James Silva: From Dish-Pit Shame to XBox's Next Hit Game

Games Features James Silva
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Hometown: Utica, New York
Game: The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai
For Fans Of: Quentin Tarantino, The Matrix, graphic novels

The most buzzed-about indie game developer of the moment, James Silva, rarely gets to leave his bedroom—only because it doubles as his office and laboratory.

The room is packed with computers, a television and two desks, one of which is actually a small table propped up on speakers. There are five LCD computer monitors and at least as many coffee cups scattered about (“I usually take them down to the sink in shifts,” he says).

With game-development teams at major studios like Valve and Bungie employing hundreds of people—programmers, artists, sound engineers, level designers, etc.—it’s easy to forget that there are still indie designers like Silva who can single-handedly usher a game from concept to completion. Just add caffeine.

His latest project is a 2-D action side-scroller called The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, which follows a samurai dishwasher as he wages war on hordes of evil cyborgs that resemble Agent Smith from The Matrix. The game’s stylized visuals owe a debt to Tim Burton’s films as well as graphic novels like Frank Miller’s Sin City. For the soundtrack: blistering punk rock (Silva was in a ska band for a while, which helps explain the name of his game-design outfit, Ska Studios).

While studying computer science at the SUNY Institute of Technology in Albany, N.Y., Silva himself worked as a dishwasher at a local Italian restaurant. People give you a hard time when you have the least glamorous job in the restaurant, so Silva began reminding his coworkers that Bruce Lee started out as a dishwasher. While chipping burnt cheese off dishes and spraying tomato sauce off metal pans, Silva passed the tedious hours by mulling over his next video-game project—a lowly dishwasher who gets his chance to kick ass and save the world.

A few months later, Silva learned of a Microsoft-hosted competition called Dream-Build-Play, which invited indie developers to build a game using the company’s XNA tool set. The grand prize? A coveted Xbox Live Arcade contract, meaning the winner’s game would be available for download to the Xbox 360 console. Despite his nagging self-doubt, Silva entered the competition and won. And to think none of this would’ve been possible if his mom hadn’t grounded him from the Nintendo as a kid.

“There was a point when I was 11 or 12 where my mom decided that me and my sisters were playing too many video games, so she banned video games during the week. Because of that, I figured, “Ok, I have to make my own games now.” That’s when I started learning [how to program in Basic], because that didn’t count as playing video games. I figured out how to make these little text games that would be like, ‘You are in a room. Do you go north or west?’ You’d type in ‘west’ and it’d be like, ‘You fell into a pit and died.’”

Silva is now hard at work getting The Dishwasher polished and ready for market, fully aware of his life’s new, exciting dilemma: You are in a bedroom. Do you want your game-design career to go north or south? OK, then put the finishing touches on your project so you don’t have to go back to work in the dish pit until you die. Sufficient motivation for any up-and-coming game designer.