If you’ve been to any events run by Toronto’s Hand Eye Society, chances are you’ve seen Miguel Sternberg hard at work, frantically synching computers into local networks and test-driving new games built by himself and his colleagues. He’s half of the two-man team known as Spooky Squid Games. The name is memorable and apt; their first title, Night of the Cephalopods, involved a lone character fleeing from swarms of dead-eyed, blue-skinned “supernatural squiddly things.” The follow-up, a two-player “hordes” adaptation, pitted two characters in a house against a swarm of these “foul eldritch octopi.”
Sternberg’s clearly got quite the imagination, and it doesn’t stop at the Legion Mollusca. This founding member of the Hand Eye Society is also a pixel artist in his free time, and is currently working on his studio’s first commercial game, Guerrilla Gardening. I caught up with Sternberg recently to talk about his upcoming projects in anticipation for this weekend’s Gamercamp.
Jonathan: How did Spooky Squid start? Where did you get the name from?
Miguel: It was pretty much the best name I could find that didn’t already have a URL that was taken. I had a bunch of others ones that I would’ve rather used; I think my favourite one was Flock of Squid. But surprisingly, it was already taken. It was just a registered domain. I had a bunch of names but all of them were registered, just sitting there.
Jonathan: What is your role at Spooky Squid?
Miguel: We’re quite small; we’re two people: myself and Andrew Pilkiw. And we make indie games. My main role at Spooky Squid is art and game design. But I’ve done programming in some of our games as well. I definitely couldn’t program Guerrilla Gardening on my own, but some of the simpler games we’ve put out, I’ve programmed. And even The Night Balloonists, which was programmed mostly by Andrew, I went in and did bits of animation code in it, because he was using a language I knew.
Jonathan: Are you a Toronto native?
Miguel: I’ve been here about 31 years, so pretty much, yeah. I grew up here; I was born in the States – Boston – but grew up here since I was about three.
Jonathan: Can you tell me about your involvement with the Hand Eye Society, and what role you feel the group is playing in Toronto?
Miguel: I’m actually one of the founders of Hand Eye; to the extent that we organize anything, we try to be an anarchic group. People can bring their ideas [forward], and we’re mainly there to facilitate people doing cool stuff in the city and to help bring together all the cool things that hare happening under one roof.
Jonathan: You were at Nuit Blanche, if I remember correctly.
Miguel: Yeah, that was organized by Jim Munroe, who is probably the biggest instigator for Hand Eye. We put on a crazy arcade of, I think, six machines. There were a whole bunch of different layouts, including a one-button cabinet. It literally has a single button, and nothing else. The guy who did that was Jph Wacheski who put them all together. He basically took old cabinets, ripped out the innards, and put in new monitors and new guts.
Jonathan: What was the feedback like at Nuit Blanche? You had a pretty good location at the Bell Lightbox.
Miguel: Really good. A lot of people played the games. I think we had almost a thousand people go through that night. We’re used to sort of setting up in fairly dingy places. We’ve done bars, various conventions and such. But to have a Toronto indie event that was at something that fancy, and to have all the cabinets instead of people setting up their PCs to demo, it was pretty nice.
Jonathan: Do you know how the Arcadian Renaissance ended up at the Lightbox?
Miguel: Basically, a guy from the Lightbox – Nick Pagee – contacted a bunch of Toronto indie people. I met him at TCAF, but he got in touch with a whole bunch of us and sort of said, “We’re using this cool building, and we want to involve Toronto indie game people who are doing cool stuff. How can we facilitate it?” So that’s the first project we’ve done with them. There’s some stuff that haven’t been announced yet that might be happening in the future with them. There are definitely plans to continue doing stuff with the Bell Light box and the Hand Eye Society.
Jonathan: You’re coming to Gamercamp. Where did it come from?
Miguel: Gamercamp is two guys – Mark Rabo and Jaime Woo – basically they decided to start it last year, not knowing anyone in the Toronto indie scene. They sort of got in touch with a few of us, and in the end we all jumped on board. Honestly we had our doubts when it started because it was really last minute, but they put on an amazing event. Since then we’ve stayed in contact and helped organize things. They’re still autonomous from, say, the Hand Eye Society, but there’s a lot of back-and-forth and talking between them and the rest of the game makers in the city.
Jonathan: What was most impressive about the first Gamercamp?
Miguel: The fact that they got a crowd of people who weren’t just the same old faces that you’d see at an IGDA meeting, or at the Hand Eye meetings. That it wasn’t just that echo chamber of indie game developers talking to other indie game developers. They brought in a general audience that was interested in games. And the event just had a good feel to it; a good vibe.
Jonathan: What are you doing at Gamercamp this year?
Miguel: Hand Eye has the various Torontron cabinets there; one cabinet will have a game that I worked on, Cephalopods Co-op Cottage Defence, a co-op game. We’re probably also going to have a computer set up in the indie arcade, with all of our games including the prototype for Guerrilla Gardening. Then I’m giving a talk for a panel called ‘Designing Puzzles for Goats’. And I’m going to be part of a panel with Benjamin Rivers and Chris Butcher from TCAF and The Beguiling to talk about narrative in comics and games.
There’s also one thing that may involve Spooky Squid. There’s a chance that when Shaun Hatton gives his talk, ‘Setting the Game to Music’, we’re doing a project with him that we haven’t revealed yet. Some video footage from that project might be shown at his talk.
Jonathan: Let’s talk about Guerrilla Gardening. It’s a very interesting and unique concept. Where did the idea for this game come from?
Miguel: It came from the real-life guerrilla gardening movement where people are going in and planting illegally in public spaces. I found out about that a few years ago reading Boing Boing, which had a post on it. It connected a whole bunch of things I wanted to put into a game for some time. I’d wanted to use plants as a tool in game design, and I also had been looking at things involved in street art and issues of public space. So this brought all of those things together into one package. I thought it really worked nicely.
Jonathan: How would you describe the game?
Miguel: In some ways it’s like Metal Gear Solid with plants. But the planting mechanic is actually a really deep, open-ended puzzle mechanic. You can combine plants in many different ways to get different effects and affect the citizens and the police that you’re trying to avoid. So while it has an old-school pixel art style, it has a lot of depth as far as the simulation and A.I. has going on.
Jonathan: What kind of gameplay elements can we expect to see in Guerrilla Gardening?
Miguel: We have in the prototype around 10 or 11 plants. The plan is to have somewhere 15 in the full game. they all interact with each other, so it’s not like you plant this one thing and you’re done. Often the puzzles will involve: say, attracting a citizen to walk through a set of plants, and using them in combination with the NPCs wandering around the level.
The basic structure of the game is: find seeds, find cops that are protecting government propaganda, use your seeds to get the cops away from that, plant stuff around the propaganda that will sort of make fun of the evil dictatorship that’s banned plants in the city, and then attract citizens nearby so that they see you’ve mocked the establishment with your plants. It’s almost like a herding mechanic. Some people have compared it to Lemmings in that way.
Jonathan: How much did you have to learn about the real guerrilla gardening movement, and what parts of it did you incorporate into the gameplay?
Miguel: Since then I’ve done a bunch of reading on it. I’ve actually done some real guerrilla gardening with the Toronto Public Space Committee. They’re continuing to do that sort of thing in the city. There’s also a street artist doing a lot of guerrilla gardening called Poster Child. He’s done some game-related guerrilla gardening, where he would make Mario question mark boxes and string them onto lamp posts and stuff like that.
Jonathan: The theme of introducing plants and colours into an environment has been used in certain ways, I’m thinking specifically of Okami and maybe de Blob. What games have influenced your design choices?
Miguel: The big one for me was probably Lost Winds on the Wii. I really like the way they used plants; you could pick up plants, and put them somewhere else, but then you’d need water to get them to grow. It had this nice open-ended feel to it, but was constrained just enough. And that was one of the games that was in my mind when Guerrilla Gardening came around.
Jonathan: What’s the story behind this game, and who are the main characters?
Miguel: The main character is Molly and she’s a guerrilla gardener. The main baddie is General Bauhaus, who is the dictator who has banned plants from the city. There are several secondary characters; Bauhaus has lieutenants who will act as bosses of a sort. They’re kind of like “boss situations.”
They’re special situations where, say, a plant will act in a different way than it does in other cases. For example we have a boss that has police dogs. Those dogs will react to pollen in a different way than a citizen or cop might. They’ll also be able to smell you out. And so suddenly you’ll be picking the same tools you’ve used up to this point, and have to think about them in a new way. And that’s sort of our goal for the boss situations.
Jonathan: Are you working on anything else besides Guerrilla Gardening?
Miguel: We have another project that we haven’t revealed – we’ll probably be showing a little bit of it at Gamercamp. We’ll see. It goes by the initials “TBP.” It’s a project we’re doing with Shaun Hatton, a.k.a. DJ Finish Him. He’ll be doing the music and sound for it. And it’s a very different project from some of the other stuff that we’ve been doing. It’s much more of an action game, and has a very distinct, different visual style.
Jonathan: How long has Guerrilla Gardening been in production, and when/where is it going to be available?
Miguel: A lot of big question marks on that one. We’ve been working on it off and on – sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time – for about two years. We had a grant to do the prototype for it – from the Ontario Media Development Corporation. It’s going to be on PC, and hopefully Mac and Linux because we like to support everyone. And we’re definitely looking at a console release. But at this point we haven’t signed anything. But in terms of when it’s released, it really depends. Right now we’re working on it rather slowly. We’re looking into getting some more funding so we can accelerate the pace that we’re getting it done. At the moment, it comes out when it’s done. And when it’s good.
Jonathan: What do you do besides working at Spooky Squid?
Miguel: I freelance as a pixel artist, art director, and occasionally as a games designer. I tend to keep the freelance stuff I do separate from what I do at Spooky Squid. But it’s been a lot of mobile games, and web games. That’s generally where people want pixel art. I art directed a 3-D game just before working on Guerrilla Gardening. That was a game based on a TV show called Storm Hawks. And the web game for that, actually, has my pixel art in it.
Jonathan: How did you get into doing pixel art?
Miguel: I started dabbling in pixel art on my Game Boy Color homebrew programs when the GBCs were current. I was one of the co-founders of Capybara Games, and that’s where I really started doing it professionally. That was way back when they were just doing mobile games, pre-iPhone. The screens were terrible on those old things. Since then I’ve worked for a bunch of different places freelancing.
I skipped the 16-bit era of games pretty much, which is funny given that that’s the style I now work in. But I came across Chrono Trigger, and some of the older classic Squaresoft games, and saw how much emotion you could get out of such small characters, and how beautiful the artwork could be. And I’m very interested in simplistic and iconic art styles, in any medium.
Jonathan: Does your pixel art ever end up outside of games?
Not as often as I’d like to. I’ve done a few pieces in the past, such as the Scott Pilgrim thing (Miguel provided art for Scott Pilgrim Volume 4). I’ve done some gallery pieces, magazine illustrations. It’s interesting because the constraints are very different from when you’re working on a game.
Generally in a game I have to think of how it’s going to tile, how it’s going to work on a technical way, and I have to work within those constraints. If I break them, it’s probably going to cost me a lot of time. Whereas with an art piece I want to break away from doing that because if I don’t, I tend to not get very interesting compositions. So they’re sort of at war with each other.
Jonathan: What is your impression of the Toronto game scene is right now?
Miguel: I think it’s pretty amazing – particularly what’s happened with Hand Eye. When we got together, I guess it was two years ago – a lot happened in the last two years. I haven’t got a lot of sleep. It’s led to a lot of great events, and it’s gotten bigger and bigger as time’s gone on. There are just a lot of great games being made here. We’ve got one of the biggest Jams here, building games in one place. We’ve got Capy, Metanet, Queasy Games; and there are a lot of people – including Spooky Squid, knock on wood – that are going to break out in the next couple of years.
Jonathan: Where do you see Spooky Squid and the rest of the indie developers in Toronto in five years?
Miguel: In five years I think Toronto’s going to be even more known for its indie game scene, because of the amount of talent here and how organized it is. We’re definitely going to continue to have hit games come out here that are made by just a few people.
Jonathan: Do you see yourself working for any more mainstream developers in the future?
I’m not really interested in doing that. I worked in film for a year doing special effects and that sort of gave me a taste of what it’s like working on projects of that size. And it’s not terribly interesting. You’re just sort of a cog helping to make a big thing. You’re not really expressing anything of yourself, and you’re not exploring the ideas you find interesting. You’re just helping someone else do that.
Jonathan: Do you think the recent addition of certain big studios in Toronto is going to have any effect on the independent scene?
I don’t think it is, because I think we’re pretty strong at this point. I don’t think it’s going to be something where everyone suddenly goes, ‘to hell with you we’ll all get a job at the big studios.’ Because there’s going to be more. Like Ubisoft’s the start, but we’re probably going to have an EA or something else like that soon.
Jonathan: Is that good for gaming in Toronto?
Miguel: I think it is, because I don’t see how it’s going to be bad for it. I think we’re going to continue to have a strong indie scene. What will happen is that some people are going to go to those big studios and are going to find that it’s not for them – it’s not what they want to do. And there will be a whole community here to help them make that transition from working for someone else to making their own stuff.
Jonathan: So when did you first start playing video games?
Miguel: The first machine was a super-high end PC at the time; it had no hard drive and used the big floppy discs. The Hitchhiker’s Guide text adventure was still in stores at the time. I grew up playing other text adventures and a lot of those early games like King’s Quest and such. So I’ve been gaming for quite some time at this point.
Jonathan: What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to design games or be a part of the game development industry?
Miguel: Definitely just pick up a good and simple tool, and start experimenting. I use Game Maker for a lot of stuff we put out, and it’s great because it’s fast and you can start by using the really cheesy drag-and-drop stuff. Then you can move to coding without changing up the software. Unlike something like Flash, it actually has most of the routines you’re going to want for most games. So you’ll have a decent engine right there. With Flash, you basically have to build a game engine, and then make your game. But with Game Maker you can really just jump in and start making stuff that works.
Jonathan: What games have you been playing lately?
Miguel: At the moment I’m playing Devil Survivor on the DS; Trauma Center: Trauma Team on the Wii, and re-playing Jet Set Radio Future. I bought a Dreamcast because of [Jet Grind Radio]. That’s one of the influences for Guerrilla Gardening; it has sort of that street culture. There are elements of street art in both of them. And I love the style of that game. The controls feel a little bit wonky now, but it’s still one of my all-time favourite games.
Jonathan: What’s on your dork shelf?
Miguel: I have dork shelves. When it comes to toys I’ve got a bunch of EVA figures; I’m a huge fan of the stuff that Hideaki Anno’s done. I’ve got a lot of art books and manga. I’m a big fan of 20th Century Boys in terms of manga. For art books: Yoshitoshi ABe.