This afternoon, I sat down at my computerbox — also known as my Internet TimeJail — with coffee in one hand, Skype in the other. A couple men were somewhere in Europe, on the other end of some long tube. And we typed at each other for quite some time.
Those men were — and still are — Jack de Quidt and Dan Pearce, two out of two people that make games as The Tall Trees. Their first game is called Castles in the Sky, it's coming out October 18th, and it's about clouds and childhood and jumping.
David: So, I guess we'll start at the functional beginning. You two are clearly the ultimate team. Tell me your origin story.
Jack de Quidt: A couple of years ago, I approached Dan asking for advice on putting together a team for a narrative game.We talked for a while, and realised that our design goals were really surprisingly similar. We sort of found ourselves working on a project together that (alas) fell through, but through all that we started putting together ideas that would become the Tall Trees.
The studio is kind of an idea in itself, so that came about, ooh, a year ago? And it was about then that we started work on the sorts of games like Castles.
Dan Pearce: Yeah, after that first project fell through (may it rest in peace), we had a bit of a sit down and realized that our design philosophies had changed and that we wanted to achieve slightly different things. I think I'd had a particularly bad day or something, and Jack was trying to cheer me up by playing some games. We ended up going into a really deep discussion about narrative design and a game (that we're still working on) came out of it, which pretty much shaped what The Tall Trees means as a company.
So, if you were to say that The Tall Trees had a "studio philosophy," or "mission statement," what would something like that be?
Jack: It's really hard to talk about the Trees in a way that doesn't sound like one of our games / internal documents. We want to make games that feel like textures. Snow under boots, rough corn, flapping canvas of kites. We're really fascinated by memories (manufactured or not), so our currency is nostalgia, the smell of cut grass, and stories told at parties a long time ago.
I'm sorry, haha. It's hard to express.
Oh, no. I understand. Especially when you're trying to express something that is pretty based in a world of feelings, rather than words.
Dan: I think the best way he have been able to describe it since we figured out what The Tall Trees was is "textures." Putting you in a specific time or place, another world perhaps, and making you feel like you're in that moment in a resonant way, without placing our focus on high fidelity graphics to achieve that.
What are the elements, other than ultra-simulationist graphics, that you employ to create those textures?
Dan: I think it's about understanding that feeling in your gut that says "this is going to be greater than the sum of its parts." Jack and I are a pretty close knitted duo, so it's a lot easier for us to understand exactly why "there's a bit where a biplane does a loop" will get a reaction from the player. It's quite easy for us to feel how the art and sound and gameplay will all come together in a moment like that, because we work closely together.
Jack: Yeah, we try really hard to put everything together at once. It's super iterative - the art will inform the music will inform the words and hopefully it all comes together in a nice soup. Sometimes it really doesn't. But then you just have to go back at it and pick at it again and again until it feels just right.
Do you ever scrap something and start over completely?
Jack: Hahaha, frequently. At least on my end. The more depressing one is playing it through in a rough version, and both separately thinking "Nnnnope. Not yet."
Dan: Yeah, not entire games or anything, but even if everything we planned is in there, or if it doesn't quite feel right, we both notice. That's often when we redo stuff. The original ending of Castles was . . . yeah, that was bad. It was actually very similar to what it is right now, but the pacing was wrong, it didn't build properly, the art felt wrong, didn't even feel like an ending. Lots of little things that made it seem like a HUGE failure.
Mmm. Have you had other people play Castles during the process, or has it just been you two?
Jack: We're really lucky in that we have a group of people who we can run stuff by when it reaches a playable stage. A lot of the time, we iterate internally, but when it gets to that point we can show it to other people. You know the feeling? You look at a screen for so long that you think "this might as well be cardboard. This might as well all be cardboard.”
And that's when you have to send it to someone else.
Absolutely. Now, one of the biggest questions I have is this: did you consciously design Castles in the Sky as a game for childre, a game about children for adults, or BOTH?
Dan: Well, I didn't really realize it'd be a good fit for children until we started sending out review copies and loads of people started saying it. I think Jack's view on this is a bit different, but Castles for me is about giving adults some of their childhood back. That said, we're obviously over the moon if adults and children both get something out of it.
Jack: I'm largely with Dan there. I didn't particularly think of it as making a game for children (one of the first lines has the word "solace" in it) but I definitely see it as a game adults could play with their children. At the same time, if we can evoke even slightly that feeling of being read to, of being comfortable, I'm very happy.
I definitely got that feeling while I was playing. As though I was being guided through a story by something, some being that knew much more about life than I did. And it was ok.
Jack: Thank you.
Mechanically, Castles reminds me of Doodle Jump — and games like it. Was this influence overt from the beginning?
Jack: Absolutely. Dan pitched it to me as Papijump, but with more of a narrative. I'd always been interested by the idea of Doodle Jump but with the possibility of exploration. Like, you're definitely travelling somewhere, but they never actually take you anywhere or show you anything interesting along the way. I think games can conjure the sense of going on a journey better than most other media. Surprises me that so few choose to.
Dan: Doodle Jump, Papijump, those games tend to prioritize gameplay and, Papijump especially, focus on making sure the gameplay is as pure as possible. Castles in the Sky is, in many ways, Papijump with the complete opposite design philosophy.
Castles is almost completely challenge-less, in a sense. And much more about interactivity.
Jack: Yeah, it's entirely challenge-less. And I don't really have a problem with that. I love challenge in games. Dark Souls is one of my favourite games ever. But I don't really think this game needs it.
This might be obvious, but do you think there's a space for games like Dear Esther, To the Moon, Proteus to still exist as "games?" Or do we need a different word for experiences like Castles?
Jack: My answer — which might be somewhat reductive, I don't know — is that I think the games you listed are absolutely "games." As far as I can see, if the creator calls it a game, that's what it is to me. I'm so excited by the new ways we're interacting with — or not interacting with — games, but I think that to break up the medium because of some arbitrary constraints . . . it doesn't make much sense to me.
Dan: We were discussing this earlier actually. I personally feel like all of the above are videogames, but that's because they're in line with what I perceive games as a medium to be.I think that games like Proteus and To The Moon are videogames. I'm a videogame fan, and a large portion of the games I play are games like those. But, I can see why people feel the need to categorize them differently. There was a great video I saw the other day [Errant Signal's "Keep Your Politics Out of my Video Games"] which described games advertising like how cars are marketed, and I think they're reviewed in a similar way.
I was just thinking about that video, actually.
Dan: So for many who know what a car is, when a bike comes along, people need to categorize it differently, right? Which is fair enough; it makes critique and categorization a bit cleaner.
This thing will get you somewhere, but on TWO wheels instead of FOUR.
Dan: IT'S NOT A CAR! I wonder if people thought motorbikes were pretentious, too.
Jack: And that's a really interesting thing for me. When people say "not a game," they often say so as though it's pejorative. It's pretentious, or it's uninteresting, or something. When people say "it's not a game," very often they mean "it's not a game I like because."
As a final(ish) sort of question, what's the best way to bridge that divide? How do you encourage someone to look at "games" as more than just "games that meet my expectations / demands?"
Jack: It's hard, isn't it? I think the new is always scary. And it takes a lot as a consumer of media to go (at first) "I don't understand this, and that's okay." I think the way to bridge that is with dialogue between designers and players, largely.
Dan: I think there need to be a quite a few more passive / arty games that go mainstream or semi-mainstream. Dear Esther sold pretty good numbers, from what I've heard, so games like that can make more general core gamers a bit more comfortable with the idea of games without aggression as a main component.
Jack: I've been reading a lot of really fantastic games criticism recently, and it's challenging me to think about these things in ways I wouldn't otherwise. Here's Soha El Sabaawi writing about race in Bioshock Infinite, Austin Walker writing about Gone Home, and Tevis Thompson writing about Bioshock Infinite. [SPOILERS FOR ALL THOSE GAMES, BY THE BY]
Oh, man. I read Tevis yesterday, and had my mind ripped apart. It was lovely.
Jack: I played Infinite, and felt as though there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't put my finger on it. These amazing critics just bring the issues out into the light for me. I love criticism. Like, genuine, difficult criticism.
I think this incredibly subjective industry needs it. Well, anything else you'd like to say about Castles in the Sky, before we call this thing?
Dan: Uhm, if you like Castles, then you should definitely keep an eye on the projects we have coming.
Jack: That… uh, we can't talk much about. Sorry.
And that does it. Play Castles in the Sky when it comes out tomorrow, and you'll know why these guys talk about things in such a fascinating fashion. I apologize for that generally unattractive pair of words. My bad.
[This interview was formatted and edited from a Skype chat. Punctuation has been changed, paragraphs have been created out of multiple lines, but meaning and phrasing have theoretically been completely retained.]