The Train Jam Diaries: On The Road Making Games On The California Zephyr

Editor’s Note: In the past, we’ve seen a multitude of stories about the Train Jam that chugs along from Chicago to San Francisco in the days before the Game Developers Conference. But Elizabeth Ballou’s piece is the most in-depth story we’ve seen. This is a story that’s as much about environment, community and collegiality as it is about making games. And then, there was that storm that stopped the train for nearly 24 hours. Read on.

By Elizabeth Ballou

Day 1, 3:01 PM

It’s all so new to me: the trip, the constant change of place, the complete experience. The California Zephyr rumbles slowly out of Chicago’s Union Station, 340 game designers packed aboard its six passenger cars. As the wheels screech on the metal tracks, my car lets out a cheer. We are cheering because motion means that Train Jam, a mobile game jam that takes us to San Francisco for Game Developers’ Conference (GDC), has begun. 

We will be on board the California Zephyr, a double-decker train from Chicago to Emeryville, for two and a half days. The ride is supposed to be one of the most beautiful train routes in North America, but I wouldn’t know, because I have never been to the Midwest before. I have never ridden the California Zephyr, or even been to Chicago. From what I understand, Train Jam is like a high-tech campout. Bathrooms are limited – as are meals. The only food is what we’ve brought with us, plus what we can afford to buy from the dining cars. Roomette bunks have shower access, but those of us sitting in coach don’t.

This is okay, because the tiny world of our train is limited. But the world outside – the plains and the rivers, and eventually the mountains – is limitless.

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Photo by Francesca Carletto-Leon

Rachél, my seatmate, has done Train Jam twice before. “I wouldn’t say I know what to do,” she says, grinning, “but now I know what not to do.” Don’t be afraid to sleep, she advises me. Eat fresh food, and take time to look out the windows. “Half the views are boring. Half are breathtaking.”

The Chicago suburbs are boring, or at least repetitive. The strip malls and neat streets of small houses remind me of a hundred other suburbs. Luckily, the people around me are far more interesting. Besides Rachél, there’s Josie, an effervescent composer from New York; Jazmín and Juan, developers from Argentina; and Britt, Ryan, and Tommy, a trio of grad students from the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy at the University of Central Florida.

We settle into our seats, pull out our laptops, and wait for the jam to begin in earnest.

Day 1, 4:15 PM

As the suburbs blur into endless, empty fields of Illinois, I find a group to jam with. Francesca is my classmate from NYU Game Center’s MFA in game design, and Beck is her artist seatmate. They want to make a game about plants and farming, which combines well with my idea of making a game about Opportunity, the Mars rover.

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Paper Trains: a 2019 Train Jam game by Hannah Rose

Last month, NASA gave Oppy, the robot deployed in 2004, an official date of death. She was meant to last 3 months, but traversed the surface of Mars for 15 years instead. In the end, a massive dust storm covered her solar panels, killing her batteries. “What if,” I tell them, “Oppy didn’t die, but found a hidden canyon instead? A canyon filled with sunlight and seedlings?”

Francesca and Beck lean forward in their seats. “I love this robot,” says Beck. It is agreed: we will make a game about Oppy finding life in the red darkness of Mars. The player will move Oppy from sunbeam to sunbeam, which will recharge her batteries. At each sunbeam, she can water a desiccated plant and think about her adventures. As Oppy’s thoughts scroll across the screen in the form of poems, the plants are revitalized.

We get to work.

Day 1, 7:45 PM

I decide to splurge for dinner and eat a meal in the diner car, which is set up like a restaurant. Tables that fit four diners each line the sides of the car, and wait staff bustle up and down the narrow aisle with glasses of water, baskets of dinner rolls, and plates of steaming food made fresh in the kitchen downstairs. Despite the train’s constant jostling, they never spill anything.

My tablemates are the crew from the University of Central Florida: Britt, a level designer; Tommy, a programmer; and Ryan, a technical designer. Together, they’re making a puzzle game about gravity. You play as a man who can rotate rooms, and who can shift gravity so that “down” is always in the direction of his feet. It’s like someone stuck inside of a Rubik’s Cube, or a Borges short story.

Britt has a sleeper ticket, which means she gets all her meals included, no matter the price. The most expensive entrée is the Land and Sea Combo: steak alongside crab cakes. “I don’t even want it that much,” she says, shaking her head, “but I never order the most expensive thing.”

“Do it,” I say.

“Yeah,” says Ryan, “when else will you be able to?”

When the waiter asks for our order, Britt tells him she’ll have the Land and Sea Combo. The rest of us, who pay per meal, order much cheaper dishes of pasta and chicken. It’s better than airplane food, but not by much.

“How’s the combo?” I ask Britt.

“It’s too much. I’m not going to finish it.” But she still looks pleased. We all do. How often do you get to eat a hot meal while watching the landscape unspool outside the picture window?

Day 1, 11:32 PM

After a few hours of brainstorming and prototyping our Mars rover game, Francesca, Beck, and I meet Rachél in the rear observation car to split Beck’s bottle of wine. The observation car is a double-decker structure with a snack lounge on the bottom and a glass-ceilinged dome on top. We’ve crossed into Iowa, but nightfall means we see nothing other than the blur of streetlights from the occasional town.

As we pour the wine, the train grinds to a halt. Then, for the next hour, no movement.

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The Observation Car. Photo by Elizabeth Ballou

“Do we live here now?” says Francesca, frowning.

Beck looks up from their paper cup of Barefoot chardonnay, which they acknowledged earlier tastes like trash, but fun, nostalgic trash. “Yeah, why aren’t we going anywhere?”

We don’t worry about it too much. It’s beginning to snow, and snowflakes glint in the faint lights of whatever Iowa town we’ve stopped in. The observation car seems like another dimension, outside of time and space.

Eventually, we go back to the coach car and try to sleep. The train still isn’t moving.

Day 2, 3:04 AM

It’s impossible to sleep in these seats. The train isn’t moving.

Day 2, 4:16 AM

I wake from a restless sleep, Rachél’s head on my shoulder. The train is going backwards.

Day 2, 7:34 AM

According to my phone’s GPS, we’re in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we’ve been for the last three hours. Council Bluffs was once one of the largest cities in the Midwest and the starting point of the first transcontinental railroad. Today, it’s known for little more than being a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska.

An Amtrak employee gets on the loudspeaker to announce that historic levels of flooding mean that the tracks we were supposed to take through Nebraska got washed out. Now we’re waiting to get rerouted.

It’s stopped snowing, and the Council Bluffs train station looks much less magical in the daylight. We’re not allowed to get off the train so that the Zephyr can start moving as soon as we get our marching orders. There’s nothing to do other than shamble to the lounge car, grab a cup of coffee, and get to work on our game.

Day 2, 9:32 AM

The train starts moving again, and everyone cheers. We chug away from Council Bluffs, across the swollen Missouri River, and into Omaha, Nebraska.

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Opportunity Dreams in Green and Blue: our 2019 Train Jam game

I spend the morning in the observation car, writing poems from Opportunity’s perspective and modeling high-poly versions of plants that might grow on Mars. Francesca programs Oppy’s movement, recharging, and watering mechanics in Unity, while Beck models Oppy’s squat, lovable frame.

Beck guides me through the process of modeling plants. They’re a professional freelance artist who used to work for Blizzard, so they have the chops to model three-dimensional objects, but also create concept art and textures. I’m learning how to use 3D modeling programs, but I’m still not very good. “Why are there so many menus?” I say, exasperated.

“It’s all right,” Beck says. “Just think about the ones you need.” For the next hour, they are very patient.

Day 2, 11:43 AM

Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, I leave the rear observation car and head towards the sound room. Four composers and sound designers, who refer to themselves as the Sound Babes, have converted a deluxe bedroom into a sound studio complete with microphones and sound-muffling insulation. Ever since we began jamming, teams have dropped by the sound room with requests for this or that sound effect.

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Gwen holds up my list of sound requests

“What do you need?” says Gwen, a woman who I never see without a smile or her headphones. I give her the list: water droplets falling on soil, treads rolling through dirt, sandstorms raging, various beeps and boops for Oppy’s machinery.

“Come back tonight,” she says. “I’ll have your sounds.” It’s as easy as dropping off a prescription at a pharmacy.

Day 2, 11:49 AM

Traveling the narrow aisles of the train is not easy. Train jammers are constantly running back and forth between this and that car. The congestion means we’re always playing a game of chicken: one person will dive into a coach seat, or squeeze into a doorway, in order to avoid a collision.

On my way back from the sound room, I glance at a man coming towards me. We both lean sideways, pause, then take identical steps towards each other, then pause again. “The train dance!” he says as we weave past each other.

For the rest of the ride, I think of a complicated ballet sequence whenever I pass people in the aisles.

Day 2, 4:51 PM

We’re still in Nebraska. How can we still be in Nebraska? Corn and wheat fields whip past our windows like beads on an endless necklace.

“I’ve never seen this before,” says Francesca, our programmer. “Usually we go through Nebraska at night. We get to Denver around six in the morning, and the brave ones go out to get breakfast burritos.” She has her laptop out and is fiddling with Oppy, who is now a fully modeled but untextured robot moving through a gray-boxed level. (Gray boxing means putting basic assets into a scene to see how it works before plugging in the permanent art, animations, and code.) “At this rate, we won’t get to Denver until late tonight. No breakfast burritos for us.”

I look up from the Oppy poems I’ve been working on. “You could still have a burrito.”

“Yes,” she says wistfully, “but it isn’t the same.”

Day 2, 11:00 PM

Francesca is right. By the time we pull into Denver, all the restaurants at the station are closed. We’re allowed to get off and stretch our legs on the platform, but the Amtrak staff is emptying the Zephyr’s sewage compartments, so the smell is abominable. While prepping for the trip, I learned that the city is nicknamed the Mile-High City because it’s literally a mile above sea level. So I was looking forward to breathing in the Denver air – but I cover my nose with my sleeve instead.

Day 2, 11:20 PM

The Zephyr pulls out of Denver as jammers in the coach cars are starting to settle down for the night. The electricity and heat in one car have gone out, so Amtrak employees have strung up neon-green glowsticks. Now the car is cold and shadowed in green, like some futuristic morgue.

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Elie in the dining car. Photo by Elizabeth Ballou

I have made a friend today. Elie, one of the Sound Babes, is a composer with a shock of rainbow hair and an architecturally precise beard. They look like royalty on the Faerie Court and compose game music at breakneck speed. Earlier, as Beck, Francesca, and I were filling Elie in on the song we wanted for our game, I complained about not having slept at all. Now Elie wants to know if I’d like to share the sound room with the Sound Babes. There’s room, they say.

I accept on the spot. That night, I have just a few conscious thoughts about how happy I am – a mattress to lie down on! A pillow under my head – before the motion of the train lulls me to sleep.

Day 3, 12:00 AM – 7:00 AM

The train climbs higher and higher into the Rockies. I sleep through all of it.

Day 3, 7:30 AM

We are woken up by the call to breakfast. The Sound Babes and I peer out the window and find that the world has changed. Steep hills of red and gray, some with a white cap of snow, line either side of the Zephyr’s tracks. The train is nearing the border between Colorado and Utah, which means we are now some 5,000 feet above sea level.

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The hills of Utah. Photo by Elizabeth Ballou

As I stumble out of bed, I blow air against pinched nostrils, trying to equalize the pressure in my ears. They crackle against the sides of my head like a battery of artillery. Elie looks at me, one eyebrow raised. “Is that – your ears?”

I pinch and blow again. “Yed.”

“I can hear them popping.”

While we’re washing our faces, the train pulls into Grand Junction, Colorado, so called because the little city is clustered in a valley where the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers meet. Most of us disembark and crowd into Dave’s Depot, a railside convenience store, where we buy out their stock of ice cream. The wind, deliciously cold and fresh, whips against my face.

Dave and his cashiers are the first people I have spoken to who are not on the Zephyr, and I feel strangely excited to see them. “Good morning!” I say.

They blink at me blearily. They are not as chipper.

Back on the train, I eat ice cream for breakfast. With each swallow, my ears pop. Another reminder that the train is taking us through strange places, ones difficult for the human body to handle.

Day 3, 10:32 AM

Another morning of winding back and forth between the observation cars. Several times, I pass Reecy, the head of the dining car staff. Reecy has a big white smile and red streaks in her long braids. “I am so excited that Train Jam is here, because I am a gamer,” she told me on the first day. Reecy’s specialty is farming sims. Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, FarmVille: Reecy plays them all. She’s been giving out her Switch code to other Train Jammers who play Stardew Valley, and they say her farm is one of the most spectacular they’ve ever seen.

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We crossed some snowy peaks in Utah. Photo by Elizabeth Ballou

“Hi, hon,” Reecy says each time I wobble down the aisle of the dining car, where she’s sorting silverware and processing bills from breakfast.

“Hi, Reecy,” I always say.

Reecy’s good cheer makes me feel expansive, the same way as the mountains outside.

Day 3, 1:45 PM

How could anyone say that Utah is not the most beautiful state? On one side of the train, red deserts with craggy hills:  the Book Cliffs, named because they look like novels packed together on a bookshelf. On the other, the glassy surface of a salt marsh. We pass through Soldier Summit, a mountain pass with a ghost town abandoned in 1984. We travel through snow, then prairie, then wetland, then arid plains where nothing grows except tumbleweed. I have never seen tumbleweed before.

The Zephyr is still drastically behind schedule. We were supposed to arrive two hours from now, around 3:00 PM. Rerouting through little-used tracks in Nebraska backed us up even further than the initial delay, so we’ll be lucky to make it to the California border, let alone Emeryville.

The observation cars are starting to smell, but who cares when you can look out the window?

Day 3, 2:13 PM

I sneak into the lower level of one of the sleeper cars and take a shower. I do not feel bad about this.

Surprisingly, the water temperature and pressure is more consistent than the shower in my apartment back in Brooklyn.

Day 3, 4:07/5:07 PM

Amtrak staff decides to switch the Zephyr over to Pacific Time, which is the time we would be using if we were punctual. Utah is on Mountain Time, so none of our phones are accurate. I overhear the following conversation as I drift between coach cars:

“What time is it?”

“5:07, I think.”

“No, no, we’re on Pacific Time now. 4:07.”

“My phone says 6:07.”

“Yeah? Mine says 2:07 in the morning. That’s the time in Berlin.”

“And the time in Johannesburg is 3:07 in the morning.”

I begin to wonder if we jumped some temporal rails back at the border of Iowa and Nebraska. Maybe we’re traveling through not just space, but time.

Day 3, 5:54 PM

Tonight, Amtrak serves us all dinner. They have to, I guess – the café has run out of instant noodles and is dangerously low on microwave pizza, and we still haven’t hit the Nevada border. Reecy and her crew switch us in and out of the dining car with clockwork efficiency.

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Nearing Sunset In Utah. Photo by Elizabeth Ballou

I sit with Elie and, by chance, a writer whose work I am very much a fan of. Strix Beltrán wrote Bluebeard’s Bride, a tabletop roleplaying game which my friends and I played a few weeks ago. It was the most intimate, intense tabletop experience I’ve ever had.

Strix’s brown-eyed gaze is as piercing as her writing. I eat my roll quietly and hope that I don’t get butter on my chin. Elie, who knows I am easily intimidated, pokes me in the ribs until I offer up that I liked playing Bluebeard’s Bride.

“Oh! You did?” Strix says, lighting up, and then we are talking.

“See? That wasn’t hard,” Elie says later. I have to admit that they are right. These kinds of encounters are a special kind of Train Jam surprise: the constriction of space forces everyone together, from AAA developers to freelance artists to students. I like it. Even if we do smell.

Day 3, 9:32 PM

Francesca, Beck, and I are too tired to work anymore. We’ve completed enough of the game for it to be playable, though it has no real beginning or ending. Still, I’m impressed by what we’ve accomplished in this small amount of time.

“Let’s keep working on this after Train Jam,” says Francesca, and Beck and I agree.

Day 4, 7:44 AM

We wake up to an announcement that we are, at last, in California, a few hours outside of Sacramento. Amtrak is serving free breakfast again, so I drag my laptop into the dining car and sip coffee while I try to get some particle effects working in Unity. I want a massive dust storm to envelope Oppy at the beginning of the game, but fatigue hampers my creative skills. Oppy looks like she’s inside a kids’ ball pit instead.

Sunlight is starting to illuminate the vineyards flashing by the windows. I wouldn’t mind being off the Zephyr now.

Day 4, 12:42 PM

Chapin, one of my classmates from the Game Center and a native of San Francisco, presses his face against the window. “I don’t know why I left,” he says. He’s joking, but only half. California is green and gold, full of gentle hills. When we left New York City, it was cold and rainy.

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Freshly Frosted, a 2019 Train Jam game by Ty Taylor, Ally Overton, Amanda End, and Elie Abraham

Chapin turns to face the rest of us. “I can’t wait to be home.”

“I can’t wait to be off this train,” says Rachél.

Day 4, 1:30 PM

A ragged cheer goes up as we pull into the Emeryville station. We are done.

We’ve traveled 2,438 miles, arrived 22 hours late, and consumed countless cups of coffee. We’ve written code, storyboarded scenes, made pixel art, and churned out sound effects. Most of us have not slept well. Some of us have only eaten instant noodles. None of us have gotten off the Zephyr for longer than twenty minutes.

Adriel Wallick, the indie game developer who organizes Train Jam, coaxes us to stand in front of the Emeryville station for a group photo. We stand there, all 340 of us, blinking stupidly in the sunshine like a flock of bats in a flashlight beam. A dozen smartphones take a hundred pictures.

“See you back here for Train Jam 2020!” says Reecy, and I hug her. Unsurprisingly, Reecy gives good hugs.

Most people pile onto Amtrak buses that will take us over the final bridge to San Francisco, a bridge that can’t support the Zephyr’s weight. I hail a cab instead. The freedom of space, of having air unshared by so many other people, is intoxicating. Across the bay, San Francisco glitters in the sun.

I think of Oppy, crawling her way across Mars, slow but determined. Like Oppy, we have traveled far, over mountains and plains and unforeseen obstacles. And, like Oppy, we have done what we set out to do.

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Train Jam 2019. Photo collage by Francesca Carletto-Leon

Play the rest of the Train Jam 2019 games on Itch.

Elizabeth Ballou is a New York Videogame Critics Circle intern/contributing writer who’s part of the MFA program at NYU’s Game Center. Follow her on Twitter: @lizbetballou.

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