Friday, March 6, 2009

Swedish Savant: A Talk with Daniel Remar

those lovely, lovely pixels If you're an indie game fan, you may have heard of Iji. It's a 2D action-platformer wherein you control Iji, a young girl who awakens to find Earth completely overrun by an alien race. Her quest to save her planet, her brother, and herself becomes even more complicated when a second race of aliens shows up, casting a host of shadows on once-clear notions of right and wrong. With some epic boss battles and gameplay reminiscent of the Super Nintendo's glory days, Iji is definitely worth your time.

It may surprise you that an acclaimed indie title this broad in scope is A) freeware and B) designed by one man. Enter Daniel Remar. He spent years working on Iji, after developing a number of other games in conjunction with attending university to hone his craft. But he's not in this for the money; Remar makes all of his games (found here) freeware to ensure that anyone who wants to play his games can get them.

We at Charge Shot!!! got our hands on Iji after it was named the "Top Freeware Platformer of 2008" over at IndieGames.com, and then felt compelled to contact the man behind the success. Read on for Remar's remarks on Iji's development process, how indie game designers can impact the industry, and how to stay motivated when you're only one working on a project.

Charge Shot!!!: Tell us about a standard day in the making of Iji. Was the game made in steady increments, or long, staggered creative streak, or neither?

Daniel Remar: I basically worked from morning to night when I could at first, but I hit a wall after a while. Motivation was usually what decided when I got something done and when I ignored the project for weeks, and sometimes I forced myself through. Looking at my development log, I often only did one feature, animation or bugfix per day.

Charge Shot!!!: Developing any freeware game is a labor of love, but dumping buckets of time into Iji with no hope of profit is positively heroic. Looking back on Iji, what aspect of the game, its development or the feedback gives you the most satisfaction?

Daniel Remar: I think it was towards the end of development, when I started adding a lot of details to the game that made it feel much better than what I had been playing and working on for years. It wouldn't feel the same without the little security cameras, AI tweaks, boss super-attacks, ejected Shocksplinter cells, Iji pausing when landing from a long fall etc. The in-person testing, after I had ironed out the worst parts of the game that were almost unbeatable, was very satisfying because they both helped me fix hundreds of bugs and mistakes and I got to see the enjoyment of someone actually playing the game. I also remember getting a strange empty feeling when I was almost done and ready for release, not like something was missing but rather like a burden was gone.

Charge Shot!!!: Having written a game yourself, what would you say is the most difficult aspect of developing a story for a game? Did you cut things out of the story for the sake of gameplay, or vice versa?

Daniel Remar: I've said before that I'm not a writer, but it's true in several ways; Iji's story was developed at the same time as the game. I threw things in and modified others until the game itself was halfway done. I didn't make any gameplay/story compromises since I wanted to keep things simple, unfortunately the game had a habit of wanting to grow more complex all the time. The difficulty was keeping it all consistent, with all the updates... I started adding the pacifist and other text modifiers during my own playtesting, when I wondered why the text clearly didn't correspond to my actions. Had I planned the pacifism from the beginning the game would have turned out very different, but it's hard to say how. There's only one thing that was cut from the story; if Iji was "berserk", that is having killed a lot
of enemies, she would perform the hidden skill Retribution on Asha 2 to kill him instantly. In the end this attack can still be triggered manually during the battle but it's ineffective.

Charge Shot!!!: There are a lot of secrets and easter eggs in Iji, many unlockable only after playing through the game in full. Is this a quality you find enjoyable in other games? How did you approach secret areas from a design perspective - i.e. placement or weapon balance?

Daniel Remar: I really like easter eggs, but I think Iji got a bit cluttered with secrets in the end. I even added a logbook that revealed about half of them, ironically this logbook is also hidden. The Posters were at first the only "hard to find" things in the game, then came the
ribbons, then the first of three secret weapons, the secret level, Supercharges, hidden chat dialogues just for fun, and many other things... most of them stemmed from my fondness of experimenting with the physics and equipment in games, such as rocket jumping, and sequence breaking. I decided to see how much I could squeeze out of Iji's weapons and physics, since I enjoy figuring such things out in a game, and even more if the developers had figured it out too and put something behind that seemingly impassable wall.

There was also a difficult balance between hiding something really well and then making it really unique - how much effort is it worth to spend on something not a lot of players will find? That's a tough question. But my decision was that you can't reward players enough, hence things like the Scrambler and Null driver, rewards the player didn't know was in the game. But I persoanlly think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night took it too far, making half of the entire game inaccessible unless you figure something out that I thought was too obscure. I wouldn't make 10 secret levels in Iji, one was enough.

Charge Shot!!!: The boss fights in Iji are some of the standout moments of the game. Are there games you took direct inspiration from in that regard? And how was designing inventive pacifist ways to beat them?

Daniel Remar: Mischief Makers, Ikaruga, Sin & Punishment, ask about boss design and I point to Treasure games. :p Nearly every boss is unique and ingenious in those games. The idea behind the final boss in Iji was taken from Mizar in Jet Force Gemini: dodging attacks A, B and C is easy to learn, but what about A and B at the same time or from different angles? Assassin Asha was inspired by Lunar in Mischief Makers, not only the voice but his huge array of attacks and ways you could counter/avoid them - picture a cyborg wolf riding a Transformers-style motorbike that fires a laser that gets grabbed out of the air by a robot riding a cat riding a missile, and you're playing as the robot who controls the cat. (In fact Marina was part of the inspiration behind Iji herself.) Since I began development I also knew that the player may enter the boss rooms with nothing but a Shotgun, so I needed alternate ways to damage the bosses. In the end they often turned out more powerful than using the weapons themselves, however.

Charge Shot!!!: There's been a strong response to the game's soundtrack. How did you go about collaborating with the composers? Are there any game soundtracks that have stuck with you long after playing?

Daniel Remar: I've been talking and working with Chris for years, so I knew he and his friends were the right people for the job. I'm just lucky that I met him. :) Most of the final soundtrack was produced near the end of Iji's production, when I had a clear tracklist and I trusted Chris to come up with a lot of songs that would fit, and he did. Two of the songs were made by other people when Chris had run out of recording time, and having a cover of "Hero" felt natural considering how much Machinae Supremacy's music has inspired me. As for other soundtracks, I really like most Zeldas and the Mega Drive/Genesis Sonic games,
Skies of Arcadia, Yoshi's Island, Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, Jet Force Gemini, Shadow of the Collossus, Cave Story and Secret of Mana. The best game I have played with a massive speaker and amplifier is F-Zero X. Whoa dude.

Charge Shot!!!: You've spoken before about designing the game with irreversible choices - the inability to fully level Iji up, the text triggers that affect the story based on your actions. What attracted you to this design choice? Do you feel it correlates to themes in the story at all?

Daniel Remar: It's mostly just how the game turned out. I like choices that have consequences, and you can't both save an NPC or not save them at the same time, so... I think it may also help the player immerse themselves into the story and their choices. I wish most of the choices in Iji had more gameplay impact, rather than just affecting text and dialogue though. There are many important choices in life, and it's something a person can feel strongly about.

Charge Shot!!!: In some of your other interviews, you've criticized game guides and games with autosaving features, saying that they remove challenge from games and make them too easy. Should challenging the player be the primary objective of any game? How do you feel about games that eschew challenge to tell a story or evoke emotions from players? What about the newer "casual" games, which often don't even have clear endings or objectives?

Daniel Remar: Heh, this questions will make me sound like I'm backpedalling, but I am. :) It's not like challenge (or cruel and unusual punishment) is something I design all my games around, it's just how I chose to do Iji, and the fact that I couldn't make mid-Sector savepoints. My next game will be more lenient, where dying doesn't revert any progress except your physical location, and you can save at any time (reappearing at the last save point when you load). There'll also be the ability to warp between visited save points right from the start, to minimize manual backtracking. I want to see the reactions to that game compared to Iji when it's time for in-person playtesting.

Anyway, I play both kinds of games, and it would be hypocritical of me to say that either style is bad while I make both kinds. The time you spend on a game is an investment, and to take that investment away as a punishment is not exactly something that pleases all players. Such as losing XP and equipment in an MMORPG where you pay a monthly fee - even worse if you got lag-kicked, you wandered down the wrong hole in the ground, you stepped on a fire that wasn't visible undeneath a pile of debris, or you drank a "potion" offered by a fellow player, and as a result of any of these your character died helplessly losing weeks of progress and equipment. I just described Tibia by the way, even Veteilika stealthily makes fun of it in Iji. So yeah, there is a limit how punishing a game can be before I give up on it. Hardcore players are used to it though, especially for games they only pay for once, or free games. Personally I'm more fine with it the more of a lasting chance I have, such as having a health meter that takes time to drain rather than losing in just one hit. As much as I like e.g. Shadow Man, which does have a health bar, I was extremely frustrated with how missing just one jump at the end of a Gad temple killed you in one hit, negating completely the reason there was a life bar in the first place, and forced you back to the beginning.

Charge Shot!!!: I don't know if you've been following the sort-of controversy surrounding Bob's Game, another title developed by one person. What's the upside of making something like this by yourself as opposed to collaborating with other people? What's the downside?

Daniel Remar: I don't know of that game, but the upside is that I don't have to rely on someone else to take a lot of time out of their life to contribute, and at the same time as I do to boot. I don't have to convey my ideas or designs to someone, and I don't have to write design documents for anything. I also don't need to comment my code, but this came around and bit me as I revisited parts of Iji's code which I had completely forgotten how they worked. :p

I'm responsible for everything, but that's also the biggest downside; it takes a long time to make something alone, the graphics won't be as good as if a proper artist had made them, the code won't be as good as that of a skilled programmer, it's easier to get stuck somewhere, and it's inevitable that you'll become blind to your own ideas and conventions. You'll lack a lot of input during development. The game will just be a lower quality overall, and Iji definitely suffered from it. Just imagine if I had made the music as well (remember the MIDI tunes in Hero?).

Charge Shot!!!: What's the design culture and community like in Sweden? Is there a local feel to designing there or do you feel more connected to a more globalized community via the Internet?

Daniel Remar: I'm not really part of any communities on the net except Eo, and even then everyone has their own designs and ideas. The only other indie game designer I know in person is Erik Svedäng, I mostly just do my own thing. It's a hassle taking the polar bear to town, so I don't meet a lot of game designers outside of the university, where I've just finished a game development education. Internet friends are a lot different than real life friends, but when it comes to games I discuss it equally with both.

Charge Shot!!!: With AAA production costs becoming prohibitive in a receding economy, do you imagine there will be a sudden bloom of indie titles?

Daniel Remar: I'm not really knowledgeable about the game industry, nor the indie scene. In my experience indie development has always been around, it's just gotten more mainstream now. Or maybe not; I don't know any magazines that print coding examples in them anymore, then again I don't read any mags either. I'm clueless! I don't watch TV either, the shows are even less tolerable and intelligent than the commercials, unless it's Animal Planet. There was a documentary about cheetahs - sorry, indie games? I've heard free-to-play games are on the rise and it's making companies a good income. As long as there are creative people there will be indie productions of all kinds, not just gaming.

Charge Shot!!!: If major studios have one thing to learn from indie developers, what would you say it is?

Daniel Remar: Ditch the enormous budgets unless you absolutely need super-awexxome graphix, don't make games if you actually want to make Hollywood movies, and the next time you begin a project say "let's make a computer game, what are the possibilities?", not "let's make a WWII FPS, what are the possibilities? Outside of adding aliens and a Disney-grade black-and-white plot?"

Charge Shot!!!: You've said before you don't pay much attention to the "Games as Art" debate. Is it because you dislike the labeling process or do you feel games should be games and art should be art?

Daniel Remar: Eh, I don't get why debating semantics is serious business. I'm already guilty of it enough in this review. :/ In my eyes everything you produce with effort and selfless love is a work of art that shouldn't be forgotten or mistreated, be it a painting or your children.

Charge Shot!!!: You say on your Web site you don't want to talk about upcoming projects because you don't want people to develop undue expectations - you've said you're doing this exclusively in your leisure time, and we completely understand. Answer us this, though: if you could be working on any game in any development studio at any time in gaming history, where would you be, what game would you be working on and why?

Daniel Remar: I'd be making Kid Icarus 3 at Nintendo for the SNES, with Gunpei Yokoi still alive. I don't think I would be up to the job but I would have loved to try.

Charge Shot!!!: Despite the leisure time constraints of indie game development, what games from the past five years or so have you made time for?

Daniel Remar: If you mean games released in the past five years, I've played Super Paper Mario, though I greatly prefer the N64 one. Then there's Ico, We Love Katamari, Shadow of the Colossus, Little Big Planet, Twilight Princess, Super Mario Galaxy, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, Super Smash Bros Brawl, Street Fighter 4 and a lot others - but out of these I only own Twilight Princess for the Cube. I don't have any of the current-gen consoles myself either. Thanks to the student-operated "AGES" gaming room at my university, it even has a fridge stuffed with unhealthy candy and sodas, the literal inspiration for the "Fridge Fulla Fat 6000" on Yuka's news page. The more you know... I'm also playing the first Shenmue at a friend's place right now, it's very inspiring.

Daniel Remar is an independent game designer living and working in Sweden. Again, Iji and a number of his other games can be found at his Web site.