Train Jam 2017

I was traveling from February 19 to March 7, so it’s really nice to be back in Boston (even under the current winter storm conditions!) I visited family in Michigan, went to Chicago, took a train from Chicago to San Francisco while mentoring a student game jam team (aka Train Jam), attended GDC, and lingered a few days with local friends (including a visit to the SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Group) before heading home.

Train Jam is an incredibly cool event where we filled an entire Amtrak train with game developers and then made games aboard the train on our way to GDC. Many of the Train Jam devs were international visitors (I’d say the majority, though I have no official numbers) and others had flown from locations nearer to GDC (even San Francisco itself!) to participate. There were even several people who weren’t going to GDC at all and just wanted to do Train Jam, which confused me in the beginning and made perfect sense by the end.

The structure of sharing the train ride together made it usually easy to meet devs on different game teams. I went to at least one meal each day in the dining car, and the train staff promptly added me to a table with three other people each time. Favorite game discovered through dinner conversations: rustle your leaves to me softly, the ASMR Plant Dating Simulator by Dietrich Squinkifer and Jess Marcotte. I haven’t actually played the game (it would take some significant setup, including Arduino and a live plant) but I’m happy that it exists.

Most of my in-person jams have been at MIT, where there’s been a rough balance among designers, coders, artists, and sound designers. Train Jam was heavily balanced toward design and code. I volunteered to mentor a student group and wound up working with a really talented group on sort of a train-based tower defense game (Keegan Taylor, Keenan Barber, Daniel Wikstrom, Antonio Munoz, Enrique Checa, Jackie McGraw, and Jacob Koonce – hi everyone!) With five programmers on the team, the last thing they needed was another programmer, so I became a secondary artist. The foreground graphics are all Jackie McGraw’s work; the background art is all mine. It was really peaceful to draw my way across the United States, apart from castigating T-Mobile when there was no signal and I couldn’t get photo reference. (The train didn’t have wi-fi).

I’m rather pleased with my Train Jam art, and only one piece made it into the final build, so here’s a look at everything that didn’t make it in. These pieces are actually layered in four parts for parallax (foreground, decorations which are often wildly misplaced landmarks, background, sky) but I’ve just included the compiled versions here.

Chicago, Illinois:

My least favorite of these is Chicago, because it looks nothing like Chicago apart from the miscellaneous landmarks, and the landmarks are hovering. I meant to come back and fix stuff, but jam time is jam time and it never happened. Sorry, Chicago people; I will draw your city better again some day. (PS. I am proud, however, that the giant silver jelly bean looks like a giant silver jelly bean.)


Learning to draw corn at a distance was fun.


For about eight hours, I thought I’d been fooled by a meme of people photoshopping giant badminton birdies into various states. But no, there are four giant badminton birdies, and they’re part of a sculpture called Shuttlecocks in Kansas City.


Carhenge is easier to draw than Chimney Rock. Before attempting to draw either, I would have asserted it was the other way around.


The odd glove things are intended to be the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Some things are completely unrecognizable when you take them far enough out of context.


My favorite of these is Colorado, because we were passing through Colorado when I accidentally lost all my photo reference. Since I had no phone signal whatsoever, I gave up and just drew what I could see of Colorado out the window, and I kept embellishing it (cloud cover layer, fancy snow speckle layer, etc) until we got signal again. The state house got added later, but it looks pretty darn good in the snow.

New Mexico:

I like the colors of New Mexico.


I was tired of drawing buildings by then. These formations are actually all really far apart from each other.


It’s not very exciting to draw Carlsbad Caverns from the outside. So I didn’t.


Spiky desert plants for the win.

This was an amazing event and I would gleefully participate again. I’d never done Train Jam or GDC before, so this was all new to me, and it was the perfect way to start my GDC experience. Heartfelt thanks to Pixelles Montreal for their scholarship program, which made this all possible!

Next stop: GDC! But GDC was huge and I’ll write about it separately.

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  1. I’m pretty sure at least one of my work-mates from Tin Man Games was on the train with you – KG Tan.

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