This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Diaries) gives the player the delightful job of picking up garbage on an alien world, doing your best to make ends meet with your custodial duties.
Doing garbage cleanup on a sprawling alien world adds a little glamour to the job, having you picking up discarded brains and other intriguing garbage. Still, not all of the work that the developers at Sundae Month put into the game was about making janitorial duties fun or intriguing. Part of it was in looking at the rough parts of a day-to-day job and finding the little joys you could.
This experience of finding happiness in a job that can be miserable earned Diaries nominations for the Nuovo Award and Best Student Game Awards from the Independent Games Festival. To learn more about how they created this fascinating world, giving the player a place to find joy in the everyday, Gamasutra spoke with developers Isobel Shasha, Bradford Horton, and Xiomara Isaac.
What's your background in making games?
Shasha: I’ve been interested in game development since high school, when I’d try to teach myself to code RPGs and make levels with the Unreal development kit. I always wanted to make games, so I kinda found myself at Champlain College here in Burlington, Vermont in the game design program, thinking I’d end up in the mainstream industry.
Over time I realized that what I really wanted was to make games independently, so I switched to a more open-ended major and formed Sundae Month with Ryan Huggins and Levi Rohr. We did some game jams with our friends and spent our free time designing and planning huge projects that never ended up getting made. There were definitely plenty of false starts, but in 2014, we finished Petrichor and Saboatage, and started to turn our creative chemistry into a stable company.
What drew you to work together as artists?
Shasha: The Diaries team mostly met at Champlain College, where most of us were studying game development or creative media. The team creation process wasn’t something we gave much thought at the time. In fact, me and my roommate, Bradford Horton (who co-designed the game and helped me manage the team), made some big mistakes from very early on that really impacted the development process.
We sort of came up with this idea and got really excited about it and fleshed it out a bunch, and then went “Yeah! Now let's find someone to make it for us!” and had to learn the hard way that’s not how it works. So, the early months of the game’s life was us going around to our friends and finding who was interested in working with us, then trying to control the creative process. It’s definitely a testament to the patience of our team that the game came out so well. Thanks to them, the game morphed into something that I think inspired everyone in the end.
How did you come up with the concept?
Shasha: In 2014, Bradford and I were both taking summer classes at Champlain and working on Saboatage in our free time with Brook Chipman. Saboatage was the first Sundae Month game that I worked on, and at that point it was very much an attempt to just finish a game, any game, and break out of the so-called “indie shame spiral”. Saboatage is an action platformer about sneaking onto a battleship, planting bombs, and escaping while it sinks. It’s awesome and very hard, and when it was finished we thought it was cool but wanted to do something very different.
Bradford Horton: We wanted to do a complete 180 and make something really strange. We thought an alien world would be strange, and trash is weird. Billboard sprites are discomforting and nostalgic at the same time, and playing “as an NPC” would definitely be unorthodox.
Shasha: This was (and still is) a pretty strange time to be making videogames. I think the shadow of everything that was going on in the summer of 2014 (gamergate, Mike Brown’s death and the atmosphere of political action that BLM was building) left a big imprint on the game. In a few ways, our goal was explicitly to make something that flew in the face of gamers’ expectations of what a game is supposed to do.
What thoughts go into creating an open world for players to explore? Especially a world built for the routines of a job?
Shasha: We spent a lot of time designing the world at the start of development. We wanted to capture a feeling of wandering through somewhat mazelike city streets, and we especially wanted to encourage players to build a relationship with the world around them. So, we considered the different areas of the city, what sorts of shops would be where, and where food and prayer shrines and places of interest would be in relation to the player’s home. Because the player has to return home every day, parts of the city start to become familiar over time
The game world is actually built to loop around on itself, which has the effect of making the city feel much larger than it actually is, as well as posing a navigational challenge, as you’re constantly coming to places from new angles and routes. I think this “lost in a strange city” approach was a bit too successful. Though it is part of the intended experience, it can be frustrating, and we found ourselves adding navigational help throughout development (like arrows on the ground).
How do you turn the work of janitorial duties into appealing play? How do you make players want to be a custodian?
Xiomara Isaac [item & character artist]: Picking up trash isn't the most appealing job. But, when you're finding more than cans and dirty napkins, that makes things more fun. When I had the chance to design the janitor, they gained a look that made me want to dote on them. That the rest of the team agreed made me really proud. That little clutch of pixels works so hard, and to see them so loved is amazing.
I don't think it's just wanting to be the janitor, but more wanting to see them succeed. All of us have been stuck between a rock and a hard place, and that's where the janitor is. Sucky job, cruddy apartment, weird stains keep showing up...it's just life. But it's an experience lots of us will have. And if you haven't had it yet, Diaries is kind of a practice run.
Shasha: I think our mindset was actually precisely not to turn the work into interesting play. We’ve called the game an anti-adventure, which I think fits. We wanted to take the structure of an RPG and invert it to emphasize tedium and the reality of capitalism rather than action and a fantasy capitalism. The gameplay itself is so bare bones and tedious that players are sort of encouraged to look beyond winning and losing and sort of try to enjoy other things about the experience. That's where the huge amount of items and characters come in. The game is less about doing your job to earn money, and more about sifting through the detritus of these alien crowds.
Horton: One big thing is that the trash is interesting. Lots of hardworking people have custodial jobs in real life, but they generally don’t see many alien brains or de-activated laser scythes in their day-to-day.
What did you want players to feel when you gave them a mundane task to do in such a vibrant, bustling, interesting world?
Horton: Hopefully people would realize that things could be intriguing and magical without a game shouting “Hey! This is intriguing and magical!”. We wanted to give players room to apply their own significance to what is a purposefully mundane sort of base.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Shasha: The game was built in Unity3D, and we used Blender and Autodesk Maya for modelling. The pixel art was mostly made in GraphicsGale, which has a special place in my heart.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
We started working on Diaries in September 2014, almost exactly 2 years before it released.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Horton: I’ve played some Hyper Light Drifter, which is beautiful. I watched the trailers for Event and Quadrilateral Cowboy and found both really intriguing, but I haven’t decided to spend the money on them yet.
Shasha: I’m playing Ladykiller in a Bind with my boyfriend and really enjoying it! Also, Mu Cartographer is one of the most gorgeous things ever created and I am deeply in love with it. It’s just aimless, beautiful, full of discovery, and above all, hypnotizing.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
Shasha: Making and publishing or self-publishing games has gotten a lot easier over the past few years in a lot of ways. Tools like Unity and platforms like Itch.io have definitely changed the landscape for the better. That being said, making games has always been extremely difficult & relatively inaccessible.
One thing that I think has absolutely changed since we conceived of Diaries is the mainstream audience’s appetite for games that are more experimental/punk/queer/whatever. It’s not easy to imagine a game like Diaries getting the positive reaction it has if it came out even just a few years ago. On some level, I think more and more people are finally starting to get over the “are games art??” question and just treating them that way.
Personally, one of my biggest hurdles these days has been balancing my life and work as an artist with my political life. This is definitely a critical moment to resist the political status quo and support the most vulnerable people in the US and around the globe. I think a lot of people are grappling with how to make their work meaningful right now, especially in a gaming culture that can be so insular & hostile. There’s no easy answers to that.