Eric Provan Interview
Three weeks ago we took a look at indie game Spate, a surrealist 2.5D platformer from designer and animator Eric Provan. This week I talk with the developer about his beginnings in the industry and pick his brain about what the game has in store for us, touching on the theme of the games and how they will affect the player.
The world of Spate and its gameplay mechanics look incredibly unique and compelling. How did your initial concept come about and how has it evolved over the course of development?
Eric: Spate has evolved so much in the 3 years that I have been working on it, but I do remember setting some guidelines that have stuck. First, I wanted the game to be extremely rainy and damp. This grew out of my love of films like Stalker, Angels Egg, and Dark City. There’s a certain feeling that I have when watching and listening to rain, and I wanted that to come through in the game. Second, I wanted there to be no HUD and the controls to be very simple. I feel like games have gotten too convoluted. Things are kept relatively simple in Spate to keep the player in that world. It’s more important to me that the player is lost in thought rather than thinking. The actual drinking mechanic came very late in the games development. I always had the idea for this character to slowly go insane throughout the game. And I introduced drinking very early into the story. But, it wasn’t until game designers David Jaffe and Jenova Chen played Spate (on IGNs Game Boss show), that I added the actual drinking mechanic. They enjoyed the demo very much, but felt like there was nothing connecting the storyline to the gameplay. This is where the drinking mechanic was born.
In the trailers it makes mention that the absinthe makes Detective Bluth hallucinate. Will players be able to explore a different side of the story under the influence? Are there other negative impacts that the insanity brings?
Eric: Players can beat the game whether they choose to use the drinking mechanic or not. There are just parts that will be easier if the player uses the mechanic because it lets them run faster and jump higher. This forces players to think the way a drunk would think. “Yeah, it would be nice to get wasted, but then again, things around me could suffer because of it.” I am also toying with the idea of having a few different endings depending on how many times a player uses the drinking mechanic.
I should also mention that there are more factors in the game that are making this character go mad then just the drinking. I was very inspired by Journey, and how in that game it felt like this world got harsher and more challenging, but you always kept moving on because there was that feeling like there was a light at the end of this long tunnel. I’ve modeled Spate this way, in that these mysterious islands start off simple enough, then you start to see weird stuff, and by the end you are climbing a mile high tower that is growing out of a female statues head. Because of this progression, I think the players feel the madness that the character is feeling.
About how long a journey will it be? Have you made any painful cuts that might turn up in a future work?
Eric: The game takes me just under 2 hours to get through it. I imagine a new player is looking at 2-4 hours. I think the length works perfect for the kind of game Spate is. The story is very much structured like a film and I think to get the full emotional impact of the game, its best to play through it in one sitting. I have had to cut a lot of things in the development of Spate. This is something that is hard to learn as an artist but sometimes you have to “kill your babies”. I have recently been recording entire playthroughs of the game and then editing it down after watching the playthroughs. A lot of the recent cuts have been to keep the game simple. The more complex things get, the more the player gets pulled from the world of Spate.
One thing that I cut from the game that I may use in the future is physics based puzzles. I should be clear, I didn’t cut all of them, but in the beginning, I drew out tons and tons of puzzles and then had to scratch many of them. The cuts came because they broke up the flow of the game to much, and quite honestly, they were hard to program for a new programmer like myself. Perhaps I will go back to that sketch book and use them in the future!
How did you get your start in the entertainment industry? Did games come first or animation?
Eric: I started my career at Take-Two’s Kush Games working on their 2K MLB and NHL series. It was a good experience, but as an aritst, I quickly got bored working on realism. This led me to work on characters at The Jim Henson Creature Shop. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to get out of the game industry, it was more that I wanted to step away from realism and work on something with a bit more style. Henson provided that.
What was it like working in the beloved Creature Shop? I grew up watching his work and loving movies like Labyrinth and the short lived Jim Henson Hour. Any favorite project you look back on fondly?
Eric: I grew up the same way. If you haven’t seen Henson’s The Storyteller series, you have to check it out! When I was there, they were transitioning a lot of their TV stuff to CG, so I didn’t get to work on anything to memorable. With that said, just going to work at the Henson studio in Hollywood every day was a trip. I remember on my first day, I took a wrong turn and ended in a hallway that had an original Skeksis puppet from Dark Crystal. It was that kind of stuff that I remember most.
I remember seeing the episode “Fearnot” as a kid and having the heebyjeeby’s scared out of me by the Half Man that dropped out of the chimney. “Master of Illusion” was another favorite. The whole series changed my writer’s imagination permanently. What are your favorite stories that you use to stoke your imagination when you need some creative juice?
Eric: My favorite was “Sapsorrow”. Jim Henson does Cinderella? Count me in! As far as what gets my creative juices flowing, it really depends on the project I am working on. For Spate, I have a rolodex of about 20 films that I go to for creative inspiration. The Name of the Rose (1986) and Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974) being two great mysteries that I found in the process. I love stories about solo character’s given unbelievable tasks. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea falls into that category and is definitely inspiration for Spates main character.
It’s amazing how story resonates with us on such a deep level. How do you think players will feel about Detective Bluth? I don’t want to pry too far into the story until everyone gets to play it, but what kind of emotional resonance will we walk away with when we come to the end of his journey?
Eric: I think players will relate to the Detective and his battles. We all have our own demons (as I chug a soda), overcoming these demons is no easy task (as I chug soda again), and there is a familiar feeling of emotional achievement and satisfaction from overcoming these demons. That’s the feeling I believe the Detective in Spate and his journey through the XZone will pass on to its players.
Any last thoughts before we part ways? Do you have an anticipated release date, or do you share Blizzard’s stalwart response, “When it’s ready?”
Eric: The release date for Spate has been a tricky thing for me. I’m lucky enough to have had a successful Kickstarter campaign with over 750 backers of Spate. Keeping them waiting has weighed heavy on me. The original release date for Spate was Dec. 2012. Personal matters, and design matters collided and pushed that date. Spate is [much] different than any project I have ever worked on. I see it as my one big chance to create something special. Something that people will really enjoy. For this reason, I have definitely adopted the Blizzard way of thinking. I believe that the game and the players deserve for this thing to be done right. And, if that means a bit more time, then I’m going to take that time and make the most of it. The best estimate I can give right now is summer 2013.
Eric, it’s been great talking with you, and we hope to catch you again closer to release!
Eric: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you! Thanks for giving me a platform to get some of my thoughts out here. All the best!