By Luke Amargo
Meet Mark Foster a United Kingdom pun-loving indiedeveloper whose work hasappeared on iPhones and computers alike, quit his day job, and saved his money to develop games like his up-and-coming game, “Chroma.” He participates in game jams with local video game events. His game, “Leaf Me Alone” won top honors with its deep artistic flair and puzzle platformer in the Ludum Dare Competition. In his interview he sat down and dialogued his work, Shakespeare, minimalism and Zelda.
You have taken top honors in the “Ludum Dare” for your videogame “Leaf Me Alone.” Basically in the Ludum Dare you all get a tone (this year minimalism) and 48 hours to create a videogame. Now how did it affect your process and development for “Leaf Me Alone?”
I’ve done a few Ludum Dares before and occasionally do small jams over a couple of hours or maybe a day. In the past I’ve mostly done this solo, LD is actually split into two categories, 48 hour compo and a 72 hour jam; the difference between the two is for the longer jam you can work with other people whereas the 48 hour one is totally solo. So this time was something new for me since I paired up with my musical friend David Fenn and made a team effort!
With jams like this only having a really short space of time to do it in you need to really cut to the core of what you want to do. Start with an idea, cut loads from it, then cut some more. Having a limited time and a restriction on theme pushes you into doing things you might not normally do, puts you out of your comfort zone and usually produces interesting results. I find restriction breeds cool ideas, which is why I love LD and these kind of jams, it just forces your brain to work in a slightly different way.
This time around I wasn’t too inspired by the theme, it actually felt a bit too broad to me (I think any jam game is minimal by necessity!). I find the best themes to be super restrictive, and it’s always interesting to not only see how people fit their game to the theme, but also how they might find ways of bending the theme to their will. That’s what produces such a cool variety of games for these jams, people take ideas in wildly different directions.
How would you describe “Leaf Me Alone” in comparison to your other works?
It’s kind of like a breath of fresh air, it’s more joyful and childlike than most of my other games. I kind of think of it as a game I’d have made if I knew how to code when I was 8. When I was a kid playing stuff like Sonic on the old Megadrive/Genesis I always wanted to make my own game, or more specifically my own world; some cool place I and other people could play about in, and that’s sort of what this game became. It was scaled down from what 8 year old me would have wanted (or even modern day me, half the planned game didn’t get made but such is the way of game jams).
Now many ivory tower scholars argue that videogames are not art (or capital “a” Art). But when I played you game Leaf Me Alone, its style evoked the same feeling as Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totorro—most video games do not recreate that cute, yet vital feeling nostalgia. Now, in most experiences in colleges, people do not study videogames in a scholarly sense, but they study poems, novels and even movies. Does it worry indiedevelopers like you who attempt to create these artistic works, while many scholars blanket statement a “not-art”?
It doesn’t worry me at all, people will always disagree on many things, it’s human nature; however I think anything anyone creates could be thought of as art. Any book, song, painting or game is a form of expression, and to me that’s all art is, expression. I kind of think of Leaf Me Alone as sort of a little haiku/poem in video game form, and I really like that it turned out that way. It was never our main focus or intention, even the name was accidental as I have a chronic condition where I constantly think of terrible puns, honestly it’s punstoppable.
If you really take a close look at art, whether it be paintings, books or games or anything else, you can analyse pieces of them in depth and try to see what the creator was doing at certain points. Back in school we used to pick apart Shakespeare, what each line meant, analysing the metaphors wrapped around the stories. You can look at games in the same way, I think that’s what you do when you make games and play them, you look at certain points and think about why they exist, what their purpose is in the game – to teach a player something? To guide their eye to a specific spot?
This kind of debate about games and art often gets tied up to indie games, which I think is interesting. Even massive open world RPG’s made by big budget companies can by expressive and artistic, but I think indies get pulled into it more due to the scale of their games and the scale of development. It can sometimes be easier to see the raw soul behind a smaller game made by one or two people rather than large games made by hundreds. I read somewhere that ‘AAA games are Pop albums, and indie games are rock songs’, which I thought was a neat little analogy (unless you hate rock music).
Do you draw influences from literature, poetry, graphic novels or any classic when you create games? I have noticed in some circles of video games (like Bioshock with Ayn Rand and George Orwell or The Last of Us with Cormac McCarthy and Robert Kirkman) that they have incorporated these works into their style.
I think every aspect of a person’s life will influence their work, with games I’m obviously influenced by a lot of other games I play, but also by things I see in day-to-day life. I think big chunks of the game I’m currently working on (Chroma) were spawned from tiny things I saw in life or overheard on a train that set my mind off down some weird path that led to a cool idea.
One thing I’ve noticed about the kind of stories I like, in films books or games, is that immersion, and a feeling of reality is really powerful. I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin recently (after watching the show on TV) and that world the author has created feels real; the characters aren’t good or bad, they’re human. They’re influenced by their environment, the people surrounding them and the history of the world that they exist in. All of these factors make the story feel like you’re seeing a slice of time in a vast world rather than a simple linear story, and I really like that.
I think games have a massive potential for this kind of narrative as well, telling their tale through the environment, mechanics and interaction rather than cut-scenes and walls of text. I try to keep that in mind as I work on my current project.
Yes, often times, I find myself annoyed by stories (like B-rate Fantasy/Science Fiction) works because of how they info dump—all over! Your work is special because it doesn’t pander around with those engaged. You enjoy fresh concepts. In fact, your current project Chroma is the idea of being a character of yin-and-yang proportion. (A theme we can also find in your bomb/multiplayer game). What is the idea that propels the story and development of Chroma?
I think the core of it is I want to tell a story, and I want to break away from some conventional things that happen in games. I like things that are different and new, as you say – fresh concepts. I want to give the player an opportunity to discover for themselves how the mechanics of the world I’ve created work, where they are, why their character is there and what’s going on. It’s totally open world, no separate levels or anything like that – it’s one continuous 2D environment. It’s been a major challenge to allow players to go anywhere straight away through varying routes while keeping the puzzles balanced; I think 2 people who play the game will each have a completely different journey since it’s so non-linear. I’m very sure it won’t be a game to everyone’s taste, but as I said in a previous answer, people argue about many things, people have many different opinions. If you make a game that’s specifically catered to a niche group that you yourself are part of then those people would love it all the more (I hope!).
It revolves around color, light and shadow, in a dead world that has a history behind it. Understanding what that history is is the key to unlocking the real mysteries of the game. I fully expect not a lot of people will uncover those final end-game mysteries, but that makes them more special to the people who do work it out. I saw a talk by developer Terry Cavanagh (Super Hexagon/VVVVVV) and he said something that resonated with me, “I like it when games don’t care if a player can see all it has to offer”. That kind of blew my mind, games like the original Zelda has loads of secrets hidden away that were never made obvious at all, so if you discovered them it was a real “WOAH” moment, and you’d go share these secrets with your friends and it’d just be really cool. I think that’s a core element of Chroma, allowing people to discover things on their own as they dive deeper into the rabbit hole.
Speaking of Yin and Yang, what is it like working with those talented music makers David Fenn (“Leaf Me Alone”) and James Dean (“Chroma”)?
I seem to know way too many talented people. Fenn is a friend of mine who lives locally and comes to the jams and local dev/game events. He has a really great instrumental style like modern day Zelda games and Final Fantasy. In my opinion his music pretty much made Leaf Me Alone the game it is, without that it wouldn’t be half as good.
JD’s style is more electronic than instrumental, which I really love. The stuff we’re doing in chroma is mostly sound effects based, building up the sounds of the world and adding to that immersion; but there are some musical elements that bridge a gap between classic chip sounds and more modern stuff. It’s always hard for me to explain music in words but all I can say is it sounds awesome. JD just released an EP as well you can check out (http://jamesdeanmusic.bandcamp.com/) which I’ve had on repeat for a while because its so good (I’m listening to it right now).
What is the best way to support you and old-and-new indiedevelopers?
Well you can take a look at my other games and website (http://iamclaw.com), although the games on there are all free it’s always good to get feedback on things. Or if you have an iPhone/iPad or any of those things I do have a game out that costs $2, Hyper Snake a tilt controlled arcade game. Or of course following me on twitter so I can get a higher twitter score (followers) as I pretend that’s a game: @ClawhammerMark.