Catching up with a few Radical friends

Not long after our trip out to the Lower Mainland entered the books, I hit up some old friends of mine through Twitter, to see if they’d be interested in a get-together. I hadn’t actually seen some of them in over a decade (even Joel I hadn’t seen in at least three years), and it just seemed a perfect thing to do.

Twitter has become a perfect way of bringing people together. Just as last year, when I met up with my old friend Sonny, I’m finding Twitter to be an intensively useful tool to meet up with friends long-unseen. In this case, it became a catalyst, and we dragged in a non-Twitterer while we were at it.

And it was a good evening, however short.

I’m on vacation, but the others aren’t — they have to work. So the plan was to meet at The Whip on E 6th (just off of Main St.) for 18:30. That gave Alex and I time to do a little visit of our own, out to Granville Island. Leaving Monkey with the grandparents (Choo Choo had to come with us), we trucked our way from Ruskin down to False Creek.

We stopped along the way at the Toys ‘R Us in Coquitlam to find a Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl doll for Monkey, as this was what Santa was supposed to bring. Jessie, it seems, is a lesser object of desire when it comes to co-marketing, and we hadn’t capitalised on our sole opportunity. The Toys ‘R Us store was devoid of anything Jessie-related, meaning one little girl would be wondering why Santa was such a yutz. Alex and I started formulating backup plans.

The remainder of the trip was met mostly by construction, which seems to permeate the Vancouver area. Given the Olympics were only earlier this year, I’m rather surprised to see so much. One would think the public coffers were rather dry by now. But the improvements are plainly needed.

The aforementioned Olympic improvements also threw me for a loop. My old memory of driving around the east end of False Creek were thrown off by the road realignments for the Olympic Village. It took a couple of detours before we finally found the entrance to Granville Island.

Our first stop (after parking) was to the Kids Market, one of the buildings that is packed to the brim with perfect toys (and by perfect, I mean ones that don’t need batteries, and aren’t all made in China) … but no Jessie doll. Still, we spent nearly an hour just looking around, wishing that Monkey had come with us after all.

Then we wandered around the various streets, looking into shop windows, my mind racing back to the days when I plodded the same streets as a resident of Vancouver, and not a visitor. Reaching the west end of the island, I found myself looking out onto False Creek, across to the towering glass walls of the West End condos, and the lighted arches of Burrard Bridge. The smell of the sea almost seemed to dance over my soft palate.

We went inside the Granville Island Market. If you’ve ever had a smell trigger a powerful memory, you know how disorienting it can be. I almost tripped. Immediately, I remembered why — as much as I loved the Calgary Farmer’s Market — I always felt it was lacking. The Granville Island Market is the prototype, I think, and sets the benchmark. I loved it then, and I’m pretty sure I still do, even though it’s gone a little more yuppie in the last decade.

Running low on free time, we headed back to the car and found our way out to The Whip, a neat little restaurant just off of Main St. There we waited for my friends to arrive. Katrina was the first, and even in the dimmed light, she looked almost exactly the same as she had the last time I’d seen her, when I’d made a short visit to Vancouver in December of 2000.

Katrina is, with little question, one of the smartest people I know, without all that annoying “know it all” baggage that often accompanies such intelligence. She’s instantly personable, and is one of the people I missed most when I left Vancouver. She sat nearest to me at Radical Entertainment‘s old offices in Yaletown, and was a mean Worms player. That, and I’m intensely jealous that she’s worked at Pixar.

Lee was next. Lee picked The Whip for us, and I wasn’t the only one to think that The Whip was very “Lee”. Lee had been the QA lead at Radical, as well as our softball team’s coach. One of my earliest memories of her was actually a bio that had been made for a magazine (I think) that included a fact that read:

Number of piercings: 25
Number of piercings above the neck: 16

(Numbers are totally approximate to my memory, which is often famously bad with numbers … but we’ll leave it at “a lot” of piercings.)

Lee’s piercings (visible, anyway) have taken a serious nosedive over the years, and I was rather stunned at the lack. And she explained the origin of her Twitter handle, squirrelbaffle. It does, believe it or not, actually have to do with squirrels. (Incidentally, I recommend following Lee, if only because her tweets are often hilarious.)

Neall rolled in shortly afterwards. Neall is exactly one day older than me, which is a point I’ve tried to use every year (though I can’t claim to be wholly consistent on it). Neall sat in the same room as I did, against the window, and regularly scared the bejezus outta me. Not in that he was frightening, but in his demonstration of skill. That, and his tendencies to overhaul his cars to the point of near self-destruction (the cars, not himself) on epic proportions.

Katrina, Neall, and I worked in a group called Pure3D, which created and maintained the 3D rendering engine used in Radical’s games. It was a complex and powerful library that allowed the game teams to focus on the important parts of the game — namely the gameplay and how it looked — and ignore the tedious stuff that made the game actually work.

I wasn’t involved with the coding. I wasn’t then, now, or ever will be good enough to code like them. Whenever other developers, especially in my current industry, tell me that they’re good programmers (or know good programmers), I usually scoff and tell them about the Pure3D. I tell them how they’d code inline assembler into C functions from memory. Or how they’d spin out conversion tools that made use of 3D matrices without cracking a single textbook. There was a guy (Mark) who had a masters in puzzles, and took perverse pleasure in leaving mind-bending puzzles on our desks from time to time. They are, still to this day, the smartest group of people I’ve ever had the extreme good fortune to work with. (Me? I wrote software manuals.)

Joel was the last to arrive. I still owe Joel a debt of gratitude for helping me move out of Vancouver all those years ago (that was a very different time for me). He now runs another gaming company with some other ex-Radicalites, but back in our Radical days he worked on a special project, building a plugin for Maya that allowed artists to use h-splines to create models. Never heard of an h-spline? Yeah, neither had I. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised they haven’t taken off. My favourite memory of Joel was walking into the Rodin team’s room (“Rodin” was the name of the plugin) and finding Joel and teammate Jean-Luc taste-testing a line of thoroughly evil-looking hot sauces, using words such as “smoky” and “peppery”, rather than gasping for air and clutching at his throat as it burned apart from the inside.

Stories. We had lots of them. Although some of us had kept in loose touch (Lee and Neall more than most), we all had our individual histories to cross over — what had we done, where had we gone, what was “new” (and notably, what was recent), and of course talk about the old days at Radical. Radical’s no longer the company I left, of course. Years of change will always do that. It’s inevitable. When I was there, Radical was privately-owned. Today, it’s a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, and — so it seems — a shadow of its former self. Most of the originals are gone, with only a handful remaining that I still know.

I could have stayed at that table and chatted all night, if they’d have let me. But it was Choo Choo who called an end for me, declaring that she’d had enough, dear Daddy, and please take me home. It was hard to leave, hard to say goodbye again. But it felt good — very, very good — to see them again, even if just for a short while. To remember, to laugh, and to share.

Joel, me, Lee, Neall, Katrina at The Whip, Vancouver, British Columbia, 21 December 2010

It’s nearly an hour to drive from downtown Vancouver to Ruskin. Our trip was over three hours, but not for any reason other than Santa-driven necessity. The Toys ‘R Us on Broadway offered nothing new. Oddly enough, the Superstore at Metrotown in Burnaby ended up our saviour, even if it isn’t exactly the doll we’d hoped to get. We wanted something simple and cloth. We got plastic and electronic. At this point, any doll would suffice, so long as it was Jessie.

Then, putting my poor map memory to work, I got us lost in Surrey, rather than finding the right route back to Highway 7. It was Alex that steered us right again, and put the GPS to work to get us back out to Highway 1, and then onto the new Golden Ears toll bridge. (There’s nothing as fun as listening to a GPS go berserk trying to recalculate a path when you’re on a road that it doesn’t know about, perched overtop a wide river.)

Tomorrow, we’re going to the North Pole…