An Interview: Connor Sherlock

One of my favourite video-game related memories is of wandering the desert outside of the citadel in Naughty Dog’s Jak 3.
If my memory serves me well , so long as you exited the hub world without a (spiky, PG Mad Max) car, you could just wander and wander and wander around without being bothered for as long as you liked. I loved being able to just walk and walk and walk across an awe-inspiring (to me, anyway) alien landscape. Sure, I enjoyed the jumping and the racing and the shooting and the story-ing as well, but honestly, my most positive memories of Jak 3 are those where I just walked.
(I suppose that means I hate video games, right? To be honest, I probably do.)
It’s not the only game I remember in such a way. And at least it let you do it. Unlike some games. Like when I just wanted to swim in the river and visit the islands and houses in Dishonoured, and the game delivered damage unto me until I went back and played it properly (not to knock that game too much; I value both it and Mr. Harvey Smith a great deal). Or like when I wanted to drive off-road in Insert Driving Game Here, and was blocked by unbreakable barriers. Or like recent video games, like those made by Ubisoft, which offer this great space to explore, but just dump so much stuff in it to the point where you can’t breathe. There’s no real time for contemplation when there’s an unrealistically vicious tiger running towards you
(Note to self: have that last sentence carved into my tombstone).             
Sometimes the best moments in games are the moments that just let you walk. That just let you explore the beautifully-constructed interactive space presented to you, not shoot your way out of it.
Often those optional moments, moments that the game doesn’t want you to focus on and sometimes even left in by accident, are the best parts of the whole game, the parts that stay with you long after the gunplay has faded from memory. As Connor Sherlock notes below: “I thought the Mako sections in Mass Effect were great!” Heck, the wonderful Mr. JP LeBreton set up his ‘Game Tourism’ project precisely so you could just walk without having your head blown off.
But what about those games that are expressly designed for you just to walk within the interactive space they offer? Those so-called ‘walking simulators’?
Games of that type have received what this writer believes to be a horrendously, almost comically disproportionate level of vitriol from many; the kind of vitriol often reserved only for when a female celebrity dares to look like a normal person in public, or for when Netflix’s servers are down. Walking simulators are seen by some as an out-an-out threat to the sanctity of video games with others just dismissing them out of hand.
Connor Sherlock is a self-avowed developer of ‘walking simulators’; he’s made a fair few in his time, his style constantly developing and maturing in genuinely artistically exciting ways. He even runs a Patreon – his ‘walking simulator a month club’ – wherein, in return for a small donation (one USD), one can have a small, completely new interactive space to walk through delivered straight to their inbox every month.
Pretty cool.
More recently, he’s announced plans to fully remake his hour-long B.P (before Patreon) horror piece Marginalia (the original having been made over the course of one month in 2014) with the help of Cameron Kunzelman (writer, developer, academic, clever person); just last month, a self-described “spooky Halloween teaser” to the project, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler, a fascinating curtain-raiser that promises an equally fascinating concerto to come sometime in 2017.
Really, the best way to describe his approach as a game developer is using one of his own games as an example; Grave Apologies (made as part of his self-described Patreon “experiment”). On its itch.io page, Sherlock said this: “Inspired by walks with my partner through Forest Lawn Cemetery by Frank Olmstead”; that one sentence manages to say so much about Sherlock’s approach as an artist. His fascination with the tangible yet surreal spaces that exist in our memories; how memory and our interpretations therein both abstract the space in our heads; his fascination with architecture and the way he incorporates the structures and the spaces that exist in the real world into an interactive exploratory space in a way that feels natural, effortless even; and the way he uses other people’s works as a jumping-off point, textually (utilising Lovecraft extracts verbatim in TRIHAYWBFRFYH), musically, and spatially.
Just as Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales were able to reappropriate the term ‘notgame’ and turn it into a positive statement of intent, so too has Connor taken the term ‘walking simulator’ (used essentially as a slur word these days) and done the same. After all, who doesn’t like walking? Especially through weird, beautiful, haunting alien landscapes that linger in the mind, or Scottish islands possibly constructed by the mind, or hand-drawn Hamlets that explore the past of probably one of Scotland’s greatest artists, or sun-dappled American vistas tinged with mystery, or the creations of a possibly-real possibly-fictional possibly-both game developer that tell the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand?
I could go on, but then I’d be moving too far away from our subject for today.
“At the end of the day”, Sherlock noted in a recent article on the subject by Killscreen, “I don’t care what we call them if it will get people playing them.”
Enjoy some wonderful, erudite, and insightful answers to some mediocre questions from a pretty brilliant developer (or, in the words of one of those online video game magazines, the “master of the quote-unquote walking sim”), who’s turning a negative term into beautiful, positive art.

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What was it that attracted you making notgames (as coined by Michaël Samyn)?
The first creative things I put on the internet were Let’s Plays that I started making in 2011 on a whim. They weren’t great, but it was fun to learn video editing, and create bizarre new narratives out of the games I played. I started using a lot of copyrighted songs and movie footage which YouTube eventually stamped down on, and instead of going back to playing them straight, I decided to try my hand at actually making a game instead of chopping up footage of somebody else’s and replacing the soundtrack. King of the Wood and Slender are the two that stood out the most and inspired me to start making short story or vignettes-style games in unity, both of which I found through LPers [that stands for ‘Let’s Players’, or ‘players of games on the internet’ for those not in the know].
At about the same time Merritt Kopas, who I was good friends with growing up, was doing great work with LIM and championing the game-mechanic-as-artistic-statement. Even though my own ‘statement’ ended up as having as little traditional game mechanics as possible, knowing somebody in ~real life~ who was doing important, interesting stuff in games definitely gave me the courage boost I needed to put weird stuff out into the wild.

What do you think it is about exploratory works like yours that means that they’re so disparaged by so many? Why is it that they’re labelled “walking simulators”, viewed with contempt, and seen as unfit to stand alongside “real” games? In other words, what the hell is their problem?
Videogames are products that become more complex visually and mechanically to justify always being sold at a premium price. Walking Simulators are purposefully simple mechanically, and often visually since they’re usually made by amateurs or small teams. They are “bad” videogames, and generally only get away with it by being free/cheap. They are also bad Art, since they don’t lend themselves well to galleries or live performances, and are infinitely reproducible. They’re maybe coming close to making good folk art now that the tools to make them are getting easier to access and use, but that is getting swallowed up by “user-created content” in closed ecosystems like Mario Maker. I think Walking Simulators do make great lower-case ‘a’ art though. It’s just that videogames have never much cared about expressing anything personal or political or real, and I would argue still don’t. Our little art-game movement is very small and very insular and very isolated. For most people (often me included), “Indie” still means mindlessly shooting aliens for Points, and not much besides that.

Your “walking simulator a month club” is a decidedly novel usage of Patreon, and an idea I firmly advocate and endorse (I mean, I am a member, after all). However: do you at any point intend to work on a longer form project? And if you do/are already, surely the pressure of having to deliver an operational interactive experience on a monthly basis for sixty people distracts from the creative process?
Thanks for being part of the experiment! Switching on the Patreon page was admitting to myself that I didn’t have the time/money/resources/expertise to make a shelf-ready product. For nearly a year I was trying to cobble together something that I could eventually sell on steam, or pitch as a Kickstarter, but the level of polish I was going after was paralyzing me, and I had nothing to show for my hand-wringing. I probably should have spent that year doing nothing but programming courses, but at the end of the day I’d have just learned a different set of lessons. After going about trying to learn all the various sub-jobs that being a one man band entailed, I realized I was less interested in mechanical elegance and flow, or traditional/cinematic narrative structures, which guts most of what people expect from “games”. The bits of games I’d been trying to emulate – standing on roads between towns in Morrowind gawking at the skybox, or the long, quiet slogs between Nav[igation] points in Mechwarrior 2 – are completely incidental, almost throwaway parts of the whole they’re a part of.
Ditching all that stuff means it’s hard to sell what I’m making as games, and if I can’t sell it, I’ll never be able to do it full time. With Patreon, it feels acceptable to be working on whatever I felt like at the time, without having to worry about title screens and options menus, or worry about whether what I was making fit into accepted notions of videogames or art. It’s nowhere near full-time employment, but it’s holding steady as a weekend gig, and with a bit of luck will keep growing.
The pressure to make something digestible and worthwhile every month is definitely there (I knew that going in, reading about it from other people, but ooooh man the pressure), but it’s good for me! I’ve learned the hard way how to get a good workflow going and how to do creative work when the motivation or inspiration is not necessarily apparent or freewheeling, which is important if this is to ever become a full time job. I’m getting way better way faster than I would loafing about on my own terms, at least at the level design part… the nature of the projects means my programming skills haven’t grown as fast.
As for longer term and more traditionally ‘gamey’ projects, I definitely have a few that I’m dying to make happen, but at the moment I just can’t seem to find the time. I’m happy right now with working to maintain a good life/work/walking simulator balance, and any extra found time at the moment gets absorbed into the walking sims. The pipe dream at the moment is the work and walking simulators become the same thing, then longer form projects can become the hobby.

1077925615495371976

Sherlock’s Patreon experiment has yielded fascinating results like As the Fog Burns (pictured above). The ‘walking simulators’ Sherlock delivers to your inbox remain in constant realtime; uninterrupted by action, they are they for you to explore at your leisure. They work for someone who just want five minutes in some alien landscape, or for someone else who wants to spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of the developer’s deceptively simple worlds.

My favourite work of yours is “The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home” (not least because of its brilliant title). It’s bleak, compelling and impactful in all the best ways. How did the idea come to you, and what was the process of development like?
It being my first videogame and going in with no skills whatsoever, I forced myself to keep the game to as few moving parts as I could so that I wouldn’t over-scope. I felt comfortable making music, so it was going to revolve around a piece of music, and I felt comfortable with the terrain editor in unity, so it was going to take place in a field/forest. I was listening to a lot of post-rock and Brian Eno at the time, and wanted to embrace minimalism of the latter, and wanted a bad-ass, overly-long name that tends to go with the former. Until I recorded the music, I was using [the album] Evening Star by [Brian] Eno and [Robert] Fripp as a placeholder [not to be confused with the British communist newspaper of a similar name]. The title came to me out of the blue while walking down the street on the way to take the bus to work, but I immediately recognised it as something worth keeping. I ran with that and started building something around my father’s experience with religion as a kid, merging that with my own childhood experiences exploring Prince Edward Island alone during my family’s yearly summer vacation there.
The Lovecraft element was added later. I wasn’t confident enough in the game to release it without a spoken script, but on the flip side wasn’t confident in my own writing. I was reading Lovecraft and knew that his work was in the public domain, and I decided to use snippets of his as placeholders while testing out ideas. I didn’t expect it to fit very well, but I loved the odd juxtaposition of Lovecraft’s themes with the quasi-religious ones I had been working with. The abstract nature of the game lets people mix the two together as they see fit. The mechanics of the game, namely slowly revealing the otherworldly geometry as you go through the stories, naturally fell into place once I started choosing specific stories to cut up and include.
As I was making it, I tried to embrace the scrappy, freeware nature of the game whenever possible and use it to my advantage. The unity engine had a reputation for being ‘plastic-y’ at the time, and I tried to tie that into the timbre of the music with the moog sounds, and make the square geometry feel almost wet or organic at times.
Being a free to play game, I felt free to be malicious in ways that you couldn’t get away with if I were charging for the experience. The working title became “Evil Proteus”. I wanted the game-as-object to be as violent and unwelcoming as possible, while having the gameplay be smooth and serene. The basic walking around and swaying grass and glossy music was as AAA as I could make it, but everything else was harsh and mean and trashy. The trailer is just a still shot that occasionally jumps to bombast, with a full minute of nothing at the end. The description is just a jumble of letters and something about the world ending in 22 minutes to cause confusion, only to grow into vague alarm when it unfolds to “THE RAPTURE IS HERE AND YOU WILL BE FORCIBLY REMOVED FROM YOU HOME” when you open it.
I wanted the emotions felt in the game to bleed out into real life. I tried to keep the player somewhere between being fully lost in the experience of being in a field and accepting their death, and being reminded that this was videogame they were supposed to figure out and ‘win’ but never could. Nothing fades in or out smoothly, it’s constantly jerking the player through load screens, audio starts and stops jarringly, and geometry purposefully slams into existence in front of the player.  The music and terrain were the grounding elements, but trying to run away from the sky-object leads to obviously artificial walls that you can’t get across. Collecting the obvious collectibles only makes the world more sinister and inescapable. Your final moments aren’t a slow fade to black but blinding light and noise followed by being torn to another screen without warning.
I’m toying with releasing a HD remix of sorts for a few bucks on steam/itch (it’s why I haven’t released it on itch.io yet!) but don’t know if I can justify all these malicious and purposefully bad design decisions and feel good about charging money for it. I’m also torn on whether I want to ditch the abridged Lovecraft elements of the game and go back to the original plan of having being purely musical.

Leading on from the above question: would you say you have a specific design philosophy when developing your games or do you just go with the flow?
All of my games are pretty improvisational once I actually start working on them instead of mulling them around in my head. The music is always very free-form and improvised initially, then gone back over for later to editing and layer the short pieces I came up with into the correct length and tone. For the level geometry, I tend to start with a central vista or piece of architecture and work outwards from there, moving around it and adjusting things in a somewhat of a Cézannian fashion.
The exact design goals change from project to project, but I’m usually trying to build up a particular emotion, and let the player stew in it. I often do this by using a lot of dead or negative space, allowing the player’s mind to wander in the long slogs between goals/set pieces. I’ve heard a number of times that “good design” is giving the player something new to focus on or task to complete or corner to turn every 6 seconds, or they will lose interest in what they’re doing. That always sounded kind of desperate to me? I want my games to allow for self-reflection and personal thought in the same way looking at a painting or listening to a piece of instrumental music would, and it’s hard for that to happen naturally if you’re drip feeding distractions to centre a player’s attention.

What is it you’re hoping to accomplish with the upcoming remake of Marginalia that you didn’t accomplish the first time around?
Honestly, I’m still all fucked up about charging money for stuff, and giving it a nice paint job and some options menus will go a long way towards making me feel comfortable about it. I’m hoping to turn Marginalia from looking like an N64 game to as close to modern AAA as I can.
Cameron and I had been talking about making a thing together since the release of Catachresis and TRIHAYWBFRFYH, after he tweeted something to the tune of “hey if anybody need a writer for a game hit me up”. After almost a year of not getting anything off the ground (I kept on getting distracted by game jams), we decided to whip something up quickly for Halloween. While I’m happy with the end result, Marginalia was built off the cuff in a few weekends, with the old free version of unity that gated a lot of the fun graphical stuff. I decided last minute to charge money for it, just to dip my toes in the water – everything else I had made was free of charge. Submitting it to [Steam] Greenlight was the same. I figured if it got through it was worth revisiting, and giving it the love I wish I had time for originally. It took a while, but I’ve gotten a lot better at making spooky forests since then, so it’s worked out nicely.

house-on-fire-1

Made in collaboration with Cameron Kunzelman, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler is, in its creators’ own words, “a short game where you walk through the forest”. With a burning house thrown in for good measure.

If you don’t mind me saying, you’re one hell of a musician, but most of the work you release is scores for your games. Would you consider dedicating yourself to a musical project for music’s sake?
Thanks! I occasionally get the urge to get a band together (though no desire to do live shows, stage fright is the worst), or do a Perturbator-esque concept album, but the budget for these ideas get really bloated really quick. I’d need to buy new instruments, real synths, proper mics, etc. for me to feel ‘legit’. Whether I actually ever get around to making an album is up in the air though, it’s competing with wanting to start brewing and pickling, and making Warhammer 40,000 terrain buildings out of concrete to sell on Etsy.

Who would you say are the best, most groundbreaking developers currently active at the moment, and why?
You didn’t say game developers, so I’m going to say Leaf Corcoran and the team behind itch.io, and Cross and company at Gamejolt. They are the roomy pots full of earthy soil that are letting indie games grow heathy and large.

What would you say are the most important games ever made, and why?
This question is mean! I’ve been completely unable to come up with an answer that I find in any way acceptable. My joke answer is Ecco the Dolphin [there is nothing funny about Ecco the Dolphin, slayer of the Vortex Queen, Connor; you should know this].

What was the last videogame you played, and did you enjoy/appreciate the experience?
During the Steam Summer Sale I bought Horizons, the expansion to Elite: Dangerous that lets you land on atmosphere-less planets. I finally fired it up, and they pulled off the generated terrain flawlessly, and it looks gorgeous from orbit to being on the ground.  It gets the magnificent desolation right. It’s the infinite-Mako-experience I was hoping it would be – unlike everybody else, I thought the Mako sections in [the first] Mass Effect were great! They made the galaxy feel like a real, explorable place instead of a series of set pieces. Unlike Mass Effect, Elite actually does have a huge universe, but it felt a little disconnected from itself not being able to visit any of the places you see, save space stations. This goes a long way towards fixing that problem. Now all I want to get out of my ship and hang out in the space station bars.

Leading on from the above question, what would you say are your favourite games you’ve played this year are, and why? (They don’t necessarily need to have been released this year, if that helps)
The Long Dark! Holy moly have I lost a lot of time to this game. It transitions wonderfully from a tense fight for your life against the elements, pillaging the remains of civilization into a serene hunter-gatherer existence built on routine and preparation. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from their use of the unity engine and its terrain system, and how they design large levels in general.
Metal Gear Solid V! It’s somehow a wondrous remix of my two favourite Ubisoft Clint Hocking games: Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. I like that your wolf friend can’t kill people until you buy it a knife.
I’ve also been finally making my way through Dark Souls, after dropping it for nearly a year after hitting Blighttown. I am a cleric with a +9 Divine Claymore in Lost Izaleth named Odrade and having a blast. I’m in it for all the interconnected levels and twisty architecture and it is not disappointing.

Have a non-game-related question: is the biggest problem facing the world right now, and what can we do about it (if anything)?
Tightening borders and isolationism. Vote against it, I guess… [Judging by recent events in both my country and beyond, it would appear that people DIDN’T GET THE MEMO]

To conclude: you are to be stranded on a desolate rock in the middle of the Atlantic by a bunch of way-not-cool pirates. For some reason known only to themselves they’ve allowed you to one film, one book, one album, one video game and one other item along with you. Which of each do you bring, and why?
MovieBrazil. I’d feel happier about being deserted and alone.
BookThomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. Or the Dark Tower series [by the relatively obscure Mr. Stephen King] because I’d want something I haven’t read before.
Album“Heroes” by David Bowie: probably the best album by probably the best musician of the 20th century. Side A is great pop songs, side B is great ambient tunes.
GameCrusader Kings II: tons of replayability with emergent medieval soap opera dramas
Item – Maybe a telescope? A good ones so I could see planets. Being able to set fires and look for passing ships is a bonus.

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You can download Connor’s wonderful interactive pieces HERE
And follow him on Twitter HERE
You can also join his Walking Simulator a Month Club HERE, to support the continued production of his “propaganda pretending to be art”.
You can also follow me on Twitter HERE, though to be perfectly honest I don’t know why you’d want to. Not because I’m not an excellent tweeter (which I’m not, but that’s beside the point), but rather because Twitter is an angry fascist garbage fire run by people who don’t seem to know what a block button does.  Still, follow Connor though.
Thanks for reading; do please check out Connor’s work, any other articles on this website that might interest you, and lastly, have a lovely day!

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