In the Wake of Their Mother’s Death, How Two Brothers Rebuilt Their Video Game

When brothers Andrew and Brian Allanson finally decided to buckle down and make their dream game in 2013, their enthusiasm seemed bottomless. Their idea fit neatly into the indie milieu that was rocketing off around that time, especially for “Earthbound”esque games: “ YIIK: A Postmodern RPG,” pronounced Y-2-K, a retro 3D JRPG with a distinct low-poly art style inspired by cult 16-bit hits like “Mega Man Legends.” Rather than pitching the game on Kickstarter, the Allansons leveraged their excitement into a prodigious work ethic, producing a fully-featured prototype for the game in just 52 days, ahead of the gaming convention PAX East. “It was kind of a crazy thing,” Andrew says. “We booked the booth without having anything to show. It was a cowboy move, but we managed to do it in time.”

After a solid showing at PAX, the brother received some excellent news: Their embryonic game had received several offers from notable independent publishers. But despite their overnight success, there was a cloud over the proceedings. Even before the Allansons decided to begin development on “YIIK,” their mother had been displaying some worrying symptoms, including fatigue and lower back pain. By the time the family received the final publishing contract from overseas partner Ysbryd Games in late 2014, their mother had received a diagnosis of cancer.

“I remember we were sitting in our room, because at the time we still lived with our parents, and we were at the computer reading the contract that we got,” recalls Andrew. “We were trying to make sure it wasn’t a scam, that it was actually happening. I remember she was really excited about it. It was a distraction for everyone in the house, that this really exciting thing happened. Here we were getting wired a bunch of money to make a game, and everybody was quitting their jobs. It definitely didn’t feel real, that we were making the game, or that our mom was sick.”

“It was a strange time,” echoes Brian. “There were a lot of good things and bad things happening at the same time.”

As the brothers proceeded to staff up their studio, their mother’s worsening condition became one of the defining aspects of not only their lives but the development process of “YIIK” itself. The Allansons specifically chose an office space within a ten-minute drive of their house to ensure they could be as close to her as possible. Their sister Brigid joined the studio as the 2D artist behind the portraits that liven up “YIIK’s” cutscenes, and a member of the family would often have to leave the office early to take their mother to her chemotherapy. From Andrew’s perspective, medical staff failed to properly communicate the severity of their mother’s disease, and he felt unprepared for the escalation of symptoms. “They jerked us around before they actually said the words ‘pancreatic cancer,’” he says. “Quickly, she went from being able to drive herself places to being completely debilitated. At first, driving her was upsetting, but eventually, it became so routine that I found myself saying, ‘This is just life now.’”

After a year and a half of development, the team felt that the game was finally approaching completion, and several members of the tiny studio rolled off the project, their labor complete. Around the end of 2015, their mother flew to Hawaii as part of a long-in-the-works family trip. Upon her return, as Andrew describes, her situation began to decline very quickly. After multiple intervals in the hospital, the brothers and level designer Ian Bailey began to realize that they needed to revise their six-month deadline. They moved the studio into the Allanson home and hired an in-home nurse, and for a few weeks, the brothers cranked away for ten hours a day in their living room, with their mother laying on the couch. “As you can imagine, that’s easier said than done,” says Andrew. “Working on a game and taking care of mom.”

When the brothers went to Seattle to promote the game at another PAX, they didn’t hear from any of their family members for days. They returned home to horrible news: their mother had suffered a serious injury from a fall, and she never fully recovered.

“I went to the rehab center, and she’s not lucid at all. She doesn’t know where she is. I feel like I’m talking to someone with Alzheimer’s,” says Andrew, emotion straining his voice. “She finally said, ‘You need to get me out of here.’ The intensity with which she said it, I knew she really meant it … It’s so hard to get someone out of a rehab center without a doctor ordering it. We had to get a private ambulance service to take her to the hospital. Within three weeks, she died. She was only 50 years old.

“What really tears me up is that we never had a proper conversation again. We went away, she was perfectly coherent, and we come back, and she’s completely gone. This was a month before I was going to get married. So here I was thinking that mom was going to get out of rehab, she was going to come to my wedding. I was just so oblivious to how serious it actually was, and here we were thinking we were going to finish the game and get it out, and all of a sudden she dies.”

Following their tragic loss, the brothers found themselves unable to work on their game and took several months away from development. But once they felt well enough to proceed, they discovered that their work no longer reflected their changed worldview. As an absurdist love letter to a bygone era of JRPGs, “YIIK” lovingly pokes fun at many of the staples of the genre, including save points, random encounters, and bizarre townspeople. But while that sense of levity remains, Andrew says they made a concerted effort to sand down some of the game’s more cynical edges. As a result, despite the game’s near-completed state, the brothers say they rebuilt roughly a quarter of “YIIK” — including a total rewrite of the game’s ending, which required revised voice-work – in accordance with a more “humanistic” perspective, as Andrew puts it.

“By the time we got to the end of development, we took the loss and tragedy that happens throughout the game a lot more seriously,” Andrew says. “We felt we needed to do these characters justice …The fourth dungeon of the game, which is where the crux of the plot comes together, we just made it a straight-up horror segment, to represent the terror we felt in our lives during development. I didn’t let my wife play the full game until we finally finished it, and when we played that dungeon, it actually made her throw up.”

Again and again, the Allansons pour out their gratitude for the unending support the studio received from every player in the game’s production, including their publisher, along with several contractors who put in additional hours as a favor to the brothers. Andrew calls out Chris Niosi in particular, the voice of one of the game’s main characters, Alex, who recorded the final lines for the game’s revised ending within 12 hours of receiving the script, despite not having portrayed the role for over two years.

Now that “YIIK” is finally approaching the crowded shelves of Steam and elsewhere, the Allansons have been overwhelmed by the response that the game’s reemergence has triggered.

“I think the hype is at an all-time high,” says Andrew. “Honestly, a lot of our family and friends definitely doubted that we’d finish in the past six months. There’d be a lot of snide comments at family gatherings and the like. ‘You guys still making that game?’ At points, it felt like our Twitter followers were actually more supportive than our friends and family.”

More than anything, though, the brothers cherish the time they spent with their mother during the game’s development. “I’m really happy we ended up adding that more human element to the game,” says Andrew. “When she was on the couch, before we got the hospital bed, she was there while we worked, all the time. That was the last amount of time we spent with her. I was spending ten hours a day with my mom, and no one does that as an adult. But I’m really thankful we were able to move and be there with her.”

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