Joel Staaf Hästö is a video game writer, designer, programmer and producer. He formed Clifftop Games in 2015, wrote and designed Kathy Rain (2016) and, with Petter Ljungqvist, created Whispers of a Machine (2019). This interview explores game design, writing, and a range of other topics converging on the creation of digital games.
When, how and why did you first become interested in video games? Do you remember the first game you ever played?
I think I was about six or so when I played the original
Sim City, for MS/DOS. I had seen my dad playing it a few times, and he finally let me try it for myself. I was so immersed in those crude pixels that he had to drag me out of the chair.
What drew you to point and click adventure games?
In my early days as a gamer, there weren’t many games with an actual story at all, and point and click adventures were my first encounter with games that actively tried to tell a story. Just having things like dialogue and non-violent means to interact with the world was mind-blowing at the time.
What inspired Kathy Rain (2016) and what inspired the game’s aesthetic?
Oh, many things. Three major influences from other works would be Veronica Mars, Twin Peaks and Gabriel Knight.
The visuals of the game was inspired mainly by the early Sierra titles and also some of the more retro styled contemporary indie adventures, such as the works of Grundislav Games.
You wrote, designed and programmed Kathy Rain. For someone unfamiliar with what’s involved in creating digital games, how does the creative and production process work? Where do you go from the initial concept?
It’s a complex amalgamation of both creative and technical work, usually involving many different specialized disciplines, such as programming, writing, game design, art, animation and audio. Typically, you have an initial pre-production phase, where you outline the vision for the game in a game design document, often complemented by concept art. Early prototypes or proofs of concept can also be developed at this point.
If the project is deemed viable after pre-production, the team transitions into production, where they focus on mass producing content synced across the disciplines, while also iterating on the gameplay mechanics of the game.
Lastly, there is the polish and bug-fixing stage, where all the parts of the game are fully functional and it’s just a matter of making the game as good as possible for release.
How did you approach writing the game’s female lead character?
I took inspiration from other great female characters and the women I know and love. My goal was to create a strong but complex female character in the vein of iconic female protagonists like Buffy [Buffy, the Vampire Slayer] or [Ellen] Ripley [from the Alien film series].
Any writing is essentially about empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of others, and while many may disagree with me, I don’t see an essential difference between writing a man or a woman. I haven’t been 60-years-old, or a cop, or an astronaut either, that doesn’t mean I can’t write characters with those characteristics. The same goes for writing a woman, regardless of my own gender.
How many hours of work were involved in creating Kathy Rain, approximately?
Wow, gosh, hard to say. I worked on it between 2012 and 2016 on and off. Initially it was only in my free time and then full-time and more for about the final year of production. We’re definitely talking thousands upon thousands of hours, but it was probably not over five digits. Maybe 6-8k hours, something like that.
As a designer and creator, how concerned are you with audiences and reviews after you complete and release a game? And how important is player feedback?
Not too concerned. I mean, I’ve done the best I can at that point, and while I obviously try to patch out the more glaring bugs post release, there’s no point in obsessing about things I can’t change.
I do try to collect constructive criticisms for my next game, but I’m usually aware of the major shortcomings. After a certain point staying in that bubble just turns into self-flagellation, and that’s when I stop.
I’m eager to learn from constructive feedback when I’m actively developing a game though, and I like to have a steady flow of new beta testers to get new first impressions on a regular basis.
You co-wrote Whispers of a Machine (2019) with Petter Ljungqvist (The Samaritan Paradox). How did the collaboration come about and how did the collaborative process work?
We got to know each other through the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) community — the forum dedicated to the game engine we used for our games. We gave each other great feedback and advice, and decided to work together for our sophomore release.
In Whispers of a Machine we had 50-50 creative control, which in hindsight wasn’t a great idea. This structure resulted in a lot of conflict and head-butting that could’ve been avoided if one of us had ownership of the game vision from the start and the final say for all creative decisions. Some aspects of the game also ended up watered down and kind of bland due to endless compromises, where either of our original visions would’ve likely been superior to the final result.
You also directed Whispers of a Machine. First, what does it mean, to direct a video game, and secondly, what was this experience like for you, with this game specifically?
Different developers probably have different definitions of what a game director is. I’m not too sure the title accurately applies to my role in Whispers of a Machine, given that I didn’t have full creative control, but it’s definitely a fitting title for my responsibilities on Kathy Rain.
In my view, a game director can be compared to a film director, which would be a person tasked with executing a broader creative vision in a medium. The game director works closely with a number of different disciplines, both creative and technical.
This person has a broad knowledge of many different areas, understands how all the parts of the game fit together, and a good one has leadership qualities too, a person who knows how to bring out the best of their team.
In larger companies a game director will usually communicate their creative vision to the art director, technical director, audio director, etc., which are then in turn responsible to realize the vision through the members of their respective teams.
A game director shouldn’t be confused with a game producer, who would have a more business-like perspective and is concerned with things like budgets, planning, and how to structure the teams. In a smaller studio, the game director would typically take on one of the specialized director roles in addition to the game direction, and they may also be the Producer.
What inspires you about writing and producing point and click adventure games, and what creative possibilities do point and click adventure games offer in terms of story and storytelling?
When done well, I think point and click adventures hit that sweet spot where you both have puzzles that make you exercise your logical thinking and stories that stimulate your emotions, and they both fit perfectly together and support one another. This double-edged sword is something that pure genres like visual novels or hardcore puzzle games tend to lack.
This type of combination can also be present in story driven games that defy genre, such as Her Story and Return of the Obra Dinn. They both have great puzzles and great stories, but also break new ground in terms of their gameplay presentation and unique visual style. I would love to innovate in that kind of space one day, but for the time being I’m content with telling my stories within the realm of point and clicks.
How aware are you of player experiences and expectations in designing games and game mechanics, in terms of immersion, play and difficulty level(s)? Whispers of a Machine offers multiple endings, and multiple solutions for in-game puzzles, and also gives players choices in terms of play style (empathetic, analytical, or assertive). Can you please discuss this in relation to your design philosophy and sensibilities?
I wholeheartedly believe that being in tune with the player is one of the core tenets of game design, so it’s something I think a lot about. Accessibility comes first in my view, since it’s generally less of a problem for players to find the game too streamlined or dumbed-down than frustrating or obtuse.
As for player choice, I like it a lot, but I think I’ve come to learn that you have to choose whether or not to have a clearly defined character with a mind of their own, or a blank slate type character where the player can project themselves.
For Whispers of a Machine, we picked a middle ground where we allowed the player to select one of the three personalities through their actions. It became a big challenge to make sure Vera’s three personalities were clearly defined and not too bland, but at the same time not too divergent from the player’s possible perception of Vera.
It may have been a better option to either make Vera a silent protagonist where the player could express themselves to an even greater extent, or have a more clearly defined single personality for Vera and put more emphasis on things like plot branching, world building and overall game length.
An additional challenge for us was also that the gameplay is tied into the personalities. Decoupling one from the other (such as, let’s say, a traditional RPG where you have a character alignment and then a skill tree), may have given us more leeway in terms of consistency between player actions and character personality. Without that explicit link between the personalities and the augmentation unlocks, the players would likely have forgiven bigger discrepancies.
Whispers of a Machine features more than 4,000 lines of professionally voiced dialogue and features hand-drawn pixel art. Please discuss the relationship between the various elements that comprise the game and how the synergy between these elements.
When you use low res pixel art, the character sprites tend to not be very expressive simply due to the technical constraints, which can create a disconnect between the player and the characters. Voice recordings (along with character portraits) help bridge this gap.
Whispers of a Machine was directed by Wadjet Eye Games’ Dave Gilbert. What did he bring to the game?
He brought his extensive expertise with voice actors to the table. He has access to a professional recording studio and is able to direct native English speaking actors on site, using his experience and know-how to bring the very best performance out of each actor. Additionally, he has a large network of reliable actors in the area to choose from, which simplifies the casting process.