From Swat Breaches to Hot Creatures, Bill and Amanda Gardner discuss Romancelvania and Other Titles in Their History of Game Development
As with many artforms, game development is a labor that takes time, and requires hard work to master. Those who have been able to see the landscape of gaming change over the years typically have a unique perspective on the current state of affairs in the digital entertainment scene. Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Bill Gardner, a game development veteran of 20 years, as well as his wife, the author Amanda Gardner, both of whom are the founders of their own studio The Deep End Games. I jumped at the opportunity to learn a bit about Bill’s history in gaming, as well as his and Amanda’s projects with The Deep End games, including 2017’s Perception, and the upcoming Action-Platformer Dating-Sim Romancelvania.
On a Sunday afternoon we set aside some time and through the power of the world wide web we were able to have our interview. I thanked the Gardners for making time in their busy schedules to meet with me and we started our conversation with some pleasant small talk about the NES classic Wizards and Warriors, as well as the movies that inspired it; before diving into Bill Gardner’s history in the gaming industry. From the unexpected cult status of his early work, to the new age reality-horror-gaming-show of metroidvanias that is their upcoming title Romancelvania.
I started as far back I could find, with the masterclass in tactical police confrontations, SWAT 4. Released in 2005, this title was critically favored upon release, and in the years since has garnered a community whose devotion makes it the epitome of a cult classic.
I told him that my peers had asked me to relay that they thought it was the best police action game ever, and I asked what had led to him working so intimately on the 4th title in a police simulator series?
Bill Gardner: That’s awesome, thank you. It was a fun project, it really was. We couldn’t have made Bioshock without that… We didn’t really have an interest in doing SWAT… We wanted to make narrative games, we wanted to make stuff like System Shock, but we knew that we had to build ourselves up because System Shock 2 was kind of a flop, financially. So we had to build up enough cred, and SWAT was a great way for us to do that… I think one of the best parts of my career was working on that multiplayer.
Considering the fact that people still make new compatibility mods to make the base content in SWAT 4 look shinier and better-than-ever. I asked Bill about when he was developing the title, did he have any hopes, or even dreams of the multiplayer community lasting this long after the games release?
BG: No, it’s funny because the modding community just reached out to me like a month or so ago and I didn’t even know that it was [so large]. There was one user, in particular, who was putting together this extensive documentation, it was like 200 pages plus with step-by step instructions on modding, and he was just finishing it now. It was cool to see people sticking with it so long, that’s the best part for me. It did well, critically, it had a pretty good fanbase right out of the gate… I think more than anything else seeing people still play… that’s the best.
With a love of narrative games and a thirst for fully fleshed out worlds, the gaming world is glad that Bill Gardner got his chance to let loose and was able to take part in making the spiritual successor to the System Shock series. I asked Bill about his seminal work on the first and final Bioshock titles. Specifically, I was curious as to whether he felt like Bioshock was the quintessential example of his certified style, or did the world of Rapture leave a mark on him that he carried on to future games?
BG: No, I think I think it’s both. You know, Irrational was an extremely talented crew. I mean, top to bottom, just the amount of talent just going into work every day. And it’s impossible for a game like that and working for a company like that to not leave its mark on you. You know, I like to, I don’t have enough of an ego to think that, oh, I left a tremendous mark on the game. It’s like I did leave a mark, there’s no question you have to. I think everyone there does everyone on every game or leaves a mark.
I don’t like to, you know, toot my own horn or whatever. But I’m certainly proud of a lot of the specific work that I did. I mean, if you look at the levels that I was most involved with… I was basically in charge of early on in the game, the Welcome to Rapture level, the medical pavilion, Fort Frolic. And then I also had my hands and Hephaestus just a little bit… I had my hands in most of the levels at different points in the game. But as I started to transition to more of a lead role, I started to be able to oversee pretty much the building of all the levels in the process and even just coordinating with Ken [Levine] and the different departments to make sure it’s as good as possible. So yeah, you know, I had my hands in and as much as I could get my hands in… But it leaves a huge mark on you as well. And I think a lot of the philosophies working with that team and on that game, you definitely try and take what you learned for good and for bad. And put that into your future work.
Bill continued to speak on the topic of the skills learned in creating new stories in unconventional mediums.
Certainly with Perception, there are a lot of narrative techniques that I had learned, presentationally and In a Romancelvania there’s a lot of stuff about, you know, the precision of writing… the economy of words, is, I think the most important aspect, and it’s an interesting challenge. I’ve worked on first person games my whole career, and jumping into essentially a platformer… we say metroidvania, but it’s kind of not really, it has metroidvania elements as it has dating same elements. But you know, narratively, there’s very different expectations, there’s very different constraints, there’s very different challenges…
Amanda Gardner: Oh, yeah. I mean, so you know, I wrote Perception. And it’s linear. it’s a straightforward linear game with, I think there’s a maximum of four or five characters. And Romancelvania, we’ve got about 12, or 13, dateable characters Drac, Grim, and every single character has their own backstory and romance branch that you can take into romance you can take into friendship, I mean, the variables are, are massive.
So yeah, it’s very different from writing a linear video game. And that it’s both different from writing a novel where you can lean on narrative contrivances, like what a room smelled like, or what, you know, they remember about someone. Whereas in games, you just write what you can see and do and say.
BG: Yeah… I think one of the biggest lessons I learned, aside from the techniques of, you know, the in-world storytelling, I think that you’d be surprised, it surprises me anyway, a lot of the fundamentals that don’t really get across… Not to speak ill of other games, but I think a lot of other games have a real problem in terms of the fundamentals. Namely, like what were his motivations, like, what are these characters want, and most of the time, I get extremely frustrated, I play a game and five minutes in, I don’t know what anyone wants, let alone the protagonist, you know, and we’re constantly hounding on that with each character. And they’re all meant to represent all the different characters you can date in romance. I mean, they’re all meant to represent different not only tropes of, you know, of reality TV, we have a character who’s kind of based on Jersey Shore, we have a character, like all these different tropes or some other ones, like…
AG: You know, I think that a lot of the tropes we lean on are the typical romance and dating tropes, like enemies to lovers, you know, friends to lovers. You know, that sort of thing
BG: You know, what do the characters want? And it’s funny because going into Bioshock Infinite. Ken was always going on about like, the, You talk about Belle, right, from Beauty and the Beast, or you talk about Ariel… in every Disney movie, they all have their I want song. Right? …A lot of what we do with Elizabeth… when communicating specifically early on, it’s just like, what’s her I want song? You know, and I think early on, when you look at her introduction, you get some of that. But again, it amazes me how many games sort of miss that, they just sort of, like “I’m just a soldier, and I’m gonna run through this thing, because I don’t know, something horrible happened to someone I care about.” and that’s that. That’s fine. Like, I think Max Payne is an interesting example. And it’s funny because it’s also Noir. It’s a very simple game. It’s very gamey, but I think that the story, writing is pretty good. But I think it’s also that, it’s very basic, and it hits on all the key motivations and key narrative structures, whereas I think a lot of games surprisingly, Miss that. it’s, it’s weird, It’s weird looking, when you have a sort of writing background so I think there’s a lot of tension… When games go to Hollywood and vice versa. There’s this weird transition. And I think it’s just the two different camps. You know, jockeying for position, I guess.
On the topic of films and games coming together, I took a shot in the dark, and asked if Bill and Amanda had taken any inspiration for Perception from the 1967 thriller “Wait Until Dark”? The Film is centered around a blind woman’s struggle to navigate a hostile situation in a claustrophobic environment, and highlights the vulnerabilities of the visually impaired.
BG: It had been a long time since I’d seen it. But yes… It’s funny because there’s a lot of times we talk about… things leaving marks on you, but at times I gain inspiration from the way I remember certain things. And that movie left a certain vibe, I’m glad you brought it up, a certain vibe on me. And, you know, there’s things like The Shining that I revisit all the time. Whereas there are a lot of movies from Hitchcock and whatnot, you watch once… My parents owned a video store when I was growing up. So I watched pretty much everything I could get my hands on, which was everything, oddly enough, except for Disney movies, I didn’t watch a lot of Disney movies… But anyway, vibe wise, for sure. So you caught that, a little bit of that feel?
I told Bill “You know, frankly, there’s a world of difference between what happens in the events of the game perception and what happens in a wait until dark. You know, unless I missed a cutscene. I don’t think Cassie was trying to smuggle heroin anywhere.”
BG: (laughs) No no maybe in the sequel
“But I just wanted to ask you about it. Because frankly, there are some similarities, and I think Wait Until Night is a fantastic film. I think that it doesn’t get a lot of love in the modern era. So I just wanted to take my shot and see if that was an inspiration.”
BG: No, I think it’s something I definitely thought about while building it. And like I said, it’s weird how certain things leave a mark on you. .. That was definitely something…
I think it was probably like, second tier references for me, but it was definitely there.
Perception is not a typical horror game. In a sea of cat-and-mouse games with hack-and-slash killers, it stands out as something between hunted gameplay and guided narrative. With this game not exactly falling into one category, I asked Bill and Amanda if there were any challenges in marketing, and portraying the spirit of the game?
BG: I think that we definitely had problems messaging what it was about, and I think that one of the biggest problems in my career has been about the fact that I don’t have the kind of attention to do a pure shooter, or a pure walking sim… I need to mash everything I love up. You know, I think that going back to SWAT you know, that was, again, It’s not me taking credit for it, it was a team effort, but I don’t think I could just do, you know, a police sim or a you know, a close quarters battle sim or that kind of thing. It’s got to have that gritty element with a lot of the environmental storytelling and the atmosphere and the vibe from a David Fincher film, you know… I don’t think I can ever make SWAT 3, but I love SWAT 3. But you know, that’s much more like, here’s a sim and it’s as straight-laced, and straightforward as it gets, right. And I applaud that people can do that, but I don’t think I could ever work on a Call of Duty where it’s like, you know, “gear up soldier… go and shoot the bad guys and shoot some more bad guys”. And you’re going to use the weapons of the real world just like 1000 other games. And again, I don’t mean to knock these things, I just kind of, I would love to work on any game, but I would really be as unhappy as I could be making games if they were about just one thing. And so I think for us, the biggest challenge with perception was just that it wasn’t really a horror game. And it wasn’t a walking sim and… I think that we didn’t know how to position it. And when we found the right people, they freaking loved it. You know, we find the right audience people are wanting a little bit of narrative a little bit of spooky, but not like hardcore,
AG: it’s a thriller, not horror
BG: Well, I don’t even know if I would say that.. we ran into problems when people were expecting Outlast or something like that, because it’s not that but for a long time, we called it horror. But then we realized, oh, shit… when you say horror, people get real serious real quick. And that’s fine. I love horror games, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, those are my favorite games or some of my favorite games. But messaging is real tough…if you’re not going to be in a very clear lane, it’s real difficult to communicate what your game is, especially now where people’s attention is, like (snaps fingers repeatedly) there’s just so many choices for entertainment and like, boom, off to the next thing and the next thing.
And if people don’t know what the thing is, right away, they’re just gonna change lanes, you know, and try something else. So that was a challenge for us. But again, when we tap into the right audience, they absolutely love it, and the praise makes it all worthwhile. It’s definitely frustrating when you get that mismatch. But that’s the peril of doing something new and different, is that you’re gonna get people who don’t get it, and you’re gonna not land with certain people. And that’s just the nature of the beast, you know?
While discussing what it’s like to pitch games to publishers, Bill touches on an instance in his life where he was multiple steps ahead of the publisher, and the public zeitgeist
BG: My favorite pitching story, it was around 2004. After SWAT, Vivendi was like “hey we know you guys didn’t really want to do SWAT 4… you’re much more in the… [immersive] sim space… but if you could take the franchise in any direction at all, what would you do?” At the time, a few members of the art team were big into the Walking Dead, the graphic novels, this is super early “zombies”, because remember zombies didn’t really exist for like 20 years, after the Romero movies there was nothing… So if you look up Division 9, we did a prototype for a game that was like, it’s a zombie apocalypse game where you’re this force going around scrounging in the city to survive… We did a video for it, and we took that around and pitched it, no one was biting, but we had one publisher… a big one I’m sure you can imagine, they were like “We really like this, we like what you did with SWAT 4, seems cool, but we don’t think zombies are gonna be hot in 2005” and again, this was before zombies were hot, so I kind of get it, but at the same time can you imagine being more wrong about anything?
Representation is extremely important in the modern age, but so is sincerity and truthfulness in intent. I asked Bill and Amanda what steps they took to ensure that they’re portrayal of the blind community’s experiences were respectfully portrayed in Perception?
BG: We spent quite a bit of time on making sure that we did our due diligence, and that we spent a lot of time researching and talking to the blind community. I spent my final semester in grad school in preparation for this game, doing ethnographies and studying blindness and blind technology and accessibility. So I became fairly well versed in that side of things. And then we were lucky enough to meet with Daniel Kish of world access for the blind, which is an organization that teaches blind people how to echolocate and as you said, you know… blind people don’t tap a cane and echolocate. Rather, they are actually, under the tutelage of Daniel Kish and that organization, they’re trained to use a certain clicking sound that allows them to activate their visual cortex. And I’m grossly simplifying here. But the bottom line is they’re able to use sound to to visualize a space, and he actually earned himself the nickname “Batman”. And he travels the world teaching blind people how to use echolocation.
So it’s a very real thing. I know it sounds like a superpower. And I don’t think they necessarily like… that term superhero. But we spent quite a bit of time researching human echolocation. And talking to members of the blind community. One of the designers I worked with on Bioshock, actually, his wife was blind. And so I interviewed her just interviewed a whole bunch of people I could sit down with or speak with on the phone.
And yeah, I think the important thing is, you know, we have to make it clear that this is not a simulation, it’s not meant to be, oh, this is an accurate, or accurate portrayal of the way that blindness works or anything like that. You know, it’s fantasy, obviously. But other elements that are very grounded in reality. And so with games, you always want to find a way to push that… Because when it comes down to it, in any game, reality is boring, right? If you look at any shooter, you know, a military sim or whatever, those are ridiculous representations of reality, you get shot once, and then you just take cover for 10 seconds, and you’re back at it, right. And so this isn’t exactly the same thing. But yeah, my point is, we we did a bunch of research, to ground ourselves in enough reality, and make sure we did our due diligence that we were, I think, doing right by the blind community, and ultimately came up with something that I think is a fair representation, or I should say, I think it’s fair to the the blind community.
I think that, you know, we did everything we could to make the game accessible to low vision users, and we had a lot of requests to make it accessible to blind, completely blind people. And we weren’t able to make that happen just for a variety of reasons, budget and time and all that. And frankly, it’s funny, because in part of the research, we looked into quite a few games that were fully blind-accessible. Did you ever hear of a game called Shades of Doom?
I Had not heard of “Shades of Doom” but I mentioned another audio-only horror title “Into the Pit”
BG: Yeah I love that… great game. There are quite a few games that are completely without visuals, they are all audio based. So Shades of Doom is doom with no visuals, it’s literally the game doom but they changed the sounds so you can navigate the space and they make little noises when you mouse over enemies, so you know when to shoot. And it’s surprisingly playable, you can play doom with no visuals. So that said I think it presents a number of different challenges and anyways… we did quite a bit of looking into this
With a lack of visual storytelling, let alone the difference between writing a novel and a game, I was curious about how Amanda had approached the story in Perception. I asked her what challenges she faced when telling Cassie’s story.
AG: I wrote books and not games, so transitioning from writing fiction in the long form to basically just a movie script was incredibly challenging, because I couldn’t describe things. It was up to Bill to make all the things that you were seeing and whatnot and I couldn’t rely on Cassie’s memories and everything about her. I just thought “what can I show about her?” I can show through her actions and I can show through her speech and that was it.
And I wanted to make sure that Cassie was a real, fully fleshed person and not some stereotype. Blindness did not define who Cassie was and I wanted that to be really important, that’s just a part of her that’s just a part of her experience. And I wanted to show all sorts of things about her upbringing, and her point of view of the world, and how she reacts to jokes… I just wanted to have a fully fleshed out person and not just “that blind girl”
At the end of the story there is a chilling screen that bleakly reads, among other things, that Perception was inspired by Susannah Martins, an ancestor of Bill Gardners, who was involved in the history of the Salem witch trials. I was curious as to how the thread of inspiration led from the Salem witch trials to the spiritual estate of Perception. So I asked Bill if he would elaborate on what made him want to make this game?
BG: So my grandmother told me that story when I was pretty young, about 10 years old and that was when I found out that I had this sort of witch in the bloodline so I was always fascinated by that story and the Salem witch trials always were fascinating to me and I think that they’re a particularly dark period in [New England] history but I think it’s really interesting to me the way that it just shows the sort of zealotry and how quickly things can escalate, and how quickly small little things can become these sort of historical landmarks I guess, where its just like something we’re always going to reflect on. And I always wanted to tell that story a little bit more where I think, we all know about the witch trials but we don’t really know, it’s weird we know the villains more than we do the, sort of, you can call them heroes, the victims I guess… But we know Hathorne, we know the guy who tried them, and it’s funny because the house in perception is based on the Salem witch house, which is literally called the witch house; and we took a bunch of pictures and if you look at the gables out front that is the exact same silhouette as the witch house, the witch house was actually the house in which the judge lived.
AG: It was Corwin
BG: Sorry, Corwin, lived there
AG: So yeah, how is it the witch house? It was the guy who hangs the witches
BG: Pretty weird, So I was always fascinated by that, I thought it was a story I wanted to tell given that it was part of my family’s long history, I thought it was a good chance for someone to do it, good opportunity, and I thought it was I think again that story a lot of people don’t realize why a lot of the witch trials happened. A lot of them were accused just as sort of a land grab, certainly Susannah Martin was, she was alone and vulnerable… and she actually withstood accusation a few times. But then someone wanted her land, so they accused her of being a witch so they could clear her out of the land and she was able to successfully defend herself, was it once or was it twice?
AG: It was twice
BG: twice, then eventually the accusations… They must have found really compelling evidence I guess. But anyways, interesting story and I thought it was an interesting parallel about being judged, you know, Cassie, as Amanda said, Cassie happens to be blind, it’s not what drives her personality, it’s not motivates her, it certainly shapes her day to day, but she is dealing with a lot of persecution and judgment and there’s a lot of logs and flashback… that give a lot of glimpse into the kind of persecutions that she’s faced. So I thought there was enough of a parallel there that I thought it would be interesting to explore
Perception was a very unique game, and it came with its own set of unique challenges. I Asked Bill and Amanda if they thought they would ever try to make another game with a gameplay loop as ambitious as Perception’s?
BG: It’s funny, we do actually have a couple of prototypes going on right now. Romancelvania is going extremely well and we’re getting to that point where we’re gonna be hopefully wrapping soon so we gotta do that final push like “oh man we got a lot to do” but it’s really coming together and it’s gonna be exhilarating and exhausting and all that.
But we do have to start thinking about the next thing and we had, a while back, built a few prototypes, and now we’re at the point, and you don’t really hear about it a lot in game development… There’s a lot of planning that goes on well in advance, and there are these weird peaks and valleys between projects. As you ramp up towards the end of the project and you have all these people who are helping out, and then all of a sudden it’s like “well shit we don’t really have the same amount of work right now” so you want to find a way to balance it such that you can have something for people to roll right onto.
And so the past few weeks we started kicking around some of the old prototypes we did, some new prototypes and there are certainly a couple of ones we are looking at that definitely play with some really interesting… mechanics, that play around the same way perception played around with… unique core mechanic, core loop. Ultimately… What’s gonna matter is you wanna find something that you’re gonna wake up everyday super excited to work on. and like I said I am not the type to work on a single lane thing I can’t just work on a shooter or whatever so it’s gotta be something that has a lot of different flavors.
I definitely think there’s a good chance I think if things go wells we would like to continue working on the Romancelvania universe but my goal has always been to take on multiple projects so the next thing we have a few other things lined up one thing that’s like super bold and ambitious you know it’s like our biggest project yet and then a few other ones that are probably gonna be a little bit smaller.
Cuz listen, for me perception was out most arthouse, I really wanted to get something that was small and intimate and just sort of something I wanted to work through with Susannah and that whole thing and Romancelvania is a little bit bigger. I don’t necessarily want to grow huge that’s never been the goal but I think being able to take on multiple projects is something i’d like to do just because there are too many ideas that I want to explore, and you know, (sighs) games take a long time, games take 2-3 years and if you’ve gotta spend that much time working on one idea it’s gotta be special, right?
On the topic of finding a special project to put the time into, I asked Bill and Amanda what the genesis for Romancelvania was like. Was it as simple as someone wanting to play a game where they dated Dracula?
BG: You’re pretty close there actually, so I play Symphony of the Night like yearly, one playthrough, I think 3 yrs ago I remember being… in the ice caves… at the bottom of the castle, and it’s funny cuz I was fighting a Salem witch when it hit me… I was like it’s so weird Dracula’s castle has all these different creatures, it’s got Frankenstein, it’s got witches, and succubi and all these other different classic monster, it’s like “why do you all hang out here, was there some ball, or some gala, and this the after party?” and they are all just hanging out, or whatever, and that stuck with me. I was like I wonder if Dracula dated any of these.. If there were dating sim elements in a game like this, and I pitched it to Amanda, just like Perception, just that high concept…
AG: I think you only said one word, You said “Romancelvania” … it was instant “I got it, I want it, that’s happening”
With the difference in cast size from Perception to Romancelvania, I asked Amanda if writing for so many characters had presented new challenges?
AG: I typically wrote the game in what I called branches so I would be writing the… branch, this is when you meet her, this is when you come back to her room this is when you meet her at the bar this is her plotline and I had to sort of have it in it’s own document, it’s own thing, because I had to have that voice in my head, Drac is easy to write because Drac is almost just like plays it the straight character (laughs) I dont mean straight as in sexually. Drac is kind of like the less humorous character and plays off the other characters, cuz they have such big personalities.
So yeah, I definitely have to be in a certain kind of headspace to write each of them because they’re all so different. I think it’s pretty safe to say there is not a lot of overlap in like personality types for these character so they’re very, very, very distinct and that was definitely a challenge but I think that is what makes them all great is that they’re so different and watching them interact, like the most fun that I have had recently is writing the characters as they interact in the house together. So like I take Medusa and I throw her in a room with the Incubus and see what happens, that’s where it gets hilarious to me.
I followed up by asking if a character’s headspace ever affected your way of speaking after writing them for an extended period?
AG: No it doesn’t, I’ve had to learn how to multitask very well, we have 4 children, and I compartmentalize my life pretty well so when I’m done with one thing I’m not bringing it into the other thing, boundaries are important… So I kinda get into the zone, I do my thing and I get out of the zone. I had a point in my life where I wrote an epic fantasy in 30 days.. While also having children and working on the game Perception. I just had a fantasy I wanted to write, so what I did was, I would take my two little ones… To the gym where I would get a total of two hours of childcare, I would get on the treadmill for 30 min and listen to music that reminded me about the chapter I was about to write I would think about what I wanted to be in that chapter, pop off the tread and then write 2000 words a day give-or-take then go home after that two hours. That for me was really an exercise in “get in your head space, get it done, then get out” because my life is so full, I’m not gonna say busy, so full, that I really can’t afford to let it all bleed together.
I commented that it sounded like a far cry from the luxury of writers like Stephen King, who typically set aside large parts of their day just for writing.
AG: I’ve read “On Writing”, he’s pretty damn preachy. I like Stephen King. I think he’s great, the fact that he writes with no idea where he’s going, that’s how we get shows like lost… Stephen King and I have some disagreements.
With the similarities to Castlevania being so apparent, I asked Bill and Amanda if they had gotten any push back from ardent gamers who felt as though Castlevania was an untouchable series not deserving of parody?
BG: Absolutely, that was really shocking to me, there were a few angles what was coming from, there was a little bit of preciousness, I guess I kind of understand it’s a bit silly to be precious about something like this
AG: It’s a parody
BG: The point is it’s a sacred cow, and I get it, it is to me, like I said it was born out of that inspiration, from playing [Symphony of the Night] every frickin’ year for 20 years, you know. So I partly get it, but at the same time I’ve always held that games can and should be everything, so it’s a bit silly to me to be like “oh I don’t like this thing, this is too close to the thing I like what are you doing?” It’s just like don’t play it if it’s not for you that’s fine… we definitely encountered quite a bit of it, I think that it was a real surprise to me given that I felt like those were my peeps, cuz that’s my type of game, and it’s been interesting to me to watch how A) how much metroidvanias have blown up over the last few years,but also how much it’s one in a variety of different directions… That’s the healthy and natural progression of a genre would be that you sprinkle kinds of subgenres in, and in some ways that’s what we are trying to do… Mass Effect and Dragon Age, they have all those romance elements right? And frankly when I play those games I wanted to have more of the relationship building aspect. I Thought there was a template there… a lot of the audience for those games were like “I wish there was more of that” so that gave us a lot of confidence but the most frustrating part of that… “This isn’t what Castlevania is” it really misses the point and it saddens me… the way to get something to grow or progress is to let things go off in different directions and explore… Frankly we were met with a lot of that stuff on Bioshock… To me it tells that we are doing something right, You’re always going to have a certain group of purists who are like “well this is isn’t exactly the way the thing that I love is”… and it’s funny because part of what the game explores is the inability to let things go and the fetishization of re-release and rehash and remasters, and all that stuff. I’m a huge retro guy, and I love it… enormous retro fan, but the way that the culture has pushed “oh they’re remastering this game that came out ten years ago that kind of got like C’s and nobody really cared about” and suddenly it has this audience where people are like “oh my god I love this game” and it’s like…
AG: Do you?
BG: Did you buy it back then? Because it didn’t sell well, it didn’t have good reviews… I always want to try to explore different ideas and push things out, I like to take the familiar and try to push it into different directions… That’s the danger of this game is finding the right messaging because pretty quickly it was clear based on his feedback that you need to be careful with this metroidvania thing because a lot of people who are passionate about that are gonna look at this and be like what the hell this isn’t Castlevania exactly… it’s a playful send-up of the Castlevania series but it also explores all kinds of different games and media and there’s all sorts of parodies, it’s kind of all over the map
AG: We got hit with a lot of homophobia pretty early on. We believe in player choice, so we said, Drac should be able to date anybody, and then we had a female Drac so that that Drac could date anybody, we didn’t think it was such a big deal we just wanted people to have options.
[There was homophobia] despite Castlevania looking you know, you look at Alucard.
I could not help but agree that Alucard is very sexy man
AG: He’s a very sexy man, but he’s a little, you know
BG: That was the most shocking thing, [Romancelvania] came out after the show, and in the show he has that threesome with the siblings. Now, we’re not trying to say “our game is gay”
AG: It’s about choice!
BG: Exactly, but the fact that any quote unquote Castlevania fan would be like “oh that’s gay”… you don’t know the series.
Dating sims and metroidvanias are pretty far apart on the spectrum of gaming genres, and I don’t know how big the overlap between genre enthusiasts is. I asked BIll if they had taken any considerations to help players who may be looking for more of one genre over the other?
BG: That’s a great question, that’s something we battle with a lot internally in trying to find the right balance. We definitely want to provide a lot of additional content for both, which is to say if you are more into the relationships and all of the conversations… there’s a lot of optional conversations and dates… there’s this gifting system where you can go out and collect gifts and give it to them.. There’s a lot of stuff you can do to build up relationships. On the metroidvania side of things there is quite a bit of exploration, you know optional exploration and leveling up and that stuff, but I think there is definitely a core amount of action platforming that will need to take place.
Because again the overall premise is that Dracula is on this dating reality show and as part of that challenge from the Grim Reaper himself is that you have to go around and go through a series of challenges, and explore Transylvania to meet additional cast members and get them to move into the castle with you…
The other [metroidvania fans] and their sort of reactions, I am very actively not going hardcore action/platformer, not going hardcore moetroidvania, this is not a game about getting lost, not a game about facing off against ridiculous bosses… The biggest inspiration for me… I think structurally and this is going to be controversial, it’s most similar to Castlevania 2, and the reason I think that is because it’s much more of a quote unquote open world… I really wanted to solve one of the biggest issues for metroidvanias which is “where am I supposed to be going, I’m lost, and I’m frustrated, and I’m not going to play anymore” I know that’s part of the challenge and part of the fun. But for me it’s like I’ve explored this whole world, I know there is a wall I need to blow up or something, but I’m not going to re-track all of my steps and do that…
[In Metroid Dread] they always manage to put you… directly where you need to be, which is no small feat, It’s phenomenal…I don’t know how the hell they did it frankly… Cuz again… when you’re playing one of these games you’re just like “Ugh, I just got this new tool, and I know in order to progress I need to find this special door”… That’s where you run into problems, and that is one of the things I am trying to solve here… it definitely can cater to what the user wants but there definitely a lot of exploring and platforming although again, not gonna be getting lost is the goal, not gonna be getting overwhelmed with bosses, if that’s your thing this probably isn’t for you.. Primarily it’s about an over-the-top ridiculous world that’s gonna be a lot of fun to explore, meeting all of these over the top characters… I think they’re some of the most in-depth characters you’ll find, certainly in a metroidvania…for like 13 dateables, it’s insane… we are hitting way out of our weight class on this thing, it’s definitely our biggest game and certainly it’s gonna be something special.
As Bill had said before, the game was in its final stages, and was shaping up to be something remarkable. I asked Bill if the project was still on track for it’s listed September 2022 launch?
BG: We’re on track right now but you never know, I’m very cautious about these sorts of things, I’m a bit superstitious and always waiting for something to go wrong , and things are going very well right now, and we’re on target for that… but it’s gotta be ready, and it’s gotta be special. It’s gonna be our biggest game yet, it’s gotta be right
I followed by asking what the scope of release was at launch. Were there any console releases lined up at this time?
BG: Certainly at least one console… That’s part of the reason I was talking about the hesitation there because we have some critical decisions to make on a number of those fronts, so it’s not clear right now, we want to hit as many platforms as quickly as possible but still nothing is set in stone
Before wrapping up the conversation I had one final question. I asked both Amanda and Bill if they could, just as Dracula resurrects the dead, bring back any gaming franchise, which would they choose?
AG: KING’S QUEST! I was just talking to Bill. I grew up on King’s Quest and Roberta Williams is amazing and is such a trailblazing woman writer.. I love the fact that it’s a classic game written and helmed by a woman, I just want to call out [that] fact. I love King’s Quest. I love everything about [the series]. I think 5&6 were my favorites… Just that style is so fun, and the exploration, as a fantasy geek that’s what I would do
This was a very interesting choice, as King’s Quest had been relatively recently rebooted, so I was curious as to whether she would want to reboot or continue King’s Quest?
AG: That’s quite the question, I would probably want to continue the series. I feel like the world needs new stories, and I love playing off things like Romancelvania, but do I think Resident Evil should have 50 thousand re-releases? No, let’s bring some new stories to the world, so I would say continue that story. What would you say [Bill]?
BG: You know the answer
AG: Oh I know the answer… StarTropics
BG: StarTropics! I’ve had a lifelong love of that series and it pains me that nobody’s done anything with it. I actually have a concept for what I would do with a sequel and I joke around about someday prototyping it or whatever and trying to pitch it to Nintendo. I think it’s a pretty good concept that I think would do the series right… It did not get the love it deserved… I don’t understand why, but honestly the biggest mystery in gaming to me is why that series has been dormant for so long. People are like “Bwuh! F-Zero!?” I’m like, dude, don’t talk to me, I’ve been waiting since 92.
With all of my questions answered, and then some. I thanked Bill and Amanda again for taking time from their busy schedule getting Romancelvania ready for release to speak with me about their history and future in game development. It was wonderful speaking with them both, and It is a shame that I could not fit it all in this article.
While you wait for Romancelvania to release, be sure to wishlist it on Steam and check out The Deep End game’s previous release Perception. You can follow the development of Romancelvania on Twitter and you can see a glimpse into Bill’s life at his personal Twitter.
If you want to learn more about Susannah Martin and the Salem witch trials please visit this site for more.
And as always if you would like to read more articles from myself and other cultivators of the creepy, keep reading the latest here at DreadXP