For those of us who lack tech chops, it’s hard to get a sense of what it’s like to build a video game from scratch. Sure, some developers do a good job of keeping the public apprised via blog posts (Yacht Club Games, the developers behind the excellent “Shovel Knight,” is a good example), but for the most part it’s a rather opaque world.
That’s part of the reason I was intrigued to watch a mini-documentary by the British developer and filmmaker Adam Butcher. A mere seven minutes long and hosted on his website, www.adam-butcher.co.uk (I first saw it on The Atlantic website), it’s a wonderful peek inside the creative mind.
What’s most fascinating about Butcher’s story is that his game, “Tobias and the Dark Sceptres” (a free adventure-puzzle title for Windows and Mac OS), has taken half of his life to develop — he started it when he was 13 and is 26 now. His film, “The Game That Time Forgot,” wonderfully highlights the frustrations of such a protracted process, as well as the many things he learned about himself and programming along the way.
In an e-mail, Butcher expressed surprise that he ever finished “Tobias” at all. “My computer was struck by lightning once (seriously) but thankfully I’d kept a back up,” he said.
He also talked a bit about what it’s like to wade through mounds of code written by a much younger and less capable version of yourself. “Every level in the game has layer upon layer of really old code going through to recent code,” he explained. “Looking over the programming is like some weird kind of Digital Archaeology — ‘Ooh, that’s where I started this level,’ ‘Oh, that’s where I changed half the sprites 6 years later,’ ‘Man, that’s where I made the game less difficult after I’d finished university,’ etc.”
In some cases, Butcher’s lack of experience hindered him. “As I’ve got older I’ve definitely felt that the platforming/combat is the weakest element of the game,” he said. But on the other hand, his lack of experience, he explained, was actually an asset in certain ways. The puzzles he started all those years ago “are still interesting, original and cinematic. And oddly I think a lot of that comes out of the naiveté of my younger self. Back then I had more faith in the patience and intelligence of players than we’ve been conditioned to expect from modern mainstream games.” (It’s an interesting microcosm of the broader progression toward easier, more hand-holding games many gamers have griped about.)
The game goes for the relatively primitive tools he had to work with back in the early aughts: “In my experience, limitations are good for creativity,” he said. “The fact that I couldn’t build, say, a 3D world using my tool meant that I had to stick to something simple and something that I could (eventually) finish.”
So would he do it all again?
“The serious answer is: ‘I’m not sure,’” he explained, and this is partly because his interests have changed in the intervening years. “I think the project turned out amazingly well in the end, which I’m really happy about. But if a time-traveller went back to 14-year-old me and said ‘Dude, forget computer games, you’re going to want to be a filmmaker by age 18, so start working on your directing skills,’ I think that might’ve become a better use of my spare time.”
That ties into a broader lesson he mentioned both in his e-mail and in the film: the importance of knowing when to wrap up an early project, of when to pare back one’s ambitions. “I always think scaling back projects is a good idea — particularly if you’re a hobbyist,” he said. “Finishing something small is a lot more useful than not finishing something big.”
That’s a tough lesson for a wide-eyed 13-year-old to digest — but perhaps easier for a 26-year-old.
“The Game That Time Forgot”: