Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted October 20, 2017
Edits and introduction written November 17, 2017
Greg Heffernan’s games always bear the mark of a musician. Under the pseudonym Cosmo D, his three games—Saturn V, Off-Peak, and The Norwood Suite—all heavily feature his own music in ways that experiment with sound’s relation to space. Saturn V serves as a testing ground for Heffernan’s early engagement with environmental design, deconstructing a song by his band Archie Pelago into its constituent parts to be explored in a level. Off-Peak is set in a surreal world of artists and musicians caught in a liminal space and stuck between jobs, all set to a hypnotizing, jazzy house soundtrack. His latest release, The Norwood Suite, finds players slipping into a hotel space once owned by an esteemed musician and is now home to itinerant artists and dance parties pulsating with music. What ties the native New Yorker’s games together is a concern with music production and the people who listen to and discuss it. His games investigate the negotiations made between art and commerce, telling stories of struggling musicians who must navigate a fulfilling creative life alongside the immediate demands of wage work, as well as the intrusion of corporate overlords into his dreamlike spaces.
There is a sense of inquisitiveness when you meet the developer/musician, particularly in the way he curiously probes new ideas and reflects on past decisions as though synapses are constantly firing away as he speaks. We meet at Indiecade, the International Festival of Independent Games, which is taking place at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. It is early October. Heffernan stands beside an open laptop with The Norwood Suite pre-loaded for passersby to jump right in; the game joins the dozens of other games in the official jury selection. Raised alongside the booth is a stately poster sporting a logo of the game, with layers of images presaging the oneiric interior spaces of the hotel: velvety carpets, star-spangled night skies, a skull with antlers. He hands out postcards from the eponymous locale, fielding questions from curious players asking about how the game works, its music, and the story it tells. All around us, a gaggle of Angelenos floats around the various games exhibited in the nominee hall, playing or watching vicariously. The neighborhood of Little Tokyo is already a full sensory experience, and the arrival of a bustling festival full of colorful games, noisy revelry, and teeming crowds overwhelms the mind. “It was good to be out there,” he later tells me, “It was good to just take it all in.”
Days after Indiecade, we talk about his experiences in this kind of festival space and consider the lessons learned from Saturn V and Off-Peak in developing The Norwood Suite. A lot is on Greg Heffernan’s mind; his responses are leisurely and infinitely generous. We discuss everything from the influence of Robert Yang and the NYU Game Center, his transition from his music career to videogame development, writing naturalistic dialogue, and the emergence of UK dance artists in the Brooklyn music scene in the late 2000s. Below is our interview (conducted October 20, 2017), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Since you just released your game The Norwood Suite, how different was the development process compared to Off-Peak? What have you learned since the release of Off-Peak, and what knowledge have you brought to this new game?
I learned quite a bit. The Norwood Suite is a much more involved game, in terms of its mechanics, its systems, and the way you interact with people. It doesn’t seem different because it’s still the same kind of game where you’re walking around places and picking stuff up, but any new gameplay mechanic adds an exponential layer of complexity to what you already have. It’s not an additive; it’s an exponential. So all the new systems that are in this—whether it’s the haptics, the inventory system, the dialogue system, or the audio and dialogue interacting—all of that stuff took a little bit of research and development to figure out how to make it work well, how to make it relatively stable, and how to integrate it into the game in a way that felt seamless and holistic to the experience. And I think that it made the development time really long. It took about two years of relatively uninterrupted work. I found a lot of different influences from some NYU colleagues who came in midway through development, and then the latter part of development was spent holing up and applying those lessons learned. At the end of development, a publisher came in, and a quality assurance team basically broke the game in ten thousand ways for me to figure out how to fix all those issues.
So there’s a lot more outside influence with Norwood Suite than there was with Off-Peak in terms of immediate people being involved and giving their unsolicited advice and feedback. Off-Peak was a little bit more like me messing around and trying things out with lower stakes and less time spent. I think you can sense that difference in how Norwood Suite is put together, how long it is, and how thick it is in terms of density of material and ideas. In terms of what I wanted, I feel like I’m still learning and processing how people are responding to the game because it just came out. By putting The Norwood Suite out as a commercial release, you set it up to be judged on different criteria than in the freeware scene. I tried to address that by making a game that could have its space in a paid content situation and see how people would react to that. Even though it’s a modestly priced game, it’s still a game that asks more from the players in terms of their money and also their time and attention. I’m seeing how effective it could be with this sort of game versus Off-Peak, which was one and done, twenty minutes, whereas this is a more involved experience. Yeah, it’s too early to say and to have a postmortem. But the differences are stark enough that I will say there’s a clear difference between how you frame something, whether it’s as a fun little free game that anyone can get into versus a more involved, paid experience that asks more from players but hopefully gives more back in return. So I’m still exploring what the feedback to those differences are.
What are some of the ways you’ve been finding out about that kind of feedback? Are you reading reviews or comments from people?
Yeah, I mean I’m not getting too much into the feedback, but I’m trying to get a sense of what the common threads are. I’ve been lucky that most of the response has been really warm, positive, and enthusiastic. Any response that has been less than that makes me think, “Oh, it really wasn’t for them,” or, “Ah, they fundamentally didn’t get it.” To my knowledge, I haven’t gotten any pushback on the things that I felt really strongly about, like the mood, the vibe, and the intention. I haven’t been really challenged on things like the tension between art and commerce or the way I use sound because I felt like I stepped into those things with a certain amount of conviction and sure-footedness that for a lot of players felt undeniable. If they missed it, they at least felt it, and it didn’t feel abrasive to them. It didn’t feel false to the players; it feels true because it is true, at least to me.
“I felt like I stepped into those things with a certain amount of conviction and sure-footedness that for a lot of players felt undeniable.”
Maybe the message was obscured, or they were interested in other things about the game, but the things that I have gotten the most pushback on—which are more detail, aesthetics, character models, etc.—were always the things I knew going in were not going to be my strongest card to play. So nothing surprises me in terms of how the game has been received. In either case, I’m not surprised at the positive feedback. I’m happy about it, but I’m also not surprised at the pushback towards the things I considered were the less developed aspects of the game or that I knew were at the edge of my abilities. I try to read stuff, but not too deeply.
Those are interesting themes, and we’ll definitely discuss that more in depth later in this interview. I wonder if we can backtrack a little bit first. Can you discuss your background prior to working in game development? What was your education, and how did you come to be involved in videogames?
My education was as a classically trained cellist that just happened to really like to play games in my spare time. I got into the New York music scene, playing in bands and doing studio work. I did a stint in Bing & Ruth before they signed to 4AD and got bigger. I moved in different musical circles in sort of the New York underground scene for about a decade, and then started my own project in the underground dance music world. I got into writing commercial music, so it was a lot of music, all the time. I saw a lot of interesting stuff, met many interesting people, went on odd adventures, and loved learning and messing around with software in the musical world. But then I started to mess around with game software because I had some time on my hands one day around 2013, and that’s how I started making games. I came to it purely as a curious person who wanted to learn something new.
You mentioned earlier about working with NYU. Can you tell us more about that experience and the kinds of projects you were working on there?
I graduated from NYU in 2005, but I would end up coming back to their Game Design program. I found out about the program nine years later in 2014. It had emerged to become its own thing, and their space was in downtown Brooklyn. I could bike there, and because they were having board game nights and playtest nights, I started meeting some of the people who were involved there and fell in with that crowd. They then invited me to apply for their summer Incubator program. They accept seven projects a year and give those people a little stipend and a lot of attention. It’s like a workshop, basically. So the NYU Game Center had a financial incentive to support me, and I got further enmeshed in their program and ethos. And they helped! Especially with The Norwood Suite, I think they really helped me commit to how I would shape and scope the game, and they gave me plenty of good ideas.
Can you talk about some of those ideas?
The whole music system came from a suggestion that this guy Matt Weise had to avoid static text like in my last game. Off-Peak had static text that would appear, and players would cycle through the changes, but Norwood Suite had more dynamically appearing text that coincided with sound. I thought it sounded cool and made the text come to life. Reading it was really playful, and I think pairing text with sound improved it immensely. I sat down with designer Robert Yang, who was my advisor in an informal sense, and he walked through my game and gave me some ideas on how to stage lighting and strategically guide players through the space. He suggested ways to make it denser, create more openings, use lighting more effectively, and have a “less is more” approach to things. There were issues of technique that I was still learning, which was great, and there were issues of presenting the work publicly.
“It didn’t feel false to the players; it feels true because it is true, at least to me.”
People in the Incubator program gave me the idea for players to not be able to wander around in the opening area of the world. Before, there was an open wooded area for players to explore, and I found that to be somewhat unfocused. I decided to make the woods walled off to suggest that you could go there, but you really couldn’t. I got rid of all the space on the right side of the woods, and now it’s just a cliff where you see this distant city. In terms of feedback from colleagues at NYU, they said things like, “I don’t want to walk around. I just want to go up to the hotel. I think I need some direction here.” From there, I had the idea to build this tutorial as you walked up the road towards the hotel, and it was a compounding of ideas that I felt were in keeping with the spirit of a diegetic gameplay experience. Let’s reinforce that you’re in the world and that all interactions are happening in the story of the game, and that all music is coming out of speakers present in the world. But really, a lot of this is gameplay in disguise. The reason why there’s a cliff and fence is because I don’t want you running around in the beginning. I want you going in a direction. There’s a little bit of freedom and agency, but not as much as I had upfront. Those were all ideas that I was getting from just being in the Incubator, and I think those influences really served the game.
What about your first game, Saturn V? How did that game come about?
That was the first thing I ever did. Saturn V was actually me messing around in Google SketchUp because I hadn’t really committed to a process of making a world or levels yet, and Google SketchUp was an easy way to make that really basic kind of space. I was messing around with Unity, and I really just wanted to take apart this piece of music that I made with my band, Archie Pelago. I wanted to basically create music stems of the drum track vs. the vocals vs. this and that, and put those things in different parts of this three-level space. You could then move around this space because it was decorated with all kinds of random stuff. Looking back, it was very rudimentary. At the time, it felt elaborate and a big undertaking because it was the first thing I ever made. It was a way of making a weird collage of found objects, and throwing things I liked together in a sort of quasi-cohesive approach.
Yeah. That whole music video / game hybrid reminded me a lot of the game We Were You by Cardboard Computer with the band M83.
Yeah! That was coming out around the same time. I got to play a little bit of that, and though I didn’t take direct inspiration from it, I was definitely paying attention to it and I think it was influencing my work in ways.
I think it was a really great time for that kind of hybrid connection between the worlds of music and videogames, and a great creative synergy.
That was courtesy of Kill Screen, Pitchfork, and the sponsorship of Intel, who all teamed up to make We Were You happen. I had a buddy who worked at Kill Screen at the time, and he was telling me about all this cool creative stuff that was going on and showing me these games. And I was like, “Oooo… that’s cool. Maybe I could do something like that.” So that was another influence. Kill Screen had its offices in New York at the time, and they were emerging as a voice in the games world and doing projects like that. I thought it was really cool that they were supporting independent developers like Cardboard Computer to make these music video games. It definitely influenced me to think, “Yeah, I’ll give that a whirl. Why not?”
And I wonder too since you were trained as a cellist and work as a musician, have there been things you’ve learned in videogames that have informed your music career, and at the same time, has your musical knowledge informed how you approach game development?
Music definitely informed the game because I had all that experience in music going into games, so I could draw from anecdotal evidence of what I knew to be effective and what I knew to be a potential blind alley or cul-de-sac—whether creatively or professionally—just from my own experience in music. In terms of how my game work influenced my music work… I don’t think it influenced it creatively, which is why my music has shifted. With Archie Pelago, our live show was basically this improvisational game we would play every time we hit the stage, or we’d try to explore different sonic and textural frameworks over this evolving beatscape world. So there was that influence, but never anything more directly. I think my music life and my game life are very segmented. I feel like in my music life, I don’t really talk about games that much. I kind of downplay it. I don’t play in any game orchestras, and I never reached for that. I don’t try to get gigs specifically for scoring games or performing in ensembles that dealt with games. I’m unsure how much of that work even exists in New York; there isn’t a circuit. Certain bedroom composers and producers certainly do that work, but I was never in that circuit. The stuff I was doing was more for commercials, advertisements, television, or the Web. There were a few advertisements I did for games. I worked on stuff when the Halo series was coming out with a new game. There would be a big, real-life trailer, and I’d be tasked with making a bombastic score and co-writing it with a colleague. So games influenced my music only very indirectly. Whereas when I got into games, I could draw from my musical experience and channel it into my work in games. I think it was more holistic, which is why I’ve liked it more.
“We’d try to explore different sonic and textural frameworks over this evolving beatscape world.”
I also read too that you’ve compared The Norwood Suite to a “long-form jazz piece,” which is a metaphor I really liked. Have you encountered other games that you consider musical in structure?
I like to talk about the immersive sim (simulation), and it seems like there’s been some discourse around the immersive sim being in decline because its commercial prospects in the AAA space are in a certain doubt. I think in spirit, the immersive sim always gave players this feeling of freedom and agency, and a sense of improvisation: how you move around a space, how you attack that guy, how you steal that chalice, how you get from Point A to Point B by way of Point C and D. And beyond that, how much lateral movement do you have to navigate that path? How many paths are there? How many ways can you go down those paths? I think these issues are very much in the spirit of playing a more interpretive piece of music, because it asks similar questions: how do you get from the beginning of the piece to the end of the piece? How do you get from the beginning of the solo section to the end over these chord changes and make it sound convincing? I don’t know if you could quantify a high score in a solo, but a good jazz solo is like a well-played game in the sense that the goal is to make the audience feel good and ascend to this focused, emotional place.
With a jazz solo, you’ve built on these ideas that you laid out there to ultimately achieve catharsis. I think a good game inspires that in a player. A player is playing an instrument; a player is playing a game. One is emitting some sort of sound, and the other is getting some sort of response from the game. It’s getting them somewhere in the game, or it’s getting them somewhere in the hearts and minds of the audience, watching them play. It’s like watching a real-life tennis match where two players duke it out and try and react, pivot, and express themselves through their tennis game. The Nadal-Federer rivalry is interesting because it’s two people who are so good at what they’ve done for so many years and expressing themselves uniquely. Nadal is this counterpuncher, this fighter, this guy who can withstand round after round and think on his feet. Whereas Federer is always this hyper-aggressive, assertive player who goes in quick. Their styles are very contrasting, but they’re both really excellent at expressing themselves as athletes and as players. I think an immersive sim does that by offering a wide variety of tools for players to creatively express themselves and improvise. I really appreciated that about immersive sims. I latched onto it as somebody that likes to make mischief and interact with worlds and music.
Since we also talked at Indiecade this year, I wonder if you could talk a little more about how The Norwood Suite came to be involved in this festival. Was this also your first experience in this kind of festival space?
It was pretty straightforward process to be involved: I applied, and I submitted the game. I went through the fairly standard submission process, and they accepted it. I paid the submission fee, I hoped for the best, and I got lucky. Enough people on the jury liked The Norwood Suite, and that’s how I ended up where I did.
Last year, I had been involved with Fantastic Fest, and that was really quite excellent. Fantastic Fest was more about the talks, and although the talks are important at Indiecade, Fantastic Fest puts a different emphasis on how it curates its work. But both are great. With Fantastic Fest, the talks ran much longer and everything felt a little bit more looped and open-ended, whereas here at Indiecade, everything was very tightly choreographed. It was just a cool opportunity to get this wide array of games out there in front of an audience.
Were you able to play other games while we were here at Indiecade?
Yeah, I played a little bit of Glittermitten Grove, AKA Frog Fractions 2, and I really liked it because I enjoy city builders and it’s a weird city builder in its own way. I didn’t get to the Frog Fractions 2 part, but I don’t think it’s quite that straightforward. I played Everything is Going to be OK; I thought it was really cathartic and powerful. I played this game Conarium where you’re exploring a research facility. It’s kind of a first-person adventure game, and I thought that was cool. I played Rhythm Doctor, the rhythm game that was a few booths down from me, in which you have to hit the button every seventh beat of a song. That was deceptively difficult but very cool. So yeah, I played a few things. I didn’t play as much as I would have liked, but I got a taste.
“A good jazz solo is like a well-played game in the sense that the goal is to make the audience feel good and ascend to this focused, emotional place.”
What are the kinds of difficulties you face as an indie game developer to find a platform to publicize your work? Can you talk about your experiences in making a name for yourself in the culture of indie games?
It’s like planting a seed: it doesn’t grow until it’s ready to grow. You can’t really expect your seeds to sprout in the time that you like or expect. I feel like you just need to plant as many seeds as you can and hope for the best. Most of the more interesting experiences in my game career have come somewhat unexpectedly or through a very slow, steady build of correspondence, trust, and an organic sense of connection. I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten anywhere entirely through the front door; I feel like I’m still entering through the side door. In terms of gaining recognition, I’m lucky that people are looking in my direction at all. I just try to make the work as interesting and as good as it can be, and hopefully I can learn from and build upon that.
That idea of an artist at work is a key theme in Off-Peak. The game explores the sacrifices that artists make when they delay creative work so they can find more steady employment in service jobs. How does one negotiate those artistic and commercial interests while minimizing those kinds of sacrifices and hardships?
Well, I think it’s like a resource management game. You’ve got your ideas, your time, your money, and your energy. I don’t want it to sound so stark and dry, but it’s a balance. I know with actors and with people in the film world, there’s this saying: “One for them, one for me.” And so a lot of people who are working artists like to do projects that make them easy money so they can take on a project that is not as immediately financially rewarding, but instead offers them space to do something more personally satisfying. So I think it’s a balance. Everyone ultimately has to serve someone, whether it’s their audience, their client, their boss, their family, or whoever. Negotiating those obligations of service, I think it’s a constant journey and balancing act. If you really want to make something, you’ll make it. If you don’t want to make something, or if professional obligations get too much in the way, then you probably didn’t want to make it enough. Either you do the work on the side, or you make time for it and the process takes longer. You make it work one way or another. We’ve seen people try to raise money on Kickstarter, and if fundraising doesn’t pan out, they continue their day-to-day, and the creative work just comes out a little later. But if they really want to say something, they’ll finish it.
I wonder if you could talk too about your games’ interest in places of commerce. Off-Peak takes place in a train station and museum hybrid, and The Norwood Suite takes place in a hotel. What was the impetus behind this?
I like public spaces because they bring different people with different perspectives together. It’s a very natural space to explore conflicting perspectives on a single subject. With a train station or a hotel, you’re going to have these people spending time together in a public space trying to figure things out. That’s really ripe. Any game I make, I want to set it in that kind of locale. You have these private rooms, corners, and tables along with the public space, but the public space is very pronounced because it leaves room for a lot of natural, everyday conflict.
“Everyone ultimately has to serve someone, whether it’s their audience, their client, their boss, their family, or whoever.”
Right. I wonder too how your background as a native New Yorker influences these ideas and your work in general. I know you’ve talked about areas like the Catskills and also the Hotel Chelsea. Can you talk about how that has influenced your work?
I think that living in New York as long as I have, my relationship with the landmarks has deepened over time. I’ve seen those landmarks and the landscape around them change. I’ve read about them and their history. I just wanted to give the feeling that I get when I’m in those places, like standing in the middle of Grand Central Station. I wanted to share that with other people: that sense of wonder, mystery, thought, and the deep history of thousands of people who’ve walked through the entrance to the Hotel Chelsea or the millions of people who’ve visited the Catskills. These are experiences that many people have had, but they’re geographically specific. I wanted to capture that New York experience from my own angle: the feeling of awe that I’ve always felt living in New York. I keep going back to that.
How long have you been living in New York?
I moved here as a student in 2001. I’ll also add that before I moved here, I lived about an hour away, and so I always sort of saw New York City as this destination that I would ultimately end up in. So in my youth, I built it up in my head as this Oz-like place that I would go to.
Even beyond the geographical influence, can you also talk about the New York music and creative scene? How important were these local cultures for your games?
Speaking on the culture and the music, that’s always been there, and my relationship with that has always evolved based on whom I’ve met. I always find something new. Finding the NYU Game Center was a real “Aha!” moment for me in terms of new inspiration. The longer I’m here in New York, the more things I find. And even if I lived in Los Angeles, I feel like I’d find stuff out there too. I’m always looking for some new cultural wrinkle or some shift in an emerging subculture. Things are always in flux in cities, culturally. I like not standing still and not aligning myself with one particular movement or scene. I like moving through different ones, because everything changes all the time, and I want to ride those changes.
“I wanted to capture that New York experience from my own angle: the feeling of awe that I’ve always felt living in New York. I keep going back to that.”
I wonder what some of the emerging subcultures in New York City were of interest to you. Can you talk more about that?
There are a few. As a student, the main one was the downtown “jazz scene,” which hovered around John Zorn and his circle of musicians. My cello mentor at the time was in his circle, so I’d see him play a lot. I saw a lot of Zorn concerts and played in a lot of bands that were drawing from that influence. That definitely influenced me in my early twenties for a number of years. And then later, I got into club nights and went to this event called Dub War, which was more about DJ culture. They were importing a lot of DJs from the UK—this was like the late 2000s—like Kode9, Skream, Pearson Sound (Ramadanman), Addison Groove, I could go on. These were the cream of the crop of the British club scene, and New York was getting that taste for the first time. I was going to those parties, and they felt fantastic. It was like a real moment in time because the club scene hadn’t turned into this very amorphous state. Everything in the underground dance music world in New York City at the time was in a serious state of flux. It could go in any direction. Brooklyn hadn’t built its super clubs yet, and XLR8R magazine was still in print and hosting parties and booking Four Tet. You could see Four Tet or Floating Points for like five bucks at the back of a bar in Williamsburg. It was nuts! I kid you not, it would be you and ten other people, and they would be spinning disco records. It was madness.
We saw Mount Kimbie play their first show in New York in a little theater. I mean, this was all just kind of hitting. This was the wave of the UK dance underground from the turn of the 2000s and early 2010s reaching New York for the first time, and I was around for that. I was really trying to be present in that moment because I loved all that music that was coming out around that time. And that influenced my own composition work. I moved away from that free jazz underground and moved into the dance music world, and Archie Pelago came out from there. We released material for Mister Saturday, and they were hosting their ongoing dance parties in New York. That was my second sort of big influence. And I don’t want to cleanly demarcate these influences, but going to the NYU Game Center in 2014-2015 was my third influence. These are all very local, really interesting things that were happening in New York at these moments in time. I wanted to be present because I was super inspired by them, and I just wanted to soak it all up.
“I’m always looking for some new cultural wrinkle or some shift in an emerging subculture. Things are always in flux in cities.”
That’s awesome. I would have loved to see some of those UK acts come by, especially at their nascence in popularity stateside.
Yeah. Those newer, emergent UK artists, now you have to pay $25 and then check your coat for another $10 if you want to see them in New York. But back then, it was a lot looser, and for me, that was the right time. That was a really cool time.
Do you have any good food recommendations in New York?
I mean, you know, if you’ve played my games, you know I’m a pizza guy. There are a few key restaurants. Lucali is probably my favorite pizza spot; that’s kind of like a mythical place. Di Fara is another one. There are ramen spots all over town. I feel like they’re all so distinctive that I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them. I think a real ramen hound will rank them, but I’m lucky to live close to a well-known, quality ramen spot called Chuko. But I think that sort of food in New York is pretty high quality all over the place, and I feel very lucky to be in that mix. I really like going to Momofuku Milk Bar and getting their birthday cake truffles, which are like these tiny cupcake balls that are really delicious and decadent. I could go on: the more you look, the deeper you can get.
I’m a big foodie, so I’ll be sure to check those out. Let’s move back to games now, because I was also thinking about the snatches of human conversation from NPCs that players are able to catch in your games. Are those dialogues based on personal experiences or exchanges you’ve heard around New York? Where do they come from?
I really like a natural conversation style. When I watch movies, I really like films where it feels like you’re eavesdropping in on two people having a conversation. It doesn’t feel scripted. With some movies, it’s clearly been written. An obvious example is a movie written by Aaron Sorkin or a movie like Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis. Everybody’s giving the speech of their lives; every line is profound and heavy. It’s like everybody’s writing a presidential speech with every line. I prefer movies like that of Richard Linklater or more independent cinema where it just sounds like people are talking naturally. Maybe the scenes are improvised, and the director’s like, “We want you to hit these five beats in the conversation. Go!” That’s kind of the dialogue I strive for, a naturalistic approach that works as a way of revealing something about each of the characters and the world.
I try to play both sides by keeping it casual, but also telling the story along the way, or telling a story. Maybe it’s not your story but it’s a story. That was something I tried to do more of with The Norwood Suite because there’s a lot more dialogue in it than there was with Off-Peak. But I also feel like it’s a process I’m still exploring. You have a writer like Raymond Carver whose characters convey so much in each of the few things they say and don’t say. I still want to reach for the things that are left unsaid and what that silence says, versus the things that are said aloud and feel natural and free-flowing. I’m exploring that space and looking for the sweet spot, and I think what you’re seeing in my games is me feeling that out.
We briefly talked about it at Indiecade, but I was also thinking about the various references in your games. In Off-Peak especially, you include Polish movie posters, Sun Ra vinyl records, and an Aztec serpent from the British Museum. What was the motivation behind these?
They’re things that are in my life, things that exist in the lives of people I know, or things that I found that would make sense in the context of that space. I just wanted to have them in there, because why not? They’re true to life; they exist. Those records were real records that my friend owns. I like that Aztec serpent. It’s mysterious and enigmatic, and I think it speaks to the enigmatic nature of that whole experience I’m trying to convey in the game. I think it’s a little bit more intentional in The Norwood Suite in terms of why everything is there and the reasoning. With Off-Peak, it was a bit more like, “I’m gonna put this here, and I’m gonna put that there because I think it’s cool. I like that; I think it should go there.” In Norwood Suite, this is there because Norwood hired a sculptor. In my mind, I’m thinking through an actual history of the building and giving a very strong contextual motivation for each of the objects, but the end result is the same. It’s a lot of stuff in a space, and for whatever reason, it’s there.
“I still want to reach for the things that are left unsaid.”
What’s your headspace like now that The Norwood Suite has been released? Are you still grappling with these issues of art, commerce, and history? Or have you been considering new ideas and problems?
The headspace is the same I think, but there’s more I want to say about these things but from a different angle. Whatever I do next, I want to set it in the city streets like in New York. I keep going back to these street scenes, a public space, or maybe a street corner. There’s some interesting landmark there that brings everyone together, but again, I want to explore the idea of economic and social backgrounds that shift and evolve. These are things that I’m taking from what I see in my life and in the lives of people around me in the city: shifting trends, shifting winds. Seeing bigger patterns emerge, or how companies and entities riding high a few years ago are now undergoing some sort of transformation or change, for better or worse. The constant is change. Why the change? How do things change? What is the change? With change comes conflict, so are we okay with that? How do we accept that? That’s what I’m thinking about now as I move forward.