*The following is an excerpt from Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation. Available here.
‘Familial debt’, is not a common response to a query regarding the origins of a game's design. Yet, despite the majority of commentary and critique of Cellar Door Games’ seminal roguelike, Rogue Legacy, opting to revolve around concepts of death and rebirth, it is a game all about indebtedness and family. They are notions uncommon to video games as a whole, but they impact each and every one of us, whether we want them to or not.
"Thematically, we had ideas that were extremely specific, all revolving around debt. Not debt in terms of financial debt, that just isn't something that's very interesting, more in terms of the debt you owe to your family," explains Teddy Lee, Cellar Door co-founder. "The moment you're born you owe somebody something, whether that's your parents, your siblings or whoever. There's always a debt there that is literally impossible to get rid of and therefore it always hangs over you."
The comment is made in reference to the format of Rogue Legacy, a game that sees you on a quest to battle as far as possible through a castle in a bid to uncover new secrets and treasures. When your hero dies they are dead forever, the burden of exploration passed to the next generation.
"We don't really explain why people in this lineage are constantly running into this castle even though their ancestors keep dying there, but it's the loyalty to their family that forces them to do it. Each new child is obligated to go into the castle knowing that they're probably going to die."
Such an explanation of character motivation makes it clear why so many people focus their discussions of Rogue Legacy around death, often exclusively so. The game is a piece of expression about so much more than the mechanics players are forced into submitting to, though. Frequent death is merely a tool to explore themes relating to a family's legacy and worldly impact over numerous generations.
Family loyalty, the dedication to continuing your ancestors’ work, is what’s important. It’s this exploration of obligation and debt that takes the starring role not only within the confines of Rogue Legacy, but also within the lives and outlooks of the brothers that co-founded Cellar Door. Kenny and Teddy Lee grew up in Canada, home life dictated by the Chinese customs and traditions of their parentage. Indeed, Teddy even goes so far as to describe his childhood in Toronto as akin to that of a foreigner.
"We're Canadian-born Chinese," elaborates Teddy, "so we're in a bit of a weird spot. Family loyalty is extremely important in Chinese culture, perhaps not so much in Western culture. When I say 'not so much' I'm not saying that it doesn't exist, but it's just to a different degree. We were raised very much in a Western way, but against a strong Asian backdrop."
In this sense, then, it's easy to read an autobiographical element into Rogue Legacy. The game's continuous stream of heroes who wade headfirst into a castle in order to honour the efforts of their forbearers is one way to communicate, through interaction, the sense of loyalty that the brothers felt to their parents growing up. Teddy is keen to 'blame' the existence of the evocative message on his brother, Kenny, a student of film who would frequently seek to comment on what the game design is implying and what might be able to be read into it.
Teddy, on the other hand, has forever been more concerned with the gameplay and the systems governing player behaviour; the distribution of interests working in their favour when it comes to game design. As with most creators working within the video game medium today, this fascination with the interactive elements of design began at a young age and became what Teddy perceived to be an "unnatural addiction" to games during his school years.
The Lee family had little disposable income and, as such, the longer length of video games in comparison to many other forms of entertainment made them the perfect means to pass the time. "Our family was really poor and video games were the cheapest form of entertainment. You could spend $6 at Blockbuster getting a game to rent and you can play that thing for an entire weekend," he explains. "We would play on a Super Famicom [rather than a Super Nintendo], because we had borrowed it from a cousin in Taiwan. We 'forgot' to bring it back to them, so we got to keep it for a really long time [laughs]."
Not all of this time was spent simply playing the rented games purely as a distraction, however. From his earliest exposure to video games, Teddy excelled in identifying, arriving at and explaining solutions for design problems that he came across during those ‘Blockbuster weekends’. This eye for critiquing games in a very fine, precise way means that there are very few games that he has ever, genuinely, enjoyed.
Asking Teddy which game he last enjoyed playing, he pauses. He pauses for a long time. Eventually: "Well, back when I was a kid... I dunno... hmm... The nostalgia is impacting me when I think back about games that I might have liked and maybe didn’t actually like that much. Although, I did enjoy Super Mario RPG, that game was so far ahead of its time." Super Mario RPG was released in 1996, which gives some perspective on how difficult Teddy is to please.
What about Paper Mario, then, the newer series of roleplaying games that also feature the Italian plumber? "RPGs nowadays still can't compare to [Super Mario RPG], which is a little upsetting. The Paper Mario series just doesn't match up at all, even though they're supposed to be this amazing sequel."
Mario isn't the only famous, and generally respected, entity to fall foul of Teddy’s critical eye. Street Fighter II? "[That] was a huge craze and everybody was playing it, but I didn't like it because I couldn't stand the concept of having to input moves. I didn't understand where the fun was in doing a quarter-circle and punch to do a fireball. People that were really good at the game didn't have a problem, but I always wanted to be able to pull off a fireball with a single button."
How about From Software's Souls series, games the industry and its commentators tend to consider as masterworks? "Demon's Souls and Dark Souls super-impressed me, but there is still a lot I don't like about that series and they sometimes go too far into obscurity. I was never a huge fan of this idea of 'wiki-designed games', but unfortunately it seems to be becoming the new norm. People make these games with the assumption that you're going to go online and look at Wikipedia or whatever to help you understand how to play. I think it's a lazy way to make a game and the designers are cutting a million corners by doing it."
Not even games that have all but conquered most of the world are given a passing grade. "You cannot get three minutes into Minecraft without being completely stuck," bemoans Teddy. "You read articles that say things like 'Minecraft is one of the best designed games ever'.
"It is an amazingly-designed game that is super original, I'm not taking that away from it at all, but these articles would say things like 'you don't know what to do, so you break some dirt and put it into a box and magically you've created a dirt staircase'. Supposedly your mind explodes at the thought of all these things that you can do, but when I played it with my brother we just got stuck and we couldn't do anything."
Teddy realised fairly quickly that the kind of criticism he would apply to the games he played differed enormously to that of the friends he would play them with: "I was very critical, but I was a different kind of critical. Essentially, I got very anal about things and I didn't enjoy games very much for a really long time. Maybe I was just playing them out of habit, but there was a period that I would just think that all the games I played sucked.
"Honestly, I still think games suck. But don't tell anyone that [laughs]. I just don't find as much enjoyment in them as I wish I did. I think I might be a little too critical of them."
The quite wonderful thing about hearing this kind of 'critique' is that it's performed in a manner that is entirely charming, clearly originating from a desire to see things improve rather than out of a perverse love of cynicism and failure. Indeed, it's this razor sharp interest in understanding what might make a better game that influences much of Cellar Door's approach to design and dictates the genres that it chooses to operate within.
Rogue Legacy is, for many, representative of core roguelike design principles in that it features procedurally generated level design, treasure hunting and permanent death of characters. And yet: "This might sound weird, but we hate roguelikes," laughs Teddy. "That's why we did Rogue Legacy. It was our attempt at making a roguelike that we'd like to play."
The idea of creating a game within a genre that the brothers do not necessarily like existed before the release of Rogue Legacy. Despite Cellar Door being known, in Teddy's estimation, "by 99.999 per cent of people" for Rogue Legacy, the game was the studio's seventh.
One of the more provocative creations, both in name and concept, is Don't Shit Your Pants; an example of a game that is very much the result of Teddy and Kenny’s this-is-how-we-think-this-genre-should-be-done mindset. The goal of the game is described succinctly in its title, the interaction based around an older gentleman desperately trying to not succumb to the ignominy of defecating somewhere other than a toilet. Your job is to help him retain his dignity.
At its core it's a text-based adventure in which you must think outside of the box in order for the 'hero' to achieve this most unpretentious of goals. Teddy confides, begrudgingly, that the adventure game is his favourite genre, and that much of the inspiration behind Don't Shit Your Pants came from what he saw as the turgid position the genre finds itself stuck in.
"If there was a genre we could concentrate on and we knew it would be profitable for us, even just a little bit profitable, enough to get by on, it would be adventure games," Teddy asserts. "I can't stand where adventure games are now. It's the only genre that hasn't evolved since its inception. Ever since they added the ability to 'point and click’ no game has managed to improve upon that. The same problems, same mistakes, same templates still exist and that's why people continue to be turned off by them."
One of the problems with the kind of games Teddy describes translates to what most players tend to think of as being 'stuck': getting to a point in which you simply do not know what to do next, the game seemingly providing no assistance when it comes to teaching you how you might get yourself out of the situation.
Don't Shit Your Pants attempts to come up with a solution to this problem by working hints and encouragements into the game's post-shit achievement page. This is a game that allows you to shit in a multitude of ways and places, not only in your pants. After you've succumbed to your bowel movements the post-game info screen offers hints as to where else, and how, you might have been able to relieve yourself. It’s not really what the phrase 'multiple endings' was created to describe but it fits, regardless.
"That post-game achievement page was there to encourage people to go back and play the game again and think about what they were doing wrong," explains Teddy when queried about this idea of enticing players to approach the same problem from many angles.
"One of the achievements was named 'seppooku', a typo we designed to play on the idea of seppuku - the Japanese term for killing yourself in an honourable death. You can kill yourself in the game, which people would hear about and try to do it. Then they'd see that achievement after they die and catch on to the fact that the achievements are designed to give you hints about what is possible. The achievement page, in a way, is about telling you what you might achieve rather than just listing achievements.
"All we give you when you start the game is the information that you need to take a shit. That's it. It's extremely minimal, but we spent so much time with every bit of text. We couldn't be flamboyant because nobody would bother reading it. We had to make it funny, though, and we had to give players clues. Doing that with so little text is really, really difficult. Every word was meticulously thought through."
It's the reluctance of 'wiki-designed games' to provide hints and advice that irritates Teddy as he believes that everything the player needs should be accessible without leaving the confines of the game environment. That rings as true for Rogue Legacy as it does for Don't Shit Your Pants.
"When we made Rogue Legacy I was adamant that it shouldn't fall into this wiki-game category. That sort of thing should be an optional choice for players and not something they have to do to progress or to understand what they're supposed to do. I don't want any of what I call 'meta-crap'. I think games should be self-contained. When you watch a movie you don't need to go online or read a separate comic book to understand what the story is in order to get the complete experience."
This strong vision of what a game should or shouldn't be comes to the fore when Cellar Door decides how to initially approach projects. Very little emphasis is placed on trying to be fashionable or sticking to ideas that are currently working for other games and developers.
Such dedication to doing things its own way goes as far as refusing to engage with any kind of external focus testing. It's a form of feedback Teddy sees as entirely redundant if you're a good designer:
"I think [focus testing] is a huge waste of time and money. If you're an adequate designer, or even playtester, you should know already what 95 per cent of focus testers are going to bump into. People waste all of this time coming up with test builds and getting people to play through them to get their feedback, but if you just used your common sense you should know what they're going to say."
In Teddy’s experience, paying too much attention to external feedback can be so harmful that you run the risk of changing your original vision entirely. Prior to the release of Rogue Legacy, Cellar Door was in discussions to sell the game to a third-party. The potential buyers were eventually turned away, but not before providing plenty of opinion on what the game should look like upon launch.
"We were actually very close to selling the game before it was finished because we were just so exhausted from making it," remembers Teddy. "Super grateful that that fell through, though. One of the big pieces of feedback we were constantly given from those guys that might have bought it was 'it's not like Spelunky'. Well, yeah, that's because we're not trying to make Spelunky. I hadn't even played Spelunky at that point, so being like Spelunky was never going to have anything to do with the way that we designed the game.
“If we had sold the game to those people that wanted to buy it then we would have had to change Rogue Legacy for the worse. It would have lost its identity and lost those jagged edges that make games unique and distinguishable from one another."
This 'be like Spelunky' feedback didn't disappear once Rogue Legacy launched in 2013. Many critiques of the game, from professional critics and otherwise, highlighted that, unlike Spelunky, it failed to remain fun after it had been completed a couple of times. Essentially, players felt letdown that they would see the same occurrences repeat themselves after they'd played for long enough.
As Teddy is very keen to explain, the reason that things get repetitive is that the game wasn't designed "to be played 18 times over and over." While other roguelikes might consider this finite approach an act of heresy, Rogue Legacy was only ever designed with the idea that people would play through a couple times and be satisfied.
"People wanted us to change the core mechanics so that it would be closer to Spelunky and other successful games that already exist on the market," complains Teddy. "When you make a game that you don't really want to make you start making decisions that you don't even fully agree with or like. That can be something as simple as having a menu screen that is horrible, but you include it because that's what successful games seem to do.
"That just makes you lose your identity, though, and then what's the point? It's not fun, either, which makes the development of games like that so much worse."
This brand of staunchly individual design can have its drawbacks, and Teddy is the first to admit that he is not the easiest person to get along with in team settings. In his own words, he gets into a lot of "kerfuffles" when working on projects that lack a single voice in design.
Prior to Cellar Door, Teddy spent time at companies that would regularly assign multiple designers to a single project. He's adamant that this approach resulted in a huge amount of wasted time due to the difficulty in reaching a consensus. The problem was that no one wanted to stand up and declare that a certain idea should be scrapped because in doing so you might hurt someone's feelings.
"When you get into those companies you begin to realise just how much this concept of shared design responsibility doesn't actually work. It will work in the sense that eventually the collective will, hopefully, make the right decision, but even then it will take 100 times longer than if there was a single voice. I have a super short level of patience for that kind of delay.
"When you know something is the right decision you have to just gravitate towards it and go with it, so I would get abrasive at times when that wasn't happening. I've tended to leave companies and it hasn't always been on the best of terms."
It's here that his brother, Kenny, comes to the fore, the two trusting each other to be completely honest with issues relating to game design and studio direction. Teddy, graciously, is comfortable enough with their working relationship to suggest the workload is "90 per cent him and only 10 per cent me".
"He does the business side, the programming, the producing and the hiring of artists," recognises Teddy. "I didn't do any of that. I have taken on more roles now, but that's just the kind of person he is. I had an idea that he liked and he flat out taught himself programming so that we could make it. He inputs a lot into the design side, too. Design is a million mini-decisions that you're trying to make work for the big vision. We work together a lot to pull that together.
"It was him that said that we should go bigger [with our studio ambitions], so he worked out how to set up a business and whatever else. I guess that shows how dependant I am on my brother."
Kenny is able to put up with Teddy's focused, critical approach to design. Their professional success, then, is the result of their familial debt to one another. Teddy is clear about just how indebted he is to the hard work and patience of Kenny, while Kenny trusts his brother to generate ideas and conceptualise design philosophies.
"Rogue Legacy would never have been made if it wasn't me and my brother working on it," believes Teddy. "We fight a lot and it can get pretty mean and heated, but we do always kind of cool down in the end. Not always right away, but after a day or two. That does lead to a better product, though."
While this form of debt might not involve the kind of headlong dive into the face of near-certain doom as seen in Rogue Legacy, it does necessitate a level of reliance, loyalty and trust in one another and embracing that has allowed them to achieve more than they otherwise could. Their creations, and the direction of their lives, are indebted to family ties.