Jonathan Coulton: My Favourite Game

Jonathan Coulton has a big, booming laugh, which he uses often and with relish. The New England programmer-turned-songwriter became something of a household name in gaming circles when he wrote Portal’s quirky end-credits theme, Still Alive. Intelligent and playful, we ask him to divulge on life after GlaDOS.

What were your formative experiences with videogames?
I have loved computer-based games as long as they’ve existed. I remember my dad bringing home the first home version of Pong that was available. It hooked up to your television by screws on the back of your TV. That was really the beginning of it. When I was a kid, one of the things my dad and I did together was go out to arcades. Every weekend, we’d go to an arcade together, we’d get $10 in quarters and we’d play for hours.

Do you think your love of playing music arose from the same impulses that made you fond of games?
Yeah, I would say so. Definitely for me there has always been a strong connection between computers and music. I’m a songwriter, and I used to be a software developer; I’m a gamer and an instrument player. And all of these things spring from the same place in my brain. On the performance side, playing an instrument and manipulating a character in a game with a controller is a similar kind of experience, because you have this hand-eye coordination thing where, once you get good at it, the controller disappears and you feel like you are moving the character with your mind. And that’s sort of what happens, optimally, when playing an instrument – you forget about the guitar, you don’t think about it any more. And it’s the same thing [with] programming computers and writing songs. It’s a kind of puzzle solving; at least I think of it that way.

How different was your experience as a performer before and after Still Alive?
In terms of the demographics of my audience, it wasn’t that big a change for me. Because I had come up as a geeky musician with geeky subject matter and a geeky crowd. So there were already, let’s just say, many top hats, capes and system administrator security badges in my crowd before this happened. That said, the extent of the exposure that this song had was vast, and certainly when that song hit, for many people who had never heard of me, I became ‘the guy who had written the Portal song’.

You built a sustainable career using the Internet. Are there any lessons that might be helpful to indie designers?
I don’t know if my methods from 2005 still apply to the world today. I will say that the thing I’ve learned is that it’s very important to make something that is good. That sounds trite, but the old system supported people making garbage and getting by on marketing and placement. And garbage is not going to sell any more, because people have garbage detectors that are a lot more powerful than they used to be. People are very good at deciding what things they like, so the stuff you make has to be great, and it has to be honest, and it has to resonate with people. And you have to believe in it and love it yourself.

What games are you drawn to now?
I have two kids – seven and four – and I don’t have time to do anything any more. The list of things you need to do grows incredibly long when you have kids, so whereas I used to be able to sit down in front of the Xbox with Halo 2 and play for 10 hours until two in the morning, I can’t do that any more. So my gaming interests have shifted [by] necessity to the smaller, lower-impact games. Quite honestly, it’s all about iOS gaming for me now. I’m really enjoying a game called Spirit, which is basically an old-style arcade game.

OK, your favourite game, sir?
It would have to be Super Mario Bros 2, which I believe was made to be a completely different kind of game and then reskinned to be a Super Mario Bros game. But it was so weird, so strange… I have really fond memories of playing that game and discovering all the bizarre new ways of moving around the world. Being able to jump on an egg that was flying through the air and ride it – it was insane. Of the four playable characters, I went with the princess, because she could jump and hover. That game gets the nostalgia vote, for sure.