An interview with game designer and artist Jack Monahan

The following interview was conducted in November of 2010 with game designer and artist Jack Monahan.

Around that time, I started to follow his blog Design Reboot and loved reading his analyses of character and video game design. I’ve been following his career ever since and was thrilled when I saw the first trailer for his latest game in 2015.

Brigador was developed by Jack Monahan, Hugh Monahan, his brother, Dale Kim, who is now with Insomniac Games, and Harry Hsaio. It’s a game that exemplifies the Monahan brothers’ design philosophy: a game with well-designed, unique characters that provides the player with a wide corridor to play in and interesting controls.

There are a number of vehicle types in the game each with different functions tied to gameplay. Walkers can kneel down to gain defense and hover crafts, unhindered by gravity, can strafe around a single spot to fire on enemies. It’s a game that’s also steeped in the old school with similarities to the original XCOM games in terms of the overhead perspective and esoteric narrative.

This interview is a time capsule of Jack Monahan’s design philosophy. Things have certainly changed since the interview was done all that time ago, but it provides some insight into his ideas at the time.

Sorry this is seven years late, Jack!

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Tell us a little bit about Gausswerks and Design Reboot.

I graduated high school when they told everyone you shouldn’t give out any information at all, so coming up on message boards and in games, a handle was essential. I picked ‘gauss’ as mine. No real rhyme or reason to it then, but it’s grown on me to the point where it’s my alter ego for artistic work/online presence.

Gausswerks is just an extension of that, an exercise in branding I suppose; though I’m loath to describe things in terms of marketing. People know me as gauss, gausswerks is a nice way to package all that activity up. Maybe that pegs me as a dinosaur in a time when kids hang all their personal info and photographs out to dry on Facebook and the like, but it’s a big part of who I am and when I grew up.

Design Reboot is an idea I’ve been playing with for years but never found the proper expression for until the present formulation. A way of saying look, good intellectual properties–or less technically speaking, great stories, great characters–have a conceptual fluidity that often goes unrecognized. Design Reboot is an outlet for me to play with stories and characters in a non-threatening manner.

Take Batman: I love Batman, I think he’s kind of an eternal character. There’s an early Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame) comic called Gotham by Gaslight, which pits a Victorian-era Batman against Jack the Ripper. The concept is better than the execution–but what a concept. Batman is so iconic that you can recast him in different eras, even change his look, aspects of his origin, and yet he remains Batman. Nolan’s Batman is very different than Burton’s, but I’m happy both versions exist.

So it was that kind of idea together with knowing that I’d like to try out my own take on lots of different IPs without the time investment. Most games take a long time to make. And many of then are still very, very bad. Personally, that’s terrifying: giving two-three years of my life to a project that sails straight into the bargain bin for some fifteen year old to glance at and dismiss without breaking stride?

So I figured I’d have my cake and eat it too. Design Reboot allows me to talk about design issues and advance my own ideas, as well as play around with ideas or approaches to a game that in all likelihood might not work for big, money-making properties. Plus, I come off looking cool because a concept is always better than actually building it. People read it and (generally) say “hey, that’d be cool,” but don’t get angry about all the little problems than invariably show up when a game is actually made.

More than anything, I just love designing/redesigning things. Often I’ll start with an existing game even if the endpoint is extremely different just so that my audience starts from the same point of departure as I do.

When you reboot a series, what elements of game design do you look at?

Games that stick, in some way. I find that an intermittently brilliant but also deeply flawed game seem to stay in mind far longer than a competently executed but “merely good” game. I like playing with interesting character designs too, so that’s a big factor as well. Really, playing (or even reading) about any game that makes me think of how I’d approach the same material is potential fodder for a design reboot.

How does a character’s design translate into his or her personality? Say in the reboot you did of Billie Church from Clive Barker’s Jericho.

I think we invest proportionally more in a character’s appearance and abilities over personality.

In games as opposed to film, utility makes a big difference. A character can act one way or another but often how helpful/useful they are to the player is the most important gauge of how much the player will like them. So for instance with all the Jericho character redesigns I was conscious about solving the character-ID issues that plagued the original game–it was very hard to tell quickly who was who. As such it was a “top-down” exercise; silhouette is more important, for utility, than necessarily how the character was written on the page.

So if Billie Church wasn’t the kind of person to wear such and such an outfit, well guess what: she is now, because she needs a different visual ID to set her apart from the team. That’s part of what’s so interesting about game design: story concerns need to be engaged in tandem with practical concerns.

What are your main concerns about videogame design today?

Chasing movies is what I’m critical of. I am an ardent admirer of film but their medium is not ours; I fear that too many games are being made with very little mechanical depth and few choices in service of being “cinematic,” which to me is a very dirty word in reference to games. In private conversations I make reference to “cinemitis,” which is the disease of trying to make games into movies. There’s room for all kinds of games, the universality of play is a wonderful aspect of what we do: chess and basketball and Tetris and Hearts and Monopoly and Doom and The Sims are all games. There’s such huge variety there and I don’t want to deny that. On the other hand, the games I loved playing through the golden years of PC gaming through the 90s, that kind of play is becoming endangered. Thankfully, nobody seems to have told GSC World and their compatriots than the 90s are over, that PC gaming is dead (long live PC gaming).

And despite complete understanding of the market forces at work, I’m also very critical of near-blanket cross platform development for major titles. Jack of all trades, master of none–I love mouse+keyboard input and the possibilities there, but I also love the different set of control possibilities that come with analogue triggers and the like on modern controllers. But they’re not the same and never will be. Which means we get a whole lot of games that are compromising one of the most important aspects–player control–to be as broadly cross-platform as possible. The quality of games suffer as result.

What games have inspired your game development and your style as a developer?

Games that, beyond the veil of nostalgia, have deep and lasting power. Essentially the same criteria I’d levy on my favorite books or film as well. When you revisit it, it seems richer and more rewarding not because the game has changed, but because you have.

For example in the wake of the new XCOM game’s announcement I’ve been playing the original game again and it’s still just as vital and terrific as it ever was. And yet I’m using different tactics than before, I’m still learning how to play the game better. Which seems impossible–six guys built a game that originally shipped on three floppy disks and I’m still playing it, 17 years later. That’s what I’m inspired by. Games, or books, or film that require some investment, but pay back tenfold for that investment on a personal level.

You worked on Darkest of Days, did your concepts of design resonate with the other developers on the project?

It was the first title I worked on extensively and in-house, so a lot of my present philosophies were shaped through that experience. Some agreed with my emerging design philosophy, though sometimes I argued my case a little too vociferously. I was an angry young turk and hopefully I still am.

The guy I saw eye to eye with the most is Aubrey Serr (now working on Wolfire’s Overgrowth http://www.wolfire.com/overgrowth), and we still converse on game design concepts almost daily as a result of working together.

What is your first step when designing a character?

Designing a character for a game–both visually and in terms of personality, voice casting et cetera–is about problem solving. When we beg the comparison, we inherit a lot of the same tough decisions as film since the character needs to look interesting and memorable. But on top of all that we also need to consider practical questions–if it’s a buddy character, do they look maybe a little too much like one of the recurring enemy NPCs? Are they easily visible in low light situations? Is the game a stealth game, and so the character spends all their time lurking in the shadows like Velvet Assassin?

Building out of this approach, my first step in designing a character would be to identify and try to solve the one major problem they present to the game. This might be a visual concern, it might be a personality thing, or often both–how we relate to a character naturally has a lot to do with how they appear, their body language, as well as their voice and personality. If for instance a game needs for the player to feel a certain camaraderie with a buddy NPC and players hate him or her, then obviously that’s the problem that needs the most attention. Once you’ve got that satisfactorily locked down you can consider other issues in turn.

Do you feel that your talents as an artist bolsters the dialogue you create on Design Reboot?

Undeniably–I’ve read many comments to that extent. There are plenty of artists out there who do very good work, better than mine by a long shot, but have trouble providing context for their ideas, the kind of underpinning that can make an interesting character or scene that much more interesting when we’re given additional information about what we’re seeing. There’s a synergistic effect between being able to conjure a scene with words, or describe gameplay and the like, but to be able to anchor key points with a visual really helps. Games these days are very visually oriented, so it seemed like a natural combination for Design Reboot.

Is there such a thing as bad character design?

Someone said that you never finish a piece of art, you only find a stopping point. I subscribe to that idea to a wide degree, especially when everything about a game’s design is usually subject to time constraints. Some stopping points are better than others–sometimes you can have a really fresh idea that you can work or iterate on too much, and one of its principle strenghts–it’s freshness–gets wrung out.

So that’s a lot of the fun of Design Reboot, to me. I don’t think there is such a thing as bad character design, I think it’s a spectrum of efficacy. Even the “bad” stuff usually has some interesting or good element in there, but it’s lost in a muddle of different or conflicting ideas, or quite often buried under an unfortunate period gloss to make the character more hip. Game characters are like anything else–characters in film, or even fashion. Looking at one you can usually tell when they were designed, since they reflect the good and bad of the era. The really timeless stuff you have a harder time pinning down to an era though, because it stays relevant, vital.

You mentioned GSC game world, do you think that the future of PC gaming lies in smaller developers who are outside of the console market?

I couldn’t begin to guess what the future holds, but I do believe GSC World and other small companies from Eastern Bloc countries keep the old spirit of PC gaming alive. They are uninterested in the many varied concessions necessary to cater to console development, which I admire.

Follow-up to the question above, what do you like about the Stalker series?

I like that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an uncompromisingly old-school minded CRPG/shooter, two genres born into the PC and are frankly inferior on console incarnations without some major concessions. But more than that, it’s a kind of irresistable combination of an existing IP, real world history, and the strengths of games. It’s a great pedigree. I still need to finish reading Roadside Picnic, the original novella, but Tarkovsky’s Stalker film is genius, unquestionably. You conflate these with the Chernobyl disaster, which has always been a powerful lure on the imagination, and then you build a space that begs to be explored and let the player explore it. This is really an oversimplification of the power of the game, but I think it gets at reasons why S.T.A.L.K.E.R. commands such a dedicated playerbase.

Would you consider your character design philosophy to be pragmatic? In the sense that extraneous elements of a character’s design should be removed.

I’m not for or against a certain level of complexity or iconic simplicity; I think great characters in games inhabit the whole spectrum. I would characterize my philosophy as being grounded in particulars, in authentic detail. With games we are at a disadvantage for creating characters–we can’t get a flesh and blood actor to animate them on screen, so we’re always going to lose some of that fidelity. But then a novelist can conjure lasting, classic characters with nothing but words. They have to know the mental life, the convincing detail of people to make their characters live. Game characters to me are no different. In order to make character designs work we need to treat them with more respect, particularly the kinds of characters generally outside the purview of the predominantly white male community of game development.

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