‘Suicide is Painless’ for this ‘Soul Brother’ – Interview w/ Game Designer Jasper Byrne
I have to thank this week’s guest for allowing me to achieve one of my life long dreams– using both a M.A.S.H. and a James Brown reference in the title of a post. That’s one down on my “bucket list,” only 665 things left to go.
For those of you who haven’t heard, Soul Brother is an innovative new game on the AdultSwim.com that allows players to take control of the game’s inhabitants, each with their own unique skill or power. The hook? You’ve got to kill whatever body your “spirit” current possesses in order to move on and solve puzzles. Highly addictive and curiously philosophical, Soul Brother comes from the mind of one man, game designer Jasper Byrne of Superflat Games (that’s him there pictured on the left along with his daughter Aila).
Thanks for joining us all the way from Cambridge (UK) Jasper. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I guess you could say I’m a creative type, but with a certain geekiness thrown in. I’ve always loved making things, and had a strange compulsion to do so. I live by a river with my wife and daughter, spent 10 years as a drum’n'bass producer / DJ and most recently spent 3 years in the mainstream game industry. I’ve lived in Manchester, Tokyo, Saigon, LA and London, and now reside in Cambridge. My dad was a screenwriter for the BBC [on shows] like Doctor Who and we always used to watch movies together. He’d always give me great books to read, so I guess that’s part of where I come from too.
So… if you found a magical fish in the middle of the forest what would your first wish be?
First I’d wish to know ‘Why a fish?’ Then I’d probably gut it because I’d wasted my wish.
I don’t know… maybe it would be to have a small company who made console games? Really that’s my long-term goal, to make things with a couple of talented people who share the same vision and be able to play the results on a control pad in full-screen instead of on a keyboard in a window (PSN or something like that). I don’t want to make massive games, but sometimes it frustrates me how long it takes to do everything yourself. I wouldn’t ever want to be in a team of more than 3-6 though. I think the personality and clarity of vision gets lost after that. I’m a believer in the auteur ideal, and I guess the game makers I respect most fall into this category – from Kojima to Cavanagh!
Live the dream! Were you interested in video games as a kid as well? Was there a “signature moment” that sparked your interest?
It all goes back to getting a ZX Spectrum, I think, and the Amiga which followed that. I suppose the signature moment was typing in a game from the Speccy magazine, then realizing I could tweak it by changing certain lines of code in BASIC (I was about 8 at the time). Recently, I actually found that cassette with my 8-year old’s scrawl on the front (“this is a HANDMADE game, DO NOT COPY OVER!!!!”)
I don’t really know why it appealed so much, I just felt compelled to do it. Perhaps LEGO was my gateway drug, as I’d been obsessed with it until that point. I used to hide when it was time to play sports in school, then sneak into the computer room and code on the BBC. I carried on making stuff until about ’95, when I released my first shareware title on the Amiga called Keith’s Quest, a point’n'click adventure. I was 17 or 18 then, however, and I’d got into music, weed and partying and all that good stuff so gaming kinda fell by the wayside. By the time I went to Manchester University, I was completely absorbed in the drum’n'bass scene and didn’t code for another decade.
One of your early games, Soundless Mountain II, is actually inspired by Silent Hill 2. What is it about the story that drew you to “demake” that title?
Early in the second wave, haha. Silent Hill 2 is still the greatest argument for interactive art actually being art that I’ve seen made. It does what Jason Rohrer and other art-game creators did a long time before – matching the mechanics with the meaning, sometimes even to the point that the meaning is more important than the mechanics. I find that fascinating, and still believe it’s possible to take it further– to make games which satisfy on both a design and art front. It wouldn’t have worked as a movie. The fact that, if you kept re-reading the descriptions of the knife and the photo of your dead wife or walked around with low health for too long, you’d almost always end up with the In Water (suicide) ending… I found that such a revelation because the mechanics were hidden. If it had been like “Oh no! You killed a zombie… MORALITY -2!” I’d have bloody hated it as I do any game which does this.
When TIGSource announced the Bootleg Demakes competition, there really was no other game I considered trying. I didn’t know if it would work in 2D, especially with the combat and atmosphere, but I think it turned out okay! Certainly the response was better than I’d ever hoped and I still get a lot of love for it these days. I wrote it at a tough time in my life because my dad had just died of cancer and I’d had to take the job at Frontier Developments because all my musical income had gone while I watched over my dad. I guess that actually shows in the game in some ways… the fact that I played it very straight, not for laughs.
What are few of your other all time favorite games? I hear you’re pretty into Street Fighter as well.
Oh yes… I’m a lifetime player! Street Fighter (II in particular) reminds me that design can be enough, not every game needs to be art, it is like a game of chess in hyperspace. It really is a beautiful system. I sometimes wonder if every game needs to touch something in the soul, and remember that Street Fighter connects on a very different level. It’s a weird dichotomy in games, one that I’m always fascinated by. Demon’s Souls is another game which has recently won me over in every way and has virtually no story either, so I realize I can fall in love with art or design. Then again, perhaps Street Fighter and Demon’s Souls both have atmosphere and personality (of very different kinds) – which is an artistic thing. I dunno, perhaps that’s the common factor in what I love?
Other favourites include Kojima’s stuff, Deadly Premonition, Suda 51′s games, a lot of 8 bit classics like Matthew Smith’s work or Mike Singleton’s… other survival horrors such as Siren and Fatal Frame. I love the older Zelda [games], I love Dungeon Master, Team Ico’s stuff, Cing’s stuff, Atlus’ RPG’s and older Square ones. I love point’n'clicks, and Phoenix Wright games. As far as indie games go, there are less that I feel totally in love with, but Space Funeral by The Catemites is one, as are the Mondo games by Cactus. I’m a fan of my Cambridge contemporaries’ work too; Terry [Cavanagh], Bento Smile and Increpare. What’s the common theme here… atmosphere? Depth? Strong authorial control? I dunno.
I guess there are the ones which I love on the mechanical level, such as Zelda and SFII, and others which just feel totally like the ramblings of a very individual mind. Perhaps I favour more Japanese games because of this, the hierarchy is more rigid there giving a more auteur-like control over the work(?).
More recently, you released Soul Brother on Adult Swim. Can you tell us the origins of that project and how it might be different than other games out there?
There sure are a lot of indie platformers out there [and] to add one into the mix you have to bring something different. I started making it when Terry was doing VVVVVV. We had discussed how we loved the games from the 8-bit era which had single screens with room names, so his game was a big influence there. Then I thought about different ways to explore one of these non-linear environments and came up with the idea of being a ghost who could take over the inhabitants. That felt like something interesting, so I just kept exploring it. It took awhile to come upon the specifics, though. Originally you collected gems as ‘tokens’ which allowed you to possess a body by choice. It had too many dead ends, though, so that’s how I came upon the idea of dying to progress.
How did the project land at Adult Swim, was there a lengthy submission process?
The submission itself took about a week before we’d made a verbal agreement, so it was very painless, but then I spent the next few months probably doubling the amount of work I’d done on the game – I guess I didn’t quite realize how far away it was at that point. I felt it was finished, but looking back [now] that version is still pretty raw (if purer in some ways, as it has none of the tutorial crap you have to put it these days). That’s what took most of the time – trying to make the tutorials as unobtrusive as possible!
What made Adult Swim a better gaming portal choice than maybe some of the others out there (like Newgrounds)?
Just that Soul Brother‘s totally on their tip and that they buy things outright so it gives you a decent lump sum to work on the next project. I’d still be working at Frontier had it not been for that. They also get multi-millions of players, so the exposure was a big part of it. I was sad to sign away Mr. Soul as a thing, I’d become quite attached to him, but then again it forces me to work on new IP instead which is a good thing I think. I don’t wanna be sequel guy… although I would do one for Soul Brother probably if Adult Swim wants to. I have a lot more creatures and puzzles I’d like to have included in the first one.
Do you feel there’s been a resurgence of 8-bit thanks to online games?
I dunno… possibly? I think it’s an aesthetic at this point, not a statement of any kind. So are flat shaded polygons, vector art, voxels or whatever. It’s a restriction which does two things – 1) helps make things quicker and 2) helps a less-than-stellar artist such as myself produce stuff that looks consistent (the most important trait I think). High fidelity art done badly looks much worse than low fidelity art done ok. I certainly don’t want to make games that are retro in their design, I just choose to use low resolutions and small colour palettes to make things achievable and possibly even stylish within my non-existent budget. It’s why I won’t put chiptunes or SFXR sounds in my game, it’s admitting that the game is some kind of pastiche (not always – VVVVVV wouldn’t be the same without it, for example.) I also always try to add some modern effect or trick that wouldn’t have been possible then, like the fog and flashlight in Soundless Mountain II, the hi-fi audio in Soul Brother, the shader work I’m doing in Lone Survivor and so on.
Are there any other indie game developers whose work you feel are pushing the boundaries of game design online?
In terms of pushing the boundaries, the guys I’ve already mentioned – Cactus, Increpare, Jason Rohrer, Bento Smile [etc.] are all helping me to redefine what a game is for me. I think people don’t really see my stuff as art-game material, although I’d say that Soul Brother was actually meant to be much more of one that people noticed, haha. Funnily enough only Adult Swim commented on the great lengths I went to to try and say something about perfection, achievement, repeating one’s mistakes, following religion blindly, the futility of some lives, deaths, and so on. Sadly, not one review has picked up on these things!
What tools/programs do you use to create your games?
I have made my own tool called TELEPLAY which is written in BlitzMax, a cross platform C#-like language. It’s a visual editor, home-made scripting language call HAL, and a Flash engine to run the game. It’s really fast to make basic 2D games and has most of the stuff that AGS has to handle (point’n'click adventure type stuff), so it’s suitable for anything from platformers like Soul Brother to survival horror like Lone Survivor. It’s taken about 3 years so far, but it’s very close to being able to release publicly, if I do go that route.
You mentioned Lone Survivor earlier, is that your latest project?
Lone Survivor is my baby right now. In some ways it’s answering the question “What happens once you get into the apartment in Soundless Mountain II?” [It's] as if I’d carried on making it, but gone off on my own tip. It’s a very different story, but with hopefully some of the same atmosphere. I always wanted to finish SMII, at least until the encounter with ‘Polygon Head’, but as time passed I realized it was better to begin something of my own. I have so many stories I still want to try and tell, and I’m not getting any younger, so to waste time on one already told to near perfection would be futile I reckon.
Then there’s XOR, which is more of a follow-up to Soul Brother – it’s a hyperactive version of Atic Atac, a twisted parody of Tron, a game made for a ZX Spectrum with Vaseline smeared all over the screen. It’s about a guy who’s been spending his whole adult life sneaking down to the abandoned arcade to get the highscore on a game nobody cares about any more and why you would want to do that (something I can relate to, having just bought a ZX Spectrum and and Amiga last week!).
What’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
Probably sitting on Tom Baker’s knee on the set of the TARDIS! I was very lucky to have such an awesome dad.