Comedy in games is difficult. Most are happy to stuff their script full of course language, dank memes and pop-culture references in lieu of actual jokes, cellotape it to a flimsy, patch-work skelleton of recycled game mechanics and let flaccid combat or broken platforming pick up the slack. But with Maize, an absurdist adventure full of wacky government-sponsored experiments gone wrong, Toronto-based Finish Line Games are trying to keep the same kooky – and at times unsettling – vibe running throughout, whether that be in the characters you meet, puzzles you solve or environments you explore. We caught up with co-directors Daniel Posner and Brandon Hicks to find out more:
ONLYSP: In your own words, what is Maize? And don’t say the Native American word for corn.
Daniel Posner: “An adventure in our absurd world.”
Brandon Hicks: “A fever dream that I’m sure really exists. With talking corn. You stole my other answer!”
ONLYSP: How did you arrive at that concept? Was it a gradual, iterative process – or a lightbulb moment of, “We have to make this!”
Brandon: “I have a story about that. It’s the best, and Dan is tired of me telling it, but I’m saying it anyway.
“So, Dan, in a moment of pure glory, wrote four lines in an iPhone note. Beverages may have been involved:
maze game with corn
they are alive etc. move around and shit
try and get out.
“A lot of the game popped into my head in a split-second, and I said ‘This is why I am in video games, WE NEED TO MAKE THIS’.”
ONLYSP: It’d be pretty hard not to get on board with ‘they are alive etc.’.
Brandon: “That ‘etc.’ really opens up endless possibilities. It really made the concept.”
ONLYSP: You mentioned that you’re ‘in video games’ then – Is this your first major project, and if not, what’re some of the things you’ve done before?
Brandon: “I’ve been in games since 2012, but this is definitely the biggest project I’ve ever done. I got pretty lucky in that I’ve been able to work in my two favourite things, sports and games. I started out as a sportswriter for CBC (Hockey Night in Canada, etc), and had my own column for a while, then decided I really wanted to be in video games. So I went back to school and did a post-graduate in game design at a college in Toronto, and that eventually landed me here working with Dan.
“Fun fact is that Dan and I are both teachers at the college I went to. He’s been in the industry a ‘little’ longer than me but I’ll let him explain that.”
Dan: “I’m not that old Brandon… I got my start in the late ’90s as a co-founder of a Toronto based-developer called Pseudo Interactive. We shipped Cel Damage for Xbox, GameCube, PS2, and the Full Auto series for Xbox 360 and PS3. Then I took a break and shipped a whole bunch of Mac titles, then co-founded Finish Line Games with Rich Hilmer (a former partner from Pseudo) and re-launched Cel Damage HD to get our indie feet wet again.”
Brandon: “I came on to help with the Cel Damage HD launch, then Dan and I started working together as co-leads on this shortly after. That was in 2014. Good lord!”
ONLYSP: How many people are on the studio dev team – and you say a lot of them teach or went to the college?
Brandon: “We’ve got nine core people working with us in our tiny studio (also at the college), and have been lucky enough to have some great guys do contract work for us as well. The total team is 15, and we’ve also had a few student interns help us out along the way.”
ONLYSP: And you decided to go with a more traditional funding route – with money from the CMF (Canadian Media Fund) etc – rather than with Kickstarter and the like, which ironically is less conventional for indie games. How did you go about winning that funding and is it something you’d recommend to others?
Brandon: “True, and if that route didn’t work out we were definitely thinking of Kickstarter, but CMF and OMDC (Ontario Media Development Corporation) are actually really supportive of indie titles. A lot of great indie games are made thanks to them.”
Dan: “If you have a track record as a studio or team, I would recommend the funding routes as you have a good shot at securing funding. Of course, you need a creative and original idea these days.”
Brandon: “They like seeing that your team has some experience. For brand-new studios with no team members with shipping experience it is very tough to get. If you’re brand-new, Kickstarter or the like might be the way to go. But even then, Kickstarter and others like to see celebrities names attached to projects. Like Tim Schafer, etc. But you can still surprise and find an audience if you game is super cool.”
ONLYSP: A bit more on the game then: Can you give me an overview of Maize’s story? What situation do players find themselves in at the start of the game?
Brandon: “A strange one, to say the least. You wake up on a farm, no idea how you got there. There’s a mysterious door in a hill in the middle of the cornfield, and you have to explore the farm and solve some puzzles in order to figure out a way to open that door.
“And that’s when things get really weird and silly.
“Sentient corn may or may not be involved. And a grumpy Russian robot bear who reluctantly becomes your sidekick.
“I have no idea how any of this happened but we made it and there’s no going back now.”
ONLYSP: Maize seems to touch on a lot of different genres – There looks like a bit of comedy in there, a bit of horror with the atmosphere of the abandoned farm, all wrapped up in that Myst/Dear Ester walking-exploration style? Does it really encompass all of those elements, and how do you balance them to get a good mix?
Brandon: “Yeah you hit the nail on the head there. I like to think of the game as a mix of old-school Myst-style adventuring, with more than a hint of Lucasarts/Sierra humour, with a touch of creepy/weirdness to it. It’s halfway between a walking sim and a game like “The Witness,” when it comes to puzzle-solving and difficulty.
“Maize maybe leans more towards the walking sims, even. But the player is very active in the world, doing stuff throughout. And the robot bear hates every second of it.
“Early on in dev we actually were going to try to pull off a ‘bait-and-switch,’ presenting the game as if it were a ‘horror’ title, but then pivoting into silly absurdity after the first level. But when we saw how compelling the weird, absurd style was, we realized that it was super strong, and we wanted to have that current running throughout the title.
“But the game really is an exercise in contrasts. It’s really creepy and foreboding, while at the same time silly and absurd. Visuals help there, too. We’re going for a realistic style, which make the sentient corn really stand out, compared to if we went with a more cartoony look. I think the contrasts really bring out the weirdness and give it that extra ‘wow’ factor.”
ONLYSP: More in terms of gameplay – you mentioned puzzles then – what kind of things are you doing minute-to-minute? Popping sentient corn with microwave guns?
Brandon: “Oh dear god no that’s horrific!”
Dan: “Expansion pack!”
ONLYSP: Maybe that is a little DOOM…
Brandon: “Basically you’re searching the game world for things you can pick up and interact with. You can examine the items you get for clues on how to use them, and then use them in the environment. It’s like a point-and-click adventure with the immersion you get in first-person.
“The puzzles are a silly as the rest of the game. I don’t want to spoil too much but they’re very in line with the style.”
Brandon: “As you’re doing this, you’re being pulled along by the story.
“The game is peppered with cutscenes and in-environment storytelling which fills out the story of the research facility and the sentient corn.
“I think the best thing I can say about it is that I love how we managed to escalate what happens as the game goes on. It’s very exploratory, though, when it comes to minute-to-minute. There is a lot of room for you to breathe and take in the environment, look around, go at your own pace.”
ONLYSP: Is it a once-through kind of thing, or can things change depending on what you do?
Brandon: “It’s pretty much a once-through experience, but there are story items that you may miss that you can go back and find on subsequent sessions, which will flesh out what’s going on for people who like to search thoroughly.”
ONLYSP: So what from gaming and wider popular culture inspired you during development?
Brandon: “There’s a bunch of games I can reference here. Gone Home, Frog Fractions, The Stanley Parable, Day of the Tentacle, Myst, are just a few that come to mind. Outside of gaming, I think British sketch comedy had a big influence, classic stuff like Monty Python and more modern fare like Little Britain. You even have some small elements of stuff like Office Space and The Office in there, when you start to uncover the story behind the research facility.”
ONLYSP: It’s interesting you say about the silly puzzles and in-environment storytelling with a lot of funny games, they just sort of have funny dialogue, but don’t try to weave comedy into every part of the game – is that something you’re trying to do with Maize?
Brandon: “Haha yes, I’m really happy with how the puzzles turned out. Don’t want to give too much away, because that’s half the fun. Let’s just say your robot bear doesn’t come pre-assembled.
“We had a very strong vision from the start, about what we wanted this game to be, and we really took great care to make sure that the tone was apparent through the experience. In the art, cutscenes, writing, voicing, and mechanics. Because it can be jarring when you have a tone in certain parts of a game and not others, so we were really focused on making sure every element fit.
“A great thing that happened was that we managed to keep the core vision of the game true all the way through development, and I really think that shows when you play it. We got super lucky with the team, and everyone on board got what we were going for, and added their own piece to the product.”
ONLYSP: That’s everything I’ve got to ask you, is there anything you’ve always wanted to say about the game but no one’s every asked?
Brandon: “No psychedelics were used during the making of this game. I’m honestly not sure if that’s good or bad, but there you go. I’m sure people have wanted to ask that, but were too polite up to this point.”
198X Review — A Nostalgia Trip Without a Destination
Some short stories feel more like chapters—snipped out of a larger work—that struggle to make sense on their own. 198X represents a translation of that ethos to video game form. As a result, the game feels unfulfilling, though that does not detract from the overall quality on offer. Ultimately, the player’s appraisal of 198X will depend on whether they place more stock in story or gameplay because while the former leaves much to be desired, the latter will be a hit for anyone with fond memories of the 8- and 16-bit classics.
In the framing and overall structure, 198X is decidedly modern, but everything else pulses with a retro vibe. At its core, the game is a compilation, weaving together five distinct experiences under the auspice of a story of personal development. From the Double Dragon-infused ‘Beating Heart’ to the turn-based dungeon RPG ‘Kill Screen’, each title feels slick, if a little undercooked. Those old-school originals could only dream of being as smooth as these throwbacks. However, the two-button input methodology results in the games feeling just a touch too simple, though their brevity—each clocking in at a maximum of 15 minutes (depending on the player’s skill level and muscle memory)—makes that less of an issue than it might have been. If more depth is present, it is hidden well, as the game lacks any sort of tutorial to guide players. Nevertheless, the stellar presentation goes a long way towards papering over the cracks.
The pixel art aesthetic of 198X is staggering. Each of the worlds that players make their way through is pitched perfectly to fit the mood it evokes. From the grungy brawler of the first game to the more melancholic mood of the open-road racer, the screen is drenched in lavish colour and far more detail than one might expect from such a seemingly simple art style.
Easily a match for the visuals is the audio. The in-game sounds of a car engine or bone-crunching strike are low-key, which allows the music to come to the fore. Those tunes are all from the electronic genre, simple, yet layered with enough depth to not feel tedious or tiring. Easily overshadowing all the rest though is Maya Tuttle’s voice-over narration as The Kid. Her tone is one of pervasive resignation that works to reinforce the same mood within the script.
That melancholia will surely strike a chord with anyone who has grown up on the fringes. The Kid speaks of once loving and now hating the Suburbia of their childhood, where memories of happiness collide with a contemporary feeling of entrapment. The words and lines are powerfully evocative—made even more so by the connection between the gameworlds and the prevailing emotion at that point. The problem is that they amount to nothing. The story comprises of these snippets—these freestanding scenes of life lived lonely—that never coalesce into anything. The Kid may find an arcade and speak of finding some sort of home and a source of strength, but it goes nowhere. The game ends just as things start to get interesting. Setting up for a sequel is no sin. Plenty of other games and media products—from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter—have done just that. However, to be effective, such first parts need to offer a story in and of themselves, not just the promise of a story to come, and that is where 198X falls apart.
With each game in the compilation being a straightforward, one-and-done affair and the overarching narrative feeling like a prologue at best, 198X is wafer-thin. The presentation is simply remarkable, and the package has enough variety to be worth a look, but the unmistakable impression is that something is missing.
Reviewed on PC. Coming soon to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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