Gamera vs Guiron

How I got into games: on delayed artistic expression

Just a warning, this post is long, and jumps wildly from tales of pre-industry Lisa to silly kaiju comics. Just roll with it.

A few things converged today, one was the discover of old art in my process of reorganizing my website. At nearly the same time, someone posted thus:

With this in the back of my mind I stumbled on some comics I’d drawn for fun during my internship with Insomniac about six years ago, and I had an insight. At the time I drew them, I was just getting them out of my system, for fun, because they were nagging at me like art does when it wants out. Looking back on it, though, I realize that what I was doing was expression inner struggle and growth during a MAJOR transition point in my life.

I often talk about how pre-Insomniac-internship Lisa and post-Insomniac-internship Lisa are two entirely different human beings. Going through that summer unlocked a key component that changed everything in my life: self-confidence.

It’s so strange to me that I’m only just now realizing what was happening with me drawing those comics, but sometimes I trust my subconscious to her own devices so completely that I don’t delve much. I know she’ll get the job done. Anyway, it interested me, so I’m going to go through them here. It’s a little embarrassing, and a little long, but maybe someone will find it interesting.

Pre-Internship Lisa

For some background, pre-internship Lisa was a very worrisome and did not have a lot of confidence. She’d spent 8 years since graduating high school exploring the world through college and beyond,  indulging in new knowledge all along the way, but had no sense of what she wanted to do with her life in spite of the fact that she had many skills and talents. Everything she tried did not work out. Even in grad school, as she felt herself inching towards *something* that would combine her various background skills together in a pleasing way, the path was unclear. Themed entertainment? Games, perhaps? But what…I didn’t see myself as a programmer or artist, maybe a producer? I didn’t know.

But other people knew. They knew all along, and they watched me and waited for me to figure it out.

Part of the mist…or maybe a lot of the mist…was due to my dismissal of game design as something I couldn’t even do, let alone be interested in doing. This is in spite of the fact that I had spent almost my entire life designing games without knowing that’s what I was doing. At the time, game design seemed this mystical magical thing that was beyond my ability. I didn’t really understand what it entailed, but I knew that all of my classmates who said confidently that they wanted to be designers had known their whole lives that that’s what they wanted to be, so I assumed that because I did not have such assurance that it wasn’t even on the table for me. And so I spent a whole semester designing games and loving it but fretting and worrying about the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

My first clue should have been apparent after my initial interaction with my now dear friend and mentor, Jason VandenBerghe.  He had visited our school to talk to us about various industry things, including what game designers did. At the time I was toying with the idea of being a producer, since it was kind of involved in all the disciplines and I liked organizing things. In his presentation he attributed the various game developer roles to Harry Potter houses, and got huge laughs when he revealed that Producers were Slytherin (and of course Designers were Gryffindor .)

I realized it was a joke, but something about it unsettled me, and afterwards during mingling time I went up to Jason and explained my situation, that I was thinking of being a producer, but didn’t want to be in Slytherin!  Apparently I looked very distressed, because Jason felt absolutely terrible about it, and he talked with me at length about my uncertainties and all the things that game designers did, since it’s what he knew the best. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was planting seeds all throughout my brain. He was the first person who made me understand what it was that game designers did, and the idea of getting to solve problems all day appealed to me. But I left a little crestfallen, knowing that I wasn’t a game designer, because apparently when you’re a designer you know it from the first moment you pick up a controller, and I hadn’t.

The next clue should have been when I was talking worriedly with then-professor, now-friend-and-mentor Jesse Schell before the end of my first semester, after the rigorous semester of Building Virtual Worlds, saying how I’d wanted to try out his Game Design class but that I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it, since I wasn’t a game designer.

He stared at me like I was a fool, but didn’t give anything away. I’d be fine, he assured me with a cryptic smile.

Even when I got off to a roaring start in Game Design class the next semester, devouring the problem sets of every assignment, and even when I was designing on Bandology in our semester project, I still decided to put “animation/programming” on my student business card. I ventured off to my first GDC full of uncertainty, with a resume catered to finding a production internship but with feelings of doubt over if that’s really what I wanted to do.

(An aside, and forgive me for jumping around the timeline a bit, but there was  a third clue that showed up. Every year the ETC takes its first-years on a trip up the West Coast, visiting various game studios, production houses, animation shops, effects studios, themed entertainment businesses, and the like.  At our first game studio, we talked to a producer who was so jaded and depressed that it cast serious doubts over my feelings about games as a possible career path. I was depressed for the whole bus ride between San Diego and Los Angeles. Then we visited Insomniac, and from the moment I walked through the door I felt like I could fit in there. Ted and the other people who talked to us cast my depression about the games industry aside)

The Turning Point

Anyway, back to GDC. There was a very specific moment that started the ball rolling on what would soon become my summer metamorphosis. I had been wandering the conference and seeing talks without much direction, looking for more insights to tell me whether or not to trust my misgivings over if producing was the right path for me. I was watching a talk by Lesley Mathieson on how roles were structured at her company. She was explaining in depth what their designers did, and it struck me, all of a sudden, out of the blue. I was so wiggly I almost dashed out of the talk early, but I contained myself.

As soon as it ended, I hunted down Jesse, saying I had a major insight to share with him. He was sitting in the hall working away preparing for some meeting or another, and I nearly faceplanted myself down next to him in my enthusiasm.

“A design internship,” I said, trying to catch my breath, “I shouldn’t be looking for an internship in production, I should be looking for one in design.”

He just smiled knowingly and I realized he’d known all along that I was a designer, but was letting me find out for myself. Part of me wanted to throw something at him.

But there was no time! I plopped down on the floor and started revising my student resume on the spot, rearranging things and re-prioritizing my roles to make it design-centric and changing how I’d presented things on my website. I then discovered that Jesse wasn’t the only one keeping my secret from me when one of my classmates stopped by to ask what I was doing.

When I explained that I’d figured out I should be looking for a design internship, he just blinked at me, dumbfounded.

“Well, yeah, Lisa,” he said, “of course! What else would you have been looking for?”

EVERYONE HAD BEEN IN ON IT BUT ME! Why didn’t anyone tell me I was a game designer?? But there was no time for despair! I rebranded myself a designer as quickly as I could and spent the rest of GDC going to design track talks.

It wasn’t much later in the month when I saw that Insomniac had a design internship for that summer and, remembering the good feels from my visit, I applied. I got a design test. Then I got a phone interview. Colin Munson’s questions weren’t scary or stressful, but were exciting to delve into, and it wasn’t long before the interview no longer felt like an interview so much as a conversation about design insights. He admitted two things to me on the spot:

  1. That he liked me, he liked my design sense, and if he could he’d hire me right there, but he had to finish all the other interviews first (I’m not sure that’s something that’s kosher to say in an interview, but Colin didn’t seem to abide by the usual standards)
  2. That this was going to be Insomniac’s first design internship and that he honestly had no idea what he was going to do with me, but that we’d figure it out.

The boulder of metamorphosis now began to pick up speed. It wasn’t long after that they called back to offer me the position. Some strange new feeling was starting to blossom inside of me – the first buds of confidence.

(Another aside: I always feel bad when students ask me how I got into the games industry, because the straightforward answer is very boring: I applied for an internship and then I got it. Hooray!)

This was going to be a test, I recall thinking as I scrambled to learn Lua before my internship began. If I did this thing – doing game design at a AAA studio on a game that was due to release that fall – and if it felt good, if it felt right, then I would know. I would know that I will have finally found the thing I’m supposed to do with my life. The summer began, and I could already feel my world changing.

The Art

Although it may seem strange, I’m not going to talk about the details of the internship in this post. I’ll save that for another time. Let’s just say that it went so well that I shed 8 layers of self doubt and realized I had been a badass ALL ALONG. But let’s get back to what this post was supposed to have been about in the first place, the comics, and the monsters.

During my internship I was changing on the inside, growing, and outgrowing a shell of doubt and worry and lack of confidence that had been part of who I was for so long. Things had to come out, and they chose a most unusual avenue.

It started off with a chat with Jesse, where I asked about the gchat icon he’d been using at the time – the kaiju Guiron from the Gamera series. He explained how he related and sympathized with the monster for his cluster headaches, and we had a conversation about how much we’d both loved Godzilla and the old monster movies. I had always loved them, but I’d been frustrated by them, for little-kid Lisa had always wanted the monsters to make friends in the end instead of fight all the time. I drew a little comic just for fun, which you can tell from the fact that I am no comic artist and have no sense of paneling whatsoever.

Gamera vs Guiron

After drawing that one, something popped inside of me and I had ideas for another, featuring my favorite kaiju, Titanosaurus. I felt terrible for Titanosaurus. He was a super chill, gentle creature that got mind-controlled into a mess. I had hoped that Godzilla would have been able to empathize with the guy after he got de-mind-controlled, but no, Godzilla just beat him up and threw him into the ocean. I imagined a scenario of reconciliation.

Titanosaurus visits Monster Island - Part 1

Anguirus was such a wily little guy, I thought the personality clash would be pretty funny. But 6 years later when I look back at this, I realize what was really going on.

Titanosaurus Visits Monster Island - Part 2

I wasn’t drawing a comic about my favorite Godzilla monsters, I was drawing a comic about myself.

Titanosaurus Visits Monster Island - Part 3

I was growing up. The desperately unconfident part of me was trying to reconcile itself with a bold, wild, adventurous part of me that had always been down there but only showed itself on occasion in a rather unrestricted way.

Titanosaurus Visits Monster Island - Part 4

The Anguirus part of me was the playful, hug-craving, wide-eyed energetic part that I would occasionally let run loose. The Titanosaurus part was the worried part of myself that was always holding me back from growing. There was even the logical part of myself (Mothra) and the adult part of myself (Godzilla) that seemed to be vaguely aware of the change that was taking place, but was letting it run its own course.

Titanosaurus Visits Monster Island - Part 5


These two parts of me had to both grow up, and they needed each other to be able to do it. They needed to reconcile their qualities together to take the strongest from each and cast away the weakest. This was happening to me that summer. I didn’t need to rid myself of either, just temper them together. And it was hard, it was growth, but it was still hard, and I wasn’t sure how they were going to resolve.

Titanosaurus Visits Monster Island - Part 6

And they did! The overly excitable, sensitive, emotional part of me and the overly worried, cautious, overly-humbling-to-the-point-of-self-deprecating part of me worked it out, and what emerged was a glorious source of power that surprised the rest of me.

Titanosaurus Visits Monster Island - Part 7

Delayed Expression

Self Confidence. It changes everything. EVERYTHING.

And it’s hard. When you gain self confidence you also lose something. You lose the memory of what it felt like to not have self confidence. And when you don’t have self confidence, all the explanations in the world aren’t going to make you understand how it changes things.

Looking back on this goofy little kaiju comic, though, and seeing what was really going on at the time, it helps me remember a bit. It helps me touch slightly what I was like before, so that maybe I can relate to people who are where I was before that summer of transformation. And it amazes me that I didn’t know what was happening. Subconscious Lisa knew, though. That’s why she had to get the drawings out.

More proof that subconscious Lisa is way smarter than me and is the one with all the good ideas and the one who does all the work.

Thank You

Now after all that introspection, a few thank-yous are in order.

Jesse Schell – thank you for being a mentor and friend to me, and always being there to help me delve through the more mystifying and magical parts of life and game design that everyone else would think I was crazy for talking about. I remember the first time I came to you with the despair of uncertainty about what to do with my life, and how surprised and impressed I was when you immediately launched into actionable ways to help overcome the problem, when so many others had waved it away with vagueries and unhelpful comments of “you’re so talented, you could do anything you wanted!” Thank you for believing in me!

Jason VandenBerghe – thank you for not only planting those first seeds in my brain, but for also being such a wonderful mentor. Knowing your maddening schedule, I feel honored and lucky to have been taken under your wing as one of your “children,” and hope to some day be able to help you as much as you have helped me. Thank you for being there for me in times of game design panic, and even though I have suspicions that you have secret prophecies about my future, I trust that they are good ones and know I can count on you for advice in times of strife.

Lesley Mathieson – you probably have no idea that I was in the audience for that GDC talk, but you were the catalyst. Without that moment, I could very well still be wandering in anguish of my purpose, but thanks to you the tipping point occurred and started my life rolling down its current path. Thank you! (I will tell Cort to pass this message along)

Colin Munson – thank you for taking a chance on me. You seemed to see something in me that I didn’t even see in myself, and shuffled me around the madness that was Resistance 2 production to make sure I saw and learned and absorbed all the goods and the bads and everything in between. Thank you for taking the leap of faith and giving me the Bayou level to implement. Little did we know that treating me just like any ordinary junior designer would build a stellar design intern legacy at Insomniac for students to get real, hands-on experience of what it’s like to be a designer in the games industry, because that’s what they are.

To every Insomniac who made me feel welcome when I was but a wee intern, from Joel mentoring me on combat design, to Drew and Josh making sure I always had someone to eat lunch with, to Ross shouting at me “don’t apologize for killing people” when I meekly said I was sorry for sniping him in a playtest, to everyone who rushed to my desk to check on me after my first earthquake, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You created an environment for me to flourish, and the perfect conditions for my transformation to take place.

And, of course, thank you to Elizabeth Sampat for igniting this introspection in the first place 🙂

There are so many more thanks to give, and I hope you all know who you are, but if you don’t, I shall have to do more of these in subsequent posts.