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Half Life 2: for Adults Only

Though compared to most it’s a relatively new medium, video games already have quite a few titles in their ranks that are deemed masterpieces or classics. Some of the newer ones are the Last of Us, Breath of the Wild, and Overwatch. If we go back in recent decades, we can include titles in that list like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Super Mario 64, Halo, and the list goes on and on. These are titles that, when you call yourself a gamer, you’re expected to have played, or at least have a decent knowledge of.

Valve’s Orange Box collection has been burning a hole in my backlog for a few years now. A close friend of mine sold me a bunch of old games he had played and didn’t want anymore, and among them was that. For those that don’t know, the Orange Box includes Half Life 2, it’s two expansion packs, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. I played Portal a few years ago, and TF2 is a multiplayer so that I don’t really consider to be part of my “backlog”. Half Life 2 however, got lost amidst a lot of other titles I was trying to add to my portfolio… until I recently popped the game into my console.

 

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I started the game and immediately took a few things in. Even for an old game, the sound and art design both felt surprisingly… clean. Yes, I could certainly tell that some voice actors had been double booked, and a few textures looked a little muddier than they would nowadays, but even my wife was surprised that HL2 had been released almost 15 years ago. From a technical standpoint, the game holds up.

I walked into HL2 having never played the first, but the plotline wasn’t hard to get a handle on. My silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman, helped open a wormhole that let some bad aliens through. They tried to take over earth. They succeeded. Now there’s only a small group of freedom fighters that are willing to stand up to the oppressive “Combine”, and they’re very outmatched. Gordon, however, is something of a legend because of the one-man warfare he waged in the first Half Life, and every time you walk into a room you’re met with phrases like “Are you him? Are you really Gordon Freeman?” If nothing else, I could tell my ego was going to enjoy this game.

The gameplay itself, however, felt like a solid, yet pretty generic first-person shooter. Yes its crisp, yes the enemy AI is great, but the game didn’t offer me anything new… at first. I think I went into HL2 with such rose-tinted glasses, in no small part thanks to hearing about how legendary this game was from everyone and their mom over the years, that I expected to be absolutely blown away by something new and life changing.

Needless to say, I didn’t get that. But with that being said, as I played through the main title and its two expansions immediately after, I very quickly realized this game had earned its praise. And to accurately explain that, I need explain the title of this article in a bit more detail.

The phrase “Adults Only” in video games can often be found amidst gasps and scandalous glances. For those that don’t know, an “A-O” game rating is the equivalent of an NC-17 film. It’s a very rare occurrence, and is reserved only for the games that have the most extreme amounts of violence and sexual content. Half Life 2 is only rated “M”, so what did I discover to make such an accusation? Is it the steamy, over-the-top full nude scene between Gordon and and the lovely Alyx? Or perhaps using the gravity gun to tear the entrails out of an enemy and throw it back at them?

 

HL2 Heroine.jpg

Oh Gordon, talk dir- oh wait, you don’t talk. Uhhh, sign dirty to me? Hum dirty to me? Blink three times for dirty?

 

… of course not, because those things don’t happen. Honestly I’m surprised Half Life 2 isn’t rated “T”, it’s a pretty mild game content-wise. No when I say it’s for “Adults Only” I’m not talking about an ESRB rating… I’m talking about the gameplay itself. And in order to convey what I mean by that, I’m going to reference the two games that bookended my HL2 playthrough: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Despite the hate the series has received in recent years (mostly thanks to beautiful catastrophe that was Unity), I am a huge fan of the AC series. It’s one of those guilty pleasure games I play when I don’t want to be challenged and I want my hand held. Playing AC is like going through a historic power trip. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and after getting a few titles in the franchise under your belt, it’s familiar. Though the series has definitely evolved over the years, the core gameplay is undeniably the same. Because of this, I not only was able to breeze through Black Flag’s campaign, but I had completed almost half the side missions before barely clearing a story mission. I am at the point in that series where I don’t even have to think or strategize. I can look at the building layout, see who my target is, and they’ll barely be able to blink before I’m having that infamous “AC Death” conversation with them.

 

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Bob! How are you man! Wife and kids doing good? The weather is gorgeous today. It’s so convenient how your guards are letting us just chat like this.

 

Half Life 2 never, ever made me feel comfortable. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I was jumpy the whole time (although don’t get me started on those freaking head crabs), but I never knew what was coming next. There was never a point in that game where I felt like I could predict exactly what was ahead. I turned every corner cautiously, my shotgun ready for anything. Every upcoming area was heavily scrutinized before walking into it, trying to ensure I didn’t dive headlong into an ambush. Even still, HL2 surprised me on numerous occasions, even after I’d clocked over 10 hours into the main campaign and was well into the expansions. I never felt safe, every checkpoint was met with a huge sigh of relief, and it always felt like an accomplishment when I realized I was going in the right direction. Actually, that’s the other thing the game did a great job of in terms of feeling “fresh”: even though it’s a linear game, Valve designed the areas and maps so well that you never are exactly sure if you’re going the right way. Whereas modern games practically have a gigantic neon sign and and NPCs screaming “I AM PRETTY SURE IF YOU WANT TO FIND THE NEXT AREA, YOU SHOULD GO THROUGH HERE”, HL2, always let you stumble onto the correct path yourself. It wanted you to figure out where to go, not tell you. Realizing you were on the right path came with a huge amount of satisfaction.

The game I played after HL2 was Tomb Raider: Underworld. Underworld is the final game in the “Legends Trilogy”, the second iteration of Lara Croft. Though it can’t hold a candle to the newer Tomb Raider series, or something like the Uncharted games, as someone who grew up with Lara’s brash, confident, double-desert-eagle-wielding era, these older iterations of her hold a special place in my heart. I’d completed both TR: Legends and TR: Anniversary (the first two titles of the trilogy) awhile ago, so I figured it was time to round out the series. Like the first two, the game is comprised of some decent to great puzzles, fun platforming, and less-than-impressive combat. Yet again, like AC but in a different way, the gameplay felt safe. It felt predictable. The world didn’t seem to run in a way that made sense for the real world, but it felt 100% like a game. Ledges are not only conveniently crumbled exactly how I need them to be, but they’re even aged to all be the exact same color so that I can clearly see where I need to jump. Puzzles, though by no means boring, never made me feel like I had to think about them. “I’m missing four gears for this machine. There are four towers. I bet I know where those gears are.”

 

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Take note architects.

 

It felt set up, it felt like Jigsaw from the Saw movies had built every level and was watching me run through the motions the whole time. It wasn’t organic, it all felt very false. The puzzles in Half Life 2, however, never felt that way. In fact, it almost feels insulting to call them “puzzles”. The game is designed so seamlessly that each obstacle feels just like that: an obstacle. A very real problem with a very real world solution.

The best example of this in my opinion was a point where I had to power a machine to operate a mechanical door. I knew I had to open the door to progress, but it was very obvious the thing wasn’t getting the juice it needed. So I let gamer Jonathan take over. Was there a way to jump over the door/gate and just move forward? No, no there wasn’t. Was there some magic switch to power everything? No, not that either. I went through all my usual tricks, and nothing worked. Then I had a thought. What if I didn’t think like a gamer? What if I just thought like, me?

I went back to square one, and analyzed the door. The control panel had a wire connected to it. I slowly looked up, and realized that unlike EVERY GAME EVER MADE EVER, the wire actually climbed up, went across a pole, and led to a specific little building a bit away. I figured why not, may as well check it out. Every game previously has taught me that if I was supposed to follow that wire, it would be bright pink and my companion character would have gotten her degree in Advanced Wire Studies. But, maybe the little building would have some extra ammo. So, I followed the wire, walked in, and found a health pack. Then I looked left.

No way.

What looked like a complicated breaker system was staring back at me, and it’s hard to describe the excitement I felt. HL didn’t want me to think like a gamer, it wanted me to think like me. Valve put so much work into this world that they wanted you to play this game like a human being, not a human being that has played 100 video games before. I immediately studied the breaker system. Three outlets, each clearly meant to house a battery. The wire I had followed attached to the outlet on the far right. There was one battery already in the far left outlet.

“What a fun puzzle this was” I thought to myself. I removed the battery from its original outlet, and put it in the one attached to the wire. I confidently walked back to what I expected to be a fully open door. The door was still down. A little surprised, I went back to the breaker system. This time I noticed that the outlets were all connected, and thought maybe I had to find two more batteries to fill the two remaining outlets. Sure enough, after searching through the building, I found a second battery under some debris. Feeling confident, I realized that I just had to find one more battery and I could power the door. I searched the building. Nothing. I searched around the perimeter of the building. Still nothing. I looked in other buildings. I looked near the door itself. No dice.

 

HL2 Puzzle

I will say though, non-gamer Jonathan was very hesitant about the decorator’s tastes.

 

I went back to the breaker system one more time and really analyzed it. Then I (manually, believe me, manually), tried switching off the gamer in me and looked at it as just Jonathan. I looked at the design of the batteries. These definitely weren’t the type you could buy at CVS. They were bigger, square ones, like the kind you would find in a…

A lightbulb kicked on. I ran outside the building and looked around. Sure enough, I saw a pair of headlights sticking out from under some debris a bit away. I ran over, thinking to myself there was no way this was going to work, tore off the debris, and ripped the hood of the car off the body. What awaited me underneath, still attached to the engine, was a car battery. A removeable car battery. I grabbed it, ran back to the breaker, and sure enough. The lights came on, I heard an engine whirring, and I ran outside to be greeted by the mechanics of the door opening, allowing me to move forward.

This, to me, is why HL2 is for adults, because it wants you to think like an adult. It wants you to look at a situation and analyze what you would do, and try it. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t depend on your previous knowledge of other games to get you through. It doesn’t have massive signs or fireworks going off in the direction you’re supposed to go. Half Life 2 wants you to, like real life, be faced with a problem and not know immediately how to solve it. It wants you to use critical thinking, to fail and try again, and to feel a deep sense of satisfaction when you finally do overcome it. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t baby you.

Though it came out in the early 2000’s, Half Life 2 left an impression on me most modern games haven’t even come close to. It’s designed to feel like it isn’t designed. And whereas games like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider give you satisfaction when you beat a level, or when you accomplish some great task, HL just made me feel pleased with myself for opening a door. And let me tell you, when you get to be an adult… you’re thankful for every open door you come across.

-Jonathan Wine, Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive

 

The images in this post are not the property of or made in association with Wyvern. We do not claim ownership over any of these characters or photographs. 

Team Interview: Director of Sound Design Brian Thacker

Brian Thacker, Wyvern’s Director of Sound Design, is continually an inspiration to the rest of the team. Brian is animated 0c724beand straightforward, and although he doesn’t mince words, his enthusiasm is contagious. Jonathan Wine has mentioned on numerous occasions that he is “inspired by [Brian’s] passion” when he hears how much work goes into one of Brian’s projects. For West, the demo the Wyvern team is currently working on, Brian “knew exactly what [he] wanted” immediately, and “had an idea of how [he] wanted the soundtrack to sound” already. The thing that sets Brian apart is his passion and interest in telling a story through music, but Brian doesn’t just create narratives through music. He also creates both characters and worlds with the music he makes. Brian is striving to invoke Eledora – the Wicked Witch of the West – in the overall theme of the West, so that he can “capture the region as a whole … because that is her region.” Brian researches his projects extensively before he begins working on them, providing a depth and attention to detail that his music breathes into the worlds he creates for. That attention to detail and focus on telling a story through his work, like many members of Wyvern’s team, is what sets Brian apart from his peers. Read on to learn more:

WYVERN: How do you structure your time when you’re working?

BT: I don’t really structure my time.  I have an idea of what I want to do before getting started and I keep working until I feel like I’ve accomplished what I sought out to do. I really just go with the flow.

WYVERN: What, or who, influences your work? Do you have any mentors?

BT: My sister, my friends, people who are younger and better than me, music. I learn new things from my friends every day.

WYVERN: What inspired you to start making music?

BT: I chose drums as my preferred instrument in 5th grade and it went from there. It wasn’t until I heard good electronic music for the first time that I started producing, though.

WYVERN: If you had a superpower, what would it be?

BT: Chronokeeper, the ability to control time.

WYVERN: Do you drink coffee?

BT: I don’t drink caffeine ever.

WYVERN: What is your favorite genre and why?

BT: Electronic, because I think it is the most diverse genre. It has so many subcategories that I’ll always have something to listen to.

WYVERN: How do you feel when you complete a project?

BT: Super satisfied, but with music, I feel like a project is never done.

WYVERN: What secret talents do you have?

BT: Well they’re secret for a reason aren’t they?

WYVERN: What have you learned from what you’re currently playing or watching?

BT: Legend of Korra has taught me how to match your music with your environment; their soundtrack is very strong in that aspect. Same thing goes with Final Fantasy X. League of Legends has taught me how to step away and take a break from something I’m doing if I start to get frustrated.

WYVERN: What is your favorite quote?

BT: “If I’ve learned anything from video games, it is that when you meet enemies, it means that you’re going in the right direction.”

WYVERN: How important are names to you? How do you come up with a piece’s title?

BT: Names are not very important to me, which is why I tend to take a week to learn someone’s name. When I choose names for my songs, it’s a combination of it sounding cool and having a meaning that few people would get. Sometimes I’ll choose from things going on in my life, or when in doubt, I’ll delve deep into Wikipedia.

WYVERN: Name three musicians you’d like to be compared to.

BT: Tycho, Yppah, Matt Greiner

WYVERN: Is there a certain type of piece that’s harder for you to create than others?

BT: Fully composed orchestral pieces are the hardest for me to compose because while I’m classically trained, I’m better at composing modern music. I find having to flesh things out with multiple instruments more difficult than fleshing things out with the synths that I choose.

WYVERN: What couldn’t you do without?

BT: My sister.

Team Interview: Director of Mo-Cap & Deputy Art Director Ehren Burns

Wyvern’s Director of Motion Capture and Deputy Art Director, Ehren Burns, combines a laid-back personality with a sharp wit and sense of humor. Though he teasingly refers to himself as a “Type B” personality in a studio full of Type As, don’t let that fool you. Ehren is anything but – he just tends to be a little less high-strung than his teammates. Ehren is a friendly and open-minded, and believes part of what sets Wyvern apart is the idea that the team listens to each other’s opinions, whether or not that opinion is a popular one. Ehren is always willing lend a helping hand or go the extra mile, Ehren is extremely enthusiastic about everything he does, whether it’s designing and animating a character or guiding our actresses through their mo-cap sessions. A huge supporter of collaboration, Ehren doesn’t tolerate people who slack off or refuse to cooperate with their teammates. “If you have the mentality of doing things your way and no1016561_10151982239868367_1791512523_n other, you won’t fit [at Wyvern],” says Ehren of the studio’s demand for strong teamwork skills. Passion is another strong suit for Ehren; whether it’s Halo, Star Trek, European metal bands or Supernatural, Ehren’s passion spills over into his work. It’s clear with every all-nighter – drinking, preferably, coffee with cream and sugar instead of black – or week long binge of tweaking a model, Ehren is enthusiastic and excited about the work that he does. He says it himself: he’s already doing his dream job. “Getting to work on games and design and animate characters is a blast and I can see myself doing this, and enjoying it, for a very long time.”

  1. Do you have a plan when you start new projects, or do you let your muse run wild?

Generally, I like to just run with my muse. Sometimes I will have an idea just pop into my head whenever I am driving, at the gym, or just relaxing outside and once and idea pops into my mind, I just go with it and see what I can make from it

2. What inspires you to create something (or someone)?
Anything and everything. I can hear a song playing that just sparks an idea in my head, or just talking with friends and family bouncing ideas and seeing what comes up that sounds good and doesn’t.

3. Do you listen to music while you’re working? If so, what kind?
This is almost an absolute must for me. And I listen to all kinds of music, but which depends on what I am working on. When I find myself modeling or animating a character, I like to listen to music that is generally appropriate to the attitude of that character so I can try and add that theme into them. It helps to have theme music for the character you’re creating.

4. Describe your workspace for us.
I like to have a lot of open space so I can spread out. I generally like this because sometimes I may have a lot of reference sheets, tablet, or snack nearby and simply enjoy the breathing room.
5. Do you remember how your interest in art originated?
I can say it has always intrigued me, but as to when I really got into digital art and animation happened on two different instances. I had a teacher in high school who was my graphics teacher, and although the school gave him very little to work with he got me interested in graphic design. From there I later took an animation class at my local community college, and that’s what got me really passionate in 3d modeling and animation and has led me to where I am today.

6. Do you have any advice for other artists?
The best advice I can give to other artist is some that was given to me by a professor of mine. He told me that you have to be patient with art, that you’re not always going to get to make what you want or that it will turn out how you want it to right away, but that I need to not freak out over it, but simply take my time to get it done right and that in time you will get to make the art that you want, the way you want.

7. Do you drink coffee? Why?
I have to say I have picked up a bit of a coffee habit because of character modeling and animation. I had a feeling it was only a matter of time, but at least I don’t drink it black…. Unless it’s crunch time, then I might need to do that from time to time.

8. Do you leave a project for a while and then come back to it, or work straight through?
To an extent I like to work straight through. I mean, I will take breaks in between so as to not fry my brain, but generally once the gears are turning I just keep going.

9. How do you relax?
The rare chance to sit and play a video game is always nice. Aside from that, maybe a Netflix marathon or even going to the gym. That last one does tend to help a lot.

10. What is your favorite positive saying?
“I do not fail. I succeed at finding what doesn’t work.” – Christopher Titus

11. Do you have any strange artistic habits?
I tend to act out whatever character I am working on to help get a since of what they might do, say, or how they would move. Same thing for a scene that I may be working on as well. I know I look weird doing it, and have gotten a couple confused looks from friends who have seen me do it, but when you’re bringing a character to life, it’s really helpful to try and put yourself in their shoes.

12. What were you like as a child?
Pretty much as weird, nerdy, sarcastic, and dorky as I am today. I can say with pride a part of me will never grow up!

13. What could you not do without?
Food, water, air, you know, the essentials. [laughs] Aside from that, my friends and family. They have been there for me through all the good and bad times in my life, and have helped me get to where I am today.

On Laser Tag and Teamwork and New Beginnings

10423650_256394664484671_5637342470431730556_nSaturday night was a night of many different beginnings. For Jonathan, it was the official beginning to a company he’s dreamed of since he was fourteen years old. For David and I, for Jonathan, and for, I’m sure, the rest of the team, it was a surreal moment when we opened the envelope containing our certificate from the State Corporation Commission.

It’s official, ladies and gentlemen – Wyvern Interactive has entered the scene. We exist. We’re legal. It’s something we’ve all worked extremely hard to see happen, and it’s happening so much sooner than Jonathan and I had imagined when we began talking about making Wyvern a reality back when we were 18. A lot has changed in five years.

* * *

Jonathan and I met during our freshmen year at Lord Fairfax Community College when he was running for the president role for our college’s Student Government Association. He came up to me and one of our now best friends Sam before class one night, and in about five minutes he had charmed us into voting for him. But truthfully, it was his passion that caught my attention. Even then, when he was running for presidency, his passion for what he was doing was apparent. Jonathan has every intention of changing the world; as for me, well, I had no idea that that brief encounter before my Psychology class would change my life.

Jonathan and I graduated from LFCC and moved on to George Mason University, an unplanned but lucky accident. During our first semester there, while at the gym, a guy almost backhanded me while demonstrating to a friend how to use one of the machines. Our first semester was full of near mishaps and strange occurrences, so I put it out of my mind – until Jonathan met me for lunch one day several months later and said, “Hey, remember the kid who almost hit you at the gym?”

I did.

“I think he’d be great for Wyvern.”

And, though I tease him about the gym incident, David has been an incredible asset to our team. He’s talented, entertaining, and possesses both the confidence and the attention to detail that have become Wyvern’s bywords. When David is on a project, you can rest assured that the product could ship before he’ll say it’s finished. There are few people on the planet 1475830_246619252128879_3426830058494667615_nwho have a higher set of standards. While Jonathan and I originally nicknamed David “Padawan”, a term we used with affection because David was new to our fledgling studio, David has moved past that; I’ve yet to meet a better person suited to the Art Director role for Wyvern.

Ehren, our Deputy Art Director and Director of Motion Capture, quickly proved his worth as a team leader when he calmed me and several classmates down during one particularly rocky class project session, then not only called our slacking teammate out for not working but kicked the guy off our team. In my experience with class projects, few team leaders are comfortable with dealing with a useless teammate, let alone kicking him or her off the team or turning him or her in to the teacher. Ehren did both, which impressed me, and his art skills – and personality – did the rest for Jonathan and David. Plus, while Ehren is more mellow and balances out the high strung personalities of the rest of us, he has a great mind for details and a keen eye for both art and motion capture.

Brian and Nicole, our Sound Director and Lead UI Artist respectively, also make up Wyvern Interactive. Brian is superb at telling a story through sound, and Nicole pays attention to detail and has a focus for organization that makes her an incredible asset to our team of Type A’s. After that, our team has come from a variety of places. Some have approached us; others, like Ehren, we’ve recruited. We’re extremely selective of the people we bring into Wyvern, and there are two critical requirements our team members have to meet.

The first, talent, is a big one. Jonathan, David, and I all have a tendency to be perfectionists and slightly (read: extremely) obsessive about our work. That obsession stems from overwhelming, consumptive passion for our work. While Ehren is more laid back – or at least, quieter about his perfectionism – he definitely understands the importance of passion to our studio. “Passion is what makes something great,” he says, “and that is something every member of this team has and it’s something we want every member to bring to the team.”

The second, and most important, requirement to become a member of Wyvern’s team is that the people we bring in have to fit in with the rest of the team. Like the Fast and Furious series’ philosophy of “ride or die,” our studio is a family. We laugh, we fight, but we work together. And to work together so well, Jonathan sums it up succinctly: “Someone could be the most talented person in the country, but if he or she is a jerk, or doesn’t truly appreciate his/her peers and teammates… We don’t want them.”

And that, my friends, is that.

* * *

            Saturday night was the first time our team was together as a group, and while we were missing several people for various reasons, it was still incredible to listen to the group yelling warnings, commentary, and target locations to each other as we played a laser tag rendition of Humans vs. Zombies and feel, really feel, the effort the team was putting into working together.

And, frankly, that communication and effort was pretty intimidating when all ten phasers were aimed in my direction as I became the “zombie” smack in between all of the players. 10489776_256396104484527_8215613016828110072_nAnd it was frustrating when I couldn’t escape or tag anyone because their communication was so solid that they had me stuck underneath one of the catwalks.

But for me, that frustration was a testament to what we have built.

Wyvern has gone from a fourteen year old Jonathan’s dream to a legal, Federal- and State-recognized company. We took a group of people, most of whom barely knew each other, and made up a well-functioning unit who played a pretty sick game of laser tag. That sense of unity will transfer over to the studio floor, and the feeling of connection, communication, camaraderie, is part of what Jonathan, David, and I dreamed of when we imagined Wyvern once it came alive.

That dream has become reality.

Team Interview: PR & Loremaster Morgan Frederick

ThIMG_20140704_210721e bustle of a coffee shop, coupled with rain – either a sprinkle or a downpour, make for perfect writing weather in Morgan Frederick’s opinion. “Add coffee or hot tea, the sweeter the better, some music, and I’m golden,” she says, smiling. Morgan is often smiling, though that has less to do with her caffeine intake and more to do with the joy she takes in life. It’s easy to entertain her, partially due to her wild imagination. Rather than squash it when she was younger, her parents encouraged her flights of fancy. Her earliest memories of creating came when she was three or four, playing with Power Rangers, Polly Pockets, and Grand Champion horse figurines all at once. “I’d send them all on these fantastic, really epic adventures,” she says. “Some days, my Polly Pocket – her name was Holly – would be a cowgirl who had to rescue the Power Rangers from the Lincoln Log cabin they got trapped in by some evil. Other times, the Power Rangers would team up with my Pokémon and army men to save the faerie queen and her subjects.” With an imagination as vivid as hers, Morgan had no choice but to go into a creative field. “I tried, really tried, to fit into a mold and do the so-called practical thing, but I couldn’t. My heart wasn’t in it. My parents have been in managerial positions for twenty-odd years, but they enjoyed it. ‘If you’re gonna half-ass it, why bother’ was my dad’s favorite saying while I was growing up.”

WYVERN: You mention your family a lot when you talk. Who do you consider your mentors, or people who have inspired you?

MF: I have so many. My parents, my grandparents. My best friends: Kelli Williams, Jonathan Wine, and Sam Morales, all of whom have taught me so much and play different roles in my life. Every member on the Wyvern team. David & Carrie Urso, Amber Foltz, Jonny Novgrod, Chris Coutts, Doug Cumbia, Geovani Ayala. I owe each and every one of them more than I think words could ever express, and I can only try to be half of the inspiration to others that they were and are to me.

WYVERN: What are your biggest strengths?

MF: My empathy, knack for reading people, and my obsession with organization. Empathy and people-reading have been super helpful for writing, because I can then use what I glean from real life in my writing. It’s a lot of fun, I think, to really mix up my work – high or epic fantasy – with very realistic, very modern emotions like a struggle to fit in or trying to find your place in a world different from the one you remember as a child.

WYVERN: Are your writing experiences based on people you know, or events in your own life?

MF: Both, definitely! I’ve modeled several characters after friends and loved ones, and some of the events are similar too, just tweaked to suit my world. It’s a lot of fun to combine fantasy with very realistic, very modern emotions like a struggle to fit in or to find your place in a world different from the one you remember as a child. Even though the world is so different, I think one thing that seems to be true in most, if not all, novels is the concept of humanity or the human condition doesn’t change whether you’re on Earth, in the Shire, or halfway to an outer planet on a Firefly class ship.

WYVERN:  How has your practice changed over time?

MF: Well, being in school has definitely made it harder to write. [laughs] I used to be able to devote days to writing, but now between classes and work, it’s hard. So, learning to write in smaller doses has definitely been a change I had to make. I also had to train myself to focus on writing rather than revising, because a lot of times I would get caught up in editing what I already have before writing more, and it took up so much time.

WYVERN: Did you learn anything from a recent project? What was it?

MF: Just because I don’t think I’m useful doesn’t mean I’m not. Understanding that each person on a team brings something new, something no one else can bring, to the table is something I never thought applied to me. I hold everyone else to a high standard, but I double my expectations for myself, and that’s silly. While being willing to learn is always a good trait, more often, just sticking to what you’re good at is more beneficial.

WYVERN: What kind of music do you listen to?

Right now I’m obsessed with Lindsey Stirling’s Shatter Me album and Scripted by Icon For Hire. I’ve also been listening to Blackmill Radio on Pandora a lot, but my music shifts with my mood. I can go from feeling Eminem and Jay-Z to Beethoven and Chopin in seconds. It’s like a light switch. It also depends on what I’m writing, because that helps me set the mood. If I’m trying to do really concentrated work, I like mellow, instrumental stuff, but I find ambient or electronica to be the easiest to work to regardless of what I’m doing. I love Pandora and Songza to just work to, but Spotify is great if I want a very specific mood or artist.

WYVERN: Do you drink coffee? Why, and how do you take it?

MF: Gosh, yes. [laughs] I live on coffee. Like music, coffee depends on my mood, since sometimes I’ll switch to tea or chai – but I always, ALWAYS, have to have my coffee sweet and super creamy. Coffee helps me write, I swear. I feel so official – like I’m adhering to an old writerly tradition.

WYVERN: Have you worked in collaboration with other creators? If yes, why? What did you learn?

MF: I have, and it’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy seeing how my ideas mesh, or don’t, with another writer/artist. I think it’s so cool when you and someone else are in the zone, being creative and really feeling what you’re doing and an idea is flowing like water. Sometimes when I’m working on a project, it can feel like slogging through knee-high mud, like you’re not getting anywhere, and having an additional mind to bounce ideas off of and tweak things with can be really beneficial to the creative process.

WYVERN: What made you decide to sit down and actually start writing?

MF: I got my start with writing when I was eleven, playing Dungeons and Dragons with my best friend and her family. I had always been really imaginative, and liked designing my own world. D&D helped give me a support system and other people to go on adventures with. I started reading fantasy and scribbling down notes about my D&D character, and I’ve been obsessed with world-building and character development ever since.

WYVERN: What is something you want to accomplish before you die?

MF: I want to skydive really, really badly. I’m so scared of heights, but I’m determined to do it at least once. And, of course, publish a novel or two. [laughs] That would be good.

WYVERN: What couldn’t you do without?

MF: My family. My family includes close friends and is huge, but I owe so much to the people who put up with me when I’m cranky, pick me up when I’m down, and support me unconditionally. I used to make cracks about living in a cardboard box while I waited for my writing career to take off, but I can’t do that anymore – I have too many people who wouldn’t let that happen and I owe them everything. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without their love, butt-kicking, and affection.

Team Interview: Studio Head & Producer Jonathan Wine

IMG_20140704_205655 (1)Jonathan Wine has a charisma about him and a zeal for life that is palpable, whether he is cracking jokes with friends or leading a design meeting. Tall, charming, and confident, Wine has a sense of control about him and spiky hair like that of his favorite character – Sonic the Hedgehog. Wine is now the founder and head of the studio he’s talked about for years, and though he is a game designer by trade, Wine is a storyteller at heart, and is extremely passionate about creating characters a player can relate to. When asked what his dream job would be, he laughs, and quips, “I’m here, aren’t I?” And he is. Wyvern Interactive is just beginning, but Wine and his team are taking no prisoners as they enter the industry. Wine’s senior project for George Mason University is West, an action-adventure game set in L. Frank Baum’s Oz that will make you question everything you thought to be true about his characters. Creating a character begins, for Wine, with one question: what drives the character? The main character for West, Eledora, is driven by revenge; so Wine made her a brutal, efficient fighter. “She was raised as a warrior, so she understands honor, but her anger blinds her,” he explains. “From that, there’s much more we can develop.” His process involves delving into the character’s psyche, determining his or her mental state and the reasons behind his/her actions. This then leads to examining the character’s past. “Character development is like planting a tree,” Wine muses. “Take a seed, let it grow a little bit, and watch where it goes.”

WYVERN: Do you have a plan when you create, or do you run with your muse?
JW: It’s a little of both actually. I’ll typically have an idea of what direction, or destination I want the story and characters to go, but no sure-fire way of getting from A to point B. That’s when it gets fun though, because I can just let my mind wander and allow the characters to get there naturally.

WYVERN: What, or who, influences your work?
JW: I have so many influences. Stories and characters from books, movies, shows, other games, plays… I was raised around stories. My dad would be in the living room watching westerns and Henry V, and my mom would be watching Die Hard and Alien in the sitting room. I had a great blend growing up, and I can’t really say anything I’ve done was inspired by just one type of thing.

WYVERN: Do you listen to music while you create? If so, what kind?
JW: Constantly, it’s part a critical part of my process. As for what kind, it depends what I’m writing. If need to write a scene with emotion, usually something with violins, soft vocals, and piano. But if I need something that gets people amped, or needs to convey attitude, that’s when the volume is set to max and the guitars and synths come out.

WYVERN: Is there anything you find particularly challenging about your work?
JW: There’s always a bit of a stress when it comes to writing characters that people will relate to. I try to make these characters as real, relatable, and endearing (when it fits) as possible, but it’s always interesting to me when I get my team or my friends to analyze those characters. They [my friends or team] may get close to them for a completely different reason than I expected, or may be turned off because of something I didn’t think about. Writing a character that will be loved overall is a huge challenge… but it’s also really fun. And it’s so rewarding when all of the pieces finally fall into place.

WYVERN: Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to create than others?
JW: I tend to put everything I’ve got into character deaths, and I’m super hard on myself about them. There’s such a fine line between a death that touches you and a death that… well, is so cheesy it just makes you laugh. If I’m not at least tearing up when I kill off one of my characters, I’ll scrap the whole scene and write it again.

WYVERN: Clearly you’re a bit of a perfectionist. How do you feel when you complete a project?
JW: Really nervous, and I’ll check it five or six times to make sure it’s actually finished. Then after that, I’ll feel guilty, because I’m not working on it anymore. My brain has to be totally reassured that it’s acceptable to relax.

WYVERN: Do you let a project stew – leave it for a month and then come back to it, or work straight through?
JW: I will absolutely let stuff sit sometimes. If something is going like a well-oiled, very fast-paced machine, then I think that the best thing to do is take a step back and come back to the project clear-headed. It’s better for you, better for the team, and it’s definitely better for the finished product.

WYVERN: Do you have any strange artistic habits (like standing on your head or writing in the shower)?
JW: I tend to have conversations either with, or as, my characters. Out loud. That’s provided some interesting moments for people walking by.

WYVERN: Do you drink coffee while you’re creating something? Why?
JW: Only when I absolutely have to [laughs]. I’ll have a cup for leisure now and then, but to keep me awake or to keep me going… only when I really, really need it. I’m not a fan of depending on caffeine.

WYVERN: What is your favorite movie and why?
JW: While they’re by no means the best movies I’ve ever seen, I adore the Fast and Furious movies. Not because of the cars, not because of the action, but because the main core of characters is such a close family. That resonates with me so much. You can see the love that each character, each actor, has for another. It’s inspiring.

WYVERN: What advice would you give to your younger self?
JW: Be more appreciative, especially to your parents. All high-schoolers are going to be brats to an extent, but I really wish I could go back and punch younger me sometimes. I have such a wonderful relationship with my parents, and I wish I made it easier for them as a kid.

WYVERN: Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
JW: Barring all of the serious answers like faith, family and friends that inspire me every day, I’d say my biggest inspiration Sonic the Hedgehog. My very first video game was Sonic the Hedgehog, and he pushed me off the deep end into the world of video games. He was such a punk but he was so, so cool. And I loved that. When I was a little older, I got into the Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog series and all its spin-offs. I still read them, too. There was always something about the Sonic world that just meshed with me. I was so invested in every character and I felt like I knew each one personally. Before I knew it, I was thinking to myself “you know, I want to create a world like this. I want to create a world people will invest in as much as I do this one.” And now we’re here.

WYVERN: Who are your real-life heroes?
JW: My parents. Absolutely, if not for any other reason than because they put up with me as a teenager [laughs]. More seriously, they taught me so much about hard work, trial and error, sticking to your guns… I owe everything to them.

WYVERN: Moving away from family: name another entity – or entities – that you feel supports you.
JW: My fiancé, my close friends, of course my team, my professors. While there are always going to be the people that say you can’t do something, I’ve learned its best to just chuck them out of your mind. Focus, hone in, on the people that support you instead.

WYVERN: What couldn’t you do without?
JW: My loved ones. My family, my friends, my team… I feed off the people around me. They inspire me. They push me to do better.