The desert shouldn't exist. At the very least, people shouldn't live there. We did, only not by choice.
When I decided to develop a virtual reality game based on my simultaneous repulsion and nostalgia for my hometown of Dewey, Arizona, I asked my friend and business partner Cody to score it. Cody and I met almost 10 years ago as young, bored kids who shared a love for punk and hardcore music; kids who also shared a mutual disdain for our desert roots. While I eventually escaped Arizona, moving to California for college and finding an outlet in art, Cody stayed in Phoenix, becoming a fixture in the local music scene, and blossoming into a writer, poet and killer guitar player. I knew he would be the perfect person to make sense of it all: the desolate landscape, the hilarious rednecks, the ramshackle towns and the searing heat. I was ecstatic when he agreed and couldn't wait to get started.
The project took root over the next six months, with Cody working on the music as I began piecing together the game world. But then, just a few days before we were meant to debut Dead Bug Creek at SIGGRAPH, an annual conference dedicated to the latest in computer graphics, a close friend of ours called me at work. She was crying. "I don't know how to tell you this. Cody killed himself," she said. It's hard to recall exactly what was going through my head at that moment. I knew if my friend was calling at a random hour something had to be wrong, but I didn't think it could have been this. After all, Cody and I had only spoken a few days beforehand. I'd had trouble getting ahold of him, but that wasn't unusual. I was angry at myself for not sensing his struggle somehow, for being too busy to be paying attention. I guess it felt like I was responsible at first. How could I have been this stupid? My immediate reaction after I got the news was simply, "Are you fucking kidding me?" I sat on the floor with my head in my hands and tried to calm myself down. I went back to my desk to try and compose myself, but I didn't last long, bursting into tears a few minutes later. I didn't know what else to say to anyone but, "My friend killed himself."
I took a few days off. Most of it was spent staring at the ceiling, lost in my own head. I talked to some friends, listened to some of Cody's music and generally felt somewhere between numb and horrible. One friend asked if he'd left a suicide note. I knew he had posted one on Twitter, but I didn't read it until I felt I had to -- just to know. Cody had ups and downs over the last few years. He'd joked about taking his life the last time I visited him in Phoenix. I still feel a pang of guilt about that. He was a troubled, but beautiful person. I thought he was feeling better. What could I have done differently? Did he know that we loved him and wanted him to stay? Because we did. After a while, all my questions devolved into me thinking over and over, "This is so fucked up." I read his book and cried. If I had looked harder at those words before, could I have done something to help?
"Despite how fresh the news of Cody's loss was, I decided to exhibit Dead Bug Creek at SIGGRAPH. ... I had to follow through."
The first few days after it happened, I felt like I was outside my body. I couldn't feel much of anything except small moments where I was reduced to manic fits of crying, sitting at stoplights in my car or on my floor trying to get my shit together. I even emailed Henry Rollins, one of our personal heroes. "It sounds like he ran out of ideas on getting through," he had said. It was the first time he had replied to one of the handful of emails I've sent over the years. I think I reached out because he had been such an inspiration to Cody. For me personally, I just wanted Henry to see what Cody did and how much he cared about making great art. I was really emotional when I did it, so the decision-making wasn't 100 percent clear. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I hadn't known anyone who'd committed suicide. All I could think was that he is unlike anyone I've ever known or will again. (I'm not sure whether I should change present tense to past tense in the previous sentence.)
Despite how fresh the news of Cody's loss was, I decided to exhibit Dead Bug Creek at SIGGRAPH. I felt awkward feigning excitement for the project when having to focus on it made me both scared and uncomfortable. But I had to follow through either way. The best thing I could do was hold up my end of the bargain. When my boyfriend Antonio and I went to set up for the conference, Cody's name was on the list below ours. It was all so fresh that I just stared at the ink on the page: Cody Conrad. The woman asked if I had anyone else coming. I could only mutter, "Not right now." I stared into space for a few hours as Antonio unpacked our booth.
It was shocking to receive the praise we did at SIGGRAPH. I found myself torn between feeling excited yet guilty, knowing Cody was missing this. That's mostly how I've felt since. I'm proud of our work together, yet if I allow myself to enjoy it, it feels like I'm disrespecting the situation. I've considered shelving the project -- I know I won't, but the idea's been entertained in the darker corners of my mind during late-night QA (quality assurance) sessions. I've been avoiding adding NPCs (non-playable characters) with his voice, and following through with our joke of putting his name on an in-game gravestone. All that dark humor now just feels so macabre. And of course it does. That's what it is. It's laughing at the absurdity of death and finding the humor in sorrow. It's a sentiment that's always been a part of our friendship. Except now, that same darkness is what's driving me away from completing the project.
It's hard to avoid waxing nostalgic when someone you know dies. This past spring, Cody drove 400 miles to deliver his soundtrack to me in person. Over the course of one weekend, we recorded all the game's voice acting, using a small mountain of equipment we'd shoved into my tiny closet. I was nervous, but Cody coached me through it all. We fed off one another's energy that way. He even made up voices and personalities for my in-game characters on the fly and nailed it on the first try. When we'd implemented everything he'd written, I saw how he'd taken ideas I had about atmosphere, ambiguity and absurdity to the next level with his musical compositions. Cody said he struggled to find the right sounds, but it was nowhere in the music he gave me. He was too modest.
Somehow, Cody reached a point in his life where he felt he was out of options, and that breaks my heart. I'm overwhelmed, and probably still in shock. But through all of this, I feel lucky to have known him. He gave my game a voice, a sound and a soul. Thanks, Cody. I miss you.
Ashley Pinnick is a Los Angeles-based artist, designer and VR game developer.
Click the media players featured throughout this piece to listen to Cody's music for Dead Bug Creek.