AVC at GDC ’10: An interview with VVVVVV creator Terry Cavanagh
If the less-is-more approach to game design had a poster child, it could very well be Irish developer Terry Cavanagh. Two years ago, Cavanagh quit his job as a market-risk analyst, took out a loan, and has been living on that to pursue game-making more seriously. But his decidedly lo-fi, minimalist games aren’t trying to capitalize on what’s been referred to as the “retro fetish,” they look like Commodore 64 games because Cavanagh thinks his self-described inability to draw is an asset, not a hindrance. From the poignant Judith and Best Years to the perplexing Bridge and foreboding Don’t Look Back, each of his successive releases have garnered more and more attention, with the spotlight most recently bathing January’s unpronounceable VVVVVV. VVVVVV was Cavanagh’s first for-sale game, and also his most impressive in terms of scale while also maintaining a defiant simplicity: The entire game hinges on the ability to defy gravity with the push of the game’s only non-directional button. (You can read our review of VVVVVV here, and check out the rest of Cavanagh’s games here.) Cavanagh hopped on an international flight for his first GDC, and The A.V. Club talked to him before his panel on indie innovation and philosophies about how his newest game was almost a bigger mouthful to say aloud and why he recently forced himself to care about mainstream games.
The A.V. Club: How do you pronounce VVVVVV? You were at the Indie Rant earlier in the week, and people all said it differently.
Terry Cavanagh: I think the reason it came up so often is it’s so much fun to try and pronounce it. I call it “V.” I called it “V” during development, but I encourage any sort of funny pronunciation so V-V-V-V-V-V is fine, as is vuh-vuh-vuh or trying to guess how many V’s are in it. Some people call it “Six V’s,” which is probably easiest.
AVC: Well, that is the website for it. Not to harp on the name, but hearing so many people struggle to say it out loud does make you wonder.
TC: It’s kind of weird; nobody’s really asked. People just kind of say, “Oh right, it’s called VVVVVV." I assumed it would be a wee bit more controversial, but it’s just been a non-topic, except that it’s the name. The original working title was just vvvvvvvvvvv, and I thought about it because I get attached to working titles, and I always end up thinking “alright, I’m just going to choose the stupidest title I can think of.”
AVC: So why did you cut five V’s?
TC: [Laughs.] Well, it just happened with the budget that it just suited it. It just felt right? So I was convinced should maybe turn this into VVVVVVVV. That’s kind of sensible. So I went with eight uppercase V’s for a couple of months, and I was later talked into going with six, which eventually became kind of relevant.
AVC: So if it had stayed in development longer, would only one V have been left?
TC: Yeah. The longer it’s in development the fewer V’s there are in the name. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it safe to say that VVVVVV is your most ambitious game to date? It hinges on a very simple concept, but its scale is pretty considerable.
TC: I’m not sure I’d use the word “ambitious.” It’s definitely the biggest game I’ve ever made. I got to a point with the early prototype where it dawned on me that there’s something worth exploring here. I hadn’t meant for it to take six to eight months, but I kept working on it because I liked it so much. In a way it’s less ambitious than some of the games I made last year. It wasn’t as scary to make.
AVC: If you feel it wasn’t so ambitious, why do you think it’s made such a big splash?
TC: It’s fun. That’s honestly it, really. It’s a lot of fun to play. I like to think it’s well-designed. It’s interesting to play. I think that’s basically what it comes down to.
AVC: What’s the least amount of deaths you’ve gotten playing through yourself?
TC: I can get through with nine deaths.
AVC: That’s pretty good. I’ve got about 300 on you or so.
TC: [Laughs.] I don’t think anybody’s actually managed no deaths quite yet. I’m not entirely sure if it’s possible. It probably is, but the big stickler is the gravitron part, which you get just before the last level. So you can get quite far and then just immediately die, unless you’re extremely practiced. I think it could be some time before somebody legitimately does it, but people have cheated to do it.
AVC: Well, that doesn’t count.
TC: Yeah. They’re only cheating themselves, you know?
AVC: Obviously, the Commodore 64 was an influence on this game, but there have been comments on YouTube and elsewhere speculating on whether you were also inspired by Mega Man 5’s Gravity Man stage.
TC: Oh, yeah! It’s like Metal Storm. The mechanic isn’t totally unique or anything, but I don’t really think that’s the focus of the game. But yeah, it’s been done before. I went and played Mega Man 5 actually, once somebody mentioned [that.] I went and played Metal Storm as well, which is a bit closer. I want to say that it was inspired, but it’s more just a coincidence. Even though it’s the same mechanic, we’re exploring it in very different ways. A million and one games are similar to Mario; I don’t mind that there are a couple that are similar to VVVVVV.
AVC: VVVVVV was created as a reaction to the whole “retro fetish,” just blankly liking a game because it looks old. While indie developers have embraced that approach, we’re seeing more and more big names following this path, with Mega Man, Excitebike, and Contra all issuing new old-school entries. Are the best ways the old ways, you think?
TC: No, not necessarily. A lot of people are sick of games that are just aiming for realism, and there’s so much unexplored space in low-fidelity styles. I completely agree with the talk yesterday about this. I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of it, especially in the indie scene, because it’s easier to do, it’s a lot less time-consuming. It’s easier to make something look good even if you’re not an especially good artist, because all you have to do is try to convey a style, or try to get an idea across visually. Whereas if you’re trying to make something look realistic, it’s a lot harder. It usually has worse results if you’re not a good artist, which I’m not. That’s why I use lo-fi styles as well. I work in low resolutions because I think my graphics are better as a result. As for why bigger companies are doing it I don’t know, I think there’s probably a market for nostalgia. And people who are making that are delighted to have fans pay, sure.
AVC: A big theme this week has been indie developers talking about supposedly being in direct competition with AAA titles or big-budget companies. Do you feel that way?
TC: To be honest and serious I’m not really well-versed on what the industry is doing these days. I recently got myself an Xbox 360 to make a conscious effort to catch up on modern, mainstream gaming.
AVC: Did the proceeds from VVVVVV help fund that?
TC: [Laughs.] Yes. I just thought it would be really nice to get an Xbox 360. I don’t think I can talk about mainstream gaming because I don’t have a formed opinion on it, and I want to change that. So far, I’m liking some games. I like Fallout 3. I like Grand Theft Auto IV.
AVC: You’re hitting all the big ones.
TC: Yeah, I’m basically going through all the blockbusters that people have been talking about the past couple of years. I haven’t been really taken with the industry of gaming in a long time. The last one I really loved was Bully on the PS2, but that’s like six years old now. I can’t think of any games that I’m looking forward to especially on the Xbox .
AVC: Well, everything you just mentioned has been open-world games. Is that just a coincidence, or is it something that especially appeals to you?
TC: Actually, yeah. I find myself really enjoying a lot of open-world games I play now. I’ve really like the Grand Theft Auto series, pretty much since forever. I’ve never kind of explored that myself, and I’d like to. VVVVVV kind of has that freedom to explore, but it’s not quite the same as Grand Theft Auto.
AVC: How has your game-a-month project been going?
TC: About shit. I did it for two months. I started a new project in January. I started a new project in February, and at the end of the month I laughed at what I’d done. The game for January I didn’t like, and didn’t think was very interesting. I think I will abandon the project.
AVC: Are you putting your sights on doing another for sale game?
TC: No. Not for a long time, I think. I want to do shorter games, not a little longer games. My favorite game that I really like I am probably going to finish in March or April. It’ll be a freeware thing, an RPG. It feels like unfinished business to me, because RPGs are the genre that inspired me to want to be a game designer. My favorite game ever is Final Fantasy VII.
RPGs have an awful lot of filler, to be honest. It’s a genre I love, but I recognize that even a lot of the games I love, like the Final Fantasy series and Chrono Trigger, they’re flawed in a lot of ways that could be better. I didn’t say that. [Laughs.] They’re fantastic games, but I find it hard to play RPGs these days, when I have the time enough. I would like to see games have less filler, not necessarily be shorter. But at the time a lot of games seem to be designed to be “a length,” rather than designed—
AVC: For an experience?
TC: Yeah. Some games are better for being long, some games are better for being short. Some games shouldn’t be longer than five minutes. They can be excellent in five minutes, but they’d be a terrible two hours. And they’d be a terrible 10 hours.
You can buy VVVVVV from http://thelettervsixtim.es/