ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Lucas Johnson, Claris Cyarron and ceMelusine of Silverstring Media about Glitchhikers, a game about “the kinds of things you end up thinking about when you’re alone on the road at night,” as ceMelusine put it.
There’s something about driving late at night that tends to bring out those weird little thoughts you have in the back of your mind and make you unpack them, shuffle them around, chew them up, and make something new of them. That’s the premise behind <Glitchhikers, a game in which you speed along a highway at night listening to the radio and chatting with a shifting parade of freaky, introspective passengers.
It began with a drive that the game’s artist and programmer, ceMelusine, had taken many times before. “I kind of go down to Washington state every year with my friend, and we always end up driving back up to Canada in the middle of the night, like overnight,” he described. “So one of these times we were driving back up and it was like 3 or 4am, we were driving on the highway, and there was a flickering streetlight on a road that was running parallel to the highway. And I was tired and kind of dazed and staring at it, and it seemed like a nice moment, so I sort of pitched this idea of a game that captured that feeling.”
It’s a feeling that most people have had, and its universality is part of why Glitchhikers works so well. “It’s such a universal idea that we immediately grokked what ceMelusine was going for, and bringing our own context to it allowed us to, I think, make something that was even more universal and allowed a player to come to it with their own context,” Lucas Johnson, who founded Silverstring and did most of the game’s writing, said. “Lucas, ceMelusine and myself all have had a lot of personal experiences in cars,” added Claris Cyarron, who’s billed as the game’s “ineffability consultant.” Cyarron at one point suffered from insomnia and would drive aimlessly at night until sleep finally called in the early hours.
During high school I used to sneak in my girlfriend’s window late at night and by the time I found myself on the road back home, the suburban streets of southern California had transformed into a different planet, soaked in fog and orange light. I’d often take the long way, up Pacific Coast Highway, just to soak it in and make it last longer. Glitchhikers reminds me of that.
Playing through Glitchhikers takes a matter of minutes, depending how quickly you choose to progress through its conversations. But the “hikers” you pick up along your journey vary enough—there are six in total, three of whom you’ll see on a given play-through—that you’ll want to do it at least twice. These characters are weird and wonderful: one has a crescent moon for a face, another a single, enormous eyeball. And they’re chatty. They broach topics ranging from the meaning of life to childhood fantasies, opening up to you, a stranger, and listening eagerly for your responses.
Johnson wrote the dialogue and ceMelusine designed the characters, simultaneously but mostly separately. Johnson gave some requirements, like that one character be a child or another be pregnant, and ceMelusine drew from ideas he’d been thinking about for some time. He’d never done art in 3D before, he said, but he knew early on the low-polygon style he was after. “Low-poly I think has sort of—it’s more abstract and a little bit more blurry in a way, and I thought that fit really well with the sort of dreamy thing we were going for,” he said.
The road itself, with its forests, hills and tunnels, is based largely on Canadian highways they travel in real life, especially on the route from Calgary to Vancouver, where Silvestring is based. And at the beginning, that was all they had. “Lucas and ceMelusine did the initial foray into the development, laying out a little bit of art and a quick prototype and a bit of story,” Cyarron said. “And then I came in and, looking at all the stuff they did, I could see these themes that felt very strong running through all the work. It became evident to me very quickly that what we were trying to do was create a space, more than a story.” All told Glitchhikers took about six months to develop.
It’s all very dreamlike and slightly surreal, and the game’s music is one of the biggest factors in creating that atmosphere. It was composed by Devin Vibert, a frequent Silverstring collaborator and long-time friend of Johnson’s (they had a band together in high school). “We have this great working relationship where I can say, ‘Here’s what we’re looking for generally. Here’s some sample music that is essentially the feel that we’re going for. Go make a thing.’ And then he goes and makes a thing and it’s usually almost perfect right off the bat,” Johnson said.
One of the things they sent him for inspiration was David Lynch’s song “Pinky’s Dream,” which the in-game radio DJ name-checks when you start the game. Another was NPR’s long-running radio program Hearts of Space, “which is really bizarre music, anything from, like, new age to degraded rotting magnetic reel-to-reel tapes that have been bought at an estate sale,” Cyarron said. “And it can be like really surreal at creepy to listen to it, especially at that witching hour.”
One thing the developers wanted to avoid was cultural appropriation, made difficult because “cars are basically a spiritual artifact and symbol in North America,” Cyarron said. “So it became a question very quickly of, like, how could we create a space that was very spiritual, that was very meditative, that was like a “sweat lodge,” without going anywhere near that, because so often when you’re talking about those things, storytellers just go right there and just rip off wholesale aboriginal people’s aesthetics and beliefs and do a lot of real damage and hurt by profiting off that.” And the game is more authentic for avoiding that, the developers agreed.
But Glitchhikers is a spiritual game, at least insomuch as it asks spiritual questions. There’s no denying that. “Everyone’s been on a journey,” Cyarron said. “The journey itself is a liminal space…and there’s a whole lot of symbolism about this kind of in-between existence that was very clearly within our grasp when we were making this game. That’s, I think, one of the main things we wanted to push toward.”
Glitchhikers is available now for whatever you want to pay for it at glitchhikers.com. Silverstring’s next big project doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s about “an expedition into a ruined social network, a rather dystopian place constructed of and on the ruins of social networks, where there are real facebooks—that is, books made of faces—where tweets audibly twitter, and where Google’s collection of little bits of you is made physical and literal,“ as Cyarron described the official pitch.