The Overlook Journal

Artists of Tomorrow: Interview with Ian Dallas, Video Game Developer

By: Solana Gagliano, Staff Reporter

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This year, The Overlook Journal had the special opportunity to speak with Ian Dallas, an award winning video game developer who is best known for his lead role in the development of Giant Sparrow’s “What Remains of Edith Finch”.  Using questions given by Thornton-Donovan’s “Ready Player Two” class, we asked Mr. Dallas about his experience in game design, sources of inspiration, and his general advice for aspiring game developers.

 

Q: When did you know that game designing was for you? At what moment did you decide “this is what I want to do”?

A: “Yeah, I don’t think I ever really decided that. I think that I expected that I would do one thing, and I just kept trying to do that thing, and that thing changed. Initially, I thought I would write for video games, and then I got to a point where I realized that writing for video games wasn’t that interesting, so I learned a lot of programming and design stuff and figured that was more interesting. I’ve always been interested in things that surprise people, so initially I did a lot of comedy writing and then that interest sort of shifted, so I think right now I’m doing game design, and that’s fun, but what I really decided that I enjoy being surprised myself and surprising other people and just trying to find the most interesting way to do that.”

Q: What is your favorite part of game design?

A: “I think I like that it is constantly changing and the need to keep learning new things. It draws on such a diverse range of skills, many of which I did not have coming into it. It’s been a painful and educational process.”

Q: As of now, what game have you spent the most time playing?

A: “Probably Dark Souls, that’s the one that comes to mind. Certainly, that’s the game that I’ve spent the most time with and that I still enjoy my time with it, as frustrating as that was at times.”

Q: What are some tips for people who want to learn how to design games?

A: “I would say try to learn everything you possibly can about how games are made. So if you want to design things, it’s great to understand how to approach design as a practice and to move things around and understand wherever the tools are, but then knowing how to program a little bit, knowing how to animate a little bit. All of these things are really helpful because, as a designer, you have to imagine what this thing is going to look like when it’s done and that part is a lot of work from a lot of other people and the more you understand about what goes into the work that other people do, the smarter your choices can be about, ‘what can I do that will simplify other people’s lives, but still create the experience that I want?’ It also helps you to make much better prototypes and I think, as a designer, that’s the thing that is most valuable: being able to create something that you can show other people and convey what you want. In the old days, you would just write a document that would describe it and that was good enough. But now, there’s an expectation that you can actually play it and the closer you get to something that is interactive and that other people can really experience, the easier it is to convey your idea and also understand it. I think a lot of the prototype process is really about refining the idea. So, the more other skills you can pick up along the way, the easier it will be to design for a game.”

Q: What advice do you have for people who are interested in the promotional aspect of gaming (for marketing)?

A: “That’s something that I wish I could understand better. Having gone through the process several times, I still have no idea of how any of it works. When I started ten years ago, Twitch and Youtube were not a thing and now that’s a huge part of the marketing for minigames, so I really don’t have anything I could give advice on because I just don’t understand marketing well enough myself at all, other than to say that talking to other game developers, especially independent ones, it seems like marketing is becoming more and more important these days. I know a lot of friends who spend years making a game and they’re really happy with it and when it comes out and it gets really good reviews, and nobody plays it. It’s really hard to say after the fact, ‘why did people not like it?’ But marketing is becoming a much bigger problem, so yeah, I advise people to get good marketing, that is a really helpful skill, no matter what you want to do and there’s a lot of people who could benefit from that.”

Q: What would be the best advice you would give to someone who wants to take a video game idea from the paper and develop it into a full game?

A: “I would say that ideas are essentially worthless, but I guess the next step would be to try to understand that idea, because a lot of times people start with something that seems really interesting to them, but they’re not really sure what is actually driving them. Say they have an idea about a gunslinger that confronts a vampire, or whatever the thing is that draws them, but trying to understand ‘but what about those things really appeal to you?’ Maybe it’s the contrast of historical figures, or maybe it’s the old west in particular, or it’s just two people confronting each other from different cultures. Understanding the route-driver of that is really important because games, things change constantly because once you build something, you realize that the idea that you had initially is just not going to work at all. It’s kind of like building a car for somebody who’s sizes you don’t know. So it turns out like ‘oh, this person is ten feet tall! Uh-oh, now we have to completely redesign where the steering wheel is going to go and all these things that you don’t really know until you have people start to play it. So, understanding your idea at a deep level I think is the single most important thing for people that want to make an experience like a game that’s going to be constantly changing because in order to make it adjustable, you need to understand what has to be preserved and what is actually just kind of an artifact and could be thrown off if you needed to substitute. And secondarily, just being able to make your own prototypes is the biggest thing that you can do to convince other people that this is a project that is worth working on; whether that’s people who want to invest money, or people that want to help, or people that ultimately want to play the game. Like making prototypes, even if they’re really simple and really depends on the kind of game. That could be things that just are an interactive movie. If you’re really good at after effects or you do stop-motion animation that describes what the thing is, or like a really simple interactive prototype in Unity, or what have you, being able to make stuff yourself is really helpful to flesh out your own idea and then to describe that idea to others.”

 

Q: What advice do you have for people to strengthen a team ethic?

A: “I guess my first advice would be to date more because romantic relationships are really good places to learn these interpersonal skills. I would say the biggest thing is probably just listening; there are a lot of people that are much better at speaking than listening. So, trying to be aware of what it takes to really hear other people and to not get into situations where you’re just waiting for you opportunity to speak as someone talks is a tendency for people to come up with what they want to say, and are just looking at their watch for the rest of that speaker’s time. Listen to what people are saying because often it’s not what you think they’re saying. There are a lot of conflicts that come up that are because of assumptions that are very difficult. There’s a lot of assumptions that we make that are quite practical, that help us get through our day, and life would be impossible without making a lot of judgments beforehand, but working with a team, it really helps to be able to understand what’s going on in the heads of other people, which is an impossible task. But listening would be the biggest thing.”

Q: What software do you recommend for beginners in game design?

A: “Unity I think right now is the best place to start and using the C Sharp programming language. C Sharp is about as easy an entrance to the concepts of programming that you’ll find and being able to script things and control logic and all of that is super useful in Unity. It makes that accessible. And then photoshop after that would be excellent. And for designers, I think Illustrator is really helpful, just to be able to layout shapes and texts and to make maps.”

Q: Do you ever design games on Unity that you never plan on releasing to the public just for exercise?

A: “Not like playable games, but yeah these days I’ll probably make short animations to explore something. I’m actually taking a year from game development to go to school to study animation. So, there are times where I just make little sketches and ideas, but making a game is such a dialogue with the player, that it would be like I wanted to make a theatrical production and I rented a stage and build sets and not invite people to show up, it would be a very silly one-person, solitaire pursuit. But there are times when I’m interested in exploring an idea and rather than making a game, I’ll just explore an animation or really just write about something and try to figure out what it is that makes me excited about it.”

Q: Are there any other game developers that you look up to or are inspired by?

A: “The developer that I’m most impressed by is Ueda, the designer of Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and Last Guardian, is probably for me the high-water mark of games that I kind of wish I could have made maybe. I really like the team that’s doing Dark Souls and everything since then, I think they’re games have a really unexpected depth to them, in terms of the architecture and the gameplay systems. I also really like Katamari Damacy. I think his games tend to be cold and abstract and I think games like that feel a little more human and personal, and I feel like Katamari Damacy is one of the most human-feeling I’ve ever played.”

Q: When designing games, do you ever go back to your previous works for inspiration?

A: “No. I do go pack to my previous inspirations for inspiration though. I think for the next game, I’ve been looking at a lot of books by Maurice Sendak for example, that I was looking at for the very first game and it’s a little bit depressing, it’s sort of like a cat chasing its own tail. You know, like, ‘have I done anything?! I’m just still obsessed with the same things!’ But, looking at a lot of the artists I admire like Terry Gilliam and Louis Bunwell. Like a lot of their movies have the same themes that keep coming up. I don’t look at my own work just because by the time I’m done with the game, I’m so sick of it, like especially the last six months of development where everything stops changing. As a designer, it’s really exciting when you’re adding new stuff and there’s new problems to figure out, but towards the end, there’s no new stuff. Everyone on the team is kind of forbidding you from adding anything new. You’re just trying to fix what’s there. So you just spend so much time going through the exact same areas of the game. You’re like, ‘alright, let’s do it again in Portuguese.” So, whatever you’re doing, you have to do that over and over and over again. So I don’t look back to the games I’ve worked on.”

 

We also had a chance to talk to Dallas about his latest video game. Released in April of 2017, “What Remains of Edith Finch” tells a collection of short stories about a family whose members die in strange and unfortunate ways. The player, as Edith, uncovers her family’s history in hopes of figuring out why she is the only Finch still alive.

Q: When you were working on your game did you already have a plan of how the story would go, or did you come up with new concepts throughout the process of creating the game?

A: “The very earliest version of the game was a scuba-diving simulator. So it changed pretty significantly. The thing that did not change was the sense that it was going to be a game about the sublime; like moments that are beautiful but also overwhelming. For me, it really came down to this experience that I had scuba-diving when I was growing up in Washington State, and the feeling of being on the bottom of the ocean and seeing it slope away into an infinite darkness. So, initially we started with a literal version of that experience and then once we got it into game, I kind of realized ‘well this doesn’t actually feel as sublime as it does when you’re there in person’ and so the game very much evolved from that. But it still has that core of trying to create evoked a sense of ‘off’ for players, but it changed a lot since we made prototypes and had people play them.”

Q: In the game, each ancestor’s story introduces a unique gameplay mechanic. Were there any mechanics that you experimented with, but didn’t make it into the final cut?

A: “Nothing that I regret. I think there were a few that we spent a lot of time on. Mostly, what we ended up cutting were situations that seemed interesting. Like, I really wanted to tell a story in a parking garage that went on infinitely, like someone trying to find their car, or just like infinite levels of concrete structures to explore and we just never figured out what the mechanic was for that. There was another story about someone who was upside-down, like they were lying on the grass and looking at the world flipped upside-down and imagining things falling away, as if the ground had become the ceiling. There were interesting ideas, but we just never figured out what would the gameplay be or how would be explain it to players in a way that was clear and that would escalate overtime. There were definitely ideas that we experimented with, but I think we got pretty good after a while of tossing things out. You know, not putting too much energy into them. So there was nothing where it was like, ‘Oh, if only we could have chipped that!” Actually, we very nearly cut two stories before we shipped, so those are the things I would have regretted, if we hadn’t done Louis’s story and Gregory’s story, and those were just publishing concerns of just, ‘oh, we really need to finish this game, we don’t have much time to do it! What story should we cut?’ and those were the two that we almost cut.  It was just a lot of work and months before we were shipping the game, we were looking at it and we were like, ‘Oh my god, we have four totally different cameras and we need to solve all these technical problems and only appear in this one story. Maybe we should be focusing on things that have a bigger bang for the buck’ but, luckily we were able to delay the release of the game and finish [Louis’s] story.”

Q: What inspired the story and plot of Edith Finch?

A: “Like I said, the emotional core of it was the feeling of experiencing the sublime, which, for me, is like generally in the middle of the forest, or at the bottom of the ocean, or places like that. Where you’re surrounded by natural forces that are beautiful, but also a little threatening. So once we had that as a sort of theme, then I looked around for works of art that evoked that. I think for me H. P. Lovecraft, and there is this genre of literature called weird fiction, did a pretty good job. A lot of short stories that come from the 1830s, from before horror became a thing that solidified into a genre, when it was all just people exploring stuff, that was the thing that almost directly inspired it. And then the Twilight Zone a little bit, Jim Henson was a little bit of an inspiration, but those are the main themes.”

Q: Was that were the deaths were inspired from? (This was not one of the official questions, just an add on.)

A: “I don’t know where the death stuff came from. That actually was from One Hundred Years of Solitude. I should have mentioned that as a reference. Once we figured out that we wanted to tell a story about a family, then I started looking at other kinds of media that had told stories about a family, or that had combined stories together. So like Twilight Zone does that pretty well. Of all those stories that feel like they’re kind of related, but having a story about a family where everyone in the family dies probably most directly came from this 1960s book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, that follows the arc of a whole family in Latin America.”

Q: Why did you decide to make many small stories instead of one big story?

A: “I think that ties into the last question, which is once we started looking at works of art that felt like they were evoking the same feeling we wanted, of, you know, the sense of the sublime and that sort of stuff. A lot of the stories were short, I think getting intense moments helps to kind of pack that into a small package. Restarting the story gives the reader or the player a chance to kind of recover from those moments. We looked at it like, ‘What are other people trying to do that have similar goals?’ and they tended to be a lot of short stories. And in terms of the gameplay structure of changing that up every time with every story, the [theme] that we were trying to create for the player is exploring the unknown. So one of the best ways I think to create that experience is to change what players are doing, and from another standpoint, who is important, and what this person’s goals are and all those things. So, constantly changing what was happening in the game and forcing players to have to figure that stuff out was a big part of creating a sense of the unknown.

Q: What were your hardest problems during the development of the game and how did you solve them?

A: “I think coming up with unique gameplay mechanics, like what the player was actually doing in each of those stories was a thing that took the most effort and also the most number of people to figure out because there were often things that required not only a designer to come up with the initial idea, but then art, animation, code, and sound to make something. Even if it was a crummy prototype, it was good enough where we would be like, ‘yeah, this will work.’ Finding things that players never experienced before in games, but that were relatively easy for them to learn and that were robust enough to see in a few minutes, but not so complicated that we would need to spend years polishing each of these dozen different mechanics was the hardest challenge we had.”

Q: Your storyline explains that most of Finches died very young, but Edie lived into her nineties. How was she able to beat the curse?

A: “She is not part of the Finch bloodline. She marries into the family.”

 

The Overlook Journal would like to thank Ian Dallas for giving us the opportunity to create this unique interview. If you would like to play “What Remains of Edith Finch”, the game is currently  available on Steam, Playstation 4, and Xbox 1.  

 

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