How the development of an indie fan favorite drove its creator crazy.
Making this observation as a point of small talk, however, turns out to be a bad idea. "I hate small talk!" Bruce says, smiling broadly.
"The beard is a response to [the Game Developers Conference] this year," he says. "After years of always having something to demo, I just wanted to chill out. I didn't anticipate having to deal with random fans coming up to chat. I'm introverted, and it was draining. I wasn't in the right mental state. I didn't want to disappoint these people. But I couldn't deal with it.
"So I decided I would go off and change my appearance entirely."
He's done a thorough job. A thick beard and distressed mohawk hairstyle make him barely recognizable as the face most commonly seen in the last four years grinning behind an award for his mind-bending puzzler Antichamber. It isn't much of a surprise that he needs to distance himself from the long artistic journey that has made him an indie celebrity. Just as the game itself tests a player's sanity, so did its creation push Bruce to the brink of madness.
Snakes and Asteroids
Antichamber started life as a mash-up of classic 2D puzzle game Snake (where the player grows longer over time and has to avoid running into his or her own body) and space shooter Asteroids.
In 2005 Alexander Bruce went to Australia's Swinburne University to study for a degree with a formidable name. "Bachelor of Multimedia (Games and Interactivity)/Bachelor of Science (Computer Science and Software Engineering)." He takes a breath. "I was very technically minded."
Part of the degree involved experimenting with mods in Unreal Tournament 2004. This encouraged Bruce to try and make a game in his spare time, just to see what he could achieve. "I thought I'd start really simple and try and make Snake. So I opened Unreal to see if I could figure it out."
This was more complicated than he anticipated, and Bruce soon hit a stumbling block; it was too difficult to model a snake that would gradually grow in length. "But I had elevators," he says. "I could make a floor full of elevators and have it so that when I stepped off one it would move down and after a certain amount of time come back up. Very quickly I had an abstract version of Snake happening."
Unsurprisingly, for someone who proudly calls himself an experimental designer, this didn't hold his interest for long. "I'm just interested in new experiences," says Bruce. "I want to keep pushing further and further against the boundaries." He decided to experiment.
"I played all these creative games and I wanted to see if I could make stuff like them. I wasn't really getting that from working at Australian studios."
"I wanted to look at whether I could make interesting things happen. Back at that time other implementations of geometry were going down a very physics-based route. For example, you had Red Faction, where if you break a wall it crumbles. I ended up with a geometry system that was very different. I could do whatever I wanted."
A separate attempt to create Asteroids in Unreal proved just as tricky, and equally as fruitful. "I immediately had the problem of going out of one side of the screen and coming in the other." His only choice was to experiment until he was able to hack the engine. "That gave me this [infinite] 3D world. But again, I couldn't do much with the prototype at the time."
Largely by accident, the twin pillars of what would one day be known as Antichamber had been born.
Bruce's original intentions for these prototypes were very different from what they would eventually become. He tried to turn them into a unique arena shooter named Hazard. "I added a whole bunch of weapons that would react to the geometry in various ways. But when I tried to run it across a network there was just way too much going on. So I put that to the side. I'd see if it was interesting to me later."
In 2008 Bruce took a break from his degree to work as an infrastructure programmer at Transmission Games, followed by two months at Big Ant before he returned to his degree. This formal experience helped to focus his programming and encouraged him to create a complete game of his own. It also showed him that he simply wasn't inspired by what the industry was doing.
"Growing up I played all these creative games and I wanted to see if I could make stuff like them. I wasn't really getting that from working at Australian studios. I wanted to be creative."
His prototypes were waiting for him.
The journey of life
The game evolved from a tripped-out arena shooter into a Kafkaesque nightmare of non-Euclidean space where elements of the environment shifted and changed when players passed by or faced in different directions. The levels, split into non-linear puzzles and drawn largely in stark and stylish black lines on a white void, could be manipulated with a "gun" that let players store and create blocks. The only goal was to escape.
Bruce altered the title accordingly. It became known as Hazard: The Journey of Life.
Just like those early prototypes, the name change was somewhat incidental. When early playtesters sat down with the game, Bruce found himself lingering at their shoulders and doggedly explaining the experience. "I would talk about the intention behind the layout, why certain puzzles were how they were, what kinds of minor changes I was making along the way. I realized that a very large element of the game was missing if I wasn't standing there talking the whole time."
One solution was to insert short messages directly into the game. Limited texture space necessitated that these be considered and concise. "Interest levels in the game from playtesters instantly shot up," he says. "Someone made the comment that they were like fortune cookies — little philosophical things. At the time I was struggling with how to design effective puzzles because it was all abstract stuff I was pulling together. The philosophical angle gave the game a theme. I started to use it as a journal for myself. No one else was really playing it, so I would start recording thoughts and using it like a diary."
This might explain why Bruce seems so defensive of the game's original title. "People look back now at the old title and say, 'Why the fuck would you call it that?' But it was a philosophical art piece that a student made. I think it would have been a bit ridiculous to think it would end up anywhere at the time."
There might have been more to it than that. After all, the name remained with the project long after it had become a serious, much anticipated game. In many ways the creation of Hazard: The Journey of Life was an educated accident; experiments and prototypes given shape by sheer determination, skill and self-discovery. It wasn't The Journey of Life. It was the journey of Alexander Bruce's life.
A sense of wonder
It was a journey to Japan in 2009 for the Tokyo Game Show's Sense of Wonder Night that helped Bruce realize that something was still missing from the game: psychology. The unique geometry and recursive space of Hazard: The Journey of Life was strange and intoxicating. The problem was how to make people understand it.
"I'd never really been out of the house by myself," says Bruce. "I'd certainly never been outside of Australia. I'm a reasonably smart guy, but in Japan I couldn't even do basic things like get a meal."
He realized that this was how people might feel when playing his game. The player is dropped into an alien space where the accepted rules of physics don't apply. There is no set path forward. The player is faced with challenges and puzzles with only abstract notes and pictograms for guidance, like street signs in a foreign language.
"[Japan] was hard and frustrating, but I wanted to get better at having conversations and understanding the culture. It was an experience I wanted to somehow capture and express to other people.
"I had this game that was about abstract mechanics," Bruce says. "What was it about Japan that made me think of it as a game I wanted to get better at rather than just switch off?"
"I'd never really been out of the house by myself. I'd certainly never been outside of Australia."
It took him back to his childhood. "You don't understand things about the world, but you want to," says Bruce. "So I was trying to capture that. I was trying to capture how I understood how other people thought. Rather than the game being me trying to force people to think like me, I wanted to mold it around learning how other people think."
Opportunities to discover what others thought of his game soon came in abundance. After being chosen as a finalist at Sense of Wonder Night, what had started as a six-month student project began to gain him recognition on the international stage. "My plan was to take a couple of months in 2010 to release it and see how it went," says Bruce. "The worst-case scenario was I released it, no one cared, it didn't go anywhere and I returned to the industry."
Instead the project began to snowball. After showing at GDC 2010 Bruce was invited to be part of the IndieCade Showcase at E3, the only dedicated indie booth at the event. Beyond the exposure this earned him, it was the first time Bruce saw random people sit down and try out the game for themselves. "I was fascinated with how people were interacting with the game. People would try seemingly random behaviors I had never thought of. I was constantly asking people why they did what they did," says Bruce. "I know that annoyed some people because they think you should just stand back and let them get on with it when playtesting a game. But I really needed to understand what was making people do these strange things."
The feedback proved addictive. Bruce took the game to more shows, and pushed back the release date to the start of 2011. Then it got into IGF China, the IGF, the Indie Game Challenge and many more festivals around the world.
Each show gained the project further feedback and momentum. Day by day, the psychological aspects of the game were starting to come together. Meanwhile, Bruce's mind was slowly coming apart.
Every show increased recognition and expectation, and Bruce responded by putting pressure on himself to deliver.
He explains that he began to suffer a kind of impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that makes people believe they do not deserve the success they have achieved, despite all evidence to the contrary. While feedback on the game was overwhelmingly positive, he was only ever able to focus on what he perceived to be wrong.
"You feel like you're somehow cheating the system and one day people will realize you don't know what you're doing and you're just faking it," Bruce says. "There's this constant push to make sure people don't realize that you don't know what the hell you're doing."
His reliance on feedback to shape the game had distorted his perception of what people were telling him.
"Even if they didn't think there were any problems," Bruce says, "I'd think they were hiding why they thought the game sucked.
"It was my life for three years. It was every conversation I had with anyone and it was the only thing I would think about. Things like depression had been going on for several years. In 2010 I ended up getting myself into a pretty bad downward spiral where I didn't feel like I was getting enough done. So I would work longer and sleep less, which meant I was getting more and more sleep-deprived. That meant I was less productive and would work even longer. I made myself really, really sick."
Many game developers at larger studios go through "crunch" periods as their deadlines approach, where the team must work around the clock to ensure that the game is ready in time for release. It can at times be enough to break a team of hundreds. Bruce forced himself into a crunch with no one but himself to shoulder the burden.
The game won awards and gained momentum. In response Bruce would only push himself harder. "In 2011 I was dealing with a bunch of depression, and by 2012 I was going batshit crazy. I work in a bedroom by myself. I would drink a bunch of alcohol because that would make me switch my mind off and I could focus on getting work done. That kind of thing is fine if it were a short term process. When you stretch it out over several years, it doesn't help with all the problems you're going through. So on top of being exhausted from working so much, I was really feeling like I was going batshit crazy for quite some time — most of 2012."
In some ways it was the game itself that helped Bruce to make it through these difficult times. From an early stage he had been treating it as a personal diary. This was reflected by several messages that had survived from an early version of the game.
"I wrote a lot of negative messages into the game," says Bruce. "These were things I really believed. I was heavily driven by spite for quite a lot of years." In a game that relies on the positive reinforcement of overcoming challenges, a sense of conquering puzzles which minutes before did not seem possible, these negative missives simply did not fit.
"It made it a worse game," he says. "But I didn't want to leave those messages out because they were important to me and it was a game about my views and beliefs. I didn't want to lie and write a positive message."
If he couldn't lie, Bruce instead decided to overcome the problem by changing his outlook on the world. "If I thought something negative about the world I would work out how to spin it positively and I would write a positive message in the game instead. That was important in taking it away from being motivated by spite and towards being motivated by positive reinforcement."
What's in a name?
Attending so many events gave Bruce the opportunity to speak with many other successful figures in indie game development. Their advice helped to further shape the tone and expression of the game and reconcile its abstract elements with gameplay. But they kept coming back to the name.
"I had people like Jonathan Blow, Jamie Cheng and Adam Saltsman saying, 'This is a really great game — so why the fuck did you name it Hazard: The Journey of Life?'
"Jonathan was more understanding of that. He knew how I'd ended up there. He sent me an email that said: 'I don't really enjoy many games these days, but I really enjoyed this — but you have some problems.'"
"I was so stressed over every little detail. And the name was the last detail that didn't make sense anymore."
High on this list was the name. The issue was not just that it was a hangover from a student art piece. "Hazard" made the game sound too much like a shooter. While as a mod it might have worked to confound player expectation, as a commercial product it risked the game not finding a receptive audience.
Bruce took this feedback seriously. "The Journey of Life" had been an apt moniker in so many ways. Bruce cites commercial reasons for having stuck with it for so long: it had won numerous awards under the title and a name change would require yet another six months before release to build brand recognition.
Yet some of this reluctance may also have been personal. For better or worse, it had been the most important journey of his lifetime.
"I was so stressed over every little detail. And the name was the last detail that didn't make sense anymore."
The time had come. The project became known as Antichamber.
Exhausted and overwhelmed
In the lead-up to release, Antichamber won the Technical Excellence trophy at the 2012 Independent Games Festival. Bruce took on additional funding from Indie Fund, a funding source for indie games established by successful indie developers. This allowed him to finish the game and work on all the necessary release plans.
Antichamber launched in January 2013. It sold 100,000 copies in seven weeks, which puts it on par with indie hits such as Fez and Dear Esther.
"Not bad for a game made by a guy in a bedroom," says Bruce with practiced nonchalance.
This wasn't quite the end of a hard four-year journey. In fact, the immediate popularity of Antichamber was too much for Bruce, who was left exhausted from all his efforts to ensure such success.
"I quickly understood the realities of selling that many copies," he says. "It's a hell of a lot of people playing the game and talking about it and emailing you to tell you what they think works and doesn't work. And I wasn't really ready for that. It was way too much for me to deal with as one person."
He sighs at the memory. "The week after the game released I had to personally go through 1,500 emails. Some of them were being really positive, and others were people saying, 'Fuck you, why did you make this?'
"I was exhausted and it was overwhelming. I'd thought my workload would drop off when the game was out, but it actually increased threefold. In the end I just had to say 'Fuck this, I can't work if I'm sick.' I had to disappear for a while and focus on getting better."
Throughout the entire process, and particularly in the post-release window, Bruce was able to find support from the wider indie community. His personal experience was extreme, but hardly unusual. "It was good to hear that [other developers'] experiences were similar to mine — they'd gone through mental health issues and depression during development or when their game was released.
"You don't necessarily get a lot of that out of what you see from the public-facing sides of these people," he says. "Do consumers want to hear about mental health issues a developer is going through? They're just going to tell you to stop fucking whining because other people were able to get through it."
Bruce got through it.
Health, fitness and beards
"Absolutely, it's worked!" beams Bruce when he talks of how effectively his beard has lent him anonymity. Even people who know him well barely recognize him as the same man who spent four years bringing Antichamber to life.
"I'm not trying to say that people shouldn't approach me. I don't want to put a downer on it. I was that guy chasing down developers once," he says. Time has taught him to deal better with the attention. Now that the Antichamber launch is behind him, and with more than 250,000 sales under his belt, Bruce has focused on taking time to recover from the long process of the game's development.
"For a while I'm just focusing on health and fitness. People who had seen me get worse and worse over the years said I should take a break."
While he has no definite plans just yet, Bruce believes his next project will be an easier ride. "I can avoid a lot of the same problems when I work on my next game," he says. "I don't feel like I necessarily have as much to prove to myself or others. Whatever I work on next I'm going to work hard, but I'll naturally be a lot more laid back."
He hopes his next journey in life will be a lot smoother than the first.
Images: Alexander Bruce
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan