Next in our series of firesideless chats with the developers of PC games nominated for an award at this year’s Independent Games Festival, it’s Michael ‘Smestorp’ Brough talking about his signature, haunting ‘glitch’ style, why he will continue to resist convention, his mixed feelings about the nomination and which of his two nominated games, Corrypt and 868-HACK, he’s most interested in.
RPS: Can you tell me a little about the ‘glitch’ style you’ve applied to several of your recent games – how would you describe it yourself? Is it more a visual signature, or designed to create a certain feel or atmosphere, or is there some other reason entirely?
It’s probably a consequence of spending too much time immersed in computers; I’m just depicting what the world around me is like.
Also it’s often a convenient way to explain unusual rules. Like in Helix it illustrates a mechanical inversion – when you see the glitch enemy it’s very distinct so it’s clear that it’s not going to play by the same rules as everything else. In Glitch Tank – why can’t you just drive your tank however you want? Obviously the real reason is because that made for a great game, but intuitively “because it’s glitchy” bypasses that question. And then of course Corrypt tries to make a narrative thing out of it, using it to represent something supernatural, a destructive external force; maybe that’s a bit obvious but I think it works well there. Also I occasionally get messages from people who think they’ve found a bug in the game, which is always fun. (fun when it’s not a real bug. real bugs aren’t fun.)
RPS: I’ve found your recent games make me feel sort of… haunted, like I’ve been sent somewhere terrible and need to somehow find a way out. (But in an impressive way, one that lingers long in the mind). How much, if at all, is that your intention? Or have I totally misread ’em and I was supposed to feel incredibly jolly?
I guess I’m kind of tackling the easier problems first? I’d love to make something joyful one day but it seems very difficult to do that in a way that isn’t shallow and saccharine.
Or I don’t know, maybe this is just what I’m like.
RPS: Even in the face of what seemed like a successful 2013, your games seem to be retaining a distinctive unusualness. How deliberate is this? Has there been pressure – be it external or internal – to pursue more, for lack of a better word, conventional fare now indie can be such big business?
As long as I’m making games on my own they’re going to be “unusual”, because I’m putting myself into them and nobody else is. We’re used to seeing games made by many people, and that tends to pull them towards the centre as they try to find something everyone on the team can agree on (and in the hope of being able to pay everyone). But this is how I want to work right now, I can try whatever I’m interested in, I can be erratic and unreliable without hurting anyone else, and I like to think there’s something positive about having the same personality show through every part of a game even though that means not being able to spend as long polishing every component as someone dedicated to just that could do.
I feel like I’ve gone quite far enough in the direction of making conventional marketable work for now, I need to do something much weirder next.
RPS: 868-HACK seemed like a bit of a breakout hit – what’s your take on why that was?
It’s sold almost 8000 copies, I think that might not technically be a “hit” but it’s way better than my previous games and quite enough for me to keep going on (plus I haven’t released it on PC yet, I need to get around to that). Each game I release has been getting more attention than the previous, but this was definitely a bigger jump than the others. Probably everyone who’d heard of me and was waiting for me to eventually put out something polished and accessible gave up and figured this was the best they were going to get.
Also roguelikes are big right now?
RPS: 868-Hack was nominated in the ‘Excellence in Design’ category. Corrypt, a nother of your creations, is nominated in the Nuovo category. If you had to kill one of the games and erase the memory of its existence, which would you choose?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Corrypt just went ahead and wrote itself out of existence sometime anyway. I wouldn’t mind too much: 868-HACK I made for myself to play, and I’m still enjoying it / Corrypt I made for the process of making it, I enjoyed that at the time but it’s of little value to me now. I might just end up making it again though.
RPS: Do you think ‘puzzle game’ is a fair description? If Corrypt came in a box, what would you like as the blurb or bullet point feature list?
I’ve seen a few complaints from people who seemed to have an ideal of what a puzzle game ought to be and were upset when Corrypt didn’t fit into that – it has chaos and hidden information, the rooms aren’t neatly compartmentalised but sometimes bleed into each other, there’s no guarantee that all situations you encounter can be solved. So I don’t know, definitely it draws from puzzle games and references them but maybe that’s not the best description overall? Don’t try to put it in a box.
RPS: How do you feel about the IGF, and being nominated?
I feel a bit weird about the whole thing. I’ve entered these competitions quite a few times, but now I’ve reached a point where I’m fairly well known among people working in games. And so I have to wonder how much of the difference now is that the judges know my name, have seen me at events, and are prepared to give my games more of a chance because of that? I feel like the exact same games without a reputation preceding them probably wouldn’t have been nominated, and that unsettles me. (I absolutely don’t meant to criticise individual judges here, I know they put in a lot of work, but it’s really hard to escape our biases.)
Um, but apart from that I’m pretty happy about it, I’ve been putting a lot into this game-making thing and getting recognition for it helps me feel like I haven’t been wasting my time. I mean, I don’t need external validation for what I do but it helps.
RPS: Which other nominated games do you want to see go home with prizes this year?
I haven’t played many of them. I don’t play lots of different games and keep up with all the new releases, I mostly pick a few to go deep on – recently that’s been Dota 2 and Netrunner. Plus I’ve been working too much on my own stuff, and trying to spend a bit of time not on games, so I’ve fallen way behind.
If pressed I’d say Soundself and Towerfall because I’ve tried them, I like them, and (ulterior motive) I want their genres to be fed. But it’s really not fair without playing the games they’re up against.