Shinesparkers Feature:

Sammy Hall

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The following guest feature was written by video game pre-production artist Sammy Hall, who drew concept artwork for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Here, he recounts in his own words his early childhood experiences with Metroid, how he was led to work on games, and joining Retro to be part of the development of Corruption. We would like to thank Sammy for taking the time to share his memories with us!

My parents dragged me all over creation when I was growing up. As fun as it was to dig up old bullets in Civil War battlefields, hoot at owls, or catch the hatchling snapping-turtles, the real fun was on a small five-inch black & white television in the back of the car. The NES was plugged in. Somehow my dad rigged these things up to the cigarette lighter without us catching on fire. He really liked Ridley Scott’s Alien, so something about Metroid must have resonated with him when he handed over that cartridge from Toys’R’Us.

The fuzziness and unreliable low-fi of that portable TV probably had a lot to do with my love of texture in art. That, and the fact that Metroid had no printed map, only added to the atmosphere. It was only an impression of a game on that little screen with the audio crackling in and out. I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of passwords or save-files yet so that cartridge really felt like it was hiding a mysterious world inside. I started the game over and over again, every time, for months. It just felt like Mother Brain really put up all barriers in search of her.

We stopped at an isolated bed & breakfast for a weekend. The owners’ daughter saw the NES controller I was clutching and said her brother was real good at these kinds of things. She called his name out and this tiny country boy sprang from the forest, mute for all I know, not a clean fingernail on him.  It was worth the dirty grit he smeared all over my D-pad because he plugged that coaxial-cable into his parent’s TV and crunched through Metroid right in front of my eyes.  I was amazed. I was even more amazed that there was actually an ending, that Samus was clearly not a “he” like my instruction manual said. The tiny little gamer said nothing; dude just had a huge grin on his face, then ran back out into nature.

Still, I was never good at these games until I began to neglect my college education in order to figure them out. A friend in class shoved a copy of Super Metroid into my backpack while the professor wasn’t looking. It was 2002, but we still clung to those old consoles and kept them very much alive – warmed up every day right next to the GameCube, Xbox, PS2, and Dreamcast. We weren’t dumb, we understood that games were systems of mechanics, that the good ones don’t get old just hard to find. Sharing is caring.

Well, for a month I was stuck. For sure the SNES didn’t have the bandwidth to blow up that tube in Maridia? Right? Wrong.
That was the moment my love of exploration games flooded my collection and drained my wallet. Couldn’t get enough. A whole new world and language were open to me. Noob no longer.
Symphony of the Night, Blaster Master, Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, Amazing Mirror, Guacamelee, Rogue Legacy, Environmental Station Alpha, VVVVVV, Shantae, Shadow Complex.
There’s a lot of fun out there and it really clicked with Super Metroid, and that’s only the 2D ones. Oh, and games like that have to have great music, that’s just a bonus.

I was working at a toy store on the river in Savannah back then, and when it wasn’t tourist season I cleaned everything quick, then just sat back for hours exploring my way through Metroid II with some graph-paper. My girlfriend would knock at the window after closing, so I’d just turn the lights off. My Japanese import GBA SP was well equipped to deal with these kinds of situations. My apartment was right where that feather falls in Forrest Gump, I’d sit on that bench exploring Circle of the Moon (my first Castlevania) while making sure my dogs didn’t eat the pigeons.

I was working at Midway after art-school when a friend messaged me that there was some stuff going on at Retro. So, I left an office full of dozens of arcade machines to try something new, from Chicago to TX. I had a lot to do at my new job, but won’t lie to you, I mostly got paid to sit in a room and draw just about anything I wanted non-stop for years, it was great. But there was a challenge when it came to storyboards. So much of what always made Metroid great was how the storytelling was left up to the gamer’s imagination. Basically, I did what I could to keep the cinematics rather minimal so the player could get back into their map. Also, we didn’t have a huge studio dedicated to cinematics so everyone had to be smart. The artists there were good at being smart as you’ve seen from the games.

Retro is in Austin, just about the coolest place a gamer could ask to live. Arcades, vintage game shops, pinball, toy stores full of Shadow of the Colossus figures and real video rental shops. Some of my favorite films have a lot of Austin in them, like Slacker and Tree of Life. A lot of nature is just a walk away there; that really was a big influence for the Metroid universe, with so much discovery and wonder. The people were very bright, the studio was full of a lot of smart folks to learn from. They could handle everything thrown at them, a lot that goes way over my head. Still, to this day, I have my fingers crossed that they get to create their very own unique game some day. Many innovative ideas are bouncing around there just ready to get out. They have the powers to change how we think of the medium.

A lot of things went down, but I always knew what I was getting into working in games. It’s show business after all. And I have had some great fun with the folks at Armature as well as Bluepoint; they’re really getting to create some cool games. There’s a wealth of knowledge I got working at Retro, just practicing and practicing for years. The different projects tested a huge range in me, helped a lot to let go of being a critic, just to embrace any style of project and give it my best from Prime to DK. They call us artists, but we really design things for the player – I’ll go home and be my own artist. I’ll go to work to design things I feel will click with gamers. It just helps a lot that I’m a gamer myself to relate to what they might want to play.

I regret that Retro lost so many of their most creative developers, but they continue to go on to create awesome games. Many have evolved to create their own artwork, spreading beauty and light into the world. Some years I take breaks. I don’t like to think of it as a career since that’s so cold, I just get out there when I feel I have something to offer. Gamers pour hearts and souls and minds and money into what they play. I have to respect that.

My advice to other artists is this: if you want to work in show-business and entertainment, then understand that you are not an artist at work, you are a designer. Always go home and create your own art for yourself. Go to work to create a product that needs to appeal to audiences and sell. I’ve met many artists in game development that haven’t created their own artwork in over a decade. Make an oath to not let this happen to you, or else you simply become a cold product yourself. In the West, creative people are assumed to have mystical “gifts” and “talents”, but we get that so backwards. Artists that create great works have spent their entire lives developing their skills, on a sort of journey. If you want to be great at what you do, then never underestimate the power of locking yourself away in isolation for thousands of hours to practice, practice, practice. There’s a lot of sacrifices to be made. Instead of going out to all the parties, spend some time to yourself creating. That’s a superpower. But always understand, as sad as it sounds, that other people will try to slow you down. In the West, working really, really hard to be good at something can also hurt other peoples’ feelings. If there are people in your life that cannot be happy for you, they are dangerous and you need to get away.

It’s an active medium that requires participation, and that will always fascinate me.

-Sammy Hall

In addition to this written piece, we asked Sammy to clarify rumours surrounding some of his sketches that have been available online, depicting Crocomire. Sammy confirmed that the Crocomire sketches were fanart drawn while working for Retro Studios and were created as practice for his new role there:

Those Crocomires were just fanart done at a coffee-shop, and then there was some other fanarts I did basically excited for potentially working at Retro, long ago. Crocomire was never planned for any of the games, but practice for creature stuff.

Sammy graciously agreed to re-draw one of the sketches exclusively for Shinesparkers, and our staff picked the eleventh sketch. We think it turned out pretty awesome!

For more of Sammy Hall’s works, please visit one of the links below: