It all started in May of 2014, during a fellowship with the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Pine Needles Artist Residency. I had the privilege of staying for an entire month in a small cabin that overlooked the St. Croix River, a setting which serves as the driving inspiration for the game’s environment. I had actually been here once before for a month in 2010, in which I created a 3D animation inspired by the St. Croix, so getting to return here was a very special experience for me.
This residency provides artists and writers with the opportunity to have complete and total focus on a project for a set amount of time. With no outside distractions, not another human/house for miles, and a view overlooking the river, it is the perfect scenario for an artist like me to dive into a project. Granted, there’s no studio or high-speed internet access, but it does provide the solace one might need to work all day (and often into the night) on a project.
I spent the first week of the residency hiking, reading, kayaking, researching, sketching, and ideating. Since my normal (seemingly endless) work schedule of replying to emails, attending meetings, grading projects, and filling out expense reports was still present in my mind, I needed that week to decompress and start fresh. The surroundings of the area helped me dive headfirst into shedding my usual work routine. The lush green saturation of the forest was enhanced by the varied browns in the sandstone cliffs and tannin-soaked waters of the river. But just as the natural environment provided inspiration, I could sense the human impact and history of the area too. I saw it in decrepit staircases leading down the steep embankment to the river, eroded initials carved into rocks and cliffs, and the litter left behind by those recreating on the river in previous days and even decades. It was this intersection between the natural environment and our human race that fascinated me most – how this particular river has acted as a meeting place, life source, and highway for a multitude of humans and their distinct cultures across numerous centuries.
I wanted to capture that feeling in a way that others could experience what I did. After those initial days of finding my footing, I began the long process of creating Tombeaux. I would spend the next three weeks working on the project daily, from roughly 8:30am until 10:30pm, taking short breaks interspersed throughout the day (to avoid any physical side effects that come from sitting, typing, and clicking in one position for too long!). I knew that my only chance to really make progress on the game would be these three weeks, so my goal was to have a completed game design document and fully working prototype of the game (I’ll explain these in more detail later). After the residency, I returned to work and – beyond extensive playtesting and design doc refinement – I would not have an opportunity to make large amounts of progress on it until the following summer (of 2015).
So, as it is likely obvious by now, the game owes a lot to Pine Needles. It’s surroundings helped inspire the game, its cabin provided the space and solace I needed, and the residency program (and the people that run it) helped me find the time to start to make Tombeaux a reality.