Gamers on a Train
Video game developers seek inspiration and adventure on a California-bound Amtrak train out of Chicago, IL
It’s late winter, and eight video game developers are tightly huddled in an observation car booth aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr, the Rocky Mountains whizzing past, afternoon light pouring in through the double-decker windows. The group hammers away on laptops and tablets, pausing occasionally to scrawl on a notepad. Despite meeting less than 48 hours earlier at Chicago Union Station, they’re collaborating like they’ve been working together for years on creating the world of Metro Mori, a meditative video game in which players explore their memories in the afterlife via supernatural subway.
“Maybe we can use non-English words for some of the stations,” one of the developers suggests from under her wide-brimmed hat. “Translate the different themes into a bunch of languages we’re all familiar with?” Murmurs of agreement follow, and signs in Arabic, Swedish, and Spanish begin populating the imaginary subway map.
This is the fourth annual Train Jam—a video game development marathon held over the course of the Zephyr’s two-day journey from Chicago to Emeryville, California—and the 300 developers onboard have to finish their games before the train reaches the coast. After disembarking in Emeryville, they’ll head to San Francisco to show off their work at the 2017 Game Developers Conference, the biggest developer gathering in the world, with some 26,000 people attending.
Thirty-year-old game developer Adriel Wallick started the jam three years ago after quitting her job as a weather satellite engineer and taking an Amtrak journey from Boston to Seattle. “It was mostly the scenery and the feeling of calm nostalgia and adventure that comes out of being on a train that really inspired it all,” she recalls. “And through talking to other developers about it, I just kept naturally progressing toward feeling like it’d make the perfect game jam.”
For the uninitiated, “game jams” are the gaming world’s answer to hackathons: Groups of developers get together to create new games under intense time constraints and often following a quirky theme. (This year’s Train Jam theme: “Unexpected Anticipation,” which in addition to Metro Mori yields a space alien house party game and an Old West quick-draw shootout.) Although there is no typical game jam—some take place online, others are sponsored by tech giants like Facebook—few offer the opportunity to create while passing through 2,500 miles of American landscape. For many Train Jam attendees, the event is their first opportunity to see the American West. On this jam, all six inhabited continents are represented, helped aboard by generous grants from Intel and Amazon.
“Seeing someone from South Africa work with someone from Canada on a game is the coolest thing to me,” says Wallick, describing the event’s “whirlwind of different knowledge bases.”
This is the first year the jam has an entire train to itself, thanks to Amtrak’s interest in the tech-savvy wildness of it all. At night, the observation cars are teeming with glowing screens large and small—portals into the imaginations of the developers onboard. Knots of wires and circuit boards blanket tables, hot soldering irons sit perilously next to uncovered cups of coffee in blue Amtrak cups as participants construct their own machines to go along with their games.
“In every section of a carriage is a new homeland, a different language spoken, a different point of view,” says Metro Mori codeveloper Gemma Thompson, of the Jam’s appeal. “It’s an intoxicating blend of adventure, discovery, and craft.”