Love in the Time of Shooters: A Conversation with Brendon Chung
Brendon Chung is the man behind Blendo Games, which has produced a string of top-notch indie games since the studio’s founding in 2009, most recently Atom Zombie Smasher and Thirty Flights of Loving. Before PAX, I caught up with him to talk about his latest game, his early mod work, and his love affair with the first-person shooter.
Dylan Holmes: Just to start things off: Thirty Flights of Loving has been out for about a week now. What response have you gotten, and was it what you expected?
Brendon Chung: The response has been good. I mean, people seem to be liking it. Before I released it out in the open, I was a little nervous. It’s a very niche title, with a limited appeal. Obviously, there are a lot of people who not only will not like it, but will have a very violent reaction to it. So I was bracing myself for that. But it was much less bad than I expected.
DH: The game has received attention for its story and its use of montage, but unlike Gravity Bone it’s a commercial game, and so there’s been even more attention paid to how short it is. When Portal was a smash success in 2007, I thought “This is going to be a big moment, now all these commercial studios will start releasing short games.” And it didn’t happen.
BC: The thing with Portal was that it was bundled in this unique stealth package, The Orange Box. They didn’t sell it separate.
DH: And I guess no one else was quite willing to take the leap of selling it outside of that?
BC: It’s a huge leap of faith to do that. You don’t see much of that…except, actually, on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. I guess that mid-range size game that Portal is, that’s still a growing field.
DH: Did you set out and say “I’m going to make a game about 15 minutes long?” Or did you just start building something and reach a point at which you said “this is done?”
BC: The way I build things is kind of an organic process. I don’t have everything totally concrete at all times. By the time I got to the point where the game is right now, it just felt like “this is what I’m trying to get at.”
DH: I noticed a lot while playing—and you draw attention to this in the commentary—a recurring use of symbols from other Blendo Games titles. I think you referred to this as the Blendo Games Universe?
BC: Yes, the Blendo Games Universe!
DH: What’s the appeal to you? It’s very unusual in the field of video games. It’s more common in literature, but in video games you’re generally part of a franchise or not.
BC: For me, it’s just that I love it when literature does it. I love it when movies do it. There are a few games that do it—Bungie used to do that a lot. Myth connects to Marathon, Marathon connects to Pathways into Darkness, Pathways into Darkness connects to Halo. It feels good when you’re in a game, and it feels like you’re part of something bigger.
DH: And it works in reverse, too—someone who discovers your newer games can go back to the older ones and really feel connected to it.
BC: Yeah! “Oh, wait a minute, I know that name!”
DH: I remember when I played Bootleg Squadrog…is that the one that has the Pleasant Pheasant?
BC: That’s the one with the Pleasant Pheasant.
DH: I was like “Oh! It’s the Pleasant Pheasant!”
BC: [laughs] I totally forgot about that.
DH: Another recurring thing I’ve noticed in your works is use of fictional references—this appears in Atom Zombie Smasher as well as Pathways Redux, and scattered throughout some of the other game’s readmes—is this part of the same thing? Is there something you really like about citing works that don’t exist?
BC: Yeah. This was influenced by Michael Crichton—this is the guy who wrote Jurassic Park, Sphere. One of his early books had a really big impact one me: The Andromeda Strain. And he sets up this book like it’s a documentary, a historical document, and every few passages he’d have a little footnote explaining what the passage refers to, or little notes. He’ll talk about a scientific study on married men vs. unmarried men in times of stress and things like that. I really loved that—it added this “Is it real? Is it not real?” layer to the book.
DH: Going backwards a little bit—you started out making mods and levels for Quake?
BC: Yeah. When I was in elementary school I was making things for Doom and Quake.
DH: How did you discover the modding scene?
BC: At that time Doom was this crazy new thing, this new genre called the first-person shooter. I don’t remember how, but I somehow learned that you can make your own maps for it. Actually, I take it back—it was starting with Wolfenstein 3D. And Wolfenstein 3D was completely tile-based.
DH: And it was shareware originally, right?
BC: Yes. And just some user made this tool to hack into the maps and modify them. And instantly, I fell in love with creating these all-new levels! You were able to create stuff without having an artistic or engineering approach.
DH: Because you’re just using the in-game assets?
BC: Right. And from there, Doom came out, and it was just so *easy* to make maps, it was literally connect the dots, you’d just click-click-click and you’ve have a room.
DH: So you’re gaming lineage is really tied in with the FPS?
BC: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that’s a big reason why I did Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher and Air Forte. Because I feel so strongly about the first-person shooter, and at the same time I don’t want to get railroaded down into just doing this one thing, I want to expand down to do as much new things as I can.
DH: And all three of those games were released on Xbox Live Indie Games?
BC: All of them except for Atom Zombie Smasher. Because by that time I’d realize that I wasn’t getting any income whatsoever from there.
DH: I know I’ve heard there hasn’t been a lot of action in that department, that Microsoft didn’t make much of an effort to promote it.
BC: Well, I know developers who have done really well there. Solar 2, if you know him—he does great there. All those Minecraft clones evident do gangbusters there. But Flotilla, Air Forte? Nope.
DH: But they did okay on the PC and Mac?
BC: Definitely, that’s why I chose to go just PC and Mac.
DH: Actually, Thirty Flights of Loving is just PC, right?
BC: Thirty Flights of Loving is just PC at the moment.
DH: Does the Quake engine not work on Mac?
BC: It’s the Quake 2 engine, using some add-ons. It is compatible on Mac and Linux…but it requires knowledge and skill that I just don’t have. It is open source, so if someone out there wants to take a stab at it, the source code’s available on blendogames.com.
DH: Is open source something you’re a fan of in game development?
BC: It is something I’m a fan of. It is something I haven’t been vigilant about. Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone are open source because I want them to be, but also at the same time because they have to be, because of the license the software is under. If I had more time and more skill, I would definitely make more open source stuff.
DH: But at least Atom Zombie Smasher has modding! Did Flotilla?
BC: It did not! That was a big mistake I made, I hard-coded everything, which was silly. It was my first game, so that’s my excuse.
DH: Earlier in this interview you mentioned Bungie. It seems like their earlier games have been a big influence on you—and it seems like, maybe because they were Mac-only, they’re not very well known.
BC: Yeah. To me, Bungie, and that string of games that they had—Pathways into Darkness, Marathon, Myth—those games are just amazing. I mean, just the fact that they’re ambitious, they’re fun, they’re different and very unique. Pathways into Darkness was arguably one of those great action-RPGs that everyone loved, like Deus Ex.
DH: And that’s like, ‘92 or something, right? [Actually, 1993—Ed]
BC: Which is very early, yeah! And it just did all of this great stuff. And in terms of storytelling, I think it’s one of the best…one of the hidden gems of video games. It just has one of the deepest story backgrounds. Like if you go to the Marathon Story Page, or the one for Pathways into Darkness…you could spend a week just poring through all those little details. That’s stuff that I just love, and try to take from them and put into my work.
DH: One thing I’ve wondered: Do you have a specific audience in mind for your games?
BC: I want to make games for people that no one else is making games for. Have you heard of the Nintendo strategy called “Red Ocean, Blue Ocean?”
DH: No, I haven’t.
BC: So “Red Ocean” means genres that everyone is making games for, like military shooters, or racing games. And they call it Red Ocean because it’s a bloodbath. Everyone jumps in, people just ripping each other apart. While Blue Ocean, those are pristine waters that no one is diving into. That’s why you end up with weird Nintendo games –
DH: Or the Wii itself!
BC: The Wii itself! [laughs] Which, you know, it’s hit or miss. They fail a lot, of course. But when they do hit, they hit really hard. And that’s what I love doing. I love making games that you can’t find other places. For me, that just makes more sense. I’m not going to make a military shooter and compete with Call of Duty, because I’m literally one dude in a room sitting in front of a computer. They have an army of 200 artists.
DH: You worked at the now-defunct Pandemic Studios. How was your experience? In independent development, there’s often this narrative of “I worked in the industry and it was horrible, so I became an indie” but I’ve never really heard that from you.
BC: It was an amazing education and an amazing environment to work in. You do hear that, unfortunately: “Oh my God! AAA! Blah blah blah!” But the thing is, you’re in this environment full of just these top-notch programmers, top-notch artists, top-notch designers and producers. And to be in that environment, and to come in every day and work alongside shoulder-to-shoulder with them, you just soak up so much. I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing right now if it were not for what I learned during my time working with them.
DH: What was your area of focus?
BC: I started off in level design, and from there I ramped up into doing more system design stuff, and multiplayer design. They let me kind of dip my fingers throughout the process.
DH: Given your background in level design and system design, it seems surprising that your games have such a striking visual style. I think that’s probably the first thing people notice about them. Where does that come about in the development process? Do you have the look of your game from the get-go, with concept art, or do you just start doing level and system design and let the visual design emerge?
BC: So, I have a strong opinion about art. In a game there’s a bazillion moving pieces, so in order to make something and finally release it, I have to make sure that I don’t get stuck in any one spot for too long. A big part of the reason I do art the way I do it is because I try to keep it as simple and as low-fidelity as possible. This is because programming, and design, and QA, and testing and all that stuff requires so much, and I can’t let myself get bogged down…
DH: With megatextures.
BC: With megatextures, or 2048×2048 textures, or diffusion and specular maps and all of that. It would be great, sure, but I just wanna be smart.
DH: Well, one thing that’s really impressed me is that with both Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, is I’ve heard a lot of people say “These look great!” Not “These look great for a 15-year-old engine.”
BC: Yeah. People are always kind of shocked and surprised, like “Quake II engine? Isn’t this 15 years old?” Well, I mean…I think you’re kind of selling yourself short there, if you’re letting engine technology dictate what things you can do. I think you can get away with a lot using old technology.
DH: There was the guy at 2K Games [Studio Boss Christoph Hartmann—Ed] who said that “When we hit photorealistic graphics…”
BC: [groan] Oh, yeah…
DH: …that will be the new frontier.
BC: That was weird.
DH: [laughs] Well, I suppose other game journalists have beat up on the poor guy enough, so…
DH: So I know you use an index card system for your game development. Could you explain that a little bit?
BC: So at Pandemic, we had this great system called a kanban board. Basically, it’s a way for the team to always be aware of what everyone else is doing. So every morning, we would all go up to this board full of index cards, and all of these cards would have tasks. And we would talk about what we did yesterday, what we’re doing today, and if we’re stuck on something, discuss what we’re stuck on.
It sounds so simple, but the thing is, it just made everyone extremely aware of what everybody was doing, and it made everyone aware of what everyone was stuck on. And it gave these clear indications. Everyone knew where the mess was at, and no one got stuck for very long. Because if you said “I’m stuck on this part,” someone would always be there to say “Oh, I know exactly how to set this up.”
So I adopted this system for myself, for one person. I bastardized it, ripped it apart. Basically, I would just have a task, and I’d write it on an index card. And it would go on a little shelf behind my desk, and then when the task was done I’d toss it into a pink tissue box.
It made me aware of how many tasks I had left in the game, because I had this visual representation right in my living room. And also was what I call a “dumb filter,” in that the time it takes to get out a pen, and write the task on the card, kind of filters out some of your dumber ideas. Like “Oh, I’m not gonna waste my time writing that dumb thing.”
DH: I should do that for my life.
DH: I gotta know: when you’re done with a game, do you keep the cards?
BC: I do keep the cards! I took a picture of Flotilla’s, it was a nice little stack. And I’m pretty sure for every progressive game I do, it’s been a stack a little bit bigger.
DH: I also saw you’ve done big box versions of your games. Did you just do those for PAX?
BC: Yeah, just for PAX. Just a fun way of showing people all the games that Blendo Games has done, since I get a lot of “Oh wait, you made Atom Zombie Smasher?” I really wish people knew what company made this, because I at least like knowing “If you’re going to like this game, you’re probably going to like this one!”
DH: Do you have nostalgia for the big boxes of yore?
BC: I’d like to say I do…but at the same time, I like the cleanliness of just having everything be a digital download, without having to use my shelf space for giant, enormous boxes.
DH: Just a few more things. I know your games tend to avoid cutscenes, or a lot of text. I recall you saying—I think it was writing about Atom Heart Smasher—that you like writing but are sort of nervous about forcing the player to read a lot.
DH: Does that come from your personal play experience? Do you get antsy when you’re force to stop awhile?
BC: There are games that just have a billion tons of text and I love it, like Planescape: Torment, one of my favorite games of all time. Baldur’s Gate, tons of text options to choose from, and I love that. I think it is one of the best RPGs that has ever been made. Still retains one of those top three spots for me.
But then you have 99% of the games out there where they’ll do a cutscene of two talking heads, and it just makes me want to gouge my eyes out.
DH: A lot of the time it ends up that it functionally has the dialog of Gravity Bone. “Mwar mwar mwar mwar, mwar mwar mwar.”
BC: It just makes me think: Why are you making me sit through this? This is making me feel so miserable. The things that you’re telling me are so uninteresting, so poorly written.
DH: It’s like what you’ve said—they feel like they have to explain everything.
BC: For them to explain something, that makes perfect sense. But you can’t explain it badly. You can’t explain it in a boring way. Like, Valve’s good at explaining things in a very intuitive and clear way that doesn’t just involve a cutscene of two talking heads.
DH: “A Hind D!”
BC: Ugh, exactly. Don’t get me started.
DH: [laughs] Well, just to wrap things up, are there any recently released games that you’ve been particularly impressed with?
BC: Let’s see…this is not recent, this is 2008, but I like Far Cry 2 a lot. It’s a first-person shooter, you’re a dude with a gun, but what they do differently—have you played Far Cry 2?
DH: Yes, I have.
BC: Okay. What they do, what I loved about that game, was that they kept the game very systems-based in terms of the combat. You know, you have Molotov cocktails, that have fire, that propagates to dry brush. They have animals that just kind of spawn in, and you can run over them every time, which is just completely unexpected and great. They have this unbelievably amazing buddy system, where if you’re down, your buddy will climb out of the bush and rescue you, drag you to safety. And then if they get hurt, you can revive them back to life with morphine, and if they get hurt too much you’ve got to mercy kill them, and then they’re permanently gone forever!
DH: I did that. It was *awful*.
DH: I, mean, awful and great!
BC: Yeah! And then they have the weapon degradation system, and the malaria, which…if you were to show me that malaria system on paper, or in a review, I would think “Ugh, that’s awful. What were they thinking by putting that in?” But then when you play it, it adds this whole extra layer to the game that I just fell in love with.
DH: I guess that’s it. It’s been really nice talking to you, and I just wanna say, as you’ve probably gather, that I’m a huge fan.
BC: [laughs] Thanks.