On Connor and Oblitus

Recently, I invited writer David Wolinsky to take a look at my team’s upcoming game Oblitus, and he offered to write a piece about my life and career as a game developer after playing. Of course, this was very exciting, and I was happy to oblige. Below you can find David’s piece, entitled “Connor and Oblitus.”

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Connor and Oblitus

The words you can use to describe Oblitus aren’t ones you’d conjure often when trying to sum up a video game. It’s simple. Painterly. Its violence is serene, not gory or ferocious.

And yet, while at a glance it might seem so easy to lump in with so many other games like it before, there is something different. It has warmth.

This is no small feat for a computer program.

There is a temptation to categorize and lump games together by the way we describe them, or what genres we can neatly tuck them into. But even though it’s human to try, such endeavors do a disservice to both us as players, the creations, and the creators behind them. They obscure the humans behind them and how we connect with them through their games.

Small titles are often scrutinized for either not doing enough to shift, push, and challenge established conventions in game design. I would argue they are given shit far too often for this, and what we sacrifice instead is remembering we have the capacity to appreciate and enjoy simpler things.

Connor Ullmann, 22, still a student at University of Michigan majoring in Computer Science, leads the team on this game. That it was scooped up by Adult Swim Games to publish is both an indicator not only of Connor’s promise, but also where he already has ascended to as a young game-maker.

And, to be sure, the game is something special. You have to try it to understand how its understatedness adds up to something bigger than the sum of its parts. I mean, look at how Connor and his team self-describes the game elsewhere on this page: “[It’s] the tale of a small, spear-wielding creature named Parvus who seeks to discover their purpose and origin with an unfamiliar realm full of huge, ancient terrors.”

It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It evokes Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. It sounds like cave drawings being described to you.

This is a good thing.

It’s no coincidence that Connor is young and his game is unfussy: Both are reminders that games can be challenging and enjoyable at the same time.

It also shouldn’t be a surprise then, that the reason Connor makes games is similarly straightforward. He doesn’t do it to prove himself as an artist or to be popular on the Internet. It was just his chosen outlet born out of “summer boredom.”

Summer boredom.

It’s a phrase lost on us as adults. We may recognize those two words and what they mean. But together? Summer is about obligations, not having fun, if you’re a grown-up. You gotta go to work. The dentist. Worry about money, taxes… boring shit. That’s what summer boredom is to an adult. Enduring another fucking hot summer doing things you don’t want to do; not tinkering and playing and seeing and being creative for lack of other things to do.

But for Connor, that’s what his summers were, though not what they are now. Before he learned to make games, he was spending his summers playing them, and getting in trouble with his parents for playing them too much. “I couldn’t help it most days,” he says.

As things resembling adulthood started to emerge on Connor’s horizon, like working a restaurant job and, later, at a library, he was looking for a way out. When he heard a friend had sponsored a game online for “a bunch of money,” he saw his way out and cut a deal with his parents: Let me make a game and see if anyone will sponsor it online. They allowed it.

“That weekend I spent three days making a game and sold it for $400,” says Connor. “I was making games for money, and I’ve been doing it since.”

“I’d say less that I use games to “find myself” and more that I use them to be myself. I like to make things, and nothing gets me more excited than to have a new idea I think will make a great game (I was about a month from college letting out for the summer when I had the idea for Oblitus, and it was excruciating making myself hold out until summer started). I get to pour my interests and creative cravings into these projects, and it’s quite fulfilling in a way I think most other jobs aren’t.”

Fast-forward to a few years ago, shortly after Connor just started college, he got some attention in Kotaku for a browser-based game he made. “I’d just started college, and I’d made a lot of really smart and talented friends,” Connor said. “So I wanted to make a game while I was there to show them what I meant when I said, ‘I make video games.’”

His intent was to demonstrate how Flash games can have bigger scope and scale than they were perceived of. “Games just take time, effort, and care. If you can provide those things, you can build your ideas in a way that isn’t possible in other media.”

Oblitus carries on this tradition, showing how simple ambition can be. Even better: It just lets you discover that on your own. If you’re patient and persistent, you will be rewarded.

“There isn’t much hand-holding, obvious paths for players to follow, direct plot elements,” says Connor. “It needs exploration to play successfully. I want to make the player take a moment and think about [their] choices and their consequences before doing them, and punish the players who lose their cool when things get tense.”

This telegraphs itself in subtle ways: Throw a spear and you will notice how long it takes for Parvus to wield another. Your actions have consequences. It behooves you to stay mindful of that.

So, yes, you run around in Oblitus and collect spears and traverse a variety of environments.

But it’s also much simpler than that.

It’s just fun. —@davidwolinsky

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