Interview: Scott Benson on Night In the Woods

Scott Benson talks about crumbling hometowns, indie games as DIY projects, and Kickstarter success and how that changes the context.

Feature Pitch: Scott Benson, illustrator and a cultural force in independent animation, has always wanted to make a video game. He meets Alec Holowka and bands together to make a game he cares about- a narrative adventure game called Night In the Woods. They quickly raise over 209K on Kickstarter, and Scott enters the wild world of game making, and must adapt to a thrilling new industry, and a bigger and more enthusiastic audience than ever before.

You and Alec met on twitter, but when did you decide that you would make a game? Or this particular game?

It was one of those things when you’re a kid and you’re like, ‘I want to make video games’, but I’m 33, so when I was a kid it was the late 80’s or early 90’s, and I didn’t live in a computer-literate house. So there was nothing like- grab a book and learn to code, or make your own text adventures or something — that just didn’t exist.

I attended smaller private schools, and they didn’t have any tech, or idea on how to do it — so I really, really wanted to make video games, but gave up the idea because I didn’t know how to get into it at all. And it was when I got into indie games, which wasn’t until late 2000s, 2011 or so, that I started putting together that ‘oh, these are things made by a few people — this is something I know how to do’. I grew up being in punk bands and ska bands doing kind of DIY stuff — so that immediately clicked and made sense.

I think it was playing the Super Brothers game Sword and Sworcery, the way that that game described itself in this way - I was familiar with their work from just design and animation, and so when I saw the way they credited it as - it’s Craig: an artist, plus musician, plus this team. That collaborative aspect made sense to me and I realized this is what I can offer.

Sword and Sworcery — Super Brothers

I’d mentioned on twitter a few times that I’d like to make a video game, but didn’t know anyone who’d made one — there’s a couple people that asked, and we had maybe something going, but it wasn’t the right fit — didn’t really get past a couple hangouts, and maybe a prototype or two.

At some point in the past couple years a few people who made games started following me on twitter, because I tweet a lot and talk a lot about video games. Some of them were fans of the animation work that I’d done and Alec, I guess, was one of them, and he out of nowhere just said “Hey, do you want to make a video game” — and this is a guy who’s actually made a game before by himself, or with a few people — and that made me think, oh, we can do this.

So we had a couple ideas and I was very timid about putting my ideas forward at first, because I’d never made a game before; You don’t want to walk in and just start dictating what you think. We had some ideas that were a more stereotypical, artsy, indie-game type. And at some point, I think it was last summer, I was like: I kind of don’t like this thing we’re making.

I draw these little animal people all the time, and I’m better at that than drawing actual humanoids, much less animating them. The themes that would be in NITW were already there, so basically in one weekend I dashed out a plot and the designs of the characters — I remember sitting there watching Return of the Living Dead at 2 AM and drawing them— and went to Alec and asked, “Does this look good?”

And that was it, what NITW ended up becoming was a lot of the things my wife Bethany and I were doing with stories on our experiences — her growing up in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, West Belltown, and me growing up with these strong-personality punk kids. And just pulling together all these different things that are just very us, I think, and combining them with the themes that Alec and I have been talking about — and it all came together.

It was like, hey, that’s a stupid idea, but maybe we can run with it — and people ended up liking it on Kickstarter. We certainly had no idea that it would become such a big deal.

You’ve talked about Chris Ware, Mike Mignola as some of your influences in illustration and animation — any games that have influenced your work?

A lot of them are fairly recent — when I was a kid, all of the games I wanted to make were Zelda or Final Fantasy rip-offs, and Another World. So between wanting to remake Link to the Past and FF6, I actually stopped playing a lot of games for a while in the 2000s — being exposed to triple-A titles, after a while I just got sick of these games that were written and made for people who are 15 years younger than me. It wasn’t until I got into smaller indie games over the past few years, when I realized that this is what really speaks to me or is interesting to me. And I don’t want to come off as a snob, I mean I’m playing Just Cause 2 as I’m talking to you, I’m jumping my car over sand dunes. It’s far better than it has any right to be.

Making games as projects, as personal stuff is what inspires me. I don’t think I would ever want to make something that’s huge, or has a huge team on it — I immediately lose interest when there are that many steps removed.

All of the music I listen to come from smaller things, not because they are inherently better but because there is less of a barrier between you and that person. I really value art as these really personal, idiosyncratic things used as communication.

Which is why I like Mike Mignola and Chris Ware — because Hellboy is just all this shit that he loves rolled together. He’s like I love this, this, this, and this is just me, totally freaking out and trying to make something out of that. Chris Ware’s style is so iconic and so readily copied to little success, because you have to have that X-factor.

Another thing we changed in Night In the Woods is that it’s nominally based somewhere in PA — something like Kentucky Route Zero and Gone Home and their ability to do something that had grounding in the real world, but doesn’t fall into sci-fi, fantasy genre tropes.

Kentucky Route Zero — Cardboard Computer

KRZ has magical realism going on but it’s so grounded in the feeling of a really specific part of America that I’m familiar with; There was industry here, things happened here, people built all these things — and you are coming in far later when everyone’s already a local, doesn’t think anything of it — they just exist as these mystifying ruins.

In Act I of KRZ — the closing of the mine hugely affects its people. I live in Pittsburgh where it’s a shell of the steel industry. Where my wife is from is just mill towns and mining towns that have closed.

I’d love to make something that is based on living in a place like that. Not just the trauma of it closing, but about the kids that grow up in the shadow of that, and what it means to live in these towns where there are amazing buildings that are crumbling because they were built back when people had money. And no one has any money, and no one comes down the main street anymore because they built a highway nearby.

Gone Home — The Fullbright Company

Gone home is a great, high-stakes thing in something that’s relatively mundane, in the sense that these are things a lot of us experience on some level. It’s a game about people defining themselves, the house you’re exploring and turning on the lights as this big metaphor for people dealing with different things, be it discovering your sexuality or falling in love for the first time.

I’ve talked in interviews about games like KRZ and Gone Home giving me permission to make games about what I actually want to make a game about. We don’t have to give Mae (the protagonist in Night In the Woods) a gun, or put her on the space station to have a game that involves dealing with the loss of a friend or growing apart from someone. We don’t have to couch that necessarily.

There are some fantastical stuff you can see in the trailer, but the game itself isn’t about- we have to go hunt down the nine shards of this to go kill the dragon lord. Human interest stuff on the side, it’s more about these characters and their lives and their interactions.

What draws people to Night In the Woods and Possum Springs is that humanity. What brings me in is the unsettling aspect to your work; As whimsical as it is, much like Mary Blair’s stuff there is something a bit dark or supernatural, overhanging — not unlike death, that’s also visible in the trailer.

I was talking about it recently with friends in New York: it’s funny how the things the people assume the game is about, the game isn’t. Night In the Woods is not really dark or gritty, but when we were at E3 featuring the demo - and we were below these Jumbotrons of these dudes getting their heads blown off and stuff - and people played our game —

There’s a part where at the beginning of the demo, just because we’re teaching people the dialogue tricks, you’re in Mae’s room and you click around and she has this long train of thought you can go through — it’s kind of a long monologue — and she goes, “I’m so bored, I should get out of this house.” and then she says, “I wonder what would happen if I burned down the house, but with me in it. Would I come back as a ghost, would I haunt the place?” — and people were like, “That’s so DARK.

There’s kind of a realistic darkness, I think, that everyone has, but particularly if you come from a place where the rest of the world has left behind a little bit. Or the people are down on their luck — this kind of matter-of-fact — not darkness — but a pragmatism about things like death, and sickness and poverty and debt, that I think people tend to mine in really fantastical… I don’t want to say overblown ways. But there’s something mundane about dealing with hardship, and with life, and with things changing.

A parent dies: that’s horrible. You have to move on, you have to live. And that’s the general vibe that’s in Night In the Woods. It has some fairly dark elements that pop up that’s kind of underlying the whole thing. I don’t know how to quantify it.

A lot of my work stems from pulling meaning, solace, community and friendship, out of this void — which sounds like whatever, but. You’re going to die at some point but you have to figure out what you’re going to do now. You have to live, and what does that mean? I think it’s a preoccupation that ends up finding its way in a lot of my work. Like sad greeting card platitudes, you have to pull the positive out of the negative stuff.

In animation or illustration, unlike in games, you are deciding what the audience interacts with; It’s serving different expressive purposes. Is it a conflicting process connecting the story and characters to mechanical parts?

Going into it I understood making a game wasn’t like making a film. But it was difficult. The big ludo-narrative dissonance — I can’t remember if we’re still supposed to use that term or not, but whatever. Actually Chris Plante defined it more succinctly than anyone else I’d heard: the difference between what the game tells you you are, and what the game empowers you to be. There’s a little bit of that, where there are things that sound fun — like giving Mae a baseball bat and the ability to smack everyone she meets, but at that point we’re making a game about a psychopath.

If we want to have a story that makes any sense, we have to constrain the possibilities of action to what takes place in the narrative. Unless you don’t care, in which case knock yourself out, I’ll just play GTA and run over people - That’s okay.

Something like KRZ and Gone Home, they don’t give you the opportunity to do things that are outside the possibility of the story, or that go against the characters. It ends up being minimalist and stripped down, but we wanted to have mechanics that serve the story and themes before anything else.

When I do animation I tend to be focused on world-building and ambience — the environments are much bigger characters in my stuff than the characters are, as well as in films or games I like, and I think games are nearly unparalleled for exploring places.

I tend to think that the actual agency in games are a little overrated at times. Having characters that are a part of something, that are witnessing something happening is a lot more interesting to me, than where you are the main engine around which the entire plot goes. NITW is character based, but Possum Springs is just as important to the themes and gameplay. So there wasn’t too much I had to change mentally to get to that point, because I already tend to be really focused on place and context.

There were differences in technical stuff, or me not knowing anything about what a game plot looks like. You have to give up some ideas, unless you want to just go the cutscene route. We have to come up with elegant methods that don’t feel intrusive to constrain players to certain paths. That’s difficult, and that’s something that every narrative designer of games deals with, some better than others. It was me kind of learning to not do things too cinematically; I think I got the hang of it now, but we’ll see.

About these technological constraints, do you ever feel the limits of the game engine?

Working with Alec is a huge thing. Working with this heavily modified version of Unity that he set up, where it’s like — we want to make some leaves, so we’ll make some leaves — Alec sets it up and it works like a plugin in After Effects or Photoshop, where there’s a sidebar where you can adjust the amount, the gravity, colors — and you tweak it to your heart’s content. The world has a lot of dynamic parts in it, so it’s great to have this toolset we can change on-the-fly.

It was a lot of me learning to be more efficient — if it were up to me, we’d have sprites of every single thing for every possible action. I can’t just have a ten thousand by twenty thousand sprite in there because that’s probably not going to run great on Playstation. That hasn’t been a limit on the game itself, that was just me having to work within the constraints of something. Because of Alec’s work and his experience I haven’t had to really beat my head against it too hard. I’ve been pretty spoiled.

Alec is great at taking an idea and finding a way to make it work. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when he or I had come up with an idea and were like, there’s no way to do that in-game. Last year we made a random car generator: It was a Friday night at 8 when we came up with it, and he comes in next morning saying “I was up all night, I need twenty car parts from you” — and now you’ll never see the same car twice. And that’s far more efficient than me making like twelve cars. It’s kind of a great example of how great Alec is. My idea would be just to make everything unique. But he’ll tell me, “You can make all the parts unique, and we can put them together.”

Late Night Work Club, the animation collective you co-founded, and Night in the Woods are both huge, consuming projects. Animation, which is largely freelancing or personal work, is different from game making which is a lot of “kicking your own ass”. How does balancing that work?

For me, I’m more interested in the project than the actual medium of it. I didn’t get into animation because I was like “I LOVE CARTOONS,” it was just — this is what I can do, I learned how to do this for work, and I want to be able to tell stories. And I can actually pay rent with it, so that’s cool. Before that it was songs, bands, drawing little things.

To me these are just two projects, they just happen to be in two different things that I can kind of do. LNWC is the only independent animation collective doing non-commercial work. There’s not that many of us out there. It’s certainly the largest, it’s also the one — it’s gonna sound kind of stupid — but the one with the most pedigree, I guess. Particularly in this second edition, a lot of people who won a lot of awards are in it.

Animation is such a weird little community, and unless you’re doing client work, no one expects to make any money from it at all. So it is just making work, like how people make novels or independent comics. Games are a little different, because people actually expect to make a living making them. Which is so different from independent animation, where you enter festivals, and you get some work doing that; you win some awards, or get grants or funding depending on where you live.

It’s not like — I’m gonna sell this animation, and if I can get into these distribution channels and these publications then I’m guaranteed to sell twenty-five cartoons! It doesn’t work like that, at least not so directly.

So jumping between those two scenes is really weird. Other than Kickstarter, I make my living doing contract animations. I think they scratch two different itches — Night in the Woods was the first time where it was going to be my whole life for two years, and we’re gonna sink everything into this game, story, writing, animation — every idea. All of ourselves.

Whereas LNWC is something I’m just super passionate about, with people I love — really love — some of my closest friends. People like Charles Huettner — who I do a lot of running it together, and Eamonn O’Neill — it’s like, Night in the Woods is my job, and LNWC is me going home and hanging out with a bunch of friends on the weekends.

Last year LNWC definitely felt like my job — because I was prepping for the first anthology. Now it’s just switched where LNWC is such low pressure, so nice. I don’t have to think about what the player’s going to do here. I was actually working on LNWC before I got on this with you, and I was like, I just have to make pictures… move. That’s just all there is to this. There are a lot of things that are difficult about game making because I’m new at it. But difficult things about animation, because I’ve been doing it for so long, I feel like, that’s fine.

How was the experience of adopting that, not new, but just more vocal of an audience?

Games are weird, (laugh) I don’t know if you’ve noticed. It’s a very different culture. In animation: it tends to be in my experience — my experience is someone who did not go to school for any of this, being self-taught. I don’t have the experience of a lot of other college graduates, student shows, studio jobs — but in my experience… You have people that discount your work, but these people are usually older jerks. Independent animation, especially online, is such a fertile, interesting place, where people are usually eager to help out and support each other, unless it’s getting actual contractor work.

And so there’s something that immediately binds people more on that level — because there’s not a ton of competition. There’s just — ‘oh you got into this competition and I didn’t’. It’s not like they looked at these two films and were like, ‘fuck you’ to this one and not this other one. It was out of a pool of hundreds.

Games are a lot different — I had to get used to how games think about themselves, and the way that scene kind of operates. It’s not better or worse it’s just different.

There were people who followed my animation work and still do, and I love them very, very dearly — but once the game came out — particularly if you have a Kickstarter that goes big, you’re kind of automatically a public entity in a way you weren’t before.

For example, people ask you about your thoughts on games and you don’t have any idea of what you’re talking about. I remember when Bioshock Infinite came out, I wrote this really long screed about how much I hated the game — and it wasn’t about the game makers, but just the story and how it was dealt with. It wasn’t even the writing per se, just what happened in the game, it was so abysmally awful, it made me so depressed — I could write that last year. If I write that this year, it’s now a Thing.

It’s like ‘The Writer of NITW Thinks He Can Do Better’, you know, it’s just different. And I don’t have a problem with that; some people say it’s politics, but I don’t know, it’s a different conversation than I would have with you, on this skype than I would if we were in front of 300 people. If I was just talking to my wife, it would be different still. It’s in the context of who you’re talking to and who you are when you talk about it.

If I went online and said something on twitter — “Everyone needs to just stop whining and work harder” — I could say that last year and it would be like “Yeah man, you’re right”. But this year because we’ve had some success with it, it automatically sounds like I’m scolding people. It’s different, and that’s not a bad thing.

I think a lot of the people getting into trouble with their audience is from forgetting how the context changes. Even though we are a pretty scrappy operation, we also had a massively successful Kickstarter, and Sony has been really supportive of our game — these are things no one ever gets, this is crazy.

And particularly this being the first game I’ve ever worked on, it’s just not something that happens. Yes, it’s a fluke based on years and years of us working — but still: right place, right time, right people. As much as our hard work and experiences are a huge part of it, Bethany’s life, Alec’s past successes — it’s also about how Kickstarter is a thing you can do right now. I think if there is a difference, It’s remembering that context has changed on some level.

I’ve also never had something that had a “fandom” attached to it before? In the tumblr-sense. I’m like 33 and out of touch with what the kids are into these days. And it’s knowing how to navigate through that, and occasionally the demanding stuff you get from that. Just because when people become fans of something, they get access to the creator of it — not actually have, but feel entitled to it. Which I think is okay, I understand where that comes from.

Games and animation are very different scenes, largely because of economic, industry factors, and the fact that my context of other people has changed because of something I consider a relatively minor fluke success. But other people are like “That’s what I wanted, and it’s what I’ve been working towards” and I understand that that’s different. It’s also about how we have fans now. That’s weird. It’s cool, and neat, and wonderful, but it’s just not something we’re used to.


*All images (c) Infinite Fall unless otherwise captioned