In our ongoing mission to define the facets that make gaming the unique art form it is and has to potential to become, the Metro City Reform Committee has attempted to contact various people who actually make games. Unfortunately most were intimidated by our impeccable physiques, “accept no substitutes” attitude, and brilliant repartee. These jealous fools were afraid to return our calls, and even now hide in shame over it.
One developer wasn’t afraid though. His name is Chris Zukowski, and he’s got a little Independent Game coming out later this summer. It’s called City Tuesday.
For those not familiar with the scene, Indie games have been steadily gaining popularity and notice over the last half a dozen years or so. Whereas in 2004, the few resources and high costs of entry forced those attempting to break in to rely on only the most traditional of methods, namely shopping around to secure a publisher (as with The Behemoth’s Alien Hominid), nowadays there’s a new venue that an individual or small development team can turn to in order to release their games to the public: the downloadable marketplace.
Downloadable gaming’s low cost of entry has made it a haven of self-reliant digital dilettantes trying to break into the industry and prove their worth. One needs to look no further than the enormous success of Minecraft to see just how far reaching an Indie game can get.
For the console users that want to experience this swiftly growing, rambunctious community, they can turn to the Xbox 360 sitting in their living room. Thanks to an initiative started by Microsoft in 2008, you can peruse over a thousand Xbox LIVE Indie Games (or XBLIG for short) available.
Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, here are 5 worth checking out for only a buck each.
“But wait!” you say, “Those games are all old! What if I want to play something new? Something exciting? Something that truly shows off what Indie Games are all about?”
Well that brings us out of our introductory tangent and back to the matter at hand: Chris Zukowski’s City Tuesday.
For those not watching the video (even though you should), in City Tuesday, you’ll take control of a man (via a delightful art style inspired by subway safety signage) and live out the last five minutes of his life. The goal? To try to stop a recently discovered terrorist plot. But there’s a catch.
Taking a page from the 1993 Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, these five minutes repeat endlessly until you get it right and prevent disaster from striking. As in that film, you’ll spend just as much time observing and learning about the residents of the city as actually trying to prevent your eternally repeating fate.
It’s an interesting concept, one worthy of a closer look. To that end I, action correspondent Adam R. Thomas, sat down with the game’s creator Chris Zukowski to discuss City Tuesday in depth. Or should I say, he was the one brave enough to face a certified member of the committee? Regardless, we got to talkin’ ’bout stuff.
Be warned: The following, though merely a transcription of our discussion, is so full of insight and intrigue that we must recommend those not yet at ease with their personal philosophical stances on the world, and expectant mothers not read, lest they forever have their minds altered.
Adam Robert Thomas: First and foremost, how are you doing? Need anything? Coffee? Tea?
Chris Zukowski: Coffee please. Thank you. (sips coffee) What is this, it’s delicious! Wait, let me guess. An Italian roast with a hint of . . . a Kona blend?
ART: err . . . Folger’s Instant actually.
CZ: Oh. Well. It’s still pretty good.
ART: Also, to get this out of the way . . . .A/S/L?
CZ: I’m 31. Male, obviously. Tucson, Arizona.
ART: So why five minutes? Was this something you figured out from the start?
CZ: My goal with City Tuesday is to get players to really learn a crosscut of a moment in time. After playing the game for a while players would know what was going to happen because they remembered it from a previous play through.
ART: But why five minutes? Why not three, or ten?
CZ: Five minutes allows the player to see the curve of the earth so to say. If it was just one minute for example, the world is over before you can get acclimated. You don’t have time to sit and just watch the world go by or for any of the games characters to do anything. If it was longer, a player’s short term memory would get confused and you couldn’t remember what happened earlier in the cycle. Plus, it’s a good hook. You can always say “Just one more try, it’s only five minutes.”
ART: So if I had stupidly good reflexes, this a game I could finish in my second or third five minute cycle?
CZ: No. A player like that won’t finish it any faster than someone who is trying to paying attention. I actually hate those parts in games with a “ticking time bomb” and you shoot your way to the end in time. City Tuesday is not that.
ART: So it’s more like Majora’s Mask, where your ability to learn over each individual cycle is what gates your progress?
CZ: Exactly. Observing the city and watching where people go is the path to victory. Players will go through many cycles that won’t yield any bombs, but in each they will gain knowledge for the next play through.
ART: I’m a big fan of the overall concept by the way.
CZ: Well, thanks.
ART: So what was your inspiration?
CZ: I love it when a game allows you to play with the impossible. I don’t just mean some fantasy like being a knight or shooting someone and getting away with it. Cosplayers are essentially pretending to be knights. You can play paintball if you want to shoot someone.
I am talking about games that aren’t possible due to the laws of physics or technology. Think of Portal. There is no way I’ll ever be able to approximate that in the real world. City Tuesday allows you to play in a world where you know exactly what will happen. I think we all have fantasies about what we would do differently if we could relive high school knowing what we do now.
ART: So what happens when time runs out?
CZ (with a devilish grin): The end of the world is an awesome thing to behold. Even if it happens every five minutes.
ART: Will the skips be tracked like lives? Can I compete with other players to see who can complete the game in the fewest skips?
CZ: They are tracked, but I don’t want to make it a competitive thing. If there’s a reward for solving the game in fewer cycles it implies that it’s bad to just to hang around and watch the world go by. The world in Groundhog Day was both a heaven and a hell. I want the same feeling in City Tuesday.
ART: The map design and theme remind me a lot of the old Activision Atari game Keystone Kapers; a 2D playing field divided into segments and rooms connected like corridors, with a theme of stopping a crime. Is this an intentional decision or a coincidence?
CZ: I never played Keystone Kapers actually.
ART: Oh? Well let’s see if we can’t fix that a bit.
(We watch a clip of the game on YouTube)
CZ: Hmm. Funny enough, my biggest inspiration for level design was another Atari game made by Activision from the same timeframe: Pitfall. I really like static screens that reveal themselves when you get to the screen edge. You anticipate what’s going to be in the next screen. Sometimes it even surprises you. Old Sierra adventure games, Pitfall, Metroid and the first Zelda are excellent examples of this. We lost that in most contemporary 2D games since the world scrolls with you, and in 3D games you can always see into the distance. It’s less surprising when small bits of the world drip into view.
CZ: The BART signs were the initial spark, because those signs in particular create such a story! Several little stick figures escaping from a disabled train!
It’s always morbidly funny to see warning signs. Such horrible things are happening to these stick figures but they remain calm, expressionless and almost . . . noble. I wanted to expand on this tension between horror and humor, and that’s why I used that visual style.
ART: So did you just choose the BART signs and go with it, or did you “audition” other styles from around the world? What makes San Francisco’s warning signs stand out from say, a United Airline’s pamphlet?
CZ: Actually, I did quite a bit of research into signage. One book that was really key was Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw. It’s all about how hard it was to get standard signs implemented across all of New York City. I was also influenced by all the infographics that have become popular in the last half decade. There are a bunch of signage styles all mixed in.
ART: Do you know when exactly the game is releasing on XBLIG? What are you charging?
CZ: No. It will be this summer though. It’s in the running to become part of the “Summer Uprising” promotion, but the votes aren’t in just yet.
ART: Well, here’s hoping you get in.
ART: I’m sure you’re more than aware that very few XBLIG reach huge sales numbers, even some of the better ones. Why do you think that is?
CZ: I don’t know why XBLIG have such poor sales. I mean, it is right there on the dashboard along with the arcade games. Maybe it’s because it feels like the public access channel of gaming? There’s also a lot to sift through.
CZ: This might be controversial to say with the XBLIG community –
ART: It’s OK, we like controversy here.
CZ: . . . but what if it’s fine that a good XBLIG game sells poorly? Despite a game being a quality product that also gets good press?
ART: Well, the obvious reason would be that it means people are missing out on some great games.
CZ: True, but hear me out. XBLIG is a great platform for new developers. There is no piracy, and it is a standardized platform that has all of the same hardware. There are no complicated contracts, and no complicated online store to set up. All of this means that primarily, it’s a great wading pool to get started.
ART: I can see that . . .
CZ: If you fail, there’s little risk. If your game is well received by reviewers it might be a sign that it’s time to move up to a bigger platform, like XBLA or Steam. The baseball farm system is a good metaphor. In the minor leagues you don’t earn a lot, but you want to play harder so that you can eventually move into the big leagues. There are a number of really great games, such as Miner Dig Deep and all the radiangames . . .
ART: I was a big fan of Fluid actually.
CZ: Exactly! If no one’s picking it on XBLIG, it should be on Steam where it can sell better. Hopefully getting poor sales but positive reviews can encourage them to pursue a bigger league that appreciates them more. But, that will mean more complexity, such as negotiating contracts and hiring artists. I think XBLIG should maintain it’s almost zero cost point of entry in order to serve as an incubator for future game developers.
ART: That’s a fair point of view. So, maybe I misread this, but on your site you mentioned something about being in some form of gaming journalism?
CZ: No, I was NOT in game journalism. I wrote game walkthroughs on a site called gameintestine.com. It’s still live, but mothballed. The idea was to provide a game walkthrough on how to solve the game’s puzzles but coupled with commentary. Kind of like a director’s commentary track, but by someone who had nothing to do with the game.
ART: So why give it up?
CZ: It was super time consuming. Also, although it was fun, I felt like I was just describing something I wanted to do rather than doing it. Rather than just talk about games, I wanted to make one. So up comes City Tuesday. Plus, more people want to play games than read about them.
CZ: Well it’s true.
ART: Yeah, well we commentators at least provide a service, when we’re promoting you developers.
CZ: Heh. Fair enough.
ART: So how are you endeavoring to keep the game intuitive for the new gamer?
CZ: One of the leitmotifs that City Tuesday plays off of are the overly specific tooltips accompanying many info graphics. They help describe the basics and fit into the theme. For a more seasoned gamer these tips will be humorous and just part of the game’s world.
ART: Speaking of the seasoned gamer, how are you trying to appeal to the hardcore crowd?
CZ: Lord help me if I try to make a game for the hardcore. I don’t know who those guys are. I always picture the guys who rant on forums. They are an intimidating bunch and they don’t seem to enjoy things.
ART: Hmm. Considering City Tuesday is fundamentally asking the player to see what they would do if they knew a terrorist attack was forthcoming – what would you do yourself in that situation?
CZ: I’ve thought about that, definitely. I’d probably do something very passive aggressive to stop it. Like, extra locks on the gates they’d go through, or stand next to a security guard and say “doesn’t he look suspicious, sure would like to see what he is hiding.”
ART: So what’re you playing these days? Or have you found that making a game has drained you of your desire to play other games?
CZ: Not my desire, just my time. I have several games on backlog to reward myself with when I finish City Tuesday. I did play through all of Portal 2 and loved it. Also I sneak in sessions of that puzzle game Chime. I love how it feels like a really hip bar that is cooler than you but you go anyway because everything and everyone in there is pretty to look at.
ART: While we’re on it: Favorite game of all time?
CZ: It shifts but my favorite games are the ones that help me think about what I’m making. Right now it’s games that have a real persistence to them. I loved Animal Crossing because you were stuck in a town with a structure that you could modify. Similarly I really like the X-COM games because you play within a globe that you had to really invest in and slowly build up your bases.
ART: Who’s your gaming hero? I suppose that could be open to interpretation actually, so who’s your game MAKING hero?
CZ: I think Will Wright. More than I like his games actually. I just love how he uses everything to influence what he puts in them and man can he talk about them.
ART: What’s your philosophy on designing a game?
CZ: Well that’s a pretty broad question . . .
ART: Fair enough. How about, say, specifically in regards to challenge?
CZ: I like to play games that you have to master to enjoy. I love Starcraft 2, Ninja Gaiden, and N+. But when I’m making a game I want people to hear what I am trying to say and see everything that I made. Working on City Tuesday sometimes I feel like I’m creating this awesome model train set so that I can someday have everyone over to take a look at it.
ART: So this isn’t going to be Super Meat Boy’s bonus stages then?
CZ: Oh, definitely not.
ART: You’re doing this all yourself. How long has this project taken?
CZ: It’s taken me about six months now. I probably have two more months to go.
ART: By the way I was wondering: did you do the theme from the trailer? If so, nice job. If not, what is that and where can I buy it?
CZ: No, I’m no musician. Zero rhythm. The trailer music is by Isolée and the song is named Schrapnell. It was used as the intro music to the New Yorker fiction podcast and I kept listening to the podcast just for the intro.
ART: Big, loaded question time: Do you think the gaming industry is entering an “Age of the Auteur” as I’m beginning to suspect? It seems more and more notice is being given to individual executive producers/directors etc. Even in the big budget AAA games market. Personally I’m seeing this at least in part, as a reaction to the success of indie games as an outlet. What’s your take on gaming auteurs in an industry that’s so team and studio decision oriented?
CZ: I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion about auteurship –
ART: Yeah, we could be here all day.
CZ: Exactly. But I do wish all XBLIG devs would just put their names up front instead of some silly studio name they made up with their friends like “dancing squirrel games” or some random crap like that. I mean, i know their game studio is just a couch in their living room. Why hide that? Try and sell your game on the personalities of the group of guys making the game. If I learned who the person was making it I would be more likely to buy their next game even if I didn’t like the genre.
ART: Own up to the fact that you’re an individual, in essence?
CZ: Yeah, just put your names on it and try to make it personal to you. Don’t try and pretend that you’re some professional game studio. I think game developers revealing more about themselves can help make their game stand out.
ART: So have you found the Indie Games community helpful? What don’t you like?
CZ: I’m still pretty new to the scene; this is my first game. But so far everyone is nice.
ART: On the other end of that question: Is this it for you? I mean, if you could never make another game again (I dunno, you lose your hands and tongue in a freaky glue mishap), would you be happy with just City Tuesday?
CZ: Hmm. Well right now I feel like I want to make 1000 games before I die. So I sure hope it isn’t the only game I can make.
ART: Well, what if it does well? What would you do with more of a budget? Or an unlimited one?
CZ: I’m not entirely sure, but I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to make games that take me 2 years to create and are “epic tales” with cut scenes and dual wielding and karma systems, water physics and procedurally generated worlds. I prefer short novellas.
My game may be a little rough around the edges, but at least it’s interesting. Besides, I can try something new in another 6 months.
ART: Sort of like a short story. Actually, that’s pretty admirable.
ART: That reminds me of something, I think it was Stephen King maybe? “A Short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger”. Sometimes that’s all you really need at the moment.
CZ: Sometimes it is.
ART: Alright, let’s wrap it up. So why should the folks reading this first check out, then immediately buy City Tuesday?
CZ: City Tuesday is a really different game and nothing in your education or experience can prepare you for it. Too many games are based in a fantasy world that doesn’t have the slightest resemblance to your life (unless you are a warrior prince living in a far off land). I want to change that with City Tuesday. I’m not sure you will like it, but I am sure that it will be a very strange game that will make you wish more games should try something like it.
ART: Well, I know I’m sold at least.
CZ: Heh. Thanks. I just hope others are too.
ART: And thanks again Chris for your time.
CZ: It’s been a pleasure.
We here at the Metro City Reform Committee would like to thank Chris yet again for spending his time to talk. He’s one of many independent game makers out there, struggling to craft unique entertainment in an industry that often seems like it only ever wants to throw the same brown-and-gray military shooters at us over and over again. Folks like him need our support, and more importantly moohlah if they’re ever going to keep trying at stuff like this.
So do him, and yourself, a favor by checking out City Tuesday when it comes out a bit later this summer. We’d have a more specific date for you, but “The Man” is keeping us down. Don’t worry, the MCRC has sent our finest goons to beat the info out of him.
Until that happens, if you want further information you can also check out Chris’ website about the game: Return to Adventure Mountain!
If you made this far . . . thanks for reading! Next time: we bring you ROBOTS!!!