Xalavier Nelson Jr.: Creator of Strange Scafold Studio

Can you tell us about your career in the video game industry and the key moments that have marked it so far? Why did you want to switch from writing to making video games?

I would say that one of the key moments in my career was when I seriously thought of leaving it. I started as a literal kid games journalist. I’d seen waves of developers and peers and people I looked up to already burn out by the time I was 17. I had a real crisis of confidence, realizing the industry at large was a machine that often did not care for either gamers or developers. So I decided to create one game before leaving the industry behind… only to find I loved the creative process. That first game, All Hail the Spider God, was a revelation for me.

I went from writing about video games to writing for video games, and then to narrative design. I realized that what mattered most to me was not only the quality of the game, but also its efficient creation. On time and on budget, without harming the people involved in the process. Which led me to take a greater interest in production, management and business development. So, today, I run a studio where I handle a bunch of creative and logistical roles for our various projects that satisfy the things I care about most, while still contributing to other pieces of the medium on the side. I’m just deeply thankful. I get to wake up every day doing what it feels like God built me to do.

As an independent studio, what are the core values you seek to promote in your work and in the video game industry in general? In your interviews and on your website, you talk about the “Better, Faster, Cheaper, and Healthier” mindset.

I’d say “Better, Faster, Cheaper, and Healthier” is about promoting a holistic approach to game development. One of the things that frustrates me most about today’s video game industry is the disconnect between the development process and the final product. Too often, we see contradictory objectives imposed on development teams, such as creating a highly reactive live service game with a photorealistic production pipeline. Strange Scaffold aims to transparently discuss the intentional decisions of the game development process on the behalf of gamers and fellow developers alike, because the intentional, holistic tackling of those decisions is what allows developers to create amazing games consistently.

Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator
Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator

We believe in considering production, creative, and bizdev as a single whole—because those factors impact each other anyway. Hopefully, both that development approach and that discussion will build games that surprise and entertain, and can also be built sustainably.

What are the advantages and challenges of a “constellation” studio model, where team members are independent contractors collaborating on specific projects?

One of the main advantages is flexibility. We can bring together diverse and specialized talents for specific projects, some of whom you couldn’t hire full-time. Team members can work on several projects simultaneously, or choose to focus on specific areas that match their skills and interests. And by collaborating with a broad pool of people, we’re constantly sharing and gaining new learnings that lead to original and high-quality games. We’ve avoided hundreds of pitfalls drawing from that collective experience. 

El Paso, Elsewhere
El Paso, Elsewhere

That said, you also deal with inevitable challenges to team cohesion, because of that freely rotating door. You need more communication, because the studio is entirely remote, and maintaining coordination when you’ve got multiple spinning plates and degrees of attention you need from various members means this all falls apart unless you’re constantly iterating on your processes. 

Fortunately for us, we do!

Can you tell us more about the production process for El Paso, Elsewhere and the challenges you faced during its development?

The production process for El Paso, Elsewhere was cyclical, which was both its strength and its Achilles Heel. It’s a full on Max Payne spiritual successor, which involves optional narrative content, extensive soundtrack, animated cutscenes, a complex character controller… The works. So, every time something got done in the game, it would raise the bar for what we had achieved, and impact everything else. The script would impact the soundtrack, which would impact the levels, which would impact the script, which would… You see what I’m getting at here. Near the end of the development cycle, the domino effect chain was really hard, and meant there was far more crunch at the studio than I am comfortable with.

El Paso, Elsewhere
El Paso, Elsewhere

That said, we’re really glad that we survived shipping the game, and that it seems to have spoken to so many people. We learned a lot from making it, and I think part of the reason El Paso, Elsewhere works so well is that you can see the DNA of all our previous work in it. I think having a strong, consistent creative voice in all our games that also shows our evolution as human beings is a really powerful thing.

What do you think of the video game industry at the moment? I’m thinking in particular of certain games released in 2024 that emphasize their pharaonic lifespan. Is this a healthy model to pursue in 2024?

Giant games that exist for a long time obviously deserve their place in the video game ecosystem, and I’m glad they exist. However, they can’t and shouldn’t be the only option available. The keyword is ecosystem. If everything in your ecosystem is of a single type, the ecosystem is at best extremely vulnerable, and at worst dies. 

So, at the exact moment that we have more players than ever, interested in more things than ever, the investment sectors of the industry at large voicing their desire to focus on only taking the biggest swings possible, and discarding every game and studio that doesn’t fit that strategy, is something that concerns me. It suggests a future where players are given less choices, for less games that all try to occupy the same space in their lives. And that self-cannibalization of the market and the audience isn’t just a pessimistic projection – we already see it happening now.

Where Strange Scaffold is concerned, we intend to continue making games at a variety of price points, playtimes, and creative visions to reach players new and old. I just wish more of my colleagues had the opportunity to do the same. 

El Paso, Elsewhere tackles profound themes such as abuse and the toxicity of relationships. In addition to playing the role of James, you also sing some of the songs on the game’s soundtrack. How did you manage to integrate such personal and complex themes into the game?

In my opinion, the only way you can handle such large and personal topics in a video game, and pull it off, is to have a team that understands and reflects and reinforces that nuanced in every part of the game. So as much as there’s a lot of me in this game, I’m extremely proud of my team: especially our level designers Robin Scarbrough, Kevin Ribeiro and Jim Brown, as well as our lead programmer and co-designer Romero Bonickhausen, our composer and SFX lead RJ Lake, and our producer Candace Hudert. Each person understood the vision perfectly and worked actively to support and reinforce nuanced treatment of these ideas in their own way – because otherwise, it doesn’t work.

A very unorthodox couple
A very unorthodox couple

As a director, I firmly believe that entertainment is not mutually exclusive from nuanced handling of complex themes and emotions. So on every project, I’m really thankful to have team members who back up that perspective and bring it to life. 

At times, it feels like a comic book adaptation, so much so that it’s like playing a new version of Hellblazer, just as rich as the one imagined by Gareth Ennis. The story and universe also reminded me of Hellboy, with a deeply human story set in a hellish environment. Are these sources of inspiration for the game, and to what extent are you influenced by comic books?

The original version of the El Paso, Elsewhere script was for a comic book, so that’s a good catch! The film version of Constantine was also a source of inspiration, especially with scenes like the one in the hospital with the cross-shaped shotgun. The only reason we don’t have a cross-shaped shotgun in our game was to avoid legal issues. 

That said, the world of comic books has made a deep impression on me ever since I started exploring it as a teenager. I once looked down on graphic novels as not being “real books”, but then found things like Hellboy and Harrow County, that opened my brain as to how you could tell a story in any medium. El Paso, Elsewhere is absolutely a product of that discovery, and continuing love.

As far as the two characters, James and Draculae, are concerned, we seem to be following James’ thoughts through the music and traveling through Draculae’s mind in the level design. How did you come up with this idea and find the right balance?

So, the music is a separate but complementary horror anthology. You aren’t hearing James’ thoughts and he isn’t canonically rapping. That said, we ended up with this music overlaying a motel in every way impacted by Draculae’s memories because… It was the only thing that worked. We weren’t supposed to make a full rap album alongside the development of the game—that’s madness! But continuing to search for the right sound of the game, this is what worked.

As you can tell by talking to me, I’m a firm believer in setting a flag and planning what game you’re going to make ahead of time. This is one of those occasions that shows we also have the flexibility at Strange Scaffold, in precise areas, to search for the thing that makes the game the best version of itself until we find it.

What inspired you to create a game centered on vampire hunting, and how did you choose to tackle this theme in a unique way in El Paso?

Vampires are just cool, you know? That’s the least complicated part of the game. While I respect and appreciate other monsters like werewolves, there’s something about my creative tastes specifically that’s drawn me to vampires instead. There’s an intrinsic sensuality and tragedy that’s very compelling to me. 

I don’t know if we are particularly approaching the vampire in a fundamentally different way, but by the end of the game, I hope you can understand why Draculae wants what she wants and why it’s so important to her. You understand why she pushed James away in the first place, and how that helped shape their relationship. And, if we’ve done our job right, you also understand why she refuses to get better… which is a fundamental piece of a recovery narrative.

It’s hard to recover from addiction. It’s even harder, if not impossible, if you never make the choice to meaningfully create a different story for yourself.

How do you measure the success of one of your games? By sales figures, number of reviews, emotional impact…

For our studio, success is measured by how well a game meets its artistic intent. Our goal is to ensure that every game we launch, regardless of its individual commercial success, fully realizes its premise, respects the player’s time and achieves its own creative goals. So I’m grateful to say that every game we’ve delivered has been a success at this stage, because we’re not looking to sell just one game, but five. We want players to appreciate the creative perspective of our games so much that they’re drawn even to genres they wouldn’t otherwise consider. For example, many people who had no interest in poker played Sunshine Shuffle. Similarly, players who don’t like horror games dived into El Paso Nightmare and El Paso, Elsewhere to see what Strange Scaffold and I would do with these genres.

El Paso Nightmare
El Paso Nightmare

I hope to see that continue to cross over to new games, and am excited to see it already paying off for games we’ve released that were initially less popular.

This week you announced a new partnership with Frosty Pop and 4 new titles. Can you tell me more about that? 

I’ve been in the games industry for 14 years. I’ve spent eight years developing games, 5 years running a studoo, and have worked on over 90 video games to date. In all those years, I couldn’t find anyone who shared my values and worked in the same way as me until I met Faisal Sethi, the founder of Frosty Pop.

We share a common perspective focused on making games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than the industry assumes is possible. We were both inspired by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse model, which aims to create projects that at minimum break even and at their peak change an industry. For over 10 years, we’d been looking for someone with the same ideas and methods, and when we finally found each other… It made sense to cement a long-term relationship that mirrored our perspectives. I’m incredibly grateful.

Finally, can you give us an overview of your current and future projects, such as Life Eater, and share with us what you hope to achieve in the coming years as an independent video game creator?

Our next game release is Life Eater. It’s a horror fantasy kidnapping sim about a druid in modern day suburbia, who has to kidnap and sacrifice people every year to delay the end of the world on the behalf of a god who he isn’t sure exists. It’s due for release on April 16, and you can put it on your Steam wishlist. The story is complex, touching on themes of being held hostage by the god you serve, as well as the building of a complicated friendship between you and your only long-term captive. Jarret Griffis plays the protagonist brilliantly, and the music is composed by David Mason, also known for his work on Dredge.

Next up, we have I Am Your Beast, a covert revenge thriller FPS also due for release this year. It follows a secret agent who turns down one last job too many and must confront the military-industrial complex throughout the North American wilderness as they hunt him down. It’s fast-paced, with gameplay between Hotline Miami and a first-person John Wick. We call it a “black Jason Bourne story”.

As far as the future goes… I just want to make great games, in a sustainable and intentional way, for as long as God has me in the video game industry. We’ll see how long that ends up being!

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