Indie Connect: Vlambeer On Practising “Sensible Nonsense”
As the seats promptly filled in the auditorium, you could sense the anticipation for the development couple best known as Vlambeer to begin their talk on “Sensible Nonsense”. Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman have brought many of us simple hyperactive pleasures most famously in Radical Fishing and Super Crate Box, so to get a behind-the-scenes insight to their design practice was thrilling. Plus, they both knew how to engage an audience as showcased in their games, but in this case, upon a stage with a projector and a microphone each. This was going to be fun.
Once the unnecessary introduction was done with (of course we know who Vlambeer are!), the two developers moved on to highlighting a few games which they say use subtlety and implication to entice the player into its world. By this they meant that the game may not tell the player the back story directly, or reveal all of its secrets at first – the game designer lets the player soak it in subconsciously so that they may “feel” the game world.
There are different ways of doing this in a game as the examples showed. Metroid for example, uses its environment to indicate things to the player, but not with massive neon arrows but through subtle patterns, they also tell of the alien surroundings in a way that cutscenes or voice overs could not. The much more recent and prominent example of this technique is Fez – a game which designer Phil Fish, ached over for years to embed secrets and clues about its deeper meaning and story without shouting it via the megaphone which many other games resort to. The effect of such meticulous but hidden design is that new players won’t know the meaning contained in certain elements of the screenshot below:
The other example that Vlambeer gave is perhaps a more well-known one, or maybe it isn’t. Team Fortress 2 – on the surface a fun and highly popular multiplayer FPS. What many (or some?) people aren’t aware of is that it actually has a highly detailed back story. Each character and location has actual meaning behind it and feeds into the game’s overarching narrative, even the silly quips and banter between the characters all relates, either humorously and/or ironically, back to the game’s fiction. However, at no point is this ever explicitly revealed, told or otherwise shown to the player – only in Valve HQ, subtle hints and probably some fansites does this official narrative actually exist.
So what does this have to do with Vlambeer? Well, it’s something they’ve only recently discovered in themselves, but each of their games actually has a full fiction drawn up before the game even enters the development stage. They say they didn’t consciously set out to do this with all of their games, it’s just something that they inevitably end up doing and they now realise they they do they say it’s what shapes many of their games. People often refer to a “typical Vlambeer game” and they had no idea what this meant beforehand. Now they’re thinking that the one component that is common in all of their games is this idea of a ‘sensible nonsense’ – a fiction or narrative which they conjure up and base all of the game’s design and existence around. This ensures that their games are not completely random, though they may look like that to those not in the know, each game in fact has a very detailed backstory that Vlambeer argue and discuss a lot before and during development.
They feel that a game would just feel random and chucked together if that’s all it was, which is why they make a commitment to their ridiculous settings and stories, never veering off the canon they construct. Super Crate Box for example – where’s this so-called fiction in the game? Well, the game has three levels and in the background of each (as pointed out by Jan) there are some very loose connections. The construction level actually has a rocket silo in the background which you then actually use to reach the next level, the moon base. From there you then progress into the temple which is outlined in the background of the second level, and in the temple a statue rises up in the middle of the screen slowly but never actually does anything. It is this statue, this figure, that has caused all of these hostile critters to come at you – this thing is the mastermind behind the conflict in the game and why you are shooting the enemies. You’d never guess this though and Vlambeer don’t really want anyone to know because it doesn’t add anything to this “simple arcade game”; it all exists to benefit the game’s consistency during design.
While we’re at it, let’s take a look at Radical Fishing and it’s upcoming follow up – Ridiculous Fishing. The first game Vlambeer ever made (yes, they’ve been making up unknown fictions forever!), Radical Fishing has you blasting away fish in an over-the-top realisation of ‘redneck fishing’, complete with fish flinging followed by fish guts spewing everywhere as you shoot them in mid-air. Now, in the game, if you highlight the pistol it says “you stole this from your wife, afraid of the day she would kill you”. This is related to the narrative in which Billy ran away from home and is scared to go back in case his wife actually does murder him – he’s sat there fishing in his boat to pass the time.
There’s a little more to it than that but the more interesting side of this is how it affects Ridiculous Fishing. Rami sat down with us after the talk and showed us the menu for Ridiculous Fishing – it’s a cellphone. However, it isn’t as it’s actually a piece of wood and you can see that behind its screen. What has happened is that Billy has been out in that boat, in the sun, fearing his wife for so long, that he has begun to hallucinate. While the average player might think “why is this phone actually a plank of wood”, the informed (as you are now) actually knows why behind this otherwise random element. Taking this further, the player can communicate with other people via this in-game phone and Rami told us that they present this as Billy talking to real people (why would you question it?) but they’re all imaginary people being contacted through his imaginary phone.
Vlambeer, as insane as their games are, actually invest a lot of thought and time into their fictions and are very serious about them. There were no tongues pressed against cheeks or faint smiles as they recounted these ridiculous narratives and their characters, they were deadpan (sort of) and very serious about their creations. The reason for this, they said on the stage at Indie Connect, is that it’s all too easy to get lost in randomness. So, having something solid to refer back to will make your game more engaging and, even though they aren’t aware of it, players will “feel” the cohesion of a committed-to canon.
Upon learning this information I realise that I have indeed felt the Vlambeer touch elsewhere, as they have talked about their development process before and encouraged others to use it. I received an email from Rami a few weeks back after writing about Ostrich Bandito’s High Vaultage and mentioning that it had a Vlambeer vibe:
“[I]ts funny you mentioned that Ostrich Banditos reminds you of us! Ostrich Banditos is the result of a optional seminar about running a game studio we gave a month or two ago at our old school. The only way to pass the class was to create & sell a game in three weeks. They were the only ones that made it”.
There’s clearly something in this “sensible nonsense”. Vlambeer’s latest two games, Luftrauser and Gun Godz, also follows the rules they’ve laid down for themselves, as you would expect. They wanted to go mental with the WWII dogfighting world in Luftrauser but knew better to stick to what they had drawn up and remain to the more sensible backdrop they outlined for the game. The same could be said of Gun Godz which they made for Venus Patrol and has been released only to those who funded it. This is an old school FPS which has you blasting to a gangsta rap soundtrack while you ascend a hotel on Venus. Yes it’s crazy but still has a ‘serious’ backstory and the game’s end, which they showed during the talk, even caused Jan to admit that it was one of the most beautiful things he had made in a computer game, merely because of the story behind it which is only implied in places and never told to the player in any extended form.
For fear of even more repetition we’ll come to a close but now you have made it this far you can consider yourself in-the-know as to how Vlambeer work. They’re crazy as always, on the surface, but behind all of that is a very serious development philosophy that somehow ensures that all of that random, hyperactive goodness remains consistent and is true to at least itself through and through.