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Mark Essen

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The Creators Project: So what’s your background? Did you grow up as a kid who was so into video games you felt compelled to create them?

Mark Essen: I grew up in La Cañada outside of LA and, yeah, I played games in high school and just continued through college and started using them as my work. I started making games in school. I was interested in seeing what it took to make them. Eventually I got this program called Game Maker. It’s pretty basic, and I’ve been using that ever since.

Your games tend to include only cursory gameplay instructions. Is this intentional? Are you hoping players discover things about your games that may not be obvious at first glance?

Well, I usually include controller instructions—if it’s not really obvious then I’ll say what the buttons do. Besides that, the games sort of explain themselves. If someone does really well at a game and picks up stuff that isn’t necessarily in the instructions they’ll hopefully take the opportunity to teach other people how to play the game as well.

Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment.

I just finished this small project for an exhibition in Liverpool. It’s called Space Invaders. It’s like a space station—zero gravity, jumping around, car on the walls, bouncing off things. Another thing that inspired me is astronauts going out on space walks without using a tether; they didn’t use a tether during the last walk and they’ll go out 50 meters away from the shuttle and catch like a satellite with this machine, or stop it from spinning, and come back. It just sounded crazy and super dangerous. I want to make games like that, on the edge, like any wrong move would just shoot you out into space.

That sounds like it’ll be keeping you busy for a while, Do you have anything else cooking?

We have jetpack basketball [laughs] and a bunch of half-finished things. Ghost Forrest is another one where you’re a boy who has this little dog, and you’re walking around in total darkness trying to figure out what’s going on.

Childhood and nostalgia seem to be recurring themes in your work...

Yeah, maybe… I stopped playing a lot of the “new” video games after high school. Maybe [my] games are like old games, but it’s not nostalgia. It’s just the style of game that I like. Well… maybe it is nostalgia [laughs].

I want you to be honest here: Do you really use Game Maker and a few other programs for everything you do? You’ve never faced a problem where you’re like “I’m going to just load up this newer and faster program that can do what I want to do in half the time?

I use Game Maker entirely. It’s almost always Game Maker and MS Paint—that kind of stuff.

If you could wish for one technological improvement what would it be?

Game Maker isn’t run by the most organized people, so something similar to it but faster and more frequently updated would be great. They just need to take better care of it.

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At a glance

Video game wunderkind.

Location: Brooklyn, NY, United States
Profession: Video game designer, artist
Selected works: Nidhogg (2011); The Thrill of Combat (2009); Party Boat (2009); Cowboyana (2008)
Notables: Won the Nuovo Award at GDC 2011 for Nidhogg; “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus” show at New York’s New Museum (2009); pranking Business Week with the game You Found the Grappling Hook (2008)
Mark Essen uses: MS Paint, Game Maker

Connect: Twitter; YouTube