We speak to Bernhard Schulenburg about his delightful indie game
For many, video games are a means of escape from the stresses of life. For Bernhard Schulenburg they are a means of personal expression.
This independent developer from Copenhagen, Denmark, has created a game around a pivotal moment in his life, when conflict and confusion threatened to leave him and his family in darkness.
Where is My Heart? is its name, and Schulenburg was inspired to create it after becoming lost while hiking with his parents.
It’s a 2D puzzle platformer where levels are divided into scattered comic panels. And its pixel art style is reminiscence of a reworked 8-bit game from the late '80s.
Schulenburg studied multimedia computer science at the University of Ulm, Germany, and says he has been drawing comics and creating worlds since childhood. On this project he split his time over conception, art, game and level design and programming.
He has collaborated with die gute Fabrik (‘the good factory’) to finish the game, which is set to arrive on PSN soon.
As the game’s release approaches, Schulenburg talks to Develop about the experience of creating his first game, explains why he wanted to express himself in this way and what the future may hold for him as an independent developer.
You’ve said you were inspired to make Where is My Heart after getting lost while hiking with your parents. Can you describe that experience?
We were hiking on a Sunday in the woods near my home town. Lots of other families were doing the same. Eventually we got lost because we didn’t have a map.
There were all these foot paths meandering between the trees. It was not so obvious to figure out which one to take and where we would end up. My dad starts walking faster, because he’s afraid of it getting dark.
I guess indeed the most scary thing that can happen on an average night, is to end up lost in a dark wood - you should try it out. It’s pretty scary. Strange animal sounds, etc. This situation brought out the tensions that we’d been having in our family all along.
So my father was the one pushing us to move faster. I was more relaxed and wanted to enjoy the scenery. I wasn’t too fussed about being lost. There were plenty of people, other hikers, we could ask for directions. My mum always takes it easy to a point and then she flips out. This was also at a time when my parents went through lots of tensions, caused by my father having secrets and my mother suspecting him of cheating.
There were all these little weirdnesses in our behaviour towards each other. Viewed from afar it’s kind of funny and amusing, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s just nerve-wrecking. We ended up shouting at each other, with the occasional Sunday hikers passing by. It felt awkward and embarrassing. I then and there decided I never wanted to do anything ever again with those two. Of course, that’s not really how it happened. I still do stuff with them, but it’s always interesting, to say the least. Probably it’s the typical ‘growing-up’ story, needing to get some distance to the parent household.
Why did you choose to make a video game to express the feelings you felt on your hiking experience?
I really love the interactive space video games can offer. Creating a little world which has these strange rules and laws is something extremely satisfying to me. Whenever I see people being interested in this little world I secretly rejoice.
Currently my main interest in video games is to use the technology as a medium to express my own very personal inner world.
And what does the gameplay involve? Can you give any examples from the game that relate back to your hiking experience?
It’s a platformer, where the screen is split up into many little panels which serve to make a rather simple world seem inaccessible and complicated. There are three little monsters (Gray, Orange and Brown).
The player can switch between them. Each of them has a power, which can erupt in certain situations. I call these forms super-beings. The Gray monster shape-shifts into the Bat King and can see and use secret platforms. The Orange monster shifts into the Rainbow Spirit and can travel through the game world in a non-linear way. And the Brown morphs into Antler Ancestor and makes the other two transform into fireflies. Together these elements form a rule set, which makes up the core of this little universe. I wanted to craft a little weird world. It is very introspective, which can be seen as a flaw too.
What inspired the segmented comic, pixel art look of its visuals?
I always liked drawing my own stories as comics or graphic short novels. This might have been one of the inspirations. Also I wanted to transfer the feeling of being lost over to the player.
The colour depth of the images we use is actually 32-bit. Of course, we’re using just a fraction of this colour spectrum.
What has the process been like taking your game from IndieCade 2008 and pitching for publishing/distribution deals?
Where is My Heart? was part of the official IndieCade selection. They invited me to show WIMH in a gallery, but selected a bunch of other games for their finals. It was later in early 2009 that the game prototype got into the Independent Games Festival as a finalist. While showing the game at the festival, I was offered a publishing deal for the PSP and PS3. It wasn’t so hard to get the deal, but then porting the game and dealing with all the technical pits was the hard part.
Did the game’s recognition by IndieCade help significantly since you’ve been pitching it?
I’d say it helped to get awareness and also made it easier to get a deal. It’s the first game I’m working on, so I can’t compare so well. From what I hear it can be quite daunting to get a deal with the big platforms. Yes, IndieCade, IGF, they all help.
Was PlayStation Minis your choice or did Sony offer you distribution under that scheme? And what do you think of it?
Sony offered it. Minis are kind of cool and kind of problematic. The cool thing is that they run on both PS3 and PSP. The problem is that I don’t know if the typical PS3/PSP player will be is into stuff like Where is My Heart? We’ll just have to see how it goes.
Will you be looking to take the game to other platforms, particularly smartphones if the game is already playable on PSP?
Can’t talk about that. Only that it’s also playable on PS3.
What are your hopes for the game?
It would be nice if it would help me and my teammates to keep afloat financially of course. Then it’s also interesting to see what the people will think about it. If they like it or hate it. It’s just super interesting to me. You’re letting it go and you’ll see how it fends for itself.
Will your immediate game development plans be dependent on whether Where is My Heart is successful enough for you to sustain a living?
What has the experience of creating and getting your very first game published taught you?
Stuff takes a long time!
[Where is My Heart? will be released on PlayStation Network, Nov 16, 2011.]