Meet the One-Man Team Behind Indie Hit 'Pinstripe'

Meet the One-Man Team Behind Indie Hit 'Pinstripe'

Critical hit 'Pinstripe' was made by a single developer over the course of five years Atmos Games

Thomas Brush, who created 'Pinstripe' alone over the course of five years, felt 'invincible' when his Kickstarter contributions started rolling in

Thomas Brush, who created 'Pinstripe' alone over the course of five years, felt 'invincible' when his Kickstarter contributions started rolling in

For most independent game developers, there's nothing more stressful than the launch of a Kickstarter, where your dream can either come into full bloom or wither on the vine. But to Thomas Brush, the one-man studio behind the 2010 Newgrounds hit Coma and the recently-released puzzle-platformer Pinstripe, it wasn't a moment of reckoning – it was his greatest triumph.

"I felt invincible. I remember looking at my wife as the contributions rolled in and telling her, 'We're good to go. I can make games for the rest of my life.' I don't feel that confident anymore, of course. But at the time, it felt very providential."

For Brush, the South Carolina native, the word "providential" speaks to a reluctance to take too much credit for his own creation. Over our hourlong interview, he spoke extensively about fate and destiny, attributing much of his early success to stars aligning and invisible doors opening. But even with these assists from Lady Luck, he attests that making a game by yourself is still a hell of a lot of work.

Even from screenshots, it's clear that Pinstripe resembles what we might now call the prototypical indie game – a colorful-yet-somber platformer with a minimalist plot that threatens to dip into darker territory. It stars a disgraced priest named Ted who hops and puzzle-solves his way through a vision of Hell painted with indigo snowdrifts and flaring lanterns – sort of Tim Burton by way of Thomas Kinkade. Much like the latter's work, Pinstripe occasionally lays the saccharine on thick, but it somehow works for its supernatural plot and fairy-tale atmosphere. Five minutes in, the eponymous Pinstripe, who sports a trilby and a three-piece-suit – not unlike Slenderman, the bogeyman of the social media age – spirits Ted's daughter away, all the while babbling of ceremonies and sacrifice, and it's up to you to get her back.

Like many rookie game-makers, Brush languished at a desk-job that he detested, cranking away for five years on the project that would become the Pinstripe during his evening and lunch hours. During this early period of development, Pinstripe became an escape for Brush, a way to blunt the drudgery of his communications job that, by his own account, he never even wanted. "All my brothers went to college, so I guess I just assumed I would do the same thing," he says, his voice quiet. "When I was growing up, I would just mess with whatever I wanted from day to day – maybe I'll draw, or play the piano, or write a story. That ended up becoming how I designed Pinstripe. It ended up making everything take way longer, but even when things were rough, I stuck with it. I had to entertain myself with something."

As Brush recalls, even from the very outset, the goals were clear: his first game, Coma, became a minor Newgrounds hit back when he was still in high school, attracting several hundred thousand plays within its first year. Its grayscale palette and shadowy main character might seem similar to Limbo, but, in Brush's view, this is entirely coincidental. "Everybody forgets that Limbo actually came out after Coma. There are similarities, sure, but there are a lot of games that look like that. That's just my style."

"Coma was everything I wanted in a game," he says. "When people liked it, I knew that I had found my style. It was from my heart. My next game, Skinny, wasn't that same style, and I was never happy with it. I felt like I had betrayed myself. With Pinstripe, I wanted to take everything that people liked about Coma and take it to the next level. And even now, with the glowing reviews I'm getting from the people who have actually played it, I still feel that insecurity."

As the time Brush poured into Pinstripe gradually grew more focused – culminating in his successful Kickstarter, and connections with prominent industry figures like Tom Fulp, the founder of the mammoth Flash game portal Newgrounds – his attitude towards the development process itself began to sour. "The first few years of development, 100 percent of the time, I was just developing the game, having fun. Then, after the Kickstarter, came marketing, networking, constantly talking to people, standing on the shoulders of industry giants, like Tom Fulp. I asked him to mentor me, via email. Right before I talked to him on the phone, I looked up his net worth. That was a bad idea. But eventually, you stop getting nervous on the phone. I wear so many hats. It's a cliche, but I have to." Eventually, these bursts of networking allowed Brush to secure a publishing deal with the esteemed Flash portal Armor Games, which gave him some much needed breathing-room to finish the game.

Still, despite this, for Brush, the greatest obstacles he encountered while making Pinstripe were philosophical, not practical. "I think making a game by yourself is a lot like painting an oil-based painting. I think that some painters take years to finish one oil painting – they put on layers and layers and layers. Solo game development is like that, because you have to layer on the sound, and the music, and the art. It's an incredibly long process." Brush says that he feels a spiritual, almost moral urge to make games like Pinstripe – works that emphasize an emotional connection between player and game that, in his view, remains all-too-uncommon in the medium. "When you're selling something that was made only by you, you're essentially just selling yourself, right? And your emotions. I sometimes wonder if, what if my blood chemistry in my early twenties is the only reason I was able to be successful? I know it sounds out there, but that's the kind of stuff I worry about. Because, if that does happen, I'm not sure what I would do. This is all I want to do. Make games, and support my family."

As far as the experience of solo game development itself, if Brush's endeavor is anything to go by, it's not for the faint of heart. "It's the most vulnerable thing I've ever had to do in my life," he says. "In most other careers, when you do a good job, and somebody tells you. You're a little piece of a big machine, and you know how well you're doing. In indie development, you are the machine. And the only feedback that really matters comes on launch day."

"It's an old observation, but – making a good game is not enough. When you make a game by yourself, that entire game becomes your identity. When I'm marketing this game, I feel like I'm marketing myself. When people don't like the game, I feel like they don't like me. It's awful, and beautiful, but it's also my destiny. If that sounds crazy, then maybe I am crazy. You have to be crazy to do this, sometimes."