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The gorgeous math of Michael Brough's 868-HACK

We talk to Michael Brough about roguelike 868-HACK, his habit-forming, dark dive into glitchy computer guts -- and the complicated condition of being a much-discussed indie starting from scratch.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

September 6, 2013

8 Min Read

The oeuvre of designer Michael Brough isn't easy to describe. His collection of games -- some robust, some individual statements, most of them one-person works -- feels experimental, but there's an almost ruthless sophistication to his designs, a purity. His IGF Nuovo-nominated VESPER.5 lets you make one move a day; opaque puzzler Corrypt seems to suggest that to progress, you have to break the game itself. Writer and musician Liz Ryerson described his upcoming Helix as "like occupying the nervous system of a living being." Brough got in touch with me when I expressed interest in controlled randomness, the sort that James Lantz described in my recent interview about Klei's Incognita -- "randomness you can make an informed decision about." Brough thought I might like to try his latest iOS title 868-HACK.

Primal computer guts

868-HACK made me feel as if I'd pried the black glass face off of the iPad itself to touch the glowing circuits within, a grid populated with bugs, glitches and radiant sigils. It feels like a roguelike -- guide a simple happy-face icon through eight chunky sectors, siphoning data, avoiding detection by dangerous viruses, and executing programs. Dark, hostile synth growls as if from within the machine, and alongside the precise, brilliantly hooky gameplay is an aesthetic that's pure primal computer guts, arcane and monolithic. When I play it on the bus I secretly hope onlookers think I'm hacking the planet, my fingers manipulating an ancient artifact. I'm balancing resource-gathering with planning the array of abilities those resources power, balancing it all against the high-level, high-risk goal of siphoning points. Every movement spawns hostiles. I've never been a scoreboard-chaser until now: I dive into those glitch-infested data mines, I run at Sector 8 again and again, touching the screen, breath held, as if it were a sparking wire. I'm obsessed. Brough has told me he's sorry -- for making me a compulsive, for spending so many words on his answers to my questions. His self-effacement makes him only more sagelike in my estimation.

Bare essentials

868-HACK, he tells me, is the product of learnings from "basically forever" spent trying to make roguelikes and tripping up on oversized ambition. It took completing Zaga-33 for a 7-day roguelike challenge last year to teach him to strip down to bare essentials (four more too-big unfinished roguelikes rattle around his hard drive, evidence, to him, that it was a hard lesson). "Zaga-33 was mostly about short-term tactics, so I decided to shift the focus to long-term decisions... my notebook just has the line, 'make investments abstractly or on the map?' so I don't have a clear record of where that idea came from, but it was a good one, and the rest kind of followed from there," says Brough. Usually, he says, he starts designing with a clear idea that "turns out to not exactly work... it always takes experimentation to actually get there." Creating every element of a game himself helps satisfy many different creative urges at once, and provides a certain harmonic unity, a distinct feel to Brough's work that can be recognized. "This isn't a firm rule; I've worked with others on sound a couple of times, and Leon Arnott did some writing for 868-HACK (the little stories on the victory screen)," he says. "But yeah, there's a singular focus you get from everything being done by one person." This is, he suggests, also a reason to aim for shorter development cycles: "As time passes you're not quite the same person you were before even though you have continuity with them, so any long project ends up a kind of collaboration with your past self," he says. "You get the same loss of focus, and the same concentration of risk" as you would with a massive collaboration that distills itself into a vision that many can share. All the sounds in 868-HACK were derived from Brough's own voice effects, giving its forbidding machinery a fascinating human sound.

Part of a community

Brough is beginning to receive wider recognition for his work, profiled in Wired and The Guardian as a fascinating new "outsider artist." But that's a label he dislikes: "It feels like appropriation. I'm not an 'outsider' anymore -- I was once, sure, but now I'm constantly in contact with many other people who make games," he says. "I'm part of a community, I'm getting articles written about me, recognition from places like the IGF, invitations to speak about my work," continues Brough. "To call me an outsider is pretty unfair to those who are genuinely struggling away in obscurity as I once was." Still, his work seems to exist in a universe of its own, distinctly toned, apparently disinterested in what other designers would define as "commercial appeal." Brough gained unwelcome attention recently when his work ended up at the center of a conversation among numerous independent game designers, fans of his, who seemed to suggest he might make more money with more of a business sensibility, perhaps a focus on more polish and accessibility. He'd drawn the issue by accident when aiming to correct the misconception that popular game designers are financially successful ones, but feels disheartened at the idea he's become a poster-child for the under-funded indie. "At the moment my wife is supporting us both and we're doing fine... it's uncertain how long we'll be able to keep going like this," he says. "But we're completely fine... [and] if I can afford to keep going like this, that would be great." "Some people have different opinions of what would be a good use of my time, but I think I've made a pretty good showing over the last couple of years," he says. "I absolutely would not trade my having made Glitch Tank, Kompendium, Zaga-33, O, Corrypt, VESPER.5, 868-HACK, Helix and the rest for just one big polished thing, even if it was highly profitable, and I'm highly suspicious of anyone who would."

Money doesn't just happen

Brough says he's always improving at game-making thanks to tight feedback loops and the ability to invest time in many projects, an opportunity he'd lose if he invested the year or more required to make something that's commercial and 'polished' in the way his admirers have suggested. And there'd be no guarantees even if he did: "Some people seem to believe once you have a polished game MONEY HAPPENS, but no, you can't count on it." Brough also sees a "generation gap" among the first wave of successful indies who left behind a heritage in commercial games and those working now, many of whom have started from scratch with few contacts or resources, and no reputation. "I have your attention now," he says. "That's an achievement some people take for granted. I've worked hard for that." For someone in a position like his it's much better to make lots of games, release them, learn from what finds an audience and surprise oneself, he recommends. "Plus, you'll get better quicker by doing that than by trying to make your Giant Dream Game." He acknowledges he's been lucky: "I've gotten where I am so far by consistently making games for much longer than most people could afford to. I don't want anyone to ever point to me and say, 'look, he struggled for a while, but now he's rich, therefore everything is fair and if you just work hard you will make it," he says. "Because I've been able to start from a pretty good position," continues Brough. "I haven't been able to hire people to work for me, or go to every event in the States or have a slick professional marketing image (as if I'd want that), but on the scale of people, I'm not badly off."

Deliberate style

And as to the prevailing implication among other designers that his handmade aesthetic is unpolished or somehow off-putting such as to prohibit mainstream appeal (Wired's profile even called Brough's work 'ugly')? "I'm pretty uninterested in some of the styles they use, too," Brough demurs. "Whether something is 'good art' is pretty subjective, but it's easy to tell if something has had a lot of time or money spent on it, and a lot of people judge based on that, rather than looking closer." "Obviously I'm working under some strong limitations, but mostly I don't feel limited... my style is deliberate," he says. "It's a constraint I'm happy to work inside, that I can fit things I like into. And it informs the designs of the games, I make things with feelings and ideas that make sense. ...I try to be sensitive to what the games want, I move to different styles when it's appropriate." Brough says he's concerned about increasing pixel resolutions because of time commitment, but steadily moving toward increases anyway ("you can see the progress from this to this). "I think I'm getting to somewhere really interesting that would never be explored if I wasn't too stubborn to pay attention to those who tell me 'just hire an artist,' like I'm not one."

"I'm an artist"

Actually, despite being "mathsy" Brough doesn't see design and aesthetic as separable the way many of his colleagues do. "I've started mostly answering 'I'm an artist,' rather than 'I make video games' when people ask what I do," he says. "Partially because I find it saves time by setting a more accurate expectation (say you make games and people assume you do low-level work in a big company, plus there's still this widespread deception that everyone who makes mobile apps is instantly rich), but it feels right as well," he adds. "If there weren't video games, I'd just be doing a different kind of art." "But also there's very much an aesthetic element to mathematics. It's sometimes described as an art form too," Brough reflects. "I don't see these thing as being in conflict."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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