Fatum Betula: as enigmatic as oddly seductive/melancholic (if that’s really a thing)

Hey Bryce! Thanks for the opportunity to talk about your work. Fatum Betula was one of the most puzzling and mysterious experiences I’ve ever had with video games, so I think it makes sense to start with: where did the idea come from?

Bryce Bucher — The original spark for the idea came after I played Modus Interactive’s Iketsuki and wanted to try and come up with a game with a similarly unique and interesting goal. What I came up with quickly after that was a game where you had to journey around to find various liquids which to water a plant with.

Fatum Betula seems highly interpretive to me, but I imagine that everything there has a deep meaning for you, as it deals a lot with cycles, with endings and death. Or am I talking nonsense? How personal was this project?

B.B.: — I wouldn’t say everything in the game has some sort of thoughtful idea behind it, a lot of it is just me exploring certain atmospheres and emotions. However, there are definitely a good bit of scenarios/dialogue/endings that were meant to directly explore a certain theme and/or carry a specific message. A lot of the dialogue relating to immortality and the suburban house both come to mind (although there is more outside of those two examples). However “deep” any of it ended up being just depends on who is playing it I suppose, I don’t really feel like I’m in any position to determine that. I’ve heard people call the game vapid and others tell me it made them think a lot, but I’m just glad I got to put my honest thoughts in a game.

After spending a good few minutes at the beginning, trying to understand that encrypted letter I had in my possession, I managed to meet the bizarre being who presented me with the test tubes. It’s as if the surprises are absurdly per minute. What’s it like to deal with that kind of narrative drive without being frustrating or disorientated?

B.B.: — If I’m being honest I don’t think I fully understand this question. If you mean what is it like to create a scenario like that rather than experience it blindly: it is exciting to imagine how a player might react to a given scene, but it gets really tedious and meaningless to experience it over and over as a developer. I mostly make games for myself, meaning I imagine a game that I would love to experience and then make it as such, but I never actually get the full experience of what it’s like to go in blind.

Fatum Betula is the opposite of the vast majority of newer games in terms of how it draws the player’s attention. It’s even more enigmatic than old games from the first PlayStation, like Hellnight or Saturn ones, like Deep Fear or Enemy Zero. What is it like to create something like this? Has the game surprised you as production progressed?

B.B.: — I’ve always loved deeply enigmatic games. As a kid, I would explore the completed save files of my cousin’s copies of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I found their worlds so mysterious and interesting as I freely explored trying to find strange characters and areas without any sort of indication of what exactly I should be doing. A lot of Fatum Betula’s development was me trying to create that sort of experience for others. I tried to hide and obscure things in such a way that child me would’ve been blown away. I wouldn’t really say development surprised me as I largely ended up making the sort of game that I wanted to from early on.

I don’t know exactly why, but I thought a lot about Illbleed while playing Fatum Betula. Does it make sense? What were your biggest inspirations, in video games and beyond?

B.B.: — I know about Illbleed, but I haven’t played it myself. I get a lot of comparisons to enigmatic and obscure early 3D games (mostly LSD Dream Emulator, which ironically was not an inspiration), and I think that is appropriate as that era of games has always been a big inspiration for my art in general. Some of the inspirations for Fatum Betula specifically include Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Anodyne 1&2, Iketsuki, and Lego Island. I do often take inspiration from media outside of games (usually film), but in the case of Fatum Betula I largely didn’t. I guess my general fascination with the idea of subjective reality came largely from films like Perfect Blue and The Holy Mountain, and a lot of those ideas made their way into Fatum.

Compared to your past work, how would you categorize Fatum Betula? Does it make sense to think of him that way? And where does this name come from?

B.B.: — I’ve always loved making surreal art, but before Fatum Betula the only major(ish) game release I had was Location Withheld, which is very grounded in comparison. I guess I would say Fatum Betula is a lot more expressive than any game that I had released before it. The name Fatum Betula is simply just the words “Fate” and “Birch” translated into latin. It’s in reference to the fate birch in the game, and I just thought it sounded neat.

Between the melancholy skeleton, the artist creature on the Japanese estate, the dealer with the pipe or that cute but highly problematic little black creature, which is your favorite character and which was the most difficult to create? I confess that I am still very affected by that first contact, in the water corridor.

B.B.: — In terms of visual design, I think the pipe smoking wizard is my favorite character. All the characters were relatively easy to make, but the cat/raccoon was the most difficult. I originally wanted to give them realistic fur, but unfortunately I’m not that great at digital painting and ended up wasting a lot of time before just coloring them solid black and white.

What is your opinion about this resumption of retro terror that has taken place in recent years? Are you particularly a fan of any games or of anyone who has been making them?

B.B.: — When I was a kid watching the rise of pixel art indie games, I had always wondered if they would one day start to make lowpoly indie games as well. I never thought I would take part in it myself though, but I’m very glad I did. I’m really invested in the Haunted PS1 community, and I’m a fan of a lot of the creators there. In particular I really love the works of Jan Malitschek, Modus Interactive, Breogan Hackett, Johnny Feverdream, Antonia Freyre, Amos Sorri, Amon26, Blood Machine, and a lot more (there are too many to count).

Future projects? Can you share something about this? And more: any message for those interested in making a game, whether as a screenwriter, programming, modeling? I’m particularly interested in this one, since I’m writing a script for a horror game right now!

BB — I’m currently working on at least 2 games at the moment, and I have plans for at least 2 more after that. One of them is a collaboration with Modus Interactive, and the other is a fishing game for a Haunted PS1 jam that should be out fairly soon. I would tell anyone who is making any kind of art in general to try and primarily make it for yourself if you can. It is very creatively satisfying and usually results in better works I think.

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