It’s nearly impossible to understand the amount of labor that goes into making a great work of art. Behind every respected novel are countless drafts and revisions. Often, movies take thousands of people to write, film, edit, and market. The same thing goes for video games. I’m slowly making my way through “Dragon Age: Inquisition,” a gorgeously rendered world with dozens of characters with their own unique and variable dialogue. After you choose your gender and combat style (class), you can completely customize your facial features down to cheekbone width and jaw size. Going into the details of weapon crafting and complex lore would be a waste of time here, but I do want to say that the effort involved in creating a fully realized world like this is staggering. It took hundreds of people to create.
Indie video game developers have it even tougher in some regards. Toiling over character rendering, level design, and coding, as well as spending long nights testing and retesting can result in failed projects and thousands of wasted hours. A well-known case involves developer Phil Fish’s visionary puzzle game “Fez,” which won him early praise, but he ultimately burned out. Video of “Fez” demos spread all over the internet and, as the hype grew, a brilliant mind became overwhelmed with the pressures to succeed when the project wasn’t produced in a reasonable amount of time. In the end, “Fez” was too big for one man. “Fez” ate Phil Fish alive.
Seeking out local video game developers to get a sense of the task of developing a game, I found Jason Gottlieb. I was immediately struck by the professionalism and craft behind his game title “Eat Yourself.” You can take that literally. The game wants you to eat yourself. Gottlieb, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, says the game started as a religion:
“I wasn’t satisfied with existing religions. I wanted new answers to the important moral and spiritual questions of our time like, ‘Should I be paleo or vegan?’ and ‘What religion is Beyoncé?’ Specifically, I’m interested in what we willingly consume to sustain our lives, and what happens to us when we die.”
Gottlieb is out to answer some serious questions, and his sacred temple takes the form of a tablet or smartphone. I know he’s serious not only because of the game’s existential roots, but by the boggling amount of effort its creator has put into the project.
“‘Eat Yourself’ is the most ambitious project of my life,” Gottlieb says. “In a single day of work I may need to be a designer, illustrator, animator, developer, audio engineer, and writer. The project is so large it feels overwhelming at times, but ultimately the process is a perpetual learning experience. It sustains me, and I love it.”
Gottlieb built “Eat Yourself” from the ground up, by himself. This means he drew every character—animated them and gave them life. He engineered and recorded most of the sound effects and created storyboards. He wrote every line of code and tirelessly tested level after level to make the game perform flawlessly on multiple platforms like iPad and Android. That doesn’t really set Gottlieb apart from all the other mad people creating indie games. But when you step into his studio, you can see that he’s a true believer. Characters from the game are plastered on the walls, and Gottlieb has even designed bibs for players to wear while they devour the game. Promotional materials, all designed by him, surround the space. “Eat Yourself” is a world of its own.
But art isn’t judged by labor alone. Luckily, “Eat Yourself” is fun—it’s a playful, yet grotesque comment on consumerism. You control a flying pig and named Pinky that shoots peace signs out of his eyeballs. Don’t be dismayed, there’s no shortage of visceral slop. I played a fast-paced demo where I flew around and shot down fast-food enemies, occasionally employing a barrage of vomit and belly rippling burps. The website also illustrates the powerful “Turd-bo Enemas” used to ram airships. That’s a power I can believe in because I’ve witnessed the morning-after-Boh fury myself, and it could probably ground a small aircraft. And of course, throughout the course of the game, you are rewarded by chomping on your own arms or legs or coiled tail. Eating yourself is grossly hilarious.
All of this effort makes me wonder, will Jason’s game devour him? Will it completely overwhelm him with its scope? Looking at his progress, I don’t think so. “Eat Yourself” is close to mass consumption. And developers like this deserve devotees, no matter how insane their pixelated religion might be. Jason Gottlieb reminds me that we need to respect the people behind games in the same way we respect painters, directors, and novelists.
Justin Sirois is the author of “So Say The Waiters” and “Falcons On The Floor.” He lives in Baltimore and loves games.