Inspiration and Evisceration in They Bleed Pixels

The duo behind Spooky Squid has managed to produce an impressive oeuvre in just over three years since their founding.  Miguel Sternberg and Andrij Pilkiw have already created four freeware games and are now busy putting the finishing touches on their first full length game, They Bleed Pixels.  I sat down with Spooky Squid’s founder, Miguel Sternberg, for a one-on-one about They Bleed Pixels, and the inspiration behind their game.

They Bleed Pixels takes us into the head of a disturbed girl’s nightmares where she fights through swaths of shadowy enemies using lance-like appendages where her arms once were, all because of a mysterious book that seems pretty Necronomicon-esque. Spooky Squid forged an intersection between Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and a Hong Kong gorefest movie — replete with all manner of blockish carnage, spouting from antagonists in long red parabolas of extinguished mortality — and imbuing it with the ludistic sensibilities of Nidhogg, Super Smash Brothers, and even oddly enough, Amplitude. And even though this seems like a particularly gory and violent affair, the whole thing comes off strangely (and morbidly) endearing.

In the trailer, the girl stands on a platform with a slowly encroaching enemy on either side of her.  She then dashes to the right, spearing one, and then breaking back around towards the other, hitting the other.  In another scene, our 8-bit adolescent is wall jumping and double jumping, vaulting bottomless pits and avoiding both rotating and stationary spike outcroppings, while rocketing those lumbering targets of her bloodlust onto messes of menacing acute angles.  This in itself looks badass, but Miguel and Andrij take it a step further by reducing input down to a single action button.

Miguel is quick to point out that this reduction is not a simplification.  “In many ways, the game is me playing beat-em-ups and wishing they played in a different way,” he says.  By keeping combat simple, They Bleed Pixels can make a game feel a very specific way.  “I don’t think we have the vocabulary yet to actually say why it feels different, but it definitely does when you’re playing and thinking of your action plus direction.”  Also, Miguel says that this single input discourages button mashing by making play feel very deliberate.  “When you have a bunch of buttons to press, the temptation is to mash them all at random, but by changing the way input is done, it forces a mental reset.  You see it when players first pick up the game and they’re not paying attention to what direction their pressing and they get their asses handed to them.”  Later, as these same players get more involved in the system, the controls will begin to click.

One of the biggest parts of the flow of They Bleed Pixels comes from the trance-inducing zipping around of the protagonist from enemy to enemy, getting into that mental fugue state that breaks down the barrier between player and character.  When a player starts hitting those insane multipliers and consecutive hit counters, it’s safe to assume that they have arrived in that plane of “feel” that Spooky Squid is shooting for.

In explaining the combo system, Miguel conjures up references I wasn’t expecting, referencing the key inspiration being music games with their rhythmic   “My inspiration for the combo system actually comes more from music games as opposed to just high score beat-em-up games.”  By stringing together inventive combos of kicks, slashes, and punches, players build up the ability to lay down a checkpoint at any point throughout a level, so long as the area isn’t infested with enemies.  Similarly, by being particularly ballsy and not laying down your checkpoint, you accrue more points while eviscerating the shadowy bipeds with your blade arms that look like eldritch tuning forks.  It is with these points that you acquire the use of a checkpoint.

Miguel has an inherent distrust of power ups in games.  “If you use [power ups] as rewards for playing well, they often tell you to stop playing well.  So you get an upgrade and all of the sudden, all that skill you just learned kind of goes away.”  So, in They Bleed Pixels, the team opted for a slightly different approach by attaching how well you play to how often you can put down a checkpoint.  And make no mistake: this game is not going to be some walk down Insmouth Park, so you should find yourself wanting as many checkpoints as you can get.

But the feel that Miguel and Andrij were going for went beyond gameplay.  Another quintessential factor in nailing down the game’s feel was getting the music just right.  Miguel contacted DJ Finish Him (aka: Shaun Hatton) early on in the project’s life to inquire about collaborating with Spooky Squid for They Bleed Pixels.  Sternberg gave me a quick synopsis of the ways in which the two worked together to add a new level of synchronicity to the experience.  “Whenever I would make a background for a level, I would send it to him and say ‘here’s some inspiration to try to hit with the music,’ and he would go off and create early versions of tracks.  After the level was done, I would play through a level listening to the tracks that he sent, looking for one that really nailed the mood.”  This creative partnership was paramount in the creating of that quintessential feel for They Bleed Pixels, and led to a thick soundtrack of songs that Sternberg hinted may be available for purchase some time after the game’s release.

If it wasn’t already evident, Spooky Squid is all about pulling from a variety of sources.  As a board member of The Hand Eye Society — an indie games art and culture group based in Toronto — Miguel is waist deep in the Toronto arts scene.  They Bleed Pixels speaks to that as a totem of cumulative artistic effect — pulling inspiration from a variety of sources while finding its own voice in the process.  It is also a product of inspiration that, in turn, inspires others.  When playtested by friends, it became evident that many of those artists who played wanted to contribute to the project, and so came the inclusion of guest levels that allowed for new imaginings of the protagonist and environments that feel very different from the main game because of the break in artwork and level design, and some even include new music by Hatton as well.

They Bleed Pixels is, in many ways, just as experimental as some of their freeware projects such as Night of the Cephalopods and Cephalopods Co-Op Cottage Defense but blown out in every way.  “The game is still experimental,” Sternberg maintains, “but it is experimental in perhaps more mainstream ways.”  If you look throughout Spooky Squid’s oeuvre you see games that look to do more with less and giving themselves definitive boundaries to find an objective to accomplish.  They Bleed Pixels promises to be the highest example of this style thus far, but don’t expect them to stop there.  Even after release, Spooky Squid wants to continue to support the product as long as it maintains a strong following, perhaps even with a level editor in the future, so you too can get inspired and make your own guest levels.  With no definitive release date slated quite yet, we can’t be quite sure when we can jump into the girl’s nightmares, but all signs point to it being soon.