Level With Me is a series of interviews with game developers about their games, work process, and design philosophy. At the end of each interview, they design part of a small first person game. You can play this game at the very end of the series.
Liz Ryerson is a game developer and composer based in Oakland, California. She did music for Dys4ia, Crypt Worlds, and MirrorMoon EP. Most recently, she made Problem Attic, a 2D platformer about real and imaginary prisons. Oh, and she also blogs about level design in Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, among other things.
[some talk about Indiecade and festivals that honestly wasn’t too interesting; but then we started talking about an “indie scene”…]
Robert Yang: Yeah, sometimes I feel pretty distant from game culture. That’s normal, right?
Liz Ryerson: Yes. I’ve always felt like an outsider. I’ve always had this notion that I have to “make it.” It’s been hard for me to realize that it’s more about just doing what I like. I still have this idea that there’ll be this “big explosion” where everything will fall into place for me, but maybe it won’t happen.
RY: I was at one event where my friends heard someone gasp, “oh my god, that’s Robert Yang.” Am I a D-list games celebrity now? Explosions are bittersweet, it’s weird to realize when your dynamic in a community is changing, especially when you used to feel alienated from that culture, or maybe when you didn’t but now you do.
LR: Well, I’ve been trying to write things that are critical of game culture. To an extent, I want some people to look at me with, like, disdain —
LR: … but at the same time I also want people to say, “oh hey Liz!” Deep down, I think I’m usually willing to talk to anyone. But sometimes people aren’t even comfortable talking about these things. There are things that you can’t say, there are these rivalries…
I was fairly active on a site called Overclocked Remix for a period of time, and back then I knew DannyB, who did the music for Super Meat Boy, etc. Most of the reason I got involved with indie stuff was because DannyB was saying, “you should totally do music for games, it’s great.”
We all still see each other and talk, but when we do, it feels awkward. The more I speak out against this culture, the more I’m alienated from them. Not just DannyB but also Disasterpeace, and Ben Prunty (who did the music for FTL) used to be a big fan of my music. I don’t dislike them, but it feels like there are things you can’t say around them… because they’re successful? I don’t know exactly how to put that.
RY: I get that. But is it unfair to expect that it wouldn’t be like that? Isn’t it like that anywhere, with anything?
LR: Kind of. There are people who care less about money, like Michael [Brough], or us… I mean, I care about money on some level; I’d like to not have to sleep on the floor of my friend’s house. But as far as doing what I want — I feel pretty good about that.
RY: I’m probably not going to quit my day job anytime soon. Making and selling games isn’t going to “sustain” me in the way that it does for others.
LR: That’s part of why I tried to start writing about games. And then I got depressed. I decided that if I really want to do this, then I need to make it work, and my idea of success is being able to pay rent somewhere in the Bay Area if possible, which is really expensive.
Maybe I should focus more on my music and performing? I could DJ and perform and get money from doing that. Also, I’m doing music for a few games, and I might get a small percentage from those. I feel like my own games aren’t going to go anywhere. It’s overwhelming and depressing, and I’m just trying to get out of that mode. Like when I write something very critical, do I have the strength to keep going and not doubt myself? It’s hard.
RY: You’ll be fine. You can do it.
LR: I hope so. I’ve made lots of plans. I’m going to go to a bunch of games events. I’m going to be around, I’m going to be visible. The end result of that can’t be bad anyway? Just showing up is important.
RY: I like that. “Just showing up is important.”
LR: But a lot of people can’t afford to do that. Either they don’t know the right people to help them out, or they don’t have the money (which I don’t either)… You also have to be in the right place in the world. Like, if you’re in Europe — there are games events in Europe — but you’re more likely to miss other events like Indiecade or GDC if you don’t have the budget to fly over [to California.]
RY: But the indie culture there in Europe is nice too. When I went to GDC Europe last year, it felt different somehow, like we were all talking to each other more.
LR: Less of a competition?
RY: Yeah, maybe?
LR: I like Bay Area indies, and obviously I like Anna [Anthropy’s] games, but I feel my approach to design is more similar to UK indies like Increpare or Terry [Cavanagh].
RY: I like a lot of the UK indie work, and how they handle abstraction and complexity, but at the same time, I feel like I could never make games like that. Like your Problem Attic? It asks so much of the player. I could never make a game like that.
LR: My perspective’s changed a lot, even in the past few years, in terms of what games stimulate me? Initially Braid was that game for me, but also Yume Nikki. Have you played that?
LR: It’s an RPGMaker game. (My theory is that the author might be trans, but they never specify a gender and that’s only a theory.) Anyway, you play as this little girl in her apartment, and the only thing you can do is to go to sleep. Every time you sleep, there are all these different doors to different parts of your subconscious. The first few stages are these very abstract maps that loop on themselves and you just wander and collect items. Gradually, things get less abstract, and more suggestive of what the girl is going through.
My games are influenced by that: Responsibilities is about wandering in a hellscape of your own making, and Problem Attic has some basic platforming but after a while you gain the ability to walk through walls sometimes —
RY: Why sometimes?
LR: Well, it’s hard to explain. [SPOILERS FOR PROBLEM ATTIC:] There’s a part where the title screen repeats again, except it’s in a different color and it glitches out. Some people thought that was the end of the game when it was actually only a third of the way through. And then it sends you into the walls, back into the overworld, and the first stage — in it, there’s some text that says, “Go fuck yourself,” which felt like the right thing to say — and then you realize the screen wraps too. There’s some sort of build-up that goes on. You end up going through all the previous stages, but with different solutions. I don’t think these are that random; some people have completed the game, I know these puzzles are solvable.
I want to suggest something that you know on an intuitive level, but not on a conscious level. Maybe like David Lynch’s work — upsetting but in a way that you don’t exactly don’t know why. Now I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time on making this game and most people aren’t going to get past the first half hour.
RY: I was one of those people. Sorry.
LR: No, it’s fine, a lot of my friends were those people. My goal was to submit Problem Attic to Indiecade and a lot of festivals, but I realized it’s probably not going to be understood. The presentation is kind of weird and maybe “amateur-ish”, which puts some people off. Again, Michael Brough makes Corrypt and all these amazing games and has these people say it’s brilliant but the graphics seem so amateurish, even though his style is so completely realized in a lot of ways… And if they don’t get that, they’re not going to get my work either. They don’t see it. It upsets me that this thing that I made is just going to disappear. I want to make more stuff, but then I get so emotionally invested in it.
RY: If people aren’t getting it, is that a sign to maybe… compromise, a little?
LR: [appalled] No! That just seems so wrong.
RY: [backpedaling] Like, don’t compromise a lot, but maybe compromise a little?
LR: I think people have to go into my game while also wanting to go into my game. You need a certain state of mind, you need to want to play a puzzle platformer where all you do is jump.
RY: But your game isn’t just a puzzle platformer. It’s a “hellscape” characterized by uncertainty that “makes you upset and you don’t know why.” People have an idea of what David Lynch offers them, but here, is anyone going to say, “boy howdy I feel like getting upset for some unknowable reason, so I’m going to go play…”
LR: When Lynch released Eraserhead, it was this big midnight movie, a spectacle. I feel like the things we react to in games, are very much on the surface, and there’s no space for Increpare-style freakouts? Like if there’s just a few things that are “off”, then players dismiss it and don’t look any further. I’ve written blog posts about this but there’s only so much you can do.
RY: I’ve written those posts, and I’m sure Jonathan Blow has written posts like that too. “Don’t you get what I’m saying with my work? Why aren’t more people playing this?” Then I think, if everyone in the world is saying my game is not that good, then there’s a strong possibility that it wasn’t really that good? Isn’t that the most direct explanation?
LR: I don’t agree. Maybe it just means you’re not around the people with the right mindset and you should find those people. There’s also oversaturation, where some people get really cynical about things. I wish I wasn’t so cynical. We need to get work outside of a bubble of game designers who filter work from a technical perspective, we need more emotional response.
RY: This is something I struggle with, and something a lot of indies (and, uh, all humans) struggle with — in the absence of spectacular success, how do you know if you’re making good work?
LR: Your work is good if you’re satisfied with it and if you’re not a sociopath. If you made something that expresses what you wanted it to, and people don’t appreciate it, then maybe it’s because they don’t have the right lens to appreciate it. You should offer them a lens. When people make fun of Jonathan Blow for doing that, I think I actually empathize more with him, that feeling that no one else is really getting where you’re coming from.
RY: That seems true to me. I usually want to be understood… but do you think, like, Michael Brough cares whether people understand him?
LR: I don’t think he does. There’s plenty of stuff that the current culture isn’t going to recognize right now.
RY: I wish I could be more stoic like him and ignore my desperate need for validation.
LR: Me too. I’m in the same boat.
RY: We should meditate more.
LR: That’s what David Lynch does! He says it “increases his capacity to understand.”
RY: Adam Cadre talked about how he went to this 10 day sleep-away meditation camp. You get up at 4 AM, sleep at 6 PM, and all you do is meditate all day. He had trouble staying awake. The advice he got was to “contemplate the inevitability of death.” Maybe anxiety is our form of meditation?
RY: I’d like to talk about your Wolfenstein 3D criticism, which I found really powerful because I remember it as a game about running into rooms and shooting, but it’s actually a tactical stealth puzzle game?
LR: I exaggerate those qualities a little. The variation and depth comes more from the sheer amount of levels in this game — 60 levels total. That’s a lot of levels.
RY: But it was only 3 chapters of 10 levels each, at first?
LR: Well, all of it was made roughly at the same time. They just split it into two parts more as a marketing thing. Each level was also made very quickly.
RY: They made one level a day, right? That’s soooo fast.
LR: But if you ever made a Wolf3D level before, you’d know that’s possible. Tom Hall and John Romero also designed the Commander Keen levels, and those were made really quickly too. I think that philosophy goes into what Wolf3D is and how it works. They just did it.
RY: Now, the popular legacy of Wolfenstein 3D is…
LR: It’s mostly based on the first episode of the game, the shareware episode that everyone played. The first episode is very different, design-wise, from the rest of the game. It was all originally going to be a stealth game, and the original Wolfenstein was a stealth game too. You could drag bodies around. And I can see in the first episode that a lot of the levels were built to support that; they’re big, with a lot of areas that kind of look like a castle that could exist, maybe? These massive prison labyrinths that have a solution path that ignores 75% of the level.
Then, I think with the other episodes, they decided that it was more of an action game. And that sort of freed them in a way, to let them do crazier designs than in the first episode. So naturally the people who played only the first episode, they focused more on the fact that you could walk around and shoot people from a first person perspective.
RY: I also didn’t know you could strafe in Wolf3D. To me, that changed the dynamic of it a lot. Suddenly you’re not limited by the slow turning speed. Your relationship with line of sight is different, you can “slice the pie” around a corner.
LR: Well, a lot of the strategy just involves opening a door, shooting in the air, and then waiting for the guards to come to you. But in the editor, you can make the guards deaf so they can’t be baited, so that you have to walk in and clear the room piece-by-piece. There’s a really good example of this in E5M1 by John Romero.
There, the last room is a hallway where you can see the exit door right in front of you, but there are also all these alcoves with deaf guards. There’s a temptation to run forward, but you can’t here, because you actually need to edge forward slowly and clear out the guards. “Can I go further yet or can I not?” I think Romero had more of that kind of thinking about level design than Tom Hall. It’s more about putting the player in these tactical moments.
RY: But doesn’t that seem random and inconsistent, or artificial? If I shot into the room and saw no soldiers come out, then I would assume there are no soldiers there, and feel like the game lied to me randomly? You can’t do that today.
LR: They put enough deaf guards in earlier missions that you know they could still be there. Presumably, the backstory is that these guards just don’t want to abandon their post. In the end, none of this backstory really matters, but I like that there’s this historical premise with a wacky design philosophy that, oddly, seems appropriate at the same time.
RY: Yes, I like how surreal it feels, sometimes.
LR: There’s a great example of surreal level design in E4M3.
RY: There’s that room that is *just* doors.
LR: Yeah, and it’s disorienting because there’s no frame of reference to know where you came from. I could tell some parts of the map involved Tom Hall thinking, “oh, that’s a cool idea,” and putting that in.
He plays a lot with expectations. This level also has a lot of stuff on the side that seems significant… like there’s a silver key. In one of the main menu recorded demos, you can see the demo player pick up the silver key. So when you play, you pick up the key, and then go through a couple doors, only to realize that key doesn’t work there. Maybe it opens something else? But it actually doesn’t open ANYTHING on the map.
RY: It’s totally useless.
LR: In any other level, it would’ve been important for some secret, but not here. I like the idea of looking for a secret that isn’t really there. A lot of people would say that’s bad design, but here it was just so intentionally done. I doubt he just forgot to add a silver door for the silver key. Regardless of the intent anyway, this was the end result. There’s also a huge grid of lights. What the hell is that? Even the decoration of the room makes you question what is going on.
RY: You feel really vulnerable.
LR: Yeah, and when you step forward, some officers come out and shoot you, and you can’t even see them before. That’s the philosophy of design in, like, every Doom level.
RY: To me, the grid of lights was maybe the designer saying, “I know this is making you nervous, and something bad is going to happen.”
LR: In Doom there were so many moments like that, where you pick up a key and then a trap door or trap wall opens with monsters. It happens so much. Some Doom mods do a good job of deconstructing your expectations that way.
RY: It’s a conceptual framework for surprise.
LR: It’s still a very game-y framework though. You still know every level involves you picking up a key to get to the exit to get to the next level, and nothing is going to happen in-between that to put that in jeopardy.
RY: Except in your analysis of E4M5?
LR: Right. The fact that this very important key was behind a secret door — that was pretty strange. But even then, you know there’s an exit that goes to the next level. The episode won’t suddenly end or put you two levels ahead. The set of verbs remains pretty constant. I think that’s why a lot of gamers are comfortable with variation but not disruption. In Mario games, you know you just basically have to collect powerups and then run and jump to the exit.
What really surprised me was in Deus Ex 1, when you get captured in a prison, then escape, only to come out of a door that you never really noticed in the other side of the UNATCO building. It was a weirdly significant moment for me. The narratives and the rules were all being called into question.
RY: Yeah, it’s interesting when these kind of rules and patterns get broken? I thought I was going to just keep going back to UNATCO HQ to report, to brief and debrief, in that pattern, etc.
LR: I tried to like Deus Ex 3, but I gave up on it.
RY: It was okay. It always had a stealth path, a conversation path, etc. and everything was well-lit and clearly marked and knowable. Maybe the problem was that Deus Ex 3 rarely broke its own rules.
RY: Okay, so let’s talk about what you’d like to add or change in this game…
LR: Hmm. Well, the world you start on is very blue, and then you go to the red planet — and what if the red planet turns everything red? You could just grab onto the planet and then it sends you —
RY: Wait, like, grab the planet through the periscope?
LR: Yeah, that seems like the most intuitive thing to do here.
RY: I’ll put an invisible lever on the front of the periscope, so it’ll seem like you’re grabbing the planet.
LR: And then you’re in this red version of the room you were in before.
RY: How will the player know they can do all this? It doesn’t look like the other things they’ve been grabbing.
LR: It could play a sound when the planet is centered. And also your cursor will change. I think that’ll be enough? And then it could make a woosh sound! And send you into a red sandy desert-y version of your old world, the room with the periscope. And in the other direction, there’s this bright light, and that’s as far as you can go. There will be all these windy sounds or sand sounds. You can also see another periscope that looks like the one you just used, but you can’t get to it. You can see it through a window?
RY: And when you see it through this window, you’ll try to walk to it, but you end up walking into the light?
LR: And maybe the light “takes you” sooner than you can get there. If you’re close enough, and you look into it, then it automatically just goes woosh —
RY: — and “takes me.”
LR: Yeah. And make it so you can’t see the light until after you’ve seen the other periscope? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
RY: What does matter?
LR: [pauses] The fact that I’m hungry.
RY: Thanks for your time.
This transcript was edited for clarity and length.