What do a giant poop emoji in Klyde Warren Park and an award-nominated console game about pinball and swords have in common? Both projects, along with a slew of other creative endeavors, spring from the minds at Flight School Studio. Now located in downtown Dallas, Flight School's team of artists and developers have been helping organizations bring their grandiose ideas to life since 2017. But game designer John Bearden said they're now itching to show off original work.
Bearden, along with marketing member Sara Hebert, recently spoke with us at PAX South 2020 in San Antonio about the studio's past accomplishments and future goals. Creature in the Well, a console game created by a pair of developers in their Montreal office, marks a shift in the team's focus. Shipping a commercially and critically successful video game galvanized the studio's desire for more in-house projects. They've recently beefed up their engineering department to prepare for just that.
“Everything that the studio does has a high bar for both art and story," Hebert says. "At the heart of it, the folks who started this studio came from places where story is king."
One needs only look at the names on the founders list to see Hebert is right. Many of them can trace their professional careers through North Texas, and more specifically Dallas' art scene. Chief Creative Officer Brandon Oldenburg and a number of other artists helped bring the Brad Oldham Deep Ellum sculpture "The Traveling Man" to life in 2007. Others, like CEO Kyle Clark, can point to years of work at Reel FX, an animation studio that commonly works alongside Disney and Pixar on their films.
Regardless of pedigree, everyone at Flight School views Dallas as more than a business headquarters. Hebert says the city is in the blood and soul of their work. “A lot of the team is dedicated to Dallas. They’re having families here and settling down and making a life here," she says.
If you're at all familiar with Flight School Studio (and you don't own a game console), you've likely heard about War Remains. The "immersive memory" sprang from the mind and writing of historian and podcaster Dan Carlin, who tasked the studio with bringing the tragic turmoil of World War I trenches to stark reality. More than a simple digital re-creation, War Remains featured a physical set that the public traversed while wearing a virtual reality headset. Tactile feedback, noise and other sensory information were important in selling the emotional weight of the multimedia narrative.
“That game really teaches you about the atrocities of war. The current landscape of America is shaped by the trauma that whole generation of people experienced through the first world war," Hebert says. "And War Remains has this incredible set that cannot be experienced inside of a home, and you have to travel to see it.”
It just finished a cross-country tour, but Bearden said they plan to bring it back to Dallas sometime in the next couple of months. War Remains recently won the Out of Home VR Entertainment of the Year from The VR Awards. Emphasizing that out-of-home aspect is a technical and artistic challenge Flight School hopes to continue in the future. Virtual reality remains a prohibitively expensive hobby for the average consumer, but location-based experiences, like art pop-ups, work to close that financial gap.
“That is the equivalent of the '80s arcade," Bearden says. "You couldn’t play the arcade games at home until Atari or Nintendo released them on a console, but even then it was a reduced experience. With VR, since it is such a sensory experience, there is just no way you could experience them in your home.”The trick is making them compelling and worth the time," Hebert adds.
Something else you had to travel and see was the giant, inflatable poop emoji that graced Klyde Warren Park in October 2019. Bearden laughs when he thinks about having that particular project from the bathroom freshening company Poopourri on his résumé. He explains that the project fell neatly in line with Flight School's guiding ethos.
“The pitch was very close to 'Hey we’re going to have this giant inflatable poo. Can you design an experience that’s … transsensual?'” Bearden remembers.
The team endeavored to deliver more than just the har-har reaction of a 20-foot turd sitting on the grass in a public space. Adapting Poopourri CEO Suzy Batiz's mantra to "essentially let shit go," the event had folks enter the inflatable excretion for a little metaphysical cleansing before emerging lighter on the other side.
"We’ve got this inflatable poo and we want people to have a transformative experience inside of it," says Hebert. "You let out whatever is holding you back, or constipating you, and then you leave it transformed. But that speaks to our sensibilities when creating anything."
Bearden says the studio is excited to be releasing passion projects like Creature in the Well so early in their tenure. While they hadn't considered developing console games before then, they prioritize the ideas that seize their minds and won't let go. Being nominated for an award for the 2020 Independent Game Festival just proves their trust wasn't misplaced.
Hebert says the team wasn't exactly anxious about how the public would receive a video game so unlike the artwork they've created so far, but having someone recognize and legitimize the work still felt incredible.
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“Getting the feedback responses and reviews told us that we had created a really solid project, and the award nomination just cemented that feeling," he says.
Creature in the Well made sense on console, which is why they ventured into previously unexplored territory. That's a guiding principle for the company: Does the project have a good reason to exist on this platform? Is it taking advantage of the technology? Looking forward, Flight School isn't limiting the kind of work they want to do.
“The team does not want to be creatively limited by platform. AR, console, maybe even board games. Who knows?" Hebert says.
But what about Dallas? A studio in the heart of downtown and staffed by folks with a history here, both personally and professionally, surely must be interested in creating experiences that exemplify the city's vibrant art and culture. Bearden and Hebert offered shrugs and smiles but nothing concrete ... yet.
"That is something we would very much like to do in the future, yes," Hebert says.