Xalavier Nelson Jr. on the rocky development and military questioning of ‘Can Androids Survive’

Xalavier Nelson explains how disillusionment with the military industry lead to one of his "most ambitious" projects yet

Sitting down with Xalavier Nelson Jr. is always guaranteed to be an adventure. Ahead of his next game, Can Androids Survive, we sat down with the prolific writer to learn how – and why – this sequel came about.

With a reputation to live up to, Nelson is excited to take Can Androids Survive a step further than many of his previous titles. Calling it “one of the most ambitious short-form projects I’ve ever embarked on”, Can Androids Survive tells the tale of a “battlefield mech courier” that routinely risks life and metallic limb to deliver supplies to a battlefield frontline. Nelson sells it as “a new kind of war game”, where your robotic courier acts in a role “not of war, but of support”.

Along the way, the courier ends up “discovering the nature of your existence, and ultimately killing the moon as you end the ongoing threat of the military-industrial complex in this part of the galaxy”. The game is a sequel to Can Androids Pray, which follows “two angry mech pilots at the end of the world” as they try to process their imminent death.

On that first game, Nelson is pleased to add that while it “was a very focused niche production”, Can Androids Pray surprisingly “reached really far outside of our expectations” and fast became profitable.

Surprised by how well the themes of Can Androids Pray clicked with a wider audience, Nelson “knew I had to do something else in that universe”. For Nelson, this – of course – meant a “giant genre shift”.

Despite the success of Can Androids Pray, creating a sequel wasn’t quite smooth sailing. Nelson admits that he “didn’t hear anything back” from his original pitch as a Playdate game, and the subsequent development went through some “giant creative shifts” before reaching a final product.

As he explains, it’s clear that Nelson isn’t exaggerating. The initial inspiration came from a mix of arcade game Battle Zone and – bizarrely – the notorious 1982 E.T. game, which was released on the Atari 2006.

At first, the game was about “falling in holes and the ever-enroaching presence of death. Being sent somewhere without proper support, doing a job as best you can, and always confronting the inevitable demise amidst that environment”. As the idea grew however, it “started to take on a form of something a bit different and bigger” and became something altogether stranger.

Nelson clarifies this is far from metaphorical. Once planned to be a black and white 2D game, Can Androids Survive became completely 3D and went even further into a narrative arc that Nelson lays out as “the dehumanisation of being and becoming the ultimate warrior, and the need to break the cycle of endless war that profits the system that perpetrates it to escape the cycle entirely.”

Even while making a game of that depth, Nelson still wasn’t willing to compromise on ensuring that the development process was “better, faster, cheaper, and healthier” than the standard cycle of game development. The team was working on the sequel “alongside our day jobs” as a porting and development house, but Nelson could already see cracks as “the game wasn’t coming together” the way it was intended. A big fear was that “even making a minimal mechanised FPS is very difficult in a world where Titanfall exists.”

Something wasn’t working, and a dramatic shift was needed to steer the game back on track. This lead to Nelson stating something he still describes as “one of the most controversial things I’ve said in a meeting”:

“We’re going to take out the gun.”

The sentiment that “everything except the gun is what works” led to Nelson proposing a completely new design. With help from aPriori in setting up some designs, the game “started feeling much better” and they knew they had their game. With a final design locked in, this is the game that has released today.

“You’re a battlefield mech courier, carrying things through the front line, unraveling pieces of a larger narrative, and not just discovering your sentience, but your agency. And that the system that you work within did not itself care about you.”

With that, Nelson had the design nailed down – but there was still a major problem with the leftovers. The existing enemy mechs “didn’t work well” with Nelson’s new vision, so another massive change was in order. Shortly after scrapping the player’s guns, the team chucked out the enemy mechs. Converting them into “stationary obstacles” in the form of deadly turrets, at this point Can Androids Survive had quickly turned into making a different game “within the foundations we were making” already.

The end result that players can get their hands on is “no longer procedurally generated”, and is instead “a bespoke short-form sandbox mech FPS with a unique game loop and narrative arc.”

While Can Androids Survive may have changed drastically during development, the themes that tied the game to its predecessor are ones that “are so important” to Nelson, and explores everything “from morality to the investment of service members in institutions that do not themselves return that trust or good faith”.

The criticism of these military institutions comes from a personal place for Nelson, whose childhood was spent as a self-professed “military brat”. Nelson explains that the very existence of Can Androids Survive and Can Androids Pray comes from “what I have experienced as a military brat being within a military structure”, but also that these games offered a chance to touch on something even bigger than his own time.

Watching first-hand his father’s experience in the military and growing “increasingly disillusioned” – Nelson even adds that “I was going to join the military myself at a certain point” – he explains that the emotion driving Can Androids Survive is something he has picked up from countless experiences over the years:

“I see service members invest their trust, their beliefs, their faith, and the literal integrity of their bodies in a system that does not return that care.”

“I have absorbed via osmosis, this range, and through personal experience – this range of stories and sentiment over time,” Nelson explains, causing him to draw the conclusion that “the military is not just working counterproductively to the benefit of the people within it but are sometimes in a state of active hostility against it.”

With that in mind, it makes sense that Nelson has set the military-industrial complex in his sights. Neither is it a shock to Nelson, who says that it’s “no surprise” that Can Androids Survive became a game “which you realise you are literally the same as a tank or box of ammunition.”

In the end, Can Androids Survive is a question in itself, one that asks “why the system I grew up within, and that my dad – and so many people like himself dedicated their lives – to, does not return that faith.”

Though posed as an “interactive question”, Nelson wants players to think about these deeper issues while “delivering those packages, Mario Golf jumping across Lunar chasm and literally punching the Moon with rocket hands”.

The answers that players find, Nelson hopes, will show that “as much as it can be easy, especially from a liberal or detached perspective, to look down on service members; these people illustrate more strongly than anything else that our current system needs to change, because the people who are sacrificing themselves are being commodified the most at the same time.”

Can Androids Survive is available on PC at Itch.io. 

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