With five characters struggling to survive in a time of political upheaval, The Man Came Around stands out as a socially-engaged fable filled with moral choices and human sacrifices. With a Kickstarter nearing its goal, NerdQ’s Erik Meyer chatted with creator Thierry Brimioulle on the 2D, hand-drawn game and the challenges that come with indie development.
Erik Meyer: TMCA deals with mass political crisis and a state of survival/desperation that results; how does this type of gameplay tailor itself to your message of activism in the face of fascism? Which elements are you proudest of, when it comes to implementation?
Thierry Brimioulle: The gameplay uses two main elements that reflect the question with regard to resisting tyranny.
The first is the opposition between the collective interest of the characters and their selfish needs. It’s up to the player to decide to save everyone or not, but basically it boils down to keeping them united or not against adversity.
But even if you decide to keep the group united, there will be situations that will force your hand. Sometimes, the best option is not available, and it will be impossible to save everyone. It’s an interesting situation because it reflects also real life and politics. What can you do when the best option is not available?
The second element is moral choices. You’ll come across different situations and have to make a choice, like saving another exile or not, for example. Often, the right thing to do will also be the most troublesome or risky decision for your group.
I think it reflects an important question. In those situations where others need your help, how courageous or passive will you be ? It takes courage to act, and it often includes risks, but it’s something we have to do if we want to put society on the right tracks again. Being courageous means translating our beliefs into actions.
EM: Morality and psychological trauma have mechanics in the game; describe the systems by which these operate. For the uninitiated, do players have the option to ‘go rogue’ and do completely evil things, or is this a game experience where witnessing amoral events depletes a psychological form of HP? In your view, how can games best present intangible things like emotions?
TB: It’s a psychological form of HP, but characters don’t lose them in the same way or by the same amount. Some will be able to abandon another member without breaking a sweat but will become really stressed if their own skin is on the line, for example. It will depends on their backgrounds, values and personalities.
Representing intangible things like emotions is tricky. For me, the best way to do it is to put players in front of the consequences of their choices by impacting the gameplay. Your characters are not made of steel, so if you don’t take their feelings into consideration, it will make your progress more difficult.
It’s one of the most interesting way to do it, in my opinion. The rest lies in the story, the dialog, and the little details like character animations. The little details convey that state of desperation or frustration.
EM: Describe the way you do 2D handcrafted speed painting; what advantages does this style bring to your work?
TB: It’s not really speed painting, per se. I usually draw a basic line drawing then apply the primary colors. After that, I use various digital brushes to add some textures and energy to the drawings. So, it’s not really speed painting, even if the result is more or less close to it.
It allows me to correct myself more easily if something goes wrong. Also, I’m very messy when it comes to line art, so it goes along well with my amateur skills as illustrator.
EM: Crowdfunding has become a hard-to-ignore revenue stream for indie devs, and your Kickstarter campaign is on target to meet its goal. What have you already learned from the process, what went into your decision to use Kickstarter in the first place, and what do you see as pitfalls to avoid?
TB: I want to stay independent and retain my creative freedom and the rights to my game. It’s my number one goal when it comes to funding, and it’s not often an option with traditional publishers.
Also, I’m already taking a huge risk financially, and I don’t want to push the envelope on that side. That’s why taking a loan wasn’t an option, either. And honestly, I doubt a bank would have invested in the project in the first place.
Crowdfunding made a lot more sense. And Kickstarter is still the best place when it comes to videogames, even if it’s not the El Dorado of game developers anymore.
Organizing and launching a campaign is a really complicated process. Getting public attention is also really tough. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but if you’re an unknown indie dev, you better come prepared with a solid communication plan. And even there, success is not guaranteed.
So, don’t underestimate the work you’ll have to put into the campaign. And really focus on identifying your potential backers and the ways you’ll have to reach them.
EM: You use a lot of white space between walls and other buildings/trees/structures. Similarly, the camera often views characters from afar, using black and white (and red, in the case of bloodshed) to create a stark landscape. Where so many games have bright color schemes or lush 3D graphics, you go the opposite route. What do you hold as a guiding principle for visual balance?
TB: I always wanted a minimalistic look for the game. Something that would be different from the rest of the productions nowadays. I think the fact that I’m not a professional illustrator helped me. I couldn’t go for rich details or colorful illustrations, so I focused more on the overall ambiance of the game.
I always stick to the same basic process when creating assets, whether it’s characters or assets for a level. It helps me save time but also maintain consistency, which is really important for such a long project.
EM: The menu/item system reflects the same minimalistic style that goes with the rest of TMCA; describe your approach to making HUDs and/or the visual organization of objects to enable in-game actions. What qualifies as a good implementation, and what do you avoid?
TB: The player has to understand the game’s mechanics as quick as he can and as painlessly as possible. I tried to keep the actions simple, with the minimal amount of clicks to make them happen.
The best way to organize the HUD is actually letting people, gamers and non-gamers, play the game. Seeing someone with no prior gaming experience trying to grasp how the whole game works is the best way to identify what doesn’t work in the HUD and what needs to change.
But I also need to keep in mind that it’s impossible to have an HUD that everyone will understand, especially with complex gameplay.
It’s a long process, and the visual organization of the game has changed a lot since the beginning of the project for that reason.
EM: Describe the impetus for the board game version of TMCA. How does it supplement the other work you’re doing?
TB: The idea was to allow players to live the adventure as a particular character. To transform a solo experience into a collective one. I don’t have the resources to do it in the video game version, so creating a board game was the simplest way to do that.
It uses the same mechanics as the game, except people have to reach a consensus on what they will try to do/go by voting. They can influence that vote using cards that reflect social interactions. And if their collective goal is to cross the border, each player also has to stay alive to be victorious, even if it means throwing someone under the bus to save his or her own life.
So, the opposition between the collective good and the selfish interests of players is still there. The board game prototype is a logical side-product of the game, actually. I didn’t need to produce a lot of new graphic assets, and even the gameplay seemed clear in my head from the beginning. Now, the trickiest thing is to balance all that, of course.
EM: Games, art, and literature often reflect the values of the societies that spawn them; I live in America, you live in Belgium (and recent politics have been, to put it lightly, a horror show massacre wrapped in a lobotomy)… what have you included, in terms of content, that speaks to this desire to bridge fantasy and reality?
TB: Well, a lot of my own anxieties about the world we live in. I think we are witnessing an unprecedented attack on the civil liberties and social rights we gained during the 20th century with the same old economical arguments and tricks that conservatives and neoliberals have used since the industrial revolution, and that others used before them.
Traditionally, democrats would be opposed to those arguments in the U.S., or democratic socialists in the UE. But those politicians took a neoliberal stance in the 90’s. So, we’re crushed between those who don’t want to change anything in society and those who want to regress back to a situation close to the industrial revolution.
We see this in the U.S. but also in Europe. Deregulations, protests, protesters being jailed etc… And the disorganization of the left. The game just tries to imagine what could happen if we don’t react to those things.
I hope the energy brought by the Bernie Sanders campaign, or more recently by la France Insoumise in France, will led to a recomposition of the social movement. With a clear and ambitious platform to oppose to the neoliberal one. We really need a progressive, democratic, and radical movement if we want to dodge what’s coming for us.
If you missed it, here’s the trailer: