Building a Vampire Playground
Introducing the Brisbane team behind the stylish, retro-inspired platformer, Damsel
It’s no revelation to say that indie developers are taking the gaming industry by storm at the moment. I’m especially proud of the fact that an increasing number of worldwide hits are coming from my humble homeland, Australia. When I get the opportunity to chat with local developers, I find myself in awe of both their ambition and their sheer guts. Anyone who is familiar with game development knows that the process can be extraordinarily time-consuming, expensive, and risky. And yet when I attend events like PAX Rising — the indie-focused showcase at PAX Australia — I find myself immersed in a sea of innovation and creativity. We recently published a piece that discussed the ways in which indie developers are quickly becoming industry thought-leaders, quietly introducing next-gen experiences all over the place. When I’m at PAX Rising, I feel like I could easily stumble upon the next huge idea right before it blows up.
One of the studios I spent time with at last year’s PAX Australia is Screwtape Studios, a Brisbane-based team that should absolutely be on your radar. Like many indie studios, they have a fascinating story. I spoke with Megan Summers, who handles both production and quality assurance at Screwtape.
From Brisbane with love
As I mentioned at the outset, game development can be a risky business. Folks can dedicate their lives to projects over several years, and there’s no guarantee of success. Even if success does come, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a studio’s longevity. One of Brisbane’s most prominent indie studios — Defiant Development — closed in July last year. The team was particularly known for titles like Hand of Fate, and the studio’s closure was a huge loss for both the Australian and Brisbane game development scene. Both Megan and her business partner, Anthony Wood (Lead Programmer and Creative Director at Screwtape Studios) had worked for Defiant at various points over the years. Although more and more studios are popping up all around Brisbane these days, Megan acknowledged that Queensland-based studios haven’t been as great at collaborating and building a professional community (in contrast, perhaps, to studios based in Victoria).
“I started my career in Brisbane at Pandemic. I was there when EA bought them out — and so, I thought my career would be much, much different. When the scene turned indie, Brisbane was very quiet for a while. It’s really heartwarming to see it building back up now. All those developers — there are people who used to work at Pandemic or THQ — who are now coming back to the country to work at indie studios that are building up in Brisbane.”
Our interview had only just begun, and I found myself feeling a sense of great admiration for what Megan and her team have been able to achieve — despite multiple studio closures over the years. It’s gutsy to work on a single game project, but to continue to put your shoulder to the wheel in the face of such uncertainty must take a reservoir of courage that I certainly don’t think I possess. Megan simply shrugged and smiled warmly.
“It’s funny. My business partner and I met in acting school. We were both planning at one point to live the life of the struggling artist. I think — no matter how much that struggle is there in indie games — there’s something it gives me that is so much more than acting ever did. And I think it’s the creativity with the technicality put together. It’s that beautiful balance: what makes something fun, but then how [do you] make it as well?”
Megan acknowledged the importance of Screen Queensland in terms of delivering Screwtape Studios’ latest title — Damsel — in 2019. Had Screwtape not been successful in securing that additional funding, it would have taken them longer to get the game out the door. At the same time, there was a clear sense that state government support is not a given. Megan pointed out the political differences between Queensland and Victoria in the context of arts funding — for Queensland developers, any change in government could potentially mean a radical cut in state support for local game development. The idea that a government can invest in a “safe bet” (i.e. digging something up out of the ground) versus a risky artistic endeavour is a potential cultural and political barrier in the state. There is a sense, in fact, that game developers in Queensland actually need to justify their existence — who they are, what they do, and why they are doing it. Having said that, Megan believes that the state government through Screen Queensland is forming a better understanding of games and their potential. Importantly, Screwtape Studios sees itself as an advocate for the games industry in Queensland — especially given the team members’ extensive experience prior to founding the studio.
One of the biggest learnings for the team, especially in terms of funding, was related to the importance of “selling themselves” — the value of marketing and promotion.
“That [marketing] was one of the major things we got funding for. We realised that we needed to not only take a chunk of money and budget it for advertising, but to bring in somebody who actually had that skill. Every hat a developer has to wear [is a] full career. We really needed to bring someone on who is dedicated to those things.”
Of course, even when you do have that dedicated talent onboard, it’s still difficult to get noticed. It’s a definitely downside of being an indie developer, according to Megan — that is, the need for each person in the team to have to wear so many hats, and to have to fully understand all of the business-related aspects of running a studio. One of the appeals of a bigger, more stable studio, is that folks can specialise in an area without the need to worry about those other elements. Megan hopes that Screwtape Studios will find that balance, and that the Australian industry as a whole will also find it — thanks to larger studios returning to the country. In the meantime, as more and more studios emerge across the country and find commercial success, there’s a growing need for what you might call ancillary development work — this mostly involves studios around the country seeking assistance to port their games from one platform to another. Screwtape Studios is involved in this work, along with others, and it provides welcome business sustainability as these teams build out their dream projects.
Saturday morning cartoon
Screwtape Studios’ latest title is Damsel, a retro-inspired action platformer. Prior to diving into production on this latest game, Screwtape Studios had been working in the mobile space for about four years. But the team began to push at the boundaries of what was possible on mobile — ultimately, the platform began to feel too constrained. It was time to move away from that space and build the PC and console games the team had always dreamed of.
The genesis of the idea is not quite what you might expect. Around five years ago, at Melbourne Games Week, Megan was attending a women in games panel. This was right around the time when a broader conversation around women in games was emerging across the industry. After the panel, Anthony approached Megan with an idea. Although he acknowledged it was valuable to discuss the issues, he felt that the team could say a lot more through their work as game developers. The idea, fundamentally, was to make something female-orientated without being “preachy”. Megan conveyed the importance of creating a game that anyone could play and enjoy in their own way.
At its core, the idea was to start with the games that Megan and Anthony enjoyed growing up. For both of them, the obvious choice was Commander Keen — a game full of fun and whimsy that the pair remembered fondly.
But why the name Damsel? Megan was quick to point out that the name did not come from the “damsel in distress” trope; although of course, it’s almost impossible to say the word without adding “in distress”. The word originally meant young woman, and in creating this game with this title, Screwtape Studios sought to both reclaim the word and develop a “badass character”. Creating Damsel’s movement and abilities was a deliberate exercise of leaning into a character with a “smaller stature” without augmenting her in traditional ways. What this means in practice is, for example, emphasising Damsel’s agility and speed — her ability to get up above her enemies, and to gain height by firing her weapon downwards.
Screwtape Studios also emphasise story in Damsel, to a degree that I wasn’t expecting of an action-platformer. The story, too, is all about establishing a sense of whimsy, with Megan referencing titles like Commander Keen and even Duke Nukem in terms of the feel they were going for.
“I used to love when you’d leave Commander Keen idle for too long. He’d sit down cross-legged and read his book, looking at you like ‘Come on, why aren’t we playing?’ So, our hostages dance when they are saved — and they’ll dance ‘till the end of the mission. The story itself has a lot of fun in there.”
Although Damsel was inspired by the games Megan and Anthony played growing up, it was important for the team not to simply rely on nostalgia. It was more about evoking the emotions they felt playing those classic titles.
When I asked Megan what the biggest challenge was as they built Damsel, the answer surprised me: the team had to continually ask themselves when it made sense to stop adding content to the game. “You want your child to be perfect,” said Megan in reference to this dilemma. But finding the moment of release — and acknowledging that Damsel is still a living product, requiring ongoing attention — is critical. It’s important to get the game out into the world to let people start seeing it (and to gain crucial feedback).
So, how does Damsel play?
Well, before I address that question, I have to start by saying that I’m mighty impressed at the work the team have done to build a context around the game’s action. Here’s a brief synopsis:
Damsel is set in a dark cartoon universe where vampires and humans live in a fairly unstable co-existence. The vampires in the game all work for the multinational company which manufactures the drink Red Mist, the number one selling vampire drink on the planet. Red Mist is a blood analogue that satiates the vampire thirst without a need for human donors.
Prompted by a tip-off that the makers of Red Mist may have a “secret menu” containing drinks with real human blood destined for the highest bidders, Damsel, an agent for the Department of Sanguinarian Affairs (DSA) is called in to investigate, and if required, put a stop to any illegal activity.
Each of the three main characters — Damsel, Swan, and Die-Ode — are lovingly crafted, and you’ll get to know them well by the end of the game, thanks to the beautifully-produced comic book story sequences that appear prior to each mission.
Each mission has particular win and fail conditions. For example, you might be tasked with acquiring a certain number of a particular item (e.g. collect 12 skulls), but you’ll also need to avoid killing hostages. In some cases, you’ll need to either free hostages or disarm bombs, which prompts a brief mini-game. I think Screwtape have focused on the right components here, though — these objectives are really just an excuse to gracefully leap around each level causing all sorts of colourful mayhem. Damsel controls tightly and precisely, and her ability to fire in all directions — while moving — leads to some spectacular plays. And although the affair kicks off at a pace that enables you to get to grips with the basic mechanics, you’ll soon find yourself diving through increasingly complex and demanding challenges. I’ve been playing the game on Switch, and I think it’s actually perfect for that platform, because you can easily play a level or two and take a break; everything is broken up into digestible pieces.
In my view, Damsel really nails two aspects in particular: the controls and the art design.
It’s clear that Damsel could easily be a Saturday morning cartoon, just as Megan suggested. The colour palette actually conjures to mind images of Darkwing Duck for me — Damsel feels like it could easily be a long-forgotten Disney TV series I grew up with. There are also a ton of little in-jokes and references strewn throughout the world; keep an eye out for these, they’ll definitely bring a smile to your face.
As I write this, Damsel is available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PC. Hopefully it’ll make its way to PlayStation 4 as well before too long. Thanks so much to Megan Summers, Anthony Wood, and the entire Screwtape Studios team for taking the time out to chat to me and showcase the game at PAX.