This was a few years ago, and he was at an arcade in San Francisco (a perfectly fine place to trip). After a few rounds on some old-school fighting games, he decided to try one of the newer machines; he sat down next to a preteen playing a then-new King of Fighters game, and put in a quarter.
Round one: the kid wiped him out. Round two: same thing. Despite years of video game consumption, Quelle was getting annihilated by someone who didn’t look old enough to drive.
“This is the kicker,” he says now. “He turns to me and he goes, ‘Have you ever played a Street Fighter before?’ And oh, I felt my heart drop down to my feet. Like, ‘You don’t know how much time I’ve spent!'”
That’s when he realized he maybe ought to stick with the fighting games of yesteryear. And that’s a good thing; the rapper/producer/animator was able to channel all that knowledge into the music video for “Zero”—the new single from Everything’s Fine, his forthcoming album with rapper (and fiance) Jean Grae. The video is a 7-minute sprint through multiple game genres, inspired by the multicart game Action 52, which let players side-scroll through all manner of titles.
Initially the video for “Zero” was meant to be a quick job. The duo was planning a much more grandiose video, but kept running into scheduling problems with their cast. In the interim, Quelle suggested putting Grae into an 8-bit, first-generation-Nintendo-style video. “I remember telling Jean, ‘This will be done in like a week,'” he says, chuckling. “And of course as I sit down and start getting into it and started thinking about all the other games I liked and wanted to reference, then it transformed into what could’ve been a 15-minute video.”
Obviously, that wouldn’t work. Quelle scrapped the 8-bit idea and moved on to making one that referenced 32-bit games. He made sprite sheets of the Jean Grae character, known as Zero, and other objects he wanted the game-within-the-video to have. “Thanks to the amazing community of sprite archivers and game designers that put their sprites up from the past and make them available to people, I was able to use pre-existing sprites and manipulate them—take certain aspects of those and form them into characters I needed,” he says. Quelle built the visuals in Photoshop and animated in After Effects, and eventually ended up taking nearly three months to complete the “quick” video.
After losing to his preteen adversary, Quelle slunk over to another machine and began playing Samurai Shodown. “One of the [employees] comes and sits down next to me and asks if he can play,” Quelle says, finishing his tale. “He pops in a quarter and turns to me and he goes, ‘Thank you for being here and playing this because I never have anyone to play these games with.’” Arcade Guy, this one’s for you. In its final incarnation, the “Zero” video follows Grae’s assassin character as she chases an evil capitalist overlord, assisted by “Lt. Quelle of the Detroit Revolt,” a feline getaway driver, and a very helpful liquor store owner. It’s also a totally nostalgic head trip set to Quelle’s chiptune-esque beat and Grae’s Rachmaninoff-referencing raps.
But “Zero” doesn’t end with the video. In the process of teaching himself game design to animate the clip, Quelle learned to work in UnReal Engine, the primary tool of game developers, and plans to make two or three fully playable levels based on games shown in the video by the end of 2018. He’d also like to make more videogame music videos.
As for Quelle’s trip to the arcade, that story has a happy ending too.
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