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Xalavier Nelson Jr.

Source: Strange Scaffold / Xalavier Nelson Jr.

Becoming a video game developer and opening up a video game studio usually requires a particular path that most involved in the industry follow. But for Xalavier Nelson Jr., he decided to pave his own path, leading to the development of one of the year’s best Indie games.

Strange Scaffold is not a video game studio that is a household name among gamers, but that won’t be the case for long as long as the studio keeps putting out Indie bangers like El Paso, Elswehere.

Newly minted Forbes 30 Under 30 member and BAFTA-nominated Xalavier Nelson Jr. started Strange Scaffold in 2019, and since then pumped out numerous titles while using innovative, sustainable development methods allowing his studio to develop games at a cheaper price that are also profitable.

Before becoming a studio head, Nelson Jr.’s road to opening Strange Scaffold was unusual but also one of the most genius ways of getting into the video games industry.

Speaking with HHW Gaming, we asked Nelson Jr. about his clever break into the gaming industry through video game journalism at the age of 12, landing bylines on well-known websites like Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Game Developer, and even having a regular column for PC Gamer, unbeknownst to the gaming publications.

“I am not quite sure. I can’t say by the time I was getting properly paid and having Bylines that happened to intersect with when I was an adult, ” Nelson Jr said. “But I was getting sent laptops as someone who still hadn’t gone through puberty. I guess in the same way that on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. On the internet, it is surprisingly easy to come across as a semi-competent, immature adult.”

Opening A Video Game Studio Wasn’t His Main Goal

Nelson Jr. didn’t only cut his teeth in games media. He also worked on a variety of different games in different capacities. He provided narrative and writing work on the Reigns series, Stranger Things VR, and was Narrative Director on SkateBIRD.

Surprisingly, he didn’t initially want to open a video game studio. Journalism was his main goal because, of course, the free games.

“It absolutely was not. I wanted to be a games journalist because, again, being a kid, the idea of getting free video games as part of your work, that just sounds like the perfect job,” he said. “And it forced me to grow up really dang fast. Because the games industry and the still current lack of career longevity… a lot of our statistics suggests that the average career length is around five years still, if not less.”

He continued, “By the time I was an adult, starting at 12, it was literally I was 17. I had already seen a couple of waves of peers and friends and people who I looked up to disappear, burn out, [and] switch mediums. I was going to leave games, but I thought that I would make one video game myself before finding a “real career” and a job environment that would support me. And wouldn’t you know it, they f***ing got me man. They pulled me right back in because I loved making video games. And from there, the question became what I cared about and, the process of making video games, and how I could uplift and protect my teammates at the same time as I grew in experience and in positions with that pursuit.

How El Paso, Elsewhere Became A Reality

After being pulled back into the gaming development side of the industry, Nelson Jr., under his Strange Scaffold banner, developed games like Space Warlord Organ Trading and his latest El Paso, Elsewhere, a third-person horror-shooter-slash-love-story, which is currently one of the standout Indie titles of the year.

The game draws inspiration from classic games like Max Payne with its play style and shooting mechanics, plus tone. It features a unique story that sees players take on the role of James Savage, who heads to a hotel in El Paso, Texas, to stop his girlfriend, Draculae, from finishing a ritual that will destroy the world.

We asked Nelson Jr. how he came up with the game’s unique story, which honestly needs to be picked up by a movie studio or streaming service, and he revealed it all became a reality due to a road his family would drive down when they moved to El Paso.

“When my family came to El Paso, Texas about five years ago… There’s this long road that goes through the mountains that overlook the city. They’re called the Franklin Mountains. The road is called Transmountain Woodrow Bean, ” he begins.

“Within days of us arriving in El Paso and driving on that road, this road that acts as a shortcut between the east and west side of town, this image embedded itself in my head of a Black monster hunter driving on that road in the middle of the desert late at night, hunched over his steering wheel, looking for a place to bury and burn the body of a vampire that was inside of his trunk.”

He continues, “I didn’t know what his name was, I didn’t know what the wider story and world he was within, but the idea of that character and this… really grounded a personal urban fantasy story and universe, stuck with me and I knew that it was a story I would have to tell sooner than later.”

Nelson Jr. Is Proud of The Work His Team Did On El Paso, Elsewhere

Making a video game, especially a good one, is an accomplishment that any game developer should be proud of. But the one thing Nelson Jr. is most proud of when it comes to his game is the talent it brought out of the people working on it.

“The thing I’m most proud of in El Paso, Elsewhere is how much it revealed talents in all of the people who worked on it. Because a lot of people worked on it in a bunch of different roles, but the ways that they contribute to the game often went beyond their job description,” Nelson Jr told HHW Gaming.

He continues, “Jim Brown, one of the most prominent level designers on the team, he ended up doing audio design. Our lead programmer, he ended up doing the cinematography for every single cut scene in the game. He has never done a cut scene before. He just said, “Can I give that a try?” And the initial results were so promising that we created space in the production schedule to literally carve out a month and a half just for him to bring his eye and his expertise to those cut scenes.”

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve done songwriting and even rapping for games before in these small piecemeal segments, but I would never, before now, call myself a rapper or a musician. And the process of making the game, when we realized the only way to bring its vision to life was, “Oh God, we would have to make a rap album to really bring this to life.” Stepping into that role and doing a bunch of research and really being enabled to grow and find what at least one version of my musical voice looks like alongside our composer, RJ Lake. Every single member of this team got to discover pieces of themselves in making this game better than the sum of its parts. And that’s what I’d say… creating that kind of environment is the thing I’m most proud of as a leader and the thing that I look at in this game with the most joy.

We Need To See More Games Funded With People of Color In Leadership Positions

The video game industry is making some strides in the inclusion department, but there is still much work to be done, and Nelson Jr. knows he is a small minority.

While the industry does employ thousands of people around the world, only 5% of them are Black, compared to close to 80% of them being white, according to a 2021 survey from the International Game Developers Association according to an NPR report on the number of Black video game developers in the industry.

Nelson Jr. wants to see more people of color in leadership positions at video game studios at a variety of scales.

“I think one of the things I’d like to see change in the games industry is honestly for as much as we try to ape the gravitas and the success of other industries like music and film when it comes to meaningfully allowing representation to stand on such a stage that it gets to create elevated art, and frankly make a lot of money, we’re way behind in that area, ” Nelson Jr. said. “Everything everywhere all at once is kicking our tails. If I could change one thing in games, I would want to see more games funded with people of color in leadership positions at a variety of scales talking about from large games down to honestly small games. Small games that can make a big focused impact, saying something specific.”

He continues, “That’s the only way we’ll get to echo the achievements that we see in film with things like They Cloned Tyrone and Sorry to Bother You and Black Panther. Games are trying to get those same results right now. They’re trying to get the Crazy Rich Asians effect to work for them without realizing that the only way you get that is by letting black expertise and the voices of people of color shine and be enabled and be able to work at a number of levels.”

Advice For Young Black or Brown Kids Trying To Get In The Gaming Industry

Getting into the game industry isn’t as easy as one would think, especially being Black,this gaming journalist knows firsthand all about that. We asked Nelson Jr. if he would have any advice for you gamers of color to make the leap, and his advice was to make the game you want to make and just do the work.

“If I was to give advice to anyone trying to break into games and especially to… Well, actually, if anyone tried to break into games, young or old, especially from a Black background, they cannot stop you from doing an incredible thing if they do not have power over you,” Nelson Jr said. “If we as a people apply our ingenuity, our ability to work with the resources that we have at hand, the style and the clarity of voice that has so prominently showed itself in our work in a variety of industries, then that is how you get in. You get in by doing the work and by existing at a scrappy enough level that your voice cannot be denied.”

“And it’s why Strange Scaffold is here today alongside the grace of God. It’s why, frankly, in a very bad year for video games, we’ve managed to survive is because a lot of people told me the route to making our creative dreams come true was by growing up and looking at El Paso, Elsewhere and taking every bit of money I could get for myself and for my family and from a publisher even, and putting it into this one giant moonshot that would determine whether or not I ever got to make video games again.”

He continues, “We didn’t do that. We chose our battles. We stuck to our principles. And not only has El Paso, Elsewhere done well, but even if it hadn’t, we’ve got… Right now, there’s five other games in production that we can point to and say they can’t stop us from making games through either neglect or malice.”

El Paso, Elsewhere The Film? Hell Yeah

Film adaptations based on video games are in their Renaissance era. Once being regarded as the jokes of the film and television industry, they are raking in the big bucks and are actually good.

So, of course, we asked Nelson Jr. if he would like to see El Paso, Elsewhere turned into a film, and the answer was a resounding yes, and he already has someone in mind to play the game’s main protagonist.

“I would love to see El Paso, Elsewhere make the jump to other mediums. And in fact the very core of that story, before Draculae even existed, but just around this character and introduction to this world, that was a comic book strip. Seeing that make the jump to a variety of other places would be amazing. And if I can humbly put my name forward to at least audition for that main character, I would love to do it again,” Nelson Jr. told HHW Gaming.

He adds, “Yeah, but also, if we can get John Boyega or something… I want to play my character, but also… I’m open. I’m open to what makes the thing happen and also if something cool could happen.”

Future Strange Scaffold Projects

So what’s the future for Strange Scaffold? Nelson Jr. revealed that there is plenty in the pipeline for the studio following the successful launch of El Paso, Elsehwere.

“One that we’ve started talking about already is Life Eater,” Nelson Jr. revealed. “It’s an urban fantasy kidnapping sim, an analog horror interface game where you play as an urban druid living in modern-day suburbia who sacrifices multiple people a year to delay the end of the world on behalf of a God that he isn’t sure exists.”

“Another thing that we’ve already revealed is a game called Teenage Demon Slayer Society. It’s a band of kids in a small town, slaying demons and protecting it from the supernatural because the adults around them didn’t do it for them. It’s a character action tactics game, basically Devil May Cry in a turn-based format, which works well with my deteriorating reflexes. And as far as El Paso, Elsewhere is concerned, in the true ending of the game, as the credits roll, it says that James Savage will return. And all I’ll say for now is that we sure meant it.”

The future is very bright for Nelson Jr. and Strange Scaffold.

Photo: Strange Scaffold / Xalavier Nelson Jr.