Xalavier Nelson Jr. talks about his next game: “El Paso, Elsewhere is my ultimate expression of vulnerability”

The indie powerhouse on romancing monsters, his love of Max Payne and why his new venture is "Black as Hell"

Xalavier Nelson Jr had never really felt at home – not before El Paso. It’s understandable: the developer, in his mid-20s, has already lived a whirlwind life with plenty of stories to tell.

“I was born in the Southwest as a part of a military family, we’ve bounced around the world,” says Nelson Jr. “Because of my work, I’ve also been fortunate enough to go to a bunch of places. I’ve been everywhere from trying not to heave up my guts in the mountains of Nepal to talking my way out of being locked in an attic with neo-Nazis in Northern Italy, to doing landscaping for cults in the Pacific Northwest. And as many diverse and interesting experiences as I’ve seen, and as fortunate as I’ve been to see some truly breathtaking things, I’ve never been in a place that felt like home, before El Paso.”

These experiences seem to fill him with energy, and as he answers questions he gets up from the chair, gesticulating in front of his webcam to illustrate a point. Hands stretch wide as he explains why fighting werewolves is more interesting than goons with guns, his fists ball up as he explains conversations about romancing monsters.

This is probably what makes interviewing Nelson Jr so interesting: every answer leaves me with more questions. He’s worked on a seemingly impossible number of games over the last few years, and his Twitter threads extolling the virtues of his favourite parts of pop culture are legendary. Today we’re trying to find out more about his forthcoming game El Paso, Elsewhere, announced during Saturday’s Guerilla Collective stream.

El Paso, Elsewhere is a spiritual successor to third-person shooters Max Payne and Die Hard Trilogy, with players taking the role of a Black monster hunter, James Savage, fighting his way through an M.C Escher-esque haunted motel to get to the bottom and confront the vampire Lord Draculae. Who is also his ex-girlfriend.

Every answer leaves you with more questions.

This is a long way from the last game Nelson Jr released under the Strange Scaffold banner. The last title, An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs has you trying to navigate the titular alien airport while interacting with a series of stock-photo dogs (seriously, watch this trailer). But, improbably – especially as El Paso, Elsewhere has you charging out of an elevator with violence in mind– they’re both love stories.

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

“A lot of my work in games, especially recently, has me coming back to wanting to explore more relationship dynamics and more pieces of time in which people affect and are affected by the concept of love.” says Nelson Jr., before laughing. “Maybe while also shooting giant monsters in the face.” “So, An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, that’s about being in the middle of a relationship and it being a healthy and supportive one between two Black people that is also long distance.

“I wanted to portray a long-distance relationship in the positive, comforting, and supportive light that I’ve seen others experience and experience myself. And I don’t usually see that in the media, where being long-distance is inherently treated as a death knell. Now, that affects a lot of ways that we talk about relationships.”

A long way from that supportive and positive long-distance relationship is El Paso, Elsewhere. El Paso, Elsewhere explores a love story that has ended, Nelson Jr explains, adding: “But that still carries weight for both of the parties involved. Falling in love with the Lord of the Vampires will fuck you up. And being honest about fundamental pieces of how that works, including the fact that even in the midst of that abusive relationship, even having experienced that, there’s still a part of you that loves that person.”

But this isn’t just an examination of a relationship gone bad: El Paso, Elsewhere is also the game Nelson Jr swore he’d never make.

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

“I had a moment very early in my life where I was posing in front of a mirror pretending I was Superman or Batman or what that would look like. This is just around the start of the MCU and everything else, where it was like, “Superhero movies are going to be here and they’re going to be here forever.” What’s the next superhero going to be? Who could it be?

“And as a kid, I imagined myself, maybe I can be one. If I became a good actor or if I was a writer, did something else, I could play a part in building those stories or being a part of those stories myself. But I was also familiar with internet culture and I had this very distinct moment looking in the mirror where it was a voice almost outside of myself that said, “You can’t be Batman. You can’t be Superman. Because you’re Black,” and my arms dropped. And that moment really affected me.

“I’ve worked on over 50 games in the last five or six years,” he says. “I’ve had the fortune of being nominated for a bunch of IGFs and a BAFTA. I’ve played countless roles on countless titles and I’m so thankful for all those experiences.

“The one thing that I promised myself I would never do is make a Max Payne successor because that is my dream game. And I believed that having a dream game that I never make would be something that motivated me to stay in games, but would also keep me from fucking it up. Because how can you have a dream and not fuck it up?”

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

If the trailer is anything to go on, fucking it up isn’t going to be a problem.

“Even after having this idea, I’ve continued to mull over for years how I would approach Max Payne if I was ever given the opportunity. I was thinking of how I would approach this IP that I cared about, this style of gameplay, this approach to a world. And I’ve rolled all of this around in my head for years and it was last year where, even having done these things professionally now, having proven myself in a variety of ways, I was able to have the capacity to do this thing.

“I had this little voice outside of myself again say, ‘But you can’t do this. You’re Black, you’re familiar with the reality of AAA games. Even if you did have the option to write it, to direct, design it, you wouldn’t also be starring in it. You wouldn’t also have the opportunity to express yourself in these other ways. You wouldn’t be able to do it the way you wanted to. There are these people you’d have to answer to and these things you would have to do’.

“And this time I told the voice to go fuck itself.”

Nelson Jr assembled a team, and under his Strange Scaffold banner, they began work on El Paso, Elsewhere.

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

The trailer shows a game that really works: as Savage, the game’s main character, dives towards a werewolf in slow motion and blows it into chunks with a meaty shotgun blast, I felt myself nodding in appreciation. Max Payne never fought werewolves in an impossible basement of a haunted motel in Texas. But if he did, it’d be just like this.

What the trailer can’t show you is just how much of Nelson is contained in every part of the game. Savage is voiced by Nelson Jr. It is set in the only place he’s ever called home and – as he says – it’s his dream game.

“I looked for how to make something distinct and worthy and how to give life to a piece of myself that I never believed I would,” adds Nelson. “Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure if I’m more shocked that we’re doing it justice or that I’m doing it at all. But I am thankful to be along for the ride.

El Paso, Elsewhere is my ultimate expression of vulnerability. On pretty much everything that I work on I have had an out. If you don’t like An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs,I can be like, ‘Ah, you don’t vibe with the absurdist tone or the stock photos or our particular game play balance.’ If you don’t like Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, there’s all of these reasons you can cite and also these excuses that I can take as a creator to be a coward.”

But it’s here, Nelson Jr continues, where every single piece of the game also has a piece of its creator in it.“I don’t have a space to escape from criticism. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t need that space, because regardless of how successful it is or how well other people feel we brought the game to life, the one person that needs to be satisfied with the result is me. I am looking in awe at what we’ve already accomplished and stunned by the prospect of what the next year will bring and making it even better.”

This vulnerability extends to race: Nelson is a Black citizen of the USA, in 2021.

“I am so thankful and proud to be Black, despite for a variety of reasons, being statistically more likely to die in a variety of gruesome ways,” he says. “With that in mind, I’ve experienced this industry as a Black person starting out and then as a journeyman and now as someone experienced, leading my own studio and having the opportunity and fortune, the blessing to direct my own projects.

“What I think stands out to me now, having had a variety of experiences as a creator of colour and as a Black creator, specifically, is: as proud and thankful as I am of the richness of my experience – and of the experience of people like me – and as I continue to embed that experience directly and indirectly in my work, I am increasingly frustrated by the need by others to recognise that work within a box defining it as interesting because it’s made by Black people.

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

El Paso, Elsewhere is not an interesting game because it stars a Black protagonist or because it’s made by a Black person. It is interesting and compelling because you look at it and you instantly know it’s the next game you need to play, period. And it’s Black as hell. The ‘and’ is important because I can’t imagine… because part of my personal nightmare for this is being so proud of the diverse perspective that it represents from a variety of vectors and the diverse team that’s bringing it to life and it’s just getting put into this box because of my Blackness.

“And I am Black! And I love boxes! But I feel like I’m opening up door after door after door and trying to leave a room which is designed to encapsulate the full Black experience, which, respectfully cannot contain the talent of me and the other creators that I see in this industry, and I just keep finding myself in that room again, like a fucking Lynchian nightmare.

“And I don’t know how to address it except to say, ‘No, I’m not coming for your Black award. I’m coming for all of them.’”

It’s hard not to feel enthusiastic to play a game that’s made by someone so passionate about what they’re making. The sheer ballsiness of El Paso, Elsewhere is to be applauded; a game which not only speaks with the literal voice of its creator but also weaves in the place he calls home, his identity and even explores relationships that even AAA games tend to shy away from. Add into this the fact that he manages to feel like it might be a damn good time? It’s the type of game the games industry needs more of. El Paso, Elsewhere will, for a certain type of gamer, feel like a homecoming of its own.

El Paso Elsewhere is planned for release in 2022.

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