At the elementary school lunch table, after I was finished with my chicken nuggets or whatever else the cafeteria had served up for the day, my friends and I would mix all our leftovers together. We’d use empty milk cartons as the vessel for our alchemical experiments, throwing in whatever we weren’t eating anymore to make the foulest, most repulsive things we could. Thankfully, eating such poisons was never a part of the ritual. Upcoming game Nour: Play With Your Food recreates my childhood memories of cafeteria chemistry.
Developed by Tj Hughes, founder of the one-man game studio Terrifying Jellyfish, and published by Panic, the same studio that published indie hits Untitled Goose Game and Firewatch, Nour “is an interactive exploration into the aesthetics of food.” The game trailer features chill, ambient lofi beats over scene after scene of bright, tantalizing-looking food being smashed, dropped, dunked, spilled, and splashed.
I was intrigued, so I reached out to Huges to speak with him about his unique project. Over Discord, he told me about Nour, his earlier projects, and his experience being a Black man working in game development.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Kotaku: Tell me about who you are, where you’re from, and how you came up with Terrifying Jellyfish.
Hughes: I’m Tj, I make shiny 3D interactive art, most notably 3D food. I like mood and colors, music niches, well-made food, and cats. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, and started Terrifying Jellyfish when a friend in high school was trying to guess what my name stood for.
My first game Feesh was originally made for the Ludum Dare, a game jam that was typically a spectator sport for me. One day on a complete whim, I decided to join in. I had no idea at all that I would actually be able to finish something in time, as I was 16, in school, and still learning about game development just as a side hobby. It was a huge moment to make something that I could call my first game. I then took the time to polish the game up so I could eventually release it, and got my friend Matt Austin [...] to do some music on the game. I put the game up on Steam for $0.99, not trying to make a serious buck off of it; since I was releasing it just for the experience of having my first game out there, but it surprised me! The game sold a few thousand copies, despite the marketing budget of $0.00 that I put into it. It definitely showed me that small time solo releases can get by based on personality alone at the time.
Kotaku: Did you always aim to be a game developer?
Hughes: When I was a kid, whenever someone asked what I wanted to be when I grow up, I either said an inventor or a game designer. As I got a little older, I started to doubt my ability to do so, just because I carried the misconception that you needed to be some sort of mathematical savant to even get started. As I started getting into computers around age 10, I was learning about them without even realizing it. It just interested me. I was messing around in this program called HyperStudio, and it had a coding language. I would figure it out slowly just by copying and pasting from the examples, while changing values here and there. I had no idea at the time that it would be my beginnings of figuring out how to code. When I was getting into game engines around when I was 13, seeing something [I made move] move on-screen for the first time was probably my first eureka moment for everything I make today.
Kotaku: So how does one make the jump from creating indie games on Steam to creating indie games on the PS5?
Hughes: I would say it’s more of a steady climb. It’s a matter of building on your experience, building on your network, and chasing the project of your dreams. Be welcoming, make friends, and show off your best work. You might be surprised at who is watching you grow and is rooting for you.
Kotaku: So talk to me about Nour. Where’d that come from?
Hughes: Nour is a project that was born from food Instagram pages, food blogs on Tumblr, and the challenge of rendering food at the same tier of quality as anime. It started out as a complete side project; an artsy interactive project that I’d show to my friends, slowly evolving into a project that has been shown around the world, gained recognition, and really changed my life.
Kotaku: How long have you been working on it? And I think I know the anime you’re talking about, do you have a specific inspiration?
Hughes: I’ve been working on the project for about five years at this point. Ghibli Films definitely stand out when thinking of well-rendered anime foods. Thinking about the ramen in Ponyo, or the bacon and eggs breakfast in Howl’s Moving Castle, or even the spirit food in Spirited Away. There’s a lot to take influence from.
Kotaku: You “play with your food” in Nour—what will that mean? And can you tell me your favorite food, both to eat and in the game?
Hughes: Playing with your food is something that I’ve found a lot of people can relate to. As kids, we’d all fling our peas into the mashed potatoes, make our broccoli stand up as if they’re trees, make a face out of bacon and eggs; there’s endless ways to do so. I was hoping a game could not only capture that wonder, but also exaggerate it to the Nth degree, allowing you to actually manipulate the physics of food, and have an endless supply of it. The game presents you with food vignettes where you can drop ingredients and assemble them however you see fit. Something new we’re working on is a toolkit of kitchen tools: blowtorches, knives, food dyes, an assortment of tools to help you make an even larger mess than before.
I would say my favorite food is Chicken Tikka Masala with a mango lassi. Indian food slaps. In the game though, I’m really proud of the sushi I modeled. Haven’t shown it off very much yet, but everyone will see it soon!
Kotaku: In homage to your food blog inspiration, will there be a photo mode to take pictures of your creation?
Hughes: You guessed it!
Kotaku: Is Nour a solo effort, as Feesh was?
Hughes: It was at first, but partnering with Panic allowed me to seek the help I needed to finish the game, so now I’m working on it with the help of a few friends of mine.
Kotaku: Can you talk about your creepy cute/pastel goth vibe you got going on?
Hughes: My visual influences are all over the place, to be honest. I’ve always liked bright, vibrant colors and cute things, but I also entered the internet realm listening to nu-metal. I wanted to make something for those maybe few people who may like Harajuku fashion and trap music at the same time.
These influences manifested themselves in the brand you see right here, which I feel you can even kind of pick up on in the PS5 launch trailer. The art at its core is really cute, but the song hits hard, incorporating a modern drop amongst the cuteness. It’s definitely the influence behind my logo as well: It’s a jellyfish that is much too cute to be terrifying; but despite all the cuteness, jellyfish stings are just as deadly.
Kotaku: What kind of nu metal?
Hughes: [Laughs] I was huge on Linkin Park, Evanescence, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, System of a Down, Korn, anything in that camp.
Kotaku: System of a Down was my shit!
Hughes: I’ll still bump some of that shit! [Laughs]
Kotaku: Being a Black solo dev is probably very isolating and at times difficult. I don’t want to harp or go hard on the “tell me what it’s like being a Black game dev” question, but I am curious how you’ve managed working during this summer of events.
Hughes: I’m super grateful to be able to work on my own projects without at all compromising my vision, tastes or personality, and I’d just say that sometimes it really is worth it to lean into that. Being unapologetically myself has definitely led me down a good path in the games space. I feel like it is pretty common in other industries for Black voices to be either suppressed or heavily modified to be deemed more marketable, thereby exploiting the original creator and erasing their original voice and perspective—but it’s never too late to reject this notion. As new of a medium as games are, I think we can set a much better precedent for uplifting Black creators, and I think everyone I work with unspokenly intends on doing just that. Surround yourself with people who amplify you, both in your professional networks, and your friendships. Don’t let anyone leech your energy in this industry.
Kotaku: Before you go back to making yummy digital food: is there anything you’d like to say?
Hughes: I think all I have to say is that fried plantains, refried beans, sour cream and rice is a really good dish. Try that, if you ever get the chance.
Kotaku: Fried plantains are so good! Are those in Nour?
Hughes: So good! Not in Nour yet but I’m thinking about it.
In his feature published on the PlayStation Blog, Hughes writes, “Nour — as in nourish — refuses to adhere to traditional goals or objectives; you’re free to play with your food however you see fit, whether that be making a mess, or assembling the bowl of ramen of your dreams!”
Watching blobs of donuts swirl around, manipulated by some unseen hand, I’m reminded of my cafeteria. My creations there were crude and gross, but if I were somehow magically unbound by long ingrained lessons against “wasting food” and had I the power to blink away mess, I would have done the same things Nour does with food. That’s what I think all my friends were going for, an act of creation. Nour captures that spirit of creation and amplifies it in a fun and unique way.