The Art of Story

Games. Taverns. Mysterious packages. Jason Kapalka has created a life from his love of storytelling

Michael Hingston - 05 January 2017

During a recent visit to a friend's house, Jason Kapalka became intrigued by a strange sculpture that looked straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft horror story. To Kapalka's surprise, the sculpture turned out to be part of a mail-order "experience" courtesy of the Mysterious Package Company, a Toronto-based collective specializing in "unannounced deliveries of a strange and otherworldly nature."

People who sign up for the MPC experience (or are signed up - it's often a gift) receive peculiar objects in their mailbox over the course of a month or more: a series of fake letters and newspaper clippings, postcards and even larger objects like a glow-in-the-dark "zombie finger." The objects build upon one another, eventually coming together to tell a full story with the recipient as main character. The end result is one of having just returned from an eerie journey to a faraway land.

Fascinated, Kapalka decided to track down the creators of the MPC (easier said than done; it is called the "Mysterious" Package Company, after all) and in 2015 became involved as an investor and business adviser.

This involvement with a company so rooted in the analog world might seem like an odd move for the co-founder of PopCap Games and one of the minds behind enormously successful games like Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies. The former, an addictive gem-matching game, had sold more than 50 million units by 2010; the latter broke debut sales records on Apple's App Store upon its release in 2009.

"[The MPC] is both novel and retro, in the sense of getting away from digital stuff and toward physical things you can hold in your hand," he says of the project. "I found that quite refreshing."

But Kapalka is more than an entrepreneur. He is also a writer whose work, from game design to investing, always centres on storytelling.

The MPC's strange and supernatural atmosphere is a return to familiar territory for the Edmonton native, who spent years studying creative writing during his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Alberta in the early 1990s, honing a collection of short stories with titles like "The True and Sad Story of Lena the Scream-Cleaner" and "Happy Eating on Ugrath 3." At the time, academia wasn't known for embracing genres like science fiction and horror, he says, but Kapalka found ways of sneaking his passion into the classroom. The key was phrasing them just right. "Instead of 'fantasy,' you'd call it 'magical realism,' " he remembers. Voila.

Kapalka devoted time to more than just his studies while he was at UAlberta: he was also an avid gamer. He began writing freelance reviews for a computer-game magazine, which led to him being recruited to San Francisco after graduation. He landed a job writing editorial content for an ambitious dot-com startup called the Total Entertainment Network in 1995. From there he headed to Seattle to found PopCap Games with two friends in 2000.

At PopCap, Kapalka's love of storytelling merged with the gaming scene. Bejeweled was the company's very first outing, and business boomed right until the moment Kapalka and his partners sold PopCap to Electronic Arts in 2011.

These days, he lives with his wife, Debbie, and their two children in the quiet Vancouver Island town of Comox, B.C., where his storytelling talents continue to be in demand when putting his three-year-old daughter, Alexis, to bed. In addition to whipping up ideas for mysterious packages and bedtime stories, he recently financed entries into the nascent "nerd-bar" scene, with Vancouver's Storm Crow Tavern and Storm Crow Alehouse. The bars forgo sports and Bud Light for classic horror movies, board games and microbrews.

It was during a chance conversation with novelist Thomas Wharton - a former classmate and now an associate professor in UAlberta's Department of English and Film Studies - that Kapalka learned the writer-in-residence program urgently needed funding. The English department's larger list of needs was so comprehensive, it even included replacing the 1970s-era orange couch in the student lounge. Kapalka decided to fund it all.

In addition to providing a significant financial boost to the writer-in-residence program in 2013, Kapalka endowed two memorial prizes in creative writing. The first is named for his late father, Stephen. The second, for Darren Zenko, Kapalka's former classmate and fellow contributor to the Gateway student newspaper, who died of cancer in 2012 at age 38. Each year, the Zenko prize allows a handful of students to attend the Banff Centre's Writing With Style course - which Kapalka and Zenko could never afford when they were students.

Kapalka also wrote a cheque to support the literary magazine Glass Buffalo, which exclusively features UAlberta student writers. It reminded him of a similar magazine he worked on back in his day called Dead Tree Product. "Compared to what we were doing, it's pretty slick," he says of the publication, which was named Best New Magazine in Alberta in 2014.

Kapalka hopes his donations will help sustain the next generation of writers - whether their stories end up in books, spoken out loud at bedtime or unspooled through mysterious packages that will unnerve unsuspecting recipients for years to come.

Thanks to Jason Kapalka's support, the University of Alberta's Writer-in-Residence program is the longest continually running program of its kind in Canada. The Stephen Kapalka Memorial Prize, named for his father, and the Darren Zenko Memorial Prize are given to students who have completed a writing course with superior academic achievement and demonstrate merit and the potential to excel in writing.

For more information, contact Angela Martincevic at 780-492-9473 or