If there was ever a man who was progressively devoted to the art of making games, it’s Richard Terrell. As a developer, his technical prowess shows through his actual works, like the colorful and challenging BaraBariBall. However, if someone takes a closer look at him and his works, they will find much more than they bargained for.
Terrell’s introduction to gaming began like a lot of us born between the years of 1980-1995: with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the series of Super Mario Bros. games. I asked him about his influences, hoping to hear something to the effect of “I was bored by games, and I wanted new ones.” It didn’t quite work like that. The answer he gave was so intricate and thorough, I marveled at it as a writer.
On his influences:
Everything. From the greatest works of literature to the notes drawn on bathroom mirrors. Or even the refrigerator magnet poetry with no other author than the frustrated slam of the door when the last piece of cheesecake was eaten. From the aspiring dancers in dance halls to the funny way people walk when a tiny rock works its way to the bottom of their shoes. From award winning foreign films I stumble upon, to the “scenes” that go unrecorded every time someone makes a frame out of their fingers. From every misheard statement that conveys an unintended message, to the various flavors of silence that accompany awkward moments. Everything I perceive influences my work.
I wish I could say that it wasn’t the least bit daunting to write about someone who described the things that shaped their work in such a manner. But it was only a glimpse into the thought process of someone who creates.
Terrell, an SMU graduate, lists himself as an indie game designer, musician, video game consultant, and teacher. The first three might be obvious, as he is a developer. However, it’s the label “teacher” you may have to delve a bit for. His (now “dead” in a recent blog post) website Critical-Gaming.com, has a feature called Game Designing 101: an elaborate series of lessons for the beginning developer. He recommends the book Half-Real by Jesper Juul, then begins the meticulous task of listing various help articles ranging from the foundations of designing to more advanced theories on game development.
We’re here to talk about black game developers, so let’s get to the games, and we can talk a little bit more about the black developer later. Terrell cites BaraBariBall, one part of the game Sportsfriends (available on PC and PSN for PS3 & PS4) as the work he’s proudest of. It’s hard to even describe the game, without alluding to several other games or condensing it down and oversimplifying an awesome game.
Before working on BaraBariBall, I spent many years writing about games. During that time I didn’t know if I could create a game that lived up to everything I’d studied and my level of scrutiny. BaraBariBall is a very unique and very deep deep fighting game. It kinda surprised me in the middle of development. I was there for most of the steps of its development, yet it still became a distinct and unique thing right before my eyes.
Also a part of Terrell’s portfolio is the expansive designoriented.net, a blog about game design completely dedicated to honest and accurate critiques. The site is dedicated to constructive criticism, and ultimately the goal is to help make games, and their designers, better. Currently, the Design Oriented team is working on Design Oriented 2.0, scheduled to launch in March of this year. Terrell offered a bread crumb for us, telling me that DO 2.0 will be “Metacritic + TVtrophes but for games criticism. It’ll change the way you talk and learn about games.” A refreshing idea in a sea of hyperbolic criticisms of games that don’t lend very much to knowing anything about the actual merits or pitfalls of them.
When it comes to his experience as a black man in game development, Terrell has his own unique thoughts about the black experience, black games, and black developers in general. Even as I type the individual profiles on each black dev and their encounters in the industry, when I come to him, I get the feeling that “There is no spoon.” He thinks differently, and that in and of itself is a burden greater than being a black man in gaming. He is often a minority in thought process, rather than race, limiting himself by choosing unique goals and projects rather than being limited or labeled an outsider because he’s black. In fact, as it relates to being a black man in the gaming industry, he said it has actually helped in it’s own way; opening a unique opportunity behind the strength of his resume.
I asked him about his thoughts on the black experience as it related to gaming. The answer followed the pattern of Terrell’s personality thus far: the thought that there may be no black experience. By looking at games for only “surface-level” diversity, like sex, or skin color, then we’re already limiting our experiences. Games themselves have a myriad of facets and by focusing on any one thing without taking into consideration the rest of the design elements, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Art is tricky because it reflects the people who make it. Sometimes that means being reminded that there are more people unlike you than like you. And that’s life.It’s hard talking about games. Part of what makes it complicated is that the way we talk about games is unstructured and overcharged with emotion. These drawbacks make it hard for everyone to listen and learn.