“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
-Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal
You know me. I am always on the hunt to recapture and examine “That Feeling” in story and entertainment, whether we call it nostalgia or reverie or fantasy. In so doing, I came across the double whammy that is Oniken: Unstoppable Edition and Odallus: The Dark Call. Both games play upon the familiar and evergreen 8-bit era, with interesting additions and innovations that do much more than merely tip the hat, and they were recently released simultaneously on Nintendo Switch courtesy of Brazilian indie studio, JoyMasher. The twin titles are a unique blend of influences, the one evocative of early Ninja Gaiden and the other early Castlevania, and more.
I had the fortunate opportunity to pick the brain of one of JoyMasher’s prime architects, Thais Weiller. A published writer, professor, and game designer, Thais is an accomplished developer with many fascinating ideas, the kind which will undoubtedly lead to a richly creative future.
I hope you enjoy this interview I was able to hold with her. I’m sure it’ll be as enlightening for you as it was for me. I want to thank the Mail Order Ninja Mage (@mailorderninja) for coming up with some questions for this article.
And thank you, Thais, for answering my questions!
Why did you decide to get into game development and obtain a degree in game design? What were some games that inspired you to enter that field?
I never thought it was possible to work making games, at least not in Brazil. As soon as I realized it was indeed possible, there was nothing else I wanted to do. I played a lot of DOS games when I was younger, such as Commander Keen and Wolfenstein, I believe these were some of my big influences.
On your website, you write about making a change. Change is good, so what kind of change are you talking about? How do you hope to accomplish this change?
I’m an advocate for underrepresented groups of game developers and players and for experimental and non-AAA game design. As a professor, my main goal is to show my student they don’t need to make a 3D game with realistic models to make a cool game. They also don’t need to mimic other games to make a cool games, specially the in-vogue games. And finally, that they don’t need to make games for the audiences the AAA industry is currently targeting. Those are the mottos I live for and that I try to aspire to, that’s the change I want to see.
You also mention on your website that you’re “fighting to make games, processes and teams better.” Do you have any thoughts on recent layoffs or on industry practices like extreme crunch times? Are these necessary evils or are there solutions professionals can pursue?
Those are the needs of a volatile industry with projects with very different needs made by corporations trying to max out profit. They are not necessary evils, but the only solution to them that I can envision is the unionization of game workers, something that may sound quite risky considering how little companies there actually are, considering all the merges. Workers are afraid, rightly so, they might get blacklisted. That’s when some regulation could come handy, but that depends on each separated country’s government. Sure, unhappy workers could go solo and work independently (such as me and Danilo), but there are just so many that can actually make it. Unionization would be best, for everyone.
Thais’ game “Rainy Day started as a personal project and evolved into a personal project that was actually released.”
I read a fascinating article you put together on the nature and evolution of what we call art and where video games factor in or not. This question keeps popping up and I hear “games are art” or “games aren’t art”, but your angle of “games are new” is fresh. What would you want to say directly to the person who says “games are art” and another who says “games are not art”? Is your point that evoking the word merely invites unwanted rules and rigidity of definition?
Many of my friends don’t agree with the points I made in that article. Some of them do, specially those that had worked closely with the current art world, but most of them don’t. I don’t have anything to say to someone who read that article and still thinks one way or another, that was my point and if you don’t agree you are entitled to that position as much as I’m entitled to mine. And you got my point correctly, the current meaning of “art” evokes rules, rigidity and honestly a lot of power struggle for a significant meaning that is elusive. We are in a point in videogames that we are still figuring out our media, let alone the message. Let’s try to focus a little longer in the media without getting lost in academic contemplation.
With Oniken and Odallus, you’re taking a step back in time to the great 8-bit era. Is there something you think we can still learn from that era about game design or about ourselves? In other words, is that era still relevant?
Oh yes. I think it is like comics, you know? You can render an image realistically, making it close to life itself. Or you can make it as a caricature, extracting the most importing information on it. Which one is best? Neither, they are different. The realistic one cares a lot about light and volume and detail, while the caricature carries more information about the action or emotion of the portrait. 8-bit games are like that, since they had so many hardware restrictions they had to go directly to the point and make a great point out of it. That is something we, as devs, take for granted today which takes us to one of this age’s worst game dev problems: feature crawl. As in reality, we are always trying to add more and more information, more and more stimuli. But games don’t need a craft system, a gacha system and an abilities tree to be fun. They might have it, if the core gameplay needs it, but they don’t need it. Current AAA games add all systems possible in a way to please very different audiences but as indie developers, do we need it? 8-bit games tell me we don’t.
You wrote “Fun is one of those things everyone thinks they know what it means until one needs to explain it in words. For us it means mainly one thing: challenging gameplay.” When developing Oniken, did you ever worry that it would be TOO challenging?
Ahaha, it actually was too challenging in the beginning. We committed a bunch of design sins in the first implementations. But you know, when you are doing the game yourself and you test it yourself frequently, you don’t realize things getting TOO difficult because you are acing it, you know? But you are acing it BECAUSE you made it, which is something you tend to forget. Fortunately, we heard feedback and we settled on a difficulty that we think is quite challenging, but not impossible and actually not as unfair as some 8-bit games of the day. Oniken was made for everybody, it was made specially for people who dig this kind of challenge. And I say that not as if in a git gut vibe, you know? It is hard but it is not a better game for it, nor is it worse. It is like it is to make people who like that sort of challenge fun.
(This question was submitted by our writer who covered Odallus)
Odallus is clearly inspired by Castlevania, but it also manages to fold in modern aspects of game design that enhance the NES style experience. I would imagine it is hard to both embrace the past while also coming up with something that stands on its own as a new experience. How difficult is that balance to achieve?
Pretty challenging, as you anticipated hahaha but as in any game, the real test of “this is my theory about how to make NES experience fit for today’s audience” is watching people play and iterate on that. You, as the developer, never have a full picture of the game and you have to embrace this blindness and accept the criticism of players. That doesn’t mean hear their actual words: most players cannot pin point exactly what is frustrating or what is good. They get a general sense of that feeling in that area or in that moment and they might point to the wrong game piece as the generator of that. Here comes your ability to be able to decipher that.
Contextual storytelling is evidently something that is an important aspect of the games you design. What are some games you haven’t designed that you’d recommend as gold standards for contextual storytelling?
Anyone that knows me IRL will know this answer: Super Metroid. I love how words are said ONLY in the intro of the game. All your knowledge about Zebes, about Samus, about the pirates comes from seeing the world and interpreting it. Samus is you and you both are lonely in this world. She doesn’t have to talk to you about that, that’s how badass she is, just as badass as yourself embarking in this journey. Oh damn, I love Super Metroid.
This is probably an easier question! What do “Oniken” and “Odallus” mean, and why did you choose these names for these games? They seem more mysterious than a name like “Blazing Chrome”, for instance.
The names of all three games are more of Danilo’s choice, I will leave him to answer that:
“Oniken is something like devil’s fist in Japanese. I thought it was a good name for such 80s Japanese style game hahaha. For Odallus we choose this name because of the “odal” word that means heritage and circularity, the main themes of the game. However, we choose not to use the rune symbol in the game because nazi assholes used that a lot so we made changes in the rune to look different.”
Kick fascism in its robot ass, b*tches!
Once you finish Blazing Chrome, do you have any long-term plans for stepping out of the retro game world and creating something that maybe looks or feels different somehow, or are you happy exploring where you are? Is there an idea for a game you’ve just always wanted to create but haven’t yet? Given the quality of these games, I think most consumers will be happy with whatever you put out!
I’m actually doing both. Danilo is the retro heart of JoyMasher, I love retro games but he is the one who actually sets down to “LETS MAKE A 16-BIT RUN’N GUN”. I have been experimenting on the side of Joymasher and Rainy Day is one of such experiments. I hope to release more of them soon, but with BC I don’t known when I will have the time to haha!
Thanks again for answering these questions, Thais.
Thanks for reading,
-The Well-Red Mage
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