Remigiusz Michalski (Englisch)
Gesprächspartner: Ingmar Böke
Vom: 19.11.2011
Adventure-Treff: Hi Remi, thanks a lot for taking the time for this interview. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

Remigiusz Michalski Hi, my name is Remigiusz "Remi" Michalski. I represent Harvester Games studio, which is, believe it or not, based in my living room!... I'm working on everything from story and writing to programming, graphics and animation. My first game, a psychological horror point & clock adventure game Downfall has been well received by fans and critics worldwide. I'm currently working on The Cat Lady, a game that'll blow everyone away, because quite simply, there isn't and there's never been anything like it before!

A-T: Let’s face it: The gaming market is not a place for experiments unless someone from the underground comes up with original ideas. If you put a game like Phantasmagoria 2 or Harvester beside we nearly haven’t seen any adventure game with sex and violence, or let’s say adventure games for a mature audience, at all. From my point of view that’s a shame. Do you think we will ever see adventure games maturing big way or will it always be “outsiders” like you who have the balls to show what others are afraid to show?

Remigiusz: First, let’s make it clear that sex and violence don’t make a mature game. Most often- quite the opposite, actually! You’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole industry is based on sex and violence, because that’s what people crave for and it's always sold well... So we have these games popping up each month, featuring muscular men and beautiful women with their gigantic boobs squashed in tiny armoured bikinis...

And then there are acts of violence, of course. Hundreds and thousands of foes pass through our screens, all of them blank pages with no history, no emotions, no reason to live. Killing generic video game enemies is easy, because they’ve never been alive in the first place... Often, they even share the same face!

But this is a formula that’s worked time and time again and it’s always a safe bet to repeat what’s been done before. When there are millions of dollars at stake, it’s even hard to blame big developers for that. I think I’d do the same!

All that aside, with adventure games it’s all a bit different. It’s all about characters. What makes a good adventure game is in large part the people you meet and talk to. They are what you will remember from it.

Now, the adventure genre at its roots has that popular all-age-access appeal. There was a Monkey Island once and from there it was again assumed that it was always gonna be a light funny story at the foundation, with quirky characters, some travelling, a bunch of laughs, a chicken and a parrot, and a scary- but not really scary, bad guy to beat in the end. I love The Secret Of Monkey Island as much as any other adventure games fan, don’t get me wrong... but I’m 29 now, I played it at least five times, and all other funny games never really match up to the Guybrush-funny... so I’m taking a break there and trying something else. Something that as a keen gamer I’d be interested in playing myself. Something for people like me- surely I’m not the only remnant of that generation?-, who got a bit older and feels some nostalgia for those good old games but finds those games he loved didn’t get old with him... Instead, they just stayed as they were.

While it’s a risky move to break this spell and limit my audience to 18+ only, I really hope that there is more people like me and you, who wish for more games made for adults- games in which players will think twice before they pull a trigger, because- like in the real world, they’ll be aware of the consequences of every single action they take.

Screenshot of Downfall

A-T: To me the vast majority of bigger adventure gamee productions seem soulless and shallow while only indie developers like you, Agustin Cordes, Dave Gilbert or Jonathan Boakes keep the genre alive from a creative standpoint, delivering what the bigger games lack: an emotionally involving experience. Please talk about your point of view and let us know about your status as an indie and the comfort it gives you.

Remigiusz: Maybe it’s because they’re trying to appeal to everyone at once?... I don’t know, I try to play most commercial adventure games that come out- and there’s been quite a few in the last year or so- but I can rarely finish them. Actually, no, that’s a lie. I never finish them, really... They have beautiful graphics, perfect interface, quality voice acting... but I just loose interest after a while and move on to the next one.

This was the case with Gray Matter, Black Mirror 3, A New Beginning.... all of them massive hits with high production values; they should have been great. But something doesn’t work in those games.... I never felt I cared for the characters an awful lot. And I felt that I will definitely be disappointed with the conclusion...

One thing that’s definitely good about the indie status and working on your own is that you’re free to do what you like with the story. There are no constraints, no people above you that must approve of anything unusual before it goes into a game... It’s not as easy writing an adventure game as it seems, especially if it’s long and ambitious, and you are being constantly brought down to earth by bosses who can only think in terms of financial profit, potential lawsuits and mass appeal... So perhaps this is our advantage- freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression. It’s all more consistent coming from just one person, too.

I’ve never experienced what it’s like- never worked for a big company, as part of the team. I guess it’s a sacrifice that needs to be made because it’s nearly impossible to single-handedly make games that have the sort of quality I want... so I’d say for the next project I will probably try and get more people together. I suppose the tricky part is to maintain that integrity and still make a game that’s personal but more professional in the same time.

Screenshot of Downfall

A-T: Obviously, you feel at home writing horror stories and you deal a lot with the darker sides of life. How did that relationship develop?

Remigiusz: I’ve always liked horror stories. From the moment I got my hands on Stephen King’s Misery, I was hooked for life. I must’ve been about 12 at the time. Then, as my life went on, working in nursing homes and hospitals I did get to see a lot of stuff that most people don’t, and some of it is truly life changing. For a wannabe horror writer such as myself it has been a great source of inspiration, too. I remember the first time I saw a man with a halo traction- which is basically a metal ring around your head with rods stuck into your skull and weights attached to it over a pulley system... It instantly reminded me of the Hellraiser films!!! -And, while it’s an established method of treating spinal injuries, for an artist it presented me with some great ideas for art design.

Screenshot of Downfall

A-T: The bookshelf in Downfall shows quite some well known horror books. What horror books have influenced your own writing for what reason?

Remigiusz: They’re all books I read and loved. I wouldn't say they're all well- known. There's no classics there, like Dracula or Frankenstein... Maybe it's because I don't really draw inspiration from the real roots of horror, like Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker etc. I prefer the modern stuff. I mentioned Misery before, but there’s also Lisey’s Story by the same author, which is probably one of my favourite books of all time- and a big influence for the story of my new game, The Cat Lady.

You’ll find some it's all a bit of a mixed bag on that shelf, something by Kurt Vonnegut and some Philip K. Dick and even Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses- a book notoriously difficult to find, but what a great piece of literature it is!

I’m not really sure what I was thinking making that bookshelf in the game, with almost every book marked as a different hotspot. It’s not a part of a puzzle. You can’t pick up any of them. It doesn’t relate to the story of the game... But to my surprise a lot of people liked it. It was one of those things that close the gap between the player and the author, because it was personal and because it was honest.

Screenshot of Downfall

A-T: Speaking of influences: What are the best horror movies of all time from your point of view. Please also give us the reason for each pick.

Remigiusz: Oh, there are loads of movies I get inspiration from! I love horror films, especially those made in the 90's and later. I like to think of it as homework- when you're working in that genre you need to know what others are up to...

There's this annoying trend recently in a lot of films to have a group of teenagers go away for a weekend, just so they could die one by one...

Almost without exception, these films follow the same pattern- you get a science geek, a black guy, a ditzy blonde and her sporty boyfriend (usually blonde too) and finally a nice pretty girl who's unpopular at school because her hair's dark and she's not on the cheer-leading team...

So, yeah- I try to avoid these films, because even if they're sometimes quite funny, they are repetitive and predictable, and they're usually very badly made. You never get to see what actually happens! There's a murderer, all right, he takes a swing with whatever signature weapon he wields, and then all you see is a bit of red paint splattered on the wall! You might as well watch a Scooby Doo film...

Screenshot of Downfall

There are exceptions, of course- the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre being a prime example of how you can use this kind of setup to create something really exciting!

I'm also a big fan of Saw films. I think a lot of people just don't get them... but for me they tell a story of a perfect criminal, with a perfect motive, and a perfect execution. There are times you almost want to say- this guy is right, some people deserve to be taught a lesson...

Did I really say that?... Well, perhaps I'm mad, too...

I could go on forever about my favourite horror films- because I actually watch a lot of them with my wife- but I think we'd run out of space here to list them all... But I can't not mention these: Let the right one in, Devil, Dawn of the dead, Insidious, Funny Games, A nightmare on Elm Street, Rob Zombie's Halloween, 28 days later, Final Destination... This could be a very long list!!!

Screenshot of Downfall

A-T: Downfall was a masterpiece when it came to the atmosphere, how important is this keyword for you and do you consciously try to create a certain atmosphere or is this something that just happens automatically?

Remigiusz: Atmosphere is the key. Everyone says that- and they’re right. You can have the most beautiful looking game... but if the atmosphere sucks, the whole thing goes down like a sinking ship, and it will never- ever be remembered by anyone.

Then, to get it right, the game’s world must be consistent. It’s got to feel real. Sure, there are many ways to achieve that- but it’s not necessarily with high resolution, detailed textures and crazy polygon count. Sometimes simple things, like a well placed ambient sound, a pause long enough, a flashing light or a nicely written line of speech can set the mood right. When you can get that, it means you’ve done a good job.

So obviously, atmosphere has always been a high priority thing for me. I play through all parts of the game hundreds of times just to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it means you have to give up on some ideas, even if you’ve already put a lot of work into them...

And I really can't explain how to know when it's right. I guess it's something you feel? I've only made two games so far and can't claim I'm an expert at this... but in The Cat Lady I've put a lot of effort into capturing that right atmosphere and I can only hope the players will get it, too.

Screenshot of Downfall

A-T: How did you first get in touch with adventure games and what games left such a strong impression that you wanted to make games yourself?

Remigiusz: Like pretty much everyone else, the first adventure game I played was The Secret Of Monkey Island. It was on Amiga 500. Because I was only about 8 or 9 at the time, my older brother played it with me, pausing game with space bar every time a line of speech appeared on the screen and translating it to me. I'm pretty sure he made half of the things up... but that didn't matter then. It was pure magic. I knew it so well that after a while I could play through it on my own, my imagination adding its own stuff to the parts I couldn't understand or remember... I guess that's how I learnt English. And that's how I learnt adventure games, as well!

I made first games in my early teens, just for my brother and me. They were often just series of screens with some basic animations, and often they required the player to physically turn away from the screen, so I could switch to another background or trigger some animation... but for us it was great fun. It was probably more like a session of pen & paper RPG game, with most dialogues made up on the spot and acted out as if it was a proper game. But it wasn't only our brotherly bond getting stronger. The dream of making a perfect game was conceived in those early years. -A game I could never make back then. I could've well enough wished to travel to the moon; it was simply impossible...

Then, when I was about 19, my brother came back from the uni, handed me some CD and said: "This is Adventure Game Studio. I used it to make this game... Do you wanna check it out?" I did. And for me, it was a start of something beautiful....

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

A-T: Let’s move on to the Cat Lady now. What kind of setting and story expects us this time? And who is the Cat Lady?

Remigiusz: The Cat Lady is dark... and it's really in many ways very sad. It's probably the saddest game ever made. It tells a story of a woman called Susan, who after unsuccessful suicide attempt tries to get her life back on track. She will have to decide who to trust, tell lies from the truth, prove her sanity, save lives and even commit murders-some in the name of justice, but some just for revenge... She will go on a long journey of self discovery- while most of it in the confines of her second floor apartment, she will enter the parallel reality of the Other Side and finally decide for herself if there's anything left in the modern world that's worth living for...

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

Susan Ashworth, the game's protagonist, takes care of the neighbourhood's stray cats. They all gather around when she plays the piano, she leaves some food out for them and they keep her company. She doesn't like people because people can hurt her... And cats don't ask questions either. There are some things she never talks about and she'd like to keep it that way. After all, we all have our dark secrets, right? And Susan's secrets are as dark as they get...

A-T: In what ways does The Cat Lady differ from Downfall. For example when it comes to the interface.

Remigiusz: From the start I intended it to be a very different game. I'm not saying my every game is going to be completely different... but after Downfall I needed a break from a standard adventure point & click interface, so I came up with this idea. I've written it down in details and asked for some help in realizing it in the AGS community. I didn't have to wait long, my old friend Dualnames (Jim Spanos) stepped in and in just few days made this interface exactly how I described it. We tested it and decided some things didn't work... so we had to move few things around and tweak it until it was perfect.

The general idea behind came from something I noticed about adventure games- you enter a room and click on everything that's there until you can actually perform some actions, but your character usually just stands in one spot... There is very little need in walking about in these games, unless you want move to another room- but even that has been limited by double-clicking on exits in most modern games. The sense of exploration just isn't there...

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

So in TCL I made character work as a cursor of some sort, only being able to interact with objects close by. Having to walk everywhere also gives me a chance to have all these region-triggered events happen unexpectedly, which is great for a horror game, because it's easier to scare players like that!

A-T: Your games are very personal, at least Downfall was a very personal game if you have a close look at it, and there is much more to your games than just violence and gore. In what ways is The Cat Lady a personal story and how much did you invest from your own life to create this game?

Remigiusz: I didn't actually realize how personal Downfall was until the very end, when it was almost finished and I sat down watching a friend play through it... It was a very bizarre experience- that sudden discovery that unknowingly and without such intention I made a game about... myself. Not literally of course- I don't chainsaw fat women in half and I don't keep my wife in the cellar, tied to a chair! But this whole setting was just a theatrical illusion that kept the real story of Joe Davis hidden, and that story in itself isn't fantastical or supernatural, there are no ghosts or dead cats or axe-wielding murderers in it... Under that horror-themed surface lies a tale of a man blinded by love, desperately trying to save someone against their own will... like I did once.

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

With TCL, the big theme is depression. There are a lot of misconceptions in the society about depression... and I don't think everyone knows what it is exactly. It's not just a feeling you get when you're sad, when you're having a bad day or something... It's more like a cloud of deep darkness that leaves you lost and alone, trapped in a life that seems pointless and wasted... It's like your own personal Silent Hill, your Elm Street, your Limbo... Every now and then you see a ray of light shining through, but when you follow it you just get pushed down that bottomless pit again...

I never suffered from depression myself... but I noticed it very quickly becomes one of the bigger problems of our century! And the worst thing about it is you can't see it. How is anyone gonna believe you? How will you prove that something wrong is happening to you?... You can't be even sure yourself that you're ill. The nature of depression is tricky, it will deceive you, it will make you think you can't be saved and the whole world would be better off without you. So yeah, it's nasty. And I watched it for a long time. Someone very close to me has it... and it sucks. It really does.

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

A-T: Is this circumstance maybe what makes you a real writer opposed to many adventure games creators? That you invest something personal to create an overall experience. Would you say this is like one of your major trademarks as an adventure game developer and writer?

Remigiusz: I don't know.... But it puzzles me why writing in so many games recently is so bad, while there are so many unexplored paths for interesting narrative... I guess people just play it safe. Mass appeal is something I've never bothered about. Perhaps that's why I'm still making games in my living room?.... But with TCL I think I broke every single rule there is. It's a bit like when Rockstar showed a penis in The Lost And Damned DLC for GTA IV- it made you think- now, it's done, there's a dick, it actually happened!... I tried to break few more boundaries of video games with TCL. There are no penises in it, but some of the stuff makes you think: can they actually do that in games? Well, probably not.

I suppose I'm gonna have a hell of a time with all politically correct publishers and some of the journalists... Still, the 18+ certificate is there for a reason- I really don't make games for the kiddies, you know...

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

Another thing I always keep in mind is what Stephen Kind said once, giving advice to all wannabe horror writers, to tell stories about things they know. It's a waste of time deciding to write a book about cricket players or deep-sea divers, if you know nothing about cricket or diving... Write about things you're familiar with at first, things you're comfortable with. Otherwise, no matter how much research you do, it will be very obvious that you're trying to fake something...

Agree with that, or not. I took it on board. And while my games aren't purely autobiographical- there are elements borrowed, and there is also enough fiction to keep it exciting, I hope they feel honest. Yeah. If there's one thing I'm proud of, no matter how much pressure from publishers, it's that I've managed to always stay honest...

I guess that's got to count for something in the industry filled with plastic unimaginative clones?...

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

A-T: When can we expect the release of The Cat Lady?

Remigiusz: Early 2012... if everything goes according to plan - which it almost nearly never does.

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

A-T: Your games have a unique visual style. Please let us know how you came up with that.

Remigiusz: I'm just doing a lot of experimenting... In Downfall's case it was pencil drawings because I enjoyed making them at the time. But now I'm bored of that... so I'm mixing a lot of different techniques- photography, rendering, digital painting, pixel art... and on top of that there's this side-scrolling platform game camera angle with parallax... So it's a hell of a mixture but I'm really satisfied with the final result. I think it works and the game's look is one of a kind. I actually built an entire game and all puzzles with its visual style in mind. You never get to see below characters' knees- so there's nothing important to interact with down on the ground, etc. So there are certain limitations to it, but there are also opportunities for original puzzles- like parallax-related puzzles- and much greater focus on characters, one of the most important aspects of a good adventure game.

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

I wanted the visual style to go with the game's theme, too. So as it's all about suicide and depression, nearly every single wall has paint peeling off, every piece of furniture is old and crooked, each surface is covered in dirt and there are cobwebs and layers of dust everywhere. Even if you come across something beautiful every now and then, it's just an illusion meant to push you off the track, to fool you. The world of TCL is an old, ugly place, like a grave of a formerly happy life, which has now been long forgotten. There are also more extreme places in the game, reminiscent of games like Silent Hill- or Downfall. For example, at one point, you know, I have a room made entirely out of human skulls...

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

A-T: How was the overall reaction on Downfall and how much did matter to you as someone who strictly does what he wants?

Remigiusz: Oh, it was great! Sometimes I think that maybe people went easy on me because it was my first game? Whatever it was, I loved getting tons of feedback from fans and reading comments online. Some of the emails I received were pretty detailed descriptions of personal experiences some players had with Downfall. It was absolutely brilliant that everyone saw the story a little differently, and that ambiguous perception was what convinced me that there is a market for this kind of games and there's no reason that they couldn't sell.

Screenshot of The Cat Lady

Seeing reviews all over the world and doing interviews was also very new and exciting to me... I mean, as much as I love making games, I still have my day job, and people I work with every day don't play games at all; they don't even understand why anyone would play games! So being part of the industry for the first time felt like discovering a whole new world, -or rather like tasting a life I've always wanted to live! It mattered very much to me, especially the fact that I could prove to myself that nothing is impossible, that if you only care enough and try hard enough you can achieve anything!

A-T: Remi, thanks a lot for taking the time for us. Good luck with The Cat Lady and with all your other activities.

Remigiusz: Thanks for letting me speak my mind.