A game can touch us for so many reasons: the quality of a narrative, the charm of a visual style, the originality of a concept, the way it continues to linger in your mind after we think we've finished with it. For the creators of games, however, the lasting impressions of their work come from behind the scenes, often in the relationships that define them in other contexts.
Here we have three excerpts from Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation, a new book exploring and celebrating the world of independent game development. These excerpts explore the different relationships that informed some of the most celebrated and recognized indie games of recent years.
The Chinese Room, the team behind Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, talks about the unusual dynamic of having a writer and composer at the helm, and how a strong personal relationship between the two influences the rest of the team. Messhof, creators of Nidhogg, highlights how playing to and embracing the unique passions and strengths of each member in a partnership helps drive the studio forward, whilst Cellar Door Games explain how familial debt informs the relationship that led to seminal roguelike Rogue Legacy.
The Chinese Room
Games: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther
A crucial contributing factor to the success of The Chinese Room is the fact that the studio is run by a composer and a writer, the married pair of Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck. The uncommon dynamic gives the studio a set of priorities that differ from most. In game development, it's not uncommon for both writing and audio composition to be added at a late stage in a project; made to retrofit the mechanical framework of a game and often be subservient to its moment-to-moment gameplay.
Here both writing and music take center stage, used not only to enhance the experience but actively shape it. This affords Curry and Pinchbeck the luxury of being able to have ongoing conversations with their creative team at every stage of development, from conception through to delivery.
Curry puts much of herself into her work, and The Chinese Room embraces that passion, marrying it with Pinchbeck's writing to form an inextricable bond that feels intimate and powerful. The resulting success is what happens when a creative partnership is allowed full flow. Additionally, a key benefit of them sharing such a close relationship is that if one of them is not working to their fullest potential the other will let them know in no uncertain terms. "If I play Dan some of my music [that he doesn't like] he doesn't have to say anything, I can read the disappointment in his sad, sad eyes," Curry jokes.
"If he's thinking 'you can do better' it takes a microsecond of communication. And I'm quite harsh on Dan's writing and famous for my red pen. It's easier in a way because you know each other so well, and I like to think that we make each other's work better and we're more than the sum of our parts."
"The holy grail of collaboration is finding those people that inspire you and make you better." — Jessica Curry
"I think that radiates out into the studio culture," adds Pinchbeck. "We can't be precious about our work with each other and so neither can anyone that works at the studio because they see us chipping away and working and iterating on each other's work. If the studio heads are really open to change and accepting of feedback then I think it makes it easier for others to be like that, too. Everybody gets a chance to say their piece and I think that comes from our relationship."
Curry adds: "The holy grail of collaboration is finding those people that inspire you and make you better and I always think that Dan's words and worlds make my music better and vice versa, it's just a really nice fit."
This dynamic has led not only to active discussion within the studio but also elicited support from a great many developers with whom the pair has discussed its work. It's easy to understand this support given that, when it's not bound by golden handcuffs, The Chinese Room is an open, communicative and spontaneous outfit that values the exchange of ideas. What Curry and Pinchbeck's experience highlights, both through the highs of their creative journeys and the lows of publisher wrangling, is that frank, open discussions are more often than not a sign of strength rather than a symptom of a lack of direction.
This eagerness to communicate points to a vested interest in creating the best possible work, and is a positive indicator of the health of the medium; it speaks to a desire to explore and understand creative expression and artistic values through discussion and discourse.
Games: Nidhogg, Flywrench
Nidhogg's development was driven, in part, by designer Mark Essen's interest in contextual play, and in this instance that involved thinking about how the environment is capable of impacting engagement and perception of both player and spectator. The idea was very well received at its public showing and Essen started to receive requests for it to appear in other exhibits. Slowly but surely, Nidhogg began to take on a life of its own and to occupy still more of Essen's time.
At this point Essen met Kristy Norindr, then a game producer at a now defunct Facebook-focused games company. Before too long, the couple's professional and personal lives meshed as they began working and living together while also trying to simultaneously figure out how best to move forward with their game development endeavors whilst juggling day jobs.
"Nidhogg was getting picked up at all these gallery shows and parties and things and got into the Independent Games Festival," Norindr recalls. "Once you get into the IGF they give you the opportunity to have a spot on the Steam Store, so all of these things started putting the impetus on Nidhogg. That success could then pay for the development of Flywrench going forward, which at that time didn't have any funding as the Kickstarter money had run out.
"We were doing a lot of stuff on the side and I was still at grad school as a way to continue to work on games, [Mark] was making games for Cartoon Network. A lot of it was just driven by financial necessity and also being disorganized and not realizing what was important."
As time became an ever more precious commodity, Essen and Norindr began to focus all of their efforts on Nidhogg; a decision rewarded with three nominations at IGF 2011. Nidhogg was beaten to first place in the Excellence in Design and Grand Prize categories, with the latter award picked up by emerging title of the time, Minecraft. Nonetheless, Nidhogg walked away with the Nuovo Award, which the IGF describes as being intended to honor "abstract, short-form and unconventional game development which advances the medium and the way we think about games".
Thereafter, Essen finished graduate school and began teaching classes at University of Southern California's Interactive Media and Games Department. Norindr also joined the staff roster as a research manager for the Game Innovation Lab, ensuring the two stayed in close proximity to one another; allowing them to converse about ideas at both home and work.
"The reason I love working with Mark is that he's really good at going with an idea but then, if it's not working, he's good at dropping it and stopping it." — Kristy Norindr
"That was a pretty fun time," Norindr recalls. "Mark and I got to see each other a lot and so we'd start a conversation at home about our company, go off and do other game related things, then he'd come by my office and we'd continue the conversation over lunch and then we'd go home and work more on our own thing. It was a little crazy, but super fun!"
"That was when we were trying to button up Nidhogg," explains Essen. "It was a lot of work on top of real jobs."
"During that time we ended up getting married, also," adds Norindr. It was a whirlwind time for the couple on both a professional and personal level that made it difficult to balance the ongoing revisions to Nidhogg with the effort required to drive their business forward.
While Essen was battling with net code, Norindr was grappling with what would turn out to be the final piece of the Nidhogg puzzle and an integral part of the game's vibrancy and appeal: its soundtrack. Norindr spent a long time speaking with musicians and agents but was making little headway with finding candidates who really understood what Messhof was trying to achieve. Throughout, their relationship with one another provided a solid emotional and professional base upon which to build.
"The reason I love working with Mark is that he's really good at going with an idea but then, if it's not working, he's good at dropping it and stopping it," says Norindr. "I think that a lot of people in our field in the indie game world still work so hard on a project whether it's getting a good response or not and it's hard to see that happen because you want to shake them and say, 'Hey, you're so talented you can go on to work on the next idea. It's okay, you're not in idea jail'."
Cellar Door Games
Games: Rogue Legacy, Don't Shit Your Pants
"Familial debt" is not a common response to a query regarding the origins of a game's design. Yet, despite the majority of commentary and critique of Cellar Door Games' seminal roguelike, Rogue Legacy, opting to revolve around concepts of death and rebirth, it is a game all about indebtedness and family relationships. They are notions uncommon to video games as a whole, but they impact each and every one of us, whether we want them to or not.
Family loyalty, the dedication to continuing your ancestors' work, is what's important here. It's this exploration of obligation and debt to relations that takes the starring role not only within the confines of Rogue Legacy, but also within the lives and outlooks of the brothers who co-founded Cellar Door. Kenny and Teddy Lee grew up in Canada, [with their] home life dictated by the Chinese customs and traditions of their parentage. Indeed, Teddy even goes so far as to describe his childhood in Toronto as akin to that of a foreigner.
"We're Canadian-born Chinese," elaborates Teddy, "so we're in a bit of a weird spot. Family loyalty is extremely important in Chinese culture, perhaps not so much in Western culture. When I say 'not so much' I'm not saying that it doesn't exist, but it's just to a different degree. We were raised very much in a Western way, but against a strong Asian backdrop.
"[In the game] we don't really explain why people in this lineage are constantly running into this castle even though their ancestors keep dying there, but it's the loyalty to their family that forces them to do it. Each new child is obligated to go into the castle knowing that they're probably going to die."
"Rogue Legacy would never have been made if it wasn't me and my brother working on it." — Teddy Lee
In this sense, then, it's easy to read an autobiographical element into Rogue Legacy. The game's continuous stream of heroes who wade headfirst into a castle in order to honor the efforts of their forbearers is one way to communicate, through interaction, the sense of loyalty that the brothers felt to each other and their parents growing up. Teddy is keen to "blame" the existence of the evocative message on his brother, Kenny, a student of film who would frequently seek to comment on what the game design is implying and what might be able to be read into it.
Their strength of their relationship allows the two to trust each other to be completely honest with issues relating to game design and studio direction. Teddy, graciously, is comfortable enough with their working relationship to suggest the workload is "90 per cent him and only 10 per cent me".
"He does the business side, the programming, the producing and the hiring of artists," recognizes Teddy. "I didn't do any of that. I have taken on more roles now, but that's just the kind of person he is. I had an idea that he liked and he flat out taught himself programming so that we could make it. He inputs a lot into the design side, too. Design is a million mini-decisions that you're trying to make work for the big vision. We work together a lot to pull that together.
"It was him that said that we should go bigger [with our studio ambitions], so he worked out how to set up a business and whatever else. I guess that shows how dependent I am on my brother."
Kenny is able to put up with Teddy's focused, critical approach to design. Their professional success, then, is the result of their familial debt to one another. Teddy is clear about just how indebted he is to the hard work and patience of Kenny, while Kenny trusts his brother to generate ideas and conceptualize design philosophies.
"Rogue Legacy would never have been made if it wasn't me and my brother working on it," believes Teddy. "We fight a lot and it can get pretty mean and heated, but we do always kind of cool down in the end. Not always right away, but after a day or two. That does lead to a better product, though."
Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation features stories from many more independent games studios and developers, including Acid Nerve, Dennaton, Failbetter Games, Roll7, Lucas Pope, Croteam, Subset Games, Vlambeer and Frictional. It is available now as a deluxe hardback from IndieByDesign.net. Follow the authors on Twitter: John Robertson, Stace Harman
Disclosure notice: John Robertson has previously written for VICE.