February 9, 2013 10:00 PM | Staff
Mousechief's Keith Nemitz is a fascinating creator, devoted to timeless storytelling alongside classic mechanics reinterpreted for digital play. His board game-styled 7 Grand Steps, which lets players experience family histories across generations, has been nominated in the Independent Games Festival's Nuovo category.
Here, in the latest installment of our Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees, he talks about his own complex background and influences and his passion for storytelling, plus 7 Grand Steps' manifold visual and thematic goals.
What background do you have making games?
Playing card games and pop, parlor games is one of my family's traditions. I wonder if my half-German ancestry ties me to the board game fandom in that country. I remember spending most of my free time and the money from my paper-route on war games.
I submitted game designs at Sierra, but felt they were ignored because I was paid for coding, not design. They moved north, and I landed at Digital Pictures ('famous' for Night Trap and Sewer Shark). A year after starting there, they dissolved, just as a team was forming around one of my designs, a reverse "The Prisoner" story about an ex-soviet spy.
My next gig was Stormfront Studios, porting "StarTrek-DS9: Harbinger", and afterward, I took a break and created my first indie game, Flagship: Champion, a 'realistic' starship combat game. My unstated tagline for it was, "Shields are for wimps." I'm proud to say it was picked as a finalist at the very first IGF, in 1999.
I got a job at 3DO... 3DO died. I took the indie path in 2003, starting Mousechief Co. (pronounced like mischief) and my first 'casual' game, The Witch's Yarn. It was an adventure game presented as theater; it was an IGF finalist for innovation, in 2006.
My next game actually made money. Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble was my first 'hit', picked as an IndieCade finalist, and it won a $3000 prize for innovation from the Casual Game Association, and it was nominated for best game script by the Writers Guild of America.
It's earned just enough to pay for the development of 7 Grand Steps.
What development tools did you use?
Macintosh, Python, Pygame (a wrapper on SDL), PyOpenGL, PyGL2d, Py2app, Py2exe. A pattern begins to emerge.
How did you come up with the game's concept?
During the month of Feb. 2009, I found myself playing Civ 4, game after game, but at a certain difficulty level a lot of its charm disappears, favoring pure warfare paths to victory. I like building libraries and universities and theaters, but those were merely targets for enemy bombers while my nation was still producing flintlocks.
Somehow my dissatisfaction led me to contemplate other epic, historical experiences, specifically Edward Rutherfurd's novels: Sarum, Ruska, London, The Forest, etc. Each book is a multi-thousand year epic about family lineages living in a very specific location. Civ is about rulers, a power fantasy. The novels are about people.
Hey, what if there were a game about guiding a family's ancestry, "to survive the test of time"?
You last made a splash with Mousechief's Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! which integrated a tactile-looking board game with art and storytelling; 7 Grand Steps also ties together a very physical-looking interface with a higher concept. Are you attracted to physical games in particular, and if so what about this stylistic approach helps communicate your vision best?
Um, 2D is cheaper to make than 3D? That's one practical reason. Another is, 2D art can stand the test of time compared to 3D. The Witch's Yarn looks like a fun, family friendly comic book, today, and it still will 100 years from now. It's too bad Python probably won't work then, except in a museum.
As for their physicality, I can only guess. I grew up playing board games. Modern gamers grew up with Nintendo.
What was the inspiration behind the game's art style?
My wonderful art director, Bill Stoneham, suggested it. I'd tasked him with finding a timeless style that would suits seven separate games connecting vastly different historical periods. As soon as he started talking about Musee Mechanique, I was sold. Love that place. Also in Brighton, UK, The Penny Arcade Museum.
It seems like the important element of 7 Grand Steps is the way the player crafts a narrative about ancestry and family lineage over time. Why were you drawn to this theme, and how did you build the mechanics to support it?
For me, history provides half of how to understand humanity. Psychology is the other half, which is already being explored by games: The Binding of Issac, The Marriage, dys4ia...
Sid Meier's Civ isn't about culture. It's about technology... and warfare. Without experiencing historical cultures you miss something vital about humanity.
Whereas psychology looks at humanity small. History looks at humanity large. Why do we worship gods? Why is technology so powerful at shaping culture? Why does political power always, always, always, almost always, concentrate into the hands of a few?
7 Grand Steps' purpose is to provide entertainment more than answers, but I intended the design to spark questions, or at least contemplation. I think the reason the 70s tv mini-series 'Roots' was such a huge success was, people want to understand modern society, and the fact that their family history helped to create it touches something deep.
It's important to note that, in 7 Grand Steps, if your family reaches the ruling class, you get to play ruling games designed for the current age. In fact, the Copper Age ruling game is a nod to one of gaming's ancestors. "The Sumerian Game" was the first computer based, emergent narrative. Conceived in 1962 and implemented in 1967. "Hamurabi" was a direct descendant. So my game about ancestry attempts to honor one lineage of gaming.
I explored several other central mechanics before settling on 'Back and Forth Tactics'. It seems to have the right feel of struggling. Using the broken wheel to represent a life came from an early imagining of the game, as the short animated film, Balance. Instead of a square platform, I imagined a circle. After finding the right mechanic, it occurred to me to stand the circle upright and it became a wheel.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I've only played Spaceteam and FTL. I enjoyed both of them greatly.
I have read a lot about a few others: Kentucky Route Zero, dys4ia, Cart Life, Thirty Flights of Loving, Hotline Miami, VESPER.5, Little Inferno. Man, the competition is tough this year! Isn't it great? I'm super honored to be in their company.
It'll only get tougher.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
It needs more mainstream attention. My games are consistently, highly rated, and I'm not yet making a living. I would be starving without help from Mousechief's executive producer, my wife, Cicely.
I'm connected to dozens of other, business minded indie developers. Most of them are better than I at promoting their products. A few are doing well. A few are barely making it. Most aren't even close. Is that the indie scene's dirty laundry? Too many people have been fooled to think they can earn a living at making indie games.
If 7 Grand Steps isn't a financial success, I may follow my wiser nature and get a job. How else will I afford an iVisualCortextGamePlatformImplant after aging forces me to retire?
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra.]