What's gonna happen if a psychologist would make a video game?

The answer is psychedelic metroidvania where you play as a phobia.

Hello everybody, my name is Slava, I’m from Russia, and I am preparing the release of the third game that I made almost alone: music is the only piece I’m not responsible for. I make everything else myself. Having only a master’s degree in psychology, I dived into game development five years ago. I think it’s worth explaining a little about how it happened to bring a better understanding of what is going on in here. A small introduction will help to adequately perceive everything that jumps and flashes in the recently published trailer:

I was interested in psychology even at school, and not for typical reasons: I was not motivated by the desire to deal with my own “demons” or to understand people around me. At the age of 17, I went to programmers university preparatory courses. There I was surrounded by guys in knitted sweaters and with virgin moustaches on thoughtful faces. The next day I was brought to courses in a pedagogical university, where I was the only guy in the audience. Young girls all around me, and the audience full of fragrant scents of women's perfumes. Stunned by what I saw, I confidently decided to study in this paradise.

That’s how I began to break my life.

In my “career” of a psychologist, the most reasonable decisions were: to drop dropping the psychology to hell; silently leaving graduate school; retirement from a kind of a foster home, where I worked for three years after graduating from the magistracy and fully  devoting myself to game development.

I made these decisions not because I wasn’t interested in psychology anymore - on the contrary, while I was studying, I began to penetrate the structure of human minds. However, this profession did not allow me to express myself creatively. I always wanted other people to enjoy the worlds that were born in my mind. Knowledge of psychology helped in building my own life and in creating fictional characters, but it’s difficult to call it a high-paying profession in Russia. It would be possible to strive to open my office, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I’ve chosen another way.

Job in a social institution forced to constantly look for a part-time work. Although I enjoyed spending time with children from difficult families, moving from my parents and meeting with my “second half” forced me to earn a little more than I used to. The payments in social  institutions in Russia are very-very low. I couldn’t do anything except digging in people’s minds with a bottle of whiskey, but I was familiar with Photoshop. I knew how to draw using Macromedia Flash, so I decided to find ways to apply these skills.

And I found it. People often look for artists on the game development forums, and those who had a severely limited budget doesn’t need particularly luxurious graphics - I could easily draw a pair of sprites for 5 euros. My desire to get at least some money helped me to improve my drawing skills. I really didn’t know how to draw. I simply drew and redrew everything until it satisfied the “customer”.

That’s what I used to draw back then.


A year later, I realised that I could completely create graphics for my own game. I only needed to find money for a programmer. The whole thing was in the distant 2014th year, and nobody was aware of the coming “indie apocalypse”. The games were coming out at a crazy oace, and the tools for creating them became easier and more accessible. I saw that artists are no less in demand than programmers, and came to the conclusion that if I had improved my drawing skills to a level allowed me to create a whole game in two years, then how long would it take me to learn to code too?

It took no time at all. I installed Construct 2 and things rushed. Two years later, my first game came out: Reflection of Mine. It was a dark and hardcore puzzle about a girl with multiple personality syndrome. I chose this topic because I wanted to use all my knowledge and skills in this project, and by that time I was the most advanced in psychology. And the engine...

Almost nobody takes Construct 2 seriously. This is an engine for creating two-dimensional HTML5 games, but when I started working with it, I didn’t even know what HTML5 is. I saw that dragging the windows in C2 produces quite a working “exe” file, the launch of which opens the doors for people to the world invented by me and introduces to the characters invented by me. What else do I need?

I still do not know. The games that I created with Construct 2 work! They are played by thousands of people around the world, and all the difficulties and bugs that some players suffered from were caused not by a “crooked engine”, but by my own hands. I didn’t face any problem that I could not fix in the future. Also I didn’t see any 2D-game mechanic that I could not recreate with Construct 2.

Now, however, the engine is dying, Construct 3, in my opinion, is horrible, and since the company making this product is moving into the abyss, at some point I will remove Construct 2 from my PC forever.

So what am I working on now? Fearmonium is a psychedelic metroidvania, where the player takes under control an unpleasant memory, seeking to become a phobia. The visual style is not inspired by the game Cuphead. To be honest, I’m not a big fan at all - the eternal battles with bosses are more tiring than pleasing to me. But still, I admit that this is a great game. I’m just a fan of exploration and I suffered from lack of it in there. Cuphead's visual style emerged from the twentieth-century classic animation, and my inspiration grows from there too.

However, I have never been a fan of the drooling intensity of short cartoon films about Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop. Although I was fascinated by the frame-by-frame animation in these creations, I never found them inspiring. And just before working on Fearmonium, I understood why: it was all about the music.

I saw several unofficial videos of the musician named GHOSTEMANE - the authors took cuts from the cartoons of the first half of the twentieth century, put some camera shake and glitches on it and mixed them with aggressive and dark music, reminiscent of my beloved Witch house. This setting hooked me up. I chose a dark palette, a dark plot, dressed it all in the style of old cartoons and began to work.

The very procedure for bringing the game to its current state was as follows: in about two months I created a small demo version, where I had already chosen the visual style and gameplay. In February, I presented it at the White Nights conference in Berlin to look at the reaction of the players and to understand whether I was moving in the right direction. It turned out that in the right one.

From February to this day, I worked specifically on the trailer, and, frankly speaking, I turned the project file into complete chaos from broken levels and a real mess from objects called sprite1, sprite2, sprite100, but order was never my thing, and I'm sure I’ll get away with this.

Phobias aren’t growing from the void. Most often they are born from disturbing memories and bloom on the “compost” of negative states. The memory can be perceived by us as worrisome even without any obvious unpleasant factors: a person can see a clown or a spider under absolutely normal (seemingly) conditions, but these images are so firmly stuck into his head that it can transform into a serious neurosis. The unconscious will take care of this.

Fearmonium begins with a story about a fair where a boy named Jimmy saw clowns, and although he didn’t like them very much, he didn’t expect to wake up in the middle of the night from their appearance in his dream. Sleep has an important function of “squashing down” memories of the past day. Things we saw during the day affect the things that we will see while we sleep. A person doesn’t store memories in the form of text files or photographs, they don’t even look like a movie: we think in “images”. And how one or another image is treated depends only on the person. Absolutely same images can mean very different things to different people.

Bright images, seen by Jimmy at the fair, became his "protectors" when player converted his dream into a nightmare. That is why the first enemies we met were all that he liked from the  previous day.

Interaction with enemies is not limited to waving a hammer. Two properties of phobias are involved in the battle with memories. First: neuroses affect the images in our memories. A “patient” suffering from a phobia will hardly be sure whether he saw a spider or a clown a year ago. It will seem to him that the subject of his fear was always somewhere near.

Secondly the phobia is not related to a specific item, it relates to a whole class of items. All that is associated with clowns becomes painful for Jimmy. People who are afraid of spiders will not divide them into types and panic from the appearance of some specific spider, they will be frightened by everything that their minds connect with spiders.

In this way, we “fake” Jimmy’s memories by turning enemies into balloons that Jimmy strongly associates with clowns. Where there was something light in his memory — bam — and a balloon appears.

In addition, we will meet other clowns in the memories of Jimmy that the boy has seen in throughout his life, and take them into our "army", using these memories as weapons against bright images.

But the very purpose of the game is not to drive poor Jimmy crazy. A phobia is not always as destructive as it may seem, and this is the main idea that I want to convey.

Neurosis doesn’t appear from a good emotional state. Stress, constant anxiety - a great “compost” for depression and phobias. Jimmy's life is not wonderful at all. His consciousness was already a chaos before our appearance. I will not go into the details of his life that drove Jimmy into the abyss of misfortunes, but I will say that in his situation, no one except Jimmy himself can save the situation.

And one of the features of phobias: the displacement of the objective fears. And "objective" does not mean "reasonable." For example, being late to school is an objective fear, but even such a minor phenomenon can be accompanied by an absurd amount of stress. Our indecision is often caused by the ridiculous amount of experience over trifles, which are perceived as something very important. With the presence of a real, severe neurosis, trifles are again turned into trifles, and only clowns seem to be a serious threat.

I briefly retold some things that I reveal through Fearmonium. The plot will affect the nature of depression, and standard methods of protection against neurosis, and a bunch of things that I caught at lectures at the university. But I remember an important rule - the best story in the game is the one that can be ignored. Fearmonium may well attract someone with funny pictures and dynamic gameplay, but scare off with its internal seriousness. So, in the game it will be impossible to get confused even if you don’t get a grasp of all the subtleties of human consciousness, and the “educational” part of the game is purely optional.

I believe that games can say more than “click on X to win”, and I try to develop this idea.

Don’t forget to add Fearmonium to your wishlist!

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