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Interview: Bear Theft Auto - The Indie Adventures Of Enviro-Bear's Justin Smith

Gamasutra catches up with offbeat indie game creator Justin Smith (Enviro-Bear 2000) to discuss a variety of esoteric and oddly intriguing topics, from mean App Store user reviews to bear copycat-criminals.

Jason Johnson, Blogger

November 19, 2010

9 Min Read

[Gamasutra catches up with offbeat indie game creator Justin Smith (Enviro-Bear 2000) to discuss a variety of esoteric and oddly intriguing topics, from mean App Store user reviews to bear copycat-criminals.] Justin Smith is the kind of guy who you never quite know when to take seriously. Did he really consider making a game about defending the Alamo with a cyborg built from Davy Crockett’s corpse? Is his favorite TV show actually The Love Boat? No matter how outlandish his quips may seem, there’s always the off chance of their legitimacy. I suppose that’s to be expected from the man who made So Long, Oregon and the IGF Nuovo-nominated Enviro-Bear 2000 -- games in which the biggest adversaries are dysentery and an angry badger rampaging in the passenger’s seat. Smith’s sense of humor borders on the absurd, and only an equally absurd interview could do him justice - so that's what we tried: Hello, Justin. Justin Smith: Hi. I read in another interview that you have a love for being unemployed. How’s that working out? JS: I said that? I’ve done way too many interviews for the number of games I’ve made. [Laughs] I’m glad you agreed to do this one. I’d like to start by asking you a few personal questions. Are you a pet owner? Do you smoke? JS: Are you with an insurance company? This interview is actually part of an elaborate ruse to raise your premiums. JS: No, I don’t smoke. [Laughs] As an indie, you have to cut down on all costs. I use my neighbors’ pets and I try to get secondhand smoke where I can. What kind of music do you enjoy? JS: All sorts of stuff. When I was making Enviro-Bear, I pretty much listened to nothing but The Fall. Oh really? I have a few of their albums. I love 'Grotesque'. JS: That’s a great album. You recently went to Texas for Fantastic Arcade. What was that like? JS: It’s primarily a film festival, but they had a bar full of computers and arcade cabinets in the back. Enviro-Bear had a cabinet. It had a party atmosphere, and I got to hang out with a bunch of cool people: Paolo Pedercini, cactus, Derek Yu, Messhof. Though I think the show was a little under the radar because there wasn’t a nomination process. I saw on the internet that you won, and thought to myself, “I didn’t know that could be won.” JS: [Laughs.] Everybody won something. It was very much like kindergarten in that regard. Who Is The Real Justin Smith? One of the first things I did when prepping for this interview was Google you. You get your fair share of hits, but the search also returned a number of other Justin Smiths. I made a list of them, and I would like to ask how each of these other Justin Smiths’ careers would suit you. JS: [Laughs.] Okay. The first guy is Justin Smith, the professional poker player. Would playing poker for a living work for you? JS: I like to gamble. On second thought, no, I don’t like to gamble. Justin Smith, the pro lacrosse player. JS: The national sport of Canada. Its very violent. It makes hockey look tame. I couldn’t play lacrosse. You Canadians are kind of brutal. JS: We’re trying to shake that reputation. We’re trying to get more into curling. It’s very non-violent. And you can have 100% performance if you’re drunk. It’s a great sport. Justin Smith, a historian on the Mexican-American war? JS: I learned a lot about it when I was in Texas [for Fantastic Arcade]. I went to the Alamo. I got the tourist version. I’m considering making a game where the Mexican army rises from the dead. The only way to defend the Alamo is to find Davy Crockett’s body and make him a cyborg. So that’s what I know about history. Justin Smith, a candidate for Sheriff in Berthhoud, CO. JS: That would be fun! Colorado is a hotbed of bears doing crazy shit. Justin Smith, the Creative Director of Fish Associates. JS: Of who? Laughing At Ecological Disasters In Enviro-Bear, the fish jump right into the car. Are you concerned about the Asian Carp invasion? JS: I think we should get a bunch of bears in the area and see what they can do! Shortly after the release of Enviro-Bear, reports of bears breaking into cars began to rise. "Bear Trashes Car," "Bear Breaks into Car, Goes on Joyride," "Auto Theft in Progress Turns Out to be Bear." Were these incidents part of a viral marketing campaign for your game? JS: I don’t want to incriminate myself here. Then, are they copycat crimes? JS: [Laughs] The most famous one was when the bear actually got into the car, stuck it in neutral, and rolled backwards. He also ate the food that was in there. He was Enviro-Bear-ing it up. [Laughs] And I did actually get a spike in sales after that story. You live in Canada. Have you ever had any run-ins with bears? JS: We see bears up here pretty regularly. They get into the trash. I’ve been out hiking a couple of times, seen them across the valley, and remember thinking “Well, shit. There they are. Don’t come this way!” Just throw some trail-mix at them if they do. On second thought, you probably shouldn’t do that. JS: I don’t think so. Have you ever run over a bear, maybe by mistake? JS: I don’t think you could run over it. I think it would smash your car pretty badly. What was the last animal you ran over? JS: It would have been unintentional, of course, but a raccoon, or a squirrel. Comedy Dell’arte You’re games are pretty funny. By all accounts, you are a funny guy. What do you find funny? JS: I grew up on old-school British comedies: Black Adder, Red Dwarf, Monty Python. Total silliness. Do any favorite Monty Python skits come to mind? JS: The argument clinic. [Laughs] You go in, you pay money, and you get into an argument, and they are arguing over whether it’s an argument are not. Also, the one with all the existential philosophers playing soccer. [Laughs] I always liked Confuse-a-Cat. JS: Oh that’s great! GSW: Are you familiar with the term ironic appreciation? JS: I am now. Like when you say something is “so bad, it’s good.” JS: A lot of people use that in self-defense. They really do like it, but their friends will make fun of them. So they’re like, “Oh no, it’s just ironic.” Your games seem to have some relationship to that idea. JS: Some Enviro-Bear fans went completely crazy with ironic enjoyment. The whole Touch Arcade forum really got into that. Do you think indie games are currently going through a phase of ironic appreciation? JS: There’s definitely a sub-genre of indie games that are like that. They’re not meant to be fun. It’s a bit meta. You enjoy how the game exists, but you don’t actually enjoy playing it. But I wouldn’t generalize that across all indie games. Part of the humor in your games comes from cumbersome controls. Do you ever get complaints from people who don’t get the joke? JS: There’s certainly a weird sect of people that want actual driving controls in Enviro-Bear, which would completely defeat the purpose. They say, “I want to be able to use the arrow keys.” What the hell? What are they playing for? There’s another smaller group that wanted me to implement dual-touch controls on the iPhone. It might be fun, but it would ruin the joke. Live At The Witch Trials Looking at the iTunes Store user reviews, Enviro-Bear is widely praised, but a few reviewers don’t seem to get the joke. I gathered a few of their comments. Would you care to respond to your critics? JS: Let’s give it a shot. Wxxxxx wrote, “It looked alright so I decided to read the reviews as I always do before spending my HARD EARNED money... I am very angered and I may report this to Apple.” JS: [Laughs] Your money might be hard-earned, but now it's my hard-earned money! The thing is, someone can earn 99 cents at minimum wage in less than ten minutes. JS: I used to think one sale was like a cup of coffee. Then it dawned on me: Holy shit! I need like four sales to get a cup of coffee. That’s pretty rough. Fxxxx wrote, “Unlike every reviewer before me, I can assure you that I am not a friend or family member of the developer. That has to be the reason this game has five stars.” JS: I’ve got a huge family! Dxxxxxxxxx wrote, “WARNING! DO NOT PURCHASE! IT'S A SCAM TO GET YOUR DOLLAR!” JS: [Laughs] I prey on old ladies to get their dollar. As do we all. JS: All the negative reviewers are probably Halo players. [Laughs] Sxxxxxxx wrote, “You will hate yourself for buying it.” JS: That’s pretty nasty! xxxxxxxxx wrote, “This game is PERFECT for hipsters and indie elitists who love to say they like things that nobody has heard of or could possibly like because ‘we just don’t get its brilliance.’ Total crap for a dollar.” JS: You know, I can’t argue with that very much. He could have easily upped his hipster cred by leaving a 5-star review, but he just ostracized himself. He will never be accepted in hipster society. JS: Indie game hipster society. Pretty much the lowest rung of hipster. And he left that review on the day after Christmas. JS: He got it in his stocking. He got a promo code. “Mom, what the F* is this!” [Laughs.] So what’s do you have in store next? JS: There’s this whole genre of games where you’ve got a car and you have to park it. I’ve seen the towing games. JS: Towing is sort of an offshoot of it. And I kind of appreciate the genre in how they try to one-up each other in mind-numbing boringness. I made a game called No Brakes Valet [video]. You have to park the cars as they come whizzing on the screen, but you don’t get a gas pedal. You can only brake. It ends up being a catastrophe in the end. That sounds like it’s guaranteed to enrage all the parking game fans out there. JS: [Laughs] I hope so. If you don’t enrage someone along the way, its not worth it.

About the Author(s)

Jason Johnson


Jason Johnson is a freelance writer, a writer of fiction, an amateur painter, and a student of ancient knowledge and mythology. He also writes weekly reviews for our iPhone centric sister-site FingerGaming.com.

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