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Road to the IGF: Sokpop Collective's Bamboo Heart

A swordsman loses his heart. Fearing that this will turn him into a cold blooded killer, he takes to the forest and kills everyone in his way to find the missing organ.

Joel Couture

January 23, 2017

7 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

A swordsman loses his heart, having it replaced with one made of bamboo in Tijmen Tio's Bamboo Heart. Fearing this will turn him into a cold blooded killer the swordsman takes to the forest to seek the heart he's lost, killing everyone in his way to find the missing organ.

It's the type of plan that's doomed to bring about what the swordsman feared, but it's hard not to go along for the ride when Bamboo Heart is filled with high-flying, acrobatic swordplay against the many creatures he meets along the way. (It's available on Steam as part of a three game collection called Bamboo EP).

Bamboo Heart's swordplay and story earned it an Independent Games Festival nomination for Best Student Game, so Gamasutra reached out to developer Sokpop Collection to chat about their work creating the game, how they developed the swordplay, and why it was released as part of a collective, bamboo-themed project. 

What's your background in making games?

In Sokpop Collective we all made games sometimes as a hobby, but as teenagers none of us thought game development could be something to make a living out of. Except maybe when working for a super big triple-A company. I think everyone can relate to that and the moment we all had in which we decided, fuck it, let's just do it. Then you just learn by doing and sharing your enthusiasm with others.

How did you come up with the concept? 

For Bamboo Heart? It is actually part of the released Bamboo EP, a collection of games with a bamboo theme. Bamboo Heart in itself is actually a remake of an old game I made called A Ronin Heart. I made it for Ludum Dare game jam. 

For game jams I used to focus on innovative gameplay, but that never really worked out for me I guess. So 'A Ronin Heart' was "just a platformer" that had what I liked about a few of my favorite movies: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'House of Flying Daggers' and 'Hero'. ( Here's some of my inspiration from Hero  ;)

Bamboo Heart is the result of more experience and time with the same goal! 

What was it about the theme of bamboo that shaped the story of Bamboo Heart

It's a bit poetic actually haha. So the story is this:

 It's about a swordsman who's banned from his land. His heart is removed and replaced with a fake "bamboo" heart. The swordsman becomes afraid he grows heartless and cold so he desperately tries to find his original heart. However, in his never-ending search he kills everything that stands in his way, inevitably becoming the cold blooded killer he was so afraid of becoming.

I think I was generally inspired by sad tales that I got from Asian stories. I like the strong dedication and the sadness that emphasizes the power of that dedication. Then I use that power as the main gameplay. The game is really about that feeling of dedication to get something important. The moment you see in movies where a character is so desperate he casts everything aside, losing himself in it.

Does working with a theme change how you normally develop? How so?

Yes definitely. I think creativity is something we all possess. Maybe the creative ones are better in extracting the creativity from themselves. Limiting your options is a way to do that. For example, If someone asks you "think of anything!" there are so many options it might take you some time to settle on the 'anything'. If someone asks you "think of an animal!" it might be easier because your options are more defined and limited. The same works with themes in games.

I think this even goes beyond that when in game design you have to access your creativity constantly. Having a theme is a constant limitation of options that also ties the whole thing together. For example, in Bamboo Heart, I had to make a visualization of the amount of kills you made. The solution seemed obvious, a tally count made out of bamboo. However, this would never have been as obvious if we didn't define the bamboo theme.

What thoughts go into designing satisfying swordplay for a game? What was important to you in creating the flow of combat.

I always try to design gameplay based on a feeling. I think games make us feel stuff, because we as players are the ones that make the actions and create the feelings for ourselves autonomously.

So I choose a feeling and reflect on the game while designing to see if that's what the game invokes.
This time I chose to let the player feel the hectic tension of a fight where you have to think and react now. Like how it must be in a real sword fight? I've never been in one fortunately.

It would be weird to think in a real sword fight "Oh he's swinging his weapon, I should press this button and then do that move and then I'll win", so I wanted to avoid that. As a result I tried to make the swordplay organic as opposed to systematic. That was really hard, as games tend to be systematic due to the nature of programming. 

I cheated this a little bit by making the enemies in the game react to your input. They are more likely to attack when you're attacking, resulting in a clash, and they're less likely to attack when you're not attacking (in which you would get hit). This artificially converges the level of the player and the opponent, so enemies almost always feel like they're at your level. 

Why release as part of an EP rather than on your own?

Our collective consists of four solo developers. Sometimes we try to make games together, but you can imagine the chaos. So we thought "let's make an album instead". That way we can work together and work alone at the same time! 

The EP is somewhat of an experiment to see what the possibilities are. For example, the title screen is a game in itself. If you complete it, you unlock a character in Bamboo Heart. We want to explore these kind of things more in the future. 

If I made the game on my own I probably wouldn't have finished it. The collective and the other awesome Dutch developers that we sit with daily help me focus. This really ties in with creating a healthy working environment that I tell about in the last question.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Gamemaker Studio. It's super easy to use and has everything I need as a designer. Sometimes people tell me I should use other things that give me more control but is harder to use. I haven't though, since I'm not that good with computers at all. 

I mean, have you seen the trailer for Bamboo Heart on the IGF website? [It's also embedded above--ed] It's horrible.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

About two months?

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Oh yeah a bunch of them. And so many cool ones. I think Hyper Light Drifter is my favorite. I've seen the game go through some stages of development. I could tell from it that the game's many aspects have all gone through numeral iterations, resulting in a super well designed experience. I think the game's design is very effective and I find that very aspiring.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

There are so many talented devs nowadays! It doesn't matter if you're talented and motivated anymore. The biggest hurdle for devs may be creating a healthy environment in which you can do what you love to do. We've been struggling with that as well.

It's the things you don't expect you have to account for, like getting a burn-out. I was once like that: "I don't burn-out, I can put in a 100 hours a week!", but if you do that your head gets scrambled and you might die at age 30! I try to take my days off when I feel I need that. I think your physical health can really make you mentally more productive.

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