Xalavier Nelson Jr: “If You Don't Want to Deal with the Gatekeepers, Use a Different Gate.”

The director behind 2023’s indie hit El Paso, Elsewhere is just getting started.

The Inverse Interview

At a glance, you could describe El Paso, Elsewhere as Max Payne but with vampires and PS1-inspired graphics. But a glance doesn’t tell you anything about what’s going on beneath the surface of this emotionally raw indie game. Tangled up in El Paso, Elsewhere’s neo-noir roots is a game about addiction, abuse, and recovery, developer Xalavier Nelson Jr. tells Inverse.

“Noir is about the pain of distance,” Nelson says. “Neo-noir is about the pain of being so close that it hurts.”

Nelson has made a name for himself by telling engrossing, diverse stories in a sometimes hostile industry. El Paso, Elsewhere accomplishes this through protagonist James Savage, a Black, narcotics-addicted vampire hunter who’s depicted as a flawed person without ever being reduced to stereotypes.

“Here was a character who would have no artifice, who would be nothing but vulnerable, exposing their soul to you and giving you the freedom to react to it or not,” Nelson says. “I'm very grateful that players did react to him well.”

El Paso, Elsewheres nuanced portrayal of the Black male experience feels particularly relevant during Black History Month. So Inverse sat down with Nelson over Zoom to discuss his thoughts on the game six months after its launch, the pressures of being an indie developer and the director of his own studio Strange Scaffold, the powerful scene he had to cut out of his game, and more.

Putting the story first

“Here was a character who would have no artifice.”

Strange Scaffold

El Paso, Elsewhere is both a deeply human tale of addiction and abuse, and a supernatural shooter about stopping a vampire from ending the world. Rather than a game in conflict with itself, El Paso, Elsewhere seamlessly blends its two identities with its clever conceit: The vampire James is hunting is his abusive ex-girlfriend, Draculae, and the only way to dull the pain from fighting legions of monsters long enough to reach her is to relapse into an addiction to pills.

“I've had a lot of people message me after the game came out and say, ‘I feel seen,’” Nelson says. “I feel like my recovery journey is in El Paso, Elsewhere, and my ex might not have been a vampire, but they might as well have been.”

“Good representation is just good storytelling.”

When writing a character whose identity isn’t often represented in games, it may be tempting to make them a squeaky clean hero above criticism in the pursuit of “good representation.” Strange Scaffold went in the opposite direction with El Paso, Elsewhere, turning its hero into a complicated character who players might not entirely want to see themselves in. But James Savage’s portrayal isn’t just pushing boundaries for its own sake — it’s all in pursuit of a better story.

“Good representation is just good storytelling,” Nelson says. “A lot of things get called out as bad representation where it's not that the representation is bad, it’s that it’s executed poorly. Maybe we actually need a character like that, or we need a situation that is weirder, more complicated, something that is not as defensible.”

El Paso, Elsewhere has earned nearly universal praise since its launch.

That doesn’t mean that Strange Scaffold didn’t have to approach Savage with care, though.

“Having a story starring a strong Black character who nonetheless experienced abuse let us tell a story you otherwise wouldn't be able to depict,” Nelson says. “Seeing people connect with this has been one of the privileges of my professional career, but it did mean that at every step, we had to think, ‘Okay, he's Black. How is that going to impact how players might see him and how do we have to work around it?’ And when I'm writing a white guy, I don't have to do that.”

Savage’s substance addiction and his history as a victim of abuse is essential to El Paso, Elsewhere. But addiction and abuse are difficult topics to depict well, which only become more complicated by race. As Strange Scaffold navigated all the ways players could use Savage’s race to project their own biases onto him, the studio also grappled with the dynamics of victim-blaming in the real world.

El Paso, Elsewhere tracks James Savage’s supernatural path to redemption.

Strange Scaffold

“Sometimes an abuser will put you in a position to defend yourself so that you can no longer see yourself as innocent when you attempt to leave,” Nelson says. “In one scene, James was telling a story of how Draculae kept trying to nip at his neck. He was backed into a corner. He had his hands out to stop her and she bumped against his hands and fell through a plate glass coffee table. And as a result, especially since she had never actually done anything, he always felt that he was not innocent anymore.”

“And then I went, ‘Oh, James is Black, she's white.’ No matter what hoops we tried to jump through to explain this actual dynamic that happens in relationships, I realized that if James was not a perfect victim, he would not be seen as truly innocent and worthy of redemption and release.”

In this case, the scene in question was cut from the game (“At the end of the day, the narrative is cleaner without it,” Nelson says). But El Paso, Elsewhere is by no means a sanitized story, and by diving into the darkest depths of its hero’s psychology, it’s able to reach players in ways that safer portrayals never could.

The “true ending”

El Paso, Elsewhere takes gameplay cues from Max Payne, but forges an identity all its own.

Strange Scaffold

El Paso, Elsewhere has two endings. In what Nelson calls the “true ending,” Savage ends the game bleeding out next to Draculae, both barely clinging on to life. Savage has a vial of blood in his hand that will save him by turning him into an immortal vampire. In the end, he decides to take it.

“People who have gone through addiction and recovery have messaged me and said that ending rings true,” Nelson says. “Across the course of the game, James has seen himself as worthy of living another day and sees for the first time maybe the possibility of being good, of trying again and again and again. The recovery process is about denying hopelessness and taking on both the joy and the burden of waking up another day and being good.”

“There's a lot of fear right now in telling stories that you do not have a direct personal reference for.”

Nelson has said before that, while El Paso, Elsewhere is based on some of his own experiences, it’s not autobiographical. Touching on issues as volatile as abuse, addiction, and racism is tricky no matter what, and they can be even harder to approach with respect when they’re not your direct experiences. But Nelson says that shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to try.

“There's a lot of fear right now in telling stories that you do not have a direct personal reference for,” Nelson says. “In both indie companies and large companies, those stories get shot down as a result of saying, ‘we don't want to do it wrong, so we aren't going to do it at all.’ I want to deconstruct and dismantle the fear around diverse storytelling and show how it does just come back to telling a good story. If you say upfront that you are scared you can't tell a good story, so you can't do a marginalized character in it, maybe that's something to fix.”

Leading By Example

Recovery is at the heart of El Paso, Elsewhere’s pulpy neo-noir story.

Strange Scaffold

As a creative director, Nelson says he’s in a position to encourage good stories about diverse characters, but he acknowledges how much more difficult getting to that position is for anyone from a marginalized group.

“When you have empowered, diverse leadership, you get different stories told in different ways,” Nelson says. “But to get diverse leaders, there have to be diverse juniors and then diverse mid-level and diverse seniors. If people are getting ejected from the industry or dealing with a bunch of institutional biases in hiring, then they never reach the point to become great leaders who can make the great games that players deserve to experience.”

Nelson credits Xbox, which supported El Paso, Elsewhere through its Developer Acceleration Program, for seeing the game’s value and not asking the team to change it. But he has another piece of advice for diverse creators who haven’t found the same path to success in mainstream game publishing.

“If you don't want to deal with the gatekeepers, use a different gate.”

“If you don't want to deal with the gatekeepers, use a different gate,” Nelson says. “We had support from people like Xbox, but El Paso, Elsewhere was self-funded. The way my career even started off was saying, ‘I've got this tiny pile of money, I will make a game that can produce something great with it.’ Making games at a level and scale where people can't tell you no is immensely empowering. And when we make small, focused games, we get the opportunity to tell stories that otherwise we might have a hard time justifying can make millions of dollars even if they're fully capable of doing so.”

After the success of El Paso, Elsewhere, Strange Scaffold is at work on an upcoming game called Life Eater, which Nelson describes as “a horror fantasy kidnapping sim.” Nelson says he’s grateful for the opportunity not just to make one great game, but to build a studio that makes room for other, equally important stories to be told next.

El Paso, Elsewhere could only come from a studio making very specific production choices and priorities,” Nelson says. “When people fall in love with the game and are excited to see what we bring to life next, that doesn't just validate this one game, it validates a career of looking for how to make games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier. Looking at El Paso, Elsewhere a few months down the road, I'm just thankful. I'm so thankful.”

El Paso, Elsewhere is available on Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.

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