I’m going to start all this off by saying that I don’t expect you to believe me. I’m not even sure you’ll understand it all but I’m not one for keeping things bottled up inside me and if I don’t tell someone I’m going to lose my mind… so, here it goes;
My name is Lester Dunn and I think I may have broken the universe.
I’ve had 18 somewhat okay years to grow into my role as he-who-breaks-the-universe and since I’ve opened this can of worms I might as well give you the whole nine as to how I ended up here. I’d love to say it all started with the code but it started long before that with a little game called Minecraft.
For the uninitiated; Minecraft is, on the surface, a mining simulator. Beneath that it’s a farming game, under that it’s like online Lego and below all that sits a complex engine that allows you to not only punch a tree to collect wood but use red-stone powder and a zillion torches to create a fully functional calculator. It’s what started my love for all of this and frankly, what I’m going to blame all of this on, because blaming Minecraft for my inability to socialize is easier than trying to be introspective.
Alright, in reality I doubt I’m alone in saying that I was a socially awkward, pimple-faced 12 year old nerd who enjoyed too much diet coke and probably needed to keep an eye on my hygiene situation a little better. I was far from an original and if you put me in a line with other pre-teen boys in the era of Minecraft, I doubt you’d be able to tell the difference. Within that however; within this shell of a chubby, quiet, goofy body was most definitely the brain of a creator. Whether or not the creations were any good, only time would tell (the jury’s still out actually) but Minecraft gave me a blank canvas, all the colours possible and said, “Paint it, kid.”
At first I got really big into creative mode, using colourful blocks of wood, stone & dirt to create houses; forest, castles, underground systems and so much more. It was like I could feel the itch in my brain being scratched and it felt wonderful. I’d spend hours up in my room only to run down before dinner and drag my mom upstairs to show her the latest underwater fortress I’d built or my take on Hogwarts. My mother was a saint for pretending to care about the numerous and similarly designed buildings I’d floating in front of for her on my computer screen. In fact both of my parents, Letitia and George, were patient with me (especially in those early years) and let me really fly my creative flag.
These were fun, creative ways to scratch the creative itch I had but the real trouble started when I realized just how much you can do in the game. Suddenly the idea of making something visually pleasing but functionally useless wasn’t enough; I needed to build things that ran and used pistons and plungers to work and move. My days of running downstairs to show mom and dad stopped and the little sunshine I did get had all but vanished by the time I completed my first working computer within the game. The world became open in a way that first day I created the rudimentary computer, open and yet… smaller in a way.
Smaller because while the things you could do within the world were infinite you were still playing by those rules. That no matter how much you wanted to create; you were still using the same blocks, the same rules and the same canvas as everyone else. The more I thought about it the more I realized that what I really wanted, what I really craved, what really excited the voice in the back of my brain wasn’t the prospect of painting on a canvas but painting on whatever surface I wanted. I wanted to create my own world, my own video game, with my own rules and my own blocks. A world defined by me, created by me and governed by me. I wanted all of this and I wanted it to feel really and truly free.
This, this first idea is what I would later and forevermore refer to as what we call “my first, big mistake.”
Everything needs a name and so my project was called, “Dunn.”
I wanted something that felt perennial, something concrete and everlasting. It felt weird at first, the sound of my own last name as the title of my video game felt clumsy on my tongue but eventually it became second nature. I had a little turquoise Duo-Tang of all my ideas; the story, the characters, the visuals, the style. I wanted Dunn to be fantasy, it was easy to connect in my mind, to make the leap to a fantasy world and avoid this one. I leaned on video games in the first place because the real world was not exactly going splendidly well.
If my previous thoughts didn’t paint the picture clear enough I’m not exactly the most popular person. In fact, unlike the protagonist in your favourite novel or movie, I don’t actually have a best friend. No friends at all really (well, no one in “real” life, I do have Kappa but I’m getting ahead of myself.) In the life of Lester Dunn there are acquaintances, family and bullies… and oh, more bullies. I say bullies twice because I don’t think once really gives you the right impression. In my mind there are two types. There are TV bullies; these are the ones that take your lunch money and trip you while the teacher isn’t looking and there are… well, real bullies. Don’t get me wrong TV bullies exist but they’ve gone the way of the dodo a little bit and exist primarily within reruns of Happy Days and throwback shows like Stranger Things.
The real life bullies, the ones that truly cut you, they don’t send you home with a scuffed knee or a fat lip, no they put you in situations where you embarrass yourself. They’re the kind of people that can say just the right thing so that someone listening thinks they’re being kind, thinks they’re helping you when in reality they’re setting you up for failure. Mrs. Willard, my Science teacher, has a quote on her storage closet that says “Irish Diplomacy is the ability to tell a man to go to hell so that he looks forward to the trip.” Well if that’s the case, bullies – real life bullies – have the ability to hurt you in a way that makes your wound seem self-made.
Unless you’re unfortunate enough to experience this first hand I understand where you may be confused so I’ll give you an example. For an independent study unit, a report that must be presented in front of the class, students are given free reign of what to choose. A TV bully would probably wait until the day of the presentations and hoot, holler and mock the intended target during their speech. TV Bullies try to throw the target off, make a scene and when that fails, who knows, meet you out by the bike rack at 3:00 probably. They do their damage and they’re done. A “real life” bully however wouldn’t tease you while you read; instead they’d do something different, like plant the idea in your head to do your assignment on something silly like your love for Minecraft. They’d convince you that it wouldn’t be lame at all, convince you that the idea is original and clever and strong… they’d trick you.
Then, come the day of the presentation, when you’re all excited to present your favourite game; when your doubts about whether or not this is “cool” enough have been sufficiently squashed by this bully in disguise, you’d stand before the class and struggle through each and every word as you watch the faces of your class cringe and distort at every word. You’d become so self-aware of the joke they see you as that you would lose all control of your mouth and brain and stand there looking like an utter moron.
Real bullies don’t cut you, they make you cut yourself. They don’t have names like “Buzz,” or “Dwayne,” or “Spike,” they have names like Principal Miller.
Look, all of this is to say that the real world couldn’t hold a candle to the aspirations I had for Dunn and thus, the real world wouldn’t suffice. Fantasy was, and is, the world through a looking glass. It is the heads to our world’s tails – two sides of the same coin but a universe apart because it was most unlike this one. For all of these reasons and two more, Dunn would be a fantasy game.
The first - additional - reason was my younger brother.
Marcus Paul Dunn was born on a snowy day in April. I know this because my mother tells the same story on every single one of his birthdays. She tells about the warm morning and frigid night, about the broken ice machine and about the 36 hour labor of love that is my brother Marcus. Marcus is almost a bigger nerd than me and that’s saying a lot. Where I enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies and the occasional binge of Harry Potter, my brother has read all the books, seen all the movies at least 10 times and knows all the ins and outs of the histories. He can recite pretty much any line from any of the movies and despite the perceptions of his autism has probably a better sense of humour than I do.
I remember one time we were around the dinner table clawing at the pizza box like Hungry Hungry Hippos when my brother swatted me away from the piece he was going for. I frowned but could barely react before a bellowing voice from within him spurting out Gandalf’s, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” The frown faded from my face as quickly as it had appeared and within seconds my laughter was joined by both my mom and dad who were each doubled over in a fit of howling. For this and many other reasons it would be an understatement to say that I love my brother. For all his quirks he’s really not much different than me and I’d be lying if I said that he’s not a big reason Dunn is a fantasy world.
The second? Oh yes, I did say there were two reasons didn’t I. Well as I said, no reason to keep any of this in anymore; the second reason was Jessica.
Booooooo! Ya okay, look, it’s a girl. Want me to pretend I didn’t have a crush? Fine, I can do that – but it’d be a lie. I’ve made enough mistakes so far throughout this endeavor it doesn’t serve any purpose to continue lying so deal with it. For good or bad, whether it fits into your vision or not the second reason I set Dunn in a fantasy world was because of Jessica.
Take the perfect girl next door; add one part self-deprecating humour, two parts absolute beauty, a dash of healthy skepticism, a passion for all things nerdy and slap on a brain the size of Mount Rushmore and tada! You have one Jessica Taylor. I mean, this girl did her ISU on Tolkien’s depiction of Orcs and the social commentary they were on racism in the United Kingdom, talk about a heartthrob. Beyond that she was brilliant and I mean literally brilliant. When Mrs. Willard would step out of class she’d just hand the lesson plan to Jessica and she’d take up the reigns and continue on talking about whatever.
Yes, she was also a massive fan of Fantasy. If the Tolkien ISU wasn’t clear enough she was often found running D&D games after school in the cafeteria or reading a copy of the Wheel of Time next to the sycamore tree by the bike locks. She was the kind of girl that just knocked a guy flat and I can’t count the number of times in the early days of plotting out Dunn I wished I walked up to her and shared my thoughts.
There was only one problem - surprise, surprise - she didn’t know who I was. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, she knew my name – Lester Dunn aka the black kid with pimples and glasses who sits in the back and draws in that turquoise Duo-Tang all day. Beyond that she had no idea what I liked, where my passions were or what actually populated that turquoise duo-tang of mine. I wanted to share it with her; I wanted her to give me the chance to bounce ideas off of her. What I really wanted was to date her (full transparency here) and have her love me back just the same.
Now, I know I’m jumping the order of things here but all of this; my admiration for Jessica, my desire to have her talk to me, give me attention, love me…. this was maybe mistake number 4 or 5 but undoubtedly the biggest.
It’s all well and good to have an idea for a video game but have you ever actually tried creating one? Do you know how difficult coding is, how tough it is to make something from nothing? And I had to start at nothing, after all – that was the point. If I stole from something else or if I took from another source then I wasn’t really creating it, was I? It was still going to have the limitations, still stuck within the boundaries, within the confines of someone else’s limitations.
So I needed to learn how to code and man, what a daunting task that was.
After many Google searches, far too many Wikipedia pages and a slew of poor online tutorials I was no further to learning how to code than I was to mastering my fear of Koala bears (it’s the beady little eyes) but I did land on a thread that I could pull at. Turns out that some of the greatest painters learned how to draw by copying pictures their predecessors did; dissecting images drawn by the great masters and trying to retrace them. Even composers worked in a similar way recreating movements that inspired them so they could learn as well.
So why not start the same?
The first game I tried to delve into was one of my all-time favourite games called “Half-Life.” It’s a game by Valve that follows a scientist turned bad-ass who, after a particularly difficult time with a teleportation beam, jacks up a bunch of aliens with a crowbar. I really didn’t learn much from that first delve into coding (admittedly I may have gotten sidetracked into playing Half Life) but I did spend a lot of time looking at the code broken down. C++ was no longer my grade score but a language that I was starting to learn and slowly but surely I began to extract pieces from the games engine and recreate them on my own.
Honestly, all of this is going to be confusing to you and it doesn’t really matter the detailed ins and outs, suffice it to say that I only got so far before hitting a wall. Despite my eagerness to learn, my limitations; both mental and physical, were a roadblock; enter Mr. Derrigar.
Mr. Derrigar was a librarian in my town whom I had come into contact with once or twice. He was always quick to recommend some flashy science fiction novel to a visitor or chat about HP Lovecraft but more than that he was the only adult I was aware of that loved gaming and knew about coding. Unfortunately it wasn’t me he shared this information with (again, this is what no friends means) but I’d overheard him enough times that I felt confident he was the person who could help me.
It took literally everything I had to walk up to Mr. Derrigar’s help desk. My palms were sweaty and other than mom’s spaghetti in my stomach, I had all the remaining Eminem ailments. I remember saying something pretty stupid like,
“H-hey Mr. Derrigar? My name is Lester and I know you like computers.”
He must have thought I was off my rocker as my grandmother would say. I remember the slow way his brought his eyes up from the book he was reading to meet my gaze. The confused and calm way that he spoke without really understanding the words that came from his mouth,
“I do like computers. Do you like computers too?” he said with an arched eyebrow. Looking back I’m not sure if he was being funny and matching my bizarre confused tone or taken aback by the way I approached him but for better or worse we began talking.
I couldn’t say that Mr. Derrigar, Drew as I would eventually be encouraged to call him, was a friend exactly. He knew that I was asking him for help but I think as the weeks rolled by he became invested in me, like a project. I was hesitant to tell him about Dunn, not because of any doubt that he would enjoy the concept but because I was worried I’d fall into the long line of creative types who carry around a notebook and never do anything with it. No, I wanted Dunn to have meat on the bone before spurting on about it. Regardless, Mr. Derrigar offered experience and tutelage but the library was where the real creamy center was; the library had computers. Good ones too.
It was obviously Mr. Derrigar who recommended the gaming computers in the study lounge, his knowledge and experience was undeniable and the amount of hardware in the library was impressive. When it wasn’t being hogged by StarCraft League Player wannabe’s, Mr. Derrigar and I were spending hours and hours on coding, tutorials and detailed code running – this is what we called scanning games for lines of code and recreating them. In all honestly, looking back on it now, these were my favourite days. The days where Dunn was an idea and not a reality, pun intended.
For my 14th birthday I asked for money and only money. The library was a haven but I had outgrown the teachings Drew offered (in the best way possible) and I was ready to start creating Dunn from the ground up and that meant I needed a system at home capable of more than Minecraft on Medium settings. It meant I needed hardware and high quality hardware at that. It meant I needed cash-ola as my dad would say.
Luckily, my family came through. There was no doubt that my hobby had spun into passion had spun into work. To my parents, despite the negative sound of it, me focusing on something that kept my head down, my grades up and my interests occupied meant that they could spend more time with my brother. I know at times it bothered them, made them feel a bit like bad parents but it was best for everyone involved, especially me. Days after my birthday my parts were bought; my PSU, CPU, GPU, Motherboard, Case, RAM & software were all installed and when the little green light blinked on and the CPU fan whirred softly, Ramen was born.
Okay, okay, why did I name my computer Ramen? Well, I wanted “Ra” because he was the Egyptian god of life; some believed he was the creator of all things, he who wept from the stars above and created man. Feels fitting, no? If I was to create Dunn I thought it apt to inspire the idea of creation within my system was Ra… except Microsoft requires a minimum of 5 characters to name your PC and thus my Egyptian inspired PC became instant noodles.
Work on Dunn came quickly. I was surprised at how much I got done in those early days really, a lot of it would end up being re-written as I continued to work on it over the next two years but my focus was razor sharp. It had helped that I had been toting around the turquoise duo-tang for the better part of a year working on this, adding thoughts and ideas as they came up. Having a clear vision for what I wanted as the single best reason I covered so much ground those first six months and by the middle of that year I had the skeleton done. I can’t count the number of times I was daunted by the overwhelming amount of work that Dunn would take but as my mother always said, “You can eat an elephant, just take it one bite at a time.”
Bite by bite I ate that elephant. The skeleton eventually grew muscles, which evolved to skin, then to hair and eventually clothes. With every bite I took Dunn felt more and more real, more and more diverse, something completely true to what I had envisioned. It was a true and open world. I don’t mean this in the game sense, the actual game I was developing was a narrative driven story, with a fully fleshed out world of course. No, what I mean was my hand in it, my brain on the canvas; building a world not from Minecraft blocks but from code and colour palettes that I decided. It was amazing.
Marcus was my biggest source of inspiration for this. It took him awhile to understand how the wires and coloured dots and arrows would translate into the vivid and colourful description of Dunn I had painted him but eventually he understood. Maybe not in the way you and I do but, well, maybe trusted is a better word. He trusted that what I told him was true.
As the bones were built Marcus became something I never expected, a healthy, helpful and colourful addition to the world building I had been so proud of. For all the work I had done my universe did lack a certain pizazz in certain corners and this is where Marcus excelled. As I populated cities and streets, markets and mercenaries Marcus (who would be on my bed behind me, thumbing through his dog-eared, well-worn copy of The Legend of Drizzt) would look up and spout some creative flair I hadn’t thought of.
“That market has no flags, I like red flags.” He’d say without looking up from his book. Sometimes his suggestions were a bit too out there (I mean pineapples in a European climate, come on?) but more often than not they were good suggestions. Things I wouldn’t have thought about, things that made the world not just a backdrop, but alive. In those days, within my second year of creating Dunn there were many things I added on Marcus’s suggestion that I didn’t even remember. Marcus would have though…
When the bones were done, we tackled the NPC’s. I say we because at this point Marcus was with me most of the time while I was building at least until his bedtime. On the days I was breaking or needed to sort out a bug he was my play tester, Marcus had an all access pass to playing anytime he wanted (when I wasn’t working on it) and he exercised that right often. I began really enjoying his company and together it felt like we were finally connecting on something, creating something together. When he went to bed, I could feel the air in the room differently, when he was away or at his soccer practice or at his lessons, I felt… lonely.
Lonely was a feeling that wasn’t very common to me. Despite having no real friends I had long since suppressed the desire for interaction and acceptance so much so that I didn’t yearn for it. I didn’t miss it. You can’t miss something you didn’t have; however with Marcus – with Dunn – I started to miss it. It became much work over the summer when Mom and Dad let me know that Marcus would be spending the summer at Camp. What had begun as simply missing the company and the interaction on some nights of the week quickly turned to me feeling lonely and uninspired. This is when work on Dunn began to slow.
I really lost the will to create during the first few weeks of summer. I ended up using the computer more for gaming than building. Every time I opened up the program I would stare at the screen blankly and then just shut it down. Everyone was out there with their friends, hell, even Marcus was spending time this summer with other kids and I was here, alone.
So I created Kappa.
Kappa was, err… is an NPC; a colourful, intelligent Non-Player Character and a companion for the Player. I designed him to be the player’s best friend. Okay, in reality, yes I designed Kappa to be more my best friend than anyone else’s. He was created to fill the void that Marcus left when he went away to summer camp; you got me. But ultimately I wanted to breathe life into Dunn and Kappa became the vessel in which my Artificial Intelligence experimentations would exist within.
You can create pathing, schedules, routes and a myriad of other pre-determined actions for NPC’s in a video game. It’s not easy but it’s definitely the simplest route to populating your world. Dunn required more however, it deserved more and so I spent the end part of that first summer month back at the library, back with Mr. Derrigar to learn all that I could about AI and how it works. This time however it wasn’t Mr. Derrigar teaching, it was both of us learning.
By this time I was 16 and Mr. Derrigar and I had known each other for a few years. I had learned enough about him to feel comfortable sharing a computer screen or leaning over the same book together. To my surprise Mr. Derrigar was just as interested in learning how to build AI as I was, maybe even a little more. We spend weeks learning all there was to learn about AI and bouncing ideas off of each other. It didn’t take long before he, with that famously raised eyebrow of his, asked the question I had been expecting for the past few months.
“Alright.” He said with a coy smile, “What’s your game called.”
Honestly, I was impressed I had kept it quiet for this long and when I brought over the flash drive with the game files to the Library and copied them onto the computer he was almost as excited as me to see my game. At this point I had a lot of Dunn realized; the main town of Verham was pretty much completed and even a number of quests could be started but only one could be completed. The character creation screen was completed and as I walked him through character building he marveled at how impressive the game was. It felt wonderful honestly. Other than Marcus no one had seen the work I had done and it was really nice to hear a positive reaction to something I had worked so hard on.
After we created Mr. Derrigar’s character, a witchy looking sorcerer woman he named “Drewhilda”, we entered the game’s starting town. Drewhilda entered one of the two main taverns in Verham called The Bubble & Squeak, owned by an NPC named Gundor. Gundor was a friendly Orc with a wonderful gift for baking apple tarts and the ear to offer for any lowly traveler with a tale to tell.
Additionally he was dumb as a brick and as Drewhilda entered the tavern he failed to greet him, in fact none of the dialogue or interaction options that were supposed to come up triggered and he failed to make eye contact. All of the other in depth systems I had been working on still functioned; the hunger system, the crafting and cooking, even the hit box bug that I had been working through was fixed by the time Mr. Derrigar played but the AI was lacking in every possible way.
“This is beyond impressive Lester,” he said after we dumped three hours into it. We had stayed well past closing at the library and as he leaned back from the chair, he had a sort of bewildered look on his face.
“I’m just so… flabbergasted.” He said turning towards me, “I knew you were working on a project of course but I never imagined this level of depth of this much progress could be made in such a short amount of time.”
Hearing those words felt truly and wonderfully inspiring and as I closed down the game and removed my USB I was overcome with a renewed sense of creation. The game was great. It was unfinished, a number of quests to implement and complete, a huge number of bugs to works out but the game was where I wanted it to be. The AI wouldn’t have been a make or break problem for Dunn to be an amazing game. I could forgo the AI all together and just finish it as it was… looking back I wish to god I had done that.
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