Deus Ex Metroidvania – An Interview with Ghost Song developer Matt White

headline

„Ghost Song takes place on the mysterious and treacherous moon, Lorian V. Filled with secrets and hidden paths, approximately half of the game world is optional. Find new powers and abilities, many of which are entirely missable. Find strange creatures and stranger characters, each with a story of their own. Embark on an emotional quest to find closure for those you love and for yourself.“


Matt White’s Ghost Song started off as a flash game idea that quickly grew into a much bigger project. In 2013, a Kickstarter campaign raised $54,000 in order to make the game possible on a grander scale. Even though the development is still ongoing it already looks like Matt put the money to good use — Ghost Song is an ambitious 2D platformer that feeds of  Sci-Fi aesthetics as well as old and modern video game classics. Influences such as Super Metroid and Dark souls suggest a special approach to storytelling and possibly also some tough-as-balls gameplay.

Being the nice dude that he is, Matt took a little break from developing to talk about the game, his artistic roots and the joy and struggle of making indie games, regarding personal and professional aspects alike.

Enjoy!

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Screenshot

Hey Matt, lots of sleepless nights and busy schedules for you right now I assume. What’s the current status of Ghost Song?

Indeed. It’s kind of like being in stasis. The game nearly eclipses most other aspects of my life, and has become sort of a marker by which I make plans — „Oh, I’ll do this when the game is done.“ The „When the game is done“s are really adding up, too! It’ll be a full Summer/Fall. The status of the game? Strong, but behind schedule. I’ve done so much,

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In motion

and I’m proud of it, but it feels like the light is still just barely visible at the end of the tunnel. The romance period early in development, at least for me as a novice game developer, set up some false expectations with regard to timelines. As game systems grow and become more intertwined, the burden of adding anything new increases… And this burden grows at the same time as the novelty and freshness of the experience taper off. If it sounds like developing a large project by yourself can turn into something of a morass — That’s probably because it can! But that’s part of the process, and most developers who take on a large project will undoubtedly experience this to some degree. That’s not to say it won’t finish strong, though. The game is looking good and I’m so excited for what’s to come!

 It sure would be very interesting to know how your whole developing career actually started off. Is this your first game?

This is my first large scale game project. My life as an aspiring indie developer started in 2011. Previous to that point, I’d gotten by doing odd jobs, freelance graphic design and illustration work, and had a pretty good stint as a technical support operator for Verizon, where for some reason customers often called me Max. In my heart all I ever wanted to do, though, was create something and make my living that way — Create something that meant something to me. For a while this meant creating my own comics and hoping to get one published. Comics turned out to be a fruitless endeavor. The work involved was enormous and aside from the few lucky creators who hit it big the financial opportunities were meager.

In 2011, I learned about a game called Terraria — A hit game released by an indie developer. Before this point I hadn’t thought much about game development, but after seeing this game I wondered if maybe I had something worthwhile to contribute.
Naturally, the first game I wanted to make was something similar to Terraria — But with more realistic, flashy graphics and some kind of storyline. This ultimately proved to be a really high hurdle and eventually I set the idea aside. I prototyped a number of ideas and released a couple small flash games before deciding I wanted to make a big Metroidvania. I’m still making it.

What was your personal experience with using Kickstarter in order to make Ghost Song possible?

People often ask what the secret is to running a successful Kickstarter campaign, and, to be frank, I’m still somewhat mystified by it. I don’t really know why the game — which, in my view, was pretty rough looking in the pitch — Was so successful at raising funds.

If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that I managed to identify something that there exists an acute desire for (in this case, a Metroid analog, although the game has become much more than that) and I was able to communicate the idea in a way that resonated with people. I spoke the language. Speaking the language is easy when you have a shared passion.
Beyond all of the logistics, my personal feelings about Kickstarter are mixed. Not that I’m not deeply grateful to have received all the support — I am. It’s just that I feel psychically encumbered by it. There’s always been a part of me that feels uncomfortable with fundraising, and that discomfort has grown over time. I feel like I’m carrying a burden that won’t be lifted until everything’s delivered. I’m sure one would expect me to feel no less.

To address the second part of your question, I was very fortunate in that I was approached by Adult Swim Games following the Kickstarter campaign. We communicated over the course of about six months, and eventually I saw the wisdom in signing a publishing deal with them. They have been able to offer me a lot of help and support, especially given the unexpectedly protracted development process.

That „burden“ you are describing makes it seem like you are doing most work completely on your own. Were any other people involved at all and if so, what exactly did they contribute?

The game is mostly made by myself. I have a co-writer who has helped me organize the story and write some of the dialogue, and on certain occasions I’ve hired help to produce frames of animation for certain sprites, and, of course, there is a cast of voice actors and a couple of composers — But, for the most part, as a day to day matter, it’s all resting squarely on my shoulders. Outside of a few exceptions I do all of the artwork and animation myself, and I also tend to all matters of design, implementation, and scripting.
It’s hard to complain because this is what I signed up for, but I will freely to admit that when I scoped the game I underestimated how much work such a game would be to produce. The ingredients of a game — What goes into making a game — Aren’t generally gigantic, difficult tasks. Most individual tasks are not that hard. This is why it’s easy to make the novice mistake of underestimating the work involved with a design.

The challenge of making a game comes from the sheer volume of tasks, and how these tasks become more difficult as the game becomes larger and more intertwined. Frequently if I need to make changes or additions a large part of the job is going back and re-learning what the hell I was thinking when I originally programmed whatever thing it is I need to change or add to. The fact that I’m not really much of a programmer and have done things in horribly disorganized ways doesn’t help!

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Concept art

In the beginning we already talked about how Ghost Song takes up most of your time. This seems even more understandable now. How did your family and friends react to the fact that a huge chunk of your current life consists of animating flowers (I know the game has a fair amount of them) and generally hanging out in front of computer screens a lot?

One ought to be able to animate a lot of flowers while maintaining friendships, right? This may be true, but for one reason or another I’ve found that, over time, the game has led to my increasing isolation. It’s quite possible that the project has simply enabled me to indulge tendencies that were already there. I’ve always been an introvert. If you give an introvert resources and a mandate to do some big thing all on his own — You may get some explosively introverty results.
Friendships fade if you don’t nurture them, especially with secondary friends. They aren’t self sustaining. I often joke that when the game is done I’ll need to be rehabilitated and released back into society like some injured woodland creature plucked to safety by human benefactors. What’s ironic is that the dysfunction that is a byproduct of developing a large game alone while allowing all of your manias to run wild is in itself also in itself negatively affecting development of the game. If your mental health decreases, your productivity decreases.
On the bright side, while some friendships may languish, so far it seems apparent you don’t lose close friends or close family by simply being a weirdo for a while. I still make time, most especially, for my nieces. If I get a call or a message from one of them I’ll stop everything to talk to them. If they come over I’ll stop everything to hang out. There’s always at least that.
I don’t mean to paint an overly dark portrait of game development. That some of us [indie game devs] end up unraveling a bit is an indictment of us as people rather than the practice of developing a game. It’s my own personal failing that I haven’t been able to keep all the plates spinning. It’s entirely possible to have a healthy work and life balance, and many people do it. I can only speculate that people who are driven so strongly to create things — People who are artists, people who are drawn to indie dev — Are fucked up people to begin with. We already have our devils. Give us a mandate. give us an excuse — We’ll let the devils out, they’ll drive us, they’ll hurt us. Hopefully though they just don’t define us… But even if they do, at least we’ll have some pretty animated flowers to show for it.

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Flowers everywhere

Wow. Thanks for that personal insight! Despite the obvious struggle, it seems like you gained a philosophical conclusion from the whole process. I wonder if that way of analyzing and deep thinking also reflects on themes of the game. So let’s get specific! What can you tell us about Ghost Song’s story?

It’s hard to be specific without spoiling things, but I can talk in generalities. If you can believe it, Ghost Song is a game about familial devotion and closure. It’s a journey of self discovery (quite literally, in a sense) that is tinted by a vague longing that comes increasingly into focus as the story progresses. You have one purpose, and you see it through, to the end of the line, no matter the cost.

It’s a game full of fantastical lore, fun fantasy and science fiction, but this is all handled as something in the periphery. The urgency of the main characters‘ plight crowds all of that out. At its core, it’s a game about family. Sisters. Principles, dedication, loyalty. „Their ideals can’t be our ideals. The things we value, the words we use, the way we survive, it matters deeply.” Expect to hear this mantra several times in the game, because it’s important.

You noticeably had a lot of different inspirations for Ghost Song, concerning gameplay as well as aesthetics. Can you name some of your main influences?

Most people will quickly spot a visual similarity to Super Metroid — And that’s fine. I know that. That has a lot to do with the game’s origin as „my answer to Metroid“. It grew into something more, though, and if you play the game you’ll quickly note the differences. Its storytelling methodology was heavily inspired by both The Last of Us and Dark Souls, with compelling and talkative main characters and sleepy and mysterious side characters who yawn out fragments of lore.

It’s hard to understate how influential the original Dark Souls was on me as a designer. Speaking in generalities, the game’s indifference to the player is absolutely key. This is part of why it’s so immersive and compelling. The game does not care that there’s a human sitting in front of a TV. You can fuck off for all it cares. The feeling of a game designer floating behind you looking over your shoulder and pointing at the screen is something I can’t shake when playing many modern games. It’s mood shattering.

To provide a more specific example of influence, I refer often to something I call my „Blight town moment“. In Dark Souls, there’s an area called Blight Town. On my first playthrough, making it through this area – It already felt like I had the whole universe on top of me. I already felt like I was deeper than I’d ever imagined. Then — I reached the swamp bed, and off in the corner of the map, off the beaten path, is a hollowed out tree. Inside the tree is an Illusionary wall that, when removed, reveals a treasure chest.

That should be the end of it, right? Nope. Behind the chest is another illusionary wall which leads to a massive hollowed out tree interior — That goes down and down and down, deeper and deeper, until you reach a whole new area. Ash Lake, which contains a scary hydra and a scary dragon and a weird ass covenant. This had a profound effect on me. I simply wasn’t used to modern games toying with my expectations so thoroughly. A truly hidden secret that led to a whole new area. The argument by designers against this type of design is the „10% argument“. Ten percent of players will ever find this, so it’s not cost efficient for us as a developer to implement it. We need to spend our resources on content most players will see. I disagree vehemently. A great discovery has great value to the experience even if a given player does not discover it. How can this be? Because you have the knowledge that the game truly contains secrets. The knowledge that there actually are great wonders waiting for you — Somewhere. This knowledge colors the experience. This knowledge shapes the experience. This is everything.

There already seem to be a lot of rather mysterious & tough „Metroidvania“ and Dark Souls-esque games out there these days. Would you say your main goal still was to create a rather unique experience with Ghost Song’s gameplay or did you also focus on a nostalgic and referential effect the game could possibly provide?

I’m a core gamer. I like the classics. It’s very difficult to design any gameplay mechanic that is unique, however, it’s also true that a game is frequently greater than the sum of its parts. Ghost Song utilizes a lot of core, familiar gameplay ideas, but hopefully it mixes them together in a way that feels fresh.

The action combat is in some ways reminiscent of classics like Mega Man and Metroid, but it has a distinct character. It places a lot of emphasis on utilizing various dashing mechanics for the purposes of mobility and combat. The atmosphere is in many ways influenced by Dark Souls, but this is taking place in 2D and with the „Metroid“ combat we’ve described. This is not a particular combination that has been done before — As far as I know. Beyond all of that, though, again — I think a good game is more than the sum of its parts. Ghost Song is something old, something new, something borrowed, and something Little Blue, and I’m fine with that.

[Little Blue is the name of the character]

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Blue

On a scale from Ornstein to Smough, how unforgivingly difficult will it get?

I’m still not sure where the difficulty stands. To me it doesn’t usually seem all that hard, but to some testers it has seemed very hard. I don’t think the game is as hard as Dark Souls generally — So on a scale of Ornstein to Smough I’ll give it 2 Bell Gargoyles.

If you could pick one favorite feature, character or enemy in the game, what would it be? Don’t be too shy to flatter yourself.

I have trouble choosing a favorite, but just to pick something I like a lot — It’s Mabec, the droid in the elevator. Early in the game you are able to find and ride an elevator. Each time you ride the elevator, a little voice calls out to you and says eccentric things. She speaks of, among other things, her two friends: Blueberry and Bonnet.

It’s ultimately possible, later in the game, to reach his/her location — If you discover the secret route up there — And the source of the voice turns out to be a disembodied robot head sitting on a pile of garbage. Blueberry and Bonnet are the two flowers he/she has been watching grow for the past 200 years. The player is then able to trade things with Mabec which ultimately leads to the biggest secret in the game. Alternatively, if the player steals Blueberry or Bonnet, Mabec will rage and never speak again! This is a very gratifying optional thing in the game. The character is also full of levity and humor, which is unusual in most parts of the game.

Link to elevator banter

Back to a bit of industry talk: You got some notable mentions in the media while making the game, congrats on that! Do you think this kind of attention is necessary to ultimately become successful in game development?

I think if you make something that sparks peoples‘ imaginations the media mentions will follow. If someone is starting out in indie dev I wouldn’t recommend they worry a lot about press and PR at first. If you make something that resonates with people, the coverage will come. People are naturally curious, media outlets are naturally curious. Everything I’ve gotten so far has happened on its own.

Do you have any public appearances or bigger presentations scheduled where we can see a bit more of the game and gain more insight?

I imagine more of that stuff will happen once we have a gold build and a definite release date (still TBA as of this writing). I’ll most likely be at PAX East and Prime, though!

Last but not least: Do you have some valuable advice for all the other Dark Souls-playing, flower-loving kids out there that dream of making their own game?

Don’t fix what ain’t broke. You probably can’t come up with anything truly original on its own — Nothing that’s terribly useful, anyway.
Your mark will be in how you assemble the known components. Familiar concepts, ideas, and mechanics are as to notes on a piano. Write your song!

Thank you so much! Is there anything you would like to add?

Love yourself, love others.

 

 

Check out Ghost Song’s trailer and homepage

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