ean started his journey to the game industry by making some Flash games during college around 2011 to 2012. Eventually, he sold one for $750, which ultimately pushed him to truly pursue working as a game designer. Together, with his creative partner and friend, Joni Kittaka, they formed Analgesic Productions LLC, and the latest creation from this team-up is the narrative-heavy platformer, Even the Ocean.
The game focuses on power plant worker Aliph who can absorb light and dark energy to modify her movement: light energy increases her jump height, but slows her horizontal movement while dark energy has the opposite effect. Using this skill, Aliph will traverse some gnarly areas and help out charming inhabitants such as a sentient underground starfish creature. Also, the gorgeous pixelated graphics and poignant soundtrack (composed by Sean) helps to give the game some emotional heft. Plot-wise, the game touches upon a myriad of narrative themes, but its core mechanic of managing light and dark energies nicely fit in to its central theme: balance.
I got to email interview Sean a few days before the launch of the game about Even the Ocean's development.
We're a couple of days away until Even the Ocean's launch, how are you and Joni feeling?
I think we're feeling pretty good! The game has been done for some time now so it's mostly sitting back and waiting. I'm expecting to have to push at least one minor bugfix patch in the weeks after, but the game is done otherwise, I would say. We're both pleased to have more free time. Joni has been working on a new small art-making game software thing and I've been continuing my part-time job as a game crit/design teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Why did you guys choose balance as a theme for Even the Ocean?
It was a theme that was able to be used to draw the player through a longer story, since it was also related to the game's core energy bar mechanic. The whole Light vs. Dark is easy to understand for many people, and can be nuanced and deeper than just some cliche GOOD VS EVIL story. It can help to draw people in and let down their guard with something that they immediately understand, but then sort of complicate those notions. That, and it's easy to go from the idea of balance to more specific themes, which is what we did for each of the game's areas around the power plants.
When it comes to puzzles, how was designing puzzles that gave the player a range of ways to complete it?
The general idea behind room design was designing for three playstyles - high dark, high light and middle-of-the-road energy. Each of these should be able to be used to finish the particular room , and neither should have any particular advantages, though if an advantage exists, there should be some increased risk with that. An interesting result of this design is that you automatically can't create single-solution or 'traditional twitch platformer' rooms, because of the multiple ways to play. So the dynamic difficulty kind of creates itself.
We tried to design so that the game doesn't 'favor' a particular energy alignment. Let the player do what feels right for their in-game body. I think we pulled that off relatively well!
One of the remarkable things I noticed while playing was the number of minority characters. Could you elaborate on this?
Thanks for noticing! Well, Joni and I are both East Asian. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood in Chicago. To an extent, in addition to inhabiting physical 'minority' bodies, we're also familiar with them b/c of friends and family so it felt natural in a sense to make more characters that way. And there's also the issue of representation, so it's nice to help out with that. I know we'll get some flak from people for doing this, but they should understand that it is a reality that some people don't see a lot of white people every day!
As you seem to be a big proponent for atypical indie games, how has cultivating your audience been since Anodyne?
Still slow. It seems that Anodyne has luckily left an impression on most of its players, many fans seem excited for Even the Ocean! Our focus is to try and not accumulate fans based on putting out funny memes or really good looking gifs, but more of just by Being Ourselves. Of course that's impossible when I assume the role of Even the Ocean Twitter, but I mostly mean that we try to.. not mystify the game making process or our identities too much. Keep it real. Etc. It's not the best marketing strategy, but then again we are making really good games and making enough money so who cares!
When it comes to music writing for games, do you wait to till the story and script is finished before composing?
It was a mix. For some of the songs where the writing should take precedence (like during city cutscenes) I waited for the script to be done before writing. But for stuff like Power Plants, we had those areas and their dialogue themes outlined out beforehand so I was able to go ahead and write those songs without all the work in the areas being done, and they would help shape the writing.
In 2014, there was a big turning point for the game development when "Even" part of game was killed. How were those discussions between you and Joni like at that crucial time?
Pretty productive and positive - we were both happy to 'shed the weight' of a 2nd game on top of Even the Ocean. Generally there was some anxiety over how big "The Ocean" was getting and how we were even going to incorporate Even, and we realized that the story elements of Even were kind of being absorbed by The Ocean, so it made sense to just kill Even off.
What do you try to avoid in the design or production process?
Art, at least during the design process. We build everything with debug tools and then put the art on top. For us it's too much to focus on at once, making final art and design, you end up boxing yourself in design-wise and then maybe you end up with pretty art, but a shitty game. Obviously these two can be more intertwined and you can't just 'put the art on top' in all cases, nor is a separation of 'art' and 'design' always possible, but it doesn't always work to work from a final visual image of something that will be interactable.
What keeps you coming back to game development?
Software is inherently flexible and you can do a lot of weird things with it. The ability to choose from more traditional linear narratives to fragmented narratives and more, and create work where the power is balanced between designer and player in different ways. The ability to know that the medium you are working in is actually software, and that you can easily model or move your work closer to other types of mediums, not just traditional games. There's a lot of space for experimentation and art!
Many, many artists do not understand games, nor generally software at all. I know artists who are trying to learn about it (as they should), but there are also very stubborn or ignorant artists who seem to want to remain in the dark. It's not like it is hard to understand, I mean we are talking people who read political theory or know the significance of complicated art pieces!
Sometimes these artists have power over school curriculums... so perhaps I am trying to convince these people of something, as well.
Even the Ocean is out on Steam on November 16, 2016.