The Happy Medium

Everything else we consider nonsense

Vlambeer is a Dutch indie made up of Ramii Ismail and Jen Willem Nijman. Their games include the painfully addictive arcade shooter Super Crate Box and GlitchHiker, an action game that died permanently when played poorly (it was showcased once and has stayed dead). A Vlambeer game is like a Jackie Chan movie: usually silly, often violent, and only made possible by obsessive craftsman.

Today marks Vlambeer’s first Anniversary, so to celebrate I’m posting some questions that Ramii was nice enough to answer via email. We talk nonsense in game design, abusive gameplay, and the difference between influence and theft. And remember to check out their website to keep up with their current projects.

THM: You’ve said in the past that Super Crate box was proper platformer “trying to get rid of the nonsense in the game design.” You also wrote that Serious Sam: The Random Encounter is an old-school RPG “stripped of all nonsense”. Is this a guiding philosophy? Which parts of games do you see as “nonsense” and why don’t you want them in games?

Ramii: It’s not that we don’t want them in games—we just don’t want them in ours. We’ve seen games turn into all sorts of things recently and every time we hear people say that games have become “mature”, they’ve not. Games have achieved a lot of things: Call of Duty is basically the typical Hollywood action blockbuster, Heavy Rain a perfect example of a drama/thriller. Games try to be a lot of things—and sometimes they definitely achieve amazing things in doing so—but we think those are dead ends.
Games can only be a movie or a book or a painting or an album so much before they stop being games and start being the thing they’re trying to be. That’s why we believe that there’s ground to be made in that one thing that games have that no other medium has: the gameplay. I guess we’re making a case for games being games.

We try to explore new ground by applying something we call minimalist game design. Basically, it’s trying to make elegant games by applying the rule that less is more. We believe that a game design is optimal when there’s nothing left to remove instead of nothing left to expand. We feel that a game design is the rules and mechanics that fuel the interactivity and every direct result of said interactivity.

Everything else, ranging the graphics and the little details as shotgun shells ejecting from the shotgun to the music and the interface is considered accessibility—supportive to the mechanics and the things the game design tries to achieve.

This means that everything we do is focused purely on conveying the design. Everything else we consider “nonsense”.

Your games seem totally uninterested in story telling, but some of your favourite games include plot-heavy games Deus Ex and Mass Effect. Do you think there is room for narrative in Vlambeer games? Is this part of the “nonsense” you want stripped of games?

No, definitely not. It’s a bit of a misunderstanding that Jan Willem only likes action platformers, by the way. Jan Willem, too, likes good narrative games. A few of the games both me and Jan Willem agree on to be the best games ever made are Half-Life, Grim Fandango and Gravity Bone—all of these being games with a heavy narrative. Personally, I love being immersed in a great story with a great world and with great characters—but I think that’s not Vlambeers’ battle.

When we make a game, for the story we think in terms of its fiction, not its narrative. We try to create a believable context for the game and we keep that in mind at all times while creating the game. This way, we protect a certain consistency within the game and that’s something players can sense some way, even if we don’t have a single line of narrative. Super Crate Box’s level progression, for example. First the construction yard, then the rocket silo, finally the moon temple. That’s a logical progression based on the fiction we have for that game. Radical Fishing's Billy the redneck fisherman, LUFTRAUSER's dogfighting and Dinosaur Zookeeper's zoo, they’re all built within some sort of fiction we’ve created.

We don’t have narrative because one of Vlambeer’s goals is to have players tell stories about our games. We want our players not to speak in terms of, “I collected 400 crates”, but in terms of, “that one time where there were countless enemies and I had the dual pistols, but I actually made it to the next crate.” That’s a manifestation of games being games. That’s the thing we want to achieve.

What we’re trying to say is that we’re horrible writers.

You’ve said in the past that you left ideas out of Super Crate Box you would have liked to include. What are they?

That’s a huge question. Super Crate Box was under development for a few months when time ran out for the Independent Games Festival submission deadline. We took out everything that wasn’t polished and basically all that remained was the ‘arcade’ gameplay.

There are a lot of things we really liked though, and a few of these turned into reality. For example, there were some really cool multiplayer ideas. One of them, a crate collection contest, was realized as a WINNITRON game called Super Crate Box Versus. The WINNITRONs are a really cool concept: arcade cabinets [hand made in cities] over the entire planet with a range of more-or-less exclusive titles only playable on those cabinets.

You seem endearingly mischievous as game makers. From making a game that would die forever (GlitchHiker), to claiming that scoring in Super Crate Box was mistakenly attributed to crates on April 1. What’s the appeal to having fun at the expense of the audience?

Besides the discgun in Super Crate Box, we don’t think we really apply abusive game design inside of our games. Having fun at the expense of the audience hasn’t been explored too much, but abusive game design isn’t really a Vlambeer thing. There is a great example of a game by Jonatan ‘Cactus’ Söderström and Arthur ‘MrPodunkian’ Lee called DungeonDungeon would generate variations of its levels based on a users’ hardware—on some computers, the game would actually be unbeatable. The resulting discussion on the internet about “the first jump being impossible” was interesting to watch.

What we like to do is place responsibilities in the players’ hands. We like to give the player full control over their actions and we don’t like to hold hands. That means that if you screw up, you lose. Compared to a lot of contemporary games that might seem abusive, but for us it’s just stressing the interactive aspect of the game.

We like to show our players how and why we create things the way we do. With that April Fool’s joke where we claimed Super Crate Box’s points-for-crates mechanic was an error on our side, we were trying to show people the importance of that mechanic. As soon as we switched the scoring to kills for that day the game broke completely.

GlitchHiker—the game that died—now that wasn’t really us being mischievous. We made GlitchHiker during the 2010 Global Game Jam by teaming up with Rutger ‘Diskette Deluxe’ Muller, Paul ‘Pietepiet’ Veer, Laurens de Gier & Jonathan Barbosa Dijkstra. It seemed like an interesting experiment to see how players would react to a game that would ultimately die permanently (not just on their PC, but globally) if they would fail.

Your games themselves, though, contain a lot of wry, silly humour. Do you consider yourselves “funny” game makers? What games have you found funny in the past?

The both of us are like that in real life as well. We like having a bit of cynical, dark humor and we like being a bit mischievous, if that’s what you want to call it. That’s just our personalities being reflected in the games we make, and that’s one of the appeals of working in such small teams. You’re putting a part of who you are into your games and people who know us will be able to tell which choices were Jan Willem’s decision and which were Rami’s.

How do you feel about Ninja Fishing biting your game design for Radical Fishing sequel, Ridiculous Fishing? Is there a point at which influence ceases to be fair game and becomes theft?

In the light of the recent Radical Fishing controversy, we’ve been discussion that a lot.
You see, iteration is an important thing in game design—little, subtle improvements being made to something. Those iterations are the result of people looking at the design questions posed in a game, and the answers that were used to ultimately create the game. Sometimes, you improve upon either the question or the answer, and that’s when you “iterate”. There are a lot of shades of grey there, but those are important to our industry.

Cloning, on the other hand, is when one only looks at the answers and copies them wholesale. That’s where things become a problem. Unlike iterations, clones do not iterate. They do not improve, nor do they bring new insights or progress. They’re purely and solely a way to try and make money from someone else’s designs.

You get this slightly soulless version of the original title, usually with typical art and some strange things that tend to be contradictory to the core design added for good measure.

Going through this entire episode together with collaborators Zach Gage and Greg Wohlwend taught the four of us one thing. People tend to think that finance is the main problem when a clone occurs, but that’s not true. It’s definitely a part of it, but the hurt is somewhere else. The clone didn’t hurt financially, it hurt emotionally.

It’s the thought of us working on Radical Fishing, coming up with and debating upgrades and fish behaviors and mechanics—starting with a simple prototype with crappy little fish drawn in Microsoft Paint. The amount of effort we poured into now yields [another developer] high praise and people will hardly know we made that. The thought that the two of us, Zach and Greg had been so happily and intensely working on this project to suddenly have someone else reap the spoils, well, that’s demotivating if anything ever was.

On the bright side, however, our fans and supporters started an amazing outcry on the Internet, Chris Donlan of EDGE magazine wrote something that we’ll probably remember for a long while. He wrote:

What it can’t get, though, even as it cannibalises Vlambeer’s sales, is that amazing moment I had in Radical Fishing where I realised that the game’s music was stitched together from the same beats, buzzes, and quavering synth chords that the team also put to work on Super Crate Box—that amazing moment when the creator’s personal quirks show through. 
When you have no originality in your games, you can have no history, and you can have no personal quirks. You’ll end up with customers, perhaps, but not genuine fans—and games built around the concept of customers alone are often pretty miserable.

We were just so happy to realize that we don’t have customers. We have fans. We have people that recognize us for what we do and for the effort we put into that. That’s an encouraging thought and it’s a thought that helped us through a difficult time.

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