A clearly Japanese inspired art style and aesthetic is something that normally garners a moderate amount of eyebrow raising when executed by Westerners.
However, in the case of the IGF 2008 nominated Ookibloks
, it actually turns out that there’s more to the game’s main designer than initially meets the eye - and we chatted to Brian Flanagan about his influences in creating the 2D puzzle-action title.
Growing Up Next To A Northern Ocean
Like many, Brian Flanagan grew up on a steady diet of Japanese arcade games back in the 80s, as he explains: "Living in a beach front town in Northern England meant that I had full access to the arcades on an almost daily basis. I'd play Xevious
a lot. The metallic graphics on both games were intriguing, Xevious
more so, as I found it very mysterious.”
“Apart from those, probably Defender
for a while simply because it was so stark and brutal," he continues, "as well as Robotron
. In my younger days it was mostly shooters, I guess I'd say. Dig Dug
and Mr Do!
were two others I'd dabble with, once the fighting game genre became established, I was a big Street Fighter II
Following on from his arcade gaming fix, Flanagan then went the next step and tried to get his foot into the British games industry as an artist, as he says; “I got my careers officer at high school to get me an unpaid work experience placement, and after that I'd actually call Ocean up pretending to be the careers officer just to get me an unofficial placement during the school holidays.”
“I got told by one of the more established artists I should go to college before trying to get a real job there, and after a year of college I applied - the first choice they went for decided he couldn't handle it and I got the gig.”
“The environment was pretty easy going, slightly self governing and a little bit disorganized, and there were some artists people I learned a lot from - I worked on the port of Taito's Operation Wolf
during my work placement, and then worked on the (disastrous) port
of Operation Thunderbolt
when I first started.”
However, things at Ocean at that time became somewhat unbearable, as Flanagan points out: “I think the major decision that I had to at least try and get a job elsewhere was during the development of a SNES game I was on, as the main design methodology was ‘make it up as you go along’."
"I'd pretty much taken the helm of the project as producer, designer and lead artist," he says. "I was trying to get the staff to conform to a graphical style, but everyone was just going whichever way they pleased - the backgrounds had no stylistic unity at all, and I was getting abuse, and even threats of violence, simply for trying to get the game to look right."
"At that point I'd had enough, and because the game was a license, and the movie bombed big time in the U.S., the game was canned, even though we hit the deadline and it was pretty much complete,” Flanagan explains.
“If we'd had an art director that had established a colour palette and look to adhere to, the issues wouldn't have happened," he admits, "but we had 3 other artists who wouldn't adapt their style, but it was my job as designer to at least try and get some coherence into the look - it was like herding cats.”
“I think things are better organised nowadays, I think the results of most good quality games reflect that, but there's still the problem where I feel engineers go for the most 'clever' approach as opposed to the most optimised and sensible way,” he adds.
Living The Life Of A Ninja
Seeing that life at Ocean wasn’t for him, Flanagan began looking abroad for employment. Considering his gaming tastes as a youngster, the only and natural place to work would be in the Japanese games industry but back then getting a gig there wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
“I managed to get over to Japan in 1994 after a lot of letters, phone calls and meetings," he recalls. "Luckily, Violet Berlin, the TV game show presenter was a good friend of mine at the time, and she took me to an arcade show in London so I could hunt down some Capcom Japan staff on the show floor and show them some colour prints of some of my graphics I'd been doing in my own time - I also looked for recruitment ads in LOGIN magazine, my contact list grew, and I finally pinpointed individuals I could send letters to.”
“The short story on the Capcom interview is that after traveling to Osaka from Tokyo, I showed up at the interview to be told, 'your work is good, but we hired a Westerner (an American) before, and we don't want to repeat that mistake," Flanagan remembers.
“After the disastrous and somewhat racist interview at Capcom Osaka, I braved the Sega CS2 entrance exam and got a 'borderline' result according to the department head," he continues, "and did some R&D on the very early stages of an unnamed GameGear RPG. I believe the game finally came out as Royal Stone
“I produced some backgrounds for the early version of Royal Stone, but it seems that the colour palette had a hefty overhaul and ended up a lot ‘lighter looking’ than what I started working on, but that’s the way they worked on things,” he says.
The good news for Flanagan was that his fellow staff were far more inspirational than his British compatriots, as he says: “The development staff at CS2 were amazingly talented, all the art staff had amazing illustration skills. Most art staff had large sketch sheets mounted into their desks, and to just see some of the fantastic doodles that would come out was humbling, and the toolset they had for its time was pretty amazing."
"In fact," he continues, "their handheld dev setup was something I've never seen since. They had these GameGear size screens mounted to the top of your monitor so you could upload your work screen directly to the GameGear screen so you could preview your work accurately - all the Megadrive artists could dump workscreens to a TV, as that was the target display.”
“I think my favourite staff member was Motomu Hayashi - he was the writer, game designer AND character artist on Astal
. His artwork was so original and dynamic, he also did most of the graphics," says Flanagan. "He's still at Sega I believe, but hasn't had a chance to be character designer on anything since, which is kind of sad. He did animation on Feel the Magic: XX YY
on the DS, though it's sad how they'd give someone with such artistic talent such a basic job, but its not surprising for Sega.”
“The director of CS2, and executive producer on all products at the time was a very knowledgeable, but scary man, if you were doing something wrong, you'd certainly know about it. I heard he was even more aggressive with the Japanese staff,” he recalls.
Getting Funky With A Monkey
So it’s clear that Ookibloks
isn’t just a matter of aesthetic homage to Japanese gaming but an actual grass roots implementation from someone who has worked in the Japanese games industry during its 2D heyday. However, while Flanagan does have the hard nosed experience, he is very quick to point out that the passion for gaming very much still remains.
“I love a lot of games for specific reasons, but I'll say for 2D, Super Castlevania
for its incredible soundtrack and overall vibe, Gunstar Heroes
for its groundbreaking technicality, Assault Suits Valken
) for its control system and AirRade Air
for its professionalism.”
When asked what were his main gaming influences for Ookibloks
, Flanagan is refreshingly open, not ashamed of utilizing gaming knowledge as a useful tool for designing: “It's undeniable that the 'ice skater' maze games are the main base of the game, but the banana collection system was inspired by shoot-em-ups by Cave, the single screen play areas of Bubble Bobble, Don Doko Don
and the graphical stylings of Bomberman
and Puyo Puyo
“If you take a look at those Taito games, you'll see that they all have the same core mechanic," Flanagan continues, "use one technique to stun, use another technique to defeat and then repeat that process to clear the stage. While Ookibloks
doesn't require you to kill everything, it’s undeniable that Taito's influence is responsible for that.”
“My approach to game design is always that of the game mechanic coming first, and the characters secondary, which seems to reflect a very Nintendo way of doing things," he says. "I feel that a lot of the time, Western games are built around a scenario and then the game design is forced to adhere to that.”
“The basic idea of Ookibloks
was getting an object to move according to the game mechanic," he explains, "the thought of portraying the character, or whether the view was to be considered top down or side on wasn't even thought about, it simply wasn’t important - then I realised that top down would be incredibly dull."
Concludes Flanagan of his design inspiration: "The only way to express the in game characters was side on I felt, after that I considered what kind of a creature would jump around the screen. After a few nights of listing possibilities, it boiled down to a monkey. He could perform all the moves required, has longs limbs to express poses, and could have a large expressive face to convey some humour. And, everybody likes monkeys.”