My name is Ricky Haggett. I am based in London. I live in, like, the extreme east of London -- about as far east in London as you can go before you can't really say you're in London anymore, but it's still quite close to central London. I am 38 years old.
I guess I've been making videogames since I was about 10 years old. I started making games at school. At my primary school, we had two BBC Micros, and I had this Usborne book of programming where you type in the listings like, "Line 10, line 20." I started doing that and typing in listings and editing them. Then I went to secondary school and when I was about 11, I got an Amiga and I got this program called AMOS when I was about 12 or 13. I spent a bunch of my, sort of, I guess American high school but English secondary school years making videogames on the Amiga. Then Doom came out on PC and everyone was like, "Holy shit! We need to get rid of our Amigas and all get PCs!”
So then I switched to Windows and started making stuff in, like, Turbo C and QBasic and Visual Basic. Then I went to university to study computer science. At university, I mostly played in bands and smoked weed in my student flat and, you know, did student things. I kind of - I did all right.
I got first in my computer-science degree, but only really by being good at the exams and studying, not really through any serious application. It wasn't like I was super into computer science. Like, I could always program. So, the whole part of it was kind of easy. And the things that weren't like that, I was mostly not very good at it. But I was good at enough at the other stuff that I could get through it really well. I only did the bare amount of work in terms of projects and practical stuff, really. I just didn't think about making videogames at all. Then I came to leave university and I was like, "Oh, what should I do now? Oh yeah, maybe I should find a company that makes videogames." [Laughs.]
I was like, "I'm gonna need to make some money and pay off this student debt." So, I kind of lucked out, really. A friend of a friend had met some folks in London who were leaving Psygnosis and Sony and starting a small mobile studio and they were looking for a programmer to help. At the time, it was right at the start of mobile games and mobile games at that time were literally just Backgammon. You could have a little server that you could play Backgammon with it. You had a little dropdown that you could make your move and it would go to the server and the server would generate a new picture of what the board looked like and send it back to the phone all black and white, super-simple stuff. But really quickly after that, it was like, "Oh, there's Java now." Then, "Now there are iPhones and now there's Flash in browsers and now there's PC download games." The company I was at started in 2000 and made lots and lots and lots and lots of small things. I don't actually know how many. Lots.
Until 2008, and then at that point, our company got shut down. We'd been bought and sold by various companies along the way. It got shut down. We all got made redundant. We got decent redundancy packages, and then a bunch of us were like, "Hey, let's keep going!" And so we took our redundancy money and used it to fund a studio. I guess, by that point, I was with my wife and so the first year was spending our redundancy money keeping ourselves afloat. The second year was my wife having a job and keeping us afloat. By the third year, it was like, we were kind of on the rails. That studio was called Honeyslug. We did that for, I guess, eight years. From 2008 to 2016. Then the Honeyslug founders went their separate ways and I started a new studio. Yeah. That's my potted history.
Okay. [Laughs.] Well, yeah, so, you mentioned being in bands and I don't know if you mentioned Hohokum by name here, but when I think about that game and I think about you, and I know we've talked about this before: Why do you feel like it's rare to see videogames, which need a lot of art, made in collaboration with existing artists?
I think -- well, so, first of all, since we first started talking I think things have moved on in a really positive way. Like, a lot of the things I would be saying in interviews like this, like, when Hohokum came out or while we were making it four years ago, feel less true now. But I think the general formation of that thing is people who make videogames are usually from a more technically programmery background, and those people tend to have certain backgrounds. The people they hang out with means that it's quite -- up until relatively recently it's been relatively insular. Like, videogame art would be the kind of art you'd expect to see in videogames. It's like a snake eating its own tail kind of thing. I guess mostly just by random chance. By, like, people happen to know people. In my case, Dick Hogg was the person who -- Dick was a friend of a friend who was getting rid of an Amiga 2000. I was like, "You can't throw that away! I'll have it." And so I met him in a pub in Hackney, and he gave me an Amiga 2000, and then I put in my loft and then threw it into a skip about three years later.
He was in a band called Satan's Cock and I ran a club night. So, we were kinda into the same sort of music. Then we started chatting a bit more and he was somebody who was into videogames and just started doing digital art. It was kind of a random thing, like a friend of a friend. I would go and see Satan's Cock play and we go to the pub and for a while we would just be talking about the possibility of making a videogame and then he just randomly sent me a bit of art out of the blue of drawings. He was like, "Hey, look, I drew a thing! Should we try to make a videogame?" Yeah. I'm sure everyone who's collaborating with somebody who's sort of "outside” of videogames, would -- a bunch of those stories would be a similar kind of random thing that happened and set you on a path. The more times people do this and pull this off and like, "Yeah, I made a videogame that didn't look like anything else and I collaborated with these interesting people," then the more inspiration other people have to do that kind of thing. People see that that's a thing you can do. They're like, "Hey, we can go and speak to a band and get a band to be the soundtrack of our next game." For example.
Yeah. Well, I would agree. I think it's improved somewhat since we had that talk two years ago. I mean, I had mentioned to you yesterday via email about Parappa, and that being an instance of a pre-existing artist, similarly to you, working with Sony on bringing a game out. Rodney Greenblat talked about the creative blocks for people with different backgrounds from working on games, and he also said that it's a technical knowledge.
I mean, what do you feel like beyond just technical knowledge, even today, prevents there from being even more collaborations from people "outside" of games with people "in" games, or from people "outside" of games making games?
Yeah, I don't think the technical concerns have been that significant for a while now, right? But, yeah, like, Parappa was a game where he just drew a lot of stuff and they kind of put it into a game. There's been a long time where that's been possible. I think it's probably just more about the kind of people and the circles of people who make videogames move in more than it is a whole load of artists desperate to get into videogames, but the technology is just sort sort of holding them back. I don't feel like that's really a case so much as it's like a kind of social friction. Like, go back 10 years. People graduating from illustration degrees wouldn't be using computers in a way which was quite so analogous to just going and making videogames. Whereas these days, there's whole loads of people, like artists, making stuff creatively in their education and from when they're kids still, where those skills they're learning just really naturally -- so, like, somebody who studied illustration or animation can pick up Unity and make a videogame, like, make an interactive thing trivially. I think in that sense, yeah, like, that's kind of oiled the wheels of people making that jump into videogames from not a technical background so much.
Well, this is kind of broad, but what does being published by a Sony do for you?
[Pause.] I think the experience of making Hohokum for us was great. That's what we did. So, I can't compare it to anything else, but we felt like we were well-supported when we made Hohokum. We got tons of great press. We got to speak to lots of really interesting people as a result of doing press. I feel like people -- a whole lot of people, whether they're into the game or not into the game were aware of it. It was in that first wave of PS4 indie games.
Well, that was so long ago, too, that vinyl soundtracks for videogames were still kind of an odd novelty.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, like that whole Ghosty [soundtrack] thing, as well, was amazing. Like, there's no way that would've happened without Sony's licensing folks, music licensing team being able to make that happen for us. So, yeah, I feel like grateful and lucky that we got to make a game like Hohokum with the backing of a whole bunch of people at Sony who were super into it.
What'd you learn doing that battery of press for Hohokum?
Hmm. [Laughs.] So, Dick and I, quite early on, figured out that doing press was quite fun if it was just me and him having a chat with a journalist.
We quite quickly pretty much tried to reject or mitigate all -- basically refused to do as much as that was possible, written interview.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]
So many people, like, just basically want to send you five perfunctory questions and you write a load of interesting, funny stuff that you've never said before and then they put it on their website. [Laughs.] It's like, on one hand that's great 'cause you get a conduit to write a lot of funny, witty stuff.
Maybe that's great a couple of times, but quite soon the well starts to run dry. It's like, you've got to agonize over all the words. Whereas, like, we sort of found that we could always find a new way to talk about -- a lot of the later interviews were just us having a chat and trying to take the conversation in an interesting direction for us, really. That usually was good. Towards the end, I guess, around launch, there were a bunch of interviews where we basically -- there were lots of people who wanted to talk about the music, which is a cool thing to talk about with Hohokum. We were totally into talking about it, but it did feel like, "Oh man, it's like, the fourth interview this week where we're basically just saying the same things." [Laughs.] Where you're kind of on autopilot, but having two people is good because one person can be on autopilot saying the kind of thing that they said the previous time, but the other person, while that person's talking, can be thinking of something interesting and funny to say and then trying to throw the conversation off in a different direction. So, yeah, I think having two people doing the press at the same time is a mega-win for us. Like, it worked really well.
Well, I find it just interesting in general to explore ways that videogames people are trying to figure out whether they're a proper arts scene. I find among people who have been in videogames for decades, they almost resent the comparison. I don't know if you have any thoughts on this, but do you feel like -- are videogames or art scenes in general more obsessed with presenting and maintaining certain images for their creators?
[Pause.] Don't really know how to answer that question.
Well, I guess it's just -- I mean, do you feel like people in videogames, are they more image-conscious than artists in general typically are?
[Pause.] My hunch is that people in videogames are generally fairly happy to talk about things in way that maybe artists are more precious certain things, but I don't have any real basis for saying that beyond my own stereotyped ideas of that. Like, I guess if I was more knowledgeable about -- if I went to see an art exhibition, if I did bother going to the gallery and buying the book and reading all the interviews with the artists, then I'd probably have more perspective on that situation and that comparison.
But since I'm generally a lazy person who doesn't bother to do that -- [Laughs.]
And especially this is true since I have kids, I'm gonna say I'm really "lazy." Like, I read so little about videogames and I just really have quite a short attention span for quite a lot of things which involve me thinking really deeply about things or reading a load of stuff about something I'm sort of tangentially interested in. I feel like I've reached that point where I only have so much energy in my brain for doing stuff and I've become quite good at -- [Laughs.] So, the thing I'll do is I'll get a tweet about an interesting article. It might be about videogames or it might be about art. It's something I'm kind of interested in. It might be music or whatever. I'll look and I'll read the first couple paragraphs and it will be interesting and then I'll just sort of find my attention drifting and I'll skim it and then I'll just retweet it and I'll be like, "Okay, there you go." [Laughs.]
"I've kind of nibbled the corner of that content, and now I'm gonna push it away again." [Laughs.]
Well, the other thing you can do is you use Pocket or Instapaper and you just hop in the article, you file it away, and it's like the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I did that. I still use Pocket on my phone. I was like, "This is gonna be great." I never ever used it. [Laughs.] I was like, yeah, there's a reason why I haven't read these things and it's not because I need to read them on the move. It's because my brain doesn't want to make the effort. [Laughs.]
I think it's true, though, too, that especially when for a living you spend a long time thinking about, breathing, making a thing you kind of want to distance yourself from it in your free time. Like, I know for me, it took me a long time to get to a place where I could read in my leisure time because I was so burnt out on seeing chunks of text in front of me. But that took a long, long time. I think that's a pretty common thing, though.
Yeah, totally. Yeah, exactly. I spend my whole day thinking quite deeply -- not all of everyday, but I spend quite a lot of the process of making a videogame thinking quite deeply about things that are complicated and multilayered. It's quite tiring. To go and use your leisure time to read things about -- yeah, even if they're about videogames and even if they're really interesting and really useful, I just can't be bothered. I don't have the stamina required. I do actually reads tons, now. A couple years ago, I was like, "I'm gonna use my commute to read books." That's pretty much what I've done for a couple of years.
So, I'm actually quite good at getting on the train and just working through a book. It's a rule. It's like, this is what I do: I get on the train, I sit down, I have my book and the first journey or two, the first half an hour of reading a book is kind of agonizing 'cause you've got to bother to un-bored yourself. I cannot cope with short stories. Short stories are like, I can't be arsed to put this whole new world into my brain and then a couple of pages later it's all gone, I've got to start again on the next story. It's like, oh no, I don't do that.
My favorite is reading series of books. [Laughs.] It's like, "I've read this book, I know who these characters are. Let's go on another adventure!" That's the least amount of effort for the most payback.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, you had told me this a while back, too. Since I guess we're talking broadly about curating and how you use your time -- you mentioned that you had sort of made an effort to mute or unfollow as many videogame people as possible on Twitter. I think this was back in 2015 you told me.
So, I don't know if that's still the case --
It still is true?
It's still true but it's not just videogame people. It's a specific kind of videogame-related content. Like, I mostly follow people -- and I'm really excited to follow people who are making stuff and sharing the stuff they're making. My favorite use of Twitter is, "Oh, I made a cool thing and here's a GIF of it or here's a screenshot of it." Or, you're an illustrator and here's your illustration and I can just retweet that. That, to me, that's what I love about Twitter. What I'm not interested in at all is, "Here's seven tweets about what I think about this current videogame." Or, there's so much drama about things. [Laughs.] I follow political accounts for that. I don't know videogames in that position really in my life.
Yeah, I basically mute a particular kind of conversation-videogame-type thing. I feel like I do a pretty good job of actively seeking out interesting people who are sharing interesting work and then signal-boosting it.
So, for people who don't follow videogames, what is this drama about? I think I mentioned this a few years, like, one of the goals with this project is, yeah, these are in-depth conversations with people, many of whom are in the thick of it, but my end goal is to try to sculpt all these conversations down into a digestible, streamlined narrative for hopefully people who are far outside of this stuff and maybe have always been looking for a way in but never knew where to start. That's why I'm asking in that way. But for people who don't necessarily care or follow videogames closely -- [Laughs.] You mentioned drama. What sort of drama are you talking about? I'm not at all asking you name names or anything like that. I'm just curious if you can paint the general malaise. [Laughs.]
Videogames are kind of interesting in that you have a very, very broad spectrum of people involved in making them and playing them. A lot of the times, the games that they're making and playing overlap quite a lot, but the people themselves couldn't be more different. I think that there are a lot of people, especially at the more independent end of the videogames industry -- in that end of the industry, we're really lucky to have a whole ton of diversity in terms of the kinds of people making and writing about videogames. I feel like a lot of my interest in following those people on Twitter is I get to learn about people who are quite different from me and I get to learn a bunch about -- like, a bunch of political accounts I followed and stuff I'm interested in in a more broad sense comes from just the more independent end of videogames being relatively diverse in terms of who's there. But then at other end, you've got people who think that videogames should just be a kind of action movie stroke-sports, like, "switch your brain off and do this dumb thing."
There's room for that as well, but when you bring those people into the same social spaces, there's inevitably going to be a whole ton of clashing. And then I think, also, to compound that, I think what's happening in videogames is what's happening in all walks of life, which is that we've created a world in which there is a tiny percentage of really awful people who have a lot of power on social media.
I guess they either take the power or they're given the power by virtue of attention or, like, attempts to try to disarm them, it feels like.
Yeah, I think the more general point is the world we've built -- the social networks that we've built and the news and the entertainment structures that we've built actually benefit quite a lot from there being these people who cause trouble.
And so, it's almost like it's designed into the system because it makes people -- it gets eyeballs and it makes money. That's a general problem for humans. [Laughs.] We're gonna have to figure out whether we want that to be the case in the future or not, right? But, yeah, it certainly impacts videogames in the same way that I think it impacts lots of things. But I think, yeah, videogames, maybe they're not unique but I think videogames have a broader spectrum of people being interested in them than, like, I don't know, art exhibitions.
Well, you hear this term a lot, "videogame culture." It seems like kind of a nebulous thing, but also on the surface of it, just because a group of people all play videogames doesn't mean they're going to have much or even anything else in common or even anything to talk about.
Yeah. I always feel like videogame culture is actually more like a plural. Lots of videogame cultures, some of which overlap and some of which don't even touch each other at all.
And probably you would say the same is true of the videogames industry, right? Like, the idea of there being a "videogames industry" is absurd because there are many videogames industries and some of them are -- like, for example, PlayStation is a place on which you get a whole load of different videogame industries overlapping. People making money from doing quite different things. Whereas, like, the world of playing a free-to-play game on your phone that has microtransactions, that's kind of like a glorified fruit machine. It feels like a world away from what I would make. They don't feel like they're the same thing really at all except that they share some of this common language.
I always ask this question, which is in itself very broad and nebulous: What seems weird to you about the culture of videogames or the industry of videogames? What's something weird that you feel like maybe people don't articulate or necessarily label but you notice it all the time?
[Pause.] That's a really hard question. [Laughs.] Everything's a bit weird. [Pause.] Yeah, I do find -- I mean, I don't want to come across as being sort of angry, ranty, or pious about this.
No. Not at all.
But I do find it weird when you get on the train and you look down the line of people playing games and you look at what they're playing and you just sort of wondering how that person came to be playing that game. I often really want to know -- I never do this, but when you see a guy on his phone next to you playing a really realistic-looking sniper game. [Laughs.] Where it's like one of those games -- 'cause you're on a phone, you don't have a controller so you're not running around in these games, but it has all the art of, like, I don't know, a Call of Duty-style game. You're just shooting people in the head. I always really wanna know, "What other games has that guy got on his phone? What does he play at home? Are there not other things that he's into that he's rejected? Or is this just the thing he happens to like?" I feel like there's part of me that just wants to think, "Ah, well, this is maybe just he's been told about this game and he's checking it out." Maybe there are people that just love that stuff. That feels weird to me.
What do you mean?
Well, I don't even have the time or the energy to play all of the amazing things I could play on my phone or whatever. So, why you would choose to spend your leisure time doing something like that. It's like I'm on a train and you see, "Wow, six of the people on this train are all playing Candy Crush." You think, "Is that because Candy Crush is absolutely amazing? Or is it because they heard about it and chose to play it based on some criteria?" Or is it just like, "Oh yeah, Candy Crush, I've heard that's the thing. I've seen some people playing that. I'm gonna play that."
Because I make videogames and I care about them and I love them and I play lots of good ones, I don't even have time to play all the really good ones that I want to play. Like, to me, it kind of blows my mind that you would treat it just like -- it's almost like walking through a shop and going, "I'm a bit peckish. Oh, I'll just grab a packet of crisps at random." [Laughs.] The equivalent would be -- because I do that, and it's like, maybe there's someone who makes crisps who really cares about crisps and they're like, "Why would you do that?"
Treating that thing of engaging with a videogame as a kind of an arbitrary snack decision is what's at the heart of what I'm trying to say.
So, you're saying that just because there are today a great variety and depth to the experiences that are possible, you find it curious that people would be satisfied or content to go for the lowest hanging fruit or maybe the freest hanging fruit, as it were?
Yeah, and even if you say, "Well, okay, people are gonna play free games." Even within that remit, there's still many, many, many choices. It's curious to me that the basis on which those choices are made and the amount of, I don't know -- so, imagine if everyday you get on the train and you take a trip. Each day, you get your phone out and you play a game on it. [Pause.] I don't do that because I read books, but if I did that I would spend lots of time thinking and choosing carefully what I was gonna use that time to do. But I feel like actually a lot of the time it's more like just picking up the free newspaper on the train and flipping through it.
[Laughs.] It's the very skinny USA Today before you board a flight that they try to give you.
Yeah, in London we have tons of -- there's two different, I think there used to be more but there's now two main free newspaper that they give out at every station. They're everywhere. The thing that sometimes happens is you get on a train and you don't have a book with you, your phone's out of batteries or whatever, and so you end up just picking up the free newspaper and flicking through it. Interacting with videogames like that is a thing -- my hunch is that people kind of treat it more like that than I do, certainly.
Well, do you think it's then -- 'cause I wonder a lot of times, how is it that a person who is not hardcore into videogames is supposed to hear about a game like Hohokum? It sounds like you're saying -- it sort of implies maybe there's some sort of messaging issue that videogames have where maybe word just isn't getting out about those things versus the ads you see in trailers before a movie. I don't know if they've played it over there, but they've played movie trailers for iPhone games that are the free games that are intended to sort of just milk you dry. There's Arnold Schwarzenegger or some supermodel in the commercial. You know, it's not a Hohokum that we necessarily see ads for before movies.
The whole Candy Crush thing is like they spend millions and millions of dollars on advertising and they just have the equation set so they know exactly by spending this much in these places, they know exactly what their return will be.
And I want to make it clear, too, I'm not necessarily dumping on those games but I think even people who eat at Arby's or whatever, they've heard of wagyu beef or they've heard of higher-end different types of experiences. Versus in games, I do get the sense that, "Oh, what are these other games? I've never even heard of them." I don't even know where they would go to find out about them or where they can if they're not already in the know.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That's kind of what I'm getting at.
I'd be interested to know what brought these people to this place where they're doing this thing. Yeah. It's not so much a judgmental thing as being like, yeah -- I'm not gonna ask the people on the train.
It's possible you just have a commute with a lot of other burgeoning videogame critics who their only time to play when they're not at their job is on the train.
It's not that far-fetched. [Laughs.] I don't know. I think a lot of times the sort of party lines that are drawn up that at least I see online is -- I mean, there's a lot of talk about indie games, which I'd be curious to hear your interpretations or your thoughts in the way that's talked about coming from a background of being in bands for you. But I get the impression from a lot of people I interview outside of the U.S. that they say that this whole fixation, obsession, or even caring about whether a thing is independent or not is a much more American eccentricity. Do people out by you not on the internet, do they care about whether a thing is independent or not?
I don't know if I would say that was an American thing. That certainly wouldn't have occurred to me as a distinction to draw. Yeah. I definitely think it's true that compared with, I don't know, five or 10 years ago, the lines between what you could consider an independent thing have become more and more blurry as small teams have made more ambitious, more polished things to the point where although -- I guess it's better to illustrate the examples. A game I played last year that I really liked was Inside. I played that game and that game is independent and it's in the IGF, but it's also generally nominated for awards in loads of best-of-games lists. It's kind of there because I think generally critics and writers and players, I would say, distinguish between those things less. There's more of a blurring between those things. I guess that causes conversations like, "Oh, well, how independent should you be to be to enter your game into the IGF? Should there be a separate list?" I guess kind of, like, yeah, I tend to frame in my brain a lot of those things.
Although it's more complicated than this, I just think a lot of the drama and argument and discussion around that stuff is not really worth the energy that's put into those arguments and discussions. I sort of don't care, but I do care a bit because I do think that it's the thinking about what, for example, the IGF, which is a thing I do think is a valuable institution. I do think that thinking about what the IGF is and what it should be doing is worthwhile, but I just think that there's tons of conversation about this issue of small teams who have gradually got bigger and richer and are able to make more polished things and able to sell them for more money to the point where The Witness was made by a tiny team and it was sold at a price that you would expect to pay for a game in a shop made by a massive team. That's totally fine and it's sort of interesting, but at the same time it's not a distinction I really care that much about.
Right. I was talking to a friend about this over the weekend. You know, there was that Nintendo Switch event last week and I got a press release from some tech outlet where they said, "Oh, the Nintendo Switch is a lot of fun, but will it be second fiddle?" In other words, will it continue the dynamic of Sony and Microsoft being at the forefront?
I just sort of sat and thought, "If it's a lot of fun, why does that matter?" Who has ever sat and played a videogame and been upset that they weren't having more lucrative, more popular fun? That's such a strange thing to quantify. [Laughs.]
Is there anything that does seem weird to you about the way people talk about indie as a thing?
Well, I guess I always feel like, to me, the word "independent" means something. It means independent, as in not reliant on. It's like, there's so many ways -- what are you not independent from, I guess, is what I think. Some people, because they're, for example, a student that lives at home with their parents, are able to make a videogame without having to worry about paying rent. So, because of what they're doing and where they're at in their lives, they're independent in one way. A team like Valve, who have Steam, are independent because they've made a shop that's the biggest shop in the world for videogames.
[Laughs.] They're independent for that reason. It's like, at that point, I don't know. I just stop caring very much about what the word means.
There are also infinite variations, complicated -- did you make one game that was a massive hit that you made with a big publisher that ended you up having loads of money so you could then afford to make another game? Then you're independent of financial constraints to a certain extent because of a thing that happened before.
Or did you make loads of money in the city as a banker and then you took your money and started a videogames studio? There's so many stories and ways in which people are independent from different things that it, I don't know. I don't really care anymore. I just kind of, yeah. It's not something I sit down and think, "I've got to figure this out. I've got to decide what I think."
There's lots of stuff, some of it's good, some of it's not good. It's been made in different ways by different people in different situations. Cool.
Yeah. Well, I wanna get a little bit back to -- we were talking, I guess, vaguely about art before. But I'm curious if there's anything you notice about the way that people who are more rooted in the videogame world, about the way that they talk about art in general? Is there anything you notice?
Yeah, I think that it -- usually when the word "art" is used in videogames, or very often, it's used in reference to visual art. Very often, it's used in a way to describe a very specific kind of visual art. So, if it's like, if somebody says, "Oh, that game's got great art," a lot of times that means, "Wow, that game has got loads of nice special effects and good animation and nice textures. If you unpack it, it has a whole bunch of very specific aesthetic trappings.”
I guess my reaction to that is programming can be art or story can be art. There's lots of things around a videogame that can be art. I like it when "art" is used in that way. It's really nice to see videogames that properly take creative risks and feel like grown-up art, I guess.
An example, I guess, is I played the game Virginia last year and I absolutely loved that game. The way that that game tells a story and what the story is and the way that game, I don't know, just the combination of the music and the way the narrative moves forward, and the visual art, I guess, all those things combine to make something which I'd say is good art in a way that -- I'd like to see the word "art" used in that way in videogames. There aren't huge numbers of games where you can use it in that way, right? Loads of games have nice visual art and lots of games have nice mechanics and a whole bunch of games combine those things and add nice music and make really, really enjoyable games. But I don't know if I would call them art.
Do you think that's something about the culture? I agree, I know what you're talking about where they say, "Oh, the word 'art' must apply to visual art." Do you think that's something where -- I mean, that's something that the tech world in general sort of struggles with, is acknowledging "soft skills" as being important as opposed to the emphasis that they typically have on just the product the end, how good is it?
Yeah. Yeah. I guess what we're talking about here is there are people behind the games. People made these things. The stuff I like best is when you get to really get a sense of what the people who made the things are like.
So many games, because of -- like, these aren't novels where somebody's literally writing you a story or writing dialog and putting it in your ear. They're not films where you're literally seeing people acting out stuff. There's already a layer of remove, a layer of subterfuge, of artifice and smoke and mirrors that separates the player from the people who made the thing.
But then, to compound that, like so many games are wrapped up in the player playing with the mechanics of the game, doing a thing. This is a game in which you fire a mushroom across the screen and catch it in this net, or whatever. [Laughs.] Right?
That kind of getting the player to do a thing is often at odds with seeing humans behind the thing, I guess. So, it's nice when you can play a game which isn't so obsessed with the player mastering a skill or being good at a thing or figuring out how to do a thing and just be more about experiencing somebody else's thing and learning about what that person is like or what that person is into. That can take all kinds of different forms, whether that's explicitly narrative, you know, "This is a story about my life," or, "This is a sense of my personality or my sense of aesthetics," or, "Here's some stuff I'm interested in."
I mean, it's interesting because I think videogames are perhaps if not the most obsessed, among the most obsessed medium concerning itself with what the audience reaction is going to be. I think it makes sense, because you want people to be able to play through the game, but it's almost as though that appreciation -- for some people, it's almost revelatory for them to realize that there are individuals making the videogames they buy. I've talked to a lot of people for this project and I get the sense from some people that videogames are almost like a renewable resource. Like, they're the faucet. [Laughs.]
Do you ever get that feeling?
As in, what, people treat them as --
I guess you said that people treat them like chips, or crisps.
So, disposable, but disposable in the way that not even human beings made them?
Yeah, I think that's true and I think that's true of people who just are playing a thing on a phone. I think it's also potentially true of people who buy games in boxes and bring them home. Like, I think that's partly down to the videogames industry kind of creating that situation, not putting humans in the position of, I hate this word, but "auteurs."
When we think of, "Who are the videogame auteurs that sit in front of the camera?" Well, the first four that pop into my head are Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, Shigeru Miyamoto, and David Cage. [Laughs.] Those are the four that popped into my head. I like some of those people's games, but compared with other mediums, I think that videogames could do better at that job of, like, "Hey, there are some humans that made these things! Here they are to talk about their thing!" I think there's that. I also think that the enterprise of making a videogame is so fantastically complicated and requires lots of people doing really complicated technical things, and it's just less well-suited to the people behind the scenes penetrating through in the way that they can in movies, I guess.
Yeah, I was surprised and not in a judgmental way. I interviewed https://nodontdie.com/peter-molyneux/https://nodontdie.com/peter-molyneux-2/ last year and I asked him what things other than videogames have influenced his work. I don't know if you read it, but he said that he really no interest at all in movies or books. All that's influenced him has been videogames. I mean, do you feel like -- when you play the games that he's overseen, does it feel like it comes from a place that only is influenced by videogames?
Well, it shows, doesn't it? I think that there are lots of people in that position.
Oh, I think --
I don't think he's an outlier in that respect.
No, I don't think so either.
Yeah. So, yeah, it's like a lack of cultural diversity, I guess, in terms of the people who are in those positions of being in charge of a big studio. I think the technology is helping. I think the more tech can be put in place to make it so that smaller and smaller teams can make stranger things that are less risky because they cost, they didn't require a giant room full of people to make them, that will help. So, I'm kind of optimistic that the things will get better. I still think that there's something fundamentally -- so, people say, "Oh, videogames haven't been around for a long time." But then actually, when you look at the medium of movies, like, movies haven't been around for that long either, but when you look at from the point when the big Hollywood studios started, like, "Hey, we can film things now and put them in cinemas and people can watch them." The explosion of creativity that you saw there was more pronounced than what's happened in videogames in a recent phase. It feels like there was this period in videogames where it was so small and DIY, and it was just, like, one person making a game, that there was a Precambrian explosion of loads and loads of weird things in the 8-bit and 16-bit days. [Laughs.]
And then, like, the PlayStation and 3D came along, and all of a sudden it all got a bit tricky. Now you've got rooms of 200 people and outsourcing studios and vastly complicated things being made. It's just different to making movies, I think. Generally, the trend is good, right? I'm not moaning here. I think that we're heading in a good direction.
No, I don't think so either. The fact that this can even be discussed and articulated and we can sense a sort of trajectory, I think, is all cause to be optimistic. I mean, and I'm sure you've heard this thing too, that they say all good art asks a question and answers it. What do you feel like most big-budget games are asking?
[Pause.] [Laughs.] Well, I don't play -- the only big-budget games I really play are, like, the Dark Souls games. Do those count as big-budget? It probably does.
I don't think it was as expensive as, like, Destiny.
Yeah. The games I buy in boxes -- what is Destiny trying to say? Was that the question? Like, what are these big games really trying to do and say?
I don't think they have any leeway to say anything. I think all they have to say is, "Hey, I'm Destiny! I'm another one of those games that you like!"
[Laughs.] So not even -- oh, that's the question? "Will you buy me?" [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] "Look at all this stuff. Come on." [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] That sounds like an honest answer.
I don't know that I necessarily want to imply that independent games are necessarily more insightful. I feel like it can be rare, but --
Oh, in terms of percentages, it probably isn't that different.
There are loads more in smaller, independent games and a ton of those games have nothing to say, as well. And that's okay. Yeah, most big-budget games don't have very much to say. A whole load of movies don't have very much to say, either, really.
It's just that if you're making something which does have something to say, it feels like it's harder to make an impact in videogames just because there's so much noise from all this other stuff. Whereas I feel like in movies and books, there's perhaps more diversity that is championed and rewarded in terms of financial success and critical acclaim.
Yeah. Well, so, having worked with Sony -- I mean, this is something I wonder about. With them being curators for their platform for bigger titles, for sure, but for smaller teams, what do you get a sense a Sony is looking for when they're cherry-picking games such as Hohokum or any of the titles through to today? What seems to be their methodology?
I think it comes down, yeah, platform holders are basically looking for ways to stand out from their direct competition. So, in our case, it felt like Sony kind of got that we were making a strange and beautiful thing and they picked up Hohokum at a time when they were doing a great job of -- well, the PlayStation 4 was coming, imminently, so, not that long after we started working on Hohokum with Sony Santa Monica, we were talking about making a PlayStation 4 version. And yeah, I think with that platform they did an amazing job of both championing lots of amazing stuff that's exclusive to PlayStation, but also making sure that they were bringing games that already existed on Steam and bringing them to PlayStation.
I think they had the people who had a really good eye for, like, yeah, these are the things which will mean when somebody goes, "Oh, should I buy a PS4 or an Xbox One or a Wii U," that a part of that decision would be, "Wow, but look at all this kind of interesting, weird, independent stuff." Whether or not the person buying that console would frame that in that way, it's, like, a way of having another arrow in your quiver of -- certainly when people ask me, "Hey, what should I get next on the PS4?" Apart from the fact that I was making a game for the PlayStation 4, I broke all that out and sort of just gave them the key bullet points. Like, "Yeah, look at all these things you can get on PlayStation." That was one of the things I would say.
Yeah. I think it's just as simple as that, really. Like, a way to -- I don't think there's some kind of deeper thing than just, "Hey, we're trying to sell this box and some other people are trying to sell their boxes. What set of things can we do to make our box more desirable?" One of them is go and speak independent companies creating smaller, stranger things and try and get the best ones.
We talked a lot about Hohokum, I know you can't talk too much about your next project and there's another game in between. This is a thing I never see discussed because I think you always see releases listed on a Wikipedia or on a games site where there are just these subsequent titles that are released, but not much explanation for, I guess this question: After you complete making a game, why make another one?
Was the first part of that about how, like, a studio will do a game and then they'll make a sequel or a similar game and then they're making that game again and again.
Well, I just mean what drives you to come back, period, and begin that process again. Whether it is a sequel or it is a whole new thing. Just, what makes you want to do that?
If I look at the last bunch of games I made, they're all really different. I think that that is both a strength and a weakness, maybe? I definitely personally -- I mainly follow a combination of the winds of chance of what people I'm working with and what things I want to try out. You know, what sticks, right? Like, I make lots of different stuff and some things fly and some things don't fly. At not point have I ever gone, "Right, I'm gonna be a person that makes strange artistic musical playgrounds and that's all I'm gonna do." Or, "I'm gonna be the person that makes only turn-based strategy games." Yeah, so, like, Dick and I made Frobisher Says!, which was like a weird WarioWare-style compilation of mini-games on the Vita. Then we made Hohokum, and in parallel with making Hohokum we made this game called Super Exploding Zoo, which was like a chaotic gang of exploding animals running around. Kind of like a real-time strategy game, I guess, the way your units all blow up in order to defeat these weird aliens. And then I started making Loot Rascals with my new company, which is like a turn-based strategy game. It's a roguelike. It's a bit like a board game, it's a bit like a card game. I really like the transition -- you know, I love making strange musical art for things like Hohokum. There's almost certainly gonna be more things like that in my future career of making videogames. But I also really like numbers and systems and rules. I guess if there's a common thread, it's that I like things which have a particular visual aesthetic and a particular sense of humor. So, it's unlikely I'd ever make a really realistic-looking game set in the real world with loads of proper photo-realistic textures. That's just not my thing.
I like working with people outside the videogames industry. But when I finish a game, I'm already spinning two or three plates of possible future games which are probably gonna be pretty different, at least mechanically because, I don't know, that's what I do, I guess.
Well, human nature. You want to do something different.
Yeah, yeah. And in a way, it would be so much easier to just be like, "Yeah, I'm the guy that makes these things."
I'm just gonna make them and each one will be a bit different, but each time all I have to do is plug in some new art, change a few rules, and get a musician to make some new music, and there goes another one out into the world. [Laughs.]
Right. That's almost like the vaudeville school of game design.
Yeah. Plenty of people in both the sort of small scale of making games and big scale of making games do that. I can see a lot of benefits both commercially but also it could be really nice just to hone a craft and get really, really, really good at making a particular kind of thing, but I don't have it in me to do that, I don't think. I just, yeah, I'm always too curious about chasing the next interesting, shiny thing.
I feel like I've said this before, I think, maybe on Twitter or something, but it really feels like the possibility space of videogames -- it's like, you're on a beach, and you're on one of those beaches, where, we have some in England where there's just fossils and trilobites everywhere. You can just reach down and pick up a rock and break it open and say, "Oh, there's another fossil of a thing." It feels like there are so many possibilities of things you can make that to just make something that's really similar to something else but with slightly different art or a slight twist on it just feels like, "What's the point?" I feel like, personally, that just wouldn't get me out of bed in the morning to make stuff. I really want to try to find things that haven't been done before.
This is probably hard to articulate, but are there topics or themes or explorations of whatever that you'd like to see in videogames but not necessarily make yourself?
Yeah, yeah. Loads. I think Virginia is a great example of that. I would never have made that game. I don't know how you could start making that, but I absolutely loved it and I'm super-glad it exists. Just, yeah, more diversity of things being made both -- and also, I guess coming from a completely different direction, I've been enjoying playing Pokémon GO just because even though it's not very good in lots of ways, it's, like, a thing that exists in a space that nothing else exists that's interesting. Every morning, I get up and I walk for 20 minutes to the station and I like having a thing that meddles with that. [Laughs.] That's just interesting as a thing. So, yeah, I guess there's lots of axes and ways to -- but I wouldn't say, "Oh, I wish there more games like X." Yeah. There's lots of games I'm excited about that -- I guess I would say, actually, but, yeah, the thing I was talking about earlier. I like that there are people making games who are not worrying about whether people are gonna get it.
I think, again, that Virginia is a good example of that. It's one that's closest to my brain. Like, those people made that game, I think they must have known that they would release this game and some people would just be like, "What's going on? What's this? This is fucked up. This is barely even a videogame."
I love that small teams and publishers are prepared to put something out there knowing that a bunch -- without all the having everything presented tidily: "We've got to make sure that people get all of this stuff." I think that's definitely a trend. It's like, release stuff that you feel comfortable with half of your potential audience being like, "I don't get that." [Laughs.] Because, yeah, taking risks like that is important if you want to make new things, I think.
If you go, "Well, we've spent $2 million making this game and we need to sell it at this much, so we need this many people to buy it, so we need to make sure that nobody bounces off this game, anything that seems a bit weird." That trend is what makes lots of videogames feel like kind of safe, I guess. It's like, "Well, we have to remove that because it's a bit weird."
I'm trying to think of an example. Night in the Woods is coming out and one of the guys who is making Night in the Woods tweeted the other day -- there's this character in the game who's always raking. That's this character's thing. They're always raking leaves. They can be in the middle of a really emotional, crazy scene and they're still raking. [Laughs.] That's all they do. They're just raking.
It's like, on the surface, that's just like, "That's a funny thing." It just made me laugh and I retweeted it. Then I was like, actually, that's the kind of thing that I like best in videogames, because that's the kind of thing where, because they're a small team and they came up with that silly joke and they're like, "Yeah, we're gonna do this in our videogame." That's the kind of thing that in a game where were tiers of people, like, a boss and above him is that publisher-boss, and then above them there's platform -- whatever. There's tiers of management. Like, you can just see those things getting rounded off. It's like, "What's this weird joke? Get rid of it! We've got to make sure this makes sense!" That kind of thing. Those weird spiky edges, things that make things feel strange.
Like, I don't know if that's a great example, but those decisions that you can't really justify except that you're the one making the thing and it entertains you. Some people aren't gonna get that, and it's fine. But those decisions making it to final games, I think, the more of that that happens, then the more I'm going to enjoy videogames.
That goes back to what you were saying before about being a way of reminding people that people made the game.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It's like, "Somebody thought this was funny. I wonder what the person who thought this was funny is like as a person. Somebody made this decision. I want to know what conversations went into making this decision." And already, whether you think that on the surface or -- it's there as a little seed in your brain. It's like a little ticking sensation of, "Ah, a human made this. They did this thing and they made this decision to do this."
I always think that when I play a game, like, when I'm playing Dark Souls and you find some weird little corner of the game that's not really important in any way kind of -- like, you find yourself in a corridor and there's just a weird bit at the end of the corridor where the corridor sort of ends, and then there's just some stuff there? Which is kind of "unnecessary." It doesn't need to be there for any reason except that when I'm there in those bits, I find myself thinking, "Wow, somebody had to decide what was gonna be here and put those things in and decide what incidental scenery was gonna go here." [Laughs.]
That makes me think about the people who made that stuff.
Or, like, another example is when I play The Last of Us, that game is so full of stairwells full of furniture. [Laughs.] By the end of the game, I really wanted to go and have a long conversation with the person whose jobs it was to fill those stairwells with furniture so you couldn't go down them or up them. [Laughs.]
It's just fascinating to me, that idea. It's like, "Well, there are zombies so we have to block these stairwells in these big buildings, so we're gonna use furniture." So, it kinda makes sense. But there's so many of them. [Laughs.] It's like, yeah, what's it like to be that person?
The other thing I'd be into is, like, shorter games. So many games are too long. Maybe that's just me. I like sinking 58 or 59 hours into Dark Souls, but there's lots of games where I only really get to scratch the surface of them and I just like, "Ugh, but there's another four hours of this."
Smaller games that are, like, five hours long when they could have been two hours long. A thing that never, ever, ever happens to me anymore is I never go, "Well, that was great. I wish it had been twice as long."
I'm like, "That was great! It was five minutes long and now I'm walking away from it having had it put in my brain." Whatever "it" is.
I think that goes back to what you were saying earlier, too, about just the fact that as a nebulous space, videogames cuts across so many different groups of people. The thing that younger people might really love about a game, like the fact that it is twice as long as it "needs" to be -- you know, when you become older, when you're a parent, when you have to hold down a job, you're just like, "I'm just never gonna finish this, am I?” [Laughs.]
Yeah, yeah, and there's so many things coming out.
But I do feel that's a solvable problem. I do think videogames could just be like, "Hey! How much time have you got?" And then if you say -- you could literally imagine you're in front of this game, you just bought it in the shops, you have brought it home, you put it in, and the first thing it says is: "How long have you got?" The options are like, "One hour, seven hours, 14 hours, 48 hours." Or whatever. Then you can just pick and it would cut the game down to the bare essentials for you. [Laughs.] That's totally possible.
Trevor Noah had tweeted maybe a year or two ago that videogame difficulties should be labeled, "Part-time job, full-time job, and unemployed."
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. I would much rather have that than an unnecessary multiplayer mode.
I have just one more question for you. This is very, very, very broad, but what do you think videogames have accomplished?
Wow. [Laughs.] Boom! [Pause.] I think that videogames have influenced our kids. Me being one of those kids. So, I grew up with videogames and my kids have grown up with videogames. This is the most fundamental level on which I can think to answer this question. I think that something about playing videogames is sort of intrinsically helpful and powerful. If you talk about videogames to be like, "Hey, it's an interactive thing. It shows you some things and there's sounds and lights and colors and you can interact with and then it will know what you did and will be able to change its state." I think that that thing is super-powerful for shaping a brain. [Laughs.]
So, like, I've got a four-year-old. No, he's five! He was five a few weeks ago. He learned how to write letters and know the sounds of all the letters from playing on the iPad. He's learned all kinds of stuff, but I don't even know exactly what he's learned exactly from playing all kinds of different videogames and watching me play videogames. I don't know. I think that that's probably the biggest single thing what videogames have achieved in a general sense. Kids, in the main, have access to videogames and that is definitely doing something to their brains. In a lot of cases, what it's doing to their brains is kind of helpful and powerful and it gives them -- I'm by no means an expert in child development or cognition, but I feel like it's just a good set of inputs to a developing brain that didn't exist 10 years before I was born.
I think they've also impacted lots of other cultural forms, but I think those things are kind of less interesting in a way than the basic, "They're here and everyone has access to them and so does little people." Like, it would be super-interesting to see what kinds of things the people who grew up with today's videogames make in about 10, 15 years. An interesting conversation is around are games controllers and keyboards and mice, will they still be around or will people grow up with other things? Will they shrug those things off and they'll do some other stuff? I don't know. I have no idea what's gonna happen in that space.