Each year, the NYU Game Center commissions new work from four artists for No Quarter, an exhibition of games. The 2019 No Quarter artists were Karina Popp, Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan, Michael Brough, and Xalavier Nelson Jr.. No Quarter Curator Charles Pratt briefly interviewed each of the artists about their process of making games for No Quarter. You can read all of the interviews here.
Xalavier Nelson Jr. is an award-nominated narrative director, game developer, writer, ex-PC Gamer columnist, IntroComp organizer, and MCV Rising Star. You might know him from his work on Hypnospace Outlaw, Can Androids Pray, SkateBird, We Are The Caretakers, or a dozen other things.
For No Quarter 2019, Xalavier made An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, a game where the dogs are not good at running airports, but they sure do try.
Charles Pratt, No Quarter Curator: What was on your mind when you started designing your game?
Xalavier: I travel a lot, and when you spend that much time in airports, they break your brain. These spaces are flawed, utilitarian, and utterly human in their complicated, artificial ecosystems. Making a game set in these familiar places, bent to be something even stranger, is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had time for.
Were there any challenges that you ran into that you didn’t expect during your game’s development?
This was my first time personally making a game in Unity, so the real challenge was discovering the invisible magic that makes 3D games work on a fundamental level. For this, I have to thank my programming collaborator, Tom Vinita. He started teaching me Unity just around the time No Quarter came a-callin’, and continued that process into production. Colliders, the invisible green boxes that haunt my nightmares? Lights, and their idiosyncrasies in Unity? Rigidbodies, that essential physics component with the funny name? The number of concepts new 3D developers have to grasp on top of the unique features of an engine is an absurdly high mountain, full of pitfalls and cliffs and those irritating goats that make it look easy. Tom made that mountain surmountable within a tight timeline, giving me the tools I now use to continue development on the game today. When the game breaks down, I don’t just know what is going wrong – I know why that element of the game is personally choosing to disappoint me. That’s all thanks to Tom.
What was your approach to designing for No Quarter in terms of the event and the audience?
We designed the game with systemic elements to add variety (specifically, the ‘footprints’ stores spawn within) over multiple playthroughs, as well as populate the massive environment an airport requires within the time allotted. As for the audience of No Quarter, it seems incredibly accepting of strange and novel works–as long as they can be enjoyed by people who aren’t directly manipulating the controls.
Making An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs actually caused me to realize how much spectators play a role in how a work is appreciated. With their words, their gaze, and their frustration as someone spawns fifty new boarding passes over and over just to test my sanity (as well as the engine’s limits), they aren’t just ‘standing around’ – they’re active pieces of the experience. It’s why I created a communal space for people to asynchronously help each other; a notepad labeled “Travel Tips”. People added progression advice, a translation cipher for the alien language, and more, because they recognized as much as I did that their very presence added to the game in a way you can’t replicate anywhere else.
Could you describe some of the practical considerations that were part of your process?
I use stock photos because they’re funny.
How do you feel like your No Quarter connects to your other work?
It’s the start of a new chapter for me. I’d become very cynical about the practical realities of game development. Making this dog-filled absurdist puzzle box of weirdness and delight? I fell in love with the process of building a game all over again. I’ve always wanted to create systemic first-person titles with strong layers of narrative and interaction, and the things I learned making my No Quarter allow me to do just that going forward–on my own terms. It’s more than I could have ever asked for.
You can support the ongoing development of An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs by joining Xalavier’s community of Patreon supporters.
Event photos by EMiSpicer. See more of her work here.