Ben Chandler (or Ben 304; it's your choice really) is the creative mind behind such freeware indie gems as !, Annie Android, Featherweight, Heed and Awakener. What's more he's been nice enough to let me pick his mind and present you with this enlightening interview, that -among other stuff- sports some pretty mouth-watering exclusive info. Read on, read on.
1. Well Ben, the indie gaming public knows you for (and from) your games, but what about the social you? Care to introduce yourself?
I am a 22 year old Australian who is interested in everything and constantly tries to avoid growing up. After high school I spent three years working in a bank and generally living a reasonably normal life. About 2 days after the release of Trance-Pacific, the first game I worked on, with my friend Paul, I handed in my resignation letter and started doing a variety of casual labour jobs to earn money.
My obsession with learning how to make games has turned me into something of a recluse, and I've always been considered something of an eccentric amongst my friends, but happily when I convert my oddball ideas into games people mistake this for creativity - which possibly explains why I remain so intent on doing it.
2. And why do you make your games?
That's a rather hard question to answer in a way that describes how I feel about it. Basically, I make games because I can't not make games - and believe me, I've tried. If developing games was removed from my life, there'd be an enormous space that I'd have no idea how to fill. In short, doing this is the reason I get out of bed in the morning (although working on games at ridiculous hours often means that I get out of bed at night or in the afternoon). It's something I am quite passionate about, and the only thing I can actually imagine myself wanting to do for the rest of my life.
3. So, uhm, how come you've focused your creative efforts in short adventure games?
I am very much a beginner at this, and making small projects has been my way of testing the waters. Doing short games means that I have learnt much in a relatively short space of time, and allows me to try out ideas that might fall flat if someone tried to stretch them to fit something larger in scope.
As for adventure games - firstly, because I am not much of a programmer and AGS lets me try almost anything I care to without having to pull my hair out, secondly because I loved adventure games as a kid, and finally because while there are loads and loads of cool games in other genres, the adventure game scene still feels a bit empty. These games are the perfect medium for telling an interactive story, and I think this opportunity is something that not enough people are taking advantage of.
4. Care to -briefly- describe the creative process you tend to follow while creating a game?
I'm not much of a planner. I prefer to start a game by asking myself "What sort of message do I want the game to have, what sort of mood do I want it to have and what do I want to learn from making the game?"
From here I generally start building the assets for the game straight away - my short time spent playing in a band taught me appreciation of improvisation, and I like to treat game design as a jam session, where one throws in elements to see how they work together, and then focuses on what works from there. I treat games as an expression of myself as a writer does with their stories, so I mostly avoid following formulas and ignore conventions whenever I feel like it.
5. How did you achieve your distinctive art style? Guess you must be pretty proud of it, right? Your work is utterly beautiful, you know...
Thank you! My style is born from a combination of an inability to draw very well and lots and lots of practice. With a pencil and paper I'm a very weak illustrator - I have a hard time defining shapes with lines alone. I generally rely on painting form in with light rather than relying on a planned sketch to do so, and doing this actually has a specific look which people seem to find pleasant.
I always try to make sure that my work is perfectly functional as game assets without sacrificing any of the atmosphere, and this means I break rules all the time. Unlike many artists I bend perspective and proportion, preferring to sacrifice some realism in order to focus on these things. I haven't relied on drawing vanishing points in years, and see no real reason to return to doing so. I also rely on rather bold, and at times surreal colour choices in order to create a greater sense of atmosphere. Some people dislike this, but most seem to be willing to overlook it.
6. Your games, the way I feel at least, are mostly akin to adventure vignettes or short stories. Is that a conscious choice of yours or do you feel shorter games are the wiser choice for an indie creator?
I have to answer "yes" to both of those. I think a lot of people get hung up on this concept that "longer is better"; a lot of people try to make full length games like the ones that they enjoyed as a kid without the resources that the people who made the games they look up to had. For me, longer indie adventures seem to be quite unfocused and directionless when compared to the shorter ones. While I very much feel that everyone should do whatever they want when making a game, for me focus is the key, and whilst I plan to move onto longer games, I hope to keep the same sense of direction that my short games (hopefully) have.
7. How about your favourite games? Care to name a couple and tell us why you appreciate them?
I could talk at length about a number of games, but that is always boring, so I will keep it as brief as I can:
Planescape: Torment - If somebody asked me if I could change the way they saw games, I would tell them to play this and keep trying to play it until they "got" it. It's not as 'fun' as most of the games in my collection, but it is definitely proof of the potential that games possess.
Deus Ex - The game that finally showed me that shooters can be thought provoking. The addition of The Nameless Mod makes this two incredible games in one.
Beyond Good and Evil - It never loses its focus on being fun, but still manages to create plenty of atmosphere and a moving story.
Dreamfall - Most adventure games frustrate me with their puzzles. Dreamfall bypasses this problem and whilst many hate it, I loved it.
Indigo Prophecy - See above.
Full Throttle - An adventure game that has a lovely setting, a great and fast paced story and plenty of variety in gameplay for once. What's not to love?
8. Any plans for creating a commercial game?
I am a 2d developer in an increasingly 3d world. I am aware that this limits me, however if I could turn this into something that I can do for a living, I'd be absolutely delighted! The answer is, to a degree, "most definitely", but my reason for creating commercial games would really be simply to allow myself to spend more time making games. I have no grand dreams - I just want to make more games.
9. Would you mind telling us a bit about your collaborations with other indie developers?
While there are a few things in the works, there's really only one to discuss at the moment. My main project currently is with fellow AGS developer Steven Poulton who released his first short game The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1 (which is totally worth a look) about a month and a half ago.
Our project, Winter's Shadow, is a (hopefully) mature, (hopefully) atmospheric game - darker in tone and content than anything I've created before, and we're both really excited about it. Although nothing is certain at the moment, we have hopes that Winter's Shadow will be the first commercial game for both of us, and we're putting a lot of effort into making this an immersive, atmospheric and satisfying experience.
I'm having a great time working with Steve, and we seem to share a fairly similar vision for the game, and indie games in general. Our interests and abilities complement each other's very well, and we're proud of what we've done so far. We haven't actually announced the game anywhere else, so feel free to have an exclusive screenshot:
10. Finally, what does the future hold?
More games, of that much I am certain. I've set myself some pretty big goals - not just for the next year, but for the future in general. I'm not sure how much I can achieve, but I'll keep working at it and hope that I can continue to learn as a developer and create some truly worthwhile games.
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