As a reviewer, you can’t help not having particularly great hopes when asked to review a first time developer’s indie game. Especially a project that a single designer without any game-making background spent 5 years on. Yet a reviewer’s life can be full of surprises – Remigiusz Michalski‘s Downfall provided what I quite frankly consider to be one of the finest stories told in an adventure game in the last 10 years. Moreso it really takes advantage of being an involving player experience – challenging you with choices and actions that have real emotional impact. Some time ago I wrote down my own personal experience of playing the game, and today I have the distinct pleasure to pick the mind of the creative genius behind Downfall…
Martin Mulrooney: Hey! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to create Downfall? Where did you attain the necessary skills?
Remigiusz Michalski: I’ve always been a bit of a freak… Not a creepy one, shacked up in some gloomy dark apartment with all the windows covered, writing stories filled with death and sadness (laughs), but a reasonably likable positive freak. Maybe it’s got something to do with reading horror books from the age of 10? Maybe it’s because I listened too much to Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, Tool and The Mars Volta? Whatever it was, it made me appreciate the darker side of our lives; it allowed me to think in those categories that are just too depressing to the majority of people…
I always hated mass pop culture and I would never want to be a part of it. My home is in the underground and even if it means I’ll never get rich making underground games for a small group of followers, I would never sell my soul to become a gaming equivalent of Lady Ga-Ga and sell millions of copies to millions of idiots… Maybe this makes me an idiot? I don’t know. Probably I couldn’t even create a happy story about magical kingdoms and happy times, ‘cos it’d be well and truly against my nature.
So I made a game I would like to play myself. The casual gamers will hate it, fair enough. But those who are like me, those who aren’t afraid to experiment and try something different, will love it.
I had some drawing skills as I’ve been drawing from my early years. The rest I picked up along the way and it was a lot of fun actually, to figure out how to solve problems. Internet is a wonderful thing… It allows you to find all sorts of information. In a way it makes you feel like a detective tracking down answers and if you only know where and how to look you can always get to the truth. This is how I dealt with the technical side of making games.
Still, the most important part of it all, is to have the right ideas. And this has never been a problem to me…
MM: Was working on Downfall alone a conscious decision because of the freedom it allowed? Do you think it would have been diluted if more people had helped in the creation process?
RM: I can’t really tell… At one point I wanted to work for a big company and have my own desk and all that… But it wasn’t given to me. It’s a very competitive industry! Most of all, they’d require you to have a paper proving your credibility and I never had that. Before I could get a cushy job at one of those big companies there’d be 100 freshly graduated people queuing in front of me and they’d get the preference. I don’t blame anyone for that. But I believe that often their creativity can be diluted by formal education. Doing things by the book has never been my thing.
So I’ve had my freedom, but my freedom has also limited me. That’s why Downfall is a low-res, un-voiced game. But if you can look past these limitations, what you get is a game unlike any other.
Of course, other advantages of working alone at home include being able to drink and smoke during the process (laughs). I know cigarettes are bad for you (and all that shit), but I smoked like crazy at times. It was that kind of creative journey of the mind when nothing else mattered that led to creating Downfall.
MM: Did you design the game completely before embarking upon its creation, or was the project something that simply grew and developed over time?
RM: I think each artist has his own way of working. Some plan everything carefully in details, while some just go with the flow, let their imagination loose and allow it to take over. I’m like that. The ideas come flooding in as I work. I start a new project knowing almost nothing about what it’s going to be and then it all shapes up nicely as the time goes by. But also, once it’s started, there is no going back. It stays with me for a long time, always there on the back of my mind. I think about what I’m gonna do next constantly, when I’m at my day job, when I watch TV, when I go to sleep… I could say the story comes alive in my head and events in my life constantly inspire me to add something new to it.
MM: What were the benefits and constraints of using the AGS engine? Are there any effects you achieved that you are particularly proud of?
RM: The greatest benefit for me was the extremely user-friendly interface of the program. I think Chris Jones has done a great job on it. The basic things are quite easy to achieve in the editor. Then you discover a second depth to it. If you’re only willing to put some work into it you can do pretty much everything you want.
There were times though, when AGS misbehaved… Things happened not the way I intended them to and I couldn’t understand why… I had this weird feeling as if the program had developed a life of its own and was fighting against me… Certain animations wouldn’t trigger, characters would disappear, lines of dialogue would drop… So I had to create workarounds and make some changes to fix it.
Two effects I’m most proud of are hand-drawn rain (Jesus, why didn’t I use particles?) and camera zoom in one of the flashbacks. To me, they rocked!
MM: It is already well-known by now that large amounts of this game were worked on during your night shifts at a nursing home. How did this influence the game, and do you have any specific examples of where it directly affected the content?
RM: It’s quite funny actually how the media twisted the facts and after a while I was this crazy psychiatrist who made a game in a mental asylum!
Yeah, I did work in a home for elderly people, not nursing but a residential one. And it’s true that I worked on the game during night shifts, which probably makes me a lazy person but there isn’t that much to do when people you look after are asleep!
How it affected the content? I’m not sure… I did get to know how people affected by mental illness behave and I know how to talk to them and calm them down. Some of that knowledge has been used in the game for sure.
But most of all, the look of the Quiet Haven Hotel was heavily influenced by the look of that place. The furniture, the setup… I often used that residential home as a graphical reference. And before you ask, the walls of course weren’t splattered with blood and there were no rotting corpses all over the place (laughs) but it was a place where people died and sometimes it would be damn scary at night… Me and other staff have heard and seen all sorts of thing, but hardly ever spoke of it openly.
MM: How would you react to people who say the game is over-gory or features gratuitous violence?
RM: I’d say they don’t know what gory is until they’ve played my next game! (laughs) But seriously, this is the weirdest accusation and one I’d never expected. How would Stephen King react to people saying that Misery was too violent? Would it be better if Annie Wilkes instead of chopping through Paul’s foot gave him a pat on the head and said “Bad bad boy”? Would it be better if John Kramer of the Saw films gave out chocolates instead of punishment? I think, it simply wouldn’t work. Violence is a part of the horror genre, and an essential one at that. It is meant to make you feel like this.
Besides, the violence in Downfall is far from gratuitous. It is meaningful and is strongly connected to the story. It is actually what makes this story so powerful.
MM: Did living in the UK yourself, namely Devon, directly influence the locations and feel of the environments? Are any of the environments based on real locations?
RM: Of course! Coming to England started a whole new life for me. It was like I was born again but adjusting to it all was a long and difficult process. It made me look at everything from a completely different angle.
The town where the action of the game takes place is heavily based on Sidmouth in Devon, where I lived for over a year. You won’t find a film studio there or waxworks museum (these are a tribute to old HorrorSoft games) but many of the locations have been inspired by the look of that little town. There is something about English architecture that is extremely haunting and beautiful. I wanted to recreate that feel.
I’ve lived in Exeter for over 4 years now and my new project will be packed with references to that particular city. Probably not as much as Dave Gilbert‘s Blackwell games are rooted in New York… but maybe this is a little obsession indie developers have about making a tribute to places they know and love.
MM: The bookshelf in the room of Doctor Z in the game features many book titles to look at, including two Stephen King books that I found very telling: The Shining and Lisey’s Story. How did these books, and the others on the shelf, inspire you with Downfall?
RM: One of the best things about Downfall is that it creates a bond between a player and the game’s maker. I wanted people to think: hey, I read this book too! Or at least, to puzzle them and make them wonder: why is that important? It isn’t. They’re just books I read and loved, books that made me who I am. In a way, it’s my tribute to them and the whole game is packed with tributes, little touches that won’t be understood by all, only by some. But that’s enough. Those who get it, will smile and nod.
The other important book on that shelf was The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. I remember how excited I was when I managed to get my hands on it…
MM: How did your brother come up with such a unique soundtrack for the game? Was it something discussed or did you trust him to match fitting sounds to your artwork?
RM: I trust my brother completely. I never had any doubt that he’d create a kick-ass soundtrack that’d fit the atmosphere of the game. We grew up together and even now, living hundreds of miles apart from each other, our minds are still synchronized. This is another good example of autheurism in Downfall. I described in few words how I see it and he went and did it. And did it with style…
MM: Were there any parts of the game that had to be dropped due to time constraints or technical difficulties?
RM: There were many. I can’t remember most of them now… I definitely wanted to do more with the undead creature that Doctor Z brings back to life. I also wanted to add a shooting section in the Agnes episode, just before she gets out of her bedroom… but I’m so glad I didn’t.
Looking back, though, I feel like I managed to put all the best parts in the game and they all create a whole, complete story. Maybe adding more would be too distracting?
MM: How successful has the game been so far? Can you reveal anything about your plans for future games?
RM: It has been quite successful actually! Of course I had some worries prior to its launch whether people would like it but they quickly disappeared as the emails from players started coming, all positive! Some of them very long and elaborate; it surprised me totally that they really understood what I was trying to put through and it’s absolutely the greatest feeling in the world! As the hype around it keeps building up and more people get a chance to hear about Downfall and play it.
It’s never going to sell as many copies as triple A 3rd person shooters, but for a first time production it’s not bad at all and I feel really proud.
Igor Hardy: Hi! Sorry to chime in like that in the middle, but I just could not resist and have to ask a question too… or make that six questions…
What do you think of the popular opinion that first time game designers, especially those working alone and without real budget, should test their skills through freeware titles first and only then make a commercial one?
RM: As a first time designer who released his first game as a commercial product I will disagree, of course. It all depends on the quality of your game. I believe that Downfall is good enough, and feedback from gamers across the world and reviewers seems to confirm that. And I’m not getting big -headed here. This is how it is- would I be doing this interview with you if Downfall was a freeware game that’d get few positive comments and thumbs-up from AGS community but go unnoticed to everyone else? Of course not. It was a long shot and a big risk, but overall it was worth it and those who bought and played the game say to me it was $10 well spent.
Warning! Possible to tread on spoilers from now on!
IH: Why did you introduce into the gameplay moments when the player can make choices which have huge consequences for the characters?
RM: These are the greatest moments in all games! I got this email recently from a guy called Seth who played through Downfall twice and shared his thoughts about the game with me. I’m going to quote him here, hoping that he will not hold it against me. I just think he made a very good point.
“Choice is an interesting delusion. And I see what you’ve done here. You’ve kind of thrown it in our faces haven’t you? Sitting in a grave talking to lying corpses, trying to make a decision based on delusion or nothing, and then forcing us to take on the role of the person we’ve just unknowingly condemned to death. This is not how it’s supposed to work we think. You’re supposed to give us the information and then we decide. That’s how we like it. But then you show us a blue and red vial and you say, “CHOOSE!” as if our choice is a reflection of anything but random selection and pure terror. And I think that’s what’s so brilliant. The key to creating a moral choice in a game is to not give much of a choice at all. After all, if I knew the woman who was digging me up was an innocent, the choice becomes artificial. One sided. Fake. I know the right choice, and the only reason I would choose to end her life would be “to see what happens.” No.
Instead make it an accident. An accident that will haunt you for the rest of the game. That is the real essence of guilt. Guilt does not come from making the decision you know is wrong. Guilt is making the wrong decision not knowing which decision is right. By not allowing the main character to be an evil bastard –flawed, maybe going insane, but not evil– you’ve allowed us to build a bond with the character and to be emotionally on the same plain as he. This is something that game makers haven’t figured out yet. Games that allow you to do good or evil turn into toys that can’t really be taken seriously. If we know its okay to be good or evil, then there is no realism.”
MM: How does the Agnes subplot fit in to all of this? Was it always your plan to have Agnes’ and Joe’s stories merge together?
RM: The way I see it, it was one of those “Tarantino” moments. I played with the narrative by creating an unexpected pause in the pacing to achieve progress in the main story. Even if at first you think “what the hell?”, you will soon realise what is happening and how it affects Joe.
Besides, Joe needed a sidekick, one friendly soul in his never ending nightmare, and Agnes fit that suit perfectly- willing to accept the unbelievable because it is all just a dream, she added some much needed contrast in comparison with ever so serious Joe, focused on his mission but lonely and lost.
MM: Did you base any of the main characters’ traits on people you know? How personal is the story to you (if that’s not an overly nosy question)?
RM: My partner’s name is Agnes! She always tells me about her dreams, most of them really scary and disturbing, usually about her being chased by a killer. She reads way too much Richard Laymon if you ask me…
She’s still cross with me for putting her in Downfall, mostly because she doesn’t like games. And she’d never dress in white, too. Because she is such a big part of my life, there is a bit of her (and me) in every character in the game. Not that we go around killing people (laughs)! It’s all shrouded in metaphors and very well hidden, some of the small nuances known only to me. What is weird, I never intended it this way- only in the end when I’d played through the game, Downfall revealed itself to me as an extremely personal experience…
MM: Are any parts of the story purposely left ambiguous?
RM: Yeah, that goes without saying. I believe the whole story of Downfall has as many meanings as people who play it! Well, you would expect me to say that as I’m the guy who made it but if you look closely, it all fits perfectly, whether it’s eating disorders, depression, unwanted pregnancy, betrayal… we might all be exposed to such things and the interpretation will differ depending on the person. I guess ambiguity is at a basis of every good horror story…
MM: What feedback have you had about the game, and in particular the ending?
RM: The feedback has been pretty good so far. At first there were a few problems with bugs, but that was soon taken care of with an update (version 1.4 of the game went on sale in the second week and those who bought the previous one were able to receive a free update via email).
I must admit I had a lot of fun making the endings. They’re the only part of the game which I planned very carefully on paper, same way they do storyboards for movies. I couldn’t decide how to end the story so I gave players a choice. It’s a chance to look back at your actions taken throughout the game and picking the option that suits you best… and of course that isn’t left without a twist either.
Most players have seen all the endings. It’s simply a case of save & load. But I believe their first choice will remain most important anyway… If I could do it again, I think I’d actually disable the save option at that stage, even if it’s a bit unfair. One thing that I hear all the time though is that the endings, regardless of the choice, give Downfall a whole new meaning and greatly improve the quality of the game.
IH: Would you say that a dream’s reality or a madman’s interpretation of reality can have some of the same validity as our crude, mundane reality itself, or at least would you consider such possibility tempting?
RM: Definitely! Take away Downfall’s setting and what you get is a sort of story that probably happened or will happen to most of us at one point of our lives. We all make mistakes sometimes, even if our intentions are good. Perhaps not as tragic as Joe’s, but still. As an artist, my idea was to portrait the world in my own fashion and style, but in the end it all comes down to events that happen in the real world.
When you’re on the bottom and your life keeps crumbling and falling to pieces everything changes. Your world is black and white, filled with sadness and despair… You wish you could do something, make it better, and that’s when you’d start holding on to the silliest of delusions, looking for excuses. It’s a trap anyone could fall into.
IH: What is it about the horror genre that the audience connects to so well in your opinion? Why do people seek to be disturbed and shocked?
RM: Maybe it’s the times we live in?… We can’t hide under the covers anymore and pretend that everything is great. Instead, we choose to talk about our issues openly, because it’s better to be aware, to be prepared. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a good thing but I guess it helps. These are scary times. On the other hand, why do people watch talk shows, discuss why mothers kill their own babies and others drink themselves to death? Maybe we all need to reassure ourselves that some have it worse and our lives aren’t that bad?
I don’t know the answer but I can tell you why I like horror myself: to me, a good story is a story that stays on the line between reality and a lie, something that COULD happen but you have never SEEN it happen. Horror has very much become a modern fairy tale. But then again, like I said in the beginning of this interview, I’m a freak. Everything I said might be wrong. It could all be a lie. There’s a part of me inside that’s called Joe… and I’m sure there’s a bit of Joe in you too, hidden well, waiting…
MM: (& IH:) Thank you for your time and the in-depth talk about your work, Remigiusz!
Note: In addition to Direct2Drive, Downfall can now be acquired through the Wadjet Eye Games store.