There have been some pretty weird games released in 2014.
We had the HD remake of Hatoful Boyfriend, a bizarre pigeon-dating affair. Jazzpunk was a co-production from Adult Swim and Necrophone Games that casts the player as a 1950s secret agent tasked with assassinating cowboys and murdering swine with musical instruments. Octodad: Dadliest Catch challenged us to control an octopus disguised as a family man – and believe me, just moving the slippery cephalopod is a hair-whitening mission. And then there's Goat Simulator. No words, just watch the video (just a couple of minutes will do):
But pigeons, octopuses, goats, special operatives seemingly built out of Duplo: they're all (sort of) living, breathing things – not so far removed, really, from your standard gaming protagonist, Swole Bro-Dude with a Big Gun. But then there's I Am Bread, the new game from London's Bossa Studios.
You might recognise that name from Surgeon Simulator, a darkly comedic medical puzzle game that had me in stitches when I played its 2013 iteration on an Oculus Rift. It went a bit like this, only I killed my patient in under three minutes.
I Am Bread is a brave new step into fresh madness for Bossa, though, a game where you control – SPOILER – bread; a single slice of delicious, nutritious bread. Your mission: to get toasted. However, since bread isn't known for its kinetic properties, getting from A (lovely soft loaf) to B (essential heat source) isn't going to be easy – and Bossa are making sure that the game's controls reflect bread's inherent The Stuff Has No Legs quality. This won't be a walk in the park to play; more a wild stumble across a bathroom.
I Am Bread was born during an internal 48-hour games jam and, somehow, survived being tossed aside as something that would never sensibly work. Today, it's arrived on Steam Early Access, and further developments can be monitored on Facebook.
Take a look at the game in action, ahead of an exchange with Henrique Olifiers, Bossa co-founder and producer of I Am Bread.
VICE: Hi Henrique. Now, lots of unusual games are born of jams, but very few feature a protagonist you can spread the fruity stuff on. What was it about I Am Bread that made you think: "You know what – this is mental, but let's do mental."
Henrique Olifiers: We seem to be getting good at "mental". Trust me, we've got much weirder stuff than that in our game jams, and Surgeon Simulator – our previous game – isn't exactly normal, either. Surely you haven't heard of many titles where a wannabe doctor performs a brain transplant inside a speeding ambulance hitting potholes while getting stabbed by anaesthetic syringes?
Once we jam something like I Am Bread or Surgeon Simulator – and we have to go through a dozen ideas or so before we get something that works – we just know it's special. It's natural and immediate: you can sense it as the team becomes transfixed, entranced, when playing that special prototype at the end of a game jam. It sticks out of the pack and we just can't help ourselves, so we have to make it into a full game right away.
This one slice's objective is to be toasted, right?
The bread's sole purpose is to become toast. Now, that's pretty straightforward in a kitchen, but not so in a bedroom or toilet. Our yeasty hero will have to find a way to satisfy its – literally – burning desires in different scenarios, all the while unaware of the havoc it's causing in its pursuit.
And you know, loaves of bread don't own flats. There's someone else there who comes back at the end of the day and finds the place trashed, with a slice of toast waiting for him. This is pretty distressing, and will slowly eat away at the guy's sanity. Things won't get better when he disposes of the loaf – he's basically setting our rampant slice free to roam in the wild. One can imagine the chaos it would cause at a gas station, while trying to start a fire to become toast. Don't forget the impact on the guy, who has to live with the knowledge that he set the baked threat free.
The controls present their own challenges, too. Was it a necessity to make a slice of bread difficult to manoeuvre, on account of these things generally being pretty immobile?
We had to come up with a new control method for the bread. If we stuck to the typical "stick to move, button to jump", we'll end up with a 3D platformer featuring a slice of bread as the character. This ain't that funny nor original, so we knew right away that we had to explore other options. The process took place by imagining how a real slice of bread would move if it could: how it would walk, jump or grab hold of things.
We envisioned this floppy slice bending its corners around, shifting its weight from side to side. The end result is not only fun, but brings something new for players to experience, learn and master, which is what games are all about, after all. This whole idea that games must be easy – "completable" – doesn't ring with us; we like our games challenging.
It's obviously a funny game, and that's needed, because while there's been Jazzpunk this year, and a pretty good South Park game, generally video games fail to find their funny bones, don't they? The Secret of Monkey Island feels an awful long time ago – mainly because it was.
I know, right? Why is it that games became a medium with such a small amount of humour? Films, TV, books, newspapers and cartoons – they all have a much higher ratio of humour in them than games. And even when we get a bit done, it's usually very self-referential. That's not right. It's probably some sort of conspiracy, surely. They must be kidnapping comedy game designers and brainwashing them into bankers or something.
When you find yourself having to look to the past to find a good example of humour in games, you've got a problem. I grew up on humorous games, from Jet Set Willy's lead character waking up hungover in a toilet, to the craziness of Maniac Mansion and the tongue-in-cheek of Duke Nukem. It's not all bleak today, though, as great games like Portal are still being made. But we need more, and as a studio we like it a lot, especially when it's emergent humour from the player's actions, rather than scripted. If it makes the game as fun to watch over the shoulder as it is to play, we may keep on paying our bills.
The bread's not going to have it easy out there, is it? My one-year-old son can tear a loaf up pretty good, so all manner of household hazards must be waiting for our hero?
There are lots of environmental dangers to a slice of bread. Water is the obvious one, but the list goes on to include cat litter, ants, dirt and maybe Marmite – depending on one's taste, that is. These have to be dealt with. Other stuff not only makes bread delicious, but also confers some extra abilities: a buttered slice can slide; jam makes you stickier; and so on. Depending on what you manage to stick to the bread, you might find it tasty and useful, too. You can get heavier, stickier and bulkier by grabbing stuff along the way, and maybe use any of these characteristics for a specific goal, but in the end all that matters is becoming delicious toast.
I Am Bread is evidently original, and that's something that indie studios can bring to gaming. But do you feel that market pressures are playing a part in restricting originality at bigger, "triple-A" studios, where massive investment has to result in huge sales?
"Triple-A" is a term that will eventually fade as indies get better and better at their craft. They will bridge the gap, and the only distinction left will be sheer production size: quantitatively, what can small teams achieve versus very large ones? Even now they're finding solutions, such as procedural generation and so on. This is where innovation takes a hit, as new concepts are riskier by nature.
For a large studio to throw a two-year schedule of 300 people into an untested game is a big ask. Large groups are much more comfortable working in the knowledge that their game has a market waiting for it, no matter what. This is why the majority of new game designs of late come from indies – they can live with the risk as they iterate faster and fail smaller. When they get it right, it's then easier for them to grow it into something big, like Minecraft or DayZ.
What does "being independent" mean to you? Is it more about spirit and attitude than budgets and personnel numbers?
It's about the freedom to do whatever we want, on our own terms, without anyone who thinks they know better meddling with it. The number of people and the revenue has little bearing on independence, and this is what allows us to make different games, to come up with ideas that would never, ever survive a traditional pitch process within a publisher. No exec would ever approve a game about a walking piece of bread, unless it featured his face in it.
Are you thinking about expanding I Am Bread with DLC options – allowing the player to control a bagel, maybe, or a croissant?
We had requests for gluten-free, French baguette on strike, and those horrible crackers people on diets are fooled into eating in the hope they'll magically lose weight.
The idea is to start with a small game and keep at it that for quite some time, adding content as we learn what the players like and where they think the mighty bread should go next. Just like Surgeon Simulator, which eventually got Team Fortress 2 and Alien Autopsy free DLCs, the first version of the game is just the beginning of something much bigger before we wrap up the storyline.
In all seriousness, if you woke up tomorrow and found that a race of sentient bread was swarming over our homes, causing chaos and ultimately aiming to usurp us, and it was basically all Bossa's fault for having this idea in the first place, how would you feel? And which spread would you reach for?
In all seriousness? It will happen. Be sure to welcome your bread overlords with whatever spread they wish to bathe in, or face the consequences. Have toasters at hand. Be safe.