Hello, punks. All right, settle down, settle down. Jeremy, stop setting chequebooks on fire. Tom, leave those men in suits alone – they’re only trying to find their way back to their deathless horde. Honestly, what am I going to do with you lot? Would you ever stop spitting and kicking and absorbing intellectually acclaimed literature as if it was something you hate but secretly really, really like?
Last week, we spoke about Space Funeral and how the idea behind punk games was not to replace or destroy the legacy of previous developers but only to deliver a swift snotbit to the cheek of established genres. Merely as a symbol of profound respect, you understand.
And what is such a lofty goal without humour? Humour is what allows the punk movement to flourish. Without comedy, how could Space Funeral get its digs in at the genre which gave birth to it? Punk games float all too easily between parody and pastiche. If punk rock music was characterised by an indignant, angry satire, then punk games are characterised by surrealism. They aren’t angry with their forebears, as such. Instead, they find absurdity in everything – whether it’s mixing sexploitation with 80s arcade classics or throwing up some one-click British Games For British Peoples.
The reason so many of these games take the piss out of current or long-gone styles of game is partly because the tools available to the everyman have strict limits. When you use Adventure Game Studio you are shackled – surprise, surprise – by the rules of point and click. But another reason punks take the bickies is simply because they know the tenets of these genres inside-out. Right down to the turn of phrase of every cartoon character. Enter: Snakes of Avalon.
Snakes of Avalon is a noir-suspense adventure game set in a single room: a pub called Avalon. You play as a regular called Jack, who is in constant need of refreshment from the bar and suffers from an alarmingly chronic case of the DTs. In his daily stupor he uncovers a murderous plot and must work both with and against his various hallucinations to save the unwitting target in question. His ‘good conscience’ takes the form of a moose head on the wall, his ‘bad conscience’: a trophy fish that has pried itself loose from a plaque.
If substance abuse was a recurring theme in punk rock, let it be noted that Snakes of Avalon bravely follows suit. If you really wanted to, you could actually play a drinking game – Withnail & I style – and try to match Jack drink for drink as he stumbles through his beer-sodden misadventure. But I wouldn’t recommend it. There’s only so many Okocims a person can take in the space of an hour or so. But technically it could be done. You could probably even time your toilet-breaks to coincide with those of the main character. Snakes of Avalon has plenty of clever nods to cinema and games, but it isn’t beyond toilet humour. That said, this is toilet humour delivered in such a linguistically charming way that it barely seems crude at all.
For instance, at one point a spineless would-be murderer named Lester needs to use the bar’s toilet. But the door marked W.C. has been occupied throughout the entire game by a disembodied voice.
This absurd, twisted loyalty to the dialectical comedy of old-school adventures stands Snakes of Avalon in good stead, even as far as its puzzles go. They’re very basic inventory-combining conundrums and, admittedly, the centrepiece of the game includes a puzzle which isn’t perfectly signposted – but the puzzles make up for this in their self-awareness. One of the solutions involves combining a full bladder (which only re-appears in your inventory if you get rid of it the usual way) with a jar of honey and then throwing it at the femme fatale of the drama. “You threw honey mixed with piss at me!?” she cries. “AT ME!?” Again, the humour isn’t really in the vulgarity of the act but in her reaction. “AT ME!?” she yells, as if to throw the sweet urine solution at anyone other than herself would have been perfectly understandable.
But Snakes of Avalon’s comedic appeal lies not simply in its deft bawdiness or pre-occupation with bodily fluids. There’s a deeper intelligence behind it all, clawing to get out through the story-telling, which becomes clear by the end. Snakes of Avalon isn’t just punk comedy. It’s tragicomedy, with all the requisite death and mayhem thrown in. Almost everyone is doomed from the start, and they are essentially piss-takes of Hitchcock archetypes. But Jack, the beer-addled hero of the day, stands immune – because he is the greatest piss-taker of them all.
Its intellect doesn’t always make itself known in time, and the psychological aspects of Snakes’ story can get a bit muddled at times but even then it’s hard to tell if such tragic flaws are intentional or not. Special mention should be also made of the music by Thomas Regin and co, as well as the scrappy (and suitably punky) art by Alex van der Wijst. But to learn about the creation of the game in full, we spoke to its writer and programmer Igor Hardy.
Igor Hardy: I’m a rather unspectacular Polish guy. Age 27. Not connected to the, so-called, professional game industry, but running a sweet, homely blog about indie-punk adventure games called “A Hardy Developer’s Journal”. I also happen to be a proud and active member of the Adventure Game Studio illustrious forum-based community, as well as one of the reviewers belonging to the mysterious AGS Panel (the self-righteous committee that assigns cups to AGS database entries). My first proper game project Frantic Franko: A Bergzwerg Gone Berserk – took me months because of how I liked working on it. It was planned as a small game to help me learn AGS – a brief chapter taken out of a huge epic about a psychotic dwarf journeying the world to find (and kill) the man who offended his clan.
RPS: Snakes of Avalon was a homemade point and click, with a surrealist edge. Why did you go for a hallucinatory angle?
Hardy: That's a loaded question. My initial idea was to make a very modest game where a dozen or so of same looking barflies would be drunkenly bumping on each other in a pitiful looking mangy dive bar. Oh, and it would all be in lo-res and the drunken hero would emerge from a crowd of similar-looking pixels provoked by a sudden event. He would overhear a conversation about a murder! So back then it was to be an exercise in smart use of modest number of assets (of only one tight location in particular). No hallucinations – at least nothing visualized. But to finally make this game I partnered up with Alex van der Wijst. Alex wanted to test his new animation techniques and said that what really attracts him to my idea are the amounts of alcohol – ahem – I mean the opportunity for great amounts of animated alcoholic hallucinations.
And as Alex was one of my of favourite AGS developers (check out The Winter Rose!) and much more experienced than I am, I didn't argue. Then it turned out he produced a dozen of hallucinations and melting animations on a whim, so I got excited about this angle too and we made the game as crazy as we could. But I ended up wanting to make it also really grotesque – alternating between bright, cheerful and dark, disturbing (perhaps I just wanted to pack it with nods to my favourite movies). Fortunately after several rounds of rewrites and player feedback we got it thematically really neat, with intricate consistencies amongst the madness. Especially the darker, bleaker stuff works well – sometimes becoming more myth-making than surrealism. I'm still surprised how deep many players dig into the backstories and symbolisms of the game, unravelling twists and possible interpretations that me and Alex have discussed but in the end didn't go fully into. We might have actually created a pretty competent piece of fiction there.
RPS: Point and click is something of a niche genre at the minute and it has seen a lot of valid criticism. Do you think it’s a valuable one for new, inexperienced gamemakers to tackle, even with its faults?
Hardy: Is it a bit niche “at the minute”? – Yes and no. I prefer to use the wider term of “adventure games” – to put things into a better perspective. So for example, Braid is full of adventure gameplay concepts – especially in its most well-remembered puzzles. Amnesia is an adventure game, and so is L.A. Noire. Now, the main difference between those latter 2 and the traditional adventure games titles is puzzle difficulty. Avid adventure game players expect much more complex problems and less hand-holding. It's no big secret that Amnesia was a heavily simplified and streamlined version of Penumbra games that preceded it, and in case of L.A. Noire you regularly hear complaints that the game provides solutions for you, if you didn't work them out themselves.
But this approach works best for the majority of players. Also, the adventure gameplay potential is still largely unexplored. One of the great, unique things about Braid’s puzzles is that the clues and solutions for particular puzzles are often disguised as subtle elements of how the game world always behaves – how “the laws” govern it. That’s an example of the kind of interesting things you can design into games based on abstract thinking outside of pure logic. The possibilities are pretty much endless. Are there “valid” criticisms about adventure games? If adventure games do offer things that other genres don't – then who cares really? Better a “broken” journey of a game than a well-oiled, but boringly competent machine.
RPS: How the story is told is obviously the most important component of an adventure game. Your characters in Snakes of Avalon are particularly dodgy and interesting. Were you influenced by film noir by any chance?
Hardy: Storytelling was definitely the most important aspect of Snakes of Avalon for us. Also it's fun to pretend you are able to freely express your thoughts in English and write dialogs for a dozen of supposedly different-thinking characters – and then discover you didn't do all that badly. The game's “bookends” where the hero as the narrator recalling past events that led to a murder are indeed a film noir cliché (e.g. Sunset Boulevard). Atypically for adventure games the murder plot is not really a mystery piece, but a more of a suspense story. Something of a Hitchcockian tale of murder in domestic environments (don't let the bar setting fool you) and creepy things happening in bathrooms. So I’ve went full on for that Hitchcockian feel – Act III in particular. The dreamy, surreal bits between the more ordinary crime story parts are also a cliché part of the Hitchcock style, but I'm happy the game ended up neither a pastiche nor something totally outlandish in its stylistics.
The legend of the Avalon island, Norse mythology (or what I knew of it from the comic book Thorgal) and a certain fun tricky storytelling devices from The Saragossa Manuscript were also important inspirations, especially for players interested in what the concept of “The Snakes” is about. Oh, and the characters… They’re largely either misfits or demonized reflections of the main misfit’s psyche. With the character of Vivien (sometimes spelled Vivian) I even played around with making her behave in somewhat different ways at different times – sometimes as domineering but shallow and other times as a cleverly manipulative femme fatale. The bartender Bob is probably the most human and consistent in characterization (as well as mundane and pathetic). And the two consciences were perhaps the most fun characters to write – especially since they turn out not what they seem at first. Jack is okay too – all about him is autobiographical, of course.
RPS: The artwork is very colourful and striking but also very scratchy and functional. Was there an idea behind it, or were you just throwing it together as you went?
Hardy: Alex is responsible for all the sprites and animations and I adjusted to his style, only trying to add a bit of darkness and broken perspective. I really love how naturally fluid he managed to make all character movements (and I'm not talking about the number of frames!) I remember he said that to work even faster (we did the first version of the game for a contest) he was incorporating animation mistakes into the style, taking advantage of those accidental details, so there you have your punk spirit right there!
RPS: Do you think there is a ‘punk’ movement in games after all? Or maybe we are just clutching at straws?
Hardy: Is ‘punk’ the most adequate term for it – I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure something broke among the rapidly rising expectations for high production values in indie games, and with the way indie developers are now specialists in building up hype on a string budget. There are growing concerns: what is the price you pay for that? Most notably the fear that we'll wake up in a world of only pretend-indies. Where an indie game concept is just something calculated for hype, and not the result of fearless experiments and genuine expression of the creator's personality and ambitions.
Some indie developers feel also excluded. Many of the main spaces for promotion and discussion of indie games are starting to be controlled by the same circles of friends, catering primarily to very specific tastes.
That's, on one hand, understandable and fair – all those people worked hard to get there – and to some degree the creation of an “elite” out of success is unavoidable. But if we won't worry about the negative consequences constantly, it can end up really bad. The time to worry is now, and the heated debate the Pirate Kart provoked at the current IGF was a very good thing. My own feeling is that we should be building a greater number of alternative (but reasonably friendly) indie game communities. And competing indie game paradigms. That's what I would expect a 'punk' movement to create. Pretending to be one big happy family and everyone aspiring for the same things is a dangerous illusion. We should all have different principles.
RPS: If there was a ‘punk’ genre or sub-genre, what would you say its defining characteristics would be? And would you say you belong to that crowd?
Hardy: I might be just projecting what I would like to see more, but here goes: RAW, unedited ideas without much worry about presentation polish (no pun intended)! And I'm not talking about prototypes you create just to test if a mechanic works or not. It's like this: First you ASSUME your wildest idea is possible (prototype it of course), then you do it. As good as you can, stumbling over the naiveties of your initial assumption and simplifying ideas to make it within a finite time.
Be prepared to scrap the whole project if you find out you’ve bitten off more than you can chew at the moment, and that no amount of simplifying and cheating can help. Craziness – doesn’t negate the need for thinking and re-thinking. But don't be afraid of big ideas, and don't spend time on prettifying and polishing it all endlessly – go for the scruffy charm! I don't feel like I belong to any particular crowd. Maybe the AGS crowd – I spend there a lot of time.
RPS: Are you working on anything at the minute? Does it fall into a similar style of DIY game development or are you going for something new?
Hardy: Yes, I'm working on something new – I went into a completely different direction. I went for a dream project of mine – to take adventure games further into the largely still unexplored land, mostly forgotten, since the beginning of the 2000s. Basically I'm designing games with interfaces based on introvert insights into the player characters' thoughts, and ruled by how the main characters' minds work and how they perceive the world around them.
If you remember Discworld Noir from 1999 with its “detective notebook” puzzles or played the Blackwell games in which the same notebook is present in a simplified form – you do have an idea how cleverly a characters' “thoughts” can be used for the puzzles without destroying the pacing or player's sense of agency. I've been working on two game projects based around these goals. And after many months I'm almost finished with the second, shorter and simpler game called The Thought Saved for Last. A man comes running towards a lonely bus stop in the woods in the middle of the night. He just missed the bus to take him back home, so he sits down and starts waiting for the next. Then something begins to happen to him. During the game his mind starts slowly to fall apart. It will ultimately die, if you don't do something about it.
As the player you can directly manage the thoughts the most strongly imprinted in his head. You can influence which of them keep safe for longer (hang onto), see how they evolve as they become more central. But of course it's not a game with just one possible conclusion. I would compare the game to the likes of Daniel Benmergui's Today I Die which is really a game after my own heart. But contrary to Daniel's games in Saved for Last you don't influence the world from the god's/narrator's position – you are limited to the character's reach and what is going on in his head.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
The punk rockers of yesteryear made their music both funny and indignant at the same time. But with punk gamemakers, there doesn’t seem much reason to be angry. Because everything is just... so absurd. Instead, they go for balls-out madness. Or, in Snakes of Avalon’s case, they simply combine punky humour with its old ex-con friend: tragedy.