Russell Quinn in Conversation with Hopper Mills and Miranda July - Believer Magazine
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Russell Quinn in Conversation with Hopper Mills and Miranda July

by Miranda July
October 9th, 2020

What exactly to do with one’s grief is a decision we’ll all face, whether it’s conscious or not. For Russell Quinn, who helped create the first iteration of this website, grief came, as it does, suddenly and senselessly when his mother and grandmother died soon after one another. After he returned home to Los Angeles, he decided to process by doing what he does best, and has been doing for years: making something interactive, virtual, and shared—in this case, a video game that depicts memories from the final year of his mother’s and grandmother’s lives, Linda & Joan. 

The prologue, “Four Months Earlier” now available for free, follows a walk to Griffith Observatory. Click the mouse or tap the screen, and Quinn walks; his mother talks. The game is beautiful: Quinn rendered the section of park and its inhabitants himself—its shadows and foliage, its hikers and trash cans, wood benches, and domed observatory—with a cel-shaded touch, leaning into visual artifice in a way that works in tender synchronicity with what’s most moving about the game: its details. Linda’s words can be heartbreaking. The small things: the promise of future trips, an airplane ride, breakfast cereals at her Airbnb, and, casting a shadow over all of it, the implicit awareness that Quinn’s mother is choosing how to spend her day knowing there might not be much time left to live.

Quinn, who used to work as a Digital Media Director for McSweeney’s, has long moved between design and programming and art; his interest in story ties it all together. He helped create The Silent History, a fragmented Pokemon Go-esque digital novel; The Pickle Index, an app-slash-novel that rewards its users for uploading pickle recipes, among other things, and, along with Miranda July, 2014’s Somebody and 2018’s I’m the President, Baby, which showed at the V&A in London. 

This year, Quinn has also been making regular Zoom calls with Hopper Mills, who is eight, and, “getting into art games.” During the calls, Hopper asks questions about 3D modeling, programming, and what it’s like to make a video game. We asked the two to speak from an imagined locale of their choosing, and for Hopper’s mother to join for the sake of guidance and a vital outside perspective, as she has never played a video game before in her life. It should be noted that this is Hopper’s first interview; and it is our opinion that they did a very good job. 

—Hayden Bennett

MIRANDA JULY: I like your headset thing.

RUSSELL QUINN: You do?

MJ: Maybe we should set the scene? We’re here in a busy cafe in Paris.

RQ: Uh-huh.

MJ: We can hear tinkling glasses, laughter.

HOPPER MILLS: Okay!

RQ: Wait, did we all fly out there specifically for this interview?

MJ: Maybe Hopper and I were there already. We were in London for some reason then we came to Paris. Yes, we’re in Paris, just interviewing different people who make video games. Back to back. All day long.

[Imagined sound of tinkling glasses, Parisian laughter]

MJ: At what point did you think this might become a game? Did you ever think about it when you were in the midst of it or did it come afterward?

RQ: I did think about it at the time, but not in a serious way. I remember when my mother was very sick—but still at home, and I was her caregiver—feeling like most of my days were spent performing repetitive tasks: moving her so she was more comfortable; attending to her needs when she was hungry, thirsty; making sure she took her medication at set times; just checking in. It was such a strange mix of being painfully sad, but also boring and repetitive. Life started, in some ways, to feel like a Tamagotchi-style game.

MJ: Ah, I remember you saying that actually.

RQ: You’re right, I think you were the person I mentioned that to, when we would email during that time. It was a weird feeling. I was caring for a person that—as time went on—was less and less able to communicate what she needed. Either because she was in pain, or was heavily medicated, or just because nobody knew what was happening. The doctors didn’t know from week to week why she was experiencing particular symptoms, which I now understand is just the process of dying.

I don’t have children, but I imagine it’s similar to caring for a baby. You’re trying to figure out their wants and needs, but you’re unable to have an actual conversation to understand what to do. Thinking of things like a game was definitely a coping mechanism. Because I was there by myself, as a carer, I obviously had to be on alert the whole time, ready to react to the next crisis, but I was also bored and tired. One evening I wrote a very bad short story about someone that decided to turn caregiving into a puzzle game, just as a way of documenting my feelings. So I suppose I was trying to rationalize things in terms of game mechanics.

 Scene from “Four Months Earlier” (2020)

HM: How much of the prologue [“Four Months Earlier”] was based on a real experience and how much was made up?

RQ: Good question, Hopper. The walk was real. We walked to the observatory together. Everything that is said in the game, my mother and I had talked about, mostly during those two weeks she spent visiting me in Los Angeles. So while not everything was said on that walk, it’s all based on my memories of real conservations we’d had over that period.

MJ: Do you feel like you can take liberties for the sake of storytelling? Or do you have a documentary sense as an artist? You’re not a writer after all, you’re taking from your life to make this.

RQ: I do feel a duty to be truthful. Obviously there’s heavy editing in the sense that many things are left out. There’s also editing in the sense that everything is based on my memory and the other sources are not here anymore to validate their sides of the story.

MJ: I remember when we [Miranda and Hopper] were giving notes, I said that something didn’t sound real and you said, “but that really was said!”

RQ: About having trouble ordering tea with milk? Right, you did. I only include things that I feel the characters would have said in real life, but also, I consciously wrote the dialogue with story in mind. For example, the scene with the bench—we did stop and sit on that bench, but the exact conversation when I promised my mother that I would go back [to England] if she became sicker, did not happen in that moment. But a similar promise happened later that week. So I do allow myself dramatic license.

MJ: I remember you sending me pictures and writing emails from that life you were living in that house with your mother, and I got a strong sense of what it was like from those. What can you show better through a game? Or is it just that games are how you think? Because that way of thinking is almost hardwired into you?

RQ: This is maybe a circular argument, but interactive things are what I do and what I can do. I couldn’t make a movie because I’m not a movie maker, yet making interactive things I can do, and I can mostly do by myself. So, the format came as a necessity. 

I guess another angle is: when I’m faced with difficulties in my life, I usually find that I can cope if I can plan my way out of it. If I can create a series of steps to make the situation better—even if those steps end up being wrong and have to be changed—if I have a plan to follow then I feel like I am coping.

But a reason this situation was so hard. My mother’s terminal diagnosis was one of the few times where there really was no way out. You can’t make plans, you can’t say there will be better days. It’s this immovable end that is—almost definitely—going to happen. But you still have to live and function until that time comes. So all my mental tools that I usually use to navigate crises were no longer useful, because there was no getting out of this.

I spent a lot of time internalizing how I would try and solve things—how I would have been acting—if I felt like I had any amount of control, which I didn’t.

HM: At what age did you start coding and how did you start?

RQ: You could say I started when I was four or five years old. My father died a few months before I was born, when my mother was pregnant with me. He was a computer programmer in the 1970s. He was from a working-class family, the first one to go to university. 

As a programmer back then, you wouldn’t actually operate the computer. You’d give the punched card to a machine operator, who would take it away and run it on a mainframe computer, returning with the results maybe days later. If there were any problems—you might realize you made one small mistake—you’d have to re-punch a new card, send it back to be run again. It was a very different world!

Between the time that he died and I was four years old, home computers started to become available—and affordable—in the UK. My mother, who didn’t really have any understanding of computers, bought one for the house as a way, I guess, of passing something on from my dad—of keeping his influence alive.

I actually have a visual aid for this…

At the same time as my mother bought the computer, she got these two books: Understanding the Micro and Simple BASIC. The second one, as you can see, is essentially a kid’s book about programming.

MJ: Wow! I guess if I got that for Hopper, it wouldn’t really apply to now?

RQ: You can still run programs in BASIC (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code—a simple programming language) using an emulator or something. But I’m sure there are more modern books.

I was too young at four to understand much, but I would read these books over and over. My mother also subscribed to a monthly computing magazine. Later on these magazines would come with a cassette tape stuck on the front, loaded with programs to run, but at the start they just printed the computer code directly in the magazine—pages and pages of code—and you had to type it into the computer yourself.

So, as I learned how to type, I would sit for hours copying the code line by line. In time, you start to wonder… what would happen if I changed this one thing? …or could I make this blob on the screen a red color instead of a green color? I learned very incrementally. I don’t really have any memory of how I learned. By the time I had self-awareness, I could already program.

MJ: That magazine sounds like, literally, the most boring magazine in the world to me. If I saw it, I think I would just cry.

HM: No! It’s the most interesting magazine in the world!

MJ: To you and Russell?

HM: Yes, are you kidding me? Lines and lines and lines of code!

RQ: [Laughs] In my memory, there wasn’t even any color. It was black text printed on a light-gray background.

MJ: Ugh… wow!

RQ: Another factor was that I’m an only child. It was just my mother and I, and I didn’t have much else to do. Back then, home computers weren’t connected to the internet. When I turned mine on, it was just a black screen with a flashing white cursor. Nothing happened unless you did something with it.

MJ: So you had to be natively interested in computers, because they weren’t as obviously interesting as they are now. These days, you would never overhear I’m into computers and Me too! Oh my goodness!

RQ: [Laughs] Yes, I’m not sure I met anyone else who was really into programming computers until I was about fifteen. Although, even a computer that was not on the internet, that just showed a black screen with a flashing white cursor when you turned it on, was still the most interesting thing in the house. 

MJ: I do suggest that to Hopper—that there are lots of other things more interesting than the computer—but to Hopper it all seems so…

HM: Old fashioned!

RQ: Hopper, can you remember the first time you became interested in how computers work?

HM: I think it started when we were doing a summer-camp project at my school and they had a little part of it which was programming, 3D printing, and laser cutting. I first started using this thing called Scratch [a visual programming language] where you drag different blocks around, like little coding blocks, and it was so amazing to me.

As I got older I stopped liking it because it wasn’t really coding. I started trying to find other programming stuff. I wanted to learn Python, then I read about JavaScript and HTML5 and wanted to learn them.

RQ: It’s a real rabbit hole once you start getting into it!

HM: I started coding with Python a tiny bit. It was kind of crazy, all the different things it did. I left it and came back to it, but I couldn’t find the RUN button, so I just gave up. 

Later I found this app that said “Coding for Everyone” and “Coding for Kids” and everything was in that coding typeface—it was also really kiddy—but once I’d answered a few questions, it just gave me some already-made games.

MJ: I should say for the record, that this is the first time I’ve ever interviewed someone with Hopper.

RQ: How does it feel?

MJ: It’s funny. [To Hopper] This is definitely the first time you’ve ever interviewed someone, right?

HM: Yeah. But I feel like I get a sense of it from watching videos of actors, but then also, I guess I only watch them for five seconds, so…

MJ: I remember earlier this year, I was getting ready for Sundance [Film Festival]. Hopper and I were alone and I was trying to prep for doing press, so Hopper would sit in different chairs and ask me different questions. We ran it again and again.

HM: And then I started making it very weird…

MJ: [To Russell] I guess I see the game as part of your grieving process. I remember feeling relieved that you were making this, because that’s what I’ve done when I’ve had things that simply didn’t have a place in regular life—didn’t function within relationships that well—and so it was interesting to me. I was, like, Oh wow, I’ve literally never played a game—so that’s foreign to me—but this, doing something like this, is not foreign to me. Even trying to put emotion into something that wasn’t really built for emotion feels familiar. You and I have worked on projects together like that [Somebody (2014); I’m the President, Baby (2018)] where the technology was used in surprising ways.

This is a question not really about the game, but about grieving… what is something that people don’t realize about grieving or that you wouldn’t have guessed until you were in this sea?

I mean, you lost your mom, you flew home, and then your grandmother died. You’d just gotten home. All any of us wanted was for you to get to come home. It was so heartbreaking that your mom was going to die, but there was a relatively long time to get our heads around it, but [then there was this] parallel tragedy.

You were away from your wife; you were away from everybody. So in the video game of us—your friends—the goal would have been to Get Russell Home and you did get home, but then you had to go right back! It was a plot twist that no one could have seen.

And this particular thing of you being the last member of your immediate family—having no siblings, having lost your father—other people might have had ways of grieving that had to do with their family, but you literally didn’t have that. It just wasn’t there… [pauses]

I’m remembering times when you and I were texting. I sort of sensed that the grief wasn’t changing or going away as quickly as it might have. Were you also realizing that at the time?

RQ: I think I’ve been grieving my entire life. My father died just before I was born, so I was born into grief. My other grandparents, most of my aunts and uncles have also died. In many ways, I carry this built-in sense of loss, but I had never experienced the actual immediate grief of losing a parent. To finally be present for it was a shock. 

As you said, my main aim was to get home, to get back to Los Angeles. I had dealt with one funeral, but suddenly there was a second funeral; double the paperwork; two houses to deal with. In my mind, once I got back to “sunny Los Angeles”—to my wife, my friends, my life—I could start the rebuilding process. But it didn’t work that way.

As you also alluded, I didn’t have anyone to directly share the experience with. There were no siblings to grieve alongside, nobody who had even shared the experience of that year with me. My grandmother—who was like a second parent to me—had very briefly been that support, but the last time I saw her alive was when we buried my mother’s ashes.

My aunt—my grandmother’s other daughter—had died five years before, so there was a context and depth to my grandmother’s additional grief that made me feel less alone. But then my grandmother suddenly died too!

I left the UK in 2005, hadn’t lived in my hometown since 1997. So even the few people I did share parts of this with—cousins, my mum’s friends—were now far away. Nobody was here in Los Angeles. I got back, tried to move on, tried to share things with people I know here, but no matter how much they cared or expressed sympathy, it felt impossible to really feel comforted or to feel close to anyone, because the trauma felt so separated from my daily life, but it was all still inside me.

That’s really when I started feeling like I had to make something to document this. And as soon as I started even thinking about what I would make, it was a very comforting feeling. Something to wallow in rather than ignore. It feels a bit like an excuse—an excuse to spend more time in a world that is not only on the other side of the planet, but a world that has ceased to exist. My last real reason to regularly return to my homeland has gone. And nobody in my regular life is able to keep it alive with shared memories. The feeling of wanting to recreate a world that I—and other people—could virtually walk around in started to feel very important. It was a chance to bring back something that had vanished and to share it.

MJ: Right. It’s interesting that all you wanted was to get home to Los Angeles, but now [you’re here] you’re forever—well, hopefully not forever—recreating it. To me the process seems inherently insane and tedious! So the whole thing has a Synecdoche, New York quality to it.

RQ: [Laughs] I actually rewatched that movie a few months ago for the first time since it originally came out. The parallel of tedious dedication to constructing a fantasy world did not go unnoticed.

MJ: And a “fantasy world” that was actually your hell at the time! But that’s, I think, what we do.

Linda’s living room at the end of 2017
In-progress screenshot from the development of Linda & Joan

HM: Are there other games that are like this? Did you [play] games that felt you could build on? Do you have a game like that?

RQ: There are many narrative-heavy games that I like. Games like Kentucky Route Zero and Night in the Woods are very good at conveying emotion and feelings and mood through relatively simple graphics and a lot of text. They were inspirational to me as a method of storytelling. I would say that Kentucky Route Zero, especially, taught me that if you give the player some type of agency—they can control what is happening in a scene—then each individual line of dialogue becomes less important somehow.

[In a] movie or a novel, each line really has to keep things moving forward because each line occupies space and space is limited. Whereas, I think, in an interactive experience where you can also be walking around or engaging with the environment, the conversation can be more naturalistic. The power of each sentence might become less important, but you can build up a richer tapestry of mood and feeling. You can give the player other things to do while the conversations are happening. You can still have these key moments, big scenes, where focus is narrowed, but dialogue can also act as small talk in the background.

MJ: [To Hopper] You played a game—kind of for the first time—yesterday. It was about an avocado? It’s called… Avo?

HM: [To Russell] I will say that your game is not like any game I can think of on the App Store!

MJ: Or even like the one game that you’ve ever played, which is about an avocado?

HM: Yes.

RQ: You’re right, there’s not a single mention of an avocado in my game.

MJ: This is our closing question. What is the best possible outcome for a game like this?

RQ: I think there are two answers to that. One is probably, like, the cleansing of my soul, which has already started to happen. Working on this project has given me distance from what happened. I suppose time is also doing that naturally to some degree, but analyzing everything from so many angles—spending time with it—is really helping me to understand and talk about the events with less immediate emotion. It’s become separated into two entities. There’s my personal experience, which at times still feels very raw and immediate and troubling. But there’s also this version that I’m creating for other people. And I feel like I can go back and forth between those. I think it’s given me a new language with which to think about what happened.

But the second answer relates to how the game connects with other people. The release of “Four Months Earlier” has been surprising in many ways. I’ve received emails from complete strangers who want to share their own experiences after feeling moved while playing. For some people, they heard about the game, they had also lost a parent recently, they downloaded the game, and they felt comforted and understood by it, which is wonderful. But there have been some totally unexpected interactions too. The prologue is free and there are people that see free games and just download them—maybe they like how the graphics look and that’s enough, but they have no idea what the game is about. And, of course, these days people livestream their gaming experiences. So there are a handful of videos on the internet of people playing through the prologue in real time. One especially moving video, is a guy from the UK, who clearly didn’t know what the prologue was about. He begins playing and—realizing that the characters are also British—starts reading out the dialogue in these over-the-top versions of his own accent. It’s pretty cartoonish. As the creator, it’s hard for me to watch. He’s having fun and I’m glad that he’s playing, but it’s difficult hearing someone read aloud every line of a personal story that you’ve written, in comedic accents. 

Anyway, he plays all the way through and after it ends he lets the recording run for another four or five minutes—starts talking about how, actually, his own mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer right now—how she is going through chemotherapy; how true the dialogue about experiencing a metallic taste in your mouth was; how the way the son talks to his mum felt so accurate. He gave the most eloquent and beautiful take on the game that I could have imagined. 

MJ: Wow! Russell!

RQ: It was something I wasn’t expecting when I started watching and—I suppose—neither was he when he started playing as he didn’t know what the game was about. In that moment—as tears were forming—while I was listening to his eloquence—having my expectations flipped on what this livestream was going to be—in that exact moment everything felt worth it—just for this one human connection. Without knowing it, I think that’s the outcome I wanted.

MJ: I suddenly feel so grateful that people livestream! I think that’s a good ending for this interview? [Looks at Hopper]

HM: [Sings a closing theme song] Make sure to like and subscribe!

Linda & Joan is currently in development and due for release in 2022. “Four Months Earlier,” the free, standalone prologue, is available now for iOS, macOS, and Windows. For more information on both, visit https://www.lindajoan.com

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