There it is. The bench. That exact park bench. It's one of the very first places where I said hello to a friend who would change the course of my entire life. And now I'm saying goodbye.
Lost Levels is an annual "un-conference" that takes place outside in a park just up the street from the Game Developer's Conference (GDC). Its goal? To be everything traditional game conferences aren't. There is no entrance fee or any fees at all, for that matter. Anyone can give a talk, whether they're a cyberbrained video game tech wizard, a passionate fan, or a confused homeless park dweller who's just wondering what all the hubbub's about. Anyone.
Even a deer-in-the-headlights terrified journalist with profoundly little public speaking experience. So of course, I decide to give the talk of my life. Or rather, someone else's life. A very important friend of mine suddenly and unexpectedly passed away earlier this year.
I've yet to make peace with it. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to.
"Did you hear?" one of my best friends, a former journo turned game developer, asks over the phone.
The hotel room is pitch black and I'm stumbling around trying to dig up my phone charger so that someone downstairs can use it. It's early February, and I'm at a press event in San Diego. The week's toils are finally, mercifully over. It's time to unwind, which means an evening of increasingly boozy karaoke, because that is how the gaming industry do.
"No," I reply, already somewhat tipsy but now decidedly less relaxed. "What's up?"
"Annie's gone," he offers tersely. He sounds like he's been crying.
"Wait, no. How? That doesn't make any sense," I sputter back, desperate to hear that it's all just a big misunderstanding. "She was barely even older than us."
"I don't know," he says. "I don't know."
We're at an ultra-divey karaoke bar in downtown San Diego, and by "we" I mean a jibbering throng of 20 or so game devs and journos. I don't really know why I decided to come along. All I know is that I don't want to be alone. There are times when it's good to blow off steam a million miles away from humanity, to tear open your own chest and blare your heart at the sky and tell it fuck you for taking away someone so young and good and talented and special. Fuck you. Fuck. You.
I just don't have it in me. I go along with everyone else in a kind of dazed stupor, all sorts of sticky, salty liquids oozing out of me as I put copious alcoholic ones in. This is not what I would call one of my finest moments.
I like singing, and I am the cheesiest person you will ever meet in your entire life. Against my better judgment, I decide to perform a song in Annie's honor. She was a badass viking metal head, so I figure something with squealing guitars and pounding drums and screaming fire is in order. I pick Iron Maiden. Always go with the classics.
"This one's for a really great person who just passed away," I say into the microphone, remembering a time we sat in her apartment and swapped songs back-and-forth all afternoon. "It's not much, but it's something." The bar cheers. These are good people.
30 seconds in, the song stops. The karaoke host lets out a halfhearted "oh well" and doesn't attempt to fix it. I lose it. In the span of roughly 15 seconds, I stand tall on the stage, flip off the entire bar, punch a wall, kick a door open, and storm out.
I'm not usually a violent or angry person. Like I said, not my finest moment.
The sun is shining at Lost Levels. The park teems with chunky greens of every imaginable shade, and countless people - adults, children, people who don't quite profess to be either - chatter and laugh in groups large and small. It's a beautiful day.
I have to do it. I know I have to do it, even though I'm really, really scared. I've only told a few close friends how much Annie's death affected me, and I haven't told anyone how many writhing, clawing regrets are burned into that heartbreak.
Now I'm going to tell a hundred people. All at once. Most of whom I don't know. I walk past a series of admirably attentive crowds - each gathered around one of three tree-enshrouded blanket spaces known as World 1, World 2, and World 3 in Lost Levels lingo - and paste a sticky note onto the day's schedule. There's no turning back now.
I look at the bench, not more than 30 paces away. Trees and flowers blossom and sway behind it, almost like they're all one. It's been two years - almost to the day - since Annie and I had a post-GDC farewell lunch on that bench. We'd only just met a few days prior, but it hurt to say goodbye.
Goodbyes are never easy.
Goodbyes are never easy, but sometimes they're necessary.
This is medical-student-turned-game-designer/mad genius Harry Lee's last Lost Levels as an organizer. It is also his second ever, same as everyone else.
He's happy to be on his way out. Thrilled, even. The 20-year-old wunderkind is beaming like the sun that's baking the entire park to a nice, even crisp as he bounces back-and-forth between "Worlds" in a frantic attempt to keep Lost Levels vaguely structured. He loves this thing, and he's giving it his all. He knows, however, that soon it won't need him anymore.
"We decided to have the organizers have a stepping down plan," he explains. "So Ian [Snyder] and I will be leaving this year, and there will we two more organizers coming on board, bringing more voices, more diversity, and hopefully new ideas. It'll be fresh. We are also talking about what we can do to improve lowering barriers, especially geographical. So thinking about where else Lost Levels might occur, and how to make it a bit more inclusive for everyone."
The timing is almost comically perfect. I see a small procession of my non-gaming-industry friends walk by as Lee says these things, but I realize these are still friends who a) are pretty in-the-know about gaming culture and b) live in San Francisco. Lost Levels is on the right track, but it's far from an ideal realization of Lee and co's vision.
Lost Levels doesn't necessarily exist to combat GDC, but the goal is to avoid many of its pratfalls. A set-in-stone hierarchy up top leads to a narrow focus, same-y speaker lineups and a lack of representation for certain groups, and even—in some cases—stagnation. Moreover, a pass costs more than a thousand dollars, walling off the proceedings from many less wealthy developers.
But while it bears some similarities to GDC, Lost Levels really is its own thing. Totally unaffiliated and a different animal, one that thrives on intimacy and a willingness to share/learn regardless of background, expertise, or ties to the gaming industry. You probably won't ever see a single Lost Levels event with 20,000 attendees, in other words. A smattering of them in different cities each with one or two hundred attendees, though? Now that's something to think about.
It's also not really Lee's problem anymore, although he absolutely still cares. If there's one thing Lost Levels' organizers have in common, that's it: they really, honestly, somewhat obsessively care. So Lee's stepping down, because he knows the machine will run better without him gumming up the works.
One of the new organizers, critic/designer Mattie Brice, picks up where Lee leaves off without missing a beat.
"I like that we change everything by our personal relationships on the ground," she says with a quiet intensity. "I dislike the idea that you must be educated in activism, or educated and connected in some way in order to affect change. And here, if you look around, you have people who run our school programs with random people who may have nothing to do with games. We have top level designers and indie superstars with people who don't work in games, or are bloggers. We're making people consider that we're all together with equal things to say. No one is getting preference, there is no keynote."
Actually, Lost Levels does have a keynote.
Ric Cheevo steps into the center of a whooping crowd wreathed in pomp, circumstance, and dubstep. The creator of Dinosuck Thundergun and Dinosuck Thundergun Infinite bellows, and everyone goes silent. What follows is this, and it is perfect.
As I pace around furiously scribbling notes about what I'm going to say, I catch the tail end of a talk given by critics/game designers Maddy Myers and Samantha Allen. They laugh and smile almost constantly throughout, and it's not hard to understand why: they made a game about their own friendship. It's called Block Party, and while the brief game jam project began as a parody of BioShock Infinite's equipment system, it quickly evolved into a crystalline reflection of a very specific relationship.
"It's interesting because we said in the talk that Block Party is kind of about exclusivity, and Lost Levels is theoretically a community building conference," begins Myers, contemplative. "We came to this community conference and talked about exclusivity—not inclusivity. But in a way, a friendship can be an extremely exclusive thing that no one else is a part of. And I don't want to say that exclusivity is a good, but I think that sometimes it's fun. Exclusivity is kind of fun. And that's the most horrible moral that a game could ever have!"
"It was beautiful the way that process unfolded too because we started out being like, 'Well, we're gonna really skewer BioShock with this game,'" adds Allen, grinning. "Then as it went on and we came up with this ridiculously elaborate backstory, and we're doing just mountains of math for these items, none of which would end up mattering, it just became more about laughing and laughing until our stomachs hurt, than creating something decipherable."
Block Party, then, evolved into a game for the two of them, about the two of them, by the two of them. Notions of "target audience" fell by the wayside, replaced by the ceaseless joy of being close to another person. Of intrinsically "getting" them in a moment, a heartbeat. It may not last forever, but that doesn't make the memory any less worth preserving.
"Honestly, I think we both feel like there aren't that many games that are lighthearted, but also personal," says Myers. "It's fine to make a personal game about a tragic experience that you had. I think that's really valuable. But I think it's also great to make a game that's about a joyful experience that you had, and picking out an outfit and talking about outfits with your friends can be really fun, and it's OK to make a game about that too. It was intended to be a joke about BioShock, but it ended up being a manifestation of our friendship, and I think that is really great. And that making a game that is about a lighthearted thing can be valuable. And I knew that Lost Levels would be a lot of talking about personal games and I just wanted at least one of them to be about comedy as well."
It's like the old saying goes: if you care about someone, tell them. Or make a game about it.
My talk is rapidly approaching, and I'm halfway ready to head for the hills. What happens if I get tongue-tied? Or what if I start crying? Or what if people think I'm full of it, droning on about My Problems like a teenager with their head buried under an avalanche of pillows?
That's when I hear it. A song. I know this song. I just can't quite put my finger on where I've heard it befor—
"OK, now we're going to do a Professor Oak dance-off," announces Sos Sosowski, creator of zany point-'n'-click-or-die-horribly adventure McPixel. He is not joking. This is his talk.
People are hesitant at first, but the gleefully chirping melody proves too infectious to resist. It's not the most graceful dance party, nor is it the longest, but it is definitely the Professor Oak-est I've ever seen.
It's all kind of wonderful in its own giggly, awkward way. Fear, discomfort, and shyness dispelled in seconds. By the end, everyone is laughing and acting like they've known each other for ages.
I breath a sigh of relief. Maybe my talk will be terrible, but at least I know people will accept it. I also briefly consider the merits of playing the Final Fantasy chocobo theme for its duration.
It's PAX Prime in 2012. Annie and I are catching up in a spacious yet dimly lit bar, surrounded by drunkenly chattering con attendees. It's been a while since we really talked. I feel bad about that.
I somewhat tipsily regale her with my various personal struggles—health, relationships, uncertainty about my career future, all that fun stuff—and she listens patiently. At the end of it, she lets out a gentle laugh and says, "You remind me so much of a younger me that it's not even funny. You're gonna be fine."
That made me feel a lot better about, really, everything. Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but I felt like I could do anything.
I never did get around to telling her how much I appreciated that.
Lost Levels. It's the second of truth in the minute of truth in the hour of truth on the day of truth. It might also be the month and year of truth, but I haven't checked my calendar. Maybe it's also the lunar cycle of truth? Is that a thing?
And then—just as I'm about to open my mouth and start my talk—a groundskeeper informs us that all of Lost Levels has to move to the other side of the park. For reasons. So after some arguing, all hundred-some-odd of us comply. We hastily reassemble the three Worlds, but everyone's feeling pretty out of sorts at this point.
No one's giving talks. So what the hell, I decide, I'll do it. Before long, all (well, most) eyes are on me. "What have I gotten myself into?" I wonder as nervous sweat gushes down the small of my back like it's some kind of disgusting waterslide.
I find the will to pry my lips apart, and things just sort of happen from there. I talk, I stutter, I babble, I pause awkwardly, but overall it goes well. I think. Honestly, it's tough to remember the moment. There's a vague outline of it in my head, but it's almost eclipsed by a confusing mixture of nerves, excitement, and heartbreak.
You can watch it right here (I'm the first person). I haven't watched it myself, so uh, let me know how it is!
I remember explaining who Annie was and how she impacted my life, though. I remember telling everyone how she relentlessly chased her dreams, her dreams to be a journalist or a game developer or a musician or whatever else she sought to be. I remember saying how inspired I always was by that. I remember admitting that we drifted apart and feeling like I was mostly to blame for it. I remember saying a lot of things I wish I could've told her. I remember saying it's easy to think someone will always be right there—always ever-so-slightly out of arm's reach—when we're part of these constantly connected digital communities like Twitter, Facebook, or any number of gaming sites. I remember saying we should always be mindful that people don't know how we feel until we tell them, face-to-face or not.
And I remember feeling good about it.
The applause makes me feel happy. Also kinda weird given that I, you know, just talked about the death of an amazing friend and a bunch of other really sad stuff.
Then come the hugs. Some of them are from close friends, others from people I only know from Lost Levels, others from people I've never seen in my entire life. Everyone is so nice, even though I personally feel like my talk was waaaay shaky. No one hassles me for barely talking about videogames in a traditional sense, no one asks me about my monetization strategy. I just feel supported.
It's not the first time I've witnessed this happen. Mine is hardly the only deeply personal talk of the day, and flocks of support form around those who decide to put themselves out there. Even people like The Stanley Parable's William Pugh, who said some things not everybody necessarily wanted to hear about his personal interactions with the indie game development "scene."
"Throughout my journey of [making a game], there was this whole mission of 'Oh, the indie group! THE singular indie group! You're gonna come in, it's gonna be great! Yeah yeah man, all the great people are here in this indie group! Come on in, there's this person! There's that person! And they all get together and...' I definitely had starry dreamy eyes about getting indoctrinated into this group of people, which included a lot of people I respected. But then I came here and I saw, there's a fucking big problem with there being a big indie group, in the sense that it creates a political environment. And that is something that's so yucky, and so not in the spirit of what I thought this was about, but I felt like I was kind of part of it with all these GDC awards."
"That's why I decided to talk at Lost Levels. We as an industry definitely need an hour of people talking about how to love each other, and about how to accept each other, and how to become as a group of people, emotionally more mature, and just better people. We can read about design and monetization online."
It's been about a month since Lost Levels. I wouldn't say I've fully coped with Annie's passing—Lost Levels wasn't a silver bullet—but I do, in retrospect, think it was a turning point. I'm glad I got to say what I did, and I hope it helped at least a few people. I feel stronger for having done it, too. Like I can handle this, even if it takes a little while.
The same thing goes for Lost Levels as an entity. It's got its own issues, politics, and growing pains to work through, but this year felt like an important moment. The beginning of something. I don't know what exactly that something will be yet, but I'm optimistic. There's nothing else quite like Lost Levels in the gaming industry, and I think we need it.
I know I needed it.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry. And I do mean everything, thus the name. It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.