An Interview With Christian Miller of Silver Spook Games: A Discussion On Games, Gaming, & Life.

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Author’s Note: I’m pleased to say that I learned a lot from Silver Spook about life, gaming, and games from my interview with him. I hope you will enjoy this interview and learn much yourself. And also, I imagine you are going to be stoked for his upcoming release: Neofeud!!

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Q: Tell us about your formative years and childhood.

A: Like many people from the islands, I’ve got a very diverse heritage: part Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Native American, German and Portuguese, and I have trouble keeping track after that.   I like to joke that I have ethnicities from every continent except Antarctica, so the only people I’m not related to are penguins.

I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the ‘Not-so-nice-side of the coconut trees’ part of the city, where mostly immigrants, and service industry workers live.  Although recently, the area is gentrifying with skyrocketing property values, which is part of the reason my family and I are moving to the Big Island of Hawaii to live in a small off-grid house.   My parents were both Catholic School teachers, and I went to private Catholic School for most of my youth.

I had slum friends from the neighborhood that lived 20-to-a-house surviving on ramen and spam from foodstamps, just dirt poor.  On weekends we would run through the forest barefoot, playing games like, “rock war” which involves whipping rocks at each other and trying not to get bloodied.  They were crazy kids, but we had good times building tree houses and cannonballing into “Tin Roof”, a big pond in the back of the valley.

But then on Monday my siblings and I would all get in our cheap old Toyota Corolla and get shuttled off to a fancy Preparatory School where everyone wore nice uniforms, and dodge*ball* was illegal, to avoid lawsuits.  I was an overweight Hawaiian-looking kid from the ghetto amongst a lot of wealthy “fairer”-skinned whites and Asians, and as you might imagine, I was kind of singled out, to put it lightly. Video games served as an escape from this troubling and often harsh reality for me.  In games, I was happy, I was in control.

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At the same time, because the tourism industry dominates the islands, there was always this push to “airbrush” over these not-so-nice aspects of Hawaii.  To pretend that everything is beautiful and idyllic in postcard-paradise, even if it isn’t, because we just want vacationers to fly in, spend their money, and “Mahalo, come back again next year!”   As King Warren, the most powerful ‘neofeudal royal’ comments in Neofeud, “There are no flaws in paradise.”

Experiences like these were I think were hugely impactful on my worldview and are infused throughout Neofeud, as well as my other work.

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Q: What was your first game you played?

A: The first game I ever played was Super Mario World for the Nintendo.  I got NES for Christmas when I was 4 or 5.  I remember, the first time I beat Mario it was like 12 AM and I’d just spent the last 6 hours burning the midnight oil to get through Bowser’s damn castle.  I was so ecstatic after saving Princess Toadstool, I raced into my mom’s bedroom, yelling about the good news.  I ran so fast I didn’t see there was a lightbulb on the ground, and I ended up stepping on it, with glass slicing my second toe nearly in half.  I was alternating between tears of celebration and agony, bleeding all over the place as she rushed me to the hospital, and got twenty stitches.  It’s one of my earliest memories.”

Q: What led you to game development?

A:I was a hardcore gamer for most all of my youth.  I’ve lost some of my ‘gamer cred’ and am more ‘softcore’ nowadays which is mostly because I’m balancing indie game dev, dayjob, and being husband and daddy to two kids.

But I’ve definitely always wanted to make games.  I tried to do the jock thing a bit in high school, but I tore my ACL when three linebackers jumped on the back of my knee simultaneously during a football game, putting me into a year of painful rehab.  During this off-time I hunkered down and started working on video game mods for Half Life 1.  I guess my pathway into the entertainment world is similar to another Polynesian, Dwayne Johnson, who pivoted  into wrestling after an injury cancelled his football career.

In college I went into computer science and did a bunch of practicums as the lead (only programmer) for some Unreal 2K4 total conversions, which I have no idea where they are now.   The team I worked on all got hired at a small game dev studio started by a 37-year-old retired millionaire and former high-level executive at Microsoft.  The joke was always, “Most guys have a mid-life crisis and buy a bright red Porsche.  Nerd guys start a game company and spend all night having pizza-filled lan parties with 20-somethings.”  Which is basically what we did.

It was a good time, but in the end there wasn’t a lot of creative freedom (we were making another Texas Hold’em clone for Dell boxes — how exhilarating!), and I wasn’t really taking it that seriously. It wasn’t till I started working on Deus Ex Mods and then Neofeud that I got really gung-ho about it.”

Q:Favorite games of all time?

A: Deus Ex 1 (The Conspiracy) is definitely #1, using the metric of ‘played hours on Steam’.  AND it is just my favorite in terms of getting everything so beautifully right, so early in the evolution of gaming.  And also, I adore the story itself.  It is just one of those alignment-of-the-planets type miracles of a PC gaming industry that was in a golden age, a bunch of really next-level game devs like Harvey Smith and Warren Spector in Austin Texas in the late 90’s, and some luck.

Fallout (All of ’em but 1 & 2 especially) Love the world, the storytelling, the total freedom.  Again, it’s one of those games that doesn’t pull punches and hits at the craziness of the modern world through the lens of a post-apocalyptic retro-future. In the point-n-click world I must say Primordia was what won me over to using the Adventure Game Studio platform.  Absolutely stunning piece of interactive art.  The art style itself was a big influence on Neofeud’s.  It was so singular and original.Influences on your game design?

With regards to point-n-clicks, again Primordia, Technobabylon, and really all of the Wadjet Eye Games titles were my ‘instruction manuals’ as I came late to the p-n-c adventure sphere.  But definitely Deus Ex, Fallout, and everything I previously mentioned is in there somewhere.  I would’ve loved to do more RPG-like elements, but because I wanted something I could take commercial and do mostly on my own, the smaller footprint of the adventure game worked better.  Maybe Neofeud 2 will be full-RPG, who knows!?

Deus Ex was one of those games that just blew my mind, and shortly after playing it, I got way WAY into cyberpunk.  Started walking around in 90-degree, 100% humidity Hawaii weather in a trench coat, in Chinatown, imagining it was Chiba City.  I must’ve looked really weird.  I started hanging out on a cyberpunk MUD called Iconoclast, which was full of super-smart, super weird folks who I thought were the coolest people on the planet, other than William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk.  I binge-read all of Gibson’s work from Neuromancer to the Bigend Trilogy in like a month and was totally hooked.  (Actually got to meet William Gibson in person in Vancouver and he Tweeted the birth of our first kid, which was cool.  He’s a great guy.)

I loved the superlative quality of the writing, the ‘trenchcoats and cyberware’ thing, but also I think I identified with the attitude… the un-bridled rage.  Where a lot of ‘Ivory Tower’ sci-fi starred tall, strong-jawed West Point graduates exploring, colonizing the cosmos and getting the girl, and isn’t the Astounding World of the Future great?  Cyberpunk was fundamentally a middle finger to civilization. Cyberpunk was about the 99%, the slum dog who ends up street hustling with razorgirls in cyberspace, about a world of criminals working for bigger megacorporate criminals.  Cyberpunk was revulsion with the way the world is, with ridiculous wealth and incredible poverty, and no pretense about covering it up.  No airbrushing the world into a postcard — it shoves the neon-bathed warts right up in your face.

I was like, “Yes!  There ARE flaws, even in paradise!”  I ate that stuff up.

So I worked on a total conversion mod of Deus Ex called Terminus Machina, for about a year and a half, between 2011 and 2013.  This was the first big game project where I was the lead developer with creative control.  The modus operandi was, “Make the ideal game that I want to play,” and so I set about taking the already jaw-dropping awesomeness of Deus Ex and adding in crafting, wireless hacking, a hunger system, and a ton of other features.  I also wanted to create a totally immersive, original world that was basically “Neuromancer for the present,” with society in collapse as giant banks and corporations let the world go into freefall, with tent cities and populist revolts and rioting and mass-unemployment due to robots everywhere.

I feel like it did reasonably well, getting pretty good reviews on Moddb.  Not quite as big as some of the other TCs like Deus Ex Nihilum and The Nameless Mod, but I liked that at least a small community of fans seemed to appreciate this labor of love.

Q: Tell us about some of your lesser known projects?

A: Terminus Machina, as I’ve already mentioned.  I also had a brief web-series (only really had a pilot episode) called “Wayfinders” which was basically me, my wife, and kids doing Moana’s Polynesian voyaging, but in space.  As I mentioned, I am part Hawaiian and am actually related to Hawaiian navigators as well as some who’ve been on the Hokule’a voyage around the world. My wife and I are huge sci-fi geeks and needed something to do for family bonding.  We’d already watched Firefly and Battlestar Galactica too many times, so we decided to make our own skiffy TV show.

Q: You are a published science-fiction author. What are the similarities and differences, aside from the obvious between authoring a story or developing a game?

A: Well, one of my favorite aspects of game making is the storyline. That’s why I went with the LucasArts / Sierra-style Adventure Game genre for Neofeud: because the audience demographic  in this niche tends to love deep, literate storylines, especially of the tech-noir / cyberpunk flavor.  A big difference between developing a stand-alone story and developing a game story is that a game, especially an RPG or adventure, has more varied expectations.  Reading a story, it’s pretty obvious that you’re there for the story.  But people come to a game like a point-n-click adventure, let’s say, and some might want more puzzle-solving and actual ‘game’ in their game.  Others might want more of the ‘adventure’ in terms of the story, and not mind if there aren’t a ton of puzzles.  I’ve had some testers not want there to be any combat.

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Some want to have in-depth interactions for every cyborg limb and teacup and piece of belly button lint in the game, and be able to make a cat mustache if there’s scotch tape and beard shavings lying around.  In the end you can’t please everyone, but you have to at least think about what your core fans seem to want.

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Q: The music in your work is always provocative! It sets the stage for everything. You have a talent for composition and performance. When did you start scoring your own work? And will we ever see a SilverSpook EP?

A: Thanks!  I started out I believe on Half Life mods, as a sound engineer / music composer actually.   I was a big fan of The Smashing Pumpkins I went real goth/alt to deal with getting socially iced-out in high school.  I spent countless hours practicing guitar solos, trying to ace the piano in Melon Collie, and working on MIDI arrangements on a crappy old Yamaha PSR 540, a step above a kid’s Christmas present. My friends used to joke that I was, ‘the hermit’.  I’ve played in all kinds of bands in high school and college, the last one was an experimental-electronica-jazz-fusion thing called “Junk Magic”.  The avante-garde keyboardist is in L.A. making millions doing digital shows for Dead Mau5, last I heard.

I guess a SilverSpook EP could be in the cards, especially if Neofeud does well commercially!  You can always get the Terminus Machina soundtrack on bandcamp. 😉  I’ll probably put the Neofeud soundtrack out as well if it seems like the fans are into that.

Q: How did the idea for Neofeud start?

A: I have been working on this project since around May of 2014.  Neofeud actually started out after me and my wife (from Canada) were binge-watching Game of Thrones seasons during our kids’ naptime, and I was scarfing down cyberpunk stuff like Blade Runner and Terminator at night.

We’d just wrapped up the last episode and felt GoT withdrawals, and to fill the void until the next season, we started messing with our own made-up roleplaying game (loosely based on GURPS) that was a sort of mashup between George R.R. Martin-like medieval fantasy and hardboiled technoir cyberpunk.  Shortly thereafter, I started playing Shadowrun Returns (which is K-Rad!), and Neofeud initially began as a mod using that game’s engine.

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Q: When was the point that you knew you had to start work on Neofeud?

A: I was (and still am) working with at-risk inner-city youth in Honolulu.  I was dealing with 16-20 year olds living on the street, one parent in prison, the other out of their mind on drugs, staring at a future that looked like a choice between abject minimum-wage poverty, drug dealing, or prison.

My job was to get them through an accelerated high school diploma class and job training, make them into successful members of society.  Not unlike Karl Carbon, the Neofeud protragonist.  The kids would come in to class on all kinds of substances, bloody knuckles from getting into a fight or punching out their stepmom or something, many were homeless.  Most of the teen girls were pregnant.  Being from a ghetto in Hawaii myself, and seeing my own situation deteriorating as the economy was pushing me and my family closer and closer to homelessness, I understood the hopelessness of these young people all too well.  Most of these kids were of Pacific Islander and other minority ethnicity.

Meanwhile, Hawaii also has the highest concentration of billionaires, with countless resorts, beautiful beachfront properties, that iconic postcard-paradise — right next door to this dystopia.  All of the kids had smartphones and e-cigarettes and what was once ‘futuristic technology’, yet they were living in rusted cars or cardboard boxes.  Hi-tech and low-life.  I felt like I was already living in a dystopic sci-fi reality, but the society had done a really good job of papering over it.

And I saw this not just here, but everywhere — a country, and a world with skyrocketing inequality, a Neofeudal world dominated by rich corporate and government elite over a middle class of ‘peasants and peons’ exacerbated by unfettered capitalism and technological automation.  A world where our children would have a worse world than their parents.  This feeling of outrage was the gritty, beating heart of Neofeud.  The outrage.  I think it’s an emotion felt everywhere, today, and hopefully anyone who feels like they’re struggling more and more every day can connect with it in Neofeud.

Q: What is the central message of Neofeud?

A: Neofeud is at its heart a cyberpunk dystopia overlayed with Game of Thrones-like political intrigue.  You play a hardboiled cyborg cop, Karl Carbon, who’s been kicked off the police force for shooting an unarmed sentient robot, and is working as a social worker.  He gets caught up in a ‘feud’ between Neofeudal dynasties, who inhabit glimmering ‘skycastles’ of the 1%, above the miserable slumsprawl below.

When we humans think of the future, often it’s a world where robots become our overlords, as in Terminator or the Matrix, and many believe that perhaps super-intelligent AI will solve all of our problems, and we’ll live in a Star-Trek like utopia.  Neofeud flips both of these tropes on their head- conscious robots are neither here to destroy or to save us.  We invent sentient machines, and then they don’t work like we want, or we don’t really like robots having free will and being able to say, ‘No, I don’t want to serve you your tea!’  or next Christmas’ model of robot comes out, and so we throw the conscious machines away.

Robots are humanity’s bastard children.  A few are super-intelligent and invent cures for cancer or invent teleportation, but most are ‘defective prototypes’.  ‘Sentient Rights’ organizations lobby for robot rights, but the corporations who create them try to rig ‘consciousness tests’ so they don’t have to pay welfare, robot-healthcare, etc. and deny robots personhood.   Robots (and transgenic — hybrid human-animals) are quarantined off in a slum / refugee camp and their human creators hope they just go away.

Neofeud aspires to be a cautionary tale, in the way really good science fiction can be.  “Neofeudalism” is a term that has been gaining popularity to describe the way our world works today.   Feudalism was fundamentally about Lords and peasants, and soldiers to defend the Lord.  The owners, and the owned.  It was about preserving one’s own dynasty, ones ‘family estate’, and trying to increase one’s wealth, titles, power through ‘feuds’ with other dynasties.  But in the end, almost all the ‘common people’ were but servants to nobility and royalty.  As opposed to the ‘modern world’ we supposedly live in today, where we have democracy, equality, rights, equal opportunity to succeed.

Neofeud is a future in which inequality has become so great, our social contract has been so broken, that the world has in practice returned to a world of masters and servants as in feudal times.  I have intentionally blurred the ‘titles’ of the elite.  You have King / CEO Warren, because what are elite billionaires who can buy off entire governments, control world events, if not some sort of King?  We already have Kings and Emperors and Tyrants, but we simply refer to them as ‘philanthropists’ or ‘successful businessmen’ because they have the money and power to control the media and make themselves  look like really nice guys who ‘create jobs’ and give to charity and save poor African kids.

As Karl’s boss, Norton Shuffler puts it, “I’m doing what I have to do to provide for my family.  Taking care of MY castle.  It sucks there’s a 99% that loses and a 1% that wins, but that’s just how it is.  This is neofeudalism, not some touchy-feely pussy-ass democratic socialism we’re living in, here.”

I guess the message might be that the world of Neofeud is where we’re going, if we’re not already there in many respects.  It’s up to all of us to figure out how to change course, or if we’re all headed for a cyberpunk dystopia inevitably, then it’s up to us to figure out how to survive it and still find meaning in our lives.

Q:You are a father and a husband. How does that shape your creative work?

A: Well, once my five year old decided to finger-paint a big boat in my open Photoshop file after seeing Pirates of the Carribean.  But the boat also had wings?  So I just ran with it, and that became the ‘zep-yacht’ (zeppelin-yacht) that trillionaires use to vacation up to their giant Elysium-like, floating country clubs.  So I guess my kids literally shaped my creative work there.

More seriously, yes it does affect the work in that once you become a parent, you see the world through a different lens.  I do feel like there’s a lot of parent-child motifs going on throughout Neofeud, which wasn’t really a conscious decision.  Proto-J, the foster robot kid / ghetto gangbanger, likes to refer to himself as ‘The Six Billion Dollar Baller’ (his “MC/Social Media Name”).  Karl Carbon, his social worker, spends much of the game trying to be a sort of surrogate father, trying to track down the kid, turn him away from the ‘mythium cybernarcotics’ (the robo/sci-fi equivalent of methamphetamine) and the life of crime.  The result is mostly white hairs, for old Karl.

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Q: What shape do you see the gaming industry right now?

A: Well, I may be biased as Neofeud is my first official commercial game, but it definitely looks like it’s booming!  The opportunities for indie studios and smaller projects are skyrocketing, it seems.  There’re are almost so many ways to get funding, grow communities, sell games that it’s overwhelming.  I’ve got Patreon, which lets fans and friends who want to really take an active role in helping ‘produce’ Neofeud contribute monetarily even during the creation process, and be rewarded for it.  Then there’s all sorts of game markets from Steam to GOG to Gamejolt, etc… Right now I’m wavering towards Itch.io, just because I like the way they do business, and it’s simpler to set up.  But ultimately, I’d like to cast as wide a net as possible.  I was thinking of setting up my own independent shop and selling the game directly to players, and possibly even accepting cryptocurrency like Bitcoin as a payment, since that’s really taking off.

Q: Aside from developing Neofeud, have you been playing anything interesting right now?

A: Unfortunately, I’ve not had much time for playing games in the last couple months, since I’ve been working on a schedule to finish Neofeud.  I had a special housing arrangement set up during the development of Neofeud as I’m pretty much the primary creator of the writing, art, programming, etc.. except for voice acting.  I do have an annual playthrough of Deus Ex and actually played that old 90’s FPS “Blood” for the first time early on.  I wish I’d discovered Blood back in high school!

Q: What’s the next Silver Spook Games project?

A: Nothing specific planned yet, as my family and I are now in the process of making the leap from the “Manhattan on a tropical island” that is Honolulu to an off-grid, solar powered RV or shipping container tiny home on the Big Island of Hawaii, where we’ll use methane from our organic goat manure to power the development of Neofeud 2 and a Bitcoin mining operation.  😉

Seriously though, we are intending to live as simply, locally, and debt-free as possible and there are a lot of really awesome communities doing that over on the East side of the island.  We’re trying to break free of the Neofeudal System!  Also my wife is seriously into goats — she had some at one point as a kid.  She grew up way the hell up north in Canada, almost near the Yukon, with no running water and where your fingers would turn black in about ten minutes from frostbite.  Make those Alaska: The Last Frontier folks pee their pants!

Q: What do you have to say to aspiring game developers?

A: Don’t give up!  And take yourself seriously!  I like Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games’ advice: “If you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will.”  I spent a lot of time just kind of messing around with game development, and just doing stuff for fun, when I should’ve probably really started really pushing game dev as a career, a profession.

When I went into production of Neofeud, I made a conscious decision, with my family, almost a business contract, that I was going to set aside a year and a half, make the best possible commercial game I could make, and then that game would either succeed or fail.  If it failed, then hey!  Whatever!  I did the best I could, used that bachelors of computer science degree, and now it’s time to move on and go full time into STEM education with kids, or move on to the goat cheese and bitcoin, or whatever.  At least I wouldn’t be 55 years old, slaving away programming stock trading algorithms for some bank to off a ball-n-chain mortgage to a bank, stressed out and sad regretting to myself, “Why didn’t I ever try the game thing?”

And if Neofeud ends up going platinum and making millions, then hey!  That’s cool too!

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