Joe Pietruch is a gamer, developer, and an educator, and he’d like you to back his game that features a controversial element of our criminal justice system; chain gangs. Chain Gang Chase has you and up to 7 friends guiding your tethered cons through maze like levels to freedom. The Kickstarter video makes it look like a riot, but why would a guy make a co-op party game with such a potentially controversial subject matter? We recently had an opportunity to ask Joe some questions about just that, and a number of other subjects.
Cliqist : So, you’re making a game about being on a chain gang. I guess that wasn’t really a question. Let me try again. So, you’re making a game about being on a chain gang?
Joe Pietruch : I am, though I’d argue this game is as much about being on a chain gang as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a movie is about being on a chain gang. Yes, the title is “Chain Gang Chase” but it could just as easily have been “Running Away From Things While Tightly Coupled to Neighbors and Trying Not to Get Stuck.” The first one has a catchier ring to it, so that’s what we went with. The game is really about teamwork, survival, solving puzzles, and often being a troll to the rest of the folks playing along.
Cliqist : How do you broach the concept of a chain gang game to someone?
Joe Pietruch : You hit the nail on the head in your earlier article ( http://cliqist.com/2013/10/24/chain-gangs-theyre-fun-for-the-whole-family/ ) when you said “Joe Pietruch, […], appears to be in it to make a fun game, not provide lots of social commentary.” That said, while chain gangs had been phased out of US prisons in 1955, they came back in the 1990s (only to be largely phased out again). To my knowledge, an Arizona prison has the only present-day chain gang and even that one is voluntary.
I broach the concept of a chain gang by ignoring it. Normally, I point people at the video and let the game speak for itself. When asked, I say that the chain gang in the game is just a setting or device and used solely for the chained-together mechanic, and that I do not condone or advocate the use of mandatory chain gangs in the prison system. (And now I feel like I need to put a disclaimer to that effect in the game.)
Cliqist : The concept of two people per controller isn’t something you see every day. Do you think there’ll be challenges getting people to share cooties with their friends?
Joe Pietruch : There already have been. Some people enjoy their personal space more than others, and during longer play sessions sharing a controller can become uncomfortable. Generally, people giggle a little bit and then jump right in – most are enthusiastic about sharing, and think it’s a nifty gimmick. Other games have connected up to eight controllers simultaneously, so once we figure out how that’s done and make our controller mapping code a little smarter, sharing controllers won’t be required (unless you want to play as a 16-convict chain, or perhaps two chains of 8).
The biggest challenge comes in demonstrating that it can be done and how best to hold the controller. The video shows the crossed-wrist method. I’ve also seen players hold opposite wings of the controllers with the backs of their hands facing each other (instead of palms), not crossing wrists.
Joe Pietruch : I try to show up all of my students on a daily basis. I think it’s important for students to see work done by faculty as something to aspire towards and/or criticize. “I made a game and so can you, students!” or “Can you make yours better?” It’s one thing to talk the talk, it’s another to put it into practice.
I’m making the game because I backed OUYA back in the day, and wanted to produce something for the platform. I’m making the game because I had an idea, and wanted to get it out into the world. I’m making the game because I want the opportunity to build something cool with my students, beyond just throwing assignments at them all day. I’m making the game because people I’ve shown it to genuinely think it’s fun, and I like the idea of creating things that others enjoy.
Cliqist : Given that you’re an educator, and thus in a position of authority, I don’t trust what you have to say at face value; that’s how cool I want to be. What’s the secret message, or hidden lesson, in Chain Gang Chase?
Joe Pietruch : There really isn’t one, beyond the meaning attributed to it by players. Perhaps running from prison is futile? Perhaps cutting chains with a train almost always ends with someone dying? Perhaps running single-file is better than two-abreast while traversing narrow spaces? Different players will get different messages from different experiences in Chain Gang Chase. I just hope they have fun!
Cliqist : What’s the value in a formalized game education? Can’t someone just learn some coding, find an artist, and become the next Phil Fish without having to pay for tuition?
Joe Pietruch : Undeniably! The internet is an autodidacts’ dream. But … one does not simply learn some coding.
The value I see in formalized education (in games or elsewhere) is the abundance of resources made available to the student. In the classroom there is a live person whose job it is to teach the material, point students at useful resources, and answer questions as they arise. The expression is that a picture is worth a thousand words. I like to think that a teacher is worth a thousand books (ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration).
In taking classes, students gain access to hardware and software that would be expensive to amass and time-consuming to maintain. Students become part of a learning community of others who are learning the same material, and can collaborate and commiserate as necessary. Students are taught best practices, efficiency, and design. Students have access to a vast network of professionals who come to campus looking to hire.
Can one learn everything needed to make a game without paying tuition? Yes. Will it be easy? Not likely. In a lot of ways, a formalized education is taking the easy way. Any student who doesn’t recognize and take advantage of the available resources while at school is squandering that time and expense.
At the end of the day, it is the work produced that matters. All of us find our own way to get there.
Cliqist : You’re participating in the Free The Games Fund. Did all the controversy surrounding the original program give you pause?
Joe Pietruch : It did. I’m glad we waited to launch our project until after the rules changed. In spirit, Free The Games is a lovely idea. In practice, it needed some work. Lowering the minimum goal and shortening the exclusivity period (while also allowing day-one release on PC), as OUYA did, has made #FreeTheGames much more approachable. Truly, being almost halfway to our current goal (10K) feels a lot better than only being almost a tenth of the way to our original goal (50K) would have felt.
I hope that our participating in the program doesn’t discourage backers who disapprove of the fund because of the controversy. In our case, it’s being used as a way for me to hire more students with less out-of-pocket expense to backers.
Joe Pietruch : This being my first Kickstarter, it has been full of surprises. I’ve been surprised by the generosity of my backers – both those I know and those who are complete strangers. I’ve been surprised by how many different places around the world they come from. I’ve been surprised that just posting on Facebook “Someone please pledge at least $1 … it’s sitting at $1799 and making me anxious!” launched a $200 troll war of backers adjusting their totals to prevent other backers from making the campaign total at a big round number.
Cliqist : Any final comments or thoughts you’d like to share?
Joe Pietruch : I really hope this project succeeds. Not just because it’s mine and I’m biased, but because it’s a great opportunity for the students. If you’re willing to kick a few starts our way, every little bit helps. Even if you can’t back financially, just sharing the project with other people on your social network of choice helps immensely. I’m so thankful for the community support I’ve gotten, and the attention and exposure received through blogs. Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions feel free to send me a message.
Cliqist : Can you close us out with a Chain Gang Chase inspired Haiku?
Joe Pietruch : How did you know Haiku is my favorite form of poetry? Of course!
clink clank clunk clenk clonk
in the mystery of life
we are each one link
Thanks to Joe Pietruch for taking the time to answer our questions. Take a moment to check out the Chain Gang Chase campaign, which is running until Sunday, November 17th.