“REALLY?” WAS MORE OR LESS Jake Rodkin’s reaction when Olly Moss said yes. Yes, Olly Moss had said, he was interested in being part of this indie video game company that Jake and his colleague Sean were thinking about.
Yes, Olly said again: I’m interested. And, then, okay - that was that.
That Campo Santo would launch with Olly Moss on board was a surprise for a handful of reasons. The British artist and graphic designer, 27, is a major and sought-after talent, known for his work with clients like Mondo, DC Comics, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Studio Ghibli and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is not known for making video games. Nor is he really known for working in the way that a project like Campo Santo’s Firewatch needs to be worked on: as a member of a team, serving a shared creative vision, and on a timeline of many months, if not years.
It’s now over a year since Olly Moss said yes, and over six months into his role as Firewatch’s art director, which he performs remotely from his home city of Winchester, England, with frequent trips to Campo Santo’s San Francisco office. Time enough, I thought, to pose the question of whether Olly Moss and game development really suit one another. A fine quest for the Campo Santo Ombudsman!
On a Friday afternoon, I travelled to Winchester to meet with Olly and conduct his six-month performance review. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t fall under the definition of “Ombudsman business,” which is why, strictly speaking, Jake and Sean did not “know about it.” But how to measure a man’s worth as a video game art director? Once again, I consulted the Ombudsman Handbook for guidance, and once again it was of no use whatsoever. I would have to look elsewhere for a suitable employee assessment tool.
What I thought made the most sense was a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Filling this out would let me assign a numeric value to Olly’s strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma - values that would be determined by subjecting Olly to a battery of challenges and feats. The completed character sheet would be presented to Sean and Jake for their signature.
Olly seemed to have no problem with any of this.
Winchester is a small English city 70 miles southwest of London. It’s pleasant, affluent, everything is a ten-minute walk from everything, and everywhere is closed after seven. It’s famous, perhaps, for once being the capital of England, and because King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’s very own Round Table hangs on a wall in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Though it’s apparently not the real round table, but a commemorative replica built for King Edward I in the 13th century, and later painted over by Henry VIII with a picture of himself dressed up as King Arthur. So it’s a shitty table, basically, not fit for a dog. Jane Austen is also in Winchester. Her body is buried in Winchester Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in all of England. A local Winchester hero, William Walker, saved that cathedral way back in Downton Abbey times - he was a deep sea diver who singlehandedly reinforced the cathedral’s foundation to stop it sinking into the ground.
This is the city of Moss.
At Olly’s suggestion, we met for lunch at a pub called the Green Man. Winchester, Olly told me earlier in an email, was a “buzzing hub of mediocrity,” but it did not lack for pubs. Olly wore a tan coat and a white shirt. Very striking. Good outfit. They were just very good clothes. Olly ordered the Green Man Burger, with pancetta, mature cheddar and rosemary fries, and a pint of Blue Moon, a Colorado wheat beer. I ordered those, too, to try and understand the way Olly thinks. I also wondered if I should get a new coat.
It was Friday, which was not a Campo Santo day. Olly works on Firewatch four days a week, outside of which he continues to pursue freelance work. He showed me something that he’d been working on: four posters inspired by the movie Top Gun, and all depictions of the one volleyball scene from the movie.
Olly Moss wakes up at first light and is at his desk from eight in the morning until six in the evening, working with a huge array of computer monitors and a printer the size of a tanning bed. Around six o’clock is when the San Francisco office appears on the company chat and a Google Hangouts video channel.
“I do concept art, I’m doing some texture work - or I will be, eventually, Jane [Ng] is roughing in textures and I’m going over them and making them more like the art. There are certain things in Unity that I can do. I’m not a complete technology baby, so I’m learning 3D and stuff where I can.” He’ll turn in whatever he’s done at around six, “and then I’m like, ‘here’s what I did, seeya!’” He may stick around if he doesn’t have plans, but generally everyone else will give their feedback on his work while he’s out or asleep, and then he’ll deal with that the next morning.
Jane Ng, Campo Santo’s environment and lighting artist, is responsible for translating Olly’s art into actual 3D assets that appear in the game. I wondered whether Olly was finding it strange to not be the person ultimately delivering on his vision, but he was quick to shoot this down and in a way that didn’t just sound like professional courtesy, either. “Jane is doing a really good job. If I didn’t like what she was doing, it would be ‘no no no no no no,’ but… but no, she’s killing it. And there’s back and forth - she’ll do something and I’ll think it’s like 85 per cent of the way there and I’ll take a screenshot and sketch over it and say no, the rock should be sharper, or move this tree over here. A lot of it is about composing shapes, which I’m good at, so I can say, hmm if you’re coming at it form this angle… remove this, this, this and this… there’s elements of that I can do myself in Unity, if it’s a simple element, but otherwise I can take a screenshot and paint over it and be like, move this, change this shape… and be a horrible dictator.”
In some ways, he prefers this to being in the office, which he works from so regularly now that he dreams of waking up in it to an earthquake, and running outside with the servers under his arm. “When I’m doing concepts in the office, it’s so small and close-quarters that I’ve got people looking over my shoulder and saying ‘that’s cool, but you should change that,’ and I’m like, ‘it’s not finished yet!’ It’s always easier to present finished pieces. I do much better when I’m not trying to please someone, when I just do what I think is good. I’m not used to working with other people like that.”
Apparently the studio is exploring new ways of remote working. It has in its possession something called a “telepresence robot,” basically an iPad attached to the top of a Segway, and which allows someone like Olly to not only videoconference with the San Francisco office, but drive around in it with a little robot. Olly says he can activate the robot at night, but this would trigger the building’s motion alarms. The telepresence robot was a gift from Double Robotics, a Sunnyvale, California company, who hoped, no doubt, that their product would be promoted in the Campo Santo Quarterly Review. “We are a video game developer and brand influencer,” Olly confirms.
I asked Olly how he got involved with this particular brand influencer in the first place, and the answer was Jake Rodkin. “He’s a guy who’s got a really good eye for design and is not afraid to shit all over things that I’m doing,” Olly said. The two had been fans of each other’s work for a few years before Jake ever made serious overtures about working together. “I would always show him what I was working on and he would tell me what was good or bad about it. Because I never know. Here’s a thing I did, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s not, I don’t know. He’s a really good, honest person to have… one of the few people I know that would give me good advice.”
Olly thinks they’d both hit the same point in their careers (“which was, I’ve been doing this for a while now and I want to try something different”) when Jake invited him to be part of Campo Santo. “I always wanted to be involved in games. Ever since I was super young. But I don’t know, I feel like … people will only ever ask you to do the thing you’ve already done. So no one was asking me to make a game. They were like ‘hey, we work on Halo, do you want to do a Halo thing?’ Oh yeah, that sounds cool. ‘Oh yeah, we need a t-shirt for it.’ Hmm. No, I want to contribute to… I want to make an actual game. It wasn’t an ambition, [it was] just in the back of my mind: yeah, one day. One day I’d like to do this, have a crack at this. A good opportunity came along so I jumped on it.”
On our way to another pub, after the Green Man, we paused at Winchester Cathedral to pay our respects at Jane Austen’s grave. “I come here to shake my fist at it, for all the times that we had to read her at school,” Olly said.
“Was it a lot?” I asked.
“No, not really.”
“Do you hate her books?”
“Not really, they’re fine.”
We stopped at her grave anyway. Olly shook his fist thoroughly. He suggested we also check out the illuminated Winchester Bible displayed behind glass on a higher floor of the cathedral. The pages we saw of the bible had been written and drawn in the year 1160 by High Middle Ages creatives like the Master of Gothic Majesty, the Master of Apocrypha and the Master of Leaping Figures.
“What would you be the master of,” I asked.
“Master… of the… Top Gun Volleyball Poster.”
“You like Top Gun.”
When Olly agreed to join Campo Santo, it was on the basis of wanting to work with Jake and Sean. Firewatch was one of several ideas being considered at that point, and the idea has changed significantly since the first pitch. “When they first pitched it to me, [I mostly thought] ‘I like drawing forests! I can draw a forest. Let’s do that.’ I was thinking about it purely from an aesthetic standpoint.
“Then we started talking about the narrative stuff, and I realised that I had thoughts about how those things should be too, and pitching on those. I feel like I’ve had a lot of input into what the final thing is, which is nice. It’s given me a lot of confidence to be assertive with narrative and writing. I mean, I did an English lit degree, but I never actually tried my hand at writing stuff. But Sean was like, oh, you’re good at this! You should do some more.”
While Olly is responsible for the overall look of the game, he’s still never been to Wyoming, where Firewatch is set. “I’ll do a concept and Sean will say ‘I like it, but it doesn’t feel like Wyoming.’ Which is a nebulous thing. And I’m like, I don’t know, who has been to Wyoming, who cares? It looks cool. But it’s about finding the balance between creative things that I think look brilliant but things that also feel like a specific place.
“I didn’t know much about fire lookouts either. We don’t have any forest [in England.] But everyone, when they hear about it, they’re like ‘oh, cool, fire lookouts, amazing!’ Apparently that was something everyone was super aware of and I had no idea. It’s a cabin where you can be by yourself in the woods and nobody bothers you. I basically sit in my office all day staring out a window doing nothing so I’m already like halfway there.”
Ten minutes away from the cathedral is another pub, The Black Boy, where we stopped for another drink. “There have been times in my life when I’ve found [that name] weird,” Olly said when I asked about it.
Olly excused himself to go to the bathroom, or ‘water closet,’ in the UK. When he returned I was sitting at a table holding a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Now the real interview could begin. Before determining his ability scores, I asked for the basic biographical information that we needed to fill out the sheet.
“What is your race?”
He paused. “Isn’t it the law that you can’t ask me that in an interview?”
Which is fair enough, so we left that, and gender, blank. Olly did offer up that his alignment is ‘chaotic neutral’ and his class is ‘middle’, for what that’s worth. I also learned that Olly possesses a magic item - the Hammer of Thor, Mjölnir itself! He received said hammer, a prop from Marvel Studios’ 2011 film Thor, as compensation for designing a poster for the film’s cast and crew. He has been using it as a toilet roll holder and has been specifically instructed by Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, not to publish any pictures of this.
Olly’s first test is a test of wisdom. An easy enough challenge, I explained: all he needed to do is answer a simple riddle.
I am greater than God More evil than Satan The rich need me The poor have me
Who am I?
Olly didn’t know the answer. I felt I had no choice but to score him a zero for wisdom, and I started to worry about how this whole thing was going to go.
The second test is of charisma. I’d bought the latest issue of Cosmpolitan, featuring a very charismatic Kaley Cuoco on the cover, in the hope that one of the quizzes inside might adequately quantify Olly’s charisma. The only quiz in the issue was called ‘Are You A Secret Bitch?’ so Olly did that. From his responses, we learned that he was the kind of person to tell an insecure little sister that she’s beautiful, complement the physique of a middle school P.E. teacher, and pretend to love an awful piece of jewellery if it’s a gift. Olly is far from a secret bitch. On a scale from Jennifer Aniston to Naomi Campbell, Cosmo puts him at Jennifer Aniston: “You exude so much warmth, people get tan just standing near you. How are you so wonderful?”
Olly wasn’t wild about being Jennifer Aniston, who he described as a “charisma vacuum” and “the Nandos of people.” We agreed to rate the charisma of Jennifer Aniston - and Olly Moss - at an average five.
Intelligence was up next. I presented Olly with a small Transformers toy, the evil Predacon Hun-Gurrr, and challenged Olly to transform him from robot to beast mode without the instructions, which I hid in my pocket. The packaging for this toy ranked the complexity of its transformation as ‘easy’ and ‘facile.’ Perhaps hoping to make up some lost ground, Olly quickly got to work configuring Hun-Gurrr into his bipedal, twin-headed dragon form. This actually didn’t take him very long, though he was stumped over what to do with Hun-Gurrr’s Dragontooth Saw accessory, a kind of bayonet gun that he eventually affixed to Hun-Gurrr’s crotch. Olly would have scored a ten in toilet humour were that an option on the character sheet, but it wasn’t. Regardless, a ten in intelligence was awarded.
Olly declined to face me in an arm-wrestling contest to measure his strength, citing sleepiness induced by three beers, which we agreed should result in a lowered constitution score. We adjourned instead to the Black Boy’s fussball table for a challenge in dexterity, which he lost. Olly did, however, tilt the heavy table a couple of times when the ball was stuck in the middle, and did so with ease, earning him a strength score of eight.
I have to say, once I completed this character sheet, I was not entirely convinced of its utility. What did it tell me about Olly, really? What had I learned? That Olly was trained in the minor skills of Bluff and History? That his powers include being able to hum and whistle at the same time? That his armour class is a ‘one’? When would that ever come up, outside of combat? I don’t know. We got another beer each, and as Olly talked, and played around idly with Hun-Gurrr, I saw that there was a box on the character sheet for reflex still empty. I wondered what would happen if I threw the cap of my pen at Olly’s face while he was distracted, but the thought of taking out Olly Moss’ eye was so terrifying that I left it alone.
“I’m so up and down on a fulltime job,” Olly said. “The best thing about being freelance and being able to sell prints of my work and do… and to have the luxury of being in the position I am… I mean, it’s an insane luxury, right? And the best thing about it is just the freedom. Being able to wake up and say today I’m going to work on this. Or, today I’m not going to do anything. And - ultimate first world problems - sometimes it’s hard to wake up and do an actual job. And put in the nine to five when I know that I could just do - I don’t want to say do less work, because I’ve always been a hard worker, but I always like working on things that I desperately want to be working on. With the game, it’s like, today I have to draw some wood textures. And that’s just not as fun. There’s no two ways about it.
“But I hadn’t done it in a really long time. I need to work with other people, I need to challenge myself. I need to make something bigger than myself, and I need to… and what better opportunity to work with people who are all super talented in different ways, and who I respect. That sounds like bullshit. That sounds like a bullshit answer, but it’s absolutely true.”
Drinks continued long into the night. Nels Anderson woke up in Vancouver and turned on the webcam in his home office, broadcasting into Winchester and San Francisco, where he and Olly were joined by, in order of their arrival in the Campo Santo office on a Friday morning, Will Armstrong, Jane Ng and Jake Rodkin. In Winchester, drinks continued.
My girlfriend Aisling met Olly for the first time later that night at the Wykeham Arms, a third pub, where the chairs are bolted to the floor. In conversation with Olly, she was intrigued to learn that the last time he had been on a proper job interview was more than eight years ago, for a sales position at GAME, a UK retailer, which he did get. Aisling, an HR professional, quickly offered to give Olly a proper, albeit mock, job interview, which was very enjoyable and good until Olly answered a question with a laugh and “My greatest weakness is probably that I’m too much of a perfectionist?” Aisling folded her arms over an open notebook. “Why would I hire you?”
Olly stopped to think about it. “Because honestly?” He leaned forward and spoke quickly. “I’m really good at what I do. I’m never satisfied until I’m making something - oh God! You’re turning me into a person who I hate. I’m good. I’m really good at what I do. I’m an all-rounder and I can execute as much as any idea that I have - I can execute well. And I have good ideas. I’m a functional artist but I’m a good ideas person and I can do that better than most people. I had to do the poster for the Oscars. And I pitched an idea that was way up there, way more than the time and energy I was supposed to be spending on it. But I really liked the idea and I destroyed myself, I destroyed my back… because I knew it was going to be good at the end of the day.”
“Why are you creative?”
“I don’t know how to be any other way.”
Earlier that day, at the Black Boy, Olly and I chatted about his work on Firewatch as we prepared to leave. “It will be clear that I’ve done it, I think, though not in the way people expect.” Olly fiddled some more with Hun-Gurrr, to whom he really seemed to have taken a liking. “It won’t be like looking at a poster I did and saying, I want to play that. But my fingerprints are on it. Things like… the stylization gets stronger when you look out into the distance. It becomes more painterly.”
Olly glanced down at Hun-Gurrr. “Do you want this back?”
“No, you can have him.”
“Thanks. I’m really into this toy.” Olly removed the Dragontooth Saw from the Predacon’s crotch. “He’s good. He’s really good. It irritates my OCD-ness that his gun doesn’t have a clear place to go.”
I consulted Hun-Gurrr’s instructions. “Oh, okay. His gun is supposed to fit into a hole on the outside of his leg. It’s actually the same place that it goes into when he’s in robot mode.”
“Hm,” Olly said. “Bad design.”