|Justin Amirkhani is a 24-year-old Toronto freelance writer who decided to set out on a backpacking odyssey across North America to visit as many game development studios as possible. (GamerUnplugged.com/HO)
Fingerless meth addicts, gun-toting pimps and a bus sprayed with fecal matter. Sounds like the list of features on the back of a Saints Row video game box, but no -- this is real life, after a fashion.
While the age-old stereotype of video gamers as daylight-shunning nerds is largely extinct in 2012, it's still gratifying to see one of our own showing that loving games isn't mutually exclusive with experiencing the world.
Justin Amirkhani is a 24-year-old Toronto freelance writer whose scribblings have appeared in Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer, EDGE and occasionally our own Sun Media newspapers and websites. After quitting his day job designing Facebook games, he decided to set out on a backpacking odyssey across North America to visit as many game development studios as possible. Why? Why not?
Thus was born GamerUnplugged.com, a blog chronicling Amirkhani's Zelda-like quest. Armed with a Greyhound travel pass, a laptop and a mobile hotspot, he's crashing on couches, subsisting on donations from readers and interviewing the people who make the games that he -- and we -- love to play.
We caught up with Amirkhani this week in Nashville, a month into his journey.
GamerUnplugged.com seems to be made of two parts: Interviews with game developers, and tales of the characters you're meeting on the road. Did you expect it to be such a distinct mix?
I knew the road would put me in stranger situations than my life would otherwise provide, but I expected them to be footnotes to the studio pieces. Instead they turned out to be as interesting, maybe more so, than the interviews and so they started commanding their own posts.
Are the game studios OK with some smelly vagrant showing up on their doorsteps?
The studios participating have been wonderful to work with and have offered me more hospitality than they needed to. Heck, the folks at Volition (Saints Row: The Third) have even offered me access to their company showers to help with the smelly part!
What's been the high point so far?
Meeting personal idols I've followed for years like Jenova Chen (Journey), or Vince Desi (Postal) has been a real treat, but so has seeing inside the likes of Treyarch (Call of Duty: Black Ops II) and Sony Santa Monica (God of War: Ascension). There've really been too many amazing experiences to pick just one.
And the low point? From your blog, I'm guessing it was it the bus washroom sprayed with poop? Or the guy with no fingers smoking meth?
Probably the night I got lost in Austin, wound up hitchhiking with a hooker and her john only to be held captive while they went on a drug run and had a gun waved in my face for it before escaping into a random ghetto.
Then again, the low points provide the best stories and I'm happy to experience them as long as I survive to write them.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson said, "Only a damn lunatic would write a thing like this and claim it was all true." To what extent do you allow yourself to be flexible with the facts for the purpose of a good yarn?
Thompson skirted the truth to avoid accountability for being the drug-crazed, law-breaking madman I fell in love with years ago. My own stories are as honest as they can be without getting my industry friends or me in trouble, but that's the nature of these sorts of tales. After all, "Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."
I'm continuing east and then up the coast before heading back into Canada to tour studios like Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin's Creed III) and Toronto (Splinter Cell: Blacklist). From there I'll be crossing back into the states and moving all the way back to California to hopefully see the likes of Double Fine (Psychonauts), Blizzard (Diablo III), and Team Meat (Super Meat Boy). Then we just keep going!