We never forget the moments when we met the people that ended up changing our lives. Not truly. I met the woman who would become my wife on a warm September evening in Ottawa, Ontario, during her first year of university. Sitting next to each other on a bus headed into the city’s historic downtown core, we got to talking about movies. About our wild theories of just what Christopher Nolan meant with the ending of his recently released mind-bender Inception. More than anything, about the fact that we didn’t much care so long as we got to watch Michael Caine up on the silver screen. Five years later, the exact words of those conversations may be lost to me, but I’ll often find myself inexplicably overcome with the same swirl of emotions I felt as we rode past Parliament. We call it being full of air, she and I.
For Karen Teixeira, however, the moment she met Alec Holowka remains emblazoned into her brain, as close to the surface as when first it happened.
It all started with a cartoon cow.
It was November of 2013, and Karen was living and working in the UK as an artist at video game developer Bossa Studios, known today mostly for over-the-top concoctions like Surgeon Simulator – a sort of modern day digital version of Hasbro’s Operation with gruesome results – and I am Bread, in which you clumsily control a piece of bread in its quest to become toast. Rather than being assigned to any of the team’s flagship projects, though, she spent her time doing things like designing in-game menus and producing 2D artwork for lesser-known titles, all the while daydreaming of breaking out on her own to join the independent game scene.
“I…wanted to do my own thing, but I couldn’t find the energy or the time to do that,” she tells me over tea at the spacious apartment she and Alec now share in Richmond, British Columbia. “And there was this kind of thing where you [needed] to ask for permission when you [made] an indie game if you [were] working for a company, and that whole thing stressed me out and I felt stuck. So I couldn’t –” she pauses, shame flickering across her face for a moment. Much more than any restrictions on Bossa’s end, the biggest limiting factor was a personal one.
“I got too scared to try something else.”
Karen was, in a sense, paralyzed. She was doing a job many in the industry would kill for, and yet she was arrested daily by impostor syndrome — a cyclical trepidation that she may never get to create the kind of art that danced around inside her head, and that – worse still – what was knocking around up there wasn’t good enough anyway, so why bother?
Amidst the turmoil, she found herself reflected in a much-talked-about about game that was seeking fan support on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, named Night in the Woods. Set in the town of Possum Springs, the game was centered around walking, talking feline college dropout Mae, who returns to her old mining town to pal around with familiar friends only to find they might not have much need of her anymore. At its core, Night in the Woods was pitched as an exploration of “that point where you sense things are changing and it’s time to move on but you just don’t know how.”
By way of therapy, Karen began illustrating a piece of fan art for the game, inserting herself into Possum Springs in the form of an adorable bespectacled cow. Coming up through her degree in Visual Arts, she had taken to doodling little bovines in her spare time, adopting the internet handle “bitmOO” wherever she could. In her drawing, cow-Karen had wandered deep into the forest with a captivated Mae and pulled back a secret fold in the foliage to reveal the heavenly glow just beyond. Below the scene, real-life Karen changed one of the game’s misanthropic catch phrases.
“Not Everything Sucks Forever.”
For fun, and because she was even a little bit proud of it, she decided to send the piece to one of the game’s creators, who she happened to have added on Facebook via a mutual friend.
His name was Alec Holowka.
While Karen identified with that space between standing still and moving on, Alec was living there. Literally.
During the campaign for Night in the Woods, and for about a year prior, he had been part of a very bold experiment called IndieHouse. Along with fellow game developers Noel Berry, Matt Thorson, and Chevy Ray Johnston (as well as one non-industry roommate, Hannah Boyd), Alec had rebuked mid-twenties protocol of getting his own place in favor of what amounted to an artistic collective of close friends living together in Richmond. And while much has been written on the house’s electric atmosphere and the collective accomplishments of its inhabitants, the truth is that by the end of 2013, cracks were starting to show. On this point, Alec is disarmingly candid.
“I’d never lived with roommates before – I’d lived with my family, I’d lived with girlfriends, but never with roommates – and…when you’re in the indie game scene, you’re, like, super lonely. Because…you’re working on your own, and sometimes you’re collaborating with people who [are] in another country,” reflects Alec, whose breakout game was the underwater adventure title Aquaria, developed along with US-based designer Derek Yu. For him, it seems, IndieHouse originally held the promise of an escape from the deafening silence.
“You actually [got] to feel like you [belonged] to something. And that does a lot for your self-esteem, which for me is really helpful because I don’t happen to have a lot of it most of the time…[and] you feel more secure when it’s going well; you feel like you’re encouraged to be yourself even more than when you’re on your own.” He stops short for a moment, exchanging what can only be described as A Look with Karen. “It [didn’t] always work that way.” Here, however, instead of laying blame, Alec does something he would ultimately do a great deal while we spoke: he looks inward.
“I have bipolar disorder, and I’m on medication for it, and so [at the time] I was trying to manage it and I had a couple of times where I was not able to, and it really freaked my roommates out.” To hear him tell it, however, the group didn’t make things much easier. “[I began] noticing a lack of communication and honesty…[My] approach is like, ‘hey, I totally fucked this up, I can recognize that. I’m working on it, I’m going to therapy, I’m taking medication’…[and] somehow acknowledging that [was] not okay.” With Alec beginning to feel like the black sheep of the group, Karen’s art – and her sudden decision to reach out – felt like a life raft. Part confidence booster, part prophetic message.
“Not Everything Sucks Forever.”
The two started talking regularly through Facebook.
“About what?” I wonder aloud. “Admiration of each other’s work, to start?” I’m clumsily trying to see if their first encounters had been flirty ones. Karen laughs, brushing off the idea.
“No…he did not admire my work,” she says, staring playful daggers at Alec in only the way a partner can, filled in equal measure with admonition and adoration.
“I liked it!” he counters, averting her gaze shyly. Quieter, next. “I didn’t really say it though.” As it turns out, though, there wasn’t much else they didn’t say. “We were both being very honest, which was nice, and we just talked a lot, because we could just talk about anything and it wasn’t…” he lingers for a minute, almost experiencing a wave of relief all over again. “Sometimes you talk to people about stuff you’re going through and you can tell they’re just not willing to…they really don’t want to hear about it, you know? And it’s like, ‘okay, maybe I won’t push that.’ But, you know, we could just sort of talk about whatever.”
In the months that followed, they became each other’s foundation in many ways. Whenever Karen was at her breaking point with work, or Alec caught in an emotional tailspin, they looked to each other for solace. Continents apart, but always right there. Naturally, they began circling the idea of working on games together — searching for ways to turn tumult into beauty. By January of 2014, they had even started cobbling together something the two of them refer to only as The Tree House Game.
“The Tree House Game was going to be a bunch of…we wanted to create this little universe of stuff,” begins Alec. “The idea was, we [could] make a site, and…every month, put out another little thing. But they could all connect, they could all be part of the same world; we imagined this world where all these different artists live in a tree house. So it was kind of like a metaphor for an [ideal] IndieHouse.”
“All of our games are kind of autobiographical,” Karen says. They both laugh, catching each others’ eyes wistfully for just a second.
It was March of 2014, and at that year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, Alec spent an evening in a crowded room, screaming at no one in particular.
“Wednesday was [the Independent Game Festival] awards, and I was invited because I was helping out with Towerfall,” recounts Alec, who had composed the music for his housemate Matt’s game — a breakout hit in which players battle against one another as archers. “I saw an ex-girlfriend there and got really drunk, and started yelling, and didn’t excuse myself…I was angry that Towerfall didn’t win! And I…wasn’t yelling at anyone. I don’t remember. I just feel like I was yelling into the void, kind of. [And] so many cool people [were] winning, so it was dumb to get angry…[but] I have that weird thing of being so intensely close to people that I feel, like…I felt upset for Matt, but I’m sure Matt did not care that much. So I was really..taking this off into some place where I’m sure he would never want to go.” As he’s telling the story, he laughs like he’s talking about that time he knocked over the punch bowl at a fancy party, but as he finishes, a deep sadness inhabits his eyes.
“And then I apologized to Matt after, and he acted like it wasn’t a big deal, but in retrospect it was probably a big deal for him.”
Yet while certain ties frayed, others strengthened. After five months spent on opposite sides of a screen, that year’s GDC was the first time Alec and Karen met. Emoji traded from behind keyboards quickly became stolen smiles exchanged from behind menus. In place of affectionate chat messages there were whispered flirtations — a dance of tentative, tender gestures.
“We were falling asleep holding hands,” says Alec, glancing lovingly at Karen. “We were sleeping on an L shaped couch, and you were on one part and I was on the other part, and we’d hold hands across the L shape.” Very little was said, however, about what it all meant. And then, all too suddenly, they were continents apart again. Continents apart, but always right there.
“We never stopped talking,” Karen tells me of the time after San Francisco. “I was just like, holding on and waiting, but…”
“There’d be times where I’d run away,” finishes Alec, boiling the strain of long distances and stresses of mental illness down into five painful words. “I’d be like, ‘I can’t, I gotta’ go.’”
“You’d [just] keep changing your mind over things,” she offers gently, comforting him.
“Then I’d come back,” he says, perking up.
And in July of that year, that’s exactly what he did. For an entire month, he and Karen lived in the UK together, going to game festivals, traveling, and basking in one another’s presence. With Alec’s help, she dove headfirst into the programming side of video games — something she had always been keen on exploring during her childhood in Brazil, were it not for a total dearth of kid-friendly coding manuals in Portuguese. The two even participated in The Great Summer British Game Jam, where she and Alec created a small prototype game called dot., in which players could foster a little planet all their own by doing things like grabbing clouds and soaking up rainwater to grow trees. It was a meditation on Alec’s time in London — on the idea of maybe one day creating and growing a space all their own.
Empowered by Alec’s lessons, and by seeing him code dot., she continued self-teaching after he returned to Vancouver, starting a blog to chronicle her journey. As her skills sharpened and her knowledge expanded, so did her appetite for new and personal projects. The bubbling inside of her had started to rise to a boil, and what’s more, she was no longer scared by the thought of trying something else. That winter, she tendered her resignation with Bossa. Like a serendipitous affirmation of her decision, Develop Magazine recognized her talents shortly afterward as part of its prestigious “30 Under 30” list.
“I left [Bossa in] December,” she recalls. “It wasn’t very well planned, it was just like…I felt like, ‘Oh wow! I’m nearly 30, [and] I haven’t been doing these things I wanted to be doing…[and] I don’t think I can do this anymore.'” With no particular project in mind, and nothing anchoring her to the UK anymore, her compass quickly spun to its true north. In January of 2015 – more than two years after she sent a cartoon cow to a developer she admired – Karen moved to Vancouver to pursue her dream, and moved into IndieHouse in the process.
“I got into the IndieHouse in January…and I was like, blissfully happy,” she remembers. “I was happy as I had never been. I was like, ‘these people are cool, this place is cool, all is fine! I’m doing my own thing.’” At risk of being trite, it was a long-held dream come true.
Two months later, the dream would be over.
“[I’ll] wake up after a good night’s sleep, and…feel so good, and as [I’m] sitting waking up…[I’ll] have all these memories flood in of being confronted and being told, ‘you have to leave. No discussion allowed. Walk away.’ That’s burned into my brain, the exact words and the tone of everyone’s face and their facial expressions, I can recall that in great detail.” Somberly, Alec is telling me about the day in March of 2015 when he was evicted from IndieHouse.
On one hand, he thinks the decision was probably motivated by lingering tensions hanging in the air after a mental breakdown he had – coincidentally at this year’s GDC – during which housemates Matt and Noel saw him at his worst. In many ways, though, he knows the origins of that particular moment lie in a slow, sure, culmination of clashing personalities.
“If you ask them about that, they’d probably say I’m a big reason…[that] it’s a lot of my fault why [things fell] apart, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that,” he says matter-of-factly. “But it’s…really hard for me…based on how they went about [it].” For a group that felt to him like the closest thing he had to family, Alec says working through mounting tensions was not even on the table. “There were issues…and my perspective was, ‘let’s work through the issues,’ and their perspective was, “you need to get out in under two weeks.'”
For Karen, it was liking watching stained glass to turn to sand in her hands.
“It felt really sudden. I was like, ‘whoa, where did this come from!?’ And then suddenly that period of me being blissful [and] happy turned into, ‘I feel horrible, I feel depressed, I don’t know what’s going on.’ It was hard and sad and frustrating to lose that and not be able to fix it…[so] it was kind of my dream of being there crumbling down as well, just, like, ‘oh I had this nice thing for two months and it’s gone.’” Though the other members of the house told her she could stay if she wanted to, she couldn’t bear the thought of Alec being cast out on his own after all they had been through. She very much admired everyone there and didn’t see it as an issue of taking sides. It simply was – painfully and irreconcilably – what it was.
Putting any of their own work or freelancing on hold, they turned to Craigslist with the help of close friend and local artist Garret Randell, a neutral party amidst the fallout. Leveraging Alec’s war chest of funds from previous successful games, they managed to find a pricey listing with no interested renters in an upscale apartment building a stone’s throw away from the seaside town of Steveston. Far from upgrading, however, moving in felt like exile.
“You’d think, ‘oh this place is so nice and we’re in a nice area,’” says Alec. “But there [was] so much anxiety to do with the aftermath, emotionally, that it almost [didn’t] matter where you [were], because internally [was] such a tumultuous horrible feeling.”
“At the beginning…we were sleeping on some weird futon thing. And it felt empty,” adds Karen, referring to far more than the lack of furnishing. “It felt really empty…[and] it kind of amplified everything…I moved in here and just had these expectations of settling in and feeling like it belonged, and all that. And at the time I wasn’t sure – not that I know now – but at the time…I was…just like, ‘I don’t know where I’m going with this, I don’t know if I can make a career out of being an indie person, [and] I’m nearly broke.’ Alec was paying for the rent by himself, because I couldn’t afford enough to help, and I had these small freelances that required a lot of work and [gave] little pay. Just [that] feeling [of] like, ‘oh, what’s going to happen with me? Do I just…stay here? Are things going to work at all?’”
Struggling to process it all, she decided to do what she always did when she wanted to turn tumult into beauty.
She began to doodle.
“I started drawing…I just made this doodle of a boat and [a] bottle…and I [soon] was like, ‘I feel like making a game about being alone…[about] sailing, message bottles, and all that stuff.’” Rendering her early sketches as 3D models, Karen posted a few of them to Twitter, and almost immediately found herself showered with compliments. Showing them to Alec, she asked if he wanted to help her code a brand new project. Again, Karen’s art would prove to be a life raft — this time, for the both of them.
Beginning in April, they started building the skeleton of a game about sailing, about feeling adrift, and about near misses in the search for meaningful connection.
“I feel like at the beginning I was very keen on making something that feels very bittersweet,” reflects Karen. “Because I was [just] so sad about stuff..[so] you were alone, [you’d] never see people, but you would get messages from other players that are playing their own servers, and you’d feel like there’s someone there but you [couldn’t] reach that person. [You’d] never really connect. I wanted [there] not be other human beings in there. I wanted you to connect to nature, like, ‘nature doesn’t fail you! People fuck up, but animals are amazing.’” Soon after they started development, however, people went ahead and surprised them.
“We started hanging out with Garret because he was like a survival friend,” says Alec. “And we [actually] started…to feel a bit better.” IndieHouse and the pair’s investment in it meant that when things fell apart, it had become almost impossible see a way back to a sense of belonging. Already prone to anxiety, they worried that if things hadn’t worked out with the people closest to them, everyone else would surely feel the same way. Little by little, friends like Garrett showed them that wasn’t true. Little by little, life got sillier, lighter, more ebullient. And when it did, so too did their game.
“[We started] kind of building up to a magical playful thing. I kind of had this idea where the main character…starts getting more magical as she goes, [and] just like, unlocks abilities and starts talking to animals. Magical things happen more and more as you unlock abilities. And once [your boat gets] wings and can fly, there will be flying islands with magical stuff in [them], just building the whimsical…” Karen cuts herself off, she and Alec smiling at each other.
“It got more hopeful again.” It also got a name: Oceanheart.
Over the next few months, Karen and Alec started documenting the game’s development through a Tumblr blog on which they added screenshots, concept art, and a ton of six-second looping Vine videos of whimsical in-game moments. From their home office, they even broadcast tinkering sessions live on video streaming service Twitch.tv, involving viewers in the decision making process for new features. Instead of worrying that others might hate them and what they were making, they opened themselves up to the idea that connecting with others just might be what makes their game so special.
The result? The unfinished Oceanheart of today – filled with top hat-wearing whales that you can jump off of in your boat with wings – is a far cry from the loneliness simulator from which it began. Vestiges of a game about finding solace remain, like the way they plan on calculating health with a self-care meter you recharge by resting on a beach towel, but the entire tonal center is different. When it eventually releases to the public, Oceanheart will be a game not about searching in vain for things, but rather, about finding them — finding peace, and belonging, and joy. I can’t help but wonder if, in the process, Karen and Alec have found any of that themselves.
“Well I think the big thing that’s changed is that it’s kind of separated itself from a lot of [what happened],” says Alec. “Even though it was born in that sort of tumultuous time, it feels more like its own thing. It doesn’t need to be related to those people or those events. It’s more like a fun thing that we’re doing for ourselves, and for the people who are into it.”
“We made it ours,” echoes Karen. “And I think that’s like a recurring thing with all the ideas and prototypes and things we’ve worked on. There’s…this recurring theme of making a cozy home in all the things we do together. It keeps coming back and I feel [with] Oceanheart, that’s going to get done.”
As she’s talking, Alec reaches across the kitchen table where we’re all sitting and picks up a sailor’s hat resting at the center. Attached to the hat is a sticker of the game’s logo: a glowing, polygonal heart resting on an anchor. Playfully, in the middle of Karen’s sentence, he puts the hat on her head, tousling her hair in the process. She giggles as wisps of black hair flit across her face, and quickly takes the hat off, affixing it more firmly to Alec’s head.
“He wears it better than I do.”
He nods in joking agreement, and for a moment they both stop talking, lost in one another’s eyes. No, not lost.