El Paso, Elsewhere Wears Its Bloodstained Heartbreak on Its Sleeve - IGN (2024)

There’s a moment at the very beginning of El Paso, Elsewhere, where the protagonist James Savage leans over the hood of a car pulled over in the middle of nowhere and makes a plea directly to the player. “I need you to believe…that I’m going to get back into this car, on the count of three, and stop my ex before she destroys us all. I need to know that you believe, so I can too.” He slowly counts to three, and in a blink, he’s in the El Paso hotel where she lies in wait. “Well,” he says, as if pleasantly surprised. “Here’s to believing.”

The parallels between this specific moment of James’ opening monologue and the story told to me by Strange Scaffold studio head Xalavier Nelson Jr. of the game’s development aren’t lost on me. He’s worked on over 80 projects in the past eight years, he tells me over a video call, across video games, comics, and tabletop, AAA and indie, licensed and original IP. His studio, Strange Scaffold, was founded out of a “deep passion for advocating to make games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier because our players deserve it.” As he speaks to me, Nelson walks Aristotelian laps around the brightly-painted living room, kitchen, and hallway of his house. Occasionally, he sprints to the PC to check a fact, then resumes his peripateticism.

I’ve interviewed Nelson before about his move from writing to every other aspect of game development, and his game-making philosophy centered around sustainability, broad collaboration, and deep introspection. When we last spoke on these subjects, it was about An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs – an extremely different kind of video game. And yet, not at all different. Both games center protagonists who are deeply in love, deeply hurt by it, and who spend a lot of time thinking about those feelings. Both games take place in colorful, almost surreal environments – albeit very different flavors of surreal. And both games are made with a distinct earnestness and sincerity that’s almost overpowering.

Two very different games, yes, but with the same heart. It’s intentional, Nelson says, and reflective across all of Strange Scaffold’s manifold projects. Wildly different swings all, but with the intent of cultivating a community that sticks around for their shared core of sincerity and introspection. That’s the Strange Scaffold portfolio strategy, but it almost destroyed them, for a lack of believing.

“So September 26th is when the game is supposed to come out, and we were going to run out of practically all of the money on October 1st,” he says. “I [started] to interact with the corporate and investment sectors of the games industry and they tell me, ‘You can't make games like this.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, we're doing it now. We do it over and over again. We do it profitably. We do it on time and on budget.’ And they say, ‘Yeah, that's amazing. That's astounding. You can't do it like that though.’ And that ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in that if we don't receive support, we don't get to keep making games this way.”

We're no longer on the red line but we're still on the knife's edge hoping that as we show up for our players, they show up for us too.

Nelson laments what he sees as a trend from industry publishers and investors to demand that studios like his make their games less risky by effectively risking the physical and mental health of their staff. “The assumption around the process of building games is that it must be harmful on some layer for it to have the chance of being successful,” he says. “Even on this game, again and again, we…were being told [by publishers and investors] that our emphasis on player and team health was a measure of our lack of ambition.”

“People kept asking me in rooms, ‘What game do you really want to make though? What do you really want to make? What's your big swing?’ And I think it's a big swing to give people amazing games over and over and over again that each provides something different for their lives. So we stuck by that. Yeah, it is what nearly drove us out of business. We managed to find some like-minded people that we're no longer on the red line but I'll be honest, we're still on the knife's edge hoping that as we show up for our players, they show up for us too.”

Like James Savage, like Tinkerbell in the Peter Pan stage play, studios like Nelson’s rely on audience belief. Even El Paso’s game over screen reiterates the message: You Keep Going. My own adventure with the game took a bit of a leap of faith, too. I loved the sincerity, silliness, and sadness of An Airport for Aliens Run by Dogs, but I’ve never played the shooters El Paso is inspired by (Max Payne, Hotline Miami) nor am I enthralled by the idea of shooting zombies. But I did exactly what Nelson hoped I’d do: I took a chance on El Paso, Elsewhere. And was rewarded many times over.

El Paso, Elsewhere is beautiful. It’s beautiful to look at, in its dramatic color contrasts of light and shadow and mixture of complex lighting effects against haunting PS1-style models and structures. Retro and modern all at once. It theoretically takes place in a hotel, if the hotel is infinitely deep and leads to hell, and the conceit works to keep the environments not just varied but perpetually and appropriately unsettling.

Screens - El Paso, Elsewhere

Writing is where El Paso especially shines, specifically Savage’s steady narration and interplay with the player. His speech is heavy with the poetry we imagine we think of when we stare out the window, nearly hungover, at 3AM in the wake of some grief. But El Paso is also full of hope and energy, both in its overall story (which I shall not spoil, but it’s good!) and in the relentless total radness of slow-mo dodging a zombie and filling its head with bullets midair while a punchy hip-hop soundtrack thrums in your ears. Yeah, James Savage is righteously sad and on a lot of drugs, but he still looks really freaking cool shooting biblically accurate angels out of the sky. Shooting feels cool too, fast and snappy, and action movie-esque in its momentum. Put it all together? Consider me a believer.

Though he’s the one speaking to me, Nelson’s whole philosophy is against the idea that one person could be the face of the entire project, or even that a faceless Strange Scaffold “brand” could be responsible for it. He wants players to feel the creativity and identity of each individual developer that touched the project, from the music of RJ Lake to Romero Bonickhausen’s cutscenes to Gary Kings’ work on the game’s trailers. And every other name in the credits, too.

“I honestly feel like we have done players a disservice, so earnestly making them focus on studio brands or legacy characters rather than saying, ‘This person told the story that made you cry. This person made the characters who you cosplayed as. This person made the gameplay that when you play every other game in this genre, this person and this group of people designed the mechanics that you miss in your hands years later.’”

Nelson gives a personal example: Binary Domain. It’s a game made by Yakuza and Like a Dragon developers Ryu Ga Gotoku studio, and it’s wildly different from the franchise the developers have become known for. But Nelson loves it, because it has the same heart as the Like a Dragon series that he already loves.

“It's a little bit like comic books,” he continues. “You probably aren't a fan of Batman, you're a fan of how Frank Miller wrote them or Tom King. You're a fan of how a specific person's lens of interpretation changes a work. I think if you apply that lens to video games, we've seen a lot of things where people are not allowed to just think about making video games and doing their jobs and delivering the experiences that players love. Layoffs, the recent Unity news, there's a variety of distractions...I have realized the reason that buying games for me is such a roll of the dice is because I'm just looking over and over to see when and where a team is allowed to have that earnestness and that creative spirit and that individual expression is allowed to really speak. Because I believe it is in AAA games, I believe it is in indie games, it's in AA games and it is one of the first things to be strangled by production decisions that do not acknowledge its existence at all.”

You probably aren't a fan of Batman, you're a fan of how Frank Miller wrote them or Tom King. You're a fan of how a specific person's lens of interpretation changes a work.

El Paso, Elsewhere was not free of those “distractions” – Nelson is candid about that too. Apart from the funding crisis, he says the game was essentially made entirely in 10 months (though in planning for two years). 50 chapters, a full rap album, over 40 minutes of 3D animated cinematic cutscenes – it was a lot in a short time period, even with Strange Scaffold’s efforts to keep its people from overworking. “Every single time someone does something cool, it creates work for other people if only because they are inspired to do something amazing,” Nelson says. Exhilarating, yes, but exhausting.

“As a leader, I've done what I can to mitigate some of the negative effects of that, but the process of pulling this game together and making the best version of it according to our vision and our time and our scope and our budget has been, I think, pretty intensive for the team,” he says. “And while we've created periods of rest, we've spoken, we communicate really intelligently, there's one thing I look at with some pain and regret it is that we made a game so big and so cool that the end of its development cycle did not represent the philosophical desires that we have for the development cycle as a whole.”

But Nelson isn’t giving up on his vision. He and Strange Scaffold plan to continue looking for ways to keep the studio’s structure but nix the urgency, speed, and pain that so often comes with deadlines. And perhaps with the critical success of El Paso, Elsewhere, he’ll find more believers willing to support future earnest endeavors, whatever the genre or theme. Like Savage and the player, mutually staring down death and heartbreak and game over screens: You keep going.

Rebekah Valentine is a senior reporter for IGN. Got a story tip? Send it to rvalentine@ign.com.

El Paso, Elsewhere Wears Its Bloodstained Heartbreak on Its Sleeve - IGN (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Van Hayes

Last Updated:

Views: 6037

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Van Hayes

Birthday: 1994-06-07

Address: 2004 Kling Rapid, New Destiny, MT 64658-2367

Phone: +512425013758

Job: National Farming Director

Hobby: Reading, Polo, Genealogy, amateur radio, Scouting, Stand-up comedy, Cryptography

Introduction: My name is Van Hayes, I am a thankful, friendly, smiling, calm, powerful, fine, enthusiastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.