Ethan Redd didn’t have a computer when he began teaching himself programming languages to make games at the age of nine. Undeterred by technical limitations, he would write out notes on C++ in a notebook. He then realized his games would need art, so by 12 years old he was toying around in Blender. At 15, he began programming in earnest and took up Unity for the first time.
A self-taught multidisciplanarian, there’s little Redd can’t do after his early days scrawling code into the back of a book. Nowadays, he and the members of his studio, Virtuoso Neomedia, are making some of the brightest and loudest games the industry’s seen in some time, like the upcoming Raddminton and Killer Auto, Redd’s high-octane racing game.
some of my in-game work, from one of the 3 games I have in active development now [old screenshot] pic.twitter.com/8VCwmtySux
— KIDD RADD (@EthanRedd) June 5, 2020
In the years since he started making games, Redd has released his first game on the Ouya, prototyped a handful of analog games with his brother while growing up, and worked as a freelancer in music, video production, and games. He’s mostly funded his work through consulting, and angel investments have helped his team buy back their time after hustling for so long and allowed them to flesh out their upcoming releases.
Even so, he’s happy to admit he’s still learning how to make games after attending New York University and then going on to teach at the NYU Game Center. He tells Fanbyte that “working with students makes you clarify your own thoughts,” and that this has prompted plenty of reflection on habits and techniques he can refine as he continues pushing forward.
Given his steady and early feats, it’s no wonder that Redd has not only taught games, but is also the “fearless leader” of his own studio, Virtuoso Neomedia. The development team — composed of himself, his younger brother Seth, and a growing stable of talent — are working to ensure they’ll always be at the cutting edge of games by focusing on creating “colorful neomedia from the brightest future.” When speaking on the team’s name and ethos, Redd shares that Virtuoso serves as a “call to action” for both the team and the people who see their work.
“We try to go harder than everybody else that we see out there,” he says. “We’re trying to do our very best to inspire other people’s very best.”
The studio name’s first half, “virtuoso,” comes from Redd’s younger brother, who’s not only the lead concept artist at the studio but also an independent cartoonist and illustrator on his own comic Love Sickubus. According to the older Redd, it meant that much more to him that his brother and constant collaborator came up with the name. It showed he “was able to see something in the work” and was able to make something that captured the spirit of it, in this case the studio name and ethos.
Accompanying this mission is a cavalcade of bright, abrasive games that capture the wide-eyed optimism Redd has attempted to channel in his work — optimism that’s always been a part of what drew him to games and the media he loved growing up. “Video games were sort of an escape for me, but also a glimpse into something better,” he elaborates. “I was always attracted to stuff with an air of optimism and with an eye towards the future or towards the best in people.”
Rather than make pastiches of it all, or just literal translations of it, Redd’s pushed himself to make original games like Zodiac XX, Raddminton and Killer Auto — all games through which Redd has tried to turn feelings and verbs into highly expressive actions and experiences that can “affirm something good within you and your worldview or about the world around you.”
Killer Auto represents “the most clear synthesis of these ideas” in his eyes due to how it best captures his upbringing. When you play the game, you’re supposed to find that the best way to drive isn’t the cleanest, but the hardest. “The game’s based off this feedback loop where the harder you drive, the faster you go.” The goal is to communicate this meta-narrative about the rough and tumble of life — and specifically Redd’s life during the time he was developing the title — through gameplay, though Killer Auto is not explicitly about that time in his life, and it’s set in a futuristic racing game that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sega Saturn.
Virtuoso’s games have a voice and style with undeniable gravitas. They reek of confidence born not just from Redd and his brother, but also a string of collaborations that the brothers have made sure play a core part in their games’ development. When asked about studio size, Redd offered that the studio was small and he liked it that way. He recalls the golden age of the “late ‘80s to late ‘90s” where games felt like they were owned by everyone who made them.
“Even on a meta basis, having less people lets everyone put more of themselves into the game, flaws and all,” he elaborates. “And I think that makes for more intimate games.”
As an example, music is much more integral than simply setting a mood or acting as set dressing. For Redd, it’s “a third of the game” that “directly sort of taps your subconsciousness…it orients you towards an emotion or feeling more viscerally than anything else.” This is why he brought on 2 Mello, a composer and artist completely independent of Virtuoso, whose work on Zodiac XX was integral to forming parts of the game’s design. Skybridge and Myrone, two other composers, had equal involvement in the project as well. There’s a “game changer” plot moment where the music cuts out, you hear a guitar slide, and a tone-shifting track kicks in at the back end that wouldn’t have been possible without the musicians being aware of the process from the get-go.
“That was something we planned from day one because I bring the musicians in when I have prototypes,” he says. “I’m like, ‘What do you think? What do you feel?’” In turn, these more intensive collaborations have led to better games and working relationships, allowing Redd to become a better director who bolsters his team’s contributions.
This all lends Virtuoso’s games a brash but meticulously thought-out style that can best be described as a composite of the anime (specifically Toonami OVAs) Redd watched growing up, Sega AM2 games, and Hong Kong action films, as well as everything his collaborators bring to the table. Though, as it may be obvious by this point, Redd’s not satisfied with just homages.
“I tried to take what people I respect did and take another step with it,” he says. While he claims Zodiac XX is the most retro-looking of his titles, he tells me that both Killer Auto and Raddminton instead go for a “digital native cartoon look,” featuring strong silhouettes against “limited polygon budgets” realizing the game’s visuals like 2D animated series extrapolated into 3D, making for a striking collision of aesthetics that just works. He also builds these games from more abstract concepts (“Fuck genre”) that just happen to fall in line stylistically with older games his work gets compared to, claiming they are not throwbacks. While he has sometimes balked at the comparison game, he acknowledges compliments that favorably compare his own titles to those games, like F-Zero, even if he hasn’t played some of them…like F-Zero.
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“I think when people compare it to something that they love, that’s a great compliment…and that makes me happy in turn. I’m glad I can give that to people,” Redd said. He remains steadfast in the strength and originality of his work though and hopes we see it, saying, “I think it’s easy to encounter something and compare it to something else you’ve encountered. And I think that’s a natural urge, but I feel like with games, we go so hard with it that it may get in the way of just like playing what’s in front of you.”
Redd talks about his work with an overwhelming sense of pride. He and his studio seem to know what they’re onto. They’re hellbent on producing art that makes you feel something beyond cool, and seem like they will until they can’t anymore. It won’t necessarily be exclusively games, either, for Redd believes “it’s limiting to have access to so much talent and to only put it together in one form.” At the time, Redd teased that he and his team were working on something that wasn’t a game for the following month. Turns out, it was a performance during The Game Awards’ pre-show called Intervision that brought together countless of the studio’s collaborators under one dazzling showcase.
Near the end of our time, Redd references a book he has loaded with dozens of potential ideas for what Virtuoso could do in the future. He says few, if any, are repeats. Instead, Virtuoso has its eyes firmly fixed on their own bright future, bringing it to us all however and whenever they see fit. I, for one, can’t wait.