traveling to Chicago, boarding a train, and disconnecting themselves from the outside world for 60 hours would have resulted in such a high-quality game for their portfolios. Let alone one that shares credits with two of the developers of Firewatch.
I expected Train Jam to produce stories about developers struggling against adversity, doing their best to create under the pressures of jamming on a train. In reality, though, what I observed was people making games that are inherently better because of those pressures. Games that couldn’t possibly exist without the creativity inspired by the environment and challenges of the train, and the strange social landscape of the event.
Correction: Previously, we listed the incorrect name for developer Mindfield Games. This has been corrected.
Jason Imms is a freelance games and tech journalist based in Australia. He's loves to cook Texas-style BBQ, and teach his kids about games. He particularly enjoys looking for the human angle, because after all, people are the most interesting part of any story. Make sure to listen to him chat with Austin about his favorite games from Train Jam on this episode of Giant Bomb Presents.