When I first stumbled on the work of Fenreliania, I was immediately fascinated. First, I saw their development work on a tabletop JRPG—a brilliant combination of two of my favorite gaming formats—and then, I tried some of their video games.
Needless to say, I was moved. I could tell there was a story to tell beneath the surface and felt compelled to speak with them. To give you some background, Fenreliania is a solo indie game developer, who works on games in their spare time. They try to make games that explore interactivity in unique but suitable ways, expressing the concept through the player and controls as much as the story and visuals.
I highly recommend you play their games to get the full emotional experience, but if you’re interested in the creative process behind experimental game development (and game dev in general), then you’re in luck: I had the opportunity to pick Fenreliania’s brain. Here are the wonderful results:
Jake Roundy: How did your interest in gaming start? How have you nurtured this passion, and what does gaming mean to you?
Fenreliania: Games mean a lot of different things to me. Like anybody, I enjoy playing games just for fun; I enjoy satisfying combat; I appreciate gorgeous graphics—in fact, one of my favorite recent games is DOOM 2016, and that’s about as hedonistic as you can get. But past that, there’s definitely an amount to which it’s about creative expression and part exploration of the art.
Games can do a lot of things better than any other art form, just like other art forms have things they do best, but I don’t think there’s enough examination of what those things are yet.
JR: Fascinating to hear that, as one of our other contributors here at Couch Bandits explored this same idea in “Interaction Between Games and Players” by Nick Snow. It’s definitely a topic worth exploring more, and it’s interesting to hear this idea informs your passion for game development. But continue on!
Fenreliania: My interest in games started when I was young, with things like some DOS Mickey Mouse game and The Incredible Machine, but also in things like Kid Pix and an encyclopedia CD. I was playing around with new game ideas before I ever thought of them that way—drawing marble tracks and getting my friend to tell me which marble he was gonna put where, making up new rules, etc. People tend to forget the little things, the roots of their interests.
Anyway, I technically started doing some game dev stuff in GameMaker when my friends and I discovered it installed on the library computers in high school. I found it intuitive with its visual coding blocks, and we were all motivated by showing each other our newest weird and cool game.
At some point, after completing Ratchet & Clank for the 20th time, I realized how interested I was in game development, and it occurred to me that real people had to have made this as their job. Since then, it’s been a clear guiding path for me, and I’ve searched out whatever tools I could find to get me going.
JR: Awesome! Very cool to hear the history behind what inspired you. Speaking of inspiration, what was the genesis for your tabletop JRPG? How did it evolve from just an idea to a playable game?
Fenreliania: The tabletop JRPG idea is the result of many years of frustration from two directions: I’ve never liked Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve never liked JRPGs. I like the idea of JRPGs from a distance, but I just can’t play them, and similarly, I like D&D in theory, but it feels too complex and too limiting.
I’m not sure when the idea came to me, but I realized old ’90s JRPG combat systems generally worked by providing a variety of simplistic options, and that could translate really well into a tabletop experience. The more I thought about a tabletop RPG where your turn can easily take less than 10 seconds, the more it appealed to me—I’m a sucker for ease of use.
First, I created a Trello board and started writing out rules. I already had a lot of ideas in my head, but I needed to get them written out and organized. I also wrote out the design ethos, so I could always go back to it if I got unsure, which has worked out well. I fleshed things out from there, which clarified and led into other rules and aspects, guiding me to write out some content. Bit by bit, just jotting down notes whenever I had a spare minute, the picture came together.
Eventually, it got to a point where it was technically playable: You could create a character and have a combat encounter with some hyenas. So, I wrote out the details onto some palm cards and took them to board game night. A few things became obvious immediately: The system functioned fine—everything was as clear and easy to play as I hoped—turns took less than 30 seconds, and strength was way overpowered. Turns out, balancing a low numbers RPG is difficult, especially when you only have a handful of skills.
JR: Wow, that is fascinating! It sounds like a lot of fun—both to play and develop. Looking forward to hearing more about it. Let’s switch gears to some video games you’ve experimented with. For instance, what’s the story behind I must reach the top?
Fenreliania: I must reach the top was a two-day, one-weekend endeavor. I’d been working on PhaSMM for 6 months or maybe a year at that point. It was frustrating. It laid my limits bare in the first month, and it just exhausted me for the rest. It was so frustrating, and I didn’t like the result. I’m still embarrassed of that game, honestly.
When it was done, I had a month of depression, and then, it turned into some kind of anger-determination, as it often does. I wanted to make something that expressed the excruciating feeling of putting more and more effort into something as you get closer to the finish, but I wanted to make it incredibly simple.
With a lot of my feelings, I get a very physical idea about them, and this frustration definitely felt like trying to climb up a cliff and getting more tired as falling becomes more dangerous. I took the hand model I made for Slap Game, added two bones, made a single animation so I could make the hand close to grabbing onto the cliff, and wrote the bare minimum code I needed to get you to climb a cliff.
I almost want to put the source code out there, because no space or effort was wasted. It’s a minimalist piece of art. There’s no physics—it’s just a slider for how far you are between two points, a couple of sliders for where your arms are, and a curve to determine how slowly you climb based on how high up you are. Everything else—the music, the sky, the sun position—has a start and end point on the climbing slider.
It was so therapeutic to make something clear, straightforward, succinct, and exact, especially coming off the struggle the game itself depicts. It was exactly what I needed.
JR: I could tell that game had an emotional story behind it. Thank you for sharing! Now, what about Every Brick Laid? It feels experimental in the best way, pushing the boundaries of what gamers expect and know. How were you able to throw away gaming convention and design something so unique and innovative?
Fenreliania: Every Brick Laid is another of those games based on a physical feeling. It’s this sense I’ve had a lot, especially lately, that I am responsible for every improvement and bit of progress I achieve, and that it isn’t supposed to be that way.
The conceit of EBL is that you’re ostensibly playing a cool 3D platformer and collecting power-ups, but the level just didn’t come with the game, so you’ve got to use the blocks at your disposal to get the power-ups. It was only when actually making the game I realized how neat it was to build in the game and how fun it was having a structure uniquely yours and hard-earned. Gives me a little perspective, but just a little.
Anyway, each block was basically me asking myself: “What can’t the player do very easily yet?” and figuring out a way to make that more convenient, like by providing blocks that give you more vertical movement or make it easier to branch out horizontally. I have a few more ideas for blocks I want to add, but I’ve been wanting to add them for 9 months now, so don’t hold your breath.
JR: Very cool, that concept resonates with me as a player, for sure. It uses both creativity on the player’s part, as well as the natural love of building and puzzle solving. Now, let’s chat about Slap Game. You described Slap Game as “fun and silly garbage.” What was your inspiration for this game? Did it start as a simple experiment turned into just a purely fun gaming experience?
Fenreliania: Slap Game was originally inspired by another dev, like, a hundred bears (@Like100Bears on Twitter). They showed off some of their prototypes a while back, including one game where you slap a jiggly box and it spurts blood around. They gave me their blessing to make Slap Game, and I’d just been introduced to the idea of “trashgames” by @moshboy and how fun and therapeutic they can be to make and how pure an expression they could be. I knew I was going to take it as an opportunity to relax and experiment.
I started by making a cube that would theoretically bounce in a way that made sense to the way it hit a surface. Like, if a cube bounced on its corner, it’d squash corner to corner. It’s hard to describe, and it turns out it’s hard to do, too, but that didn’t matter. In the end, I got things to do a weird jiggle based on who knows what whenever they hit something hard enough, and that was good enough.
ProBuilder was also new to me, so I picked up the free version and modeled out a weird mansion. In Blender, I whipped up whatever came to mind—teddy bears seemed bouncy, bowls seemed interesting, and I really wanted to make something to smash, so I figured bottles worked. The smashing was cool, because I found a script that would split a mesh into its triangles, and once I understood how it worked, I tweaked it and got it to be a bit more fun. Namely by applying 10 times the explosive force.
It was just so fun messing around with the game, and when I wasn’t sure what to add next and all the things I was trying got too frustrating, I just declared it done and put it out, not really caring if it ran on other systems. That freedom was so relaxing and encouraging that I made a Christmas version later, which was even more relaxing and fun to play because of all the lights. I had also learned the most important lesson from the original: smashable things are the most fun.
I want to make another Slap Game at some point, and I have plans that are a little more refined and take more effort, but that’s not actually antithetical to the idea. I’ll explain a lot more whenever I get around to that project. For now, it’s a secret.
JR: Love it! That’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much for your time!
If you’d like to try out Fenreliania’s games, head over to http://fenreliania.com/, and follow them on Twitter for all the latest updates (we’ll be watching and waiting for more developments on that tabletop JRPG!). And again, huge thanks to Fenreliania for taking the time to speak with us. It was an eye-opening interview and absolutely fascinating to see their approach to game development.
Check them out, and spread the love for indie game devs!