The Messenger is a top notch indie title inspired by NES and SNES classics like Ninja Giaden and Super Metroid, and is one of the most critically adored game releases of 2018 for its fluid gameplay and characters filled to burst with personality.
The team announced a DLC update due for release this summer called Picnic Panic, a free download add on epilogue that the team at Sabotage Studios is keeping close to the vest. Sam Carpenter discusses the game’s successes, design and subverting expectations successfully in a retro styled indie platformer.
Sam Carpenter, TYF Staff Writer: For anyone who has not played it can you tell us a little bit about The Messenger?
Thierry Boulanger, Co-Founder, Creative Director at Sabotage Studios: Yeah so The Messenger is very much a love letter to the 8-bit era, or at least that’s how it starts off! The game is presented as an 8-bit linear action platformer, you go from one thing to the next and it’s about timing and precision, y’know ninja action platforming. And then, about by the midpoint, your sent into the future, 500 years, and so the game shifts completely audio and visually, to 16-bit to reflect the future world in contrast to the past world. And so, after that you play for a few more hours and eventually the frame falls completely and you realize you had been playing the linear cut-out portion of a metroidvania. At that point you have the power to shift back and forth between the past and future by going through portals, and it basically becomes an exploration of finding new items and unlocking full levels, new areas and new boss fights.
And in the end the whole story is hunt to gather music notes that will create a melody that will break the curse on your world.
Sam: And there’s a new DLC, Picnic Panic coming out soon?
Thierry: Absolutely, we don’t have a specific date announced, mainly because the DLC is free so it’s not like we have a clear window or time to market, it’s just leave it out as a thank you to players who encouraged us on this game. So around June is the ballpark but we don’t have a specific date so far.
Sam: Awesome, so can you tell us a little about what inspired the new DLC?
Thierry: Because the game itself, even though there’s a lot of humor to The Messenger, the setting, characters and story, we go a lot with dark colors and epic storytelling like “Argh the world is cursed!”
So with the DLC, instead of going with “the curse is back again after hundreds of thousands of years” we leave it at that, you actually did save the world, the curse is lifted, and so now with Picnic Panic it’s basically “The Ninja Goes on Vacation.”
So off the shore of Messenger Island in the open sea there’s a tropical island, and some creatures were kidnapped and you have to go there as a rescue mission. So the first level of the DLC is a surfing level to get to the island, then it’s your rundown of jungle, beach, voodoo magic, volcano, y’know. So, it’s very much the ninja on a surfboard and palm trees, sand, that’s where we’re going with this one.
Sam: I just got a chance to play that DLC, it’s great, and there’s a surfing level, which there was nothing like in the base game. Is there anything you guys are going to be adding in the new DLC?
Thierry: There’s a few surprises by the end of the DLC, obviously, otherwise it wouldn’t be Messenger. We have to either mess with your expectations a little bit or at least surprise you in some way. I think the main thing people were looking for a bit more challenge, and a bit more opportunity to use the ninja’s gameplay mechanics, especially the Cloud Stepping, which is our double jump in which you have to hit something in the air to reset your jump. But it’s not just a double jump, its as long as you can hit something, and as long as you can pull it off, you can stay in the air. It’s a bit harder but it’s also more opportunities to show off and feel like a ninja. So the levels are slightly longer, slightly more challenging, and there’s new boss fights, a whole bunch of new music tracks for you to listen to and the areas, again, are 8 and 16 bit so you have both renditions.
Sam: I did want to ask you a little about the original game. It was Sabotage Studios first game, right?
Sam: And you guys even won the best debut indie game award at The Game Awards this year, did you guys even expect the great response you’ve gotten or all the critical acclaim?
Thierry: No, I mean, you know you always set out to do the best you can, and you always believe that your game is great because you look at it and you fully understand your own design, you know? But there was also this understanding for us that everybody feels that way about their own game, otherwise they would never go through the effort to put something out. This game was as good as we could make it, and the response was there.
Of course we were really honored and we hope that doing a free DLC is sort of part of acknowledging that in a way that we’re afloat now and we get to exist as a studio because the world said “Yes” and so we should give back in some way and I think doing something like a lighthearted celebration, a free expansion to the game… it felt right to do that as a sort of way of saying Thank You.
Sam: Definitely. One thing that struck me a lot playing the game for the first time is that there are a ton of new things I hadn’t seen in many games before. So definitely cloud step was a great new mechanic, but there’s also the Quarble as the resurrection system instead of lives and continues, and there’s even the fact that you fluidly time travel while you’re in the platforming levels. So, what inspired you guys to try so many new things in the same game?
Thierry: Well… the two main things for me are, first of all you gotta be surprised, you say wow the first time, that’s good you said wow, there’s something to be said about that. You say it twice you’re like WOW, you know? Yeah, we’re onto something, you keep playing. You say wow THREE times, that’s when you gotta tell your friends. Like “You gotta try this because I went Wow, Wow, WOW.”
So the idea with The Messenger is it starts as a linear game, as an 8-bit game first as a very cliche setting, it’s like “Oh the demons are back so grab the scroll and go to the top of the mountain!” We try to let the player think that’s there’s all there is gonna be to the game but the layers keep piling on… and it gets even more meta… It’s designed as how many times, how many punchlines, how many surprises can we add to the basics, so that’s the first thing: going for surprises, reveals and twists. So, in that way the game can also be like binging a series, there’s always the next thing you’re going to learn or want to know about.
The other thing is removing seams wherever possible, y’know, just the game system, but if there’s a way to tie it organically into the game, you mentioned Quarble which is a great example. Usually you die, you have a number of lives, it’s continues and then it’s game over. So in the game instead, it’s like what do the lives and continues do? Do they give you a penalty for dying? Do they moderate your ability to start again? And so, that adds meaning to the challenge. If you just have infinite lives the challenge becomes meaningless because all you’re calculating is the times that you lose for trying again, and it becomes a chore, right? Then, if every life that you try is a unit of something you lose that’s finite, it carries a lot more meaning because you’re spending one of those units. So Quarble is an in between of still having a penalty for dying, but we also let you try again infinitely because modern games have to do that, they’re longer. It’s not an NES game where you just have 8 levels and you’re done, so… and then when also playing into the narrative so that you don’t really feels the seams anymore, Quarble is still a game system when you die, but then it becomes a character and builds the world.
Sam: Playing it for the first time, you can definitely see that, and we can definitely expect a lot more of the awesome surprises in the DLC?
Thierry: Oh for sure, there’s gonna be a lot of callbacks too, because the DLC is gonna be a celebration of the main game, and a thank you, too. We’re looking at the memes that have emerged from the game, favorite moments, we’re to some extent riffing on that a little bit, while also obviously adding a lot more, and we’re reading the comments, we have a pretty active Discord and, like it won’t be what people expect, you know? Which, I think is a good place to be, for Messenger they expect to be surprised. We’re in a good position right now where they think they know what they’re getting, so this is cool.
Sam: I’m super duper excited for it. The Picnic Panic DLC you said is coming this summer?
Thierry: June is probably, it’s a likely ballpark but we don’t have a specific date yet.
The Messenger is now available for PC, Nintendo Switch and now PlayStation 4! The Picnic Panic DLC update is due out soon in Summer 2019.