Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted April 1, 2017
Edits and introduction written April 14, 2017
In the short time since the award-winning puzzle platformer demo Little Bug was successfully crowdfunded on Fig.co for expansion into a full game, developer Bela Messex has had his mind on both past and future. Messex’s thoughts are awash in the intersections of videogames, film, animation, sculpture, folklore, and magic, having experimented with mixed media in art school and now setting new goals on overhauling Little Bug for a tentative 2018 release. These varied interests collide in the exceptional demo (playable for free here), developed by independent studio Buddy System in Los Angeles. Players follow the young girl Nyah, travelling alone in the woods under ghostly moonlight, in search of her absent mother. Accompanying the character is a mysterious, firefly-like spirit with whom she has a telekinetic relationship, and players must work with both characters to navigate a surreal world in the folds between life and death.
Little Bug explores coming-of-age anxieties and questions of blackness with its story of young girlhood, bolstered in part by writers Bayana Davis and Iman Sylvain who have collaborated with Bela Messex in developing this game. These are themes so underrepresented in videogames culture, and Little Bug shines a new light on the narrative and stylistic possibilities of the medium. As part of the official selection at the annual Game Developers Conference, Intel Developer Forum, and Fantastic Arcade, Little Bug has gained considerable traction among critics and general audiences. A tendency in games culture and writing has been to shy away from discussing the personal histories, thoughts, and motivations of individual game developers, often leaving the human faces and voices concealed from the public eye. As a way to better contextualize the work of game development and keep things in perspective, I sat down with Bela Messex in his Los Angeles home to speak about his time in art school, his entrance into videogames, and his experiences with collaboration.
It’s a cool spring night, and both of us have returned showcasing our respective works at the Queerness and Games Conference at the University of Southern California. Walking around his home, one’s eye is drawn to the many tiny details that hint at a vivid creative life. Doodles on butcher paper decorate the side of a refrigerator, sharing space with flyers and local announcements. Bookshelves overflow with timeworn volumes, including Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole and a book of vintage nude photography. Old zines fight for space in between the cracks, poking out like bookmarks. Our dinner leftovers of shrimp tacos topped with Japanese mayo linger on a cast iron skillet, and we’ve since retreated to the dining room table sipping bottles of Asahi beer. The pleasant sounds of a live Mariachi band playing in a house party across the street waft in from the windows, coalescing with an orchestra of crickets. It’s in this scene where we discussed his work and other games. Below is our interview (conducted April 1, 2017), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Let’s start with introductions. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background before entering game development?
I always played videogames, but I never knew that I wanted to make them. My parents wouldn’t let me play them very much. They were always pushing me to create things rather than consume things, especially with television and videogames. They never let me have videogame systems, so I never really considered games as something that I wanted to do because I saw it as a foreign thing that I really liked, almost like a junk food. I always just assumed that videogames were made by magic because of how you press a button and then something happens: it was a little world inside your screen. I didn’t know how to do that but thought it was amazing and would rather just play them. And then I went to art school.
Where did you go to art school?
UC Santa Cruz. I’ve always drawn and have sketchbooks from all periods of my entire life. And when I went to UC Santa Cruz undecided in a major, I eventually just fell into doing art there. I think I was under the impression that in going to college, you’re supposed to figure out what to do with your life. And with art, I didn’t see it as something that you were supposed to do, but something that I just liked to do. That’s the direction I went, and I was doing interactive sculpture. I was welding and had a key to the metal shop, so I’d be there late at night welding stuff by myself, which I wasn’t allowed to do but did anyway.
Did they give you a key to access the building?
I was the monitor of the metal shop, so I got a key for it, but I wasn’t supposed to be in there by myself.
Did faculty know?
No. I mean, I had a key to the metal shop, so it was cool. I would jump on my motorcycle and ride up there and just weld. Those were some really, really great times. I started messing around with simple electronics—buttons and stuff like that—and made some interactive sculptures that were using those kinds of materials. I made this one peeing sculpture where you had to stand up to make it work. It had a button, a urinal, and a dildo at waist height. You walked up and stepped on a button that made the pee turn on, like a fountain.
It reminds me of this one fountain in Belgium, Manneken Pis. It’s a cherub that urinates into a fountain, and it’s become a big tourist attraction.
Yeah, I think I’ve heard of that. It’s not like I’d been thinking about this a lot though; my piece came out of nowhere. Honestly, when I made it, I didn’t even know what it was but thought that it would be a funny thing to see how people would react. It had nothing to do with gender or themes that I think about conceptually today. It was very much like, “Huh, that would be easy to do. And we need to make an interactive sculpture with buttons for our final.” And people circled around it to take turns. They were spraying each other with the dildo and having a really good time. That to me was so satisfying to watch when people were directly interacting with it and having joy. And even if they weren’t having joy, I was interested in seeing their reaction because I didn’t know what the reactions would be. It was really interesting to see people’s interpretations of what it was and what it meant, and their experiences and emotions.
Did you see that as one of the stepping-stones for your interest in videogames, because people were interacting with it in such an interesting way that you didn’t imagine?
I think so. Looking back, I can see how my interests in interactivity led to videogames as a natural place to go.
“That to me was so satisfying to watch when people were directly interacting with it and having joy. And even if they weren’t having joy, I was interested in seeing their reaction because I didn’t know what the reactions would be.”
Earlier today, I pointed out some artwork tacked onto your refrigerator that was drawn on butcher paper, and you mentioned that you used to actually work in a butcher shop?
I think that a lot of art students and people in creative fields can relate, in that once you leave school, you’re going to work in the food industry [laughs]. And so that’s what I did, and I got my Bachelor of Arts in Santa Cruz. Funny story: I never actually graduated. I finished in 2011, but it’s 2017 and I literally just put in my application for my diploma this Thursday. They [faculty] reached out to me and said, “Hey, so you’re doing all this stuff, and we want you to do talks at Santa Cruz.” This was the Dean of the Arts who basically reached out and wanted to meet up and talk, but they mentioned that I hadn’t graduated. I was like, “Wait, what?” and they responded, “Just apply for your diploma, man.”
So the butcher shop was something you did immediately after leaving art school?
No, it wasn’t. I bounced around working in freelance graphic design, almost to a point where I could have gone in that direction as a career. But it was never something that fulfilled me. I always hated making art that was specifically for the purpose of selling something that wasn’t anything that I cared about. Working for clients was very much that: making something that I have no personal connection to. It was really hard for me to get into it. When I started making my first videogame, I was actually working at a butcher shop while also doing some graphic design, which was the normal thing I’d been doing since graduation. While I was there, I saw an ad in Craigslist for creative gigs by somebody who wanted to make a videogame. They weren’t hiring somebody; the posting was from a programmer who was looking for an artist to collaborate with. So I did some art with this person, and I downloaded Unity, which was free at that time. I wanted to have more control of the gameplay and programming as our concept started developing, but he was using Game Maker, and I was using Unity. I had heard about Unity and started messing around with it. I made a little 3D character walk around with real lights and shadows. It was so fascinating that you could put a light in a space and it would cast a real-time shadow, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is nuts.” I had been drawing by hand from my perspective up to that point, so this was so great. I asked my collaborator if we could go in this direction, but because we were doing more pixel-y stuff in Game Maker, he basically stopped talking to me completely. I’ve never been ghosted that hard in my life.
Do you think it was a problem of creative differences?
Yeah. Eventually, he got back to me and we worked it out and we’re fine. I think there were a lot of things that weren’t being talked about, and he was stressed out. I learned a lot about how I work with other people, too. That was way back before I even started making the game that I’m working on now. He moved on, and then I was left being interested in videogames but not having enough experience in programming to really make anything.
So you were back to the butcher shop at this point?
It wasn’t full time; it was half time. I was working the butcher shop job in Grand Central Market for the Belcampo Meat Company, and I would have ideas during the day that I couldn’t really do more with until I got home. So I was drawing on butcher paper, and if I had ideas, I would even write code on butcher paper. I wanted to make a game that was really pretty, where you were walking through the mountains. I always really liked the way that models looked, and coming from illustration, I really liked drawing things as these picturesque, framed things. I wanted to make it 2D, like a platformer, so that every shot would be framed the way that I wanted it to. I gave it to a friend to play and they thought it was really pretty, but boring. So I had more ideas like having music play as you jumped but would stop as soon as you landed. And in making that work, I’d learn a lot, and every time I had a new idea, I would go home and implement it. Every time I’d make something new work, I thought, “Well if that could work, then this could work.” And it snowballed into having all of these different concepts coming together.
“I always hated making art that was specifically for the purpose of selling something that wasn’t anything that I cared about.”
Tell us about your current project, Little Bug.
Little Bug is the descendant of that initial foray into working on that game. That old Unity file, a year later, turned into Little Bug. It’s the story of a little girl who has a firefly companion that you can control simultaneously. The little girl is grounded but the firefly can fly in every direction, and whenever you press the space button—the jump button in a normal platformer—a beam shoots out from the firefly that acts like a pivot or pulley. A lot of people have compared the firefly to a mobile grappling hook for her.
I thought of Spider-Man when I played the demo.
Yeah, some people have compared it to Spider-Man too. That all came out of just trying different things, like having two characters at once. I also really wanted to have no death, like no videogame “oh you fell on spikes, go back to your checkpoint.” But I was having a very hard time making a game that didn’t have that, some sort of punishment. So I had to go back and make the game with that in it, and it ended up being actually hard for people to play.
Right. I noticed that when the character falls off a ledge, she respawns and says, “Ouch.”
I tried to make it sound cute by saying “Ouch” as opposed to “You died.” It’s not gory or anything like that. People have described it as “creepy-cute,” dark, and atmospheric. It addresses certain issues I had with the pace of puzzle platformers, which is very stop-go, stop-go, stop-go. For instance, when games don’t allow the player to pass before figuring this puzzle out, that kind of thing. It feels very deliberate and not fun, but at the same time, puzzle platformers have the ability to be pretty and focused. I wanted to make a game that was pretty but had a bit more momentum than a typical puzzle platformer, as a response to some of the pacing issues that I had with these games.
And it’s not just you working on this project, right? You’re collaborating with a few other people?
The ten-minute long demo is more like a polished proof of concept, and I had collaborators on that project. One of them was Iman Sylvain, and that’s whom the character is roughly based on. And Iman practices hoodooism; she studies mushrooms and bacteria, so I tried to work with her and include a lot of that stuff in.
I’ve noticed that in the jar that the player uses to collect flowers, mushrooms, and spiders.
Totally. Every time you reach a checkpoint, you can put a new thing in your jar. All of those things were different objects I came up with after I got on the phone with Iman and asked her what she would put in her jar. She listed a bunch of things and gave reasons why. Unfortunately, I was unable to go into the “why” part in the demo because I ran out of time. But since we successfully crowdfunded, I have a year to take this proof of concept and turn it into a full game. So that jar situation is getting…
Expanded upon. I’m doing all the things I wasn’t really able to touch on, like actually choosing what you want in your jar. Each thing in your jar has abilities that can affect the gameplay. I’m really excited to expand on that more, as well as the lore and story, which is also very expanded. That’s probably one of the aspects that we did the most work on.
Is Iman your only collaborator?
There’s Iman, and also my friend Sep Mashiahof, who I used to be in a band with. Sep is working on the music, along with our other friend, Tieraney, who goes by the stage name Wizard Apprentice. I also work with artist Cherylynn Lima. I had seen Lima’s work on Tumblr before, so I reached out, telling her that I liked her work and if she would be interested in working on the game. Everybody on this project is contracted, and I give them instructions with space to make it their own.
How do you know that you found somebody that you want to collaborate with?
It’s a learning process. Honestly, finding somebody that you work well with is about working with people and getting to know them. I think a really big thing is enthusiasm: if somebody is into the project and isn’t just in it for money—which is still real because you need to pay the bills, for sure. But if I’m looking for somebody who’s working closely and making this art for a project I’ve devoted my life to, I want to see that they’re just as excited about it. What I take for enthusiasm isn’t when they respond to my input with, “Oh for sure, yeah, yeah, cool, cool.” Enthusiasm for me is when they say, “Cool… and what if she did this?” I want to hear their take on the work and go off. I love when people want to put their own spin on it; I’m really interested in other people’s ideas.
It feels more like a genuine collaboration then.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing this game?
Crowdfunding was a big challenge. I’ve never been more stressed out in my life than with crowdfunding. I think the biggest problem was having never done this before, and I never knew if anything was right. I could find answers to coding problems, like if something wouldn’t compile, if my syntax was wrong, or if a light was making a weird flicker artifact. All of those things had answers, but the one thing that didn’t have a clear answer was if I was making this game right. I think that’s more of a feel, or comes with the experience and knowledge of having done this before. But I was having fun doing it, and I knew that if I wasn’t having fun with the project, I wouldn’t have been able to get very far because I would have thought, “What’s the point?”
“If I’m looking for somebody who’s working closely and making this art for a project I’ve devoted my life to, I want to see that they’re just as excited about it.”
Little Bug is planned for a commercial release, but it feels like a personal project too.
And even the demo was a personal project, too. I never planned on it getting this far; I expected to put it up online and only for my friends to pat me on the back. I definitely wasn’t expecting the mileage that it’s received. I’ve made other games in between—smaller games that I’ve started and finished—but this is the original game that got me into making games. Little Bug took me a little bit longer than those other games that I made in between. I made some jam games, and I made a smaller game called Oasis. That’s actually a WebGL game I made with my partner that you can play right on your computer on elsewhere.global. My partner is a digital artist, so we made a gallery where you can walk around and look at her paintings. And it’s in the middle of the desert, and eventually you drown.
What were some of your influences in creating Little Bug?
Limbo was pretty influential, and people have said that Little Bug reminds them of that game. I think it’s pretty transparent that I was influenced by Limbo. I love the lighting and its atmosphere, and also that it was still very much a game that had a pace. I loved those moments where you would walk along in the woods, and there’s bugs and grass and everything is framed. It’s a story with a beginning and an end. And it’s not this epic thing that’s forty hours long; it’s a thought. It felt really good to jump in and play it for that amount of time and jump out, and it leaves you with a feeling that no other game really has done for me since, not even Inside.
I like the word that you’ve sometimes used, that you like games that are “framed.” I think that’s a really precise way to describe a game like Limbo, in which the game was an authored experience where you see exactly what you need to be seeing and nothing else.
I think that in videogames, there’s a really interesting line to walk, where right now we’re in a time where crafting and survival games are super popular. Those are games where you’re able to create your own story, create your own tools, create your own look, and modify things. But you’re still modifying things in the framework of the game. It’s giving you the tools to modify something, but you’re never really going to modify everything. Then there’s the other experience, which is very linear like Limbo, Journey, or even Uncharted. These games are cinematic and linear, and when done right, it feels like a well-designed movie where you walk out of it thinking about everything you’ve just watched. Then you can play the movie again because it’s only an hour and a half long instead of a forty-hour game, so you notice all the little symbols and themes that have so much more weight because it’s condensed. I like the density. Of course, there are some games that are super long that have tons of stuff to sink your teeth into. You can’t really put your finger down on one type of game from one type of genre because the variety is so endless.
But this is just the one you’re particularly interested in, in your own artistic pursuits.
From a design standpoint, I like the fact that there’s no UI [user interface], there’s no stats to tick up, there’s no leveling up to do, there’s none of that. There’s just you, this story, and this world, and you have to make sense of it just by walking through it.
“There’s just you, this story, and this world, and you have to make sense of it just by walking through it.”
Little Bug has this visually striking, hand-drawn flourishes in its art style. How did you come up with this artistic direction?
Well, I’ve always drawn things by hand since I was small, so that was probably the biggest inspiration. That’s what I like to look at, and again, it was a response to stuff I don’t see a lot of in games. Since I’m making a 2D game, it’s also pretty straightforward to include it without having to deal with the shenanigans of making it always face the camera and stuff like that.
And the creature that you encounter at the end reminds me of a mix between Super Meat Boy and My Neighbor Totoro.
And you wouldn’t be the first person to say either of those things. I have a lot of characters that I’ve drawn that look similar to that character, and it was also the very last thing that was animated. If It had been looked at a second or third time and someone pointed out that it looked a lot like this or that, I would have probably changed it for that reason. But nobody said anything during the playtest. I was influenced by Super Meat Boy because of how punishing its gameplay was, and how I wanted to avoid punishment for the sake of punishment. I also love Hayao Miyazaki’s films a lot, and the story that we’re expanding upon is a coming-of-age story akin to Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, etc. They’re beautiful worlds and beautiful stories.
And human stories about children aren’t something you see often enough in videogames.
And Miyazaki tells really great stories about children, specifically about young girls. That’s something that needs to be talked about and told more. The thing is, I didn’t intend for it to look like Super Meat Boy or My Neighbor Totoro; it slipped its way in there.
Did you also work on the music for the demo?
Not all of it. Actually the theme song and a lot of the music was made by Sep. She also did sound effects and a lot of the audio. I took the theme song that she wrote—which is an amazing theme, she did such a good job on it—and used the key that she used to make ambient tracks to play in the background.
And what did Wizard Apprentice work on?
Wizard Apprentice hasn’t done anything yet, but they will for the full release.
You’re also involved in the L.A. Zine Fest. What attracted you to that?
Before I got into videogames, I was doing zines and comics. When I transitioned to videogames, I noticed that in the videogame scene, in events, and on twitter, there was basically no crossover. I didn’t see the same people in both worlds, which was surprising to me. There’s no reason for that, as these worlds have the same spirit for lack of a better term. A lot of these projects are being made for the same reasons and are about the same issues; they’re really personal expressions. In games and zines, you have the motivation of, “I needed to make this, so I self-published it.” So I asked the organizer of L.A. Zine Fest, who’s a friend of mine, if we can start showing games. She said yes, and a friend and I brought some games and invited others to come and show their work in a section called Playdate. We were terrified because they have a lot of crossover, but maybe there was a reason why those worlds haven’t mixed. Maybe this has been tried before and didn’t work, but that wasn’t the case at all. People at L.A. Zine Fest loved the games, and our game presenters were swamped the entire time. It was great.
For the final release of Little Bug, what are some of the things you envision incorporating into the final game?
The story isn’t that solid in the demo, so it’s going to be expanded. It’s enough that it has a hook that was intriguing for me, but I don’t know what it is yet. I put enough of the story in the demo so that I can answer my own questions about what it is.
“Miyazaki tells really great stories about children, specifically about young girls. That’s something that needs to be talked about and told more.”
And I love that the game begins with a question too: “Momma?”
It was mysterious not just for the viewer, but mysterious for me because I didn’t know what was going on yet. I wanted to be able to interpret that in the future. I left a lot of open-ended things and left the question open for myself, and hearing people’s perspectives on it has been really interesting for me. There’s going to be a lot more character development between Nyah and her mom and the reasons for their separation. The world is going to be much more fleshed out with new characters, and the gameplay is going to have a completely redone jar system where you have a limited amount and can choose what to collect. We also have new artists working on the game too. Basically, everything that’s already in the demo is going to be multiplied. We asked ourselves, “We went in this direction… why did we go in that direction, and how can we keep going and expand it?”
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, or is your attention solely focused on this?
My attention is solely focused on this. I definitely have other ideas, but I just don’t have the time to do them at the moment, which is a good feeling. I think my worst creative periods are when I think to myself, “What am I doing? I feel uninspired.” But I’m at a point in my life right now where I have so much that I want to do that I don’t have the time to get everything done. That’s where I want to be, and I’m happy.