Ian Dallas may be the most important, least-known designer in the video game movement we’re all trying very hard not to call the walking simulator. Steve Gaynor of Fullbright (Gone Home, Tacoma), Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin of Campo Santo (Firewatch), Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room (Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), and Davey Wreden (The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide) have all taken a turn as the face of indie games. So has Thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen (Journey, Flower), whose success at Sony paved the way for Dallas to land a similar deal for his studio, Giant Sparrow, out of the University of Southern Califronia’s game school.
It's finally time, now, for Dallas to become video-game famous. Short of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Giant Sparrow’s new game — What Remains of Edith Finch, playable on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC — may be the best-reviewed title of 2017. It’s part walking simulator, part memento mori, part Alice-through-the-rabbit-hole hallucination. Over the course of a 90-minute interview with Glixel, Dallas talked about his early career writing for The Onion and TV sitcoms, whether the family in Edith Finch is cursed, and why he — seriously — wants to make a game with Weird Al Yankovic.
The opening of What Remains of Edith Finch – a young woman returning to her parents’ house in the Pacific Northwest – evokes Gone Home. Was that intentional?
No, not at all. Gone Home was announced maybe six months into development on Edith Finch. It’s just a bizarre confluence. There are a lot of overt similarities on the surface. But the game itself is quite different.
I myself have not played Gone Home, which is a weird thing to say at this point. They were just so similar on the surface that I didn’t want to be contaminated.
Gone Home tried to put players into the mindset of investigators by giving them a limited set of interactions: walking, looking, picking up objects. Your game has a lot more variety in its verbs. Each diary introduces a new mechanic or interaction.
The games that Fullbright makes are more about character and human relationships. While there is an element of that in Edith Finch, for us the main goal was creating an experience of, for example, being a child on a swingset, or being a shark underwater. Ultimately, trying to create an experience of the sublime for players. That’s kind of our endgame: creating moments where players feel simultaneously in awe of the beauty and majesty of what’s around them, but then also very small and potentially terrified of what might be around the corner.
Did you introduce so many different interactions as part of an attempt to make the player feel strange and childlike?
For me, the rawest form of exploration in video games is the first moment when you sit down with the game and you’re trying to figure out, “What do my buttons do? What can I do in this world? How does this world respond to my actions?”
Most games are very happy to get out of that space as quickly as possible and get to what they would consider the meat of it. “OK, let me shoot guys in the head,” or whatever this thing is about, and progress to a point where the player can develop mastery and understand this system in its intricacies.
I’m less interested in that and more in that “beginner’s mind” feel that I think video games are uniquely set up to make possible. The player is actively trying to investigate the game. Because the games that we’ve made have been about the unknown and about exploration, it made sense to constantly be reinventing what the player was doing every 10 to 15 minutes to keep people on their toes and prevent them from settling in and treating it like a traditional game.
I was surprised to see you say on Reddit, “I have a hard time getting into games that are primarily narrative driven.”
I don’t think story, for me, has been something that I seek out in video games. I read a lot of books and I watch a lot of movies, and the stories are just much more compelling. Most games default to a very familiar set of circumstances, and stories that are about mastery. I think those stories were very interesting to me as a teenager. The older I get, stories of mastery and conquest and good versus evil are just increasingly less relevant to me as a human.
I say this as someone whose favorite book of all time is probably The Iliad, which is all about horrible conflict between people, and these very graphic depictions of someone spearing someone on a chariot as if he was hooking a fish, pulling him over the side. But The Iliad also dives into the humanity of all these people in a way that games just aren’t very well set up to do.
You worked as a writer for a while, right?
I started out as a comedy writer for The Onion, and then worked in TV for a bit.
"The Iliad ... dives into the humanity of all these people in a way that games just aren’t very well set up to do."
I saw on your personal website that you wrote The Onion headline “Oatmeal Variety Pack Has Only Regular Flavor Left.”
That’s kind of chilling, actually, because we just shut down our office now that we’ve reduced our staff, and I just took the kitchen supplies, and it was just a bunch of regular oatmeal packets. That has come true.
After The Onion, you wrote for a bunch of TV shows I’ve never heard of, like the UPN sitcom Rock Me Baby and Spaceballs: The Animated Series.
I was actually a night P.A. on “Rock Me Baby.” I was not a writer. That was my very first job, once I moved to L.A. In those days, people had paper scripts, and during the day, people would write the scripts. And then I would show up at 8 o’clock and make 500 copies of these scripts, and I would deliver them to people in Los Angeles who were on this list, of actors for that week, or producers, or whomever. I would drive around until 4 in the morning, criss-crossing Los Angeles County, delivering scripts. You know, involved in the writing process at some level, but a very, very low level.
P.A. means “production assistant”?
Actually, it’s worse than that. Night P.A. was a separate thing, not even part of the regular production crew. It was a special graveyard shift of assistants.
When you were an undergrad at Yale, you wanted to be a philosophy professor?
That was my initial, when I got to college, what I thought I would do. I was really interested in philosophy in high school. Then that shifted at some point to English professor, and then I looked around the room one day, working on this college humor magazine, and I realized, “Oh, these are the people who I would want to spend my life with.” All these crazy, creative folks tossing out bad ideas working on some kind of mutually interesting goal.
I shifted into comedy writing and ultimately into making video games, which is surprisingly similar to working on a college humor magazine. It’s still a group of crazy folks, mostly guys, tossing out a lot of bad ideas to ultimately converge on something great.
Yet you told Polygon in 2012, “I don’t necessarily love collaborating.”
It’s not something that comes naturally to me. I think I have learned a fair amount, working on Edith Finch. There are times where collaboration is a lot easier and effective than it would be to just keep spinning around, trying to figure out the answer yourself. It’s difficult on any team, but I’ve noticed particularly in game development, because each of the disciplines has such different personalities. The programmers and the artists and the designers all have different things they focus on, and different things that they’re afraid of. Trying to keep everybody up to speed on all of the changes, all of the time, can be a little exhausting. To some extent, things are a bit easier if I just kind of own them and do them myself and then present them once they’ve incubated for a while.
And is this misanthropic streak what led you to--correct me if I’m wrong--spend a year as a baker at a Lutheran retreat in eastern Washington state?
That was actually something I had heard about Milton, the poet – who is the namesake for one of the Finches, now that I think about it. He spent five or six years just reading everything he could, and actually read an appreciable percentage of the books that existed on earth at that time. I figured before I started working at whatever job or career path I was going to do, why don’t I take a year off and just read a bunch of books that I probably will never get a chance to in the rest of my life.
And I think that was true. Even if you have time, when you’re working in a career, you often just don’t have the mental fortitude to open something like Ibsen, the playwright. That was the year I read all of Ibsen. In another strange Edith Finch tie-in, Odin Finch looks exactly like Ibsen. He was the model for Odin Finch. Ibsen as a playwright is a bizarre comic figure. He has very grand, 18th-century ideas about art and about how the artist is in the vanguard and suffers in front of everyone else, and brings back this wisdom to everyone else, if they want it. Odin Finch was similarly, in my mind, this guy with oversized ideals that ultimately lead to his destruction.
Given what you’ve said about video games and how so many of them don’t speak to you, what led you to want to make them?
Growing up, I had a lot of really strong experiences with video games. Going back to the very first game I played, Super Mario Bros., on the Nintendo. Games like Thief and Tenchu and Zelda 64, there were quite a few games that made a really deep impression on me, and made me feel like this is something I really care about and want to do. Coming out of college, I just felt like games were at a point where writing wasn’t really valued or needed. So it would be more straightforward, graduating from college in 2000, to get a job on a television show, where there was an established career path. And then I figured I would eventually transition into writing for games. And then at some point I realized that writing for games is a thankless task that often involves being called in at the last moment to kind of put lipstick on the pig and patch up some things that no longer make any sense. I shifted from wanting to write for games to wanting to have a little more ownership of the creative process.
Part of that was also driven by having discovered that I was also interested in programming. I had done some personal projects that ended up requiring me to learn a bit of programming, like a Starbucks Avoidance Map I made where you could find the shortest path in Manhattan that didn’t go past a Starbucks. Those kinds of things made me realize that I really liked software development and creation.
One of the things I love most about games is the maverick spirit that pervades game development. The most interesting games generally involve quite a lot of never-been-done-before guesswork and research that I find really satisfying.
In order to switch careers, you took an internship at Telltale Games, and then turned down a job at Telltale to go to the University of Southern California’s game school, only to drop out of USC when Sony offered you a contract?
I was at USC for two years. I had one more year left to go, where I was going to work on a thesis project – which I think would have been very similar to the next game that Giant Sparrow does. But I had this offer from Sony to go and make a full version of one of the little prototypes I had worked on when I was at USC, and it just seemed like I should take that offer and strike while the iron was hot.
And Sony saw this prototype – for the game that became The Unfinished Swan – on YouTube?
Rusty Buchert, a producer at Sony at the time, was watching videos from the Sense of Wonder night at the Tokyo Game Show. There was a presentation I gave that he saw. It helped, massively, that I was coming from USC, where Thatgamecompany had also come from. They felt like there was a track record. Flow had come out, and Flower was in development, and I was just down the road. So I could come in for a meeting pretty easily.
And you got the same contract as Thatgamecompany, basically: a three-game deal, for a new studio out of USC, to make games for Sony.
It’s a weird idea, this three-game thing, as if it was a great boon and not actually a set of handcuffs. They’re not obligated to make those games. You’re just obligated to present them to be made. But it had a nice ring to it, and it was very good publicity.
Why did Sony not want the last two games of your deal?
The deal was structured as three games or three years, whichever comes first. Three years basically elapsed on The Unfinished Swan. We initially thought it was going to be a year and a half of development. As with many games, we were quite wrong.
Sony Santa Monica once seemed like it was one-half a studio that made God of War and one-half a studio that made all these wild experiments. The experimental stuff all seems to have been shut down or moved.
I don’t know how much they have talked about it publicly, but at this point a lot of the people that we personally were working with at Sony Santa Monica, who were part of the crew making things like Hohokum and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, those people are now at Annapurna. The seed of the Annapurna Interactive group was all of these people who previously had been the ones we were working with at Sony.
And what is your relationship to Annapurna Interactive?
They are our publisher. They purchased the rights to What Remains of Edith Finch from Sony. They own it, lock stock and barrel. For whatever reason, there aren’t a lot of people out there who are interested in placing multimillion-dollar bets on projects with negligible commercial potential. That’s a rare breed that is willing to do that. It’s been really great.
In the previous console lifespan, in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era, it seems like it was much more a part of Sony’s strategy to fund these sorts of games, the middle-tier indie titles. There’s a version of Edith Finch we could have made if we had self-funded it, with just a couple of us working from our savings in a basement somewhere. It would certainly not have been the lavish, grandiose version that finally emerged.
You’ve called Edith Finch “a version of my own childhood.” Both The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch involve a pregnant woman, and a child returning to the home of his or her parents. Is there a story behind that?
I’m certainly drawn to childhood, and I think it also is a really good fit for the kinds of experiences that are understandable and enjoyable in video games. There’s kind of a natural, childlike quality to interacting with something. It’s almost like being a kid on a beach with a bunch of tide pools, where you’re poking at sea stars and seeing them react. That’s kind of my mental model for how video games work.
In the Finch family, a lot of the family members die relatively young. It wasn’t because we wanted to make a game about children dying. It was more that the kinds of interactions that we were drawn to and that we could do effectively – things like being on a swingset – felt most rooted in childhood. And I think a sense of awe – awe and wonder both are emotions that are tied up in childhood.
For me, that’s one of the things that sticks in my craw about our civilization in general, the sense that as an adult we have this attitude of, “Oh, now I understand everything and I can just get on with the business of being a human.” We feel like being in this place of uncertainty and living with the unknown is something that is more fit for children. I think that’s part of the reason the games that we’ve made tended to have this childlike element to them, because they are both games about awe and wonder.
I wanted to talk about the game’s tone. It does have the tenderest, or most joyful, infant drowning in the history of video games.
It’s a young history, thank you.
You have said that players of Edith Finch can see their death approaching but also think, “I’m enjoying this, so I’m going to march happily to my doom.” The whole game has a funny-sad quality.
That was something that we discovered after doing a couple prototypes, this twin feeling from the player’s perspective of wanting to know what’s going to happen but then also being a little bit concerned about it – but totally being complicit, because you are moving this character forward. It was an experience I haven’t seen in a game before, and hadn’t really experienced in my life. It seemed like a good place to return to in a lot of these stories.
Does Molly starve to death? What happens to Edie, the grandmother?
To what extent do you know what happens in the plot of the game? Players have had disagreements: Does Molly starve to death? What happens to Edie, the grandmother? Are those questions that have answers to you?
No. Very explicitly, I do not know the answers to them. We tried to set out that these things are stories. You are not hearing a true account. It’s someone’s perspective. That’s as far as it went for me, just thinking about, who are these characters and what might their perspective on these events be? I never really had a sense of, “Oh, this is the truth.” It was always from the embedded perspective of someone encountering this and what might be left behind.
The game is about the unknown, and it’s also about the murkiness that is a necessary part of being a human, that there are things that we will just never know or understand. It felt a little false to have a story where there would be some true account that you could get to. These things are in the past. The past just has a way of erasing things, in an unrecoverable fashion. Like things in your family history – certainly that’s true in mine. It’s not that these things are nefarious, but people just kind of forget, or remember things the way they want to. And that just seemed like such a part of life that I wanted to make that part of the story.
In hindsight, we probably should have been a little more explicit about that. Because I think the expectation for a lot of players was,”Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I understand that things are a little unclear now but that just means eventually I’ll find The Truth. There will be this chest I unlock, and at the bottom of it will be who killed Molly, this piece of information that suddenly explains things." I just feel very strongly that there’s nothing that explains any of this. All we know for sure is she was alive at this time and she died at this time. Everything else is speculation.
If you believe in a curse, there is a curse. That’s how these kind of things work. Whether or not there is an objective supernatural force at work, I think there’s room for debate and different points of view on that. But in terms of what killed all of these people, I think in each of these stories you can find an explanation for that. And there’s no right explanation. But the people are dead in any event. Ultimately, I think the solution is that it doesn’t matter. These people are gone, and this is what we have left, and we should be thankful that we have even that much. To want a perfect solution is, I think, just the wrong question to be asking.
I was hoping that was something that would naturally emerge for players. But I think because of the context of other games and other movies, it’s not something that people are used to. Instead, people want the opposite. They want to know what I called in development “the amulet ending.” They want a magical amulet that will explain all these things. It turns out we’re all vampires, some twist at the end that reveals all these things.
Do you have a favorite vignette in the game?
For me, Calvin’s story is the one that feels the most distinctive and unique, that makes me feel in some ways the most proud of it. I can’t imagine another game in which developers would spend years tuning and agonizing over an experience that is over in about two to three minutes, but is actually stronger because it’s only two to three minutes long.
My interpretation was – and it’s a little bit strange to think of an 11-year-old committing suicide – that Calvin commits suicide on the swing by throwing himself on the rocks. And his brother writes this elegy for him in which he takes a victory out of it, by portraying Calvin’s act as an attempt to fly.
|I think it does a lot of things that I’m really proud of this game doing with the most economy. There are other stories, like Molly’s or Lewis’s story that do a lot of the same things but in a much more ridiculous, over-the-top way. But Calvin’s story succeeds with the most economy.
The secret sauce in all of this is the importance of context. It’s not enough just to have these interactions, or to have these written words, or to have this V.O. recording. It’s, “How do you get players into a frame of mind where they are receptive to what is being offered?” This game would have worked without the house at all, like if it was just a menu and you select a bunch of stories. That game could exist. But it would lose a lot in the ultimate effect that you get from having these things put together.
You evoke a lot of sense memories from childhood: swinging on a swing, flying a kite, waving a hand out of a car window, blowing a dandelion.
I think it was just us brainstorming and thinking about what we remembered from our childhoods, what was in the intersection of humanity and nature, and then trying to make a bunch of these prototypes and then discovering that the ones that work the best tend to be these simple, childlike interactions, often involving hands.
The Lewis vignette struck me as the most formally ambitious. Both Calvin and Lewis have really interesting twin stick controls. The controls in Lewis are in some ways reminiscent of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, except in this case each thumb is controlling a separate aspect of a single mind. Is that where it started?
This one is unusual in that it came from a very specific literary reference. We had a story from 1912, a short story by Lord Dunsany (“The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap”) that we were basing all of this on. So the idea of someone getting lost in their imagination was there from the very beginning. And I think it just seemed like a very natural mapping to have one stick be the imagination and one stick be the more mundane world. But initially, that story was that you were operating a switchboard, or chopping things for a meal that you were cooking in a restaurant. Even when we decided that it was going to all take place in a cannery, the initial version of that story was vastly more complicated. There were bad fish that would come, and you only wanted to chop the good fish, and there was a boss that would come around and make sure that you were meeting your quota. You could chop off your finger if you weren’t careful.
Ultimately, those things fell by the wayside when we realized that once you paired what you were doing in the real world with what you were doing in the imagination, you only needed about 25 percent of a game for each of those halves. People think they’re so good at multitasking, but when you measure it, they’re terrible. That was kind of our experience with this story. Each of the halves seemed, on paper, to be much too simple to sustain interest. But once you put them together, and once you have a story that’s threaded through them, there’s plenty for people to keep their minds occupied.
How did the idea emerge to tell a kind of capsule history of video games in Lewis’s imagination? He has this daily existence where he’s chopping fish and throwing the heads away, but his imaginary life evolves from sidescrolling 2D to isometric 2D to third-person 3D to first-person 3D. There’s even a Mario flagpole.
The original story talks about the character’s imagination becoming more and more detailed. He starts out in a simple space and it becomes overwhelming in the richness of its detail by the end. When we were initially prototyping it, Lewis was born in the present day. The early prototypes looked very explicitly like video games. We literally just took Zelda assets and textures for trees and a sword you would pick up and all these things and just put them in the game, for the early prototype. Then you would go into a space that looked like Minecraft. It was initially a very explicit video game homage.
At some point we decided to move Lewis into the 1920s. So then the art style shifted to something that was a lot more like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for the cannery – German Expressionist, ’20s-era stuff. And for the imagination part of the story, we looked at Orientalist art from that time, Europeans who were making things that were really inspired by cliches of what they had seen in other cultures. That felt like a good fit, in the 1920s, for what Lewis might imagine the world to be like.
And then we decided, “Let’s have Lewis be in the present day again.” But it was too late in development to go back and remake everything. And we were already happy with the look that we had. So we ended up with someone in the present day who has art styles in his story that might have been more appropriate in the 1920s. So the video game homage is a little bit less on the nose but actually feels a little bit more satisfying because of it.
"She died while we were making it, and the game is all about memory and family and death."
And then there’s a really remarkable moment. You’re in first person. Lewis has totally disappeared into his imagination, or into these games. Lewis is feeling contempt for himself, for the mundanity of his existence, which is when you realize as a player that you’re no longer embodying Lewis. You’re outside of him, observing him contemptuously as he cuts the fish.
That scene changed completely very late in development. You originally entered from the opposite side of the cannery. And then we had this problem where people didn’t really notice that they were walking up to themselves, that Lewis was there. And we wanted you to have this moment where you are looking at this version of Lewis. Our designer, Chris Bell, shortly before we shipped, had this idea, “What if we turned everything around 180 degrees?” Suddenly everybody saw Lewis. We created a really unusual moment of having a chance to be literally outside yourself.
Why did you dedicate this game to your mother?
She died while we were making it, and the game is all about memory and family and death. It also was a way for us to tie the game back to something real. I think that was one of the bigger challenges on this game: making the more fantastical, ridiculous and sometimes comedic elements still feel like they were speaking to something genuine that players would experience ultimately in their own lives. Having a dedication to a real person was a nice shorthand to encourage players to think about death, to remind them that this is something that is really out there.
Shifting tone only slightly: You want to make a game with Weird Al Yankovic?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I really would have loved to make this game with Weird Al Yankovic.
I don’t see how that would have worked.
I have a name for it: The Weirdest Edition. It would be a patch that we would issue later.
This is an actual game concept you have, not just a desire to collaborate with someone you admire?
The thing that I really wanted was to have a version of Edie Finch’s time in the spotlight produce a Weird Al parody song. This would be when Edie refused to abandon the island. In the ’80s, there’s this forest fire, and everyone is asked to leave, and Edie Finch says, “Alright, I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay with this house forever.” It’s based on the guy who did the same thing before Mt. St. Helens. His feeling was, “That mountain, it’s miles away from here. I’ll be fine.” And then he was buried under a hundred feet of dirt. The mountain had other ideas.
I thought Edie Finch could be this American cultural icon in the ’80s, and I wanted to have a Weird Al song about her. In her room, you would find a record player, and then be able to play that song. How awesome would it be to have a real Weird Al song about Edie Finch?
So why didn't this happen?
I just thought of the idea too late. We had the record player already made and the interaction already working, but it was for Barbara’s room. And we ultimately cut it from Barbara’s room as an interactable, but I thought, “Oh, we could use that in Edie’s room. And then Weird Al could record it and wouldn’t that be amazing?” But there were so many other things to do.
For me, the ending of Portal is my favorite ending of any game, and one of my favorite endings of any thing. I think Jonathan Coulton brings so much to that moment. Not that Weird Al, in the middle of our game, would have brought quite as much, but I think he would added a lot. On the next game, I would love to find a way to work with him.
Are you really going to animators’ school for the next two years to prepare for that game?
Yes. I just started doing some tutorials online. I actually gave a talk at Pixar two weeks ago, and met a bunch of animators and have gotten some advice. I’m starting to plug away. What I like about the process of making video games is a chance to explore things that I don’t know very much about. On this next project, that’s going to be animation.
Based on what you’ve discussed publicly, and on advertisements for positions you want to fill, this new game’s touchstones will be Ico, Spirited Away, Fantasia, and animals with wings.
That’s about as much as I know about it. If I knew more, I might not say it. Currently, the idea is something about animal locomotion. I just know when I look at the way animals move, like a bird landing on a branch, there’s something that is deeply compelling, in the same way that looking at a campfire or an ocean wave is endlessly fascinating. Some very deep part of humanity — E.O. Wilson talks about it as “biophilia,” an innate love that human beings have for other living things — that I feel would make an interesting interactive experience.
I don’t know what the game of that is yet, but I hope to have a lot of fun finding out.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Chris Suellentrop is a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game?.