The Mad Palette of Adam Adamowicz by Jonah Lobe

I couldn’t stop smiling one day in late 2005 as I was led through the darkened basement of Bethesda Softworks toward the little corner unit that was to be my cube. My geek barometer was pinging off the charts. I could scarcely believe that I was there.

The place looked like a laser-tag facility; the ceilings were high and black, the walls gray with accents of Zenimax Red. We strode past the programmers, the fishbowl meeting rooms, the designers and world artists, until we reached the final row: Character Art. There, in the far reaches of the office, was a cubicle bearing the name “Jonah Lobe.” I sat down, giddy and a bit stunned, and began day one of what would become a seven-year career at Bethesda.

But this story isn’t about that career. It’s about the man in the cube behind me, a man named Adam Adamowicz.

Although he worked in the farthest, darkest corner of Bethesda Softworks, Adam’s influence stretched across the length and breadth of the studio. What Adam taught me and so many others at Bethesda - about creativity and work ethic - has stayed with us ever since.

I’ve wanted to share my memories of Adam with you, the developers and players in the gaming world alike, for many years. With Fallout 4 around the corner, I think now is the time.

Adam Adamowicz was a concept artist. When I first started, he was the only concept artist at Bethesda, a company that builds landscapes and nations alike. His cube was small, and it felt even smaller because of the relatively large man who worked within it. The walls were tacked with ever-growing layers of sketches and illustrations.

In this temple to computer art, I couldn’t believe that Adam worked in traditional media. He used pencils, pens, markers, colored pencils and paint. What impressed me more than anything was the abundance of creativity on those walls.

Adam’s ideas, wrought fast and bold, practically burst off the paper. He was a living treasure trove of inspiration. He conjured people, beasts, landscapes, outfits and weapons. His creations were often complemented by fascinating and funny margin notes, like “apocalypse sandals,” or “vomits entrails for external digestion” or “’It’s just a space helmet, Jimmy!’”

Adam Adamowicz was a strange and colorful man. Physically, he was unexceptional—tall and strong-looking, handsome, with broad shoulders, pale blue eyes and a receding blond hairline. He stuck to faded T-shirts and jeans, eschewing branding or fashion statements of any kind. And yet, despite this mild appearance, he was crazy. Not really crazy, of course, but his eyes sparkled with demented humor, and the things that came out of his mouth were an unpredictable, mad-lib mix-up of the colorful and morbid. “That Mole-Rat wants to hollow out your body and use it for a toboggan,” he’d say, or “He’s like a voodoo mix of Boris Karloff and disco crabmonculus.” How do you respond to that?

AA

In 2006, while the rest of us were finishing up with the 2007 Oblivion expansion Shivering Isles, Adam began work on Fallout 3, and what followed was one of the most expansive and incredible brain-dumps of concept art I’ve ever seen. I was a character artist. My job was to extrapolate 2D drawings into 3D video game characters. I specialized in monsters. For any given monster, Adam supplied me with between three and 30 drawings, ranging from gestural pen work to detailed, full-color illustrations. From this wealth of material, I created monsters like the Deathclaws, Feral Ghouls, Radscorpions, and Mirelurks that were more novel and inspired than I could have possibly conceived on my own.

As I worked to translate Adam’s concepts into three-dimensional models, I showed him my works-in-progress. I wanted his artistic feedback, of course, but mostly, I wanted his approval. His responses surprised me. He was always positive and brimming with nice things to say, and yet I wasn’t always certain he loved what I had done. That bothered me at first, but as the years went by, I came to understand that it was not so much the faithful reproduction of his work that moved Adam, but my riffing on his idea. If he could see that his work inspired me, Adam was happy.

To Adam, concept art was not so much about aesthetics, but ideas. He treated his art like a series of drills. He put as much source material into his brain as he could, and then output as many concepts as possible. His goal was never to create a body of polished art. His products were always rough-hewn and raw. He mixed-and-matched ideas at an astonishing rate and never concerned himself with what might be considered acceptable. Who else would think to strap a model Enola Gay airplane to the top of a mini-nuke, or slap a cheese-grater to a Supermutant’s helmet? Adam didn’t care. Adam was fearless. Over the years, he created 10 times the number of concepts that we could ever use. He worked and he worked and he worked. And for what?

Supermutant

Oh, nothing much. Just that little thing called Fallout 3.

And then, a few years later, Skyrim.

Because my job at Bethesda was my first in the industry, it took me a while to understand that Adam was one of the best. His work provided us with the visual backbone for these unstoppable blockbusters. But if their critical and commercial success affected him at all, he never let it show. Adam was grateful for his job at the “monster factory.” He doodled through team meetings and yelled out “beer tickets!” on paycheck days. He was humble and he was gracious. He never complained, he never acted entitled, and he never took rejection personally.

And the most important lesson? Adam considered himself a student, through and through; always learning, always improving. His cube was filled with books: huge tomes of anatomy, ‘50s technology, architecture, and style. His appetite was voracious. He absorbed everything, and what he absorbed filtered through the quirky labyrinth of his mind to spill out—garbled and rearranged—onto the page.

How did he do it?

I asked Adam once about his routine, and he described to me a surprisingly regular and disciplined way of life. In the mornings, on the bus to work, he sketched his fellow passengers, sights he passed, and any number of crazy ideas that came into his head. Once at work, he’d refill his coffee mug (his relationship to coffee bordered on religious), sit at his desk and get straight into it. Despite being one of the most popular guys at Bethesda, he ate lunch at his desk on most days, eager to get back to work. He worked all day, powered by banter and coffee, and then, on the bus ride home, he’d draw some more. Afterwards, he’d visit the gym (exercise was important to him), make himself dinner, pop open a bottle of wine and absorb himself in more personal art projects, painting and sculpting.

“Have no fear of perfection,” said Dali, “You’ll never reach it.” Adam took that lesson to heart. He had no fear of the blank page; he did not fear failure. He wanted to learn. He wanted to grow. Unbelievably, over the course of his time at Bethesda, he got better and better.

And then, one day in the fall of 2011, a few years after the development team had moved up to the sun-drenched upper levels of the building, I passed Adam in the hall outside of the art pit. We stopped to chat, as we often did, and when I asked how things were going, he complained that his shoulder hurt. Negativity was unusual for him, but as I watched him grimace and rotate his arm, it never occurred to me that I should be worried. Adam was a big guy, after all, forty-three years old and active. What was a sore shoulder to a guy like that?

A few weeks later, however, Adam left work for health reasons. Weeks went by, then months. I kept popping in to the art pit, anxious to see him again, to welcome him back. But the lights around his desk stayed off, his chair remained empty, and the little rubber-toy nun on his wall—”Squeeze nun for service”—stared back at me, silent and unsqueezed. The word I kept hearing around the office was “cancer.”

A few months later, he was dead.

We didn’t touch his desk. I’m not sure if there was even a discussion about it (though I suspect our head of game development, Todd Howard, had something to do with it). We just left it alone, like a holy place, somewhere to worship at the feet of creativity.

Time stretched by, and his room remained wallpapered with his art; incredible as always, bursting with color and inspiration—except now, nothing was changed or added. The lights stayed off. The only difference was that his fish tank of plant-growth had become a choked mess, one which no one bothered to clean up, since it was agreed that this was probably what he would have wanted anyway.

I left Bethesda in the fall of 2012.

By then, Skyrim had shot to the top of the charts, and Fallout 4 was on its way. Professionally, I felt like the boy at the fair who’d just won the giant stuffed panda, and I wanted to leave on a high note. My soon-to-be-wife was in her third year of law school in New York City. I wanted to be with her, and I had dreams of becoming an author. I wanted to grow in ways I’d never known before, to immerse myself in the act of creation, and to build a world, by myself, from scratch.

So what does that mean, exactly, to be creative?

It’s been three years now since I left Bethesda, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on that question. Creativity is such an elusive trait, one difficult to foster. How does one reach into one’s mind – limited, as it is, by finite experience and memory—and bring forth anything original? Adam did that all the time. What was it that made him different?

Steve Jobs once said that “Creativity is just connecting things.” While I doubt Adam was a fan of Apple—I’m not even certain he owned a cell-phone— I can’t help but think that this is an apt description of what Adam did. Flipping through his work, I was always struck by the bubbling confluence of subjects, a fearless fusion of influences. He developed his artwork using a range of tools: pens, markers, colored pastels. His creations were a collection of distinct and disparate ideas. When designing an original gun, for instance, Adam didn’t focus his research on the study of other guns, but on tesla coils, industrial power tools, or lab equipment. When designing outfits, Adam employed chew toys and oven mitts, radios and asbestos padding. The results were messy, ridiculous, and utterly original.

Adam’s creative process went beyond mere design. It was Adam who taught me that characters were more affecting with unexpected nuance: the horrifying is more horrible when infused with comedy; the disgusting all the more stomach-churning when mixed with beauty. The Draugr were not simple mummies, but noble warriors rendered in beef jerky. The feral ghouls were both repellant and pitiful. The Deathclaws were cheetahs, long and lean and starving. And Fallout 4’s Supermutants are not lantern-jawed hulks, but long-bodied infant-men with muscles that sag like taffy. Understanding this confluence of appearance and emotion helped me realize designs more original than anything I could have otherwise produced on my own. I have learned that it’s because of these unexpected details that we remember these creatures.

Fallout 4 is around the corner.

The last Bethesda game I played on which I hadn’t already worked long months was Morrowind. I’ve got monsters in this game—the Supermutants, for instance, and, of course, the Deathclaw—but the product will in every other way be new to me. My former teammates who have been working themselves to the bone for years on this game are very, very excited. Fallout 4 is a labor of love. And even after death, Adam’s fingerprints are all over it. He authored hundreds of original concepts for this newest game. He labored, as relentlessly as ever—for the game, for the team, and for you. He worked on it from his hospital bed. He worked until the end.

I have a painting of Adam’s in my office, one his mother sent me after he passed. A woman’s face; her skin like ivory, her hair raven-black. She carries a staff of gold, one that bears an eerie resemblance to the Dragon Priest staffs, and she is draped in a cloak of crimson flowers. Adam painted her on a sheet of cardboard, which a friend and I transported to the loading dock and sprayed with so much sealant that it’s become some sort of toxic polymer alloy. I look at it often.

When someone dies, they leave pieces of themselves behind. What we choose to do with those pieces becomes, in part, their legacy. I intend to honor Adam’s legacy.

So I exercise. I write for four hours every day. Afterwards, I draw, or paint, or model, or maybe I write some more. We eat dinner late in our house. I sleep, and tomorrow, I’ll do it again. I try not to fear the blank page. I try to endure the failures. I will learn, and I will grow, because I am a student, and I will always be a student.

My book is almost done. I’ll be searching for publishers soon, and I’m steeling myself for the inevitable rejections. It’s a grind, by turns demoralizing and exhilarating. When I’m tired, I take a break. I stand, and I stretch, and I stare at the painting of the ivory-faced woman. Her hair hangs in loose black tendrils, and her pale blue eyes are focused just above me and to the right, at some point I cannot see. If I turn and follow her gaze, I would see a digital print of my own work tacked to the wall just behind. I look for a moment, then scan the others beside it. They look drab. And yet, I can see that they’re better than I could have done a few years ago.

So I eat lunch at my desk, and then I get back to work.

A Terrible Treasure - The original Prince of Persia by Jonah Lobe

In the third grade, a friend of mine bequeathed me a handful of floppy disks. These were the kinds of floppy disks that actually flopped, of course, and these disks could be flopped for good with a simple finger-flex. And yet, despite their shabby get-up, floppy disks were, to me, treasure chests of possibility.  What lay inside?  Garbage, maybe.  Or maybe something capable of Harry-Potter levels of magic.

My parents didn’t really buy me games, you see, but my father was a journalist so we owned a computer. Whenever friends or family handed me games on floppys, they were copies of the original, dubious and without box or instruction manual of any kind. This was an age without internet, mind you. I could not google “What is Wolfenstein 3d?” or “Catacomb Abyss FAQ” or “Altered Beast secret level.” A game labeled “Gauntlet” was delivered to me stillborn - frozen at an oh-so-tantalizing load screen - and not being able to know what I was missing was perhaps the most maddening thing of all.

Each title was a mystery, a personal treasure for me to experience alone. Like all little kids, I loved them and played them whenever I could (which wasn’t often), but in all that time, one game above all went untouched, like some tarnished and evil-looking lamp that you just KNEW would bring trouble.

That game was Prince of Persia.

Prince of Persia was too frightening, too real for me to dive into right away. It both drew me and frightened me; I thought of it in the same way that I thought about my taped VHS of Poltergeist (a movie I could only watch in daytime snippets). My other games seemed more forgiving, more colorful than Prince of Persia. Prince of Persia was hard, it was disturbing, and it did not need me as a friend.

The opening cinematic was a mostly silent and mysterious scene that unfolded with the slow and refined drama of a Japanese Noh. Right away, a sense of mood. The animations were rotoscoped with pain-staking care (an animation-industry high-water mark for the time), so that you knew exactly who these characters were (The Princess & the Vizier). They moved so convincingly, it felt like you were watching a tiny play. And then, on an ominous note, it ended.

BANG! The guillotine smacked down behind you, and there you were, crouched, rising slowly to your feet in the stark and unforgiving black. “Level 1” it said. “60 minutes left.” You were defenseless. You were alone. And you could just tell there would be blood.

And oh, was there blood. Because this Prince was not the nimble King of Parkour that we know today. This Prince of Persia ran fast but never fast enough, he changed directions with a long “Risky Business” slide, and he leapt to his death… a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I’d miss a jump and watch him hit the stone floor with bone-crunching force. If your avatar fell through more than one screen, he… screamed. A mortal terror kind of scream, on that always ended with sudden and tremendous violence. And then… silence. No music, no sad theme to play you off you. Just you, a crushed heap of white linen in a lurid pool of blood.

Blood. It looked so shocking onscreen, so red against the black. When guillotines sliced you in half, they continued to bang their bloody teeth long after you died. Pressure-sensitive spikes could impale you with terrifying speed, and leave you to hang like a bloody marionette.

Swords rang and stone crashed. You fought skeletons that could not be killed. And - in one of my favorite gameplay twists of all time - you encountered a magical mirror that split you in two, spawning a shadow doppelgänger that haunts your footsteps for several levels.

Prince of Persia holds up well. You can play the first few levels online, so if you get a chance, check it out, if only to savor the fluid animation and shocking sound effects.

And then watch this Taylor Swift video. Because I can’t get this song out of my head and I think it’s like the Ring and I have to infect others if I’m to have any hope at all.

Waiting for Vivec - A Preview of Skywind by Jonah Lobe

(note: This article was originally written for the Fireborne Dev Blog)

I bought Morrowind during my junior year of college. I’d just come off a Max Payne 2/Warcraft 3 kick, and I was on the lookout for something deeper. An RPG, I thought. Something with an interesting story, something I could invest in. The top 10 lists kept mentioning a game called Morrowind. The screenshots - albeit dated-looking already - were strange and exciting, with exotic color palettes and even more exotic landscapes.

“What do they mean, I can do whatever I want?” I asked myself, as I read the reviews. “You mean Morrowind is less of a story and more of a world for me to explore?”

Hard to believe that such a concept was novel, but at the time there was nothing like it. I gave in, and bought the GotY edition. As my 48x CD burner farted and buzzed through the installation, I watched the loading screens with fascination: Nix Hounds, Corprus Stalkers, Clannfear, Bone Lords. What was this game?!

I started it up. I chose to be a Dark Elf, because come on, how cool were they? They were Elves, sure, but they were unlike any elves I’d ever seen. Their skin was blue and gray, their faces were tattooed with tribal patterns, their eyes were red. And their voices…

Seyda Neen was my home base for the first hour. I wandered among the trees and hanging moss. It didn’t matter that the Silt Striders never moved an inch; just staring at them tickled my brain. As I wandered the swamps nearby, Tarhiel - that eternally foolish Bosmer enchanter - plunged to his death beside me, making me jump. I encountered my first ghost; a terrifying experience, since my weapons had no effect! Hours into the game, I still had no conception of where I was or what was happening. But I knew that I’d fallen in love.

That summer, I applied to Bethesda Softworks, for an internship position that they were not offering. I didn’t hear back.

I applied twice more in the next two years before I actually landed a job there. By then, I was seeing screenshots of their new game, a game they called Oblivion. The graphics looked amazing - stunning, really - and yet I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Where was the bone-mold armor? Where were the silt striders? Where was Vivec, and the other minor Gods? Cyrodiil didn’t seem to have ancestral Dunmer tombs, nor did it have giant arthropod homes, nor vampires with golden masks. The world of Cyrodiil… well, it was so much more generic than the alien world of Morrowind. And that was the point, I suppose; Cyrodiil was the capital city of Tamriel, after all, and it had to feel like a “middle ground” between cultures. The point of Morrowind was that there was nowhere else LIKE Morrowind, right?

Still…

I left Bethesda Softworks two years ago. While I was there, I worked on Shivering Isles, Fallout 3 and Skyrim, all of which I’m enormously proud of. Bethesda Games are getting better and better, and I cannot wait to play what’s next (and I do know what’s next… oh, I know). But in my seven years there, I never did get a chance to return to Morrowind.

And that’s why I’m writing you now: because it’s happening. Morrowind is returning, thanks to a diverse group of volunteer game developers. The project is called Skywind: as you might imagine, they’re using the Skyrim engine to recreate - area by area, monster by monster, line-by-yougottabekiddingme-line - this masterpiece. I tell you, if my time wasn’t utterly consumed by Fireborne (and my fantasy novel, the passion-project that made me leave Bethesda), I would certainly pitch in. Do you have any idea how much I’d like to make an ash ghoul? An Ascended Sleeper?! A WALKING SILT STRIDER??

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.  But these guys and gals are actually DOING it.  Check out their gorgeous art page on DeviantArt!  And, because I'm partial to character artists, check out the work of Aeryn James Davies!

Foxcatcher - A Kind of Movie Review by Jonah Lobe

(Note: This is not a movie review per se, rather an armchair analysis of Steve Carrell's depiction of John Du Pont.)

THE TRAILER TO FOXCATCHER WAS FASCINATING, and while I knew that watching it on the plane back from GDC (the Game Developer's Conference) would provide a sub-standard experience, I couldn't resist.  A disturbing real-life story of wrestling and patriotism, played to disturbing effect by actors Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum?  I was sold.

53ff6dbf193f09557a7d0d03_steve-carell-foxcatcher.jpg


    My take?


    Well, I didn't love it, but that isn't to say that Foxcatcher isn't interesting.  It's a very slow film, the color palettes muted, and the soundtrack bare-bones (in fact, I'm not even certain that I recall any music at all).  The story lacks both focus and a clear protagonist; Tatum seems to fade out halfway through the film in favor of Ruffalo, who plays Tatum's brother.  Ruffalo's role is well-played but unchallenging.  Tatum was quite convincing as a a morose and slow-witted wrestler with both an underbite and serious set of attachment issues, but was given little space to develop himself further.

    But the reason Foxcatcher stuck with me was, of course, Steve Carrell.

  In looking at photos of John Du Pont, I saw few aesthetic similarities between himself and Steve Carrell.  This didn't bother me at all, but it did make me wonder at the rather bold direction they took with Carrell's makeup.  The makeup job was unusual: Carrell looks bloodless, with a long, hooked nose, faded eyebrows and shortened dentures.  His demeanor is even more unusual, quiet and unsettling in ways I've never seen before.

    The movie starts with an old reel of a fox fleeing from hounds, while men on horseback charge after them.  An image of old-world aristocracy, is it not?  And indeed, in John Du Pont we see a man obsessed with legacy (though he has none of his own, children or otherwise).  He lives in the past, and stares out the gray windows while recalling the golden age of American leadership.  He ascribes to all things macho - guns, wrestling, and tanks - and yet he is a feeble man, aging and childless.  Even his mother - an aloof woman who still retains the vestiges of class and nobility - thinks him an embarrassment.  Their sprawling, antiqued-wallpaper manse is hers; the trophies are hers, the furnishings are distinctly hers, and the prized horseflesh that roam the fields are all hers.

    But her world is ending, and she knows it.

    Because John Du Pont is no stallion.  John Du Pont is an aging hound, running after something he will never catch.  Looking into Carrell's vacant and vaguely troubled eyes, the viewer can perceive a mind at once slow and murky.  His teeth, when he bares them, are small and nasty things, worn to the nub.  He sits very still, without expression, with his large nose lifted into the air, but it seems that his atrophied senses are perpetually failing him.  He never really seems to present, staring into the distance.  Is he reliving the past, you wonder, or struggling to plumb the ever-present mist for that antique American myth?

    He builds a team of young American hounds, hounds that he thinks will lead the charge again.  He roughhouses in embarrassing fashion with his young stable of wrestlers, blind somehow to his own enfeeblement.  He sees himself as both their coach and their father, and yet he knows nothing of either.  When Mark Ruffalo - a strong, virile man with both a legacy and a family - enters the picture, he demonstrates a natural grace and leadership that Du Pont can only dream of.  Du Pont admires him, at first, but when he realizes that his supposed position as alpha-dog is, itself, an antique concept, the realization (coupled with the death of his mother) erodes what remains of his sanity.  And in the end, in an attempt to reassert his dominance, the old hound does the only thing it knows how to do.

    He bites.

My gallery exhibit is tomorrow! by Jonah Lobe

This is my first post for the new website!  I've really enjoyed writing posts for the Fireborne Blog, so I fully intend to keep regular updates going on this site.  Bookmark me!!

In OTHER news, I was featured in the Washington Post two days ago.  Who knew?

I'm excited for this gallery opening tomorrow, truly.  My friends Dan Bloom and David Ross at maDCap have been an enormous support in this endeavor.  Tony Muzzatti - who's been helping a lot with the social media aspects of "Fireborne" - has also been instrumental in a number of ways as well, and will be documenting this exciting process.

If you're in DC tomorrow (Thursday, the 5th), please stop by!  The party is gonna be BUMPIN, I guarantee.  I'd love to see you!