Comic-book artist James Kochalka on adventuring and Destiny
The cartoonist and musician on creating possibly the world’s slowest racing game, and why craft is the enemy
James Kochalka is an American artist whose work has been published internationally and developed into series for both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Hangover. In 2011, he even became Vermont’s first cartoonist laureate. He also makes music as James Kochalka Superstar and last year added his first published game, Glorkian Warrior: The Trials Of Glork, to his list of achievements.
What sparked your interest in games?
I went to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Boy Scouts, and they had a gigantic mainframe computer. We played Tic Tac Toe on it and I was just amazed that you could have control over what happened on a TV screen. After that, I saw Pong, and I was like, “What, are you kidding me? They move?”
Did that feed into your interest in creating imagery?
Well, I was already drawing. But I think all art is a way of making sense of the world, both for the creator and the viewer or participant. It’s like a very intensified, clarified version of the world. From abstract painting to old masters’ stuff, Pong and Super Mario Bros to Skyrim, it’s a way of making sense of the world around you.
You’re a staunch believer that craft is the enemy when it comes to comics. Do you feel the same way about games?
I think so. I like the big games, too, especially Nintendo stuff, but I really love iOS gaming right now. I like that many of the games are made by individuals or small groups of people, so you get interesting, unique perspectives – in the same way that you get interesting, unique perspectives from reading indie comics.
Have you ever tried your hand at programming games?
I took a class in BASIC at my high school, but the first computer I worked on didn’t even have a screen, just a typewriter printout. But I still made a racing game! It would print out the field and show you the cars – they would be an X or something and your car was, like, a V or something. Then you would move, press left or right, and the other cars would move. It would print out the next screen, and each car would have moved one place. Then you move again, and it would print out the next screen.
So, rather than 30fps, it was one frame every 30 seconds?
Yeah, right, exactly [laughs].
Did you try anything else later on?
When they got computers that had screens, we had an assignment to make a version of Pong. The teacher walked us through what to do and everybody ended up with a version of Pong, but I wasn’t satisfied with that at all. So I decided to mash up Pong with Breakout; I just put rows of bricks in the centre of the screen between the two paddles, and then I also added Pac-Man. Every once in a while, Pac-Man would come across the screen and eat a hole through the box in the middle, and he would also eat through your paddle! Fast forward to now, and I’ve made Glorkian Warrior [in collaboration with Pixeljam], which is basically just Galaga plus Mario. You’re shooting at space invaders, but you can also jump on guys’ heads. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to program anything now, but I still invent [games] in my mind.
So, other than Glorkian Warrior, which is your favourite game of all time?
I think it’s Adventure for the Atari 2600. For one thing, every time I pick it up and play it, I love it just as much as I ever did, but also I put an ungodly number of hours into playing that game when I was a kid. And the reason I was able to put so much time into it was that I just found so many glitches in it – the more I played it, the more weird things I found I could do. Of course, there’s the famous hidden magic dot that leads you to a secret room with the programmer’s name, but what I would spend my hours doing is taking all the items and carefully arranging them in my own positions, so that you could only get them by doing specific things. I would hide objects in places where you could only get to them by glitching through a wall that you weren’t supposed to go through and ending up in this part of the castle that you weren’t really supposed to get to. So I’d spend just hours and hours and hours making a level, then hand it over to my friend to play. He’d tinker around with it for ten minutes and say, “Nah!” But I still really loved it.
“I like that many iOS games are made by individuals, so you get unique perspectives”