I recently shared my early thoughts on Sabotage Studio’s upcoming retro-styled platformer, The Messenger. I wasn’t content with merely playing through the game, however – I wanted to know more about what sort of madness possessed Sabotage to create a game as wildly fun as The Messenger, so I reached out and they were kind enough to answer some questions for me. Read on, and enjoy!
Eric W. Brown aka “Rainbowdragoneyes” : Music composer and sound designer
Thierry Boulanger : Sabotage Co-Founder and Game designer/director/writer
Sylvain Cloutier : Lead programmer
In regards to The Messenger, let’s just take it from the top – I was honestly thrilled when I heard the opening track, and continually impressed as the game went on with the quality of the music. Who put together this awesome soundtrack, and what were some of the goals & inspirations in constructing an evolving set of anthems for The Messenger?
Eric: When it comes to making music, I honestly thrive being handed a set of limitations to work with, and the very essence of chiptune is built within highly specific limitations. The goal was quite simply, to make a bunch of badass tracks that aren’t annoying or distracting to listen to, that don’t feel out of place given the levels and environments, which also includes having two versions (8 and 16 bit) of every track on hand. As for inspirations, there’s all the old masters of course like Yamagishi, Matsumae and Nakamura, but my biggest influence is the medium itself and how I can bend it to my will to make a bona fide banger with catchy hooks that slap as hard as anything that costs millions of dollars to produce.
The controls, much like The Messenger’s blade, are razor-sharp. How did you develop the balance for movement mechanics (wall climbing, cloud steps, rope dart/grappling hook, wing suit, etc)? Were there other concepts you tried out and ended up scrapping?
Thierry: I’ve been a gameplay programmer for 8 years before feeling ready for the game design gig, so this technical background is bound to bleed into my practise. The mandate was to not make the game beautiful until it was fun, so the stick figure and grey boxes were all we ate for many months at first. I think the keyword would be “frictionless”, things that hinder movement like cancelling the run when attacking, or things you have to track like cooldowns on skills or gliding duration, it was clear from the get go that there would be none of these. From there we worked in single screens for a long time, looking for “vignettes” of little satisfying challenges to execute; this let us define the metrics that felt right for the character (run speed, jump height, etc), while always keeping in mind that a fair challenge never asks for more precision than are offered in the controls. Also the cloudstep, which is our take on the double jump where you have to hit something to earn your extra jump, repeatable as long as you can find targets, has the player constantly scanning for opportunities and feeling a little satisfaction whenever a move is pulled off. Level layouts are designed around leveraging that mechanic. One thing we scrapped was the ability to shoot a beam with the sword after charging, because it hindered cloudstepping and taking the player away from the core satisfying mechanic made the game less fun.
Boss battles in NES games were often punishingly difficult, largely as a means of extending gameplay time on limited hardware. What was your approach to creating these boss encounters, and which one (no spoilers) is your favorite?
Thierry: I think a good retro boss is both a challenge in its difficulty, and a reward in its display of pixel art animation. In my opinion the main thing to stay away from when it comes to NES-style boss fights is unpredictable patterns; bosses moving in random directions with a bunch of projectiles flying all over, with the player barely able to place the occasional hit. It may sound obvious, but I think it’s really important to make every boss move recognizable so that the player can develop a strategy. Also, a lot of our bosses work in phases, where you will be avoiding attacks for a while and eventually have a window where the boss is stunned or panting and you get to deal a meaningful chunk of damage. Like many things in life, gameplay is about rhythm, and this dance between offense and defense is a good way to keep things interesting.
In a recent conversation with Polygon, you mentioned that you could only keep 5 games when you were a kid – and that ultimately you chose Ninja Gaiden over Castlevania 3, which helped to give birth to your fascination with the series that’s matured over the years. I’m just curious: what were the other 4 games, and have they had a similar impact on the sorts of games that you enjoy making and/or playing?
Thierry: I may have spoken too fast on that one, I actually got to keep 6! So the other five were :
- Metroid: I never beat it even to this day but still have very fond memories of wandering around feeling lost while loving the atmosphere.
- MagMax: probably the worst decision of my life considering the other options (I just liked the cover)
- Low G Man: I still believe this game is underrated. The intro sequence is the actual inspiration for the one we have in The Messenger (still frames, narrated instead of dialogues)
- Chip n’ Dale: if you never listened to the Level J music track I highly recommend it!
- Zelda 2: unpopular opinion, but this is still my favorite Zelda game
It really was a tough call, considering Final Fantasy was in there, along with Kirby, Bubble Bobble, Super C, etc. So yeah, quite a day haha! I think it’s hard to play a game without having it impacting you in some way. Some games you like the gameplay mechanic or the way the story is told, while in some others you identify a pain point which you make sure to avoid in your own creations. As far as influence and inspiration go, I’m sure every single game I’ve played has bled into my craft in some way (maybe except MagMax!).
During development for The Messenger, what was a uniquely challenging bug or obstacle that you had to overcome?
Sylvain: While not a bug, developing the 8/16 bit system was one of the biggest challenges we had to tackle from a technical standpoint. At first, we knew we wanted the art style and music to change when traveling through time. That was quite easy to achieve as a full screen toggle thing, but while neat, it didn’t do much gameplay wise. The next iteration of the system allowed us to also toggle between two collision sets, one for each dimension, meaning this going back and forth in time would also change the level layouts. This opened up new gameplay possibilities like having a path closed in 8 bits but opened in 16 bits. We played around with this for a couple months, before realizing we should push the mechanic even further. That’s when we had the idea to add those “dimensional shapes” that moved around and let the player see and play in parts of the other dimension. Now we couldn’t simply toggle two collision sets, both had to be active at the same time, with stencils offering a window on the other world. A wall that’s only present in 8 bits had to block the player only if the 8 bits dimension was visible where the collision occurred, it wasn’t a full screen on/off thing anymore. Objects that existed in a single dimension had to play their sound effects only if their dimension was visible where the sound was emitted. A spike that was in the past should now hurt the player only if its collision with the player occurs in the past. It added tons of complexity to the system and came with more than its fair share of challenges, but it went a long way in providing level design opportunities.
At the end of the day, what are you hoping people get out of The Messenger? What’s your version of “Mission Accomplished” for this game?
Thierry: To me there are many layers to the game, and we can win in any of them. If gamers and critics enjoy the gameplay and the Ninja action, that’s a win. If a speedrunner cares to master the controls and stream a run, that’s a win as well. The big one for me personally, is I hope someone will dig a little bit in the optional dialogue with the shopkeeper; there’s a lot of personal stuff in there, a hope for change in the world, which I believe begins with people getting into personal growth. The intention is to set people on that path, to make them curious about finding their true selves. While a retro platformer certainly won’t give us world peace, if a single person reaches out to say they cared for, understood, or even noticed the hidden message, I’m pretty sure I’ll cry. And big picture, the ultimate “Mission Accomplished” would be for the response to be good enough to give us the means to work on our next game!
Last question: The Shopkeeper breaks the 4th wall a lot while reflecting on the meaning of happiness. It seems like a cry for help. Are you guys okay?
Thierry: I’ll speak for myself (being the writer), and say yes, I am very much okay. The Shopkeeper tends to share insights, which are all things I stumbled upon that helped me grow, things I read that moved the ball forward for me. It’s a distillation of takeaways I wish I had received 10 years ago, which would have saved me a lot of time and anxiety. Players are free to ignore these completely and stick to doing front flips, that’s totally cool! By going deep with the Shopkeeper once, you should know whether or not you care to do so moving forward. These bits are never forced, and the mandatory dialogue is actually very light and sparse for those who want to focus solely on the action.
We’d like to thank Sabotage Studio for taking the time to answer our questions!