My Train Jam

“How was Train Jam?”

People have been asking me this all weekend, of course, and it’s been a little bit difficult to answer. I usually opt for “it was an adventure,” which seems to perplex people, especially after the stall. I answer that way thinking about my ETC fundamentals “adventure module” from back in grad school, and the perspective that an adventure doesn’t necessarily mean an entirely positive experience, and that there can be some danger involved in addition to fun and insight.

Well, I could try to answer briefly: It was wonderful and terrible.

When I told Adriel I wanted to write about my experience, she said “Yes. The good and the bad.” So, I suppose, let me explain from the beginning.

The trip started off well enough as I got to spend the night in Chicago with my friend D Flo, whom I hadn’t really seen in 9 years and whom I love dearly. There was relaxing and game-playing and catching up, and he surprised me with a gift bag of snacks that I used to enjoy back when we were in college together. It was a perfect gift, as I’d been contemplating stocking on snacks for the train anyway.

That night, though, I had non-stop anxiety dreams. Stupid anxiety dreams. What was I even anxious about? I was very grumpy and got no sleep. But I knew what I was anxious about: I was flared up. I mean, I’ve been in a long flare since the beginning of the year, which has been annoying, but I was in a heightened amount of pain and this made me anxious, and the lack of sleep of course made it worse. I was about to embark on a train ride across the country, GDC, then straight into PAX, and I was already flared up before anything even started. How could I possibly hope to keep up with people? All these game developers who are so energetic and indie katamari all over the damned city. I was going to get steamrolled.

My fears began to subside, though, once I got among the jammers for lunch, and began meeting twitter friends and the hugs started rolling in (Andrew and Rodrigo and Mint and Adriaan and all of you wonderfully huggable people I love you all!). It was a pleasant place and easy to push away the pain for the time. When the theme was announced and Rodrigo asked to team up, and I realized I’d finally get to make a game for my eye tracker, I was feeling pretty stoked!

I had oscillated from a low to a high, but then it dipped back down to a stressful moment. The groups got separated as one chunk was led off to check in their bags, but did not finish in time before the rest of the group was herded away to board the train. There was a bunch of people’s stuff left behind at the meeting place, and a group of us stragglers was worried to leave it and its owners behind, so we lingered. It was kind of an interesting moment to see the lingering group, and figure that the common bond among us was our concern for those left behind. I got in touch with Adriel, who asked me to stay with the stuff, and eventually part of the checked-luggage group came and got more of their stuff, and another Amtrak person came to herd folks to the platform.

It was getting uncomfortably close to the boarding time, but there was still unclaimed stuff in the pile. I shooed away the rest of the lingering group to go board, and remained to guard the unclaimed bags with Rami, because Adriel had asked me to. Anyone who has traveled with me know how anxious I get at not knowing the exact travel plan, and how I can’t truly relax until I’m at the gate. I do not do well being late.

My biggest fear was that Rami would wander off and I’d be left alone not knowing what to do, and the clock was ticking and we were still missing people. I apparently did not do a very good job of hiding my anxiety, as every time Rami walked 2 feet to look out into hall for people I pleaded with him not to leave me alone (he eventually walked over to me and grabbed my face and bored the promise that he would NOT leave me alone into my very being with his laser eyes, so I at least felt secure in not being abandoned at that point). A few more stragglers showed up to get their stuff, but one bag was still unclaimed, and we had 5 minutes before they closed boarding. At this point Rami shooed ME away with the other jammers to board, while he took care of the last straggler.

Stress and rush and fleeing to the platform, scrambling onto the train last at the last moment. But no worries, we all got onto the train and no one was left behind, and it rolled out of the station and on its way and I remembered how much I loved trains! Things were lifting up again. I tracked down Rodrigo and we made some plots and plans to get started, and I began working with the eye tracker. I was flared up still but surrounded by happy, excited people all making games and it was a very pleasing place to be. Plus I do love traveling on trains, and the freedom of wandering you have. I love that first moment where everyone is scurrying around and scoping out their new shared home for the next 52 hours.

However, another anxious moment hit not too far into the train ride before we even got out of Illinois. I was sitting with Rodrigo in the observation car, figuring out some early design plans, when I happened to look up from my laptop and glance out the window as a I pondered how to explain something. And there they were…

Okay, so, some of you may not know this, but I have…uh….I have a fear of wind turbines. It’s not a full blown phobia or anything, and I understand it is perfectly irrational, but the sight of them sets me on edge. They are so big and pointy* and move so creepily and look like big, dangerous, living things. Something about them seems predatory, and sends lizard brain into full-on flight mode.

And there were 3 of them, right there, staring at me as they slowly rolled past. I shrieked and then realized I had shrieked and tried to calmly explain to the bewildered Rodrigo of my irrational fear, but before I had gotten a complete explanation out, I glanced out the window again. And there was another one. Close. HUGELY close. So close that it was practically leaning over with its face in the window, clawing at the glass with its creepy, pointy* blade tip.

“I’VE GOTTA GO.” I stammered, clumsily gathering my laptop and fleeing downstairs to my sleeper car, where I sat in a ball in the hallway, whiles’t Laralyn watched out the window for me to tell me when it would be safe. Thank you, Laralyn, for enduring me, and showing no judgement on my ridiculousness. I was a little squirmy and embarrassed, but it wasn’t too much of a low. Adriel came out and snuggled me, saying that she saw one of the wind turbines pass and immediately thought “Lisa is having a bad time.” I am so grateful to have such a friend as Adriel, who thinks of me and takes care of me. The thought that she would have me in mind in the midst of wrangling this huge event and would take time out of it to care for me made me feel very warm and loved. The incident was not a total loss, though, as I returned to Rodrigo after my recovery and suggested our game take place looking out a window, where our controls were on the side on the interior and distractions (like horrid, pointy* wind turbines, could roll past outside against a scrolling landscape). The game advanced!

It wasn’t so bad. Rami teased me at dinner, amused at my reference to The Wind Turbine Incident of 2015, and gruffly reiterated to me that *wind turbine blades were not, in fact, pointy, but huge and rounded and he knew this because he’d been up in one and seen the blades up close and even had a cute photo of him and Adriel in the wind turbine where you could see one and wind turbines aren’t dangerous and wouldn’t you like to see the photo, Lisa? Look there is the blade right there it’s not pointy SHUT UP RAMI. Then there was some squabbling and wrestling and I felt better, emotionally at least, even though my pain was getting worse. Rami is a very dear friend to me, and I think of him much as a brother, which means that with all the teasing and pestering that I feel assured he will look out for me. He and Adriel took care of me a lot on this trip.

So yeah, there was much about Train Jam that was wonderful, mostly spending time with people I loved and seeing all the wonderful game ideas. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t also terrible. It got really bad the first night. There was nothing wrong with my little bunk in the sleeper car, it was actually quite cozy, but laying up there that night made me realize a few things.

Trains do not have pressurized cabins, you guys! Drastic changes in barometric pressure are incredibly painful for me, and appaaaaarently you go through a lot of those on a train. I was in so much pain. Sometimes when I am having a lot of pain it feels like there is some great creature pinning me down by my chest, and picking at me, not out of malice but out of boredom. And I squirm and try my hardest to get out from under the pain, both mentally and physically, but I can’t get out from under it. I can’t get out from under it and it is all through my body, burning through my chest and my hands, and into my back and legs, and it just picks at me, rhythmically, and it doesn’t stop. It hasn’t stopped. It never will.

I am not good at crying in front of others, even though I do it a fair amount on my own, and I cry when I get overwhelmed with emotion most regularly. But it had been a long time since I had cried because of being in straight up physical pain. But I am embarrassed to be seen crying, even though I know I shouldn’t be, and I knew Laralyn was sleeping below me so I just sort of let my eyes leak and hoped that maybe the bored thing pinning me by the chest would at least let me sleep from exhaustion, but it didn’t. It was an awful night.

In the morning I sort of oozed out of the upper bunk and we put the chairs back together, and I sat down to maybe get back to work on the game, but it was slow going because everything hurt. I was despairing as well. I felt sad that I was having such an awful time during this wonderful event, one that Adriel had worked so hard to put together. I was frustrated with my stupid body and its stupid illness, and felt trapped up with how to express it. I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain what was going on to people, because I feel so embarrassed about things. I was worried that I couldn’t work on the game because I hurt so much.

I stumbled about and found Adriel, who soothed me and comforted me and tucked me away in their bed and told me to rest, and that it was okay to feel what I was feeling, and that no, I was not allowed to apologize for not having fun on her jam, and that I didn’t have to work on my game if I didn’t want to and that I could rest there as long as I liked. So I tried to rest there but there is not much rest to be had when you are being crushed from the inside out. When I realized that we had yet to travel through the Rockies, and that the pressure changes would be getting worse, and that I would most assuredly be in even more pain than I was then and how could that be possible? I was hurting more than I had in my entire life but it was going to get worse? Then…well…there may have been some tears shed.

Rami wandered in eventually, and after being initially startled at finding a Lisa in his bed, was quick to crawl in and scoop me up and nudge me to express the depth of my pain and associated feelings. He told me to let him know if he could do anything for me, but I said that there wasn’t anything really, except for hugs all the time always. So he obliged. We listened to his song and then he showed me how he absorbs songs into his playlist from the people he visits and stays with, and how he had absorbed one from me, and this made me a little happier. Adriel came back and crawled in with us, as she was a little overwhelmed with the stress of running the event, and we more or less had a breakdown snugglefest. When you are very low and in need of comfort, the act of comforting someone else can normalize things somewhat. Even though this was one of my lowest moments, I remember it as being surrounded by love and comfort from friends who I hold so very close, so you can see how difficult it is to explain the event as a simultaneously terrible/wonderful time.

I wasn’t so much re-energized by this affection as resolved to push through the pain fog a little more, so I set out to find Rodrigo to give him an update, and a warning that I might be out of commision for a good part of the day. He assured me that he would plow forward with the game and to get some rest. I stumbled back down into my sleeper car and rolled into the top bunk, then mentally hardened myself for the train’s trek through the Rocky Mountains.

The observation car announcer would periodically chime in with cheerful instructions of which side of the train to look out for which beautiful view. I am one to be overwhelmed by beautiful vistas, so I was very sad to not be among the other jammers, looking out the windows at what last year’s jammers had assured were some of the loveliest views of the whole trip. I was depressed at the thought that I might not be able to finish my game, that I had come on this event and just been rendered useless. This fed into the usual personal fears that I couldn’t operate at my full capacity, that I was struggling against this constant energy leak and how could I ever be the best possible designer I could be, how could I keep up with all these other developers who I loved so much. The usual despairs were tempered somewhat by the earlier kind words of my friends. Adriel had told me that I didn’t have to be anything other than what I was, and that if I was sad on train jam then to be sad. Rami had told me that my pain gave me perspective that other people didn’t have. I could use that as a designer. They were nice words and gave me a little comfort.

There was this part where we crossed the continental divide and went through a 10 minute tunnel. The announcers had told everyone to stay in the cars they were in, not to try and move between cars while in the tunnel. It was hard not to feel the mountain on top of me.

I have had a lot of painful flares, but I can assuredly say that for this 10 minute span, I was in the worst pain I had ever experienced in my entire life. I had thought I had become used to the sensation of being crushed from the inside out, but this was worse. It was like a mountain crushing me. From the inside. The usual slow, burning pressure-like pain gave way to sharp jolts all throughout. It was like my body was yelping, like its resolve had finally broken and it was pleading because what else could it do? I curled up tight and cried to myself and thought about how the announcer had said no one could change cars, so that there couldn’t even be anyone to come along and soothe me. I felt very lonely.

After we came back out into the light, the observation car announcer cheerfully told us how we had crossed the continental divide and were on the western side of the continent. This meant we would be going down again, and that the pressure would be changing again, and that there would be no relief yet to come. I once more oozed out of the bunk and started a slow lumber upstairs to wander down through the cars and back. There is a thing about fibromyalgia that sometimes it hurts so badly to move, but if you DON’T move, then later, you will be in even MORE pain. I explained this to Rami, who hugged me as I lumbered past, about how it’s a stupid system. A poorly designed system. If it were a system in a game it would be a terrible game. We pondered what the UI would look like for such a poor system. I lumbered on.

I went back down to my room and turned around and climbed back up for a second lap. After a few steps down the hallway of the upper level of the sleeper car, I looked up to see Adriaan standing at the end of the hall, staring at me with the saddest face I’ve ever seen on him. I squirmed a bit, embarrassed that I was apparently visibly having a bad time. He gave me a wonderfully comforting Adriaan-hug, then he broke into a smile and said “Come eat healthy food with me for lunch!”

This made me smile, and I followed him into his room to sit and be fed. Adriaan had stowed away all kinds of fresh vegetables, and cut them up for me and we ate them with hummus, and I explained to him my pain situation and my associated emotions, and he cut up more vegetables and listened to me and smiled at me with his Adriaan-smile. And we talked about many things, about design, about my worries with life and the universe, about insights, and we looked out the window and saw mule deer and an alpaca. There is an alive-ness about Adriaan that is infectious, and though I was in no less pain, I felt more emotionally sound from my healthy-vegetable lunch with him. I took a breath and another hug and set back out with new resolve. I met up with Adriel again and got snuggles and we exchanged stories of the animals we had seen out the window (apparently my alpaca sighting got me winning points).

I found Rodrigo again and burrowed down at a table in the snack car to tackle the hardest of the problems I was having, which was that in Unity the gaze point from the eyetracker was mysteriously offset. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on, especially since the calibration tool was aligned perfectly. Even all the eyetracker demo projects in Unity were offset. There was no internet to go searching for solutions, so I hammered away at it, looking through all the gaze data code to see if there was something amiss with how it calculated screen bounds in Unity. However, being surrounded by other Jammers was motivating, and many people tried to help me. We were all stumped, though.

At that point I had a thought flit across my mind for what the problem might be, and thought “No, it can’t be that….” I had been thinking of an offset problem I had had earlier that week with a screen-to-gif program. So I went into the properties of the Unity executable, turned off display scaling for high DPI settings, and tried running things again.

No offset! The gaze position was perfectly aligned.

I roared simultaneously in victory and anger, startling everyone in the snack car. Victory that I had solved the biggest road block for our game, but frustration that the problem had been so STUPID. I was furious. I wanted to fight. I tried in vain to flip the table but it was bolted firmly to the floor of the train. Rami, in a truly brotherly fashion, allowed me to punch him in the arm as an outlet to my fury. With the rage subsided, I updated Rodrigo to our victory, only to find that he had been experiencing some motion sickness, and it was his turn to be out of commision for the rest of the day. He gave me his work and I merged it and moved on, figuring out ways to downscope so we could still finish and have a complete game experience, albeit a rough one.

The pain continued to claw at me but my spirits were better in general, and on the one train stop with a store I joined the pile of jammers to grab snacks and also some benadryl. When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia back in Kentucky, I would occasionally take benadryl on really bad days. It didn’t help with the pain at all, but it would knock me out, and I got to just not-exist for a little while. I figured I might try it for that night, though I always feel guilty at doing medicine in that way, like it’s cheating somehow. Anyway, I didn’t get very far in line before Andrew Gleeson snatched up my goods and bought them for me, because he is a sweet little sweetheart. The sweetest of hearts. Andrew is among my favorite little gamedev brothers and his hugs are focused and playful and instantly uplifting. What wonderful humans on this jam! So, so wonderful!

Seriously, you train jammers, you are all fantastic. I am so happy to have shared the time with all of you, even if I was hurting for so much of it. Again, with the wonderful and terrible all at once. So many of you would grow into friends at GDC after the event and this is pleasing to think about.

Anyway, the pain had not subsided, but I was in a better mental place to ignore it. We plowed on with the game for the rest of the night at one of the tables in the snack car, and reached a good place with a good plan for the following morning. I eventually reached a point where I was mentally fatigued, so I just idled about and watched other people jam. I was tired, but the thought of going to bed and climbing up alone into the torture coffin was not pleasing, so I stayed awake. I mostly listened to other people solving problems and playtesting their games. I eavesdropped on the next booth over where Rami and Adriaan were working on their game, and watched, because this was a good position to farm affection from both of them. I got assimilated into helping them animate something for their game, then I helped Tess make drawings for her Twine game. That was fun. It was a nice change of pace that was a mental relief, and it was fun to sit there and draw something on instruction from someone sitting next to me. Apparently when I draw expressive faces, I make those same faces, and this was amusing to other folks. It was pleasing to draw and it was pleasing to help someone else out with their game.

That was another nice thing about Train Jam. The confines of the space meant that a lot of people spilled into each other’s games to help. Nick wrote music for a bunch of peoples’ games. Mac did effects. There were little bits of help that people gave one another, and we were often featured in one another’s work in some way or another. I think that is something unique to Train Jam, at least in my jamming experience, the bleeding and merging of influence. It pleased me.

At last, though, my exhaustion was too overwhelming, and I had to retreat to the torture coffin after all, and be alone with all my distractions removed to remind me that I existed in an ever-painful state once again. I took some benadryl and hoped that maybe it would help me not exist for a little while.

In the morning, after I had oozed down from the bunk once again and sorted myself into existence, I noticed Rami’s feet sticking out of his door, so I went to visit with him. He scooped me up and asked me how I was feeling, and how the benadryl had worked, and it felt nice to be wondered about. I explained the unfortunate situation, that I had been blissfully not-existing for some hours in the night, but how the bored thing that pins me by the chest and picks at me had noticed, and grown angry, and sliced through me with all of its claws. It had been a sudden jolt awake with pain all through, and then it was back to the same as before, with the pinning and the picking that I could not squirm out from underneath. It was demoralizing after the mental progress of the previous evening. Some of this was restored with hugs.

I ran into Adriel soon after and got another round of hugs and comfort. She told me how every time her ears popped she thought of me in concern, and it once again felt good to be wondered about. I always worry that expression of my pain will come off as wanting attention, which is a Bad Thing, and why I get so squirmy about it. But the truth of the matter is that attention DOES feel nice. When I am in pain and it has been going on for days and I am feeling so defeated that there is nothing to be done about it, it DOES feel good and comforting to be remembered, to have someone say in so many ways that they are thinking of me and my pain and that they love me.

It was the last day of the jam and we were flying to completion. We put in sounds, we put in Nick’s music, we put in the lever system that Rodrigo had stayed up all night to finish. We tested it on various people and were delighted to see that people were delighted by themselves and how they got distracted. The entire train was a whirlwind of people finishing up and the energy was lovely. It is my favorite moment of a live jam, when everything is coming together. With a fleeting moment of internet access, I got screenshots for the “boss distraction” in our game (a twitter argument that would slowly scroll up the middle of the screen). Rodrigo assembled a bunch of cat meme prefabs. I put them in, we called it done, and high-fived. It was rougher and more ridiculous and abstract in theme than we had plotted the day before, but it was a complete experience, and the eyetracker worked, and it made people laugh. When the time was called and we all gathered to share and play one another’s games, Rodrigo and I took turns manning the game and running out to play everyone else’s. So many wonderful games! It was a very happy time.

I was happy and felt warm and like I was part of a bigger something, but I was spent. Not much had changed on the pain front, and I felt like my happy mood was draining out as fast as I could generate it, which meant (for me) a pretty steady baseline of cheer, instead of the probably-overbearing enthusiasm that I can emit in my happiest of times. So I wandered through the bustle of game-playing and sat next to Rami in the observation car to stare out the window and absorb the scenery, which I hadn’t had much chance to do during the whole trip.

After all this, how WAS my Train Jam? It was complex. I felt like I belonged there, which is Kind Of A Big Deal for me, and the games were lovely and I was happy to have had a chance to develop for my eye tracker, and to meet twitter friends and befriend new folks in general. And even with the overwhelming pain and despair that came along with it, there was still a warmth there, as I remember how my friends took such care of me, and how loved I felt. So how was my Train Jam? Net positive, I guess? Could I handle it next year, knowing in advance of the painful points, if I prepared and had people assigned to come and soothe me throughout? Maybe? It was really painful, you guys. I don’t know, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, I guess. In the meantime, I will remember sitting among excited jammers all playing each other’s games and watching out the window as the California landscape rolled by.

It was beautiful.

Then the mid-ground hills paralaxed out of the way to reveal an entire freaking ARMY of wind turbines they were HIDING in wait for me oh god oh god OH GOD OH GOD.

There was a snicker to my left and I braced myself for impending teasing while trying to tear my gaze away from the horrors before me, but instead Rami just said “Come here, Lisa Brown, I will keep you safe.”