Altgames’ Innovators: Connor Sherlock
Imagine opening a program on your computer and being transported to an alien land. Whilst it may look and feel like yours, there is something off. Maybe it is your distorted view, a flickering vision or the foreboding concrete monoliths in the distance.
If you’ve been following Itching For More for a while, or know much about Walking Simulators/Alt Games, you’ll know Connor Sherlock’s name. Sherlock is “an almost-in-his-thirties university dropout who has been making videogames for the past couple of years. They tend to feature large, explorable spaces and synthesizers. The synths aren’t real, but neither are the spaces.” (self description). His videogames tend to be Walking Simulators, so much so that he runs the Walking Simulator a Month Club — a Patreon where Sherlock aims to make, (wait for it…) one Walking Simulator A Month.
As you begin to explore the world, you feel less of a sense of adventure, more of a familiar retread. You aren’t the first to come here and you won’t be the last. It feels as if there is someone watching from far away, shaping the landscape, choosing your direction. Subtlety occupies the space, hinting as to what could have happened.
Sherlock is perhaps one of the pioneers of the Walking Simulator genre — there’s a reason I’ve covered five of his games on Itching For More. Sherlock consistently creates focused, atmospheric pieces that quietly push at genre walls. In this interview we discuss Sherlock’s worlds, his thoughts on the Games Industry as a whole and the challenges of creating niche games.
Landscapes, both beautiful and foreboding, dense and massive, handcrafted and procedural. Connor Sherlock crafts places that feel like somewhere you should know about.
As someone who makes games focused on emotive environments and exploration, did you ever make a deliberate decision to ignore the more “traditional” side of games, or was it more of a sub conscious move?
C.S: My first game, TRIHAYWBFRFYH, was deliberately minimalist in its design because I set out to make a game that played to my strengths (comfortable with unity’s terrain feature and my ability to record music), and conveniently ignored my weaknesses (never written code before, never dealt with rigging or animation). The subject matter and mood of the game then arose naturally from those constraints, but I was (and still am) infatuated by the walking sims de jour and weird short form stuff from on Gamejolt, so I was comfortable with the idea of looking and moving as the only player interactions.
“They only took on a weird or experimental air because of time or technology constraints as I realized that games become very complicated to make very quickly.”
However, the next few games I made were a lot more game-y in terms of mechanics and narratives as I was trying to figure out exactly what sort of games I could realistically make as a one man band. Condor, Marginalia, and Voice of Vamana were all meant to be pretty standard ~videogame experiences~, if obliquely told. They only took on a weird or experimental air because of time or technology constraints as I realized that games become very complicated to make very quickly.
My recent Patreon games have been much more direct about eschewing mechanics and coherent narratives. They aim to be more of a warm audio-visual bath to sink into for a while rather than something so win or complete. However, I do plan on eventually making another push back into more traditional games! I want to make a first person shooter, something in between a Dark Forces and a Perfect Dark, maybe? I also want to make a survival game, something like Eidolon or The Long Dark.
A lot of your work tends to build worlds around myths or supernatural elements. What is the most challenging part of creating such atmospherically evocative worlds?
C.S: I gravitate towards myths and supernatural stories because they lend themselves to being told indirectly. I want my worlds to suggest a story and let the player take it to conclusion by themselves — they know what they like better than I do! When I’m starting a project I come up with a loose cosmology that informs how the natural landscape and architecture came into being, and build up holistically from the history I have in my head.
Since my games rarely have traditional npcs/enemies I think of the structures in my games as characters with agency. Whether they were built by intelligent beings or whether they are intelligent beings is something I think about a lot as I’m building them. Treating the physical environment as malicious or sad or injured or vindictive or relieved goes a long way towards creating an evocative space.
“I enjoy the weirdness that can happen from me experimenting and straining against these endings, but I’m rarely happy with them.”
The most challenging part of the games I create is how to end them. Everything I make tends to be static and unchanging, and creating an emotional arc that resolves satisfactorily is a constant struggle for me. This is made worse by rejecting the usual gamification stuff of levels or scores or difficulty curves, so there is no obvious mechanical structure to use as a base. The endings are either based on a time limit (TRIHAYWBFRFYH, The Migration) or distance traveled (Birthplace of Ossian, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler). I enjoy the weirdness that can happen from me experimenting and straining against these endings, but I’m rarely happy with them.
If there was one thing you could change about the industry as a whole, what would it be?
C.S: I want “AA” videogames to come back! Medium sized teams with medium sized budgets with medium sized expectations. Back before huge franchises from huge companies took hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, big videogame publishers put out a lot of crazy stuff. A lot of it was very slavish to genre tropes, but a lot of it was weird and wonderfully experimental.
The extra wiggle room for building for niche genres, or pushing the boundaries of popular genres in risky ways while under the safety umbrella of a big publisher would be good for the industry. Not putting so many eggs in each basket lets you swing them around in big wide circles to see if the eggs don’t fall out or break.
But is there still space for the “AA game”? It feels like the industry has widened to more extremes, without leaving much space in the middle for AA games. Hasn’t the rise of “indie games” taken the AA place?
C.S: I think moving towards extremes at the expense of a centre is unhealthy for the industry, is all. Indie development is great, but the financial precarity involved isn’t feasible for a lot of people (especially if they have dependents! if every indie dev had to feed children most of us would disappear, i’m sure). Working under a publisher who can weather short term instability lets developers save for retirement and own houses all those good post-war prosperity things.
Having to ditch those to work on something that isn’t designed-by-committee-200-million-dollar-Michael-Bay-directed-nonsense seems a bizarre reality. Ultra AAA/AAAA sort of collapsed the AA industry at the same time as digital distribution made indie dev viable, both of which were huge upsets to a pretty set in its ways industry, and I think we’re just starting to come out of that extreme pendulum swing. There are a ton of extremely talented devs born out of that era and they deserve a good ecosystem to make games in.
“Working under a publisher who can weather short term instability lets developers save for retirement and own houses all those good post-war prosperity things. Having to ditch those to work on something that isn’t designed-by-committee-200-million-dollar-Michael-Bay-directed-nonsense seems a bizarre reality.
As far as whether there is space for AA in the market, I think there’s tons of room! As much as steam is trying to fight it, digital storefront shelves are basically infinite, and the stereotypical Gamer Demographic is only a small slice of an increasingly crowded pie. The rise in popularity of short, focused experiences (either single session narratives, or with proc-gen/roguelike replayability) opens up even more room.You’re never going to fill all those nooks and crannies with ultra huge budget games.
Where do you see your work fitting into the crowded pie of the industry? Is it possible to increase the prevalence of Walking Sims/Altgames further than they currently reach, or will they always be a small, ridiculously exciting corner? There are studios like The Chinese Room who certainly push walking sims to a wider audience, but is something more necessary, is more “gamification” of the walking sim genre needed in order to try to expand the audience and appreciation of them?
C.S: Narrative-heavy adventure/exploration games by The Chinese Room, Fullbright, Campo Santo, etc. already have a pretty good foothold on steam, and I think there’s lots of room for that genre to grow. Altgames, on the other hand, not so much? Altgames are experimental, surreal, inaccessible, and eschew high production values. They can be well reviewed and help grow the medium, but I don’t see them ever having a large slice of the money pie. If they did, I would call them indie games instead!
“Altgames are experimental, surreal, inaccessible, and eschew high production values.”
As for me, I don’t know where I fit in the industry right now? Eventually my stuff will start being released on steam, which should simplify things a bit (traditional indie game dev! hooray!). Until then, I’m enjoying the monthly subscription demi-hobbyist thing. I stole the model from Kitty Horrorshow, and it’s been working out well. I’ve been pumping out Cool Things at a pace I didn’t think possible before I started, and I’m stockpiling skills, ideas, and prototypes for larger projects for when/if I’m ever able to work full time on gamedev.
What is a game that people should check out that (and why should they check them out?):
- Has recently come out?
- Is something that everyone should play ?
- Is something that you’ve made/are making?
- Oof! I haven’t been playing any super recent games of late. Been slacking on the indie scene, and my laptop can’t really deal with PS4/XB1 era AAA games. Hearts of Iron IV is less than a year old, so maybe it counts? Understanding what total war means from a modern mass production standpoint is a scary, scary thing, and a facet of the war the game portrays very well.
I’m a big fan of paradox grand strategy games in general because of how they go about trying to capture the worldview of an era through mechanics. It helps that they’re orthogonal to they kind of games I make, so I don’t get stuck in the mud being jealous or dissecting the game for my own ends like I do with first person stuff.
- Kerbal Space Program!!!!!! I didn’t expect it, but the basic understanding of orbital mechanics I gained from learning how to land these awful minion things on the moon has widened my view of the real world considerably. I have an actual grasp of how the Apollo missions functioned, or how SpaceX is planning on getting to mars, or how the Russians are matching orbit with the ISS. The game is fun when you’re exploding on the launch pad or careening into mountains, and it’s fun when you first figure out how change orbits, and it’s fun when you are planning extravagant refueling missions to space stations at the edge of the solar system.
- I’m sitting on an almost finished remake of Marginalia, and I have a freshly launched steam greenlight page for a remake of TRIHAYWBFRFYH. As soon as I’m done sorting out international tax garbage they should start getting actual release dates. With any luck one or both of these will sell well enough for me to start doing this full time! I have a hundred thousand ideas for tricking people who play Dark Souls into playing (and enjoying?!?) lonely walking sims.
As for something I’ve already made, here’s my most recent walking sim as a bonus/free trial for everybody who read this far:
(https://connor-sherlock.itch.io/krypton-komet, password = Krypton)