What types of explosive expression can one expect from a creator who is relentlessly driven to break away from the mediocre and mundane? We decided to ask video game designer and digital artist TJ Hughes, who creates under the alias Terrifying Jellyfish, about working on the aesthetically ascendant adventure Nour: Play with Your Food.
In this profile, we speak with TJ Hughes about Nour, how he works with his team, his origin story, and advice he’d give to developers hoping to leave their mark in gaming. Hughes’ first project Feesh, which featured microscopic arcade gameplay and vibrant visuals, showcased TJ’s drive to break the mold in a work space equally microscopic, as it was conceived and completed within a 48-hour Ludum Dare game jam. With no tight time constraints he is magnifying color and playfulness with his sophomore project, Nour: Play with Your Food.
PlayStation Blog: What inspired Nour: Play with Your Food?
Nour is described as “an experimental food art game designed to make you hungry,” giving players a space to play with their food like a kid but without any mess to clean up. A further testament to the difference in working on Nour and Feesh, Nour’s development process was slow and methodical, with no one “eureka moment.”
“I was learning how to make shaders, and was brainstorming the best subject to try and emulate,” Hughes explains. “I was just starting to travel and eat more diverse foods, so I thought it was the perfect subject. I started to upload my art tests onto Twitter, where folks would tell me how the images made them hungry. Being intrigued by that response, I started to try more things like using the tech art concept of sub-surface scattering to simulate the material of noodles and using depth blending to mimic the murkiness of milk tea. I started to develop a library of tech art tricks to make something look appetizing.”
Hughes chose a physics-based experience as it “provides a sandbox to be as chaotic and ridiculous” as a player wants without the wasted food or mess.”
“When presented with a physics-based game, we often have one of two goals: Arrange things as neatly as possible, or make as big of a mess as we can. I think the best physics games should allow you to do both!”
The Nour team
As a leader, how do you motivate and encourage your team?
“It helps to have a team that shares so many of the same interests and fascinations,” Hughes says. “It makes relating to each other and getting on the same page about designs so easy. A lot of us are friends before coworkers as well, we bring a lot of that trust into the project. Anyone on the team can suggest anything, which creates an environment where even the most obtuse ideas are considered. We all love food as well, I noticed that before meetings, we’ll often end up telling each other what we’re eating/planning to cook, if the meeting isn’t in-person at a restaurant already.”
Origins & inspiration
What is your earliest memory of falling in love with video games?
“Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is probably my earliest memory of loving video games,” Hughes says when asked about his earliest gaming memory. “Being the younger brother, I was usually player two meaning I got to play as Tails. I could only help by collecting rings and hitting enemies for my brother. Tails had infinite lives, which was great because I was not too good at video games as a kid. We would cheese the boss fights by sending in Tails to attack while Sonic just focuses on dodging. We bought this book full of cheat codes for popular games and found out about the debug mode cheat, which allows you to spawn anything and go through walls. This sparked a fascination with how games worked under the hood, we’d spend hours tinkering with the game until it inevitably crashed from how many objects we’d spawn.”
From there, Hughes would tell any adults who would listen that he wanted to be a game designer. Thankfully, he didn’t have to go far from home to find inspiration or support.Speaking of his parents, who were artistically expressive in their own ways, Hughes says what he does “is a true mix between their passions; art from my mom’s side, tech from my dad’s side.”
“They were both supportive of what I wanted to do which was incredible for me to build my confidence,” he adds.
When speaking on his journey, he also gives much credit to Carol Mertz, Ben Valenti, and Dana Valenti of Rampant Interactive, who gave him his first games job and exposed him to the industry.
“There are so many experiences I wouldn’t have had if not for them, including my first trip to San Francisco for the game developer conference,” he says. “Joey Paniello, who worked that same job with me taught me most of the code techniques I use to this day as well. I’m so glad to be working on Nour with him!”
Advice to game devs: Keep it simple and share your work
With his first game Feesh, Hughes ran into a roadblock where he perceived a lack of content. He thought his arcade title absolutely needed multiplayer but, after researching further, realized he simply did not have the skills or experience to implement it.
“I had told myself, ‘it’s my art’, and the game is a reflection of where I was in my career,” he says. “I chose to launch the game instead of getting too ambitious.” Pricing it at 99 cents because a small project he wasn’t anticipating any kind of return on, it ended up being the right call as he learned a lot from the experience and got his personal projects on the map. “Even though it was nothing fancy, the heart of the game shone through and it was well received!”
Two core observations from that experience frame the advice he wants game developers to walk away with when they read this: Share what you’re working on and keep it simple.
“Have deep conversations about [your projects] with folks you trust! It’s so much better than working on something in complete isolation,” Hughes says. “A game is a constant communication between you and the player, seeing how your players react is vital to that back and forth.”
“Game dev can be a lot of work and you can find yourself taking on a higher workload than you can do. Don’t be afraid to keep things simple,” he says. “Take it easy, and don’t overwork yourself, just do what you can. Indie developers have to wear a lot of hats to get their businesses started, prioritize yourself and as time goes on, try to organize things in a way that makes less work for you. Also look up TikToks on being a small business owner and how to do your taxes and all that right. Don’t ignore that stuff.”
Panic Inc is the publisher for Nour, a relationship Hughes says has been monumental in making this unique project a reality. “This is the biggest project of my life and having such a reputable publisher backing it makes my incredibly excited to show everyone the final product.”
When it comes to Nour or any project, ultimately, what makes a game a “TJ Hughes” game?
“You’ll know when you notice a tiny visual detail that looks like someone spent way too much time on,” he says. “I’ve also been told my use of color is fairly trademark. I’m inspired by games like Mirror’s Edge that play with lighting in a unique way to achieve a certain fidelity, one that is heavily inspired by realism, but pushes the boundary on just one or two areas to achieve a whole new aesthetic. Cranking just a few sliders past 10 can be enough to give your work a ‘look.’”
And what comes next?
“I want to do more games/projects that interact with spaces and makes excuses to bring folks together in-person,” Hughes explains. “Right now I’m really fascinated by the sociological concept of the Third place; a community environment in which you can hang out that isn’t home, nor a workplace. To me, there aren’t enough places to just vibe without having to spend money. I would love it if games could provide such a place, or bring more like-minded people to those spaces.”