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Honing creepiness through contrast in horror puzzler Happy Game

The world of Happy Game is anything but happy. That misnomer carries through to a game filled with contrasting themes and visual contradictions, all of which serve to create a truly unsettling puzzle game experience.

Happy Game takes players to an (oddly cheerful) world of nightmares. Stepping into the mind of a young boy having bad dreams, you have to navigate its strangely cute, yet deeply unsettling worlds and puzzles to help the kid wake up again. Constantly twisting cuteness and unease together, it makes for an often-disturbing experience as you work through these nightmares.

Game Developer spoke with Jaromír Plachý (the game’s writer) and Jan Kratochvíl (of Freakfolk band DVA) about the developer's monster drawings and how they would fuel the design of the game, how Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge scenes would inspire its sound design, and what interested them in choosing a name so far from the content of the game.

Game Developer: Happy Game explores horrifying nightmares through a cute (ish?) lens. What interested you in looking at disturbing things with this style?

Plachý: The main motivation to make a horror game didn’t come from, for example, feeling the fear of being alone in the dark or having dreams about evil demons. It was my reaction to an overabundance of humor. After two years of working on my previous game, CHUCHEL, which is like a very cheerful, funny interactive cartoon, I needed to take a break from that and work on something different. Life is not just cheerful things, after all. So, the impulse to make a game like Happy Game came from a toxic amount of humor combined with a little bit of hopelessness.

During that time, I had a phase during which I exposed myself to all sorts of creepy, weird things, and spent a lot of time drawing things in the style of Happy Game. I read H. P. Lovecraft’s works, watched Twin Peaks, and enjoyed all sorts of things that might be a little over-the-top – things that utilize fear in atypical or even absurd ways. I was trying to absorb the feeling and atmosphere of these works, and Happy Game is sort of like an amalgamation of things that I’ve “absorbed” during my life, either consciously or unconsciously.

What challenges did you face in creating an art style that captured a sense of horror, but was also kind of cute in a macabre way? In balancing between something endearing and something unsettling?

Plachý: My entire workflow is based on intuition, and the visual style is what determined the rest of the game. To put it simply, the style has been there since the very first concept drawings. I felt like creating something bizarre and disturbing, and the result of that was a plenty of pictures. Pictures I also used to animate a "fake trailer" that I would later show to the studio director, Jakub Dvorský. Surprisingly enough, he liked it and helped me find a programmer who would take over the technical side of things.

And so, I continued drawing more and more creepy pictures, most of which didn’t even make it into the game. Anyway, it’s what David Šemík (the programmer) and I used as a source material for designing the gameplay, looking for ways to in which we could use my creepy creations in the actual game. You could say the art style was like an anchor to us, and everything else revolved around it.

A brightly colored screenshot from Happy Game. A child and his bed are in the center of a field, surrounded by an envoy of creepy, vividly colorful rabbit people.

Happy Game features many unsettling creatures. What ideas went into creating them?

Plachý: To be honest, the monsters and creatures are probably my favorite part of the job, and they’re what makes the game. The thing I enjoy the most is drawing – drawing characters, to be specific. The backgrounds in Happy Game are sort of vague or indeterminate – it’s either complete darkness only penetrated by a few rays of light, a monotonous meadow, or a ridiculous number of smiley faces. From that point of view, my previous game CHUCHEL was like that too, although the backgrounds were even more minimalistic. I’ve heard some people say that Happy Game is kind of like CHUCHEL, but inside out, and I agree there’s something to it. Anyway, I just like to design a characters and play with them, and the background or setting comes as secondary.

How did you design puzzles that felt like they fit into this unsettling world?

Plachý: It probably doesn’t sound very professional, but even the puzzle design was extremely intuitive and, well, quite relaxed. In the beginning, we had a very basic idea of the game’s structure – a little boy walks in the dark and meets something. And so, we looked at my drawings and concepts and together tried to put them into the right places and look for the best ways of using them.

Another important thing is that the gameplay is mostly built on dragging objects with a mouse rather than simply clicking on them, which obviously had a great impact on the way we were thinking about levels and puzzles. It’s fair to say though, that over the 7 years of development, we’ve made countless iterations and adjustments that I can barely remember how it started.

Happy Game is designed to capture the feeling of moving through a nightmare. How did you capture the unpredictability of a nightmare with your level and world design?

Plachý: I would say that it’s exactly because real-life dreams are so varied and colorful, and I really wanted to make the game carry those qualities, too. Theoretically speaking, the game could have been an even wilder tangle of strange environments, but this is the most we could make and polish in that timeframe. But if it was all up to me… every puzzle would take place in a different environment, and each would be built on completely different mechanics :) But perhaps that would be too much for the players, and our two-person team (me and David) would have to spend ten times as much time making it. And to have to spend the rest of my life in the world of Happy Game… that might be too much for me too.

Why call it Happy Game? What did you want to evoke when someone reads the title, then looks at the visual style?

Plachý: That’s easy – we thought it was an ingenious title :). I first used the title in the "fake trailer" I mentioned before, and it stayed with us forever. It fits the game well – the weirdness, irony, and the contrast between the title and what happens in the game.

Speaking of contrast – it’s one of the game’s key ingredients. Like, when you must grind cute little bunnies or watch the heart-people’s heads explode while they’re laughing at their friend’s death. Cuteness vs. brutality. And then there’s the demon – the villain of the game who always seems to be smiling, but it’s just a mask of sorts and we never find out what’s behind it. Maybe I’ve subconsciously concluded that what we fear the most are the things we don’t understand. And questions left unanswered are the ones we are most excited about, as cliché as it sounds… Also, what would be the fun in calling the game "A Little Boy’s Nightmare" or something like that?

A screenshot from Happy Game. A small boy stands in a spotlight. To his left, three red spotlights show the creepy sihlouttes of a wooden toy, a stuffed bear, and a monkey eating a heart.

Happy Game has a very particular musical style. What thoughts went into creating its soundscape?

Kratochvíl: The general idea was to create a specific soundscape for a world of nightmares. Like, when I sleep, I might hear the noise of a washing machine coming from the real world, but in my dreams, it sounds more like a bass hum. Which is suddenly accompanied by some sort of a melody, because in the real world, the washing machine is joined by the chimes of a clock and a random guy on the street humming Enjoy the Silence.

It is inspired by the "Black Lodge" soundscapes of theTwin Peaks series; the music of Czech film composer Zdeněk Liška; early electronic music (Raymond Scott, Eliane Radigue) as well as Eastern-European artists utilizing the ANS synthesizer (Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov).

What interested you in bringing in freakfolk band DVA? How do you feel their style enhanced the mood and feel of the game?

Plachý: I’ve been collaborating with DVA before I even started making games, and they also made the music for my previous games, Botanicula and CHUCHEL. The question is, why did I choose to work with them on a horror game, when our previous collaborations were so cheerful and friendly… The truth is that their non-soundtrack, standalone work expresses all sorts of moods, even the less pleasant ones, like in Happy Game. But they’re also huge fans of the Twin Peaks series!

It’s not easy for me to rate their work, because I’m just too excited about it and biased. When I played the game with sounds for the first time after several years of development, it was a completely new experience for me. Like a whole new game. I find the audio in Happy Game very rich, and it’s so carefully crafted to fit what’s happening on the screen. DVA really cared about the smallest of details, so much that at some point we just needed to ask them to speed things up a little, otherwise we would still be working on the sounds now :).

Do you feel that the cute art style allows you to explore some things that might be difficult to explore in another visual style?

A stylization, exaggeration, irony, or even the ability to laugh at yourself are always good for creativity, I think. It sort of allows you to try different things in different ways. And it makes work more enjoyable, too.

When I first started designing the game, it was like I was exploring a new universe. Over the years I’ve become used to all the things in Happy Game, but when I try to look at it from the perspective of someone who hasn’t spent years developing it, I can understand how strange the game is. Now that Happy Game is out, it’s a pleasure for me to say that the end of development was a happy end, and that the game has found its happy audience. But in the beginning, I had no clue if people were going to enjoy this game. I was just happy to discover this way of artistic expression, and to even have the privilege to do something like this. I had absolute creative freedom and the game is just what I wanted it to be. Maybe I would’ve spoken differently if the game hadn’t succeeded, but I’m happy it did, and I can’t really imagine achieving this without the freedom my team had.

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