Hakita has graciously come back once again. If you’ve missed it (because I do like no advertising, yeah, yeah), you can read the first interview here. You can even check a review based on an earlier iteration of the game here, too.
This time I’ve asked him about more inspirations, design questions, and even philosophy!
Welcome back, how have you been since last year?
Pretty good for the most part. Have had some difficulties in figuring out what kind of work-life balance works best for me, so development has been considerably slower than I had originally expected, but slow and steady wins the race.
Since we last talked, ULTRAKILL has become the best user-rated game on Steam. I know before you were fairly ambivalent, but has this had an impact on your life?
Not at all really. I’m very glad that people like what I’m doing, but outside of occasionally bragging about it, it doesn’t really affect me or my perception of the game much. I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing, and either the rating will stay as high as it is or will lower a little bit overtime as people don’t like the slow pace of development or are unhappy with the direction the game goes.
What games have had a major impact on you in terms overall game design (and not necessarily strictly related to ULTRAKILL) ? What has affected your thought process specifically when it comes to approach?
DMC3 is the obvious answer, so instead I’ll go with something that’s less obvious, which is God Hand. God Hand’s sound design is a big inspiration for how I do sound, because that game has amazing gamefeel and I think a lot of that is thanks to how incredibly loud and raw that game’s audio is. It feels like everything’s always clipping, so that’s the direction I wanted to go with ULTRAKILL’s audio as well.
I know you had already mentioned DMC as a source of inspiration as well as several others, but has Bayonetta been any source of inspiration?
Not really. The Hideous Mass is obviously inspired by Bayonetta’s angel enemies, but outside of that I can’t really think of anything.
How do you feel about Bayonetta as a game?
I’ve only played the first one, but I did like it a fair bit. It has great spectacle and it’s interesting to see Kamiya’s interpretation of where DMC would’ve probably gone if he’d kept on it instead of the series being handed over to Itsuno. In general though, I prefer the higher commitment combat of DMC and Ninja Gaiden over the Platinum formula that’s low commitment and very freeflowing. I personally have more fun when I’m picking individual moves for each moment where I have to weigh their risk and reward compared to the dial-a-combo system Platinum games usually go for, where you can cancel any attack into a dodge at almost any time. At least for myself, I’ve noticed that kind of combat makes me think less about what attacks I’m doing and when I’m doing them.
4-2 has some of the best gameplay I’ve seen in terms of overall level design of most games I’ve experienced in a long time – even if it’s really just something that could only work in ULTRAKILL.
Can you explain some about what went into this level? Especially the opening segment as seen above?
The opening segment is like that because my original idea for the level’s challenge was making the player get to the solarium building within a certain time window, so I placed the platforms in a way that’d make it easy to slidehop across most of the first half of the level. I ended up replacing that challenge idea with the current challenge because I felt it was too similar to 4-4’s and I wanted to give players a reason to fight the Insurrectionist outside of his arena, since having him chase you around is a really fun part of his AI.
Other than that, the general idea of 4-2 was to have a level that seems very open but without actually sacrificing the constant forward momentum of a linear level, so you’re actually still moving along a single direct path, it just doesn’t feel like a hallway because it doesn’t look like one.
When I interviewed you, you talked about how the Marksman alt-fire wasn’t going to be as efficient or easy as simply going for a headshot, but after the time I’ve spent with it, it’s definitely… Even easier, typically, than looking for headshots the majority of the time. So how did it go from something which seemed like it would be more effort to you – to something that now seems to require much less effort than what you were worried about?
That just ended up being a natural progression of the fact that the coin has a consistent arc. Once you understand how the momentum works and get used to it, it’ll always be exactly what you expect, so it ends up being easier to hit, which is funny since the first impression everyone gets is that it’ll be really hard to pull off in the heat of combat. A lot of things like this just end up being organic progression rather than anything planned. I try to course correct things if they end up organically growing into a bad place, but mostly I just let things grow as they do and see what happens.
The Wire is more or less the same sort of grappling mechanic I’ve seen across a massive number of games. How do you take the recent fad of adoption? How did you come to settle on adding it to ULTRAKILL?
I had already decided to add it way before it became a popular fad via the Meathook and such. I just wanted to do DMC4’s snatch ability, so it wasn’t really connected. I think the recent fad is interesting, though like with all fads, most implementations of it feel a bit forced or unfitting. I kind of get the feeling that it’s due to people starting to notice how much fun it is to have great movement options, but are mostly focusing on the grappling hook since it’s the most common current incarnation of that, but I don’t know. Either way I’m glad more games are implementing more movement options, and even though many of those implementations leave a lot to be desired, they’re making strides in the right direction.
So, we need to talk about Malicious Face legs.
It’s been too long so I forget the exact thought process behind them, but it’s part of that fun “there’s more to it than you might first think” experience that kind of permeates the game. It’s absolutely dreadful on a code level since it’s one of the earliest things I programmed for the game (16 days after the game began development!) and they’re very buggy, but the gist is there and the jank is easier to ignore when they’re mostly invisible anyway.
2-S entirely came out of left-field for me. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’m pretty sure I’m still in shock from that entire experience. Can you explain where the philosophy that drives that conversation came from?
This answer’s quite long, but there’s a lot that converged into it, so stick with me here. The level was born from 3 main sources.
The first source: Mirage’s viewpoint is taken directly from Peter Wessel Zapffe’s essay/story “The Last Messiah”, which I ended up finding during one of my internet curiosity deep dives. I was reading up on antinatalism (the belief that people shouldn’t give birth because the negative aspects of living outweigh its positives), which I found out about because of really getting into Current 93’s adaptation of Thomas Ligotti’s poem “I Have a Special Plan For This World”, which, through some degrees of seperation, led me there.
The second source: The protagonist’s viewpoint is based on my own experiences of struggling with existential dread and getting out of it. I had it pretty bad at one point, where sometimes I’d just start crying while I was laying in bed because I was so afraid of the idea of not existing and how inevitable it was. Eventually though, existential dread ended up becoming a positive force in my life, since I came to realize that I’m still young and I have a lot of time and opportunities that I can use. Coming to the realization that, regardless of if you spend an hour doing nothing or you spend an hour doing something constructive, you still spend the exact same amount of time out of the rest of the finite hours left in your life. So I started thinking about how much I could achieve if I just spent a bit of every single day on something. If I wanted to learn a new language, I could just spend one hour of every day on learning it, and in a couple months time, I’d have a base understanding of a new language, and imagine how big a world that would open up! So that’s what really kicked off ULTRAKILL’s development into high gear, because before then I had spent a year or so working on it on and off, sometimes not opening the project for weeks if not months, but then I started working on it pretty much daily. It can initially be scary to think about how few people “succeed” at their goals, but when you consider how few people actually try, and how few of those people actually try really hard, you’ll realize you have much higher your chances are of becoming what you want to be than you might’ve imagined. It just needs to be taken one step at a time and not delayed until a nebulous “later”.
The third source: Fans were already speculating on what the Lust secret mission would be, and the most obvious reasonable guess is of course a dating sim. I did want to do a dating sim parody, partially because I wanted to test the waters with proper character writing which ULTRAKILL otherwise has little of, but I didn’t want to *just* do that, because once the initial novelty wears off there wouldn’t really be anything to it, and since many people had already assumed that’s what it’d be, even that inital novelty would largely not be there for a lot of people. So I had the idea of having it start tongue-in-cheek but gradually turn really heavy and serious, which is where all 3 of these sources came together.
I’ve seen many people (including friends) struggle with the existential, and having not only overcome existential depression but even turned existentialism into a positive force in my life, I wanted to try and help other people come to terms with it too. Obviously, just telling people “don’t worry about it” isn’t enough, so I figured the only way to really reach them would be to first connect with them by having them truly relate to and connect with the text on an emotional level. Actually having a pretty in-depth and accurate description of existential dread and the reasons behind it helps with that, because people tend to emotionally connect with statements they already believe about themselves, so in a sort of downward spiral, depressed people only really trust the people who talk negatively about them while feeling that the ones who say good things about them are just pretending out of pity, or have been somehow cheated into caring about someone who doesn’t deserve it. So, that’s why it first goes into the really dark and heavy subject matter and explores existential dread thoroughly before it actually starts to speak against it. Obviously, I’m not a genius on all fronts (as much as I’d like to believe that), so there was the possible danger of me only showing the bad and being unable to show the good properly, only making things worse, but I decided that since people are going to be struggling with existential dread at one point or another anyway, it’s better I at least try to help them, even if at the risk of making them feel worse momentarily.
Since then, I’ve gotten multiple messages from people saying 2-S helped them parse some things that they’d been struggling with, so I’d say it was worth it.
All the secret levels so far seem to be significant departures from ULTRAKILL’s general gameplay. Is this what we should expect as far as themes – that is, to expect the unexpected?
That’s what I’d like to do, but as with anything ULTRAKILL related, it’s all done on the fly and isn’t planned beforehand, so whatever happens, happens.
We talked a little about the conception of style before in a game like ULTRAKILL, but what about difficulty?
The main thing that drives combat scenario difficulty is the amount of enemies and their composition. Certain combinations of enemies will force the player to approach a situation differently from how they normally would, and if it’s one they haven’t experienced before or in a different kind of environment, they’ll have to think fast and improvise on the fly. Having to fight one Hideous Mass at the same time as 2 virtues is pretty much as difficulty as fighting a ton of husks because the former forces the player to tackle these enemies differently than they normally would, even though there are only 3 of them total. I don’t want every encounter to be that, since it’d be exhausting, so I balance it out with simple encounters that just have higher enemy counts, sometimes even low counts of simple enemies just to give a breather. Usually making a fight harder or easier is just a matter of removing one tricky enemy or placing one in the right spot at the right time.
I often see players of various titles conflating what appears to be tedium with actual difficulty – in fact, perhaps, I’ve been a culprit myself. How do you see this spectrum?
Where the line between challenging and tedious lies really depends on the person, which is why difficulty modes exist. There are people who like DMC3’s DMD, but for me it just feels like a total grind, so I much prefer 3SE’s Very Hard option. Outside of that obvious tidbit though, I think the main thing that makes difficulty not feel like a grind is the pacing of it. If you struggle through a hard encounter and are immediately faced with an even harder encounter, you’ll probably get exhausted and quit after a couple of them. I’ve had that happen with puzzle games especially. That’s why ULTRAKILL’s difficulty varies so much, the boss fights are the peaks with important bosses like V2 and Gabriel being the peaks-among-peaks to really stump the player for a while, and then the normal combat is easier to allow for some flow and progress to happen before the next wall. Some people understandably don’t like this kind of difficulty balancing, which is why the latest update added the major assist for changing boss fight difficulty separately.
There are multiple ways someone can get through a level: just getting through it, getting a good rank, getting a perfect rank and normal conventions to the extreme doing any of those previously mentioned in some creative fashion like speed running or looking to do something stylish; what do you think when you’re pulling whatever levers that might make a task more or less difficult when it lies on the creative spectrum?
I usually don’t really think much on those kinds of niche playstyles. I do take into account things like making sure there’s no points where you have to just wait for something for a while so it doesn’t make things awkward for speedrunners, but that also feeds into the P-rank grind for people, because having to wait would make repeat attempts more annoying. As for P-rank balancing in general, I just take my standard playthrough of the finished level, lower my results by a bit and make those the S rank requirements. So if I beat a level in, say, 4 minutes, I’ll make 4 minutes and 40 seconds or so the S rank time limit, stuff like that.
You’re probably the coolest person I know; I don’t mean like the way a lot of people think “cool” is, I mean that you present and carry yourself in a way that I think is striving towards what strikes me as an ideal and one that in particular I believe has an objective proof in the world’s acceptance of your work. Can you give us some of your thoughts about what it is to be cool – for you?
I think there are 2 core aspects to being cool. The first is, unsurprisingly, being confident. If you’re not ashamed of the weird aspects of yourself, you won’t feel the need to force yourself into a preconceived mold of what it means to be cool, which is slightly ironic in a way. For example, I’m not ashamed at all about the fact that I like anime or listen to noise music, those are just the quirks that make me the person I am, so I wear them with pride. However, I also try not to get too conceited about it, so I recognise that these are weird things and poke fun at myself for them every now and then, which also helps me not take every joke at my expense as a personal attack, which I’ve sometimes struggled with. As with everything, there’s a balance you’ll need to find, but that’s the central core of it in my opinion.
The second is being a positive presence and influence in general. I avoid posting much negativity on social media, because the internet already has a lot of that, so if I want to vent about something I’ll instead just do it privately to a friend or a small group. It’s better to focus on the good things and be supportive of people and their ventures when you can. I think that’s a part of why ULTRAKILL’s community has largely stayed a welcoming and supportive space despite how often I end up being kind of a dick to people out of annoyance.
What about overcoming the difficulties involved in that path?
That’s something I don’t know. What each person will find difficult to overcome when it comes to their own self is different. In general though, I think what helps the most is introspection and trying to understand outside perspectives. Take some time fairly often to go on a walk or even meditate, whatever gives you a moment to just reflect and think about whatever pops in your mind. Consider things that annoy you about other people, try to understand why people do those things and try to stop yourself from falling in the same trap. I’m just as petty and hypocritical as anyone else, if not even more so, but thanks to being introspective I tend to be able to stop myself from voicing those thoughts publicly, at least most of the time.
If you haven’t checked out the best user-rated game on Steam yet; really, I implore you to do so. Have a look at http://devilmayquake.com/ and maybe even the demo. I don’t think I can really even say anything after the above besides that plug, really.