I don't know if you're going to read this, but there's a fact : I like your games and I'd like to ramble a bit about them.
Welcome to the forums! And no worries, I like to ramble about stuff like that, too.
With your games I always know I'll find something that has a special trade-mark its an “Arcen game”, its going to be a different twist on something I thought I knew.
Thank you! I appreciate it, that's something that we definitely try to always do.
That said, I love exploring new stuff, to see developers trying new mechanics tied to their ideas, that's what I call « art through gameplay ». I've always the impression that all your games, as a whole, you are attempting to capture an overall feeling, a mood and a message and this is my short personal interpretation :
You play either as an underdog, or caretaker, in a difficult situation that requires sacrifices, but also demands for a mind capable to understand the importance balance, and asymmetric thinking. You also have to be able to think artificial intelligence to be more than an inarticulate thing triggered by player impulse, but as a human creation with motives. Should you reach power and us it, its through understanding and carefully pulling the right levers in a precarious situation, should you pull the wrong one a bit too far, the balance you try to maintain would slowly shatter and leave to dire results in the end if you aren't able to come back.
It really depends on the game as to what the specific message is, or the mood and feeling, but you're right that those are pretty much underpinning all of them to a greater or lesser degree.
Skyward Collapse is unique among our games because it's a much lighter tone, and more about "herding cats" and the hilarity (in the Dwarf Fortress sense) that ensues. You have to kind of make peace with your lack of power, and get a reasonable outcome anyway.
That's a little bit backwards from the message of most of our games, because most of them follow a theme that I call "power in the world of horror." I first got the idea from Silent Hill 2. That game absolutely terrified me, but I finished it multiple times anyway. The story was compelling as well as horrifying, and by pushing onwards into it I was literally taking power over the emotions that the game was eliciting in me. A horror game requires either a real disconnection from what is going on, or else a lot of mental/emotional courage, or both. I generally don't have the level of stamina needed to survive a full playthrough of those.
At any rate, part of the reason the ideas there resonated with me so strongly are some of my younger-life experiences, which I won't go into too much. But needless to say, the idea of "power in the world of horror" is an idea that resonates with me very personally based on a lot of my experiences. Post-apocalyptic worlds are also just a preferred setting of mine mainly because they resonate with me... I guess because of other games and stories, but also just thematically from my earlier experiences in life.
Anyway, I felt like the taking of power in a world that is terrifyingly stronger than you doesn't have to be limited to horror games, even though the first game that I worked on (Shattered Haven) was halfway one. The concept kept coming back up again and again with AI War, then the Valley games, and so on. Bionic Dues is again quite funny about its dystopian future, but it does so in a Brazil (the movie) fashion. Big fan of Brazil, here.
The Last Federation is way more hopeful than any of the other games prior to it, I'd say, but even it starts in tragedy. And a certain amount of tragedy throughout the story is pretty hard to avoid. I think that TLF represents some of my changing views of the world and my own relationship to it, really. Spectral Empire (or whatever we wind up calling that game) carries that even further.
From that I'd say your games have an “educational” value, they teaches us that no choice should be completely binary, that everything you do has an impact on your “environment” because things are complex and tied up together and that sometimes what seemed to be a good idea simply doesn't work after 3 hours. I kinda hate you for that of course, as I tried many stupid fun things in the Last Federation before I finally managed to win a game and I'm still struggling with AI war for same reason having a long RTS past behind me.
This is definitely a big thing to me. I feel like there are so many games that are so simple that the choices in them become pretty obvious and thus you can fall into patterns. SimCity 2000 really fascinated me as a kid, and the fact that I never could wrap my head around all the implications and combinations was just an amazing thing. The same is true of Magic: The Gathering, which I was also really in to. In both you have to look for larger patterns and trends, and there are things that you can't control or that don't go the way you want.
M:TG is a more limited-scope thing by nature, and SimCity has a low enough amount of randomization in it (disasters are infrequent, and not much else messes with you out of the blue) that they don't really take the concept all the way as far as I thought they could, though. For me, I wanted so many layers on there that even I, as the developer, could enjoy the game the same way that a player would. Aka, that having a near-perfect knowledge of how the game works would be just the START of advanced play (as with Chess), rather than the end of anything more than a reflexes contest (which is what most RTS games are). I also am not a fan of rote memorization being required, which some games require to greater or lesser extents for optimal play.
In order to really feel immersed in a world, I also feel like having lots of options is important. With The Last Federation, I put in the option to sell the pilots into slavery even though it's generally a bad option all around. But in certain circumstances you might just not care at all, and so it is a "good" option in a tactical sense. Maybe everyone you want is already in the federation, and you don't care how pissed off the remainder of people get at you.
But that's just the thing... I mean, slavery
. I don't support that at all, and the computer even chastises the player for even thinking about it. But the option is there, because in real life that is something you'd probably be able to do. And I don't want to limit the player to just doing the sorts of things that I think are morally appropriate. That's the beauty of games: let players toy with morality in a safe way, and see the consequences. See how much harder it is to get certain things done while retaining all your morals, but retain them anyway because that's important. Or just let yourself slide into varying degrees of evil, and see how easy it becomes to rationalize that when the situation is difficult and complex.
I think that it's really fun in games when you as the player can think "what if I take this string and duct tape and combine it with this lighter fluid and then..." and you come up with some new idea. Versus just exercising preset options in a way that has already been laid out for you. For one thing, it's the only way that I can be a player for my own games -- if there isn't that sort of freedom and complexity, then as the game designer I can't play the game and have any fun because I know it too well to ever lose or be challenged by anything but speed or tedium.
Anyway, I do think of our games as being "adult education" in some ways. It makes people stretch their brains in a lot of interesting ways, and I think it's more fun than just doing word games or Sudoku or whatever, which are the usual sort of adult education games.
Finaly, I really hope you'll explore again the concept you tried in A Valley Without Wind 1-2, I find it to be your most rough and unpolished diamond, it just needed a better art direction and more robust gameplay when it came to the platforming/exploration part, and also perhaps something to make you care more about the other survivors, perhaps something that does have a RPG feel to it.
It's a vague possibility, but for now I think that we're probably done with platformers, possibly forever. Not that I don't love platformers, but the market is just absolutely saturated with them, many of them quite awesome. I don't know. Never say never, but I'd really need a really big new idea that I was excited about to ever get back into platformers. Basically my problem with Valley 1 and Valley 2 is that, as the developer, I was perfectly content to just play with the dev testing tools and play bits and pieces here, rather than playing a full game. I LOVE playing bits and pieces of the games, and I don't care what order I play them in. But there was nothing hooking me to actually play one continuous game of it from start to finish, not like AI War. There wasn't that sense of overall connection for me as the developer at least.
That's partly a case of the different experiences that players versus developers get from a game, but it does mean that I can't accurately gauge the games of that sort when we make them. Though now you have me thinking about this more, and wondering if I could combine the ideas from Airship Eternal with the ideas from Valley 1 to really make something completely new... hmm. That's a pretty exciting thought, actually.
Keep up the good work !