Behind the Scenes with Sandra “Maxi” Molina (SandraMJ)

We sat down with artist, game developer, and voice director Maxi Molina to learn about their jump into game development from comics, their game The Hayseed Knight, and more!

Maxi Molina (also known as SandraMJ online) wears many hats. They’re an artist, game developer, voice director, and writer to name a few. They’ve been in game development for five years now but were formerly in the comic book industry as a colorist from 17 to 21. Today, we had the chance to sit down with Maxi to learn more about them, their jump from comic books to game development, and so much more!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into game development.

I’m a Spanish (trans man? Nonbinary person?), currently 26 years old, and I started working as a comic colorist when I was 17, before finishing high school. By the turn of 18, I was working on the Game of Thrones comic and getting kicked out of my home, so I grabbed my things and left. Cue several years of trying my best not to starve or mentally crumble to pieces as a depressed kid providing for my partner and I.

I finally could afford therapy at the age of 20 and continued working day and night for a lot of companies and cool IPs, from Batman, to Tarzan, to Supergirl and Starcraft, with a lot of newly renewed enthusiasm and terrible work-life boundaries!

…It’s no surprise that by the time I’d just turned 21, my wrist gave up on me. Suddenly faced with the need to turn a new page over in my life and change my career I decided “hey! I’m going to make my own video game!”

Actually, no. I wanted to make cartoons. But I didn’t have the money nor the wrist, so I figured… “hey! I’m going to make the next closest thing to a cartoon!”

Hence, a Visual Novel, from a novel I’d set out to write the previous year while I was in therapy — The Hayseed Knight! And from there, all the gigs that followed were based on the effort I’d put on making sure it’d be an amazing portfolio piece for my new career in game development.

How was the jump from comics to game development? What are some of the aspects you enjoy about game development?

90% of the roles I do for video games are management, be it creative direction, art direction or voice direction, so… Meetings, meetings, meetings. Nobody tells you how many meetings game development involves. I used to just show up on the deadline with my work done back in comics, and now I was supposed to… communicate??? Talk??? The thought of it.

And yet that’s my favorite thing. I love getting to help people do their best. And I absolutely ADORE getting to meet new folks! That’s why voice direction is my passion — I get to constantly connect with new people while having to figure out in a matter of minutes what’s the best way to communicate what I need to them so we can get the best performance. It’s such a cool feeling!

On your website you describe yourself as “A Spanish trans dude wearing the entire hat shop,” and going off by your impressive resume, that is certainly the case! You’re a game developer, artist, translator, and voice director just to name a few of your many hats. Tell us, how in the world do you juggle all your responsibilities? Where in the day do you find free time for yourself?

I basically just do whatever I feel like doing —or whatever I feel like I’m CAPABLE of doing— in the moment, and keep a detailed calendar to work around priorities! I love getting to jump between different skills, because it keeps the ruts away. Routines are comfortable, and the predictability of a stable job with an income you can rely on lends a lot of safety to one’s life… But to me, they always end up feeling like a weight sinking me down. When it feels like everything is as it should be, that you’re in a good place, it’s scary to shake anything up. In the words of David Bowie (more or less, because I can’t remember the exact quote): I do best when I’m in deep and my feet can’t quite touch the ground.

My work-life balance is precisely a big motivation for why I do a different bit every day. I’m extremely ANTI CRUNCH, it’s one of the first things I establish any time I join a company. I’ll bite anyone who dares send an email when we’re not working.

(You know the drill: someone sends an email on Friday afternoon, then someone feels the need to respond, and suddenly we’re working on the weekend.)

It’s a manager’s duty to make sure crunch doesn’t happen. NO MATTER HOW ENTHUSIASTIC ANYONE IS ABOUT THE PROJECT.

On that same tangent, I feel very strongly that to create, you need to fill your mind with different things — things that make you want to think big and put yourself out there. If you just force yourself to be equally productive and imaginative every day, doing one task over and over again through days where you’re drained, you’ll end up anxious, tired and burnt out because you’re trying to create without any fuel and it’s just not coming out the way you want.

That’s why if one day I don’t have the energy to write, then I may be able to draw. If I can’t draw, I might be able to edit audio. If I can’t do any of it, maybe I just need to lie down and watch something fun on TV. Read, dance, punch the air, go take a walk. Anything that forces me to NOT work, and has the added benefit of adding inspiration back into the creative engine.

I feel I went on a rant there, but if you have to take one thing away from this: A company can’t ever love you. You’ll outgrow the project and it’ll just be another title on your portfolio. Live a life beyond your work. Crunch and I’ll crunch you.

The Hayseed Knight

Every day, we see more and more people getting into voice acting. As a voice director, do you have any advice for newcomers, especially ones who get discouraged when they don’t get the role?

Auditions are 95% of the job when it comes to voice acting, and therefore, rejection is a huge part of the job. Actors who do GREAT will only book like about 3-5% of their auditions, if I recall correctly!

As I see it, there are three main pillars to staying afloat in such an intrinsically discouraging line of work:

1)Find community, make friends! Other VAs are technically your competition, yes, but this is not a gladiator arena. We’re not here fighting to see who remains alive, we constantly learn from each other and share opportunities; a rising tide lifts all boats.

Be genuine, and reach out to others. Get invested in their success, celebrate both your victories and theirs, tell others about casting calls you find — be someone you’ll be proud to look back on years down the line.

This doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel jealous, we can’t control our feelings. But it’s your duty to understand them, and learn how to make your way through them. Pettiness is temporary, good friends are forever.

2)Find a way to make auditions fun. They’re the biggest part of the job, you’re going to be doing these far more than you’re going to be booking roles. Have fun with them!!

VAs often tell me that they want to please the casting director, and I say that most of the memorable people I’ve remembered for years were those whose audition made me say “what?!” not “wow”. You don’t know what the Casting Director has in mind. Heck, I don’t know what the clients have in mind, none of us can read minds— I can only do my best to guess based on their requirements.

So rather than obsessing over trying to be the exact piece to what you assume the puzzle looks like… just have fun. Be the character you want to be. Do the take that will bring you the most joy.

And for the love of everything nice and beautiful, follow casting call instructions to a T and don’t slate unless you’re asked to.

3) Get a hobby. Or two or three. You’ll need them if you want to go professional.

You can’t make voice acting your life. I know, you love it with all your heart. You won’t love burnout, trust me.

Do something else unless voice acting IS just a hobby. You’ll be a much better actor for the richness and variety of your experiences, and you won’t be hating your job any time soon.

Let’s get into The Hayseed Knight. It’s a fully-voiced visual novel that focuses on a farm boy named Ader and his accidental rise to fame. The game features a colorful cast of misfit characters, gorgeous art, and a wonderful blend of genres (comedy, romance, mystery). How did you come up with the idea for the game?

There wasn’t one idea per-se! What there was is a huge build-up of obsessions, struggles, and completely disconnected interests. I’d say there are three important parts to what made The Hayseed Knight the story it is today: background, style, and characters.

For background, it’s a fun story. They say the past is a different kingdom, and in the case of Spain, it’s extremely literal!

When I was in 6th grade or so, we were introduced to the concept of “Al-Andalus” in history class. What’s that? The Muslim past of Spain? Oh, we weren’t always catholic? And there were a LOT of inventions? And it was a center of knowledge? And—

Wait, that’s it? Like 7 pages for almost 800 years of history?

I was furious and obsessed with Al-Andalus since we essentially kept from learning about this part of history in school. I’d researched on my own since then, and always wanted to set a story that would let more people learn about it!

I’d say I didn’t do great in that regard, since growing up with bad examples like Aladdin, I ended up seeing the past through a very othering and orientalist “””exotic””” lens, before I ever knew the concept and took measures to be more aware of the tropes that still to this day harm MENA/SWANA communities due to fetishization. I did manage to make good on my original purpose of helping more people know about this purposefully obscured bit of European history, at least.

For style, it’s firmly a picaresque novel! Reading El Lazarillo de Tormes in high school changed my life and style forever; a story told as a retrospective letter where the protagonist was just a low-class rogue struggling to survive, going from bad master to master trying to become a better man, while being kept from it because there was no bigger antagonist than life and society itself. It left a huge mark on me.

And then I read Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods and the dent was redoubled and turned upside down with a good side of snark, haha.

For the characters, this may be a bit of a downer, but I feel it’s important to tell for anyone else who may struggle with mental health. As I briefly mentioned in the first question, I wrote The Hayseed Knight when I was getting treated for depression at the turn of 20. I’ve had a pretty rough life from the beginning and I’d rather spare you the detail, but suffice it to say there were many threads to untangle and many demons to face in the sessions.

The therapist suggested I keep a diary, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If I was overcome with anger, if I was sinking to the ground with grief, if my feelings had flatlined into a mist of anhedonia… how was I supposed to write any of it while abducted by my own emotions?

But one day, I found a ring binder in a drawer. I’d recently brought the things I’d left home to the flat I was living in at the time, and I found it was filled with old sketches, from my time in high school. Characters that I’d long forgotten, from a game I wanted to make back when I had something that resembled a normal life.

So I took pen to paper, and one by one, I started remaking the characters. But they weren’t the same characters anymore, and they were written with a purpose. Each of them would be a piece of me. They’d each bear a different demon I was struggling with, a wound I couldn’t seem to close on my own. And by trying to weave their story, to make all these rough pieces interact with each other and erode all the sharp edges away… I found a way to face my own problems properly, and see them like I couldn’t see myself. A fully biased, and yet, less distorted mirror than my mind had been.

All of this to bring you, in English, the funniest, most deeply personal Spanish romp you’ve ever read! It’ll make you laugh, cry, and laugh again!

As the sole developer of The Hayseed Knight, what is your favorite part of the game development process? And what’s a part of development that you find difficult if there is one?

I love directing voice actors. You’ll see me obsessing over that all the time! My philosophy has always been that a VA must walk out of the session feeling more confident than they came in, and nowhere is it more true than on our work in The Hayseed Knight!

I hate writing. I love writing. Writing hurts me and then when it’s all said and done, I keep forgetting and writing more.

I’ll complain a lot about scripting because that’s just a lot of grueling work to calculate the animation and make everything look dynamic…

…But at the end of the day, the hardest part is art. I’m always anxious about the state of my wrist, and yet I’ve remade the art several times over the years just to fit my own standards.

But that’s the beauty and the curse of solo development. No one can tell me “no, that’s not how you’re supposed to make a game”, haha.

The Hayseed Knight

You mentioned that you struggled with writing. As a fellow writer, I and I believe many others understand your feelings with the craft. When you’re struggling with writing, how do you get through it?

Like many other things in my life, I try not to force it and just get to it when the feeling compels me —90% of the time, that’d be when I have something to procrastinate on that I really, REALLY don’t want to get to, so it makes writing look good in comparison…

…But of course the whimsical way of going about it is far from optimal in many cases, especially when I’m writing for a client. That’s why the first advice I always give to anyone in the middle of a writer’s block is: be conscious of your own feelings.

We get stuck when we get afraid. When, for example, we dig ourselves into a narrative pit, and suddenly the ideas aren’t flowing like before? That is the moment when your fight or flight instinct kicks in, and your brain goes from loving writing to being legitimately afraid of it. It won’t even be so kind as to tell you why you suddenly hate writing; you are only left with the vague sense that you can’t write like before, and anything you can wrangle out of your brain, plain and simply sucks.

Figuring your own feelings out, and untangling those confusing emotions is key if you’re ever going to get past any slump, be it writing, drawing, making music, acting, or anything where you suddenly feel compelled to be perfect, where before you went along with the flow. “OH NO,” yes, but why are you suddenly in “OH NO” mode?

In my case, I breeze through dialogues and character-driven plots… but planning ahead, thinking of branching, and generally trying to be intelligent about things is a sure way to freeze me up as I don’t feel my brain has enough RAM for that.

If I lose my direction, then anything I write will feel like writing in circles, right? There can be no progress that way, and therefore, no sense of accomplishment. Nothing but dread seeps into the gaps left between words.

Luckily, whether I’m working as a game writer or just writing for myself, the solution is easy enough: outlines!

In a professional environment, I ask to be given outlines —rough as they may be— and quickly fill my way through the entire content, never lost for a second. If I feel something doesn’t quite fit anymore when I get to that point in the outline I received, I bring it up and we work together on building a better story.

So that’s all nice and good, but writing for myself though? Woof. I love attempting to make outlines. I’ve gotten good at it, even. And yet, those carefully discussed deviations that made the story better in a gig turn into a whole meander, and the problem is sticking to any one outline at all.

I’ll get a rough outline sorted out in a couple of days, and think “yeah! This is fantastic! Let’s do this!” and then I begin writing and writing and writing ahead, and suddenly the outline feels stiff and unreal: “The characters wouldn’t take this path, it doesn’t fit the story logic.” “This is too fast, I need more pages.” “This feels unnatural, I need different dialogues.” “This goes against the theme and tone I’m going for.” Well, darn. So I make a new outline, more detailed and structurally sound. And I try to make sure it fits the previous outline, but maybe I just need higher stakes or a different climax. So I write ahead. But the outline feels stiff and unreal. Ad… well, not quite infinitum, but definitely a lot.

My personal process has always been an iterative one, like a sieve that only retains my favorite scenes in the manner of keyframes in an animation. I’ve made peace with it despite its lack of efficiency; I don’t believe in axing your darlings, only in making new, stronger decisions that make yourself gasp, laugh and stare in horror and awe at your own creation. Figure out the way out of the hole you’re in like you were in an escape room, or just change a decision somewhere so this situation never comes to be! Do something fun!

If it’s not fun to you, who the heck are you writing for?

My last bit of advice is… not much advice, really. I’m sure you’ve already heard that you want to spend the least amount of time possible on a first draft? I agree* with an asterisk:

If you’re like me and you’re set on self-editing, that’s where the biggest part of the time will ACTUALLY be spent — detailed calibrations, whether necessary or not, since there’s no one there to say “hey, I don’t feel this works out so well,” and more importantly, “hey, I think this is really good.” So if you don’t want to get an editor for any number of reasons, maybe you just need a good buddy —who you know to be very honest and not afraid of giving feedback— to read your story, say their thoughts whether positive or negative, and refill your enthusiasm for it as you’ve recovered a measure of direction! I sure do every so often!

(That’s like half the job an editor does, in my years of experience as a script editor. You should probably hire one. I promise we’re just here to finish polishing your story and helping you approach it from angles you may have overlooked.)

So to sum this whole thing up: figure out what launches you directly into the “OH NO” mountain, and then try different methods to get back on the road! Try, try, try, try! You have your whole life ahead to try and have fun figuring it out, it doesn’t need to be perfect now, or ever, really. Growing and learning from yourself is half the fun!

The other half is complaining about writing.

The Hayseed Knight

The game is released in chapters. What made you decide to go this route instead of releasing the game in full?

Originally, chapter 1 was going to be a demo to get funding for the full game and keep the whole thing free for everyone. But there wasn’t any kind of success on Patreon like I thought there’d be, so I thought “welp. I guess I’ll make it chapter by chapter and save for the voice acting in the meantime!”

But in the end it got too costly even for that because my health took a turn for the worse. Suddenly I had a new influx of bills to pay, so I couldn’t afford to keep it free either.

So money. The reason is money :,]

Chapter 4 of The Hayseed Knight is in development! Now’s your time to tell our readers why they should play the game!

Because I know for a fact you’ll be laughing out loud in the first 10 minutes! I think of visual novels as theatre with subtitles and audience participation, and I set out to make you feel fully immersed in this world!

With full voice acting and gorgeous animated art left and right, characters that you’ll love —and love to hate—, mysteries abound, and an in-game encyclopedia for those who love to dive into lore, there’s never a boring moment in The Hayseed Knight!

Aside from The Hayseed Knight, are there any other projects that you’re currently involved in that you can tell our readers about?

I work as a freelancer for several companies, but some of my favorite projects at the moment are:

Mars Vice, a queer biopunk narrative adventure game currently in development, where I’m the co-creative director and art director.

And Sword of the Necromancer, a rogue-lite RPG about summoning monsters to save your lover, where you get to be a cool lesbian rogue. I cast and directed the voice acting in both English and Japanese, and SOTN 2 is currently in development!

If you would like to follow Maxi and keep up-to-date on what they’re working on, you can follow them on Twitter here. If you’re interested in checking out their title, The Hayseed Knight, on Steam, you can visit the game’s page here. You can purchase it for $14.99 USD and there is also a demo out for it if you want to get a preview of what the game has to offer!

Kristi Jimenez