Winner | Excellence in Visual Art
Honorable Mention | Excellence in Audio, Excellence in Narrative, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Sean Krankel is one of the creators of Oxenfree
Each year at GDC, MFA students from the NYU Game Center interview the Independent Games Festival nominees, asking them three questions about their development process. In addition to this interview, you can read all the insightful interviews from 2016 here. These conversations, and much more, will happen when the Game Center returns to GDC in 2017. Learn more about the Game Center at GDC 2017.
Alexander King: All game projects start with some kind of spark, from a design question to a feeling you wanted to evoke. What was the spark that grew into your game?
Sean: Yes, so my co-founder and cousin Adam and I have been talking for years about starting something, so I think that the inception of the studio and the game idea kind of came at the same time, and for us it was like how do we take story and really at the most granular level make mechanics part of story. Which sounds, maybe a lot of people are attempting a lot of the same stuff, so we kind of went like, alright, if at one end of the spectrum there’s the Tell Tale style branching narratives that have a lot of the time when you’re actually watching them though it’s passive other than the sort of input amount of communication but there incredible stories and big awesome teams, and they’ve nailed that. And at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got more…like The Last Of Us-es, the Tomb Raiders of the world, and like these extraordinary sort of mechanics-driven games, and we’re like, well if we could do one little mark maybe it would be to find something kind of in the middle. And for us, the first thing we wanted to try that nobody has tried to tackle was walking and talking [Laughs].
It’s not the sexiest sounding thing, but we were like, it could be really interesting! Why hasn’t anyone really gone, like, removed cut scenes basically, like an all story game that has no cut scenes. That was the first kernel of the idea, prototyping that – going like: How long does it take? What’s the appropriate length of a conversation, when you have to move from point A to point B? How do you have a conversation that may be relevant to someone you’re seeing on-screen like a campfire or whatever, and then how do you have other conversations that could almost take place anywhere, for exploring? So, probably spent like three months prototyping that first, before even landing on the story. And then the story stuff was kind of like, cooking in the background just the idea of, we wanted to do a coming-of-age story, and that was kind of it [Laughs]. The rest of that came in as it went, but we were just like, “Coming of age! That’d be cool!” So those things were kind of moving sideways, or next to each other, for the first few months, and then it just converged, and then we started iterating the rest of it.
Alexander: That ties nicely into my next question. On lengthy game projects, many developers say they enter what you could call a “valley of despair”. Did you experience this during your development process and how did you push through it?
Sean: Yes! Yes. That’s an awesome question because this game almost epitomizes like… we had a very dark moment in the middle of the game, where because… well, it’s not a game that you prototype and feel and go “this is awesome!” right away. You need the video, you need the audio, you need the animation, before it’s good. So a lot of the game kind of sucked until everything was in [Laughs]. We would be playing these scenes without VO or playing these scenes without animation and we’re like, “are we making something cool? Or not?” It didn’t feel great until basically, leading up until Alpha. And we just had a lot of trust in the navigational aspects of it, and just the general quality of the story and we were hoping like, “man, this better come together!” and so, I would say, looking back like we, even looking into our next game, I think that we want to be able to ‘find the fun’ as early as possible. Like this was a game that was, and a lot of games experience this like you mentioned, but this game absolutely was one where it all comes together at the end. Because it’s so custom, it’s such a content driven game, and it’s not about like, I can keep replaying and fighting people and getting better at something, right? It’s more like, custom scenes, custom blocking, like it was sort of like a giant stage play. So the answer, the short version is, most of the game was that! [Laughs].
Alexander: Lastly, did that end product end up being very different from your original vision?
Sean: Not really. I think we shaved features away that we didn’t realize at the time we were shaving that at the time we were getting rid of them, we were very skittish about it. Like we wanted, the game was going to have a tape recorder, and you were going to walk around and record things and play ’em back over here. And it was like this crazy audio puzzle thing, and we were like, “this is the best!” and then we got to a point like, “we’re never going to be able to pull any of this off!” And then we were like, “Oh my God, now are we just left with the bones of the rest of that experience?” And in the end, I think it is still 99% the same as what we set out to do, because really the goal is a sort of, free navigational story experience and then we wanted to add like one mechanic, so the radio was basically that, the way you tune into things how you interface with stuff. So I would say conceptually, it didn’t change a lot, but in terms of the overall production and the amount of things that we thought we were going to do, yeah that got shaved back pretty much. But I think it’s a better experience for it. I definitely feel like it’s more focused, and it probably would have been a mess if we had crammed in all that other stuff…
Alexander: Well what’s the quote, that lack of restrictions is the death of creativity?
Sean: Exactly! Yes, yes. That’s why we’re four people in a box in Glendale, California. So there’s some good restriction! Every decision we made had to be really efficient and I think that we just kept focusing in on the purity of the story and how to make that sing through interaction, instead of going we need nine other features. You know like, “Where’s the ghost-busting thing?” things like that.
Alexander: By necessity, when you start getting rid of feature creep, it does improve the ultimate design.
Sean: Totally agree. Or it shows that maybe it can’t hold up! Do you leave the game behind then? That’s another thing we felt a little, not dangerous to us, but it was the kind of thing we were like… It’s a very voiceover heavy game, right? So, we’re in these recording sessions and getting great reads from people and it’s very hard to not go, “Oh this things going to be awesome!” just based on that. And then it’s like no, the game is all of these pieces, so don’t rely too heavily on one single component and hope it’s all going to work, and so yeah… for us, I think that shaving away all that stuff really did help us focus on making that performance be the best it could be.
Alexander King was once an analytics and strategy consultant, who used Excel, statistics and common sense in order to improve businesses. Now he puts those skills to much better use in making games!