When work is all about play

Ahri Nicholas

Ahria Nicholas brings her wide-ranging skills in videogame development to WSU Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program as well as her full-time job.

“I have always loved games,” said Nicholas, a 2021 graduate of WSU Vancouver with a major in digital technology and culture. “My very first video game was Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. My parents would drop me off at the babysitter and I would sit in front of the TV and play that for a few hours, till they picked me up.”

Little did she know that those hours of play were preparation for her future work. Shortly after graduating, Nicholas landed a plum job with Workinman Interactive, a game studio based in Rochester, N.Y., that offered her the opportunity to work remotely from her home in Vancouver. Workinman’s clients include Disney, Atari and Nickelodeon. After six months, she went on to lead a project at the company.

While growing up in Vancouver, Nicholas became increasingly interested in games. “My parents would surprise me at Christmas with the next generation of video games,” she recalled. “I dabbled with programming but never finished anything.” At Evergreen High School, however, she got more serious, participating on the winning team of a high school videogame competition.

But then she turned her interest to electrical engineering. She started at Clark College, then switched her major to Japanese linguistics and briefly attended Portland State University, where she got the opportunity to study in Japan for a year. After returning, she enrolled in the electrical engineering program at WSU Vancouver, “but felt like I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun,” Nicholas said. “I had heard about the DTC [digital technology and culture] program for quite some time, and thought, why not? That’s something I’ve always been passionate about, so let’s do it.”

Nicholas found her tribe. In her classes, she recalled, “I met some amazing people and we all got together to make a studio, like a game studio.” That would be what’s now CMDC Studios (for theCreative Media and Digital Culture program, the umbrella for the DTC major).

Part of the Electronic Literature Lab at the CMDC program, CMDC Studios is the lab’s game development and research arm. It is independently managed by DTC alumni and current students. CMDC Studios publishes several games a year, helping students hone their skills in preparation for employment in the industry after graduation. It provides an opportunity for participants to mentor each other, create games and work in teams focusing on design, programming, web development, animation, video, promotion, project management and leadership.

Over the summer of 2021, Nicholas helped create three games for the studio: “Huli, then Dead Air, then a fun side project called Cargoat. It got me prepped and gave me the skills I needed to go into the senior seminar and help lead the development team,” one of several teams recreating Amnesia.

Restoring amnesia

Remember floppy disks? One of the pioneering computer games is a cult classic called Amnesia, created by the late Thomas M. Disch, a prolific science fiction writer. Amnesia was produced in 1986 on two floppy disks for computers popular at the time: the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the IBM PC. Thirty years later, as computer hardware and software evolved, no one could play it. “Essentially the game had been lost for more than 20 years,” Nicholas said.

"It's a pretty important piece of literature and games history," Nicholas said. "It was the link between adventure games and novels."

In 2021, thanks to the Thomas Disch Estate, which owns the rights to Amnesia, the senior seminar project was an ambitious restoration of the classic game. “We had some hardware we could play it on, map it out and get a feel for it,” Nicholas said. It was a particularly demanding project. A team of 32 CMDC seniors, along with four lab staff members, put in 9,000 hours of work. “One of the major goals of this project was to recreate it in a modern data language and make it accessible for everybody,” Nicholas said. Amnesia: Restored can be played online by anyone—for free.

Nicholas led a team of five student developers in figuring out how to stay true to the original while implementing modern gameplay mechanics. She also worked with other team leads to make sure the game looked and felt cohesive. “That project was a huge one,” said Dene Grigar, professor and director of the CMDC program and the Electronic Literature Lab. “There were something like 2,100 screens of text. There wasn’t a lot of material to consult, but we had to remap it. Ahria did that. It’s a big deal. That experience got her positioned for the game industry.” In fact, it launched her career.

Nicholas dug into the original script. Remapping was the long process of going through the original game and detailing how the different screens of text connected to each other, and finding all endings of the game. “Essentially because we didn’t have access to the source code we had to rewrite it from scratch and compare it to the original manuscript,” said Nicholas. “It was a couple hundred pages long, so a lot of the game was missing in the original release. [It would have been huge and prohibitively expensive, with too many floppy disks.] One reason we went back to restoring it was to put back a lot of the missing content. Size to us at this point wasn’t really a factor.”

Why was the game worth restoring? After all, there are plenty of newer games on the market. “It’s a pretty important piece of literature and gaming history,” Nicholas said. “It was the link between adventure games and novels.”

Talent + Drive

In addition to her full-time job with Workinman, Nicholas works a few hours a week with the Electronic Literature Lab and CMDC Studios.

“The rest of the team has looked at color, typeface, the front-end stuff—she’s doing the heavy back-end programming,” Grigar said.

Grigar said Nicholas is “a terrific representative for us—a model of what we’re trying to turn out in the program. She’s got the kind of drive it takes to be successful in the game industry. It’s very hard for women. So here she’s a woman of color—she’s Filipina—breaking a lot of barriers. She knows how to program but also knows how to look at things on the front end, which a lot of coders don’t. And she has leadership skills, because she’s run a team.”

As for Nicholas, “It’s wonderful to be working with a small group like the lab,” she said. “They are some of the most talented people I know. It is a little bit of a dream come true.”