Two weeks ago I wrote about Marvel Brothel to offer a counterpoint to another game by the same developer, the controversial Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer. After I forwarded my post to an ex-Rock Paper Shotgun writer whom I thought it would interest, Marvel Brothel appeared on RPS and suddenly everybody was talking about the game. The downside of this was attracting the Gorgon gaze of Marvel who took the official game page off the web - although it's still possible to find a copy in the wilds of the internet.
The developer in question is Nicolau "Calunio" Chaud, a Brazilian psychotherapist in his late twenties. We've had a back-and-forth by e-mail since I posted the Marvel Brothel article and what follows is a summary of that discussion. There are some light spoilers here for both games, so come back later if you intend to play either.
HM: So how does a psychotherapist find himself developing games in RPG Maker 2003? Is there an underground psychotherapist game-making movement we should be aware of?
My interest in game making is way older than my psychology career. When I was very young (like... 8?), I used to make paper games simulating video games and play them with friends. When I was around 11, I got acquainted with the programming language Delphi and soon started making very simple games. One of them was not so simple and it actually got a little popular... it was called Amigo Mitológico, some kind of complex tamagotchi-meets-mythological-creatures. But my skills in Delphi were limited, and the games I made didn't feel very... gamey.
So it was a blast when I found RPGMaker, the game making engine for lazy people. My first games were pretty bad, full of clichés and rips. The thing is, making games that way is so easy that there are so many games out there... not bad ones, but they all feel the same. That's when I decided I should make games that were "different" and my psychology background is what allowed me to add that "different" element. Psychology has actually changed completely my view on amateur game-making. Now I see indie games as a form of expression. As art, if you'd call it that. I want to experience something different when I play a game, and I want the player to experience something different playing my game. I guess psychology helps me achieve that.
I'm actually not "tuned" to mainstream gaming, I very rarely play any commercial game. I like the amateur community more because it's fun seeing what people come up with out of the craziness of their minds, and it's nice not being restricted by market demands. It's different when you see, for example, a cool cut scene from a Final Fantasy game, and you think "That's awesome, who would have thought of that?" but then you remember there's a team of dozens of people in a writing process calculated to provoke that sort of reaction based on formulas derived from past games and so forth. Playing a game made by a single person is like playing inside that person's mind. I like that notion.
HM: What kind of games do you spend time with?
There are some commercial games I like. I love games that use tactical battle systems, such as Final Fantasy Tactics. I recently played Record of Agarest War for XBOX 360. Awesome game, despite the terrible story. I also like Pokémon. But mostly I play indie games, especially on RPGMaker.net. Because I know the people there, I often know something about the person who made the game and I feel comfortable commenting, reviewing, etc. I also like pastime games like Freecell or Picross.
HM: Marvel Brothel was based on Hentai Brothel Sim (HBS) and I can identify aspects which have been carried across. But while Marvel Brothel is largely playful HBS comes across as more... nasty. Its focus is pornographic rewards which, to me, is the big difference between the two games. Did you think about this at all during development?
To be honest, I didn't play Hentai Brothel Sim that much. It was my brother who played it a lot and I just watched him and heard about it. I really didn't like the game and the kind of inspiration I got from it was "I can do better". If not better, at least different... in a better way? I don't think HBS is a good game and there are much easier ways to get hentai rewards. But still, I could see that it was somewhat addictive in the way that all sim/management games are addictive, so I wanted to make a game like that but cooler. I only actually played HBS to make sure I wasn't missing any important elements.
HM: I was amazed at the time invested in Marvel Brothel, considering it wasn't going to be a professional release: custom graphics, dialogue, research into Marvel characters. What drove you to make such a busy game? Did you feel like quitting the project at any point?
I'm usually a very lazy person, but there's something about the word "contest" that really motivates me. I busted my ass on this project. Part of my drive was just wanting to win the contest. But most of all, I guess I was excited with the notion of turning a crazy idea into a serious, interesting project. Being tuned to the indie game-making community for some time now, I grew tired of old, overused formulas. I think there was a point to be proven there: that the power of making games given to us mortals shouldn't be used to make lesser copycat versions of good commercial games... instead, make something that would never see the light of day in the commercial market.
HM: The attention to detail was impressive. Wolverine wants to be with Jean Grey. Prince Namor turns up looking for Sue Storm. Rogue can't sleep with anyone, which appears to render her useless at first glance. So I have to ask... is it possible for Hulk and She-Hulk to get together? As everyone knows, they're cousins and putting them together might be ewww.
I didn't know they were cousins! But it is possible for them to be together. You just have to spend some experience points on She-Hulk's Stamina so that she can take it.
HM: And what about Green Goblin? Is there any strategy for dealing with him? He just seems impossible to defeat and ruins one day - a Kingpin visit no less.
Is he that hard? I guess the best options would be using Psylocke to try a one-hit kill, or Songbird to hit him without having to reach him. Jean would also prevent him from moving, but she's too weak to fight.
HM: Any tips for the end of the game? I've approached it twice now and always run out of stamina. Are there any tips which don't involve starting from the beginning again?
Well... if your Brothel hasn't reached five stars, you can't beat the game. If you have, it is likely that you have all the items, so in the last days you should spend your money on experience bombs. I don't think there are any real tips for this last stage, you basically just have to optimize the use of the girls... there are three "sizes" of venom-guys, each type with about the same amount of horniness.
Try using the girls with more stamina on many small venom-guys (real strong girls like She-Hulk should take up to 3), and the weaker girls on the stronger venom-guys. They should end the stage with close to zero stamina. If you have many girls left, all with low stamina (around 15-20), you estimated wrong. But maybe your girls just aren't good enough, in which case you would have to start the game over, or at least use an old save file. I do agree it is a design sin, but I tried not making it too hard.
HM: Do you regret Marvel Brothel getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks, now that Marvel has formally taken it off the internet?
No, I could never regret my game getting a lot of attention!
HM: Marvel Brothel makes it so easy to run a brothel without worrying too much about the ethics of being a pimp. It's all game, all fun. Hentai Brothel Sim is a different experience, which doesn't make any attempt to cover up what the job is all about. Nevertheless, it has been argued that Marvel Brothel is a male power fantasy.
My intention was never to portray women as submissive commodities for male satisfaction. And I'm not sure the game even portrays them that way. The X-Girls are cheerful, open-minded, collaborative, and they are ultimately fighting for an important goal. The guys aren't represented as powerful dominant males who do whatever they want with the girls. They're just needy dudes. But who knows, maybe I'm just unconsciously replicating sexist social prejudices.
HM: Common to both Marvel Brothel and Beautiful Escape is reuse. Both reuse graphics and audio from other sources and Marvel Brothel appropriates trademarked characters. There's an argument that all art is essentially derivative but the modern day message from most corporations is "Legal Department Says No." This is understandable for commercial works but when something unique is put out for free, I wonder if they should worry so much.
I have mixed feelings on this. I like originality on everything, but originality doesn't always equal quality, so there's a choice to be made. I can't compose (much), so using original soundtracks is not a good option. I also really like the way certain famous songs fit my games, so I use them. I'm also not great at graphics, I couldn't draw a game from scratch and make it look good (only if I was as brilliant as the guy who made Space Funeral). So, yeah, I try to make something that looks unique and original, but I don't have a strict no-borrow policy.
HM: Fellow game maker Shinan said of Marvel Brothel and Beautiful Escape: "They both take an outrageous premise, a premise that any lesser game maker would turn into some kind of comedy game. But you take this premise and take it seriously." I think that nails what's interesting about your work.
Marvel Brothel is a game that would never be released commercially. THAT'S why it should be made indie. I would never make a game with a concept similar to something released mainstream. Mainstream games are somewhat predictable. The beauty of indie games is being free and unpredictable. We shouldn't want to compete with commercial games. We shouldn't want to make better, we should want to make different. There are so many strange concepts that could be made into amazing games. But yes, I do take game-making seriously, so I would never take a "Marvel Brothel" concept and make a game with a stupid gameplay and corny sex jokes.
HM: I think that's precisely why Marvel Brothel has been so popular - no one would put in the time to make a decent game with this theme. The risk of a getting shot down for copyright infringement or, let's say, "defamation" of a brand, is high. Do you think you'd ever make a game like this again - placing something in an established universe?
Probably not, not because of copyright issues but because seldom do games get so popular that they get this kind of attention. There are just so many fangames out there. I like creating my own world but I could do this sort of game again if I had a great idea, or if it was for some contest.
HM: Let's talk a bit about Beautiful Escape. Where did the idea for a game about torture come from? Are you much into "torture porn" films?
I don't like torture films and I usually close my eyes on gore scenes on movies. Needless to say, I don't like torture. I was just looking for an original idea for the "escape" theme of the contest for which the game was made. My first idea was "lab rat trying to escape from mad scientist". Then "scientist tortures rat". Then "scientist tortures person". Then "person tortures person". But I guess I kept the "scientist" element in a way, since the characters in the game consider dungeoneering to be some sort of science.
HM: Beautiful Escape generates all sorts of reactions from players - was there any particular emotional response you were aiming for?
Well... yes. Many small details of the game were designed to generate some emotional response. For instance, I really like the airport map. It's a wide empty area with nothing but some strange guy waiting for you behind a shadow. I wanted that to be discomforting and slightly intimidating.
Another aspect which was deliberately planned was to have those "mash buttons 1/2" moments with some torture devices. I wanted players to DO something during the torture and I believe there's an actual physical effort in pressing buttons as fast as possible. I wanted this small effort to be the equivalent of something that felt violent... like choking someone, repeatedly stabbing, or something. I wanted the player to feel "I AM DOING THIS". I also wanted the torture scoring (and therefore the reviews) to be initially frustrating, so the player would know what Verge feels.
There are tons of small details designed with such purposes. Not all of them will provoke reactions with everyone. But I expect them to, as a whole, succeed in making the game a disturbing experience.
HM: Going forward, do you think you will you ever move away from RPG Maker 2003 and work with a different platform?
I should but I feel too lazy about learning something else. I've mastered RPGMaker 2003 to a point I feel I can do anything with it. But there are obvious limitations. People on RMN say RPGMaker 2003 is for losers. I may be convinced of that eventually.
HM: You've also been working on another project, the Portuguese-only Alvorada do Mal. After working on it for several years, you made it available because you said you might never finish it. I had a go and couldn't get past the second room but then again my Portuguese is limited to "Feliz Natal". What's the game about?
This game is about a regular young guy living a regular life, so regular that people can relate to him. It is also a game about choices... you get to choose the main character's course of action often. It is also a game about evil. But not a game about choosing between good and evil like Fable. Mostly I wanted to lay temptations to the player, make the "bad" choices more fun, and maybe even make them feel "right". I guess you could say it's also a game about morals. I also wanted to toy with the idea of making a "real world where anything can happen" setting... so you get stuff like orcs playing videogames and rock concerts being invaded by demons.
HM: Are you working on anything else right now?
I'm planning a project called Daddy, which is about the relationship of a young kid and his psycho father, and the adventures of this little kid in an escapist imaginary world. I'm excited about this project because I'm basing the father-son relationship on a mixture of things I hear/witness in real life, so I want to make it realistic in a way a lot of people can relate to, but still creepy and intense.
HM: Thanks for your time, Nicolau.