Derek Yu is an artist and independent game developer best known for his work on Aquaria. Winner of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival in 2007, Aquaria is a seminal example of how Independent developers can attain and surpass the level of quality we see supported by major publishers every day. We had the opportunity to talk to Derek about the future of 2D gaming, conversation as gameplay, and the value of games journalism.IGN: What's left to do in 2D gaming? Do you think about design in terms of dimensions or do you just come up with some concepts and look at the easiest way of implementing them?
Derek Yu: Visually, there's still a lot to do in 2D gaming. If you think about it, how many different art styles have you seen incorporated into cartoons, comics, animations, or concept art? I think we're only beginning to see that kind of diversity in video games. With Aquaria I definitely wanted to extend the metaphor of 2d game visuals to include my painted style of graphics. I think Odin Sphere is exemplary as modern 2d game. And Wario Land: Shake It! looks like the most convincing "cartoon-as-video-game" game I've seen yet. Those are two of the obvious directions to take the medium, too. There's no reason why games can't look like everything from Looney Tunes to Kandinsky!
And even within a subset of 2d game art that seems relatively well-understood, like "pixel art," people still discovering their own unique styles and trying all kinds of new things. We have to acknowledge that technology jumps ahead before we're necessarily "done" with exploring the artistic side of things. Final Fantasy VI is a beautiful game, and I wouldn't change a thing about it, but is it the pinnacle of what we can do with a 2d game? Of course not!
And that's just on the graphics-end of things – there are still plenty of interesting game mechanics left to be discovered, many of which are best suited to 2d. A lot of the indie games I play wouldn't be any better from a 3d perspective... in fact, I think they'd be worse! Don't get me wrong, though – I love 3d games. But it's like comparing apples to oranges. You innovate on the apple end and you innovate on the orange end.
When I design games I generally think of an image, a character, or a name, first – something very vague – and progress from there. I'm a 2d artist only, so I'm restricted to creating 2d games on my own. I have some fun ideas for 3d games, but unfortunately they'll have to stay in my head… for the time being!IGN: Who's someone not in the videogame industry that inspires you?
Derek Yu: I'm inspired by anybody who has a passion for something, and can dedicate themselves to it with strength and grace. I recently watched American Splendor, a movie about comics writer Harvey Pekar, and I was pretty inspired by his story. Not just the creative aspect of it, but also his family, his battle with cancer... it's good to take stock of what you have in life so that you don't take anything for granted before its gone. Remembering that always makes me want to do my best work.IGN: In the Aquaria post-mortem at GDC this year you mentioned having worked on an RPG with lots of dialogue. What are your thoughts on games that feature dialogue as a primary gameplay mechanic (e.g. Façade or Mass Effect)? Does conversation as gameplay interest you creatively?
Derek Yu: There's nothing inherently wrong with having a lot of dialogue in a game, but I'd challenge developers (including myself) to think of ways to integrate dialogue better with a game's design... or else figure out how to convey the information more naturally. In Aquaria, for example, we realized that text-based dialogue completely halted the flow of the game – our "fix" for that was to focus more on Naija rather than the NPC's, and use voiceovers that could play while you were exploring, rather than text boxes.
If dialogue is itself the primary mechanic in a game, then the dialogue needs to be interesting, and, more importantly, the player has to be given ample tools to affect the conversation. I don't want to comment on Mass Effect directly, because I haven't played it myself (only watched), but seeing dialogue trees in a space opera makes my hairs stand up on end. My first thought is "am I going to want to skip all this so that I can go blast aliens/explore/do any of the other million more interesting things to do in the game?" I'm sure I'd enjoy Mass Effect if I played it, but that's just my initial impression.
The biggest problem with dialogue trees, in my opinion, is that it's a very unsophisticated and uninteresting way of interacting with the game world. It boxes the player in and forces them to make fairly arbitrary choices, instead of simply reacting to a situation. In games with dialogue trees, I always find myself trying to either find the "right thing to say," "the wrong thing to say," or the "funny thing to say." I feel like I'm speaking through a machine. Façade's not perfect, but I appreciate the freeform nature of the dialogue… and the way that it keeps moving forward even when you aren't saying anything. Even the simple fact that you can effectively talk over someone (interrupt them) in Façade is a big step forward for game dialogue, in my opinion.
"Conversation as gameplay" is already provably interesting, in games like Façade and Emily Short's Galatea (an Interactive Fiction game), where it's the heart and soul of the experience. But when it's tacked on to shooters and other action-oriented games, it bores me (conceptually, at least).
]IGN: What does the term "independent" mean to you?
Derek Yu: For me the term has less to do with how large your budget is or whether you have a publisher behind you, and more to do with why you're making games in the first place. How much freedom do you have (or are you allowing yourself) to develop something that is personally meaningful to you? There are mainstream companies that I feel are very "independent," like Valve, for example. On the other hand, I find a lot of the casual game companies to be very much not independent. It's more of a philosophy of game making rather than a numbers thing, if you ask me!IGN: Do you feel like there is a community of independent game designers that you are a part of?
Derek Yu: Yeah, totally! That's one of the things I love so much about independent gaming… how close-knit the community is, and how much passion everyone has for games and for game development. I've met some awesome people through The Independent Gaming Source ("TIGSource") and the Independent Games Festival. I really can't imagine doing any of this without their camaraderie!
TIGSource, in particular, is the kind of community I've always wanted to be apart of. I think being a game developer, let alone an "on-your-own" game developer, is a pretty unique position... I feel a little alienated from the outside world sometimes, and it's nice to be able to talk to other people about it. I think a lot of other indie devs would feel the same way.
We learn a lot from each other and have a great time in the process.IGN: Are you interested in moving into console design now that all three major platforms offer downloadable games?
Derek Yu: I guess I am and I am not. On the one hand, I think it's great that there are so many new platforms for indie developers to reach new audiences. On the other hand, I'm really just interested in making games, period. I'm also a pretty avid PC game-player, so I don't know! I guess we'll just have to wait and see!IGN: What are some of the best level edits or mod's that you've seen with the Aquaria editing tool?
Derek Yu: One of the first mods to come out was a Jukebox mod that let you play all the music tracks in the game – it was a simple mod but I really enjoyed it and helped the creator with it a bit. There are some various level mods in the works, but they're all fairly ambitious and haven't been released yet! There was one that started off as a "casual" map where you could swim around without worrying about combat. I really liked the idea behind that one, because I always could envision Aquaria as an exploration-only game, and I know a lot of players want to swim around without actually fighting. Now that I've mentioned it, I might just make a mod like that for myself...
Other than that, I've seen some fun sprite mods, like one that puts Naija in Samus's "Zero Suit!"IGN: What's the difference, if any, between playing a game with a controller versus using mouse and keyboard?
Derek Yu: Certain games just feel better with a controller and certain games feel better with the mouse/keyboard set up. Those old 8 and 16-bit games are just made for a controller, whereas I can't imagine playing some of these modern RTS's and FPS's without a mouse. Even GTA and Halo feel a little wonky to me with the controller.
In the end, I think what controls you use makes a big difference in not only how you play games, but also how you perceive games. With a mouse and keyboard, I feel a little more invested, perhaps. When you give someone a Wiimote I think they're expecting more of a "casual" gaming experience. Both are good.IGN: What are some games you're playing right now? What do you think of it/them?
Derek Yu: Hmmm, well, I recently beat both Shiren the Wanderer and GTA IV. The indie game I'm playing right now is The Spirit Engine 2. I also just came back from Comic-Con, where I got to sample Street Fighter IV!
Honestly, they're all very different games, and I like them all! I don't really mind that they're all sequels/expansions, either. Generally, when I like something, I want to play more of it. I've played plenty of original stuff recently, too (mostly indie).
Shiren, in particular, really surprised me. In my opinion, it kind of "perfected" the Roguelike genre in a way, by simplifying the interface, cutting out the fat, and adding persistent characters and storylines. It also has a fairly unique setting, which just goes to show that there are always new twists you can put on things.IGN: What does your family think of your decision to pursue game design as a career?
Derek Yu: I'm really fortunate in that my family is supportive of my decision. I definitely realize that most parents would scream if they heard the words "video games" and "career" together in the same sentence. Especially most first-generation immigrant parents, who typically want to have more engineers, doctors, and lawyers in the clan. My folks are pretty open-minded, however. We'd spend a lot of time playing games together when I was younger.IGN: You sell Aquaria for $30 online. Is there enough of a market for these kinds of games to support you over the course of a career without having to get into the console/major publisher end of the industry?
Derek Yu: It's definitely doable, yeah. And I think the market will only get bigger, as people get more and more used to buying these types of games online. I think most people would still prefer having a box, a CD, or whatever, but the convenience of buying a game online and having it downloaded to your computer can't be beat.
Overall, I also get the feeling that many people are getting interested in playing shorter, tighter games. Rather than shell out $60 for a 100-hour game that's filled with extraneous mini-games and cutscenes, they'd rather pay a fraction of that cost to play something that is focused and maybe tries something a bit different. I think the burgeoning "casual" and "retro" markets are great examples of how these things can work. So are all these games with episodic content. So is Portal. So is Aquaria, maybe!
It's a risk thing – players don't want to pay $60 for a game they aren't sure is good, so they typically only buy from the handful of established brands. Those big companies spend 2-3 years and billions of dollars developing games so they can't risk trying anything TOO new. With indie games the developers can take more of a chance creatively because they have less overhead. And the players can take a chance with their wallets because they aren't investing as much.
The industry needs both to survive, in my opinion.IGN: What's something that disappoints you about the way games journalists tend to cover the medium?
Derek Yu: I think games journalism hasn't really found its voice… it tends to come off as either overly juvenile or overly pretentious (I include myself in this). There are still very few truly competent game reviews out there, and I think it's because nobody really understands what the inherent value of games is yet. I think film-makers and writers, even the bad ones, can sort of take comfort in the idea that what they're doing is established high art (or at least it can be). Even the most diehard game fan is probably not so certain about where his passion lies. You see a lot of very defensive gamers and game reviewers out there...
And I'm not sure whether my contributions are helping us find a conclusive answer. But hey, that's actually one of the things that really interests me about the medium! When it's all figured out it'll be a lot less interesting.IGN: What's your favorite book? Why?
Derek Yu: I'm not really good at answering "what's your favorite…" questions, because I have so many, and for different reasons. Maybe "Where the Wild Things Are," by Maurice Sendak. I think that more or less sums up how I think life should be. Plus, the art in it is crazy good.IGN: Do you think sex belongs in videogames?
Derek Yu: Oh, of course!IGN: How do has your involvement in art affected the way you look at videogames, if at all?
Derek Yu: Art has given me a new context in which to understand games. It's just another lens through which I can appreciate them, just like anything else!