Worlds & Their Builders #2 - Dylan Gallardo
Talking to the creator of Marlowe’s Path about the value of the tactile, completing game jams and more.
Dylan Gallardo (@CriticalMammal) is a South Carolina based gamewright active since 2013. Be it with solo projects or when collaborating with others, Gallardo’s work has been highlighted in publications such as PC Gamer, Kill Screen and Rock Paper Shotgun. You can find a portfolio of his work at his website.
Mr. Gallardo, you’re an active participant in game jams. You’ve participated in some of the most well known ones such as Ludum Dare and more niche jams such as Fermi Paradox jam. And you seem like you’re participating in more and more by the year. What is it about game jams that has caught your interest so much?
The social aspect is normally a big draw for me. They’ve encouraged me to do a good amount of short term collaborations with friends. Even when I participate solo in a game jam the main driving force tends to be for networking. I get to produce work alongside other cool devs, see how my skills stack up against others, and maybe have a little media coverage if what I made was interesting. When you’re making fairly obscure games it serves as a good platform to help find an audience that otherwise wouldn’t know about your stuff because you’re working in a vacuum.
The short timelines help to keep things on track and to allow you to learn from mistakes without investing much. They can be fairly low risk endeavors, though sometimes that deadline can cause a lot of stress and more often than not projects aren’t conceptually stable or are too rough to continue afterwards. I think I really appreciated the week long timeline of the Fermi Paradox jam in comparison to the standard 72 or 24 hour ones for that reason. Not to mention I really admire the hosts of the Fermi Paradox jam, Loren Schmidt (@lorenschmidt) and Katie Rose Pipkin (@katierosepipkin). Their work is awesome and it felt really special contributing to something they started. In the future I may try to seek out jams that follow closer to their format.
The Fermi Paradox jam and longer such jams often have more specific or imaginative themes than their shorter contemporaries. What’s it like working under those kind of guidelines compared to a simpler theme you’d find in jams like Ludum Dare for example?
People seem to be able to take pretty much any theme and twist it into an interesting project. A lot of it boils down to the quality of preparation personally. Most smaller jams build their identity around whatever the theme is, so you know what you’re getting into beforehand. I found out about Fermi Paradox about a week before it started so I spent most of that time researching and pre-planning stuff like the background science and visual direction for the game. So for example the navigation in Marlowe’s Path (2016), my game for the jam, was loosely based on an existing theoretical deep space navigation technique called XNAV. It’s sort of like GPS, except you reference a certain kind of star (pulsars) rather than man made satellites. I was also referencing a bunch of rally car dash cam footage, and that sparked the pilot/copilot dynamic with the characters in the game alongside giving me some good imagery/audio for what the ship interior might be like. Being able to invest and research into the theme ended up giving me a really comfortable foundation for when I actually started the jam. That’s a lot more difficult to do when you’re conceptualization time overlaps your “actually make the idea happen” time.
How thoroughly do you look at other submissions for jams that you participate in and how does that make you reflect back on your own work?
After a jam I might pop open a small handful of entries that catch my eye. Mostly I’ll watch some of the videos and read articles from people that cover the events to get an idea of the diversity of submissions, or just look at what other devs post to get the gist. It’s kind of exhausting to be honest playing anything after intense jam crunch. I normally barely even feel like doing the basic social media posts, and making an acceptable landing page for my own game afterwards. But seeing all the other interpretations on the theme is great to show the possibility space. It’s sort of like being able to do something and then look back to visibly see all the other branching paths that could have been taken. I think it helps me look at how effectively I’m executing on ideas, and cues me in on how I might be able to improve my own stuff.
Do you think Marlowe’s Path reads differently in any way when paired alongside the other jam entries than on its own as a singular work?
Certain games start complimenting each other and that through line between entries is pretty interesting. One sub-theme I noticed my entry and a few others shared was companionship, often between two characters searching/contemplating the universe. Which is interesting considering that the fermi paradox is basically about the lack of known other life in the universe. So it’s neat seeing others fall back to the existing companionship we understand between humans. I suppose to contrast or to try and find comfort in our larger scale isolation as a species. My own entry wasn’t nearly that existential on it’s own though, and others explore that further, Friary Road (2016) and No Stars, Only Constellations (2016) come to mind as examples.
The other main complementary thread between entries seemed to be exploring low fidelity visual styles. While not being inherent in the theme I think many people (myself included) were trying to emulate or give tribute to the often lo-fi style the hosts of the jam take on. Things like image dithering or pixelation, referencing old star charts and tech from early space missions, crt screens, etc. So it’s also neat to see how we ended up being visually inspired as well without it being an explicit goal of the jam.
When you’re making fairly obscure games it serves as a good platform to help find an audience that otherwise wouldn’t know about your stuff because you’re working in a vacuum.
Be it a terminal on a spaceship or a food distribution unit, several of your recent releases revolve around interfaces. Full Time Job (2016) is probably the first game I’ve played that the player controls with photoshop-like tool sliders. Is this focus on indirect control something you feel is becoming integral to your design practices or something you feel is already largely behind you?
I’m fascinated with micro interactions and feedback in games. It’s the very subtle things games do to build an immersive space and how they allow you to express yourself in that space. I think focusing on really mechanical objects seemed like a good way to start exploring that in a controlled way, though I’m hit or miss on it with my own work. It’s not always related to functionality. I try to enhance things with audio to fill visual gaps, or do a lot of subtle camera movement to make things feel less static. With Full Time Job in particular the slider interface didn’t have many of those traits I’m talking about. That section was fairly rushed for the jam timeline. Ideally it would have felt more tactile like the previous scene, where you’ve got these cables that are sort of intrinsically fun to toy around with outside of their functional role to progress the game to the next scene.
Can you give a best case example of something besides your own works that captures this subtle expression you feel your works may or may not be hitting?
A lot of it fits under “game feel” as vague as that term is. Receiver (2012) by Wolfire Games is something I find myself referencing a lot for the kinds of tactile interactions I like. It has very intricately detailed gun functionality, so stuff like reloading is very involved. It’s pretty awkward to control, pretty much every action is bound to separate keys but it gives you a lot of nice little ways to fiddle with things during downtime. I find the quiet moments where I’m prepping my equipment pretty compelling. I might cautiously pull the gun slide back to check the chamber before turning a corner, or playfully spin a revolver’s cylinder to hear a comforting clicking sound. It’s almost like a sort of body language in-game, a bunch of gestures that personalize the experience or say something about the person playing. Players randomly dropping magazines by accident or unintentionally ejecting bullets across the room is also pretty funny. There’s some interesting comedy there.
I definitely feel that tactileness in Full Time Job though. Each individual slider has an explicit purpose as part of a larger mechanism of systems. A gun in Receiver is made explicitly into an interface. It requires several correct motions or inputs to produce a shot whereas most games streamline that into one or two button presses. Do you feel that something is lost in the translation of that streamlining? How different are games like yours or Receiver where actions exist as individual actions and not part of a streamlined whole?
Well streamlining one system might let you spread details into other areas. Deciding what needs to be simplified and where your time is best spent just depends on where you’d like your focus to be. I mean developers are always abstracting real world things in one way or another. My only criticism is that sometimes I think people get stuck thinking that one abstraction is how something should be done. We’ve sort of standardized certain things like character movement, weapon operations, and dialogue trees. So when a game comes along and re-explores those things it can be really refreshing seeing how it might change the overall experience.
I think you lose things going either way on the spectrum of streamlining. Oversimplifying important systems can take away control and intention from a player. You’re having to predict what they want more often and that can take away a lot of satisfaction if things are automatically happening. On the other hand, providing an overly complex experience can make actions difficult to perform. That can have a similar effect of taking away your ability to act out intentions. Luckily with Full Time Job having an obtuse and somewhat frustrating interface fits with the theme of job seeking. I think I prefer games that give you a lot of detailed control but I’m not opposed to simplifying things if it’s well thought out and matches design goals.
I’m fascinated by micro-interactions and feedback in games….
I find your games to have very expressive sound design. Be it the creaking of the ship in Marlowe’s Path or the sheer variety of sounds in Full Time Job. At what point in the design process do you start thinking about how you want to incorporate sound?
Most of my projects from the past year or so tend to actually start with the sound effect design and music. Full Time Job started with a handful of little musical riffs to get a feel for the mood I was going for and the rest fell into place from there. I’d actually keep some of those loops on repeat while coding or doing visuals, which I think helped me stay in the right state of mind. I did a similar thing with Marlowe’s Path, looping music and also the creaky ship effects while working on non-audio stuff. A number of other unfinished projects of mine have also started with audio concepts and soundscapes. So sound is normally a pretty high priority that I let bleed into other areas of design as much as possible. Sometimes all the sounds I work on don’t make it in quite like I’d like, but they definitely have a big influence on each project from the start.
What happened in the last year to bring sound to the forefront of your design? Was there a specific inspiration or was it an evolutionary step in your style?
It’s just something I’ve gravitated towards over time. I think I’m attracted to how ambiguous and surprising it can be to work with. You can take arbitrary noise and imply pretty much any kind of sound with the right manipulation. I mean even the text in this article is totally viable to use as a raw data sample that could give interesting results. Then you start applying that stuff to existing sounds… birds can be made to sound like dragonflies, printers can make convincing forklifts, etc. It became something really compelling to play with and start exploring while developing games because it helps flesh out interactive spaces very nicely. A lot of my stuff isn’t very high fidelity visually so audio can go a long way to imply things I’m not explicitly showing.
To wrap up, I want to ask about where you’re looking to go from here with your work. Are you looking to jump into commercial work with a studio or on your own? Do you have more of these little test projects you want to experiment with? Or anything else to look for from you in the future?
I’ve started working at Moondog Animation Studio, a local studio in South Carolina. It’s primarily VR/AR work, so the commercial projects are already experimental in nature due to the hardware. That being said, I’ll still be creating short form personal games and participate in game jams when I can.
Dylan Gallardo is a South Carolina based gamewright. His work can be found at his website and he can be followed on twitter. I reached him by e-mail. I’d like to give an extra thank you to Mr. Gallardo for patiently putting up with a number of delays during the interview process.