You know the feeling you get when a song is stuck in your head? You could be driving your car, sitting at work, brushing your teeth, anything… and out of nowhere that beat comes into your mind, and you find yourself singing the chorus, and maybe the one full verse you actually know? Everyone goes through that. Maybe it’s the newest catchy thing on the radio, a Disney song, or something you just heard off a new Pandora recommendation.
Imagine now though that instead of a beat… what your mind constantly calls up is a world. An entire world, brimming with scenery, cultures, and history, and instead of lyrics you get a cast of characters with their own trials, victories, personalities and everything else that goes into defining the word “being.” These don’t pop into your brain from JUST hearing something though; maybe they come from seeing a screenshot of a far-away place. Maybe they come from a sentence, or a tone, or the most powerful instigator of all: an experience. If you’re imagining that…Welcome to what every moment is like inside my head.
I’ve always been a storyteller, though I didn’t always know it. For a while I thought I was going to be a comic book illustrator, but I quickly realized I cared much more about Batman’s motivations, his intricacies, and how he was going to take down the next villain than the style of his suit or the pose he was striking overlooking Gotham on some rooftop. Once I locked into this, I figured out even faster I had to tell stories through games. Not because I’m a big gamer (I really wasn’t until college), but because the game can totally get the “tune” out of my head: I can make every corner of that entire world, I can bring those characters to life in all their glory… I can put you IN the story.
I don’t want to get the tune out because it bothers me either; quite the contrary. It’s A, because I REALLY want to experience them myself. If you can find me someone who doesn’t get excited by seeing their work in front of them, I’ll show you someone who needs to find a new career. And B, most importantly, because I know I can touch people with them. I know I can inspire them. More on that later.
The title of this post though, is “Why I Do This.” And that’s the reason. Because I want to enhance people’s lives through stories. But the title also means something else. “Why do I keep doing something that’s going to take so much back-tracking and be this insanely frustrating and difficult?” (You can see why I went with the former title.) The answer to that one is thanks to two individuals, my “two” best friends. You’ll understand later why that has quotation marks around it.
I graduated with my Associate’s in 2012, and starting that Fall semester I knew I would be living on campus at George Mason University, a Junior in their Computer Game Design program. I was beyond excited, but I was also nervous. I love my parents dearly, and I knew that leaving them would be tough (my dad has a medical condition that makes mobility difficult, and I had been trying to help my family any way I could), and my brain was racing to figure out more and more ways to guilt me, scare me, and convince me going was a bad idea. My parents were excited for me to go…But as the calendar days got crossed off, I got more and more apprehensive. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if they REALLY needed me at home when something went down? What if I had picked the wrong career this whole time and everyone had 400 page scripts in their heads, and I was just being pretentious thinking I had the right to follow up on it?
It took my best friend, dragging me outside by practically my ear, to set me straight.
I love this dude, and he and I have been best friends since we were 7. So by the time we had gotten around to college age, we were at that point where we didn’t only know just what to say, we knew exactly how it had to be said. After a very long, emotional conversation filled with analogies, sarcasm, tears and laughs, he looked me dead in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder, and said with an unwavering confidence: “Jonathan, we’ve been best friends for almost two decades. I know you… J-Man, you were born to do this. Now go do it. Go tell those stories.” I inhaled, nodded, and was unpacking in my dorm before I knew it.
The next two+ years of getting the degree went by like a flash. I met people who are now some of my dearest friends, I got engaged to my high school sweetheart (now wife, might I add), I found an absolutely amazing team, and of course founded Wyvern officially. It was great…and very overwhelming.
I would be lying if I said some days I hadn’t almost lost track of why I was there. The passion never died, and the stories were always still in my head, but some days those got buried by homework, projects, exams, wedding plans, and realizations that I hadn’t eaten in 10 hours. Life always manages to find a way to fill itself up with stress and anxiety, and mine was no exception. By senior year, I was a wreck, and sometimes the only way to cool my brain off on a school night was to play (not make) a game. But ironically, the thing that rejuvenated everything again, the thing that pushed me back into the most passionate mindset I know how to have… was just that. A video game.
I am not afraid to tear up if something touches me. I’m very comfortable with that part of myself. I will let loose a few floodgates at movies, shows, books, games, great pieces of music…you name it. So in my last semester, when my roommate saw me biting my lip at a particularly “bromantic” scene in a game, he probably just thought I was being me. But it went so, so much deeper than that.
Just to give warning: very mild spoilers ahead for Mass Effect 3.
In the very final act of ME3, you get a respite before the final battle. Like any game, this
point is made to let you make any tweaks on your character, make any final upgrades, save your game, etc. But because Bioware is amazing, it is also one long, beautifully crafted goodbye. Commander Shepherd, your character, has the opportunity to have a last few personal, intimate moments with every member of the Normandy crew that has become such a tight-knit family. It’s a really peaceful, wonderful set of interactions… one of which I was totally unprepared for. One of the most organic aspects of the Mass Effect series is how every person that plays it always has a different favorite character, different favorite moment, etc. But for me, my boy was always Garrus Vakarian. He was funny, he was willing to get in my face… and he always reminded me of… someone. I guess he just had one of “those” personalities. As for a favorite moment, the one I’m about to list hit me harder than any other art medium ever has. It defined EVERYTHING that a game should be for me, and most importantly, helped me remember what made me…me.
Again, without getting too spoiler heavy, the conversation with my Turian buddy started off sarcastic and quippy…until it didn’t. Out of nowhere, Garrus throws out a line akin to “I don’t know if human heaven and Turian heaven are the same place, but if it is, meet me at the bar.”
Thanks Garrus, here come the misty eyes.
But he wasn’t done, oh no. He had one final gut-punch waiting for me. Garrus looked at my character, smiled, and said: “Oh and Shepherd, forgive the insubordination, but this old friend has an order for you… Go out there. And give them hell. You were born to do this.”
I was too stunned to cry. Then I wasn’t. I lost it. I sat in my dorm, and the conversation two years ago came at me like a flood. I had to put down my controller and just sit for a while to take it all in. “You were born to do this.”
That familiarity I had always felt with this video game character. This 3D character model with some programming and voicing acting attached to it… it wasn’t just my best friend in the game. It had been my best friend. I re-analyzed every character I had really felt like I had grown close to in my time in the Mass Effect universe, and started connecting dots. Tali reminded me a ton of my little sister. Wrex reminded me of my roommate. The list goes on and on…
Why do I do this? Why did I choose the career path that has been proven to be one of the most stressful, and one of the hardest to break in to? Why did I choose to go the route of an indie/start-up, when I know that makes everything way down the road even harder and scarier? It’s because of those stories, those worlds, those characters, and those moments in my head. It’s because that blast of emotion I felt when a weird bird alien spoke to me.
I want to reach out and touch people. I want to pump them up. I want to be able to motivate them to pursue their dreams, I want them to get the tunes out of their head…whatever they are. Because stories can do that; they can make you keep going. They can make you ace your senior project. They can make you graduate with every top honor the university has to offer. They can make you force yourself to balance your social life, work life, and dreams all at once. I want to tell stories because I can’t think of a better to touch the lives of a million people, some without them even realizing it.
And perhaps simplest of all…because two people, whom I respect very much, told me I was born to. And that’s good enough for me.
-Jonathan Wine, Founder and Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive, LLC