We at WASDuk love a good Indie game, and our collective love of the Silent Hill series is well documented. So when Sam Barlow, who worked on Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories turned his talents to Indie games, we were more than a little bit excited. Since we interviewed Sam, his debut title Her Story has since been released and is currently available on Steam.
I’m Sam Barlow. I’m working on a game called Her Story — this is my first indie game after over ten years working in the commercial console games industry. I’m probably most known for the game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which I wrote and was lead designer for.
Why did you decide to go into Indie games developing?
The increasing cost of the genre I was working in — the action adventure/story game — and the nervousness as we transitioned over into the PS4 generation meant that it was getting harder and harder for me to pitch and work on the kinds of games, the kinds of stories, the kinds of characters I was passionate about. At the same time I was getting insanely jealous of some of the indie micro-studios and the work they were doing. There’s a kind of collective blinkering in big studios, a feeling that if you want to do cool things you need to put the time in, work your way up the ladder, earn your place. I think it comes from the fact that making games is 50% a creative industry and 50% an office job. But you look at some of the indies and smaller studios — they’re just going out there and making stuff, making really interesting, accomplished games. That seemed like a way I could make the games I was drawn to, without having to ask permission from a publisher first.
How many games have you developed so far?
Previously I’ve worked on five released commercial games (from Serious Sam: Next Encounter through to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) and two unreleased. Before that I released the cult text game “Aisle” — but Her Story will be my first self-published indie game.
I don’t really have a favourite. I loved working on Wii for the first time — the ground breaking controls and the fact that the audience for that console was more inclusive and broad than on the other consoles. For the same reasons, I’m a fan of mobile and tablet — the touchscreen interface, the breadth of the audience. And PC — like I said, I don’t have a favourite! — I love how open the PC is, how accessible it is. PC and mobile… these are devices that are part of peoples lives, outside of being just gaming devices.
Are there any specific processes you go through when brainstorming ideas for new games?
Writing lots of lists, notes, mini-bibles. Trying to hit an idea from every angle, shake stuff loose in my head. If you can make a list of a hundred things to do with an idea, it’s always easy to find at least one or two that are actually worth pursuing. Once the idea is fairly locked, I like to research: (a) play/read/watch stuff that is similar to avoid re-treading old ground and to see what conventions there might be around that idea or its genre, and (b) read around the specifics of the story I’m thinking about — biographies, non-fiction, other stories, etc. From that I can usually shake free some specific ideas, or start to see where my particular take might be headed.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Everywhere! Ok, I’ll be more specific: Consciously I’m being inspired by what is going on in the world around me, by stories that are sad, weird, beautiful. For Her Story, I was particularly interested/saddened by the events around the trial of Jodi Arias — that kicked off a lot of thoughts about crime fiction and my love of that genre — it was hard to separate by love for the ‘box’ (interview room) sequences in my favourite TV show Homicide: Life on the Street and the popularity of real life interview room footage. Also I’m dimly aware that subconsciously 90% of my inspiration comes from my childhood, whether that’s the stories that were read to me, the early games I played, TV I watched or the events I witnessed through young eyes. The game manual to Infocom‘s detective, the screenshots of Vera Cruz in 80s game magazines; the collection of Russian folktales that was one of the few books I had to read when I lived in Tanzania as a youngster, etc.
What are you working on at the moment?
A game called Her Story. It’s a game where you get to search through a police database of video footage that covers a series of interviews with a woman about her missing husband. You only get to see the woman’s answers, none of the questions and you search through the clips by looking for the words that she speaks. So although it’s done through an antiquated computer interface, it can feel a little bit like you’re in a conversation with her.
People want fresh experiences. They are hungry for deeper experiences — connecting with characters or themes that resonate more strongly with their life. You have to cling to that part of your game, work hard to deliver something authentic and truthful — it’s worth it when you make it to the finish line with that intact.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Publishers are not players! I think with games the hardest part is that we don’t have a very good way of explaining up front what a game might be and so it’s very hard to get buy in to an idea that is maybe trying something new. I also think too many people associate videogames with a kind of very literal escapism — they assume a game has to be about being a superhero, acting some fantasy without irony, seeing or experiencing something very aspirational. That’s not the kind of experience I naturally gravitate towards… so it’s often being challenging trying to run those ideas through the system.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Of the things I’ve released, Aisle and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories are the best I’ve done. Both for the structural things they did and the stories and characters at their heart. In both cases I was able to touch the audience, and also add to the ongoing conversation with other creators.
What has been your favourite part of developing video games?
I think all stories are essentially interactive. Traditional static media have a whole bag of tricks that makes the audience feel part of what is happening, feel complicit in the drama… the thing that is really exciting and different about videogames is that the interactivity is actually happening, there a direct, actionable connection between the audience and the story. That can allow for some very special things to happen.
Where do you hope to see yourself/your team in ten years?
Her Story is about seeing if there’s an audience for games that are a little more experimental, that don’t directly tap into popular templates. If we can find that audience, then I’d love to grow it and grow the scale and ambition of the projects too!
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the video game industry today?
I think the industry learned a lot of lessons from other industries — movies, toys, gambling (!) — but in doing so it’s kind of run before it can walk. The dominant business models leave a lot of content on the table. There aren’t enough systems in place to financially support a broad, diverse set of games. But I think that content has such a strong desire to be heard that it will find a way!
I can’t narrow it down to one, but if you had a gun to my head and I was packing for a desert island I would grab New Zealand Story, Super Metroid, Thief, Silent Hill 2, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Metroid Prime first… I guess there would be a lot of nostalgia on that desert island!
What is your earliest gaming memory?
Probably using computers at school. We had Granny’s Garden and a text adventure where you had to escape from an island — a kind of educational LOST. The first games system I had at home was an Amstrad CPC which came with a box with fifty games or so in it. We were banned from playing the Fruit Machine Simulator in case it turned us into gamblers (if only my parents could have looked into the future and seen the future of social gaming!). I spent a lot of time arguing with my brothers over whose turn it was and reciting mantras we’d convinced ourselves helped the flaky tape drive to read iffy cassettes.
Is there a game you wish you’d been on the production team for?
Interesting question. I’d love to be able to take credit for Metroid Prime… but clearly they didn’t need my help as the game turned out pretty good without my involvement. Having already worked on some of my favorite IP, I guess one of the few that is left that I’d kill to have a shot at is Metroid. I know this is generally accepted as the worst idea ever, but I’d love to do a deep story Metroid, really get inside Samus’ head.
If you weren’t developing games you would be…?
I guess I’d be trying to tell stories somehow– painting, writing, directing, anything to give an outlet to the voices in my head.
You can read our preview of Her Story here.
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