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!