Key art for My Mandylion

My Mandylion: Croation dev Matej Balašković lifts the fog on his Silent Hill inspired title

I am lucky to be in the position I am in as a writer for DreadXP. I get to interview developers who are making games I have been following for years, and I get to speak with people who are in the trenches of the game developer culture. One thing I enjoy most of all though, is bringing small projects to the light, something that perhaps you hadn’t seen before, games like My Mandylion

When I first heard of My Mandylion, the in-development Survival Horror title From Solitude Studio that has roots in the greats of the genre like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, it was because the solo developer Matej Balašković (Matte to friends) was active in the horror gaming community and was trying to spread the word about his title. After looking through the entirety of his Twitter page I had far more questions than answers, and Instead of waiting an indeterminate amount of years to get my hands on the game, I reached out to Matte to see if we could kill two birds with one stone. I would learn more about his title, and we could let more people know about My Mandylion.

Thankfully he agreed to make time to speak with me about his game, and I was able to learn more about his journey as a game dev, as well as how he managed to get his hands on a mocap studio, and some of the benefits of developing games with government assistance thanks to a Croatian education program. 

I started the interview by thanking Matte for his time, and for letting me get an early look at his upcoming game. Starting where so many interviews start, I tried to ascertain the timeline for the project. While I had been watching the title on Twitter for quite some time, I know that people rarely start documenting the process on the first day, so I asked Matte how long he had been developing the title?

Matej Balašković: So the thing is like this, I actually opened my company about two years ago. So just about the time when My Mandylion was really starting to have something of an online presence. The actual pre-production part of it, you know, the whole prototyping and testing took a lot more time than I would like to admit. But over the course of these two years that have already passed, the game has already entered so many stages of rebuilding and re-inventing itself many times over.

I was glad that Matte had not let the solo dev grind stop him from constantly iterating on his vision to ensure he made the game he wanted to. As we spoke about the topic he elaborated on the struggles of working in solitude.

MB: It is definitely a big deal to try and undertake a project of this scale as a solo dev. I mean, any project as a solo dev has a lot of challenges. But especially when you’re taking something like this, in something of a photorealistic style with these atmospheric graphics and whatnot. The specific art direction definitely takes a team of several people for it to come out as something of a competent product. However, the added challenge is that I’m like, only 22. I don’t have, you know, decades and decades of industry experience, like certain other developers. So there’s a lot of challenges for a solo developer here to take on, but I’m certainly passionate about these challenges, because they’re all very, very interesting. They really give this interesting spice to the development and the actual, you know, how all of that builds itself together into a playable game.

On the topic of being a solo dev, one problem that many people face is a lack of resources at their disposal. This is seemingly less of a problem for Matte, as he is working with a mocap studio for his title. Seeing as this is a luxury that not many solo developers can afford, I asked Matte what led to him having access to this technology?

MB: Yes, that is definitely true, and I’m like, really, really fortunate to be in the part of Croatia where I am. Because recently there has been something of a boom there, regarding game development and all that stuff. You know, when older governmental people hear stuff about how “Game Dev  is the future, we gotta invest in that!” we got a little bit of that in Croatia, as an educational system, so to speak. So in this place, in this incubator, where I opened my company, there is a whole bigger company that hosts a whole lot of really high end tech, I mean, there’s a photogrammetric studio, there is a mocap studio, there is a whole lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have even dreamed of working with, even if I was in a huge corporation, let alone a solo developer. So having stuff like that is definitely a huge streak of luck for me.

After taking some time to discuss his journey as a developer to this point, I wanted to get to know more about the title itself. With My Mandylion being so early in development and what had been said before regarding the fluid nature of the story at this time, I asked Matte if he would be able to give me an elevator pitch for the overall plot and story for the title?

MB: So the obvious catch from this is that it is heavily inspired by the classic Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, I’ve repeated this phrase so many times that I’ve lost count, at this point it just sounds like a cliche, honestly. And I am taking a lot of inspiration from these games, because they have something of a unique feeling to them, you know, obviously, we can compare the graphics, these games are old, but they have their own distinct art style and the distinct feeling that you have when you play these games. And that’s something I’m trying to replicate while also merging some modern systems, like, for example, modern graphics, and a little bit less frustrating controls that these old games are famous for. And the story itself, I’m trying to stick to something that the Silent Hills are sort of famous for, to kind of explore the psychological elements of the mind, and certain stuff like that. I’m not too sure that I want to share right now, because the story itself has been rewritten so many times I lost count.

I followed up by asking Matte if he would elaborate on what he has done to maintain the classic Survival Horror feel while introducing modern conveniences? 

MB: Yes, definitely. So there is a very, very distinct difference that one can notice in newer games, especially if you’re an older gamer… many games streamline so many things, to the point where the game part of the gameplay is pretty much a moot point. And you’re more watching an interactive movie than a game. So I’m trying to sort of strike a balance to keep the gameplay interesting while also giving you some of the streamlined things that the modern games seem to thrive on. For example, a lot of these older games love backtracking, I personally don’t like that. So we’re going to try and eliminate that. And you know, it’s just a big trade off between these old mechanics and the new ones because, for example, one wants the puzzles to kind of keep your brain going, to keep you thinking, to keep you on edge, stuff like that. but also needs some of these smoother elements from modern games to keep itself alive. Maybe the best examples so far would be the inventory system, which is like, more robust and just makes more sense than some of these classic games did. And maybe the best part about it is the whole movement system, the combat and all of that, it just feels more fluid and natural, then these old games did.

Bringing the conversation back to the story for My Mandylion, I asked Matte how he approached the task of telling a terrifying tale. Was he more concerned with making something similar to the greats like Silent Hill or Resident Evil, something that fans would be accustomed to, or was he trying to write something that he felt was new, or hadn’t been seen before?

MB: Yes, there have definitely been a lot of challenges with that, especially as somebody who is not a schooled writer or something like that. As a creator you always want to keep audiences interested, to give them something that is just worth listening to, or, you know, worth playing in this case. And My Mandylion really takes a lot of inspiration from something I found to be somewhat interesting from the 80s, metal music. Some particular parts of that metal music, which has been inspired by horror and stuff like that. So I think there’s a lot of specific inspiration to be taken from that. But I’m also trying to take some inspiration from works of fiction that are not inherently horror, or are more-or-less philosophical, to integrate that into the story to create something interesting, and something that hasn’t exactly, you know, been completely bleached by now, because it’s been so overused. 

But in any case, there has been one story draft which I wrote for the game to just play out like a Hollywood movie. And reading it after a couple of months, I was just like, “What the hell man? Why do you even write this, it looks so bad”. But I wanted to see if maybe that direction would be better for trying to run the game safe without some sort of risk. But I decided that maybe an artistic direction to the story would probably fit its tone better and give the characters more depth and just make it all a little bit more interesting, rather than a cliche movie where everything explodes, everything is evil, and the protagonist is the only good thing on this planet.

Curious as to how the characters would be fleshed out in the game, I asked Matte if he could tell us about the protagonist, or protagonists of this story?

MB: There is one main character, whose story is being followed throughout the game, a woman named Gosia. And she’s accompanied by a certain strange woman she does not recognize throughout the course of the game, but she has this sort of ghostly vibe, a particular vibe that kind of gives you a sense of deja vu, I would say, and some other interesting characters that will kind of give some meaning to her questions in the story…

One other thing that I think is interesting is the voice cast for My Mandylion. The setting itself doesn’t take place in a specific region of the world, you know, it is implied to be America, but there are no specific indicators there. So I’ve got a voice actress for the main character, whom incidentally, I met in the band I was playing with, she was a singer, and she expressed interest in voicing our main character Gosia. And I think her english accent is not exactly the finest but I think it really adds a lot of flair and depth to that character. And it also just kind of lets the backstory sort of build itself, you know, just by not having a standard accent it kind of gives something to that character as well. So I’m trying to find more actors like that, that are sort of unusual and would give something of a specific flavor to the game.

As a second part to the question I asked if the other people she met on her journey would also be dealing with their own problems, the way that Silent Hill brings broken people to the town to deal with their own issues?

MB: Something like that, but it’s not. In the case of Silent Hill, you know, we all know the place itself has a specific thing that draws certain people in there, but in the case of this game, it is more of a personal story where the character herself will meet characters that are important to her life and her sense of meanings, so to say.

At this point in development, I would never expect Matte to give me a timeframe for launch, but I still wanted to know more about where he was at in development. I asked Matte if he had an idea of what was next on his roadmap for development?

MB: So that is always a tricky question for any solo developer, but especially for somebody like me, who is really chaotic. I really don’t follow a schedule or anything like that. When I feel like working on one particular part of the game, I’m working on that, and sometimes it’s level design, sometimes it’s gameplay, or the story, it just depends on what hits me. So the current state of the game, I could not even begin to tell you where it’s at, because I don’t know myself. And one big, big part of what took a lot of time these past several months was trying to acquire some financing for the game. When I started developing it, I didn’t really think I would need that, I thought maybe I could finish this task entirely by myself, and then put the game on Steam and make some money like that. But obviously, that did not happen. A few months ago, I was in touch with a couple of publishers for a potential financial deal, for them to invest in the game, so I could hire more people to work on it, so we could actually have a solid finish, and a really polished product. However, we didn’t really see eye to eye and having the power of hindsight, I see that was because the game I shipped to them was really buggy, and really not very good. So for these past few months, I have been spending less time actively developing and more just trying to hunt down publishers and work on these documents and presentations and whatnot. Because there’s a lot of paperwork included in the process of getting your game financed, it is quite complex. So learning about all that took a lot of time. But right now the game is back on track, I’m working on it every day again, and there’s a lot of stuff to do. I think I have some financing in the spotlight, so to say, so I’m sort of positive that the game will be 110% in development soon.

I followed up by asking if he would add more developers to the team if he secured funding, or if he felt as though too many cooks in the kitchen may ruin the broth?

MB: That is definitely a good question. Because, well, the studio itself is named Solitude, so it kind of defeats the purpose of the name. But in any case, I consider my skill set when it comes to game development to be quite versatile. But when you have dedicated people to do dedicated things, especially ones that I’m not so strong at, such as 3D modeling and animations, not only would the workflow be much, much faster, but the quality of the product itself would be much better. But then again, there’s a trade off about team chemistry and all that stuff. Because I worked on a couple of game jams with some people I didn’t really know, some of these games were great, and some of them were not so great. And it all just depends on how the team breathes and lives.

Wrapping up the interview, I asked Matte if he was planning on releasing new information on the title soon?

MB: Yeah, so definitely, I’ll probably have to explain the really barren situation of the social media pages. It is because initially when I was starting to build the whole thing, the plan was to keep posts sort of weekly and to keep some sort of dev updates and vlogs and whatnot, just keep the content flowing, however problems kept on arising, from the development itself, to actual legal work… and a whole other sea of problems just arose from nowhere. So developing this game turned out to be more of a challenge than I originally thought. Who would have thought “Wow it’s a lot of work?” So to speak the truth, there is so much I want to show to the world about this game. And there’s a lot more that the game deserves to have shared, but right now there is not so much. 

Regardless, I was excited to learn more about the game in the coming months, and I was excited to get more eyes on his project. As we spoke after the interview we discussed the current renaissance of Survival Horror titles in the indie gaming scene and how exciting it was. 

MB: Exactly. I know how you feel. And that is just so amazing to see all of these people, you know, these indie devs that really just came from nowhere, really, and just taught themselves how to program and how to design these games. It is amazing. And the whole, how do you say, like, versatility between titles and gameplay modes. Everything that these people are doing, It’s just insane. And the support everybody’s giving, you know, to each other, from developers to developers, and fans to devs and the other way around. It is insane. 

With that I wrapped up my interview with Matte and thanked him again for making time in his day to speak with me. To learn more and to stay up to date on My Mandylion be sure to follow Matej Balašković on the Twitter page for Solitude studio

And as always if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in gory and ghoulish gaming, then head back to DreadXP to read more of our frightful features!