Video Game Developers

Jeremy Zink

May 12, 2014

From a very young age, video game developer Jeremy Zink wanted to create games. Even before he began working on his first game, he conceived of an entire series of adventures, including character designs, storylines, gameplay features and more.

“Game design is very meaningful to me,” Zink muses. “It’s a powerful form of creative expression that combines all art forms into one interactive experience.”

His first game, Elements: Soul of Fire, was completed with the assistance of his father and features 21 playable characters and over 70 hours of gameplay.

zink1What was your childhood like, and what made you first want to create your own games?

First of all, I just want to say that being a creator is awesome, and the greatest thing ever. I’d rather have no other talent than the ability to create. As well, to me, Elements isn’t just a game; it’s a story about a world filled with characters who feel. A lot of video games don’t get the credit they deserve, in some cases even from those who create them. Some people consider them trite, while others treat them as art; I find myself siding with the latter.

True, it’s very important for games to be fun and enjoyable, but they can also be influential mediums through which we may express ideals such as hope, humanity, and love. That’s the way I see Elements; that’s what it really is, in my mind. A video game can be every bit as beautiful as the greatest work of art; every bit as engaging as the best book. Their music can stir your emotions like nothing else, sweeping you up and away, deep into the captivating stories. I truly believe that video games are the next major stage in the evolution of human expression. I hope that the bulk of society will come to accept this, and that developers will continue striving to achieve the full potential of this brilliant medium.

As for my background, I’ve always expressed myself creatively, mostly through drawing. When I was very young, some of my relatives would come over to stay for the weekend, and a big portion of our time was dedicated to video games, mostly on the NES. I was just so fascinated by all those worlds and characters, and drew my own renditions on art pads in the form of maps and dialogue. Friends would even “play” them! I enjoyed creating anything from action games like Mario and Mega Man (the latter complete with boss selection screens!) to adventure games like Zelda (the dungeons were the most fun to make) and, later, RPGs. As a young child, I was also crazy about Legos. So I’ve always enjoyed building things, building worlds, and acting out as the characters. Making Elements with RPG Maker XP was like a dream come true; I was building the maps just like I built with blocks when I was a kid, and unleashing my imagination — pouring out my very soul — in the written story.

I must have been around six years old when another relative gave me Secret of Mana for the SNES. I believe that was my first exposure to RPGs. Needless to say, I was completely captivated by the rich world and detailed story that no other kind of game can deliver; Secret of Mana was key in the advancement of my creative potential. Super Mario RPG was another early favorite, as was the original Final Fantasy (and later, II through VI). A little later in life, I found myself loving some of the Dragon Quest games (mainly III and V) and Seiken Densetsu 3 (the sequel to Secret of Mana, or Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan). There are so many others, but I could go on forever.

Of course, at some point, I discovered RPG Maker. You can bet I was thrilled to ACTUALLY be able to make games now! But I didn’t have what it takes to go through with a project like Elements back then. However, I was able to flesh out all the disconnected ideas I had in countless unfinished projects, developing and refining my talent as a game designer.

In May of 2006, I was intrigued by what someone said on a forum at GameFAQs — something about a summer project they were planning, a text adventure game developed with the Ruby programming language. Ruby (or its adapted form, RGSS) is the same language that RPG Maker XP used, so that got me to thinking… why not start a little summer project of my own? Eventually, however, that endeavor greatly expanded beyond the scope of a meager “summer project.”

What were your influences in writing the story of Elements: Soul of Fire?

There are so many. SO many. Most of them come from my personal interests, including philosophy, psychology, parapsychology, spirituality, and mysticism in general. Mythology, of course, was another big influence. For example, all of the Elemental Guardians are based on mythological creatures and gods. A lot of my personal convictions are integrated into the story of the game, such as my views on the true nature of humanity and the real meaning of life itself. Certain elements of various religious beliefs throughout the world also served as inspiration.

Above all, I value character development. Sometimes I see the main quest as just means to an end — a vehicle in which to place the characters and see how they react to stimuli. To get inside their heads and see what they’re made of… I often surprised myself and found myself forming deeper attachments to my characters as I created the game.

For instance, the character Leah suffered abuse in prison as a child, and displays emotional instability at times. The main character, Leonardo, who is her adoptive brother, supports her when she’s frail. Of course, Leah finds her own strength over the course of the game. I found myself feeling very bad for Leah as I wrote her story… and that’s when I knew I had something special. The mistreatment of children is an issue I take very seriously. There are other such personal and/or touchy themes in the story, and I love to explore them and add richness to the characters. Even if someone cannot personally relate to a specific character, it’s my hope that they can be educated about the issues that character is dealing with, and somehow be enriched by the overarching message of the story… which is basically that terrible things will inevitably happen, and only by uniting in love can we conquer our darkness and forge onward to tomorrow.

So many turn away from uncomfortable issues and situations; it’s my desire to wake them up. The horror of Leah’s plight is something countless children experience every day. This is the kind of world we really live in, and it won’t change until we own up to our responsibilities and do something about it. My mission is to give people something to think about. I look forward to exploring more such themes in the future.

I would be remiss if I didn’t credit the source of all creative energy in the universe as an inspiration, as well… God is my rock. This game would not have been completed without His mercy on my life. There’s a lot of symbolism, metaphors, and embedded meanings in Elements, but the shocking thing is, a lot of it I didn’t even intend on; I later realized these hidden meanings AFTER reading about the principles they represented. I can’t call that anything other than divine providence.

I discovered the most fantastic example of this divine providence when I casually took a map of the game’s world and placed each character in the place where you meet them. As I looked at it, I thought something seemed familiar. Then I traced lines through the formation of the characters, and it was the glyph for the astrological sign Pisces, on a slightly tilted axis. Add to this the fact that a very important in-game location is right in the center of the symbol. I absolutely did not plan this at all; I couldn’t believe my eyes. I regard it as a testimony of divine guidance, for which I am grateful beyond words.

Beyond all that, inspirations for the game (and the series as a whole) include life experience, my dreams, the beauty of nature, and so many other wonderful things.

Your game has a unique art style that is different than any other RPG. What inspired that style, and what challenges did you face in bringing it to life?

I guess it’s just my own style that developed over the years. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but I’m glad it’s seen as unique now, to help the game stand out.

As for challenges, the only thing I can think of is that RPG Maker XP allows you to show images of your party members in battle, and my style, with its super-thick outlines, made it hard to adapt within the screen resolution. That’s why the characters appear very stunted and “chibi-fied.” Actually, that idea may have come from playing Mega Man: Powered Up, which came out earlier in the year I began work on Elements; it uses a similar stunted/chibi aesthetic for its characters. But I employed that style in order to fit everything onscreen. It’s hilarious, because Leonardo’s hair can still obscure your view of the battlefield, and if a very small enemy situated near him is attacked, the damage popup sometimes can’t be seen. It’s not a particularly common or crippling issue by any means, but I think it’s kind of funny in an ironic way… actually, it might happen with Boaz as well, due to his very large hair.

As a side note, I’m actually doing something about this with the sequel. The lines won’t be so thick, and I don’t plan on sticking to the stunted/chibi look. I learned a lesson, let’s say that much. Though I must admit that I feel the current art style has a “charm” all its own. It may be deceptive because it’s kind of “cutesy,” while the story of the game is actually quite dark… but maybe this stark contrast gives the game even more unique flavor.

RPG Maker has a very active community of users. What role did other users play in helping you create and complete Elements: Soul of Fire?

As for the creation of the game… I handled all that myself (along with some default resources native to RPG Maker XP, such as sound effects, attack/magic animations and some of the panoramic vistas). I designed all the characters, drew the graphics for all the world locations and so on, wrote the story from my own heart, and balanced/tested all the technical stuff myself. Well, actually, a few others did help with playtesting, including two of my nephews, but no one from the RPG Maker community. I was actually isolated from just about everything else while I worked on the game for seven years… I didn’t even go on the Internet that much. I was a man on a mission!

As for the game’s release, I was totally lost. I found Amanda Fitch’s guide to commercially releasing one’s game on the RPG Maker Web forums, and felt very overwhelmed… I have a nephew who’s savvy in marketing, and he (along with a few others) was able to help me along. But the big help came from someone called Zeraf on RPG Maker Web. Showing interest in my game and asking when I was planning on releasing it, he referred me to a couple of people who might’ve been able to help (one of which was Touchfuzzy, who in turn referred me to Shaz), and that’s really what set the whole release process into motion. Prior to that, I was frozen and stuck, completely unsure of what to do. I really owe Shaz and Zeraf a lot.

I’m also very grateful for Amanda Fitch’s personal help with getting my game on Amaranthia. The same can be said for Indinera Falls of Aldorlea Games. Thank you all!

How did your father help with the creation of this game?

In addition to over 130 hours of playtesting, he provided the soundtrack with his guitar music, and also sang the credits theme. I contributed a bit to the soundtrack as well, with some sparse keyboard/synth stuff, but most of it is all his (and he added a bit of MIDI to a few of the songs himself). Actually, some of the tunes I hummed to him (most notably the main theme and its variations), and he then adapted them on his guitar. The amazing thing is that a lot of the songs are ones that he wrote many years ago, even back to the 1990s (or even earlier!). As a matter of fact, some of the actual recordings used in the game date back to 2003 or 2004.

I’m very thankful for his generosity in letting me use his music, as well as for his time, dedication, and support. Oh, and while I’m at it, my mother was very supportive as well. Sometimes I go through things… and she’s always there to talk some sense into me. She even played the game a little bit and helped me discover some very serious glitches!

Mom, Dad… I love you both so much, and I’m so grateful to God that I’m your son.

What is the best video game you’ve ever played, and what makes it so special to you?

It’s hard to say… Zelda: Ocarina of Time was my childhood favorite (I also have very fond memories of A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening), but Chrono Trigger is the only game that left me feeling empty inside after I finished it. It was just that good; I didn’t want it to end. My first chance to play it came in 2008, with the DS port (which included the anime cutscenes from the PSX version, so it was a very nice introduction). My father got it for me as a Christmas present; he’d always heard me talking about it, even though I hadn’t played it. Because long before I played it, I fell in love with the music… it’s truly masterful stuff. As for the game, it’s got one of the most fun battle systems I’ve experienced, and the story is very focused on the characters themselves; again, that’s what I value.

Some games don’t give the characters enough say in the story; at worst, they are merely the plot’s devices. My drive in Elements, above all else, was to create deep characters with affecting backstories and pronounced interpersonal relationships; for the story to be centered around the characters themselves, rather than the characters simply acting within the story. They say you should build your world first and then populate it with characters, but I’ve built my world around my characters. Not everyone agrees, but this is my way of doing things, and I’m passionate about it. I’m very happy with how it all turned out, too.

Aside from Ocarina and Chrono Trigger (which ironically both deal with time travel…), I really enjoyed the multiplayer options in Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3. There aren’t enough classic multiplayer RPGs… speaking of which, I have also played Final Fantasy VI with one of my nephews (the same one who playtested Elements) and had some great times.

In your opinion, is humanity inherently good or evil?

One thing I’ve learned in my life is that nothing is really either totally black, or totally white. Gray occupies far more area than either one.

So, humanity has the potential for both good and evil. In life, we are taught morals, such as to respect others and treat them with kindness. Even so, one’s environment, especially early on, will have a powerful effect on the kind of person they become. If they are not taught the value of life or to properly respect others, they may very well tend toward “evil” behavior, looking out for themselves alone, without regard for the well-being of others. Conversely, if they are taught common decency and to value the sanctity of life, they might lean more toward “good”.

In spite of this, there is one profoundly influential variable that can turn everything on its head: individuality. I saw a documentary on TV once where they examined the brains of certain convicted criminals (murderers and so on). If I recall correctly, they found that the area of the brain that deals with judgment and decision-making was actually smaller in those individuals, meaning they didn’t have the faculties for such mental processes that “normal” people have. Now… are people BORN that way, or is it conditioned over time? I can’t answer that.

Anyway, back to my initial point, which stands… it’s a gray area. Everyone has the potential for both good and evil. There are good and evil influences all around us in everyday life, and I believe we should be mindful of that. As well, one’s emotions may drive them to do something that others may see as extreme; for example, if they have somehow been wronged. Are such actions justifiable? That’s really anyone’s question to answer… it may also depend on the circumstances. But that might be an entirely different subject altogether.

If you could only eat one type of cheese (i.e., American, cheddar, Swiss, etc.) for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

Cheese, eh? I guess cheddar is pretty good. I don’t know that I’d commit to something like that, though!

What are you working on next?

The sequel! I really believe I have a deep and meaningful story to tell with this series, and as I said before, it’s my hope that people can be somehow enriched by it all. Just please remember that the first game took quite awhile to make, but I hope fans will be patient and look forward to the future with me!

I would also say to any aspiring game developer, or anyone aspiring to anything, for that matter… never forget your dreams. Never, no matter what. Not because of “established standards” or “limitations,” not because of criticism, not even because of illusory self-doubt. Resist the illusions. Press on, believing in the divine creative force that resides in us all and drives us to live and to chase our dreams. Being enlightened to our true nature as human beings, and by the power of our minds — our souls — we can surpass any limitations, and abolish any unjust standards or presuppositions.

My trade name, “Soul Catapult,” represents launching oneself into new territory; propelling their works to stellar heights. Breaking free of drudgery, and flying high. Bridging the gap between fantasy and reality, and surpassing walls of all kinds: social, cultural, even spiritual. The catapult is the body, the projectile is the soul, and the lands beyond are freedom. I stand for complete freedom of creative expression, and as well the joys of uninhibited individuality. If we break free of our misconceptions and false presuppositions, opening our minds to what we’re really capable of, and if we believe in our boundless potential as human beings, we can do anything. The whole of the universe shall be in our hands, and nothing will stand in the way of our dreams and their fulfillment.

Each and every one of us has the power to change the world. I hope that I can help people overcome the dim, mundane view of life and the world that society has propagated, tap into their God-given potential, and send their spirits soaring.

That is what I really want people to take from my games — my stories — and apply to their lives. That, in my opinion, is what makes life worth living.

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