Glitchhikers: Interview with Silverstring Media

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I played through the beta for Glitchhikers a bunch of times, each time slightly different from the last and each time somehow relaxing yet unsettling. It’s an interesting game, and to describe it in too much detail would be to rob you of some of the experience.

I’ll compromise by telling you two things.
1) The game has you driving alone in the dark, encountering various hitchhikers – “Glitchhikers.”
2) Silverstring Media describes themselves thusly: “we are storytellers… we are game designers… we are experimenters.”

That should give you a good idea of the Glitchhikers experience. You can go grab it now – it released today, and it’s free.

Interviews can be tough. Usually, they’re with a single member of a development team, and the tone can be hard to decipher.
Other times, the interviewees do half of the work for you.
I wanted to interview someone from Silverstring Media about their upcoming game, Glitchhikers. Instead, I was treated to answers from the entire team. While each of the three had their specialty on the project – ceMelusine covered the programming and art, Lucas J.W. Johnson covered writing, and Andrew Grant Wilson covered editing – they worked together on the overall design. As a bonus they even got their composer and sound designer Devin Vibert to weigh in on my inevitable soundtrack questions.

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First off, please tell us about Silverstring!
You’ve clearly set yourselves apart from other game studios by calling yourselves “Silverstring Media” instead of “Silverstring Games” – do you consider yourselves a game studio, or do you feel like you should be in another category (or categories)?
What do you bring to the game industry and culture that you feel is unique?

Lucas: Silverstring Media is a story design and game development company. Besides making our own projects like Glitchhikers, we also designed the story and narrative content for IGF- and IndieCade-nominated games Extrasolar and Crypt of the Necrodancer. While gaming has been a major focus of our recent work, we don’t want to put Silverstring into a box; saying we only make games limits our creativity. Indeed, some of our projects already include works of fiction, such as Azrael’s Stop, and music, as in The Edge.

I think that allows us to bring something different to our work and the industry. Our first concern is making something cool, whatever that looks like; we’re not bound by ideas of what a game is–we don’t really care if you call our things games or not, we feel no need to shoehorn ourselves into a definition. We just want to make cool stuff.

Of course, if we’re looking for ‘unique’, we need only look as far as your games.
What gave you the idea for Glitchhikers?

ceMelusine: For the last few years, a friend and I have done a road trip down to Washington State. On the way back to Vancouver, we always end up driving through the night. Driving like that always feels a bit like a ritual. Glitchhikers is an attempt to make a game out of that ritual.

Where did you get inspiration for each different glitchhiker? How many(ish) are there? How do the players actions affect who their next passenger is?

Lucas: Glitchhikers was always a very thematic concept, so when I started writing the conversations, I wanted to explore a lot of the different themes we had discussed: travel and loneliness, the gothic sublime, the chaos of the universe. But I didn’t want to come at them directly, or try to influence the player’s thoughts about them, so each glitchhiker had their own story they would tell, about themselves or something else. Each one was just a little random, a little strange—little anecdotes and random facts that I thought were interesting, whales beaching themselves, ancient Indian religion, Carl Sagan quotes. They were supposed to be a little weird, almost dreamlike, to put the player out of their comfort zone, get them to think a little more fantastical and question themselves.

There are six possible glitchhikers in all. What hikers they see for the second and third conversations depend on what they say in previous conversations–we wanted to try to interpret how players were responding and then lean into those responses, asking them to go further or questioning their beliefs.

In another interview, you explain that you are “simply trying to create a space in which the player can have their own experience.” How are you trying to achieve this? Presumably one way of making each playthrough unique is by allowing many different paths and choices; do these changes just come in the form of the passengers, or do the conversations change drastically as well? About how many unique playthroughs are you hoping the average player can get out of Glitchhikers?

Lucas: Allowing the player to have their own experience is less about the branching gameplay and more about creating a liminal space. We present them with the conversations to give them the space to self-reflect or consider the themes. Everyone brings their own personal context to the game, and a lot of the people who play have very personal experiences with it, and that’s what we’re aiming for–not just branching dialogue

But that does also require some ability to adapt to the player’s actions so the game is clearly responding to them. That means that the hikers respond directly to what you say to them before moving on, and it means that you get different hikers depending on your earlier answers.

Andrew: Ultimately though, we never wanted to fall into the common videogame trap that the user has to “earn” new content by sinking a bunch of time into the game to figure out “what it wants” from them. This isn’t a game about what we want, or what we see; it’s a mirror for the player. A new feature in the final version of the game will be a system that makes unseen hikers more likely to appear in subsequent playthroughs, regardless of whether the player changes their responses or strays outside of their comfort zone. We don’t want the player to feel as if they have to play a role to fully experience the game; just being themselves is enough.

Many game designers, when they set about the task of building a world, get it into their heads that the only way to make the world seem “real” is to make it inflexible and rigid because that is how they perceive “the real world” to be. Expecting the player to conform to the causality of the world as set out by the creator(s) not only fails to make things feel more “real,” it’s also annoying. “Morality bars” are an excellent example of this drivel. Only a complete fool thinks that just because they created the world, they have absolute mastery of its ethics and philosophy. If you don’t believe that your players have something to add to the subject of morality, why make a videogame with moral choice?

Do you feel that the idea of each player having a unique playthrough is missing from other games?

Andrew: I think that every videogame that’s worth positively writing about offers a unique experience for its user. That does not, however, mean unique storylines with branching narratives and all that jazz. “Static” works of art — paintings, sculptures, collage, etc — don’t change for their viewers, but they can, and often do, change the viewer themselves.

How did you design the music for the game? What factors did you take into account when determining the style? For example, why does the third track have vocals where the first two don’t?

Lucas: We wanted music that was a little weird, like the strange things you might hear on the radio at 2 in the morning, and we wanted music that was very atmospheric–not anything that would disrupt the player while they were reading the dialogue, and something that would help get them into the mental space we were going for. We tasked our composer Devin with that, and he came through beautifully with a host of great tracks (including a couple that didn’t make it into the game, but which will be available on the soundtrack!).

Devin: Because it was supposed to be disjointed and very surrealist-sounding, I felt it was important to treat vocals as “just another instrument”. Normally whenever there are vocals they are the focus, but we didn’t want players focusing on that, so a determined effort was made to ensure that the vocals were always buried in the mix, and distorted all to hell to the point of either being unrecognizable or being just another weird sonic anomaly.

Also, I tried my best to create all of those weird sounds and textures organically. I have an arsenal of synthesizers at my command, where I could just push and hold a key on a keyboard and get sounds that would have been an acceptable level of weird — but I didn’t do that very much. Which is what makes this music a little unique, I think, in that most of the “weird” you hear is created by taking an otherwise sensible and clean-sounding thing, like a piano, and just totally butchering the audio beyond recognition. The result was a bunch of sounds that if you listen carefully to, you’re kind of like ‘Oh, ok, yeah, I suppose that could have been a guitar at one point.’ And as a result there’s a human element (or at least a sense that a human has tampered with it) that would have been absent if I’d just picked a bunch of strange synths from a big library of presets. And I feel like that’s important to the integrity of the game: On the surface everything is alien and unsettling, but at the core there’s a sense of familiarity — these glitchhikers are all sorting through the same feelings of fear, doubt, and curiosity as us.

What factors went into deciding the style of the graphics? Why did you choose to go with angular polygons instead of something, say, smoothed and realistic or exaggerated and cartoony?

ceMelusine: When we first started making the game, we decided that we wanted to go for an art style that has a sort of squalid, dream-like quality to it. Essentially, we wanted an art style that captured the mood of the game really well. For me, low-poly art has always done a good job of that. It feels a bit blurry like a hallucination, but also has that distinct sharp-edged style to it. I was, at the time, also spending a lot of time looking at abstract expressionism paintings from the 40s and I think a lot of that leaked into the game.

How did you decide what the surroundings should look like – is there significance in the three main phases being separated by different biomes (open fields, a road on a mountainside, and lastly a deep forest)?

ceMelusine: The different landscapes and their order were modelled after the drive through the Rocky Mountains from Calgary to Vancouver.  We wanted players to progress through different landscapes in order to reflect the progression of their journey. And with the release of the full version this month, we’ve added something to help make that experience feel a little more complete.

The radio announcer seems to have a strong effect on the tone of the game, practically holding it together; what went into deciding his tone and topics of conversation? He is reminiscent of “Welcome To Nightvale”; was this intentional?

Andrew: Like the rest of the game, we were conscious of what symbolism the presentation of the announcer would have, in addition to the words we wanted him say. He is the only voice the player actually hears in the game (beyond the voices in the static — listen closely!), and through this unique situation he has the potential to become more than “just a radio host.” Is he a guide? Is he a tether holding you to the real world? Is he a spirit? Is he the driver’s subconscious? Or maybe he really is just a voice on the radio. Like everything else in Glitchhikers, it’s up to player to decide. There are no right answers, no wrong guesses, no canon. We tasked the amazingly talented Jacob Burgess with infusing all of this ambiguity into the role, and he did an absolutely fantastic job of it.

We’ve had many people ask us if “Welcome to Nightvale” was a major inspiration for the host, but we actually based his manner of speaking and the random factoids he delivers on the plethora of strange late night DJ’s I listened to growing up in East Texas. In particular “Hearts of Space” — a long running radio show that plays some really far-out stuff, including (one time) dictaphone tapes that had rotted away into incomprehensible nothingness. To me, that’s much stranger than the surreal fiction of Nightvale, and that “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” quality was something that we were very keen to evoke.

Of course, we were also aware that many players were going to draw the parallel to Nightvale and we wanted to lean into that too, so we specifically designed bits of phrasing and tone to speak to that. A wink, a nod, a wiggle of the nose — that’s often all that’s needed to make magic.

And lastly, what do you want the players to get out of your game?

Andrew: Glitchhikers can grant you whatever your heart truly desires. Close your eyes and rub the mouse 3 times.

Lucas: Our job is not to say what players should get out of our game. Whatever they get, we have succeeded.

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  • Miranda

    Oh man that game gave me a serious case of the existential crises.