// Interview by Matt Beachey
Jerry Belich is something of a Renaissance man. He’s a longtime passion programmer who works at Clockwork Agency but always makes time for a plethora creative side projects. He’s spent the last few months mixing his technical and creative impulses, and the result is the Choosatron Deluxe Adventure Matrix, a homemade arcade-style choose-your-own-adventure game, complete with a quarter slot and a thermal printer readout of the story you experience. The Choosatron will be available to play at the Volume 4 launch party, so bring your quarters and your wits.
We shot Jerry a few questions about his electronic tinkerings and his propensity for working on a variety of disparate projects at once.
PAPER DARTS: What got you interested in choose-your-own-adventure? Did you read a lot of choose your own adventure as a kid, or was the draw more in the technological creative challenge?
JERRY BELICH:Both really. I loved Choose Your Own Adventures as a kid. They weren't all that brand, but as with Kleenex it's pretty synonymous with interactive fiction. Anyway, two favorites of mine were The Forbidden Towers by Carol Gaskin and Adventure in the Lost World by R. W. Stroh. I went through each of them again before writing this to see if they had held up over the score of years since I last read them, and as a testament to my hopefully good taste, they really do!
These in particular fit my love for fantasy and adventure, without being mind-numbingly simple or so random that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. I spent many recesses in elementary school reading Lord of the Rings, so I expected a little more than a dolphin pulling a deus ex machina. I also had an amber screened computer with a dead hard drive, 5 1/4" floppy, and 2400 baud modem that I used for text adventure games and playing MUSHes online (text adventures but with real people). Interactive fiction inspired me to play verbal adventure games with friends. I would make up a world and characters, assigning one to each friend, and they would take turns describing their actions. In retrospect I probably would have loved Dungeons & Dragons style games if I had been allowed to play them. That evolved into programming my own simple IF games in QBasic on the aforementioned computer of old.
PD: You say you’re not a writer, but you are a software writer. Does the creative challenge of writing software transfer over into writing prose, choose-your-own-adventure or otherwise?
JB: Honestly, not much for me. Software development is a much easier mental game, and ninety percent of the time I’m not writing code, just thinking about it. Like in kung-fu movies where the battle has already happened before swords are even drawn. I’m pure stream of consciousness when it comes to creative writing, and never feel like I know much more about what’s going on than the characters do. I become paralyzed by the choices you have to make as a writer, like a rabbit’s serpentine path in the road until your car catches up with it. As an exercise I’ve been writing stories about my own life to sidestep the problem of choice, but fiction is what really does it for me. Sketch comedy is probably the most fun to write, and I’m stupidly proud of the nonsensical piece I wrote for a Fringe Festival show this year called Matlock: The One Man Show.
This project and writing IF has come full circle for me. The problems I have with “traditional” fiction writing seem to evaporate. Second person narrative lends itself to stream of consciousness, and every time I get to a point where decision has frozen me, I simply branch the story. It’s startling how natural it feels compared to how much I struggle otherwise.
PD: What are some other passion projects you’ve worked on in the past that you’re most proud of? What would you love to do in the future?
JB: That’s tough. I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades (ADHD, I think they call it), though entertainment has been the core of what I’m passionate about. That really started for me in middle school with video production and live theatre. I started sweding movies in the last year (like in Be Kind Rewind) with the Hobbit Trailer Sweded, and newly finished Die Hard, with Dune close behind. I’m really proud at how many people have come together to help and the embarrassing things they've been willing to do at my word (in the name of comedy). I’ve helped put together and/or performed in a number of shows done at local theaters and CONvergence. “Drinking with Geeks” at CON is absurdly fun, and probably my best drunken idea. Learning and performing on the Theremin has been a really fun and amusing journey over the years. The novelty definitely turns heads, and I don’t just use it as a noise instrument. But my biggest passion project that may never finish is a show I’ve written with Brian Quarfoth called Captain TV. I think what we’ve put together is hilarious, but haven’t a clue how we’ll ever get it made!
The Choosatron has been my first dive into creative electronics, but has been incredibly inspiring and seeded a dozen other ideas that I can’t wait to try out! I have a feeling this technical and creative mix is a track I’ll be on for a while, especially when I get encouragement and support like Paper Darts has given. Game theory and design will definitely influence a lot of my work.
PD: What are your days like? How do you fit in your day job with all of your creative escapades? Have you always packed such a full schedule, or was this a learned trait for you?
JB: I’ve always been a really driven person, perhaps to a fault. Feeling productive is important to me, and burning my mental energy is vital. It was only in the last three years where my day job has been something I’m completely engaged in, which uses a lot of that energy. Before that if I didn’t work on projects in my own time, my brain would go critical and an anxiety-induced existential crisis would occur. At first the shift to fulfilling work was incredibly disheartening after hours, because I had nothing left for my other work. I didn’t want one or the other, I wanted it all! Upon examination, many of my projects were unfocused and designed to kill time. Once I did a little mental spring cleaning (a process that was far more frustrating than it might sound), I found my balance. Software during the day, and the projects that inspired and recharged me in my off hours. Plus, I’m an extrovert, so collaboration is an absolute godsend to me. It certainly makes the movie sweding infinitely more fun.
PD: If you could immediately acquire one skill, Matrix style, what would it be?
JB: I was really close to saying expert knife (or other sharp implement) thrower, since I know I’d use it everyday for startling people and turning off lights…but I think I’d prefer expertise in woodwork. The ability to skillfully make beautiful and functional items that only acquire more character with age is very appealing. Shoot, no! Genetics expert if it would allow me to breed miniature African animals, like giraffes. Ok, I’m done.