“They Have To Know You Care About Them”: An Interview with Dropsy’s Jay Tholen

Jay Tholen cares first and shares Jesus later.

Written by Richard Clark / Published on November 8, 2013

Jay Tholen is designing a game about a clown that can’t help but hug people (which we talked about with him here, in this in-depth interview). Recently backed on Kickstarter (but still in need of backing for some great stretch goals!), Dropsy is essentially an outgrowth of Tholen himself, a creative presence who is as determined to share himself with others as he is aware of his outsider status.

We talked to Tholen about making games as a Christian, and what his church thinks of his work.

What core beliefs would you say most motivate you?

The gospel. As far as to be creative and do what I love doing, I would say pretty simply the gospel, the hope of the gospel, and the promises that were given through the gospel, and what Christ has done for us motivate me ultimately.

That can come with implications that I’m sure you guys work really hard to dispel. I feel like on the whole, we’re kind of bad sometimes at communicating the gospel. But definitely that core of Christ’s sacrifice and the implications of it for his people.

How do those beliefs impact how you make games?

They’re always at the core, but it’s not really going to be apparent on the surface. Maybe once you meet me, it would be. When I’m making [Dropsy], I think about the overarching thing that I’m communicating to the player while they’re playing it. I think love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, those are the things that Dropsy inherently tries to spread in the game world. I’m trying to make that a rule in my brain, to make him react in those ways.

I’m not big on fandom. I’ve never been able to get into a thing – like Star Trek, or whatever anyone likes a lot – that is a brand. So while I’m making my stuff, I try to respect that in other people. In a way it makes things a mess, because I try to stick in everything or just make it such a blur that it doesn’t represent anything that anyone could say “Oh man, I like that genre that Jay Tholen plays.”

In regards to Christianity, I think we’re pretty bad at that. We like to quantify genres and fit the gospel in them, and then sell them back out to people. There’s all those deep themes in this game and in my music, but I don’t come out and tell them in a scene that Christ died on the cross for them. I really just want them to, if anything, have this inherent urge awoken within them that I feel like all human beings have, because they recognize events in the game that have truth in them.

Do you have a role model?

There’s people that I like their stuff a lot. I always feel really competitive. I don’t ever think, “Oh man, I love this guy so much. His stuff is always so good.” I always am thinking, “Man, now I want to do that, and I want to do it cooler than that guy did it.” Whenever I see something cool, it makes me a little bit jealous that I didn’t think of it. “That jerk. I wanted to have that idea.”

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How do you feel about games addressing religious or philosophical issues?

Games that exist that are Christian, I mean I think everyone knows most of them aren’t very good.

I think it’s a good thing for people to try, even if they end up not being good at it. I think it expands what people think they’re capable of, which I think is a positive, because a lot of people still see them as a novelty. At the same time, if they do it really badly, ham-fisted, and preachy… I think there has to be something that all human beings can inherently connect with in a game, rather than you just relaying your beliefs in the game and making it like “Memorize my beliefs as we explore this narrative and I force them on you!”

If you go up to someone in the street and then tell them, “Hey man, did you know that Jesus loves you?” that’s not going to do anything. They have to know that you care about them. I have this rule: unless another human being is going to take fashion advice from you, or advice on bands to listen to or something, you’re really not doing them any favors by telling them that Jesus loves them a lot, because they’ll think you’re trying to get points or whatever.

As far as games go, I think we need to approach it in a universal way, be considerate of people, and realize that people are coming from real life experiences, instead of saying “Oh, hey you potentially sinful person who may be playing this game, check out this morality play and get right!” I think that a lot more care could be taken in the initial approach.

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Do you attend a regular religious gathering of some sort?

Yeah. Probably too much. [laughs] I’m a youth leader. I attend probably two to three times a week at a church.

So what do the people there think of your work?

We have a relatively small congregation. The closer they get to my age, the more they get it. Then, after this weird threshold of thirty-somethings, I think they think I may be lost, or… I don’t think they’re aware of anything. They heard some of my chiptune stuff, and some of them, surprisingly, have been pretty receptive to it, which I wasn’t expecting.

There aren’t many wealthy members of my church. My pastor, when he’s not a pastor, runs a plumbing company. He and his wife are your typical conservative non-denominational church pastor people. They went to a local venue to see one of my shows one time. The venue was the back of a record store. When you’re not surrounded by that all the time, it can look weird, with all the posters of metal bands or things from just a totally different world. I could see they were uncomfortable. But my pastor gave me a call the next day and he was like, “Hey, I really appreciate what you guys do.” He has a lot of wisdom, and a lot of understanding, but I didn’t expect that. So that was nice and comforting.

 You can back Dropsy here

About the Author:

Richard Clark is director of editorial development for CT Pastors and Preaching Today, a co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, and has written for Unwinnable and Kill Screen. He can be followed on twitter @TheRichardClark.