Text by Abigail Best
Tj Hughes wants you to play with your food, probably in ways you have never thought about before. The Saint Louis-based game designer is developing Nour, a colorful and quirky art game that is soon to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Hughes is on the verge of creating something quite beautiful—the culmination of his interests in 3D art, music, and personal neon-bright style—that he hopes will be enjoyed by everyone, not just people traditionally interested in gaming.
Nour was not originally even intended to be interactive; Hughes was just creating illustrative 3D scenes of things like ramen noodles in Unity and posting them for his Twitter and blog followers to enjoy. “Someone I knew was holding an event and they said they would love it if I could show off my weird ramen art,” he explained. “I was like yeah, I’ll find some way to do that, and so I started programming it and stitching these scenes together.” This is where one of the most interesting aspects of the game comes into play. Not satisfied to simply make something where your experience would be entirely flat and through the screen, Hughes programmed the game to interact with the multicolored backlights on his Razer Chroma keyboard, something that was wildly praised by those experiencing this original version of Nour.
Around that same time, Hughes was introduced to the work of musician Shawn Wasabi, who uses a MIDI Fighter 64 to string together samples of whatever sounds he can find into complex, cohesive musical compositions, usually in real time. “I’m really into his whole aesthetic,” said Hughes, “and I was just like, is there anyway I can use this in something I’m creating?” The MIDI Fighter has its roots in video game development, but in recent years has grown to be associated almost exclusively with producing music. Hughes jumped down the rabbit hole, learning from an entire subculture of indie game developers who use MIDI controllers, and got programming. “It was perfect,” explained Hughes, “because the MIDI Fighter has tilt controls... it’s just so fun and satisfying to play with your food with this controller where there are so many layers of interactivity.” The wide release of Nour will be completely playable with your own keyboard—no need to go out and purchase a MIDI controller just yet.
Hughes got into programming at age 11, and has been developing games in Unity since he was 13. He also watched and participated in 48-hour game development events, known as Game Jams, one of which was the genesis of his first game, Feesh—a chilled out, evolution based game with a soothing soundtrack that feels and looks great to play, perfect for decompressing at the end of a long day. Hughes’ experience in making his own games and developing his skills led him to being hired by Saint Louis based Happy Badger Studio right out of high school, a place he has continued to work for the past few years.
Both Nour and Feesh have a distinct neon aesthetic that is counterpart to Hughes’ own personal style. “I’ve always just had that kind of style…OK not always, I’ve been working on it,” he laughed. He even has his apartment lit with a neon-green set up, something he showed off as we talked about how his propensity for color and glitter has developed: “I always have been attracted to color and have used tons of color in my art, but it was only a couple years ago that I took it to the extreme. I created Terrifying Jellyfish, and my main colors are these insanely, obnoxiously bright colors....I wasn’t even really thinking about my brand when I was getting into it, but it just all happens to line up into this aesthetic of positivity and colorfulness.”
Hughes is not only drawn towards positivity when it comes to aesthetics; he always finds the most affirmative way to respond to fans and people asking about game development via his blog. “For some people, the anonymity [of the internet] gives [trolls] an excuse to be jerks and assholes to each other, and I just don’t buy into that, I don’t have time for that,” he said. As his audience has grown due to interest in Nour and a delightful Polygon interview, Hughes was worried that the increased visibility would result in more backlash from critics. However, seemingly in response to the overwhelmingly positive way that he presents himself, Hughes has been met with nothing but good vibes. “That [reaction] really inspired me to adopt this whole positivity aesthetic; I was positive before that, but this set it off to where it really almost restored my faith in humanity,” he said. “Of course if there are problems they need to be addressed, but I think that there is a healthy way that we can do that.”
Positivity and inclusivity are what inform the way that Hughes has chosen to go about developing his work. “I’m trying to make games that I would have liked to see,” he explained, “because the white male protagonist with a gun and the 5 o’clock shadow is such a played out trope.” The mainstream video gaming industry is notorious for the machismo culture that it is built on, and arguably cultivates, but Hughes feels that almost every form of art has it’s roots in being exclusionary—and he is right. Film, fashion, and every other form of mainstream media have had massive problems when it comes to cultivating diverse voices. However, Hughes is hopeful that gaming is taking a turn for the better. “I still love traditional games,” he clarified, “and a lot of the ‘military shooter’ games that I am criticizing are still games that I enjoy and play...The bottom line is, video games are still very young, and as a medium, it needs to be given the time it needs to mature. It needs the time to outgrow the stereotype that gaming is a boys-only club with nothing to offer other than military shooter cash-grabs. Every innovative, artistically divergent game that comes out helps to change gaming's reputation, forever.”
Even for Indie games, mainstream marketplaces have emerged and it is not always easy to break through with new ideas. Hughes released Feesh through PC game giant Steam, which enforces a traditional labeling system (FPS, Action-Adventure, etc.) for games submitted for release. “When you make something that doesn't quite fit in with any of [those categories], suddenly Steam's marketplace doesn't know how to categorize your game, and the recommendation algorithm doesn't know who to show your game to,” explained Hughes. Alternative release platforms are emerging, many of which try to combat these algorithmic hurdles, and in large part the online game development community works very hard to make sure games that deserve recognition will get it. Hughes shared with me just a couple of games he’s excited to play, and it’s not uncommon to see him and other Indie developers using whatever platform they have to share projects they think are cool.
“I just try to make my games as inclusive and as subversive as possible,” Hughes concluded, “because I want to make games not just for the boys, I want to make games for the girls too. I want to make games for the queer kids, games that anyone can really get into and not feel like they’re being excluded.”
You can follow Tj for updates on Nour and future projects on Twitter and through his website.