A while back, we reported the news that Ackk Studios was set to release Two Brothers on Wii U. And I’ll be the first to admit…I knew nothing about this game, despite its origins, until the news broke. As soon as I saw the trailer for the game, however… I wanted to know more. Yesterday, I caught up with Andrew Allanson, the composer for the game that’s been with the development team since the very beginning. We discussed the game’s artistic approach, and he offered insights about gameplay, music, and mixing past memories with modern ideas.
[Jonathan]: For starters: you’re the brother of Brian Allanson, the game’s creator and head of the team. Did some of the game’s inspirations (like the title, for instance) come about because you were working with family?
[Andrew]: Actually, no. The whole Two Brothers thing was actually a joke because the sprite of Bivare was made from the sprite of Roy, It was almost like a quick sprite mod. He made the joke that they were brothers because he originally had the same face.
Brian originally started the game himself. Most of our current team was working on a separate project together, and Brian started Two Brothers on the side. As soon as we saw what he doing, most of us abandoned what we were working on and moved onto that project. Brian is really the genius behind the game’s inception, and everyone jumped in to help right around the 30% mark.
[J]: I can certainly see why. I’m pretty sure you guys are all big fans of the Gameboy at this point. When you guys saw the ideas that Brian was creating, you jumped on immediately, right?
[A]: Absolutely! I know I was working on a paid project, and I left just to start working on this one!
[J]: On a note about Ackk Studios itself, who all played a part in developing the game?
[A]: There’s Brian, who created the sprites and designed the core engine. Working alongside Brian with everything in general is Tyler Steele, who is putting the finishing touches on a really epic sidequest. The level designer and side-quest creator is Ian Bailey. I’m the games composer, as you know. My assistant Anthony Manfredonia has helped with some of the game’s tracks, and Jose Alfaro helped make the game’s sounds as well as some other additional tracks. Brigid Allanson has been illustrating some cut-scenes, as well as the game’s box art (which should be revealed soon!).
[J]: Development for Two Brothers began on PC, 360, and OSX. And as we all know, the game has been announced for Wii U. To be completely honest, when I first saw the trailer I would have thought the game would be tailored towards the Nintendo 3DS versus the Wii U. Is there any reason why Two Brothers didn’t wind up on a handheld first?
[A]: The reason that we are looking towards the Wii U to release the game is because the game was created in Unity. And Unity supports porting to the Wii U very well. If we wanted to port the game to a handheld, since most of those are based in C, it would require a lot of extra work. We would have to basically recreate the entire game just to put it on a handheld system. It’s much easier to port it over to a console versus a handheld because the various consoles have Unity support.
[J]: The Wii U itself is sort of unique in that you’ve got the TV on one end and the tablet in your hands. I suppose holding the tablet and looking down at it is sort of a handheld experience in its own right.
[A]: Yeah, that was one things we thought about! And you know, the Wii U Controller isn’t much different in size that the original Gameboy itself was. And it has a similar weight to it.
[J]: Were there any challenges regarding porting the game’s PC version to the Wii U?
[A]: We find that the more we create things for the game itself, the more we get ideas that work exclusively for the Wii U version. While we’re happy with the Wii U version of the game, and there have been no challenges bringing things from the PC version to the Wii U, but we just find that we want to add so much more to it.
[J]: It’s immediately apparent from viewing the trailer for the game that Two Brothers seems inspired by Link’s Awakening, Final Fantasy Adventure, and other monochromatic adventures of the past. What are some things about Two Brothers that sets it apart from the games that inspired it?
[A]: When we were kids, the Gameboy was one of the first systems we owned. We had all sorts of game ideas as kids that we’ve carried with us over the years. These ideas sort of transformed to fit the gamer mentality of 2012. Back then, games were sort of slow-paced, not very forgiving. And Two Brothers definitely has some of those hardcore elements.
Only… we’ve completely removed death. Death, there’s no real penalty for it. Sometimes it’s even encouraged! The player has to die to go to the Afterlife, because the Afterlife is its own unique hub. Characters who die in the game’s main story can be seen in the Afterlife, so sometimes players will have to get a Game Over so they can be in the Afterlife and gather information from these characters. There are also various puzzles that have players go back and forth between living and dying. Moving between those two realms is definitely one of the game’s highlights!
Another thing that sets it apart: we’re not only inspired by old games. There are several new games that inspired. Mass Effect is one we like to bring up because we wanted to imagine an old Gameboy game with the interactivity of today’s modern RPG. Even if it’s something as simple as changing the way a scene plays out in one of the local pubs in the game, character interaction is something that’s very important to us. I don’t think it was as important as it is now back in the late eighties/early nineties.
At its core, it might feel like you’re playing something like Link’s Awakening. But when you get into it, there are a lot of modern gaming concepts that are molded into the design. Rather than it being 100% retro, it has this modern polish that today’s gamer has come to expect.
Think of a game that you played a long time ago, and you haven’t touched it in forever. You absolutely loved that game. But think about how you remembered it playing versus how it actually played. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s not so much trying to be identical to the games of the past, so much as what your memories of that same game have become after these memories have been polished by some of the new concepts that have come to light.
[J]: I listened to the game’s in-progress Forest Theme when Ackk Studios posted it on various social media. As the game’s composer, were you influenced by the environments/levels as they were being developed, or did the game’s designers create based upon your music?
[A]: We have a very strange workflow. A lot of the times, it’ll depend on how an area has been created. If we discuss a game’s area before Brian starts making it, we’ll both sort of work at the same time to create something, with me imagining what Brian would create based on our discussions. But sometimes, when Brian sends me an area he’s already created, I would use my keyboard to play the game with one hand, and be playing my piano with the other. I’ll try and write melodies for the game as I’m playing it. If that ever gets too difficult, I sometimes have my recorder so I can sing melodies for the game.
One thing that you should probably know that makes the music of Two Brothers a little unorthodox: Even though I’ve written game music in the past, my training is primarily in classical composition. Even though I’m thinking of the sounds of the Gameboy and what was possible based on the actual chips, the music itself is inspired by more romantic music or impressionist music.
[J]: So you have a background in classical music, but you created the score with the limitations of the Gameboy in mind? Is it sort of like blending two worlds into one?
[A]: At first, when we started working on the game, I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to create the game’s music. Brian really insisted that I create the music though, mostly because when we first conceived the idea for Two Brothers, we weren’t necessarily going to use chip-tunes When the game starts out, there’s zero color, so the music sort of matches this more primitive aspect of the game. It may only use two or three musical voices. As you progress, the music gets more and more advanced, adding layers of complexity, and sometimes featuring actual recorded instruments to accompany color.
[J]: Is the art inspired by the handheld world, or does it tend to take on a life of its own, a completely different artistic direction?
[A]: In the beginning, I would have said yes. But the more you work on a project, especially when you’ve been working on it for two years, eventually it becomes its own thing. We’ve come to realize that you can never really perfectly emulate something, as much as you want to. It always takes on a life of its own. It definitely has its inspirations, but at the end of the day—it’s just Brian’s ideas given life. It’s Two Brothers and nothing else.
One of the things that makes Brian interesting is that, while other games inspire him, he doesn’t always look to what other people are making. He has a tendency to look outside of the gaming medium for inspiration. He has an “Inspiration” folder on his computer, and if you open it up it’s just gigabytes of images and songs that inspire him and give him ideas for games.
He’s inspired by old sculptures and going to different museums to see what visual artists are creating. He looks and something unique and thinks “What would that look like in a game?” He’s really the kind of person that goes outside of gaming to bring new ideas in.
[J]: I know with a lot of smaller development teams, the games created seem to convey the philosophies of its designer. Is there anything Brian wants to communicate to the player through Two Brothers?
[A]: Through conversations I’ve had with Brian, I can tell you that it’s less about putting himself into the game and more about giving each character his or her own unique perspective. Imagine a museum of each character’s different personalities and philosophies, and that’s closer to what Two Brothers is. Instead of the game having one overall message, it’s a blending of realistic philosophies of other people that culminate in the game’s design.
Regarding his personal take on this question, he probably would have said, “Play the game yourself and tell me!”
[J]: Are there any other insights you’d like to offer us?
[A]: I do have something to add. We just want everyone who plays the game to know that we’re not trying to play off your nostalgia, to ruin your childhood. We don’t want people to look at the game and go, “Look! It’s someone else trying to remind me that I was a kid once!” The game is definitely made for other people to play, but at the same time…it’s really made for us.
The best games ever made aren’t marketed towards anyone. They haven’t had a million different marketing people go through the game to see what people want. We’re making something that we think we would have wanted to play back then, or even now.
I feel like people concerned with us trying to play off nostalgia have a valid point. If you go on TIGSource.com, there’s so much talent out there. There are so many games that no one ever really sees or pays attention to; we’re very fortunate that people seem interested in playing our game.
[J]: So, the game is nearing completion, and you’ll be showing it off at PAX?
[A]: Yes. We’ll be there, and the game will be playable. With the PC version of the game, we’re releasing that as one build. So if you buy it on the computer, you can play it on all three computer platforms!
[J]: I did hear rumblings about your next game. You say it’s inspired by Earthbound, Dragon Quest, and The World Ends With You. But you’re not willing to say anything more than that for now, right?
[A]: We can say a little bit more now, because a little bit more has happened. I can tell you that at PAX, we will show the game in some form, hopefully playable. If not playable, it will be footage of us having played the game in the past. The game is 3D, being targeted at the Wii U, and it is very, very, very inspired by Earthbound. Earthbound is a favorite among everyone on the team. It’s a modern-day RPG, and it’s gonna be amazing!
[J]: Earthbound has always been a hit with us at Oprainfall. What else can you tell me about your team’s gaming preferences?
[A]: We love so many different types of games! Indie games, big budget titles…we try not to be pretentious about what we play. Everyone on the team has different tastes. My favorite game over the past few years is definitely Sword and Sworcery. But we also love Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect.
It’s starting to feel more like people going to see different kinds of movies! You’ve got folks going to see Avatar, that’s like Call of Duty. Something like The Dark Knight Rises would be Mass Effect. And, this one’s a little older, but… Chocolat, the Johnny Depp movie, would be like Sword and Sworcery. It’s almost like the indie games go towards the art folk.
[J]: I pretty much have to ask now: How do you feel about video games as art?
[A]: I believe Hideo Kojima said something along the lines of “video games are like a museum”. I feel like this is a new way of looking at that question. There are obviously different aspects of art that go into gaming like audio and visuals. And I definitely think something needs to be said regarding the art of game design that’s often overlooked. I personally believe video games are art, but for the people who aren’t so accepting of that idea, I hope they can at least see video games as a collection of other people’s art, like a museum.