Sun 16 Jan 2011
If you ask someone what the best LEGO video game is, the answer can be only one:
– Biggles on Mars!
Nevertheless, only a few could name the author of Biggles on Mars – the mysterious thecatamites. Well, at least not until recently – when this creator’s latest game Space Funeral won unprecedented acclaim, and turned his Games 4 Schools edutainment portal for kids into the first stop on the web for Japanese RPG fanatics!
We tracked down the man responsible for all this hullabaloo and asked him some tough questions: how does he feel about betraying Adventure Game Studio to do this blockbuster hit, what is so astonishing about Captain Skull, and how does one exactly deal with Too Many Kittens?
1. I never see you talk about yourself on the Internet. You just keep appearing from time to time with a new finished game. Even your website is shrouded in mystery! Could you tell a bit about who you are and what are your interests?
I stay in the shadows to ensure the cause of Games 4 Schools quality edutainment software stays bigger than just one man… Aside from that my name’s Stephen and I’m an Irish mathematics student! I’ve been making games for about the last two years now and have released about eleven so far. My other interests are obnoxious noisy music, strange old videogames and anything else that’s weird, crude or hyperactive enough to engage my tiny attention span.
2. What did the catamites do to deserve your attention? Do they represent the “games 4 schools” mantra of your studio?
Hah, I hope not! I read some old Anthony Burgess book as a kid which started off something like “It was the evening of my eighty-first birthday and I was lying in bed with my catamite when the archbishop arrived with a message from the Pope”. It kind of stuck in the mind. “Catamite” is also kind of a synonym for the original meaning of “punk” so there was that too! In my defence, I was sixteen.
3. Many gamers consider Space Funeral one of the best indie games of 2010. It was even picked in the “Top Indies of 2010” list on Gamasutra. How do you feel about that, and does this fame affect your future game-making plans in any way?
It’s really insane and also kind of funny that this crude MSPaint RPG Maker game that was thrown together in something like a month got so much attention! I’m still not sure what it means other than that people are still kind of starved for RPGs that aren’t about plucky farmboys fighting to save their generic fantasy worlds from evil empires and so on. In terms of future plans it makes me feel nervous about repeating myself but that’s about it!
4. One of the reasons I asked for the interview is to make sure you’re not leaving Adventure Game Studio as your primary game-making tool by any chance. Space Funeral was RPGMaker, but that was a one shot, right?
RPG Maker was probably a one-shot at any rate. It’s good for making kind of typical jrpgs which follow a preset structure and terrible for going outside that structure at all. I’ve also been poking around in Unity3D recently but AGS is still what I’m most familiar with and my go-to engine for new ideas, so I doubt I’ll be abandoning it any time soon!
5. Biggles on Mars! Why did you go all LEGO with it? A childhood favorite?
I was too lazy to learn pixel art so I thought it would be easier to just build little sets from cardboard and LEGO and then use photos of it in the game. The LEGO was handy as a way of making things that didn’t involve fiddling with sellotape and cardboard, and also I still had a bunch of it left over from when I was a kid. I think I actually kept some of the old models I made in childhood to use in the game; I know I’ve used the same computer-console-ish model in something like four games by now. Also the LEGO figurines were very easy to animate!
6. Was Biggles actually your first game, or do you have some hidden, unpublished works in the cupboard?
Ahaha. My first complete game was actually one called Escape From Death Mountain. It was made to get to grips with AGS, basically. You controlled a little pipe cleaner man and had to wander around four little cardboard rooms- set to a constantly looping MIDI file of “The Fifth Dimension” by the Ventures- to find a way to escape the afterlife. It took about ten minutes to complete and five of that was the abominably slow walk cycle. The character Vermillo in The Astonishing Captain Skull was actually a returning character from Escape From Death Mountain. As far as I know this game isn’t online anywhere now, which is probably for the better.
7. Could you explain your music choices for Space Funeral? That’s some impressive soundtrack in there.
Space Funeral actually started out as an excuse to use that Les Rallizes Denudes track from the first village, before it turned into a real game. I used some tracks from the BBC Radiophonic Orchestra and other early electronica people because they’ve always reminded me of alternate-universe chiptune soundtracks in a way, except more droney (which fitted the mood perfectly). A lot of the game was just made up on the spot to suit the soundtrack, for example the Blood Cavern section.
8. And what about those Baudelaire poetry readings – how did they get included?
I heard them on the Ruth White album “Flowers Of Evil”, which was where I got some of the other electronic soundtrack things and which is actually a sort of concept album of electronic versions of Baudelaire poems. I remember listening to it and thinking it was kind of striking and hypnotic, and I liked the idea of a section where the background music would sort of be the motor to drive the player forward in the same way that gameplay or graphics or whatever are in other games.
9. Is there any secret way to save Bubsy from his fate in Bubsy The Bobcat in RIP Van Bubsy starring Bubsy? The time zones seemed so full of things to do and try.
There’s no escape for Bubsy. When I was making that game I had an idea about a potential adventure game mechanic where you’d have a time limit and when it ran down you’d be ten years in the future, and would need to kind of pick up the traces of what was happening to you before the time limit ran out again and you’d be shot forwards. And then I just thought it would be funny if the time limit was just ridiculously short, so that you only got this glimpse of other characters and plot events flickering in the background while your character swiftly aged and died. It is kind of a Bubsy Mortality Simulator in the guise of an adventure game.
10. Free exploration vs. puzzle obstacles. You’ve made narrative driven games focusing on both – which approach do you prefer?
I prefer free exploration in general! It can be difficult to do while keeping it engaging but most of my favourite moments in games have been that sense of exploring this strange new world. I like puzzles to the extent they can enhance that feeling of exploration, instead of just being arbitrary obstacles you need to overcome in order to get to the interesting stuff.
11. You seem to know your Japanese RPGs well – Space Funeral is – among other thing – an excellent pastiche. What are your feelings about all those Final Fantasies of yore and the like?
I have mixed feelings about them, since while I do like a lot of stuff in jRPGs most of what I like consists of minor ephemeral details and weirdness. I really like that you can ride giant chickens around the place. I like world maps, and ridiculous enemy naming conventions (Puny Goblin / Warrior Goblin / Behemoth Goblin), and the bizarre speech patterns of NPCs, and the sense of exploration. I like that in 2D jRPGs house interiors are surrounded by this immense black void.
Unfortunately in order to get to this stuff you generally need to plough through ridiculously long games full of generic plots and characters and grinding and all that stuff. Basically I think there are the seeds for something really strange and interesting under there but it all tends to get glossed over for boring heroic fantasy conventions.
12. What does game-making mean to you? Do you create any films and/or comics as well?
Game-making is where I go when I have any kind of idea. If I start thinking about a plot or a mood or whatever it’ll always be in the context of a game. I have no idea why since I don’t even play a lot of videogames but I guess I’m stuck with them by now!
Overall I like the looseness of it and the sense of playfulness in gamemaking. Especially with adventure games there’s no real fixed idea of what makes games enthralling, or what the stories should be about, or what the characters should look like, or how long it should be, or what the gameplay should be like. It’s just about making a kind of space that you think is interesting and giving the player some tools to explore it.
I’ve never really felt the urge to make films or comics because for me there’s always a sense of those things having rules or a point or a set of guidelines behind them. I couldn’t make movies because my experience of them is so tied up with ideas of what length they should be, what they should be about, protagonists and antagonists and three-act structures and all that garbage. With games there isn’t really that feeling at all. It’s like uncharted territory in that there is still a lot of scope to just do whatever you want and not really care if it fits some preexisting criteria of what a game should be.
13. What kind of works of (counter-?) culture inspire you?
Punk rock!!! Especially the DIY spirit of it, and the sense that being amateurish didn’t necessarily mean just making cut-price versions of bigger commercial stuff; it could be about trying to find different ways of looking at it altogether. One of the reasons I wanted to make games out of cardboard or LEGO or MSPaint squiggles was because I liked the idea of there being no talent involved whatsoever. You can see how everything was put together. So instead of the message being “gaze in awe at my astonishing technical prowess” it would be “look at how easy this shit is! look at how simple it is to turn your obsessions into a game!”. I think there’s a kind of excitement in that kind of crude demystification. It’s like those old movies when they say “Hey, let’s put on a show!!”
Aside from that, I come up with most of my ideas for games when I’m listening to music so I guess that inspires me! Punk and postpunk bands like the Slits and the Minutemen. Comics like Gary Panter’s “Jimbo In Purgatory” and Fletcher Hanks’ stuff also blow me away. Old BBC children’s shows like Bagpuss and The Clangers. Writers like Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Phillip K. Dick. Insanely pretentious theory like Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary For A New Urbanism. The names of the monsters in Dungeons & Dragons such as Umbre Hulk and Gibbering Orb.
14. Some (or all) of your games seem to harken back to more unusual kinds of children tv shows and fairy tales, as well as childhood’s sense of wonderment at how strangely things work. Even your game company is called “Games 4 Schools“. Am I onto something here?
Hahaha, I think so! I think nostalgia is kind of dangerous and I am nervous about the idea of the ignorance of childhood constituting some kind of state of grace, but I am kind of drawn to old kids shows and so on by how unapologetic they were in their strangeness. They didn’t try to justify it by postmodern knowingness or by affectations of realism or having a message or anything like that, they just made these weird little worlds with such assurance that you got pulled into them. Even the Games 4 Schools thing was based on those preinstalled games on school computers in the 90s like SkiFree and that one screensaver where you wandered through a labyrinth and were occasionally attacked by giant rats for some reason.
15. Are you the sort of guy that would like to work on an (even more) epic game masterpiece someday, or do you feel perfectly comfortable making shorter productions and keeping your sanity in tact?
I would probably make longer games if my attention span wasn’t so short! Having said that I kind of distrust the idea of big epic masterpieces and generally prefer the kind of ephemeral “termite art” that results from someone just following through on their own weird little obsessions and making their own little private worlds. I think most of my games would be much better if I worked on them for more than a month or so though so this is something I’m going to try to work on in future!
16. How do you feel about stopmotion animation – both in your games, other games, as well as films? You certainly use it in very creative ways in your games.
Most of my games are stop-motion in the sense that those old Marvel cartoons in the sixties where they just clipped panels from the comics and made their jaws move up and down were animation, haha. I like stop-motion a lot, though. I think there’s a kind of exuberant fakeness to it that I like a lot: it’s more obviously ‘constructed’ than live-action or animation, but because of that it can pull you in a lot more. It’s more obviously fantastic and unreal and because of that it had more freedom to go in strange directions. I haven’t played a lot of games that use it, but I know they’re out there and I’d like to see more!
17. What are your favorite indie games and adventure games of all time?
In terms of indie games I remember being blown away by “Psychosomnium” by Cactus Squid. It was so weird and imaginative and didn’t seem to play by any of the same rules as anything else out there. There’s also Barkley, Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden and Within A Deep Forest, and in terms of AGS I really love the Life Of D. Duck games! In terms of general adventure games, I should really say Neverhood but I actually can’t get it to run on my computer! I guess my favourite adventure games are the first ones I played, like Monkey Island 3 and Discworld Noir.
18. What game you’ve made is the most special for you so far and would you like everyone to play? But if it’s Space Funeral, then pick another.
Mmmmmmm I’d say Biggles On Mars since it’s probably the most fleshed-out world. There are some bad inventory-type puzzles and the walk speed is too slow but I think there’s a sense of excitement and enthusiasm etc that comes through in the game. Other than that there’s Ghost Voyage and The Astonishing Captain Skull (and Space Funeral too)!
ALL THECATAMITES GAMES CAN BE FOUND HERE
ALL THECATAMITES GAMES CAN BE FOUND HERE