Scott Benson is my Twitter hero. The Pittsburgh-based animator-turned-indie game maker is doing something different with Twitter — he uses it to inspire. I’m a major night owl, as is he, and so we keep similar hours; over the years, I’ve become convinced I know him as a person and as a creator more intimately than anyone else I follow on traditional media. He loves going on multi-hour breakdowns of the tiniest details in games and film, and I always feel smarter for being a part of his conversation, which is a rare thing to experience on social media.
Scott and his co-workers are building a delightful indie game called A Night In The Woods, about a town filled with anthropomorphized animals and how they handle growing up. While we’ll see that game later this year, there are already two supplemental games that you can play called Lost Constellation and Longest Night. Both games are set at night, Scott’s preferred time, and that doesn’t seem like an accident.
I spoke with Scott Benson about how to make Twitter work, building an internet family, and how Angry Internet discourages even the most supportive people.
First, tell me absolutely everything about A Night In The Woods and its development.
Night In The Woods is an adventure-ish game that’s really focused on character and story and world and all that fun stuff. It has platforming traversal because we wanted a really big world and having to regular-walk everywhere would discourage exploration. Early on we wanted to do the opposite of a lot of games like us, which is to ditch minimalism and haunting loneliness in favor of a close group of chatty friends in a bustling small town full of life. Alec Holowka has been making games since forever, and does coding and music and design. I do some design stuff, art, animation, writing, and what not. Bethany Hockenberry co-writes it and actually a lot of the original setting and themes come from the area she grew up in. My longtime friend Charles Huettner does some amazing animation work on it, and Adam and Bekah Saltsman run Finji, who is our publisher. They’ve all been massively important.
Alec reached out in 2013 having seen some of my animation work and my irresponsible levels of tweeting. He was really patient as I’d never made a game before and was doubtless a huge drag at first. Had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t afford a Unity license (then it was a couple grand I think- it’s since got a free version), and Alec suggested we kickstart the whole thing to pay for Unity and also to free up a few months to work on the game. We initially asked for $50,000 and our Kickstarter ended up hitting that just over 24 hours after we launched it. 30 days later it had quadrupled that. I was surreal. The two and a half years since have been a total blur.
Your Twitter following is not only a part of your business, it’s also like your family. Tell me what that Twitter interaction means to you.
I work at home and while IRL socializing is important, unless we’re really great friends it tends to suck all of the energy out of me. And even then, especially once you get into your 30s and you’re married and you’re mostly active in the middle of the night, making loads of new friends becomes a lot more difficult, as does maintaining a social life in general.
Twitter is pretty perfect as a way of getting around those limitations. It lets me maintain friendships (all of my closest friendships these days were almost to a one started on twitter). It lets me connect with other folks in my line of work, which is art and animation and now games. Without Twitter, Late Night Work Club never would have happened. Night In The Woods, either. Those are probably the two biggest contributions I’ve made as far as my output, and without Twitter neither would have happened. It’s also really important, and I think I realized this early on, for being able to get your work out there. Everyone who follows you and enjoys it when you pop up on their feed is going to maybe give a shit when you release a film or a print or a game.
But going back to my first point: I do think that in my life Twitter is essential as a way of surrounding yourself with folks and connecting and so forth. It can get lonely, right? Twitter makes me feel less lonely. I know it has the opposite effect on some folks I know and for good reasons, but for me it’s a nice little portable home. Which is spooky, because it’s a home you don’t own and can change at any time.
Social media is so often considered a distraction that keeps us from work, but I think you’ve found ways to manifest it into inspiration. What’s the secret of tweeting all the time but also making things?
Well, partly it’s because I get distracted and bored easily, especially while working, so having a constant low level of chatter I can jump or out of is really helpful for me. It actually helps me work better because I can take it in small doses. But I mean in a broader way Twitter is me making things. I like telling stories and doing extended jokes and other dumb stuff. And I think just a single tweet or a picture is a way of like grabbing a moment and making something out of it and that’s a big big part of art for me.
Also, I just have a lot to say I guess. And I like making people laugh, or maybe feel less alone.
What’s the secret to being a good night artist?
My natural rhythm, when left to my own devices, is sleeping 5am- 11am and a couple hours in the evening. During the day I hang out with Bethany, go out, run errands etc. I’m most creative from like 10pm-4am though. And back when I was doing other jobs late night was like the only time I could pretty reliably carve out to work on my own stuff. So my secret is that it’s what I do naturally. I find there’s a nice energy to things that late, and I’m still full of the day before and that helps me work. Also night twitter is about 300% more pleasant and funny than day twitter. Not even close. Very different world.
Do you think that five years from now Twitter will still be this important in your life? Will it always be Twitter or will it be a different platform? Or do you think social media will phase out?
I mean who can say… I’d say that Twitter or something like it will have a big place in my life both professionally and personally. I don’t think you can go back on this unless you just don’t want to have those interactions in that space. We’re connected now, and particularly for artists that kind of connection is often essential. I don’t think social media is going anywhere, and in fact a lot of younger folks are growing up with it being on of the primary means through which they form relationships and understand society. It’s just going to evolve, and I hope we all move along together.
You, more than most anyone I know, go on very long Twitter diatribes that tend to break the form of the platform. Sometimes these are painful stories about growing up protesting abortion clinics or they are long hilarious reactions to how bad in-game graffiti has become. Does it take something out of you to be this open with the world, or does it reward you?
Um, a little of both? Lots of times it’s really satisfying — folks who follow me tend to be really responsive so it’s a bit like performance, with a bit of audience participation? There’s a difference between publishing a blog post and doing something sentence by sentence over many minutes as folks respond to each one. Sometimes it is really draining if you go into something heavy, or something you’re working through as you talk about it. I think Twitter is good for that, but there’s that danger of opening yourself up too much and being more vulnerable than you’d like. I’ve been fortunate. I think the other danger is just getting sick of yourself. A lot of times I’ll do this hour long twitter essay only to finish it, look back, and delete it all tweet by tweet. I get embarrassed and feel like I’ve talked to much or come across like I think my voice is important. But I do think Twitter is unappreciated as a venue for this kind of performance writing. Honestly I mostly see it done by political pundits. It’s a cool thing. But yeah. I think you have to guard yourself as far as how open you are. It can take away as easily as it can give.
Finally, I know you’re loathe to talk about it, but tell me about your experience with “I’m A Nice Guy”.
I made it as a small thing for what was at the time the couple thousand mostly artists, animators, and a few video game people who followed me because I talked about games a lot. It was 2013 and I think I’d just seen one aggrieved chilldman too many worry about diversity hires or women appropriating nerd culture or why a woman they were nice to had the temerity not to respond with sex. This whole thing these dudes construct around themselves… it’s an offshoot of some larger shitty cultural issues but man do some guys in particular take it and run with it. I dunno. No one needs me to describe it, everyone has some story about seeing this in some guy they encountered or even in themselves.
So I made it after a record label, in the midst of a fight with a band who hired me, buried a music video I spent months on. I needed a little palate-cleanser project and I spent a few days on it. No big. Just a fun thing. When I released it though it took OFF, at least relative to my pretty obscure work. It got picked up by Jezebel and went from “guy makes funny cartoon about bullshit and maybe you will laugh or think or take some comfort that you’re not alone in noticing this” to “THIS CARTOON DESTROYS MEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVISM ONCE AND FOR ALL!!!!” The months of angry emails and messages made me really indignant about it too, because really nothing makes you more sure you’re right than when a bunch of clearly wrong randos are screaming at you that you’re wrong. I got off lucky, though. For a lot of folks (mostly women), this kind of thing would lead to the absolute destruction of their lives at the hands of assholes from the internet.
This went on for a while but I think at some point I saw the limits of this kind of thing online. I believe art and humor and satire are great tools for commenting on and addressing fucked up stuff, but I think there’s also this culture of totally dunking on idiots as loudly as possible so everyone can see. That’s everywhere now, especially now, because social media runs on social capital, and being like LOOK HOW SMART AND AWARE I AM or WATCH ME DESTROOOY THIS DIPSHIT is a decent check to cash. And you feel like you’re doing something, which in a world where we often feel so powerless to address huge scary problems is a really precious thing. How often do you get to feel like you’re doing it? But I’m A Nice Guy became a really great tool for that, for better and for worse.