I thought it would be fun to go back and take another look at those developers I covered in the early days of Electron Dance. In six years, what has happened to them?
In the final part: Alex Ocias, Terry Cavanagh, Dan Marshall, Charlie Knight and Ed Key.
A game that changed my thinking on videogames was Loved. There are other games that would have done the same thing, but Loved happened at the time I needed it. It’s a short platformer that orders you to do things; the more you obey, the more you are “loved”, but continued disobedience leads to messages disparaging you and the game slowly glitching into colour.
I found the game absorbing and ran through it several times. Looking back on it six years on, I’d have to say it does feel like a statement about the relationship between developer and player - as pointed out in the comments. Like The Stanley Parable: Platformer Edition, albeit more cynical and disquieting.
The reason it became important is because, as I wrote in a post called ‘Overlooking Ambition’, it led me to question my reductionist perspective. The simpler the game, the more I boiled them down to rules, scrubbing away any of the paint and fluffy cotton wool glued on top. Scrape away the surface layer of Loved and you’re left with absolutely nothing special; but there was something disturbingly compelling in its abstract narrative. In time, I let go of my own obsession with ludology - “unique gameplay” if you will - which eventually led me to write A Theoretical War.
“I have a really strange relationship with my art,” Ocias says. “Loved got a really positive response. It didn’t earn me much money, but people suddenly knew my work, so I thought I could find my way into working with and learning from others in the games industry. I moved up to Sydney but didn’t find any work. I did find that the local gamedev community definitely didn’t share the overseas positivity about my game.”
Things continued to go downhill from there. “There were a whole bunch of game ideas I had floating around, and started creating my next story - I also started working with the phenomenal Stefano Guzzetti. I got a good way through making a follow-up to Loved, but eventually pressure, anxiety and isolation crushed me, and I wasn’t able to finish it.”
Ocias did release the prototype, called Platform Six, last year.
“I think I’ve spent the years since then just trying to figure out where exactly I belong. I worked in film, on crowds of penguins for Happy Feet 2, did bits of consulting for augmented reality projects, then eventually on gamification and games for education, government and not-for-profits.
“Then at the end of 2013 I couldn’t see any future in that stuff, so I left to continue searching for a way to resolve my artistic process and make my own games again. I had a vision for what it means to create stories that feel right to make, that you carry with you.”
To that end, he created five webGL short stories. They're extremely short but I found The Yearning Tree the most affecting (and was previously mentioned on Kill Screen); Foggy Shore was also evocative. From this wider body of work it's clear that Ocias isn't interested in standard gaming tropes and I'm reminded of Tale of Tales.
“The game I’m working on now finally uses that vision and technology I set out with. Stories that don’t fade away but change you. Something that calls on human vignettes that are new to games but perhaps familiar to Australians. Tackling a sense of physicality, of digital proprioception on a touchscreen. And what it means to have a place with you all the time that’s a feeling you return to, more than just a test to occupy you.”
“I might finish it. Really, right now I’m trying to find a way to make art and survive, and find where I belong.”
When I started Electron Dance in 2010, I was slowly rediscovering 2D genres I’d assumed were dead to me. And so it was that the very first post of Electron Dance was a review of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV. It’s not a post I’m proud of. It’s day one when I had zero readers. Plus I gave up writing explicit reviews after a while (the frustrating and fascinating Cryostasis was my last, one year later). But that review is really an attempt to redefine my gaming alter ego: I am now a person who likes this kind of thing.
VVVVVV was the title that made Cavanagh. I was familiar with some of his earlier pieces which were more reserved, noted for their haunting qualities. Don’t Look Back is a retelling of the story of Orpheus descending into the underworld to bring back his dead love. Judith is another unsettling piece developed with Stephen ‘increpare’ Lavelle. But VVVVVV was Cavanagh’s first attempt at a commercial game simply because Cavanagh was broke.
After VVVVVV turned into this big hit, Cavanagh continued to be prolific, releasing all lots of little games and experiments. If you’ve followed Cavanagh closely, you also know plenty of prototypes just ended up on the scrapheap and never saw the light of public release. Here are some of the small titles he released in subsequent years:
- Hero’s Adventure in August 2011
- the dark Oiche Mhaith (again with Lavelle) in December 2011
- Chat Chat and Hexagon in January 2012
- a contribution to chain game Experiment 12 in July 2013
- Maverick Bird as a tribute to Flappy Bird in February 2014
Cavanagh had also been working on a project called Nexus City with Jonas Kyratzes for a while but decided to abandon it in late 2012. He’d also created the mysterious two-player cooperative game At A Distance for NYC Game Center’s 2011 No Quarter Exhibition; it’s not an easy game to get running, requiring two networked computers with separate displays, but Gregg and I took it on in ‘The Yellow Pyramid’.
Cavanagh’s next commercial release was a reworking of his jam game Hexagon for iOS, Super Hexagon, which was released for various platforms between mid-2012 and early 2013. It was an instant hit, with its twitchy brutality and typically brief game length. It became a compulsion for many and an irresistible subject for gaming essays.
Late last year Cavanagh wrote on his blog, “This has been a weird year for finishing games for me – I’ve mostly spent it working on tools, a lot of them still unreleased. My weird distractable process usually works out – Super Hexagon and VVVVVV were both break games from bigger projects – but recently, it hasn’t gone so well.”
What about now? Cavanagh tells me, “Right now I'm working on a programming game with Ruari O’Sullivan. It's probably just gonna be a small freeware thing. Hoping to release it pretty soon!”
Hands up who remembers Zombie Cow? This was Dan Marshall’s studio that became well known for the comic point-and-click adventures Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please. I haven’t played them. You know, Marshall even sent me a free download for them and I still haven’t played them. Such is the power of free!
But I did play with Zombie Cow’s Privates, an educational game commissioned by Channel 4, and I loved it. The humour is oh so British and by that I don’t mean humor. It also won a BAFTA, but not everyone loved Privates and I read some mean things written about it online.
That led to me asking Marshall what he thought about “destructive criticism” for an involved article called Punchbag Artists. He sent me nice, long answers which made me feel bad leaving many of his words to rot on the cutting room floor - so I stuffed them into a spin-off article which made me feel good about myself again.
But then in 2011, Marshall felt that Zombie Cow was a totally inappropriate name for a game studio, so switched it for Size Five Games, which I guess he felt fitted just right. The first new project Size Five Games released was Gun Monkeys which happens to be another game I’ve not played. Although no one had a bad word to say about it, in a post called “Why you probably shouldn’t make a multiplayer game”, Marshall lamented that “Gun Monkeys immediately got forgotten about”. It was an online player vs player game - and PC games without single player components do tend to be a difficult sell.
After that came last year’s The Swindle, a steampunk heist game that I... I haven't played either.
I opted not to tell Marshall that I had not played any of his games since 2010, then asked him what next project might be on the radar. “Nothing to share yet, sadly. I'm toying around with new things, fixing up obscure Swindle bugs when I can, but it's too early to be talking about the next thing. Sorry!”
Curses, I thought, I've been rumbled, he knows I haven't played anything. However, he was nice enough to add, “Things are going well, though: The Swindle sold well and continues to sell, so the company's in good shape. I'm having a LOT of fun messing around with the new thing. I'm happy.”
In the wake of Leave Home, I’d been looking around for other indie games that had picked up the 2D shooter baton after the mainstream had decided everything had to be three dimensions or higher. Frogger was forbidden, only Frogger 3D was permissible. During this search, I came across the work of part-time developer Charlie Knight who was behind a string of 2D shooters under the banner of Charlie’s Games.
I met Charlie Knight in 2010, although I’m not sure he’d remember it particularly clearly. I’d only been writing Electron Dance for six months and was a bit nervous at the prospect of talking to actual videogame developers. I didn’t yet know that developers were just like monsters, they had real feelings too.
I’ve already done a detailed post on Knight’s games so I’ll make things a bit more snappy here. In 2007, Knight writes Bullet Candy, a beautiful glowy-type arena shooter. Never forgetting its score attack roots, there’s a suicide mechanic which allows the player to retain their score multiplier and bonus weapon intact after death. Two years later, Knight releases a more polished version called Bullet Candy Perfect.
He’d also been wrestling with a true sequel to Bullet Candy, but the project had turned sour: “I'd been programming a system whereby the game would learn how you played and which special attacks you preferred and would counteract by creating situations which forced you to use different powers or strategies. The problem was it grew ever more complex with every addition and, after two years, had grown into something that was out of control, that I'd never finish well.” To change tack, he churned out a free side-scrolling shooter called Space Phallus.
Actually, 2009 was Knight’s big year, together with Bullet Candy Perfect and Space Phallus, he also wrote a sea-themed bullet hell game called Irukandji as an experiment. He had challenged himself to write a game and get it on sale within 2 weeks - and Irukandji was the result.
Where Bullet Candy 2 had failed, Knights’ next project Scoregasm picked up. Two years had gone into the game and it showed. From a distance, it might seem like it was full of twisty little stages all alike, but in truth it was incredibly diverse - each level felt fresh and distinct and it was such a vibrant piece of work. After completing a stage, the player had to choose between the easy, medium and hard alternatives for the next - each completely different - provided you’d attained the score target to reach them. To see every stage Scoregasm required a fair bit of determination and, for my part, I shot the hell out of Scoregasm after its release in 2011.
After that, things slow down, way down, and there’s a good reason for that. “Since Scoregasm,” Knight tells me, “I've not always been terribly well.” Illness is why we haven’t seen much from Knight since.
Knight had been working on a sequel to Irukandji which never saw the light of day as well as a sequel to Scoregasm. What happened to Son of Scoregasm? “I've actually got the completed sequel finished for the PS Vita and PC platforms, but I've not put it out yet due to financial constraints.”
It’s not all bad news. We did see a new title from Knight towards the end of last year, something called DEATHBASE 900,000,000, which is described as “an Atari VCS inspired collect-em-up”. According to Knight, it’s a test game for a cross-platform framework he is currently working on.
If all goes well, maybe we’ll finally see that Scoregasm sequel after all.
One week later and Proteus has charmed me; I wrote For A Few Explorers More about it. The only way I could think of persuading people to get involved was to submerge the visuals and concentrate on the experience; to this end, I recorded audio of my 3-year old playing Proteus with me. This video was pretty popular and I only recently discovered that something my son says was used as the description for the game’s Playstation trophy Find The Hidden Door: “We have to find the door, daddy.”
After this I was happy to get involved in beta testing Proteus which was still very much in development. I mailed back and forth with Proteus developer Ed Key quite a bit after this, eager to see the new builds. (I recall we discussed plenty about how strongly to signpost the portal to cross seasons.) I even interviewed him in a Neolithic tomb and that’s not something I do for just any developer, no sir.
Now even though I am talking about Ed Key today, you really should not mention Proteus without talking about David Kanaga, who was the perfect musical partner for the project. Proteus is a game by Ed Key and David Kanaga; it is not a game by Ed Key with music provided by David Kanaga.
Anywho, Proteus was the kind of game that got called into every “what is gaem” fistfight going.
“Proteus is not gaem”
“Proteus is gaem”
“Your mom is gaem”
It got a bit boring at times. But in the enlightened age of 2016, we don’t argue wot is gaem or even if gaem is art. No, no one ever brings that up any more.
The development seemed to be going so well that Key went full-time indie. Proteus was finally released for PC at the start of 2013 with Linux and Playstation versions coming later in the year. But things have been pretty quiet since then.
After all this time, the question at the forefront of my mind is… what happened to the Proteus Artifact Edition? This was a deluxe edition of Proteus available for pre-order. It’s now four years since those pre-orders were made and they’re still, well, missing in action. Will we ever see the Artifact Edition? “Yes, I think so!” Key says. “It's been so long... We did little bursts of work on it last year, and we're now just waiting for a proof copy from the printers. I'm not sure what the turnaround time is after that.”
When asked about how things have been since the launch of Proteus, Key offers, “OK! Well, strange, in that it doesn't feel like I've done much but objectively I have, including bits of Proteus maintenance, Artifact edition work - desperately spread out - and over the last one and half years working on Forest of Sleep. Or 'Folktale Game' as we called it for most of that.”
Forest of Sleep is the project that Key is working on with Nicolai Troshinsky, which is described as “an experimental storytelling/adventure game inspired by Eastern European fairytales.” Having not seen the game, I’d rather not be drawn too deeply into explaining exactly what it is. I can say that it seems to be another attempt to do storytelling without text.
Key adds, “It feels like Nicolai and I are just getting to the real core of the dynamic/formulaic/procedural story-building system. We've had several false-starts on it, but the balance is tipping towards ‘promising and feasible’ from ‘vague and what-even-is-it’. For weird reasons we ended up doing some of these pre-production and prototyping steps back-to-front, but it should come together.
“Running out of money might start to be a factor this year, but we have a few funding options that we're pursuing.”