In Recess April 2022
Behind the Horror
Arlington attorney Tristan C. Robinson puts on his producer and lawyer hat in new horror video game.
Interview by Eric Quitugua
Photos Courtesy of Tristan C. Robinson
ABOVE: In North Algus Elementary, the main character is a mother attempting to rescue her daughter from a burning school. But the plot takes a turn when there’s no fire at all and the mother finds herself reliving the trauma of her daughter dying long ago.
Paranormal trauma, ghosts, and shifting hellscapes are among the many obstacles gamers navigate in the world created by Tristan C. Robinson. With North Algus Elementary, Robinson, an entertainment lawyer and video game developer, navigates the technical and legal logistics of creating a horror game whose heart pumps tragedy, mourning, and empathy. The Arlington-based attorney spoke to the Texas Bar Journal about his new project, his love of video game developing, and going beyond the jump scare.
WHERE DOES THE TITLE NORTH ALGUS ELEMENTARY COME FROM?
Two things here. First, we were always aware we’d have a big, expansive, Texas elementary school as the setting and that something about referring to an unassuming location seemed to evoke the horror vibe when spoken aloud (i.e., “elementary” in a game title just sounds a bit eerie rather than cheerful). Second, the “Algus” part was a bit of an inside ode to the favorite video game my co-founder and I played as children in which a character happened to be named Algus. There was something romantic about being game developers so many years down the road after sharing a love of video games, so, it snuck its way in.
WHAT’S THE PLOT OF THE GAME? WHAT INSPIRED IT?
Oh wow, I get to try out my elevator pitch? Awesome! I know I’ll get in trouble if I give away too much but let me give it a shot:
You play as a mother rushing into a burning school because your daughter is inside, but when you get in, you realize all is not as it seems. There’s no fire anywhere, and the space is shifting all around you. As you progress, you realize your daughter died a long time ago, and this is just the torment of her loss you’re reliving over and over. [Not a spoiler as this revelation happens fairly quickly and adds to some of the replayability].
It is loosely inspired by our first game that we released to the public at no charge on the PC, SOPHIE. In SOPHIE, we were limited to a single classroom, which made it appropriate to focus on a single character. Now we have the whole school to explore, and each of the main apparitions are inspired by various dark passages in history or general thematic trauma. We don’t just want to jump scare players—we want them to get acquainted with the particular ghost’s trauma to a level that they may even empathize with the particular ghost.
WHAT PLATFORM IS THE GAME MEANT FOR?
Games are always initially made on computers, be it Mac or PC—this means that it is always easiest to just release for PC. However, with North Algus Elementary, we have been ensuring that we are optimized for subsequent ports to console gaming (e.g., Xbox, PlayStation, etc.). From a technical standpoint, the process of porting a game to a console is not all that difficult. Rather, I imagine what stops most game developers is either cost (e.g., for PlayStation you actually have to buy their development kit, a special version of the console to test the port of the game on), or the bureaucracy of navigating the backend expectations of Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo, and so on. I guess in the latter regard, it is great our team has a lawyer on hand.
WHEN DEVELOPING GAMES IN THE HORROR GENRE, WHAT SORTS OF ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS ARE AT PLAY?
Well, let’s face it: Even though a large population of gamers are adults and adults are our target audience, children inevitably are going to get their hands on something like this. We can only do so much to have it properly assigned an ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating to warn parents. So, we have to build into the end user license agreement things like, “You affirm you’re old enough to play this thing,” and we have outright disclaimers about loud noises, jump scares, photosensitivity to flashing lights, etc.
ARE YOU USUALLY DRAWN TO HORROR GAMES?
You know, I don’t really know. For this project, we are heavily inspired by a short game called P.T., which was created/co-directed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, and was widely received as one of the most frightening video game experiences of all time. I also enjoy Resident Evil and the Five Nights at Freddy’s series. However, I can only take so much of the latter before I have to give it a rest.
WHAT ARE SOME LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS? I NOTICED IN ONE OF THE PHOTOS YOU SENT, A CHARACTER IS WEARING PATAGONIA. WHAT’S THE PROCESS OF GETTING THAT INTO THE GAME?
Oh, there seem to be an unending list of legal considerations, not the least of which are the protection of so many different kinds of assets that go into making the game what it is—written story, written computer code, sound bites, score, artwork, etc. A video game represents one of the most robust pieces of intellectual property one can potentially deal with. But there’s also the matter of contracting with team members, dealing with the transactional expectations of the game engine you’re developing in (for us, Unity), and any of the major consoles you plan to port to. Privacy and data collection is its own other enormous topic.
And, as far as Patagonia goes, let’s just say that was an old bit of art—the artist responsible had to be given a primer one evening on IP law. We are not affiliated with nor sponsored by Patagonia, and, insert other legal disclaimers here that let you know that the specific jacket doesn’t see the light of day because one of the team members is a paranoid entertainment lawyer.
WHAT’S YOUR ROLE IN DEVELOPING THE GAME?
I feel certain the producer and lawyer hats are obvious. What may be less obvious is that I am also an artist and can 3D model, texture, rig, code, and animate. So I am a bit of a generalist that fills in wherever he can. I even made my wife a short video game as a means to propose to her (she didn’t want to play until she realized what kind of ruse I was actually up to).
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT WORKING ON IT OR ANY OTHER VIDEO GAME YOU’VE WORKED ON?
First, I really love to learn new things. The process of making games involves so many moving pieces, and there’s just too much to know it “all”—in that way, it’s a lot like the practice of law. Second, I think video games offer one of the most exciting means of storytelling that we have—no other medium is as interactive and engaging when done well.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO MAKING VIDEO GAMES?
My co-founder of the business had been studying this medium for a while and actually approached me with the idea. It sounded intriguing, of course, as I had always loved games. Once I got hands-on with the process, it was something quite magical and really sunk its claws in deep. We can make worlds!, I thought, and have been striving to hone that art ever since. It brings a sort of joy that is hard to describe other than, “This is something truly special.”
HOW DO YOU BALANCE THAT WITH YOUR LEGAL CAREER?
Oh, I don’t know that I do this very well at all. It very much feels like burning the candle at both ends. Yet, there’s a sense of responsibility to something bigger than myself, there’s a team of artists, musicians, and programmers that rely on me to be there and put in the hours. I suppose in many ways being a lawyer by day is analogous to respecting that kind of responsibility—we owe a similar duty to our clients.TBJ