Interview – The Body and Spirit in Anodyne 2

This interview of me originally appeared on Ludica mag. I answered in English and the interview was translated to Italian. https://www.ludicamag.com/il-corpo-e-lo-spirito-in-anodyne-2-return-to-dust/

I’ve reproduced my original English answers below.

Ludica Mag: The first Anodyne was a Zelda-like RPG (being it based on puzzle-solving) a bit extrovert (like Undertale) and a bit weird (like Lisa). (Do you agree with this description?) Anodyne 2 is a very different game: how did you work to expand the original concept in this direction?

Sean: I think Anodyne 1 is a game that, despite its flaws, has a very unique atmosphere that very few games have come close to replicating. What we borrowed from Anodyne 1 was symbolism through the dust, a generally fantastical and at times tense atmosphere, and the general surreal juxtaposition of the game’s levels. In Anodyne 2, we combined this surrealism with a story conceit: the areas are so vastly different, because they are the interiors of characters. We aimed to keep that surreal, whimsical feel, but make the game far more communicative with the player on a narrative level.

L: Playing Anodyne 2, I find it a very original gaming experience. How did you ‘give birth’ to this story about the dust, the vacuum cleaner, a 3D world that contains 2D worlds that sometimes contains other 2D lower-res worlds? It’s something at the same time viscerally bodily (since Nova physically enters the 3D bodies to access the 2D worlds), powerfully metaphorical (everybody has its interior life) and very speculative, as imagining other dimensions can be (from the 2D world of Flatland to the 26 dimensions of the Bosonic String Theory!).

S: Marina had a prototype of a platformer where you shifted between 3 sizes. Dust came from Anodyne 1, Vacuum Cleaner came from an ‘evolution’ of Anodyne 1’s broom. We generally like to find some sort of ‘traditional’ game mechanic that makes the game interesting enough in a tactile way to pull the player through the game’s story, and vacuuming/sucking worked (a bit inspired by Kirby.)

From there we brainstormed certain ideas we wanted to explore with the Anodyne series’ surreal landscapes – eventually we came to the idea of putting the ‘action’ into 2D and the exploration into 3D – thus taking advantages of the efficiencies of both visual formats. 3D is easier to quickly make a vast feeling world, 2D is easier to create little one-off action sequences or dungeons.

At the same time, we came up with the story themes we were interested in – the trappings of religious or familial structure, the power of communities, and used that to build the core story of The Center and Nova, exploring the island, etc. The ‘shrinking’ idea ended up being a great way not only to tie the process of ‘cleaning’ into the main story, but a fun way to create self-contained substories that were also interesting on their own.

LM: There’s lot of existential /metaphysical /religious (C Psalmist!) references in this game. Many NPCs wonder about their place in the world, their past lives, and their destiny. I’d like to hear more on this topic.

S: For the NPCs you clean we generally started with the thematic framework of: early NPCs would have very ‘straightforward’ cleanings, though they wouldn’t quite be fixed of their problems. Blue Vale NPCs would be more complicated… cleaning wouldn’t change much of anything. As the game goes on we wanted to draw more complications with the idea that ‘fixing’ someone can be something that’s straightforward.

The general existential tone and quirky NPCs is a tonal choice we use for the Anodyne series – it fits into the vastly diverse landscapes and levels.

The religious ideas mainly come from Marina, partly from her background of being raised Christian, the various literature she read growing up, and extensive experience with the Bible. Generally Anodyne 2 deals a lot with considering how to deal with your life under certain social structures, and ‘religion’ is a common one to think about. There’s also the general notion of control with The Center, or corporate working life with C Visionary.

L: The 3D world has a graphic that reminds me of the first PlayStation games. This is interesting (on Ludica there’s an old article that invites the developers to keep exploring the aesthetic of polygons in the first 3D games, comparing them to the brutalist architecture and its exposure of structural elements), so I’d like to ask a) the reason of this choice and b) how you designed the world (also with which development tools) and c) if you were inspired by any particular game.

S: a) We think it looks good, and it’s also faster to make. It also works well with the surreal setting we have – it’s easier to convince people they’re in a fantastical place, as their brain has to do the job of filling in some details. It’s like how a visual novel screen can be really, really tense and immersive… just with words and a single image! Other reasons: art and level design workflows with HD art quickly become too hard for small teams, and also, it’s a lot easier to make a visually unique game with ‘lo-fi’ art.

b) The world was designed based on the story’s needs – as Nova becomes more complicated of a character, the world and levels almost seem to fall apart and break logic in the Outer Sands. Cleaning becomes a much more morally dubious affair. Earlier in the story, when Nova has a simple mission and thought process, the levels are almost too straightforward (Cenote).

For making them, Unity and Blender. 3D worlds I’d sometimes block out in Unity, or sketch on paper, then Marina would create the final 3D area using tools or whatever, adding decoration. Same with 2D areas, but using tilemap systems. We’d always have visual moodboards/discussion of the area before Marina created final art or I created music.

c) We were inspired by many games for small aspects (e.g. some visual ideas borrowed from Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shadow of the Colossus. Some game ideas from 2D zeldas, Kirby. Story tone ideas from Nier, LUCAH), but of course for the more innovative ideas (streamlining a game across a 3D world, designing how exactly 2D/3D works) we had to innovate and figure that out ourselves. Our inspirations list is quite large and spans not just film, literature or games, but also experiences in real life communities or friend groups, etc. So, I would say there isn’t one influence that takes precedence over the other. We tend to use influences more like moodboards, vs. worshipping/paying homage to one platonic ideal game.

L: What about the choice to insert some meta content in the form of commentaries and prototypes?

S: It’s good for developers to be transparent about how games are made, so I always look for nice ways to fit unused content into a game. The way some developers want to create this perfect, 1 hour condensed experience with no flaws is a little odd to me – games are imperfect and a sort of taped-together medium… I think it’s important to reveal how humans are behind each game.

In our case, Metaclean framework also gave an opportunity to enhance the story ideas of C Visionary and motivation. I also want to explore the idea of ‘canon’ existing in works like games… to suggest the idea of there being a ‘grey canon’ where certain parts of the game are both true and not true. A bit of the extra areas like no such scene goes into this – the idea that you can choose to read some of the extra areas as ‘canon’, or not. While obviously I want to include a ‘canon’ story, I do think there are interesting thematic things you can do by including story elements that don’t cleanly fit in, leaving some room for interpretation. I don’t always like doing that with games, but it does work in some cases like Anodyne 2. A game is a bizarre, bizarre thing. There are so many aspects that are never explained or make sense in games. Why can Nova double jump? Where do those coins go? So it feels natural to extend those questions to the written story itself.

L: The meta game content also refers to the need to contain the budget, and now I’m dreaming of what this game – which is really great as it is – would have been if you had unlimited funds. There’s something important that you could not develop?

S: Something I think about a lot is my philosophy of releasing games. Is it better to release two games in a decade, or 10? I believe it’s 10. Or 20. I think art that takes forever to come out is inherently flawed, it presupposes that there are fixed truths to the world that can be spoken at any point in time and hold power, if the developer only spends enough time and money on it. A game that takes 5 years to come out – certainly it might be ‘good’, but there will be an inherent mismatch between the social situation of its release period, and its development. That is, if the developer is even thinking about these things, which often they are not.

Er, that is to say: If we hire a person, they can 1. help us make the game bigger in the same amount of time. Or, they can 2. help us make the same-sized game faster. I don’t think #1 makes sense. Anodyne 2 would overstay its welcome. If the game had a structure/pacing which was longer, maybe #1 would make sense. But I like 8-10 hour games.

#2 is a valid use. If we had unlimited funds, surely we could make Anodyne 2 sized games faster. Yet… they would be fundamentally different, shifted by the bigger team of 3 or 4. Of course, Marina and I could completely direct this new team member, but it feels better to let them contribute equally. There’s also a danger with more labor, and it’s that you won’t be making as many interesting design compromises or simplifications. A lot of our game’s unique identities come from us working as two and needing to simplify and strip things down, vs. just ‘okay’-ing everything because you have the labor to do it.

So, I think that potentially I might one day entertain working with 3 or 4 people, but not soon. We don’t have the money, and seeking funding makes life just a bit more complicated than I’d like. It creates higher sales goals, too, which compromise the decisions we can make with the game. I’m happy if people can make interesting games with teams of 3 or 4 or more, but it doesn’t seem the right path for us now.

L: The soundtrack is beautiful and is perfect for the scenarios it accompanies: how did you work on the music of Anodyne 2?

S: I made it with Ableton Live. I usually use Ableton’s built-in synthesizers to create my own instruments, or sample manipulation, which is how I achieve a unique sound. There’s a lot of factors I consider when making a song, but generally I think about what aspects of the visuals, the story, the gameplay – of a certain level – that I can enhance with the music. Then I draw upon my knowledge of music to try and find reference songs that have aspects of them that would fit my goals, and I borrow from those references and mix them and come up with a new idea. Sometimes this is as little as a 4-second percussion sound in a song, or sometimes it’s as big as a chord progression… what can be useful is often unexpected, so it’s important to listen to a lot more music than just Chrono Trigger, haha. I try to draw in a lot of influences. I think fans understand that, but my music rarely gets praised via awards or blog posts or whatever, even though it’s better than a lot of music that does win awards! Oh well, that’s okay – I’ll just keep making good music… hahaha!

Why Anodyne 2 Is Not A Niche Game

At last, I can breathe! Anodyne 2’s been out for almost 3 weeks. The excitement and stress has died down, and I’ve returned to more of a ‘research’ and  ‘planning’ phase for my next project.

First, I’m happy that Anodyne 2 has had universal praise. Countless videos, podcasts, streams, tweets, comments, etc – confirm that Marina and I succeeded in creating something valuable, unique, inspiring, humanistic. Something that communicates at the surface as a fantastical tale, but directly draws upon our experience with family, love, and our lives’ overlaps with the worlds of academia, the art industry, local activism, service industry, and even things from analyses of wrestling to Taiwanese cultural practices.

Soo….that post title. “Anodyne 2 Is Not A Niche Game.” What do I mean? Let’s put the focus on something that people who like the game have also said:

“Anodyne 2 is niche / Anodyne 2 is not for everyone”

We see this sometimes when reading reviews. Occasionally it’s at the end of a review that gave us like a 73 or something and then said the music was pretty bad, or like at the end of a highly praising review that then somehow turns out to be an 82 even though on the same site an AAA game with ‘a few flaws’ gets a 96, but sometimes we hear it from people who otherwise like the game!

Our running theory is that this is a way of expressing that you liked the game but inherently understand that the game is odd relative to today’s popular games.

To that line of thought, I’d like to also ask: what kind of game is “for everyone?” For what it’s worth, I’d like to assume for that something “not being niche” means it’s “for everyone”. I can see how that assumption falls apart but let’s just assume it doesn’t, because I’m tired.

Usually the type of game being contrasted here is something made by Nintendo – something that’s so well-known, so common, that we don’t really question the nature of it, we accept it as is, accept it as being the norm. Okay. Let’s do a quick comparison experiment, of Anodyne 2, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Animal Crossing. In my experience I’ve never or rarely seen someone (being reasonable) say the last three “Are not for everyone” or “are niche”.

 

CONTROLS

Ano2: Move, jump, spark, talk, turn into a car. Also has 2D controls: move, suck, shoot, talk.

BOTW: Move, jump, attack, pick up, talk, glide, super jump, bow and arrow, throwing, swimming, etc, often under combat pressure.

Odyssey: Move, jump, long jump, high jump, triple jump, hat throw, hat jump, spin, not to mention 10 other movesets from things you possess. Often under pressure to perform with platforming.

AC: Move, jump, talk, pickup, arrange furniture.

 

GAME DESIGN

Ano2: Talk to characters, find character to enter, walk around a 2D dungeon with light puzzles and combat. Explore 3D to find cards. Turn into a car and ride around. Follow a single main questline. Read a lot of words.

BOTW: Manage health, temperature, armor, durability resources. Scavenge and craft for items. Manage multiple overlapping side quests and questlines. Fight in real-time combat. Search for shrines with physics or combat puzzles. Survive. Ride a horse. Explore dungeons that move and rotate in 3D. Talk to townsfolk. Complex, multi-detail-layered map. Read a moderate number of words.

Odyssey: Explore complex 3D environments in search of Moons. Use many moves to find them. Avoid dying by falling into pits or being hurt. Fight bosses in real time combat. Read map markers and follow side quests. Read a few words.

AC: Manage your time and money resources to accumulate the correct furniture and items to decorate one’s house with. Meet and manage relationships with multiple townspeople while also paying off a loan. Search for items to complete museum galleries with. Engage in t-shirt making and maybe the stalk market.

Note: AC is less demanding dexterity wise than A2, but I’d say AC has more complex things to remember.

 

PLAYTIME

A2: 8-12 hours.

BOTW: 50-60+ hours.

Odyssey: 20+ hours.

AC: Eternity, if you’d like.

An interesting thing to notice is that rarely someone might say Anodyne 2 had poor pacing… because we changed the texture of the gameplay for 45 minutes. But inherent in here is that for some reason, indie games don’t get free passes to be spend time in certain ways. Sure, an AAA game can blow 2 hours on like making you talk to every single minor character in the game before progressing, but if we don’t get our pacing perfectly right for a little bit it’s a tragic misstep or something!

Story Complexity

A2: Straightforward storyline, themes complex enough for adults.

BOTW: Multiple characters and historical storyline, though still simple.

Odyssey: There is no story, until you read into The Cap

AC: None since it’s a life sim, other than the story you craft yourself about the town

While A2 is more inaccessible reading-wise than the other games I chose here, and I have read various valid and interesting critiques of the plot, it’s not like this is a unique problem – there are plenty of popular JRPGS with complex writing/reading (Nier Automata, Final Fantasy 10, etc).

Someone said the story in Anodyne 2 is confusing, and, besides the fact that it is remarkably straightforward, have you played Dark Souls (which I love) and see what *that* game’s vague story gets away with being praised for?


To me, it seems like those other games generally have more complex requirements and expectations. Anodyne 2 on the other hand is much more relatively beginner friendly, other than having a lot of words to read.

In conclusion, it may be better to say is that “Anodyne 2 feels unfamiliar, and may be uncomfortable *if* you’re looking for an experience similar to the more popular console games.”

If you’re reading this and did write a review saying niche or ‘not for everyone’… I’m not mad at you personally, please don’t worry! I just wanted to bring up this issue I’ve seen in a few places.

Okay, Sean’s lecture time over! Let’s end with a quick chart to summarize my points. Basically, I do think that what is “for everyone” and what is “not niche” is generally defined by what is selling the most and the most heavily ingrained in our culture, but I find it more valuable to redefine or interrogate what those terms mean.

hardchart.PNG


 

Well, let’s end this with some reviews I quite liked reading.

And some reviews of the OST, a first for me!


Other than that, I did prepare a bunch of data on sales… but nowadays I feel uncomfortable with that level of transparency. So I haven’t decided what/how much data to share, but I will say (giving vague ranges)

  • We’ve sold between 1k-10k copies across all platforms
  • Our Steam wishlist to first week sales conversion rate was about 0.2 (in case you’ve read Jake Birkett’s blog posts)
  • We did a coupon campaign for owners of Anodyne 1 getting discounts on Anodyne 2, where possible. In particular on Steam it drove a lot of sales so I’d recommend it.
  • We paid off our development costs already (a number in-between $40-90k)
  • We’re not, and are nowhere near being indie millionaires
  • We do have middle/upper class backgrounds and should be held accountable for that, should we ever accumulate a ridiculous amount of money or power. I’ve recently amassed a sizeable twitter following so I’m still learning the best way to handle using that outlet since I’m not in the promotional phase for one of my games anymore. My current intuition is it would be better to put our money towards existing game organizing efforts (rebind.io, other criticism sites, perhaps localization funds for non-English games), versus building up Analgesic Productions (our company.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Complex”

Every one of the 80 or so collectible dragon in Spyro the Dragon’s remaster is uniquely modeled and animated. They each appear for about 10 seconds on screen. It’s a fact that these dragons are entirely pointless to the overall game and that the amount of work that went into them borders on reckless.

Recently Marina and I have tossed around the term ‘complexity’ when it comes to making Anodyne 2.

Complexity is easiest to explain on the level of visual art. It’s the trap for beginner game developers, especially those attuned to visual art but not other aspects of design. It happens when any of the following get too big for the artist to handle.

  • Number of art assets in the game (characters, enemies, environment objects)
  • Number of animations per art asset
  • Art style

If there’s too many art assets or animations, each asset takes longer to revise, and overall art production takes longer. Risks a revision. Art style being elaborate just makes that worse. Imagine hand-painted or pixeled backgrounds. The iteration takes a very long time. This is why if you see a game with an extremely complicated art style and a tiny team, you can bet that it is probably not coming out soon, or if it does, its design might suffer given the difficulty of revisions or iterating.

This applies to game design, too. For every thing the player can do, you’ve gotta somehow fit that into your game. That’s something to think about. If it needs to be clearly communicated, is it? More playtesting. More bugs. It also creates tasks for the programmer. Or, it creates art to make or music and sound to make.

It also applies to writing. Too many main characters? Now you have even more plot arcs to write, more cutscenes to make, more balancing to do with where you read them in the game. Oops, now the programmer has to code all these things too! More chances for bugs. More things to tweak. Good luck! You’ll need it. Have fun remembering all this alongside the 100,000 other things in the game.

Now, is it worth working 10 years on a game? I don’t think so.

My game Even the Ocean is a textbook example of this happening, stretching out a game’s development to 3.5 years. By not properly setting a good scope for the game within pre-production, we waffled around, resulting in numerous design, writing, and art revisions. The game was also too big – too many cutscenes, maps, levels, mechanics. If the game was drastically shorter or scoped down, these revisions wouldn’t have been as numerous or time consuming.

I think we’ve recognized this while working on Anodyne 2. I think, inevitably, some things will be and have been more complex than I think necessary. Some steps we’ve taken:

  • No dynamic music (less music and debugging to do.)
  • No autosaving (less bugs related to saving in weird places or at weird times.)
  • No baked lighting (less time spent making art in areas)
  • Very simple combat (simplifies the possibility space for 2D mechanics)
  • Reusable boss patterns (reduces programming time)
  • No collectibles outside those that advance the main game (reduces design, testing, coding, writing time)
  • Removing extra supplementary cutscenes we used to have planned (reduces writing, coding, etc)
  • Some level design tricks which I can’t talk about yet (reduces art time as well as design time and code and everything really)
  • Using Unity, saving tons of time on tools programming
  • Use of ‘fade text’ to simplify and reduce cutscenes and animations. This is the use of fading partially to black and displaying text on top, describing a cutscene, rather than actually programming and animating what the text describes.
  • Few custom shaders (less coding!)
  • Very simple models and textures (quicker art!)
  • Relatively loose main story (after the first hour), meaning the player less often must be guided by hand-crafted cutscenes (less coding, writing, etc!)
  • Few main characters, reducing complexity of the script (easier writing!)
  • Minimal platforming mechanics in 3D, due to the difficulty of debugging 3D physics and camera mechanics. (less coding!)
  • Many NPCs share animations or only have a simple bob. (less art!)
  • Little need for optimization thanks to most Unity scenes being small/separate. (less coding and bugfixing!)

Of course, the game is still ridiculously complicated and stressful to work on! Even with all these simplifications! Part of it is inherent to the genre we picked – a story-driven adventure in 3D and 2D, which often requires lots of unique assets.

But imagine if I had all of the above to worry about, too.

Anodyne 2 wouldn’t be coming out next year, that’s for sure.

Remember, your game doesn’t need to be complex to be good. Your ideal version of your game is not necessarily the minimum it needs to be good.

Also, a lot of this matters less if your game is much shorter. Keep in mind complexity mainly becomes a problem based on how long your game is. Also, this advice probably applies most to games that could be called similar to Anodyne, Even the Ocean, Anodyne 2, All Our Asias. I don’t know how to make an elaborate roguelike game.

A lot of what I’ve outlined above falls into a ‘lo-fi’ production ethos – trying to find shortcuts where possible and work within your capabilities. Trying to work commercially, like with Anodyne 2, does make things harder as we have to make some compromises (like putting in extra polish in parts because it helps with marketing the game). But…

I hope we can deliver Anodyne 2 on time! I’m always worried about it… but at least, this time, I’m thinking about these things.