It’s morning as we roll into Reno, Nevada. For over 40 hours, developers have been game jamming on a train between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California, on the theme of being “disconnected.” The jam games are getting to the point where they have art and are playable. Just like us, they’re closing in on their final destination.
Early in the morning we come to a gentle stop. The Amtrak attendant explains we're letting a freight train pass. Several minutes go by, and we remain at a standstill. The attendant squawks over the PA again. “Now we’re letting two freight trains cross, so we’ll be stopped for about 15 minutes or so.” Later, the train comes to a halt in the middle of a canyon in Nevada. There's a rock in the way that needs to be cleared.
Most game jams are about being done at a certain time — but the Train Jam isn’t just a race against time. Distance becomes a factor as well. A rock in the middle of the track or a couple slow freight trains crossing our path means more time to add that bit of sound or art or to fix that bug. Delays that would be a hassle if we were “regular” passengers are a little gift to the developers who want to spend just a little bit more time on their projects.
I check social media and Gamasutra. I feel like people who are following the Train Jam from my reports and from Twitter see it either as an amazing adventure that they wish they were a part of, or something that is an interesting experience, albeit with traces of misery stemming from cramped quarters and limited contact with the outside world. I just want to make clear that the cramped quarters, irregular to non-existent showers and limited contact with the outside has yet to make anyone miserable as far as I can tell.
The bright sun bounces off of the reddish canyons, reflecting onto laptop screens, making it difficult to see lines of code. When we navigate through the train, we have to backtrack down narrow hallways to let passengers pass in the opposite direction. There's a bit of a...human...smell. Showers aren't terribly practical, but we do what we can to keep up on hygeine. Much of the time, we are disconnected from anyone outside this train.
Spirits are high, not not despite the unusual circumstances in which developers are making games, but because of the unusual circumstances. No one is drawing influence or inspiration from misery here. We left our misery at Union Station in Chicago, at least for a few days.
Adriaan de Jongh told me yesterday that he wants me to do some screams for his game — one that he describes as QWOP meets Gravity (that Sandra Bullock movie). You're a little astronaut trying to move from asteroid to asteroid, floating through the void of space. Buttons on the keyboard control each of your four limbs — it’s very awkward, true to the QWOP influence. It’s the first game that I play on the Train Jam where the core of the gameplay is present.
Today, I duck into a little cabin where developers Michael Hutchinson and Eline Muijres are working on this QWOP/Gravity game. It's time to record some screams. “Maybe I should let the train staff know that I'll be screaming at the top of my lungs,” I tell them. On second thought, if I tell them I’ll be screaming as loud as I can, they might put the kibosh on it before we even start. So I just sit down with a digital recorder and let some screams loose. It's my interpretation of a little video game spaceman floating uncontrollably into the void of space.
de Jongh has gotten violently ill over the course of the past half day. I hope it’s not partly because I asked him to sprint as fast as he could toward the Iowan horizon. It probably didn’t help. Anyhow, he’s in the cabin across from us, laid up in the top bunk, as I’m doing the sound effects. He really sick, but he’s laughing pretty hard.
As we roll through Sierra Nevada, a historian who we picked up in Reno comes over the PA to point out Donner Lake on our right. It’s the body of water associated with the ill-fated Donner Party. Ninety-one people embarked on the trip out to California, but became snowbound. “Only 47 survived,” the historian says. He didn’t bring up the part about the survivors resorting to cannibalizing the dead.
Train Jammers are resorting to almonds, Cheetos and energy drinks.
Our final destination might be Emeryville, but it’s pencils down for the Train Jam around Sacramento. The deadline is looming, and I walk to the observation car to see everyone crunching on their games, including Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, who has two belts strapped around his belly. He turns around and I see that the belts are holding an Android tablet to his back. There’s a “D” on the tablet — it looks like other players are meant to press the button to disconnect Rami. At one of our last fresh-air breaks, he and some other jammers test it out.
Around 50 hours have passed since we left Chicago. Time is up. Developers add a last bit of spit and polish and prepare to present their games to everyone. “Regular” passengers are welcomed as well.
We all crowd into the observation car, where so much collaboration and creation took place over the last two days. Everyone takes their turn. I’m in the back and it’s hard to hear what’s happening, but every presentation is met with supportive hoots and applause. This is the first time that all the jammers find out exactly what other jammers have been up to.
At the end of the presentations, developer Ismail presents Train Jam organizer Adriel Wallick with a large wooden train whistle. He’s had all of the Train Jammers and the Amtrak staff sign it.
We’re closing in on Emeryville.
Jammed in a train car
I’m writing this a day and a half after arriving in at my final destination in San Francisco. It’s hard to believe that ahead of me, there’s an entire a week of Game Developers Conference.
I was apprehensive about taking 50-plus hour train ride to California. I could’ve made the trip by plane in about seven hours from Fort Wayne, Indiana. But I’m so glad that I didn’t. I imagine some of the developers felt the same way — that this is something that is out of their comfort zone, if not slightly crazy. But they bought a ticket away.
When I booked the trip, I didn’t know what to expect. At the last minute I just decided to buy a ticket and go, because I had a feeling that I would regret it if I didn’t tag along, and follow these amazingly talented people. I’m really honored to have been included in this.
I’ll finally end this little series of Train Jam articles with this quote, for the ambitious but the self-conscious, for the doubtful yet hopeful:
“If we listened to our intellect we'd never have a love affair. We'd never have a friendship. We'd never go in business because we'd be cynical: "It's gonna go wrong." Or "She's going to hurt me." Or, "I've had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore..." Well, that's nonsense. You're going to miss life. You've got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.” - Ray Bradbury