Quinn K. and Conor Walsh Bring Grim Tidings
There Swings a Skull: Grim Tidings (TSAS:GT) is a narrative-horror game; a full release of Quinn K. and Conor Walsh’s There Swings a Skull, a jam project for the HPS1 Summer of Shivers Jam 2021. Before anything else, it’s an outpouring of anxiety about extreme climate change and disaster, unflinchingly direct. Conor Walsh as the writer brings staggering pathos to a tightly knit cast of characters and an elegant poetry that’s unmatched. For fans of Quinn’s work on An Outcry, they’ll be able to look forward to more of their gorgeous pixel art. When I heard the team was looking to promote their latest release I jumped at the chance to talk with them.
Parsely: First of all I want to get something out of the way: we’ve all worked together in the past haven’t we?
Quinn: Indeed yes we have. [Parsely was] the excellent programmer that, basically, made An Outcry a lot more like, structurally sound. Conor did a bunch of marketing stuff for An Outcry as well, so… Yeah y’know Conor and I are working together now, but, have you and Conor worked together as well?
Conor: I think I’ve recruited [Parsely] for some playtesting at some point. The flow of time is vague at best, however.
Parsely: Yeah the flow of time, it’s-
Parsely: Haha, yeah! So yeah, I think this is really cool, to be able to interview you two as friends. Oh, and also, I did a little bit of playtesting on this game, the game we’re talking about today, There Swings a Skull: Grim Tidings. So actually, even I don’t know this, how do you two know each other?
Quinn: This is a funny thing, you know I think at some point I just slid into Conor’s DMs and was like “hey… I heard you talking about OFF ;)”.
Quinn: I’m striking a pose in real life.
Parsely: A fearsome pose.
Conor: I think it was, we both seemed to value narrative in games, and we have similar personality quirks, hopefully just the good ones, asterisk, citation needed. But, I think it was perhaps a bygone [sic] conclusion that eventually we would engage with one another, just because we occupied the similar spaces.
Quinn: And y’know I- I just value Conor as a friend and, like, even having worked on a 1 year plus project with him I still feel very positively, like extremely positively even. I have no gripes, quite the opposite. Earlier today while I was in a brief discussion with Leaf Let, our composer, I effectively- We both kind of couldn’t stop gushing about some of the last work that [Conor] put into There Swings a Skull, like the interactable stuff.
Conor: I can barely remember anything.
Quinn: I understand.
Conor: I remember putting the examinables somewhere.
Quinn: You put examinables like in a lot of places and it really livened up the piece.
Conor: Well whatever the case I appreciate that.
Parsely: Why don’t we talk about the game for a second. What is There Swings a Skull, for people who don’t know?
Conor: We can do that. Quinn do you wanna hit that one or should I?
Quinn: I’d like to hear your definition!
Conor: Aw goddammit, you usually have a pretty good truncated way of referring to these things. I’m gonna ramble for like an hour and a half. What are you doing? Sorry my cat is, uh, engaging with a cat toy beneath my desk and demands my attention.
Parsely: Oh my god we’re absolutely putting the cat in the interview.
Conor: Its name is Clem, he’s a very good boy.
Conor: To stop beating around the bush, There Swings a Skull is a narrative horror game developed predominantly by myself and Quinn with additional supports music and audio-wise by Leaf Let, with cutscene and story art by z_bill. I quite like the way that we’ve all come together there and our different styles have kinda clicked. It follows husbands Anatoli and Pyotr as they attempt to stop, or not stop, the impending, uh- Sometimes I say climate catastrophe but I almost feel like that kinda gives the wrong impressions. The impending, I guess climate annihilation is a better way to phrase it.
So yeah, we focused on narrative, it’s a very character based story, and most of what it deals with outside of the narrative itself is kinda steeped in metaphor, but not so steeped in metaphor that it interrupts the main story between Anatoli and Pyotr.
Quinn: Yeah this is generally speaking something I’d actually single in on. This is very much a game about a relationship. Of course the world itself is a very strong and important part and the thematics of that world itself are also important, I’m not saying y’know it’s only about the relationship but that the relationship at the core of it is I feel what really drives the story aside from all the anxiety surrounding the horrible state of the world that these two inhabit.
Conor: Yeah that’s a good way to put it, that it’s even though we’ve kinda built this, I don’t know what you wanna call it, uh speculative? Strange? City out in the desert-
Quinn: I’d call it almost magical realism.
Conor: Magical realist- Yeah I think that and speculative fiction are synonyms, or more or less synonyms, but it’s like this thing where its like, it doesn’t really closely bind itself in any genre. There are even points where you kinda wonder, “hey is this even a horror game?” Which z_bill made absolutely certain it was, thank you z_bill. He did some great goddamn work with some of those cutscenes that he put together.
Conor: Just in case you forgot that we were making a horror game, do some body horror moron.
Quinn: Conceptualized by me, but z_bill visualized it which I never could have with my somewhat middling artistic skills-
Parsely: Did you say “middling”?!
Conor: We both disagree on this. Quinn’s full artwork I think is superb.
Parsely: So z_bill did the scene where the lady burns to death at the start?
Conor: Nope that was Quinn.
Parsely: Oh that was Quinn?! Oh shit.
Conor: z_bill just did the end cutscenes and the one where the- I can’t- I can’t spoil that. A certain cutscene where a certain character may or may not die.
Parsely: Death? In- In this game?
Conor: Far be it I know.
Parsely: Something I wanted to ask about is- I’m so glad you two brought up the relationship. Because that is at the heart of this, because literally you open on their wedding photo, Anatoli and Pyotr’s wedding photo, and like, I was thinking about it while I was replaying it and I was thinking, I can’t think of anything else that has a gay middle-aged couple as the protagonists.
Conor: That was Quinn’s idea. The wedding picture was Quinn’s idea, originally- Actually, Quinn instead of me yammering on, do you wanna say a little bit about that?
Quinn: Yeah, the wedding photo was my idea, I was the one who drew it as well. It was probably one of the more complicated pixel art pieces I’ve drawn, ever, effectively. Especially considering that when you actually interact with it when you actually press a button you realize- Oh! It’s a character select screen! It was a really, really complicated endeavor but yeah, Conor and I back when we first made the jam game version – which that’s another thing, this used to be a jam game at one point – [with] like about I’d say a third of the story as it is in the full game-
Conor: It was basically just Anatoli’s route.
Quinn: Yeah just Anatoli’s route and it was also slightly more stripped back in that regard, but I digress. The important part here is when we were first conceptualizing what There Swings a Skull could be for the Summer of Shivers Jam, I actually wanted Anatoli to be completely alone. I wanted him to be a lonely character who sort of just toiled away on his own and would introspect in certain ways-
Conor: He’s already effectively alone both at his job and kind of in general aside from his husband.
Quinn: Yes exactly. When Conor and I sort of bounced worldbuilding stuff off each other and Conor started sort of populating this skeleton that I had built with his help with the characters he said “I think I’m gonna give Anatoli a partner”, and we briefly chatted about it and we were just like, you know what I think we’re gonna make them middle aged gays, and that’s where it landed. It’s just- The thing is diverse choices like that are so easy to make? They’re not like, easy to execute on, but they’re easy to make, and if you make them you are most likely able to execute them as long as you stay earnest, stay true, and all that.
Conor: As per usual, I think Quinn could give herself a little more credit here because her initial idea was that Anatoli would be gay but he would still be alone so it was still more of a back and forth. I think maybe I did coin y’know, why don’t we create another character who could be present in the game.
Anatoli is a character who kinda keeps to himself a lot with basically everybody and in most circumstances. So through engaging with Pyotr you see him come out of his shell a little bit and learn there’s something more to care about this person even in this situation that’s totally hosed, if you’ll excuse that extremely technical phrase.
As for them being a more middle-aged gay couple, I think – and perhaps I’d be interested in [Parsely’s] feedback on this – I’m not a member of the LGBT community, but representation is very important to me and this is a situation where I felt it would be very, very easy to represent this- What’s the word I’m thinking of- Tiny brain I apologize-
I guess it’s easy to represent a section of society that’s very much not represented, and doing so- Well, it’d fit the narrative, and so it was kinda easy, and again as someone whos not LGBT, I don’t wanna say it like “oh it was easy I could do it in my sleep blah blah blah blah blah”. I know this may come as a wild suggestion but I treated the characters like people, and then they were good characters if I do say so myself.
Quinn: Indeed. I think it was only very early on that there was like, one thing that I had to tell you like, “hey that doesn’t seem quite right”. But you just got the feel for Anatoli and Pyotr really quickly. I did read the dialogue that Conor wrote with an eye of myself being an LGTBQ+ person.
Parsely: I assumed Quinn wrote the game, the first time I played it I meant. I know that [Conor wrote it] now because Quinn immediately told me “no, Conor wrote all of this”. And I felt ashamed of myself, but the reason why I assumed that is because when I was reading Anatoli and Pyotr, I was like “oh this is so well realized, this must have been written by-”
Conor: By somebody who gets it.
Quinn: Really?! Conor’s a professional writer-boy!
Conor: Well no it’s- Even if you’re a professional like it’s- What is it, the subreddit, “men writing women”?
Parsely: Yeah, yeah.
Conor: You can be as famous as you want, they’ll just totally, totally misattribute something.
Conor: I wouldn’t say that you should be embarrassed, if anything I should be appreciative that I did a good job and I wasnt yknow- Someone who is in the LGBT community can say “you might not be one of us but you’re not being a dumb idiot baby”.
Parsely: But that’s the other thing though is I agree with you when you say its not that fuckin’ hard. It’s not! It’s not that difficult! So yeah no, I’m impressed.
Conor: I thank you.
Quinn: I sense that the general umbrella answer that I want us to settle on like, Conor and I, is like a mixture between what both of us said. Yes, it is easy, but it does take resolve and it does take the very necessary ability to see the characters as people.
Parsely: Yes. You have to care.
Quinn: Yeah, decidedly. If you just represent cynically, you’re just- It’s tokenism. If you represent maliciously, it’s bigotry. You just have to care.
Parsely: But then again I guess now that I think about it, well intentioned people write bad representation all the time.
Quinn: It’s true.
Parsely: It’s written in a really naive way. So then I think it comes back around to, that’s why it’s important to have LGBT+ people on the team.
Conor: Yeah exactly. I wanna again say, and take a shot every time I say this because I’m not gonna stop anytime soon but, the fact that the game’s writing is as good as it is is because Quinn and I worked together. If I had been on my own, not to mention the fact that the game would have just burst into flames the second I tried to do any kind of art.
Conor: I don’t think it would’ve been half as good because something that I’m perhaps not as good at and that I perhaps hopefully have learned from [Quinn], uh we’ll see going forward, I suppose is, if something looks good or if something stands out, she and [Leaf Let] both actually are very very good about saying “hey, this works”. It’s odd to say this because I do write full time, but it’s easy to forget, like- I hope this works, I’m going to keep rewriting because I don’t feel like it’s right and so it’s very, very helpful to have somebody else go, stop it’s fine, you’re doing great honey, and so forth. [laughs]
Parsely: Aw, that’s so sweet!
Quinn: No yeah, it’s basic feedback and basic reassurance and being able to be like, I like this part of it, do not change that part because that part’s really good.
Conor: I like this team a lot. I think my skills as a writer were accentuated by the team’s input, feedback, and general positivity in a manner that I, one, I’m not used to, two, I appreciate, and three, again I think made it better.
Quinn: This is not to say that there weren’t rewrites. Unfortunately considering the bad situations in Conor’s life that came and went and sometimes stayed, like a lot of the rewrites that were necessary were near the beginning of the year, of the-
Conor: Oh yeah definitely, everything requires iteration and especially that- The start of the year was funky for both our parts but probably more for me than for [Quinn]. The other thing was that we were trying out this new route with this new character, building off of the jam game that we – well, maybe just me – I didn’t have a super clear idea of everything that we wanted to do with this character whereas the original jam version had a very specific vision in mind. So building off of that, I think it worked really well but it took a little iteration to get there.
Quinn: Yeah and in the process Pyotr was absolutely sort of solidified as a character as well which I really appreciated, I found really good, but yeah. Sorry Parsely that we’re hijacking this.
Conor: My interview now.
Parsely: No! Are you kidding me? This is my favorite thing to have happen in an interview, is I stop talking and the interesting people talk a lot. The very last thing that I wanted to ask about though, that I set out to ask about though is, tell me about Pareildas.
Parsely: How did you make it?
Quinn: Pareildas is a place obsessed with the limitedness of existence.
Parsely: What does that even mean?
Quinn: I know that sounds extremely- That sounds extremely high-minded but it’s basically, every single part of [Pareildas] is made of sand. It is an hourglass of a city. I modeled some of its architecture, some of its environmental cues and such off the city of Taranto in Italy.
Due to the fact that this is a city in the south of Italy. The south of Italy being a lot more impoverished than the north, to my knowledge at least. Taranto- I have to admit that I’ve never been to Taranto, what I’ve read about it is that it’s sort of a tourist town that lost its tourists, at some point. Using some of the sort of environmental cues, for example, those giant city ramparts that are all around Pareildas, those are based on an actual y’know city rampart of the old town of Taranto.
So Pareildas is a place obsessed with the passing of time, with basically the fact that we are all going to die. This is something that I never sort of communicated like this to Conor, because Conor kind of just felt it out and we were so harmonious about it that we never needed to? Which that’s really good, but yeah no a big symbol in Pareildas, an hourglass. The city itself is literally built like an hourglass.
There’s a big upper section, a chokepoint in the middle with the speaker-gallows, and a lower section. Above are the living, those that are alive. Anatoli and Pyotr live above in the northern part of town. In the middle, is death. The falling of the sand grain through the hourglass. The speaker-gallows, literally the thing that kills the people of Pareildas, that sacrifices them. And at the lower part, that’s where the dead are. That’s where the graveyard is and so on. And there’s no mistake that the train station in which Anatoli puts so much faith, so much of his hopes, is also in the south part of town, where death lies.
Conor: I think it’s interesting to hear you say all this because, again, we didn’t ever convene on this directly and so some of this stuff I did- I think that I was approaching what the town is from perhaps a less symbolic perspective because I tend to like the nitty gritty of the story where I can get it where everything additional, like the additional worldbuilding bits and pieces I like to sprinkle throughout, and that can tell you more about it. So, a lot of this stuff I may perhaps not have picked up on because my brain is very small.
But I did know that, for example, I wanted to make sure that whatever was going on in the town tied into the central narrative, and the central narrative is kind of that impermanence but more than that it is sitting in impermanence, and it’s looking down the barrel of the gun, and then the person holding the gun just not firing it. But you know there’s a round in there and you know they’re going to fire it eventually. So what do you do? In Anatoli’s case you go, “well, I gotta get to work”, and so you go to work.
And so there are little things throughout that I think I built, y’know whatever worldbuilding aspects off of. For example, one thing that I tried to pinpoint, cuz I think we went back and forth on this at one point, is the fact that the town is just fuckin empty all the time. Because there are other people in Pareildas. I’m not gonna pronounce it right. (sarcastically) I like pronouncing things wrong. I think it’s funny.
But, you might see them mentioned in like an examinable but you’re never gonna fuckin- you’re almost never gonna see em, they’re obviously a very small number of exceptions. And though, you could argue that part of that was we only had so much bandwidth. I would say instead, one, it helps to feed [into] the kind of strange impermanent feeling that the city gives off, but it’s also- It’s sort of that living in a paradox, where its like yeah- This is not gonna last, maybe you’re here and maybe you’re not. People are saying you’re here and you’re not. And that’s just kind of the vibe I was going for I suppose.
Quinn: Before we move on from this question I just want to sprinkle in a little bit of developer behind-the-scenes-ing. Y’know the town of Pareildas got its name from me smushing together both a German and a French word. This is something I sometimes like to do because German and French are extremely important languages in my life. They’re my mother tongues, effectively; they’re the languages I grew up with. Whereas English was something I taught myself. And eventually even in school.
But yeah Pareildas is a name mushed together from the French “pareil”, and the German “das”. Which when put together “pareil” basically means “the same” or “like that”, and “das” means “this”. Which, if you squint at it – it’s supposed to be a little squint, you need to squint a little bit – it’s gonna mean something like “always the same”. And additionally of course Pareildas also sounds like a name that’s very similar to “paradise”, which y’know, is uh, extremely ironic.
Parsely: Wow. That’s- I did not- I came into this not expecting to learn as much as I did about the game, and I’m very pleasantly surprised, this is very interesting.
Conor: I think what’s interesting to me is how different Quinn and I’s approaches are to making stories like this because, in my brain I just go, [unintelligible] this fuckin dang town and it’s in a desert, that’s all you need, that’s what the town is. Symbols? We don’t have those. Depth? I don’t know what that is. And so I just kinda feel it out. Since, again, since we never really sat down and chatted about this it’s interesting to see this through a rearview mirror and kinda see how things came together.
Quinn: y’know the whole hourglass thing, the hourglass if you look in the game it’s everywhere. It’s on the uh, gravestones-
Conor: I heard you saying that once when we were late in development, “oh yeah it’s a really important symbol”, and I was like… “Right! Yeah it is! It’s my favorite!”
Quinn: No yeah it’s, the hourglass is on the gravestones, it’s this whole limitedness of existence, like oh, these people are in the grave because their time has run out. And when you look at the hourglasses on the grave you’ll see that they’re filled with sand at the bottom. Like there’s no sand at the top anymore, it’s all at the bottom, on those hourglasses. Well in the wedding photo as well! There’s an hourglass dangling above Anatoli and Pyotr-
Conor: That I remember-
Quinn: Like which maybe is a weird thing to have in a- During a wedding, being like oh this is not gonna last, but maybe Anatoli and Pyotr will… (coyly) Defy that…
Conor: Who knows!
Parsely: Immortal gays?!
Parsely: Immortal gays!?
Quinn: [cackling] (mischievously) We didn’t say anything.
Parsely: [wheezing] Okay! Alright! Okay!
Conor: (joking) We’re gonna have to spoiler mark this review. Can’t believe this.
Parsely: Okay uh, last thing. What would you put on your tombstone?
[a long pause]
Parsely: Gun to your head. [laughing]
Quinn: “She lived, she learned, she lit a cigarette.” I guess.
Parsely: [laughing] Damn! That’s pretty uh- That’s pretty good!
Conor: I didn’t think both of [ours] were gonna be shitposts. I knew mine was gonna be.
Quinn: Well we do gotta keep the tone of the gravestones in Pareildas up because those are very specific, [they have a] very good tone that- [laughing] Y’know like- I do wanna say like, while Conor figures out his gravestone, I do wanna say that I really adore the kinds of inscriptions Conor came up with because they range from comically insensitive and without piety to actually really harrowing.
Parsely: [laughing] Yeah!
Conor: I have an answer, it’s uh, “lmao im dead” and there’s no apostrophe between the I and the M and the I is not capitalized.
Conor: I think that’s representative of who I am as a person.
Parsely: I think so too, yeah! That seems- That’s exactly what I expected you to say.
Conor: Yeah. It’s interesting that you bring up the gravestones in the game because- They’re weird! They’re weird because normally you do not get: okay write 30 different descriptions that are all in the exact same circumstance that all have almost exactly the same- They all have to have the same kind of like, bullet point-ey length to them. Like I write item descriptions for my job sometimes but you can just vary those, and this is like- I don’t know how much you’re gonna vary uh, a gravestone. So, one, I’m glad those dont suck and two, there’s a couple references in there I’m actually not going to go into detail about, um, that are…perhaps a little more harrowing because I have some personal bones to pick with, uh… Reality? And so, there’s one in particular that again, I’m not gonna specifically refer to.
Quinn: I know the one.
Parsely: I already think I know which one you’re talking about but we don’t have to go into it.
Conor: Who knows! But yeah I guess that’s, well, that is part of why I like writing because it’s like, my hope is that both of you have different answers for what you think it is. And moreover, I think part of the reason that we have a perhaps more symbolically minded and more aesthetically minded person, meaning Quinn, not to throw you under the bus, if that is throwing you under the bus, uh, and perhaps a more technically minded and perhaps less artistic person working on the same narrative, with the same general idea in mind means that different people can come to our game expecting different things and both of them can get whatever it is that they want out of it.
Conor: If I want to take it a step further I actually think that’s a sign of good art, like really good art, like a masterpiece is having a really excellent, central narrative and having really excellent thematic and stylistic choices. Then again, I don’t think that’s the kind of thing I could have done alone. Definitely not the art.
Quinn: I do want to stop you from doing hagiography to our own fuckin’ thing, but I do want to say that There Swings a Skull is something that ultimately I’m extremely proud of.
Conor: I’d say the same.
Quinn: It wasn’t an easy path to it, I was really really happy with the last parts of it when we made the jam game version. But for a long while you know I did have my small niggling doubts of like, oh no, will expanding this even really be necessary? Won’t we be adding too much seasoning to this dish, so to say.
Conor: Especially since the original was meant to be so truncated and give a very specific image.
Quinn: Yeah, and in the end I think, if anything There Swings a Skull: Grim Tidings completely elevated and improved what we had initially. Especially because its message and its thematics, at least in my mind, you can let me know if you disagree with that Conor, they end in hope. They don’t end in abject misery and a sort of cruel sense of, well we’re fucked! That’s good going boys! It ends in a rejection of that, a very deliberate and very, I would say on Conor’s part, a very clever rejection of that. And that I think was what the original jam game needed and I’m very glad that we managed to bring that to it.
Parsely: Now we’re coming to the end, any last words?
Conor: Foremost I wanna say I’ve appreciated working on this project a lot if it’s not already readily apparent. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve made. [This game is the] closest I’ve come to being satisfied with something I’ve worked on. Only time will tell how it comes across of course, but even if it crashes and burns, I think I can say that I’m happy with it. Working with Leaf Let has been great, working with z_bill has been great, I’ve appreciated Kitet’s assistance as well with some of the art assets. Again I’m honored to have been part of this style of project. I have said it many times and I’ll say it again, this is not a thing I could have done alone, and I hope that people click with it.
Quinn: I just wanna shout out Kitet for one. Like Conor said, he made some major art assets for our soundtrack[‘s album art], and just generally he’s really cool. He did work on An Outcry with the three of us.
Big thanks to Quinn K. and Conor Walsh for taking the time to talk with me about their latest title! You can get There Swings a Skull: Grim Tidings on Steam. You can also check out DreadXP for more features, interviews, and reviews on horror games.