How Ska Studios' gore-drenched indie brawler paved the path for a special union.
Precious few people could manage to turn a gruesome, ultraviolent game about dismembering undead hordes with their own severed limbs into a grand romantic gesture. James Silva pulled it off, though — surprising his girlfriend and game development partner Michelle Juett with an in-game wedding proposal right on the PAX 2011 show floor in front of a bustling crowd of onlookers.
It was a Charlie Murder demo session neither member of Ska Studios will forget.
"I made a little cutscene where in-game me proposed to in-game Michelle and all of our characters were in the game crowded around watching," he recalls, adding that he covertly notified a bunch of their friends, telling them to gather at the game's demo booth at 3 p.m. that Saturday. "It was one of the most exciting yet terrifying things I've ever done," he says.
Juett suspected some kind of sneakery was afoot. "I think the surprise was that there were so many people around us," she says. "I sort of had a hint he was doing something suspicious because he was acting super weird all weekend."
When the time came to pop the question, Silva booted up the special version of the game, started playing, got to the critical cutscene, hit the A button, dropped to one knee and produced the ring.
"I had to press A for the animation for when you accepted," he chuckles slyly to his wife of just over a year during our phone interview. "I didn't make an animation for if you shot me down."
Beneath the crazy blood-soaked haze and outlandish antics, there's a surprisingly tender side to the tale of Charlie Murder that binds its creators together beyond coding and creativity.
The studio that almost wasn't
When Silva first began exploring his childhood dream of making games for a living over a decade ago, there was no such thing as "indie" in the gaming world — at least not in the same sense as it exists today. "Back then it was called shareware and nobody wanted it," he quips in a not-quite-joking tone.
"I remember when I was a teenager I made a thing on [Macintosh application-programming tool] HyperCard ... called Mortal Wombat 2," Silva says. "I uploaded it to AOL, and I had 400 people download it. I was like 'this is awesome!'" He was hooked.
College proved to be a perfect opportunity to play around with a broad range of game design experiments. Silva crafted code as a hobbyist developer in his spare time, even finding inventive ways to occasionally submit completed games instead of dull reports for his final class projects. He carved out additional blocks of development time whenever he could afford to blow off class work. But when graduation rolled around, his bubble burst. It was time to hunker down and try to earn a living.
"I got a job doing applications development, which would have been a just fine 'real job,' but within the first two months it became this soul-crushing thing," he says. "What I realized was that when I got home every night I didn't have enough time or energy to work on games for fun."
"I remember when I was a teenager I made a thing on HyperCard ... called Mortal Wombat 2."
That year — 2007 — was off to a rough start. With zero time to work on his game projects and a waning spirit, he begrudgingly convinced himself to give up on making games. It was a depressing prospect. "I basically had accepted at that point that it wasn't going to be a part of my life," he says. Then he got the news that would change everything.
Silva had just won Microsoft's Dream.Build.Play Challenge with The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai — a game he had tinkered away at over the years and then revamped over the course of four months entirely for the competition. The project scored him an Xbox Live Arcade publishing contract and the start-up cash needed to steer his aspirations back on course. But perhaps more importantly, it set the stage for an eventual chance encounter with his future wife.
Concept art for a Charlie Murder pirate gal enemy
A match made at PAX
James Silva proposes to Michelle Juett at their Charlie Murder demo booth during PAX 2011.
In her first game industry job, Michelle Juett worked as a game tester putting Xbox Live Arcade titles through their paces. It was around 2008, and one of the games that came through the lab was The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. She was impressed.
"It was a really exciting time in the labs, because usually we'd get [less thrilling] games that'd come through," Juett recalls, noting she also thought it was cool that the game was made by only one guy. "There's a lot of just ... stuff ... on there, and this was more of an action game, which is kind of what we liked to play."
Living on opposite coasts, Juett and Silva met in person for the first time in Seattle during the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo. They kept in touch, started playing games together online, and officially began dating about a year later. Before long, Juett moved to Schenectady, N.Y. to be with Silva, later joining Ska Studios in an official capacity as an artist and marketing manager.
"We had to try not to hurt each other's feelings because we do work with each other and live with each other all day."
Being a couple is one thing, but settling into making games together has been an ongoing evolution for the pair. "It makes it more iterative of a process," Juett says. While Silva does all of the programming, they now share in the art duties, bounce ideas back and forth, and add their own personal touches to each project in other ways.
"It's getting better, but it was more challenging at first," she says, of their collaborative working relationship. "We had to try not to hurt each other's feelings because we do work with each other and live with each other all day."
Working on Charlie Murder, Juett spent a lot of time fine-tuning and polishing the art, while also designing many of the game's gruesome monsters and all of the zany costumes characters can wear. She even contributed vocals to the game's soundtrack and supplies the voice of one of the earlier bosses — a psychotic dude in a giant cheeseburger suit. It's a performance she's particularly proud of.
Occasionally, however, she worries that her creative influences will negatively affect the studio's established routine and turn off the fan base Silva built on the back of his previous solo games. It's something that sits in the back of her mind at times, as she's working alongside her husband.
Of course, he doesn't see it that way at all, saying, "I just want her to be creative and not worry about the impact." Silva readily admits that art isn't his strong suit, and says that's one area in particular where Juett's creative touch really shines.
Despite their openness about the insecurities and challenges that come from easing into a work relationship alongside their personal one, the couple doesn't let these difficulties show in their creative work, which is woven with crazy, over-the-top antics.
Zombies, brews and tattoos
When you rip off a zombie's arm and club it back to death, the last thing you expect to see drop out of its rotting corpse are the ingredients for brewing a pint of India Pale Ale. Then again, if you're a post-apocalyptic punk band slam dancing your way through hellish hordes, taking a pit-stop to boil up a little stat-building liquid courage makes perfect sense, right?
"A lot of the ideas just came from wherever," laughs Silva when explaining the chaotic recipe for Charlie Murder, which throws everything from giant mohawk-adorned robots and chainsaw fu to magic-imbuing tattoos and psychedelic hippy massacres into a bizarre and bloody melting pot. "The creative process was probably as punk rock as the game [itself]."
Indeed, seat-of-your-pants decision making seems to be a running theme with Ska Studios' latest effort. "There was a lot of waking up, being like 'I want to put this in the game,' and then putting it in," adds Juett.
A lighthearted "sure, why the hell not" approach to game design isn't something you see very often in the stuffy world of AAA development, but it's a hallmark of this creative couple's indie spirit.
Take the game's unusual brewing system, for example, which was inspired by a homebrewer pal and the couple's love of craft beer. "It seemed like the most punk rock form of alchemy you could do," says Silva. The fact you have to bludgeon the key ingredients from your foes' decaying bodies? A nice touch.
"I love how the characters look as they metamorphose from bare to inked-up, and that's why I made it so you can make your shirt invisible."
Chugging virtual brews you've concocted to boost your battle prowess is only one of Charlie Murder's peculiar mechanics loosely inspired by personal interests. The ability to drop by the in-game tattoo shop to give rowdy rocker characters fresh ink to power special attacks is a hefty nod to Silva's own youthful obsession with tattoos and one of the first full games he made.
Charlie Murder is actually a spiritual successor to a River City Ransom-style beat-'em-up he made back in 2001 called Zombie Smashers X. More primitive in design but bathed in similar levels of blood and zombie-bashing, that game featured a similar tattoo system. Silva decided it was too sweet of an idea to leave buried and resurrected it.
"I love how the characters look as they metamorphose from bare to inked-up, and that's why I made it so you can make your shirt invisible," he says. "I still want to get sleeves."
He takes a moment to reconsider, adding, "I don't know if I'm too old for that."
Punk in sound and spirit
The gritty aesthetics and sonic assault of punk rock's anarchistic ethos flow through Charlie Murder's horror-strewn underpinnings like an electric current. It's a little surprising to hear, however, that the couple's punk rocker days are largely behind them.
Silva used to be really into the music, even playing drums as a high schooler in a ska punk band called One Screw Loose — which is partially where the studio's name came from. "I'm such a poser though," he admits, chuckling. "I grew up in the suburbs, like most punk rockers. But yeah, the way people dressed and the attitude, I really liked that. Now I'm just kind of a grumpy old man in my 30s."
"We're both big nerds," Juett adds, drawing loose parallels between their own lives and the back story of Charlie Murder's. "All of these characters used to be huge D&D nerds, but now they're a punk rock band because they want to make that kind of music. They weren't necessarily ingrained with the culture."
"It was kind of symbolic, because I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 was such a high point for feeling like I made something amazing that impacted people."
One thing Silva hasn't lost in his "old age" is his rocking edge.
He's created all of the music for his own games over the years, and Charlie Murder gave him an opportunity to channel that frenetic energy of his youth in a more personal way than past projects did. "I want to make music, and I want people to hear my music," he says. "It just works out that the best way of doing that is making a game. If you just put music on the internet, it's hard to get people to listen to it."
The virtual band's recorded sound — something he concocted by overlaying all of the instrumental parts by himself and howling into the mic with different voices — is a crucial aspect of its in-game persona. "I think it really portrays them well, and I'm proud of how it came out," he says.
Another important reference to Silva's past comes later in the game during a cutscene where Charlie Murder the character performs the theme from I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1.
"It was kind of symbolic, because I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 was such a high point for feeling like I made something amazing that impacted people, even if it's just for being silly," says Silva. "I think I've been left with this sort of fear of becoming washed-up, and that's kind of a part of Charlie Murder. It's a pinnacle moment."
An early sketch of a Charlie Murder enemy, giving a heavy nod to the Saw films
The indie life
Far from being washed-up, Ska Studios continues to push onward into new territory as the next console generation gears up for launch. "We've been doing OK," says Silva. "We basically try to live as frugally as possible just in case our games tank."
"For me the idea of just being able to make games for a living — that just makes everything worth it."
Following Charlie Murder's success, the couple is settling into a comfortable routine, planning for the future, and tackling challenges as they come. Between rounds of post-release bug-stomping, traveling to conventions to showcase the game, and preparing to port The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile to PC, it's been a crazy few months, Silva admits. Still, they've had a little free time to start tinkering with their next game project.
"For me the idea of just being able to make games for a living — that just makes everything worth it," Silva says. "It's really neat to create a world and watch it come to life. It's so much fun."
Images: Ska Studios
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan