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”

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