Leaving the Industry No Quarter – An Interview With Edmund McMillen
Edmund McMillen has become a bit of a poster boy for what it means to be an indie developer. He’s constantly producing games (and I really mean constantly) of a high caliber and a thoughtful content. They’ve been pushed towards the ‘art’ side of the indie scene, but they still remain very fun. In Aether you can launch yourself into the heavens by way of monster tongue, after all.
At the moment he’s working on No Quarter, an ‘album’ of games that has a series of smaller games, or ‘tracks’. The Led Zepplin allusions run rife, really. I mean, they were also prolific artists who released albums with tracks. Could this mean McMillen is the biggest thing to hit gaming… ever? Only time will tell. Until that fateful day, though, you can help support him by buying his cd ‘This is a Cry for Help‘, a compilation of most of his games, with some extra bits, or even get a Meat Boy Plushy, which is adorable when it has no right to be. We’ve also got a bit of a chat with him below, were we touch on why he makes his games, who he makes it for, and why the Pixeljunk Eden developers are dicks, along with some lovely concept art for Gish, Aether and Cunt. It’s a great interview, with some incredibly lucid and thought provoking discussions of what gaming really can be. Enjoy!
The Reticule: Ok, firstly: How’s the production of No Quarter coming along?
Edmund McMillen: No Quarter is moving along nicely. We just got one of the 6 tracks into beta and we’re testing it. The response is really good so far and it’s not really one of the stand out tracks on the album which is a good sign. The goal is to finish it by April.
TR: Is it sticking with your current trend of taking a very strong visual idea to lead a mechanic and essentially dictate how the game is played?
EM: Not really. The games I make with Alex are usually based on a physical mechanic, then the art and theme are designed around it. All of the games but one follow that theme
TR: You’re often seen as closer to the art side of games than most, which isn’t surprising given the quality of the visuals you consistently put out, even in something like Cunt. Do you actively set out to make statements rather than make something entertaining, (not to say those are mutually exclusive)?
EM: I’d say that with Coil, Aether and Cunt they were more experiences than statements, and after doing them i felt like… ‘Hey, I should really show that I can make fun games as well.’ So I did Meat Boy and Grey Matter, and No Quarter will be the same. I get bored with my work fast and feel the need to push my limits as much as I can. If I see that my work is getting too artsy then I’ll take a step back and make something different. I’m not a one trick pony, but my work is always going to have heavy visuals because I’m most experienced with expressing myself through illustration. I’ve been doing that for over 10 years, and I’ve only been doing games for 5.
TR: You used ‘experience’ there, which feeds in and out of the visual strength of the work aswell, but I found that with Every one of your games that I’ve played has been disturbing in some way, even in something as seemingly harmless as Aether, there seems to be a very strong subtext that not everything is alright. I found the text between levels in Coil particularly unsettling, although I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. Is a strong emotional reaction, no matter how negative, intentional for you?
EM: I guess so. Honestly, I just try to put myself into my work. I’m writing about myself in everything I do, even the stuff that might not seem like it. I tend to enjoy the more weird side of life, so that comes through in my work; death, conception, religion, the mind and the human body fascinate me, so I write about them a lot.
TR: Relating to that, just where did the part of Coil where you control the feotus with the organs come from?
EM: The DS. I had an idea for a DS game a while ago, and that was the basic idea. You’d control something on screen by stimulating its brain or organs on the bottom screen. I have this little book I keep with me, and I write down all my little ideas, which then usually find their way into games. That was one of them.
TR: You’re talking at the Global Game Jam this year, and you are somewhat conspicuous among indie developers, not least for games like Cunt, which seem to be made purely to stand out. How has this affected how you develop your games? Do you make them for a specific audience now?
EM: I make games for myself and myself only. I make games that are interesting to me. I don’t ever really think about who I’m speaking to. I’d like to think there’s something for everyone in the games I’ve done, and just hope the people who like my work will play my games. Cunt honestly didn’t make as much of an impact as many things. It wasn’t that popular and no one really cared that much.It was a super simple idea and I just did it to say ‘Hey, I’m indie and I can do whatever I want.’ Kind of a ‘fuck you’ to people who take video games a little too seriously.. but it was also a statement about what can be done with games.
TR: Random aside – That’s definitely a divide I see between games and particularly literature. Game’s are normally worked on by potentially huge teams – the most thoughtful are ones where you have a strong creative director, or a small team, such as yourself or 2D Boy.
EM: Yeah I think that’s why games aren’t respected as an art form; because they’re usually made by big teams. When a b and makes a song it’s not filtered through 30+ people. When a painter makes a painting he doesn’t have 30+ people helping him. When you make a game with 2-3 people, your vision is clear, and it shows in your work; it’s closer to art, and it’s very important in game design.
TR: So do you think that the increasing ease with which people can make and sell a game is going to lead to a good deal of really high quality, thoughtful games?
EM: Yes. I like the direction things are heading. I mean, people will still make crap, but there are a lot of up and coming designers that I think will make a big impact.
TR: I suppose it’s essentially a divide between people who make games because they want everyone to be playing their games, and the ones who want to make games simply as a personal statement, whether that be collective between the team, or the will of a creative director impressing upon them. With regards the big team anyway.
EM: Yeah I think everyone has different motives. There are people who just want to emulate classic games. There are people who want to push game design as an art form, people who want to innovate gameplay, and then there are people who just enjoy working on games and want to make money. I can respect each motive, and as long as they take advantage of what being indie means it’s just a good thing for everyone.
TR: The IGF seems to be gaining increasing credability each year, both due to the quality of games coming out of it and the publicity and help it gives them. You’ve been made a finalist for the second year with Coil. Judging issues aside, do you consider the IGF a positive impact, and has the status as a finalist helped you?
EM: Yeah the IGF has always been a positive thing for me. My bitching aside, the IGF has been one of the only places to show my work at and really get it out there with other industry people. I respect what they are doing and I think it’s a good thing. Winning with Gish in 05 got a lot of publishers to contact us. I don’t know how it’s going to affect me that Coil’s in it.. but I could get some cool press from it I guess.
TR: Coil will definitely divide a lot of opinions I think – in a good way really. The best forms of art are divisive.
EM: Yeah. I enjoy hearing what people think. My only issue with Coil is it was my first game like it. It has flaws, and I addressed them in Aether. In my eyes Aether was a step in the right direction, but Coil was the one that made it to the finals so I’ve gotta stand by it.
TR: One of my main gripes with Coil was that there were often very long load times and only a few seconds of each level. In particular the level with you wrapping tentacles(?) around some sort of food I really enjoyed, but ended far too quickly. Did you mean to have each section so brief, or were the goals of each section simpler than you had anticipated?
EM: Yeah see that’s what I’m talking about. There were no load times. It’s a design mistake on my part; a few people missed it by the title screen was a puzzle, and you can accidentally solve it. Each text screen is the same puzzle, so if you missed the first one then you will think it’s just loading, but it isn’t. That’s the biggest flaw in Coil. I was happy with the goals and the time spent on each level.
TR: It definitely confused me at first. But once I worked out what was going on, I couldn’t help but smile.
EM: It’s a subconscious thing. That’s what it was meant to do, but you were supposed to know what you were doing when you did it. Thinking back there are ways I could have fixed it… oh well. In the background there is a circle with arrows, spinning. If you mimic the circle’s movement, you go to the next page. Same with the title screen. Most people zone out and do it, but don’t realize they did it. That’s why it helps to test on people in person to see how they play. That’s been a weak point of mine for a while, and something I’m working on.
TR: Is there anything in particular in No Quarter you’re really excited about, or are really enjoying working on at the moment? One of the tracks on it’s own maybe?
EM: Yeah, track 1. You’ve probably seen it in trailers; it’s the ‘Gun’ game. That game can stand out on its own easily. It’s basically like Gish but you shoot. I like it a ton. Other than that one Track 5 is another one I think will be a big hit, the ‘Tree’ game, but it’s still too early to tell. The idea is cool though.
TR: I don’t suppose the title is anything to do with Led Zepplin?
EM: Yeah it does. Alex came up with it. We listen to Zepplin at work, and Tool covered that song as well. We wanted the title to show that we were doing homages to arcade classics, so the ‘Quarter’ part was needed, and Alex suggested ‘No Quarter’. I like that title a lot. I think the full title will be ‘Cryptic Sea – No Quarter’, like an Album. When it’s closer to being finished I should get Alex on here too and we can follow this up with Insider Info!
TR:: It’s a pretty cool concept really. I’m surprised no one’s done it before. How are you going to distribute it?
EM: We hope to put it up on Steam, but I’ll also personally print physical copies up, like I did with my CD, A Cry for Help, and maybe take it to console later this year, but I can’t say which one.
TR: Talking music, how did you come around to getting Kaada in Coil? Definitely one of the key factors that won me over. It’s got a really unique quality about it. Subdued, yet powerful.
EM: I emailed Kaada a while back. I actually started working on Coil in early 2007 I think, maybe before that. I emailed him asking if he would be interested in working with me on something, I really like his music, and when I was designing Coil I had been playing that song a lot, so in a way the game was designed around it. He’s an awesome guy, and he gave me the ok to use it, and use any of his work for that matter. I’m still surprised that he let me use one of his songs for Cunt, but I think he ‘gets’ it. I’d love to use more of his work in the future but I’ve almost run out of tracks at this point. I also used ‘All Wrong’ in Twin Hobo Rocket.
TR: I suppose it could arguably become a bit of a cliche’. Though his music certainly does have an ambient quality that could fit all kinds of settings really.
EM:Yeah, he’s all over the place. I’ve been trying to get more custom made music for my games, but if a track of his feels perfect I’ll totally use it.
TR: I think I’ve pretty much run out of things to ask.
Em: No Wild Card questions?
TR: Ok, one thing I’d quite like to know; Do you have a particular favourite out of this year’s IGF finalists? Personally I love the look of Feist.
EM: Yeah that one stood out to me, for sure. I wonder what’s up with Night Game; Black Ball in physics based world seems…. interesting. Nothing really has excited me this year. Dyson is a game I enjoyed. Pixeljunk Eden devs are total dicks who shouldn’t have entered… Cortex Command is a welcome addition. Osmos looks kinda interesting. Yeah those Pixeljunk guys have some huge fuckin’ balls to enter the contest, seriously. For me it’s not about being indie, because they are independent. It’s about needing the IGF. That company doesn’t need the IGF’s help. They have a game that’s selling well on a console. It’s a fucking dick move on their part. They don’t need that money; what’s a few thousand to them? That’s fucking 3 months rent for any indie dev. That shit helps us out. They don’t need the press or the money, and entereing was a big mistake for them. Whatever respect I had for them is gone after this, and I think a lot of developers feel the same. Fallout 3 was indie… they didn’t enter it. Doom was indie. I mean, come on. There are also other elements that they don’t talk about, like the fact that when your games are on a console you have 30+ testers, that are at your disposal, giving you feedback. You think I could just ship Coil out to my 30 testers, so they could tell me the load times were too long, because that shit would have helped. But I don’t have those 30 people, nor does anyone else, so how is that fair? Working with a publisher I’ve learned a lot about what really goes on behind the scenes. Even if you’re indie, you’re really not indie; you’re Independent. No longer indie. Super Meat Boy Wii isn’t indie… it’s Independent. I won’t be entering the Wii version in the IGF. I might enter the uncensored PC version, but I’m iffy about that too. If I feel like I need the help that IGF offers I’ll enter it.
TR: Just out of interest, were you to enter No Quarter into the IGF, would they look at it as one game or several?
EM: No Quarter is one game, that’s made of 6 games… so I assume it would be judged as one. I mean, Wario War was 200+ games. It will all feel cohesive when it’s done.
TR: Oh yeah, I was interested to see what you thought of Gravity Bone?
EM: Oh, Gravity Bone was cool, but I got more excited about it than I needed to. Game Tunnel called it an art game, so I thought it was something amazing and deep there for me, like Braid or something. I felt kinda let down but it’s a fun game, well done. Not many 3D games in the indie scene these days.
TR: Thanks for the chat, it’s been a pleasure!