Diversity, Summer Showcases, And El Paso, Elsewhere: An Interview With Strange Scaffold’s Studio Head

“STAKES. GUNS. SLOW-MO,” reads the first line of El Paso, Elsewhere’s Steam description. The retro-inspired third-person shooter by Strange Scaffold, also behind recently released Sunshine Shuffle, burst through the doors with its artistic vision blazing.

A neo-noir trip through the supernatural, El Paso, Elsewhere will likely catch the eye of many Max Payne enthusiasts. But, no matter the similarities, the title’s developer made deliberate development choices to reflect the diversity of the game’s team and audience. Catching up with Strange Scaffold’s studio head, Xalavier Nelson, just after the Summer Game Fest Showcase — which earned backlash for its strikingly unvaried presenters — I asked his thoughts on the issue of the hour both in terms of his game and our industry as a whole. His answers were remarkably candid.

Xalavier Nelson: El Paso, Elsewhere is very surreal, because I know that there’s a degree to which we would be safer if we just did Max Payne again. Even if the guy was just white — we were told by some publishers very pretty early on that the safer route, that might make us signable with them, is if we considered changing the main character. But they didn’t put it in those specific terms. They were saying, “So the key art and the marketability of the project…” And I’m thinking, “Would you like a white guy character skin?”

It was never explicitly said out loud. But it’s one of those things where you pick up that one of the things that makes your game harder to sell is your guy doesn’t look like the other guy. And there’s one very large difference between our guy and the other guy. So knowing that there is a degree of safety we forewent, and the opportunity we have, not looking more like Max Payne — I have been somewhat dreading what it looks like to just put this in people’s hands without the ability for me to be there and contextualize what we did and how we did it.

So the reception — the wildly positive reception — I don’t trust it. [laughs] I don’t know how to feel about it. Because I was, and am, prepared for this game to be something true to itself. And in the process, make people who just want the same thing again, upset. There will be other people that satisfy that desire, I’m certain. But… all the design decisions we made [were] to improve on pieces of the Max Payne formula and take us one step further, or one step to the side and do something original.

To see people recognizing those things…it’s beautiful and scary. I hope it holds up to release and I hope people show up to support the game when it comes out. And I’m scared to believe that we might have just done a good thing and that people understand why and how it’s good.

Do you think that disconnect comes from the suits with the money that don’t understand the audience anymore? Or do you worry there are those players out there that will look at your game and go, “Oh, that’s not the white dude I was expecting.”

XN: We’re getting some interesting comments on Steam already saying, “I don’t like rap music from this generation,” or, “This music doesn’t sound very cinematic. I might play with my own soundtrack.” I don’t think it comes from a malicious place, but does come from a place of wanting the same thing you’ve played before, and either being upset or scared when it doesn’t conform to that ideal.

I’m looking forward to delivering those players, among others, something that is new and old at the same time. While recognizing that that approach is the one with the highest reward, but also the highest risk. We would have been safer making the main character white. We would have been safer directly mimicking the musical style and the voice acting of the original. It would have been fairly — I’m not gonna use the term easy because nothing in game development is easy — but it would have been, there were discussions of hiring one or more voice actors from the original trilogy. It was within our reach. But the question is whether we wanted to make Max Payne again, or make another version of what Max Payne could be.

I trust players to recognize a game that sees them and understands them, and is willing to trust them to love something new and bold and weird. Or to respect their reasons for not liking it. Because I get it. There are days that I’m tired and I want the thing that I have loved in the format that I’ve loved it in before. So I hold no judgment for the people who may or may not like our game. But I’m also excited to show people something that they have loved in a new form. Make it as if it was the first time that they’ve ever played something in this genre. I think they deserve that.

El Paso, Elsewhere is already getting a great reception and previews seem to be into it.

XN: I’ve worked on some games before where their previews were really positive and the reviews were less positive. So, for a lot of reasons, I am very appreciative of the excitement that people seem to have for the game, but also very measured in how I receive it. I’m not getting my hopes up. I’m just trying to do their faith justice.

Segueing into talking about the show in general, there’s been a lot of discussion about diversity — or lack thereof — at the Summer Game Fest Showcase. What does it mean that we’re not getting different voices on a major stage like this? Is it a good sign that people are talking about it as an issue?

XN: I really respect the shows that Geoff Keighley puts together every year. And I think the problem he is confronting is also systemic. His job is to put on the most watched show in games. He’s looking for industry leaders. He’s looking for industry legends. He’s looking for people that, when they appear on stage, will get an audience to tweet and shout and say, “This is an event worth talking about and the video games industry is a place that I’m excited to be excited about for another year.”

Look at the list of those people. Because of the systemic problems our industry has had up to this point… the legends and the leaders this medium have given [Keighley] have been a largely homogenous mass. So, if we want to address this problem, if we want diverse presenters at [these shows], we need to put diverse creators in a position to be the legends we’re excited to see on that stage.

And it’s a chicken and egg problem where very clearly the egg needs to come first. We need to give juniors the position to grow. We need to give seniors the position to lead. Until that happens, you’re either going to put diverse people in the firing line, or you’re going to have homogenous showcases.

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