the jesse venbrux interview

if you saw me complaining about playthisthing’s interview with jesse venbrux recently, you probably expected i would get around to conducting my own.

Jesse venbrux is one of the most important game designers working right now. he continually subverts player expectations, challenging player assumptions about games. his use of persistence between games has informed my own work, and remains fairly unique in the medium. in our two-and-a-half hour chat, jesse and i talked about game design school, his work, future projects, and the game he never made: GAME OVER FOREVER

auntie: so to start, why don’t you introduce yourself briefly?

Jesse: ok, i’m Jesse Venbrux obviously. 21 year old freeware developer. I’m studying game design in my home country the Netherlands. I always try to make interesting / original games, things I haven’t seen before.

auntie: but you’re in japan right now?

Jesse: yeah, i’m doing an internship at a games company. it’s part of my study, and pretty exciting actually

auntie: oh, so that’s through your school?

Jesse: yes, although you have to get a spot somewhere yourself, it’s not like the school provided them

auntie: ah. so what are you doing on your internship, if i can ask? or is it too early to say?

Jesse: not really too early but i’m not allowed to talk about what i do exactly :P but it’s a game design internship

auntie: haha, that’s fine. you’re in a game design program, right? how is that? i spent four months at one of those and it was an incredibly frustrating experience.

Jesse: heh.. i like it so far. at the start it was very basic but we have many very different subjects and it’s more creativity focused than really studying from books
we learn a bit about every aspect of making games: texturing, storytelling, 3d models, c++, game design, marketing, etc etc
though i wish they ‘d have more on game design
what was it like what you did?

auntie: it was very business-oriented. we learned modelling and marketing but we learned next to nothing about design, about actually using game rules to tell a story. that was one of my greatest frustrations.

Jesse: ah i see, yeah that’s kinda dumb

auntie: there were some books in the curriculum, but i got the impression no one’s really written the definitive books on game design yet. it’s a very new discipline.

Jesse: yeah.. i read part of… i forgot the name… ah Rules of Play
it’s very dry but a good attempt

auntie: i’ve read some of that. my teachers seemed to feel it was written like it was in an attempt to legitimize videogames to academia.

Jesse: heh, maybe

auntie: i liked what i read but eric zimmerman is very loud in person, and that sort of colored my experience of the book.

Jesse: hahahaha

auntie: i felt like my school was sort of making it up as they go along, grabbing from other disciplines like art and architecture and writing, because no one’s really figured out how to teach game design yet.

Jesse: yeah that probably happens a lot at these courses
i believe our school is pretty unique in that it takes an artistic approach
or something
but from what i hear about other courses it’s pretty good

auntie: that’s what i really wanted out of my school. there was no real talk of art unless i forced the subject.

Jesse: i see

auntie: do you think videogame schools are going to become more like art schools as the medium comes into maturity?

Jesse: i think it’ll get better, so i guess yeah…
it doesn’t necessarily have to be very artistic, but it’d be great if actual game design/game mechanics/game play got teached more

auntie: yeah. my own fear is that ten years from now, no one will be able to get a job in games without attending one of these schools.
admittedly it’s hard enough breaking into “the industry” as it is. do you see yourself working for a larger studio a few years from now, or would you like to keep turning out wonderful freeware games?

Jesse: i’m not sure yet what i’ll do. maybe i’d like to work at a game company, preferably small games, maybe i’ll set up something myself, with a few friends.
maybe… i’ll make small freeware games on the side for years to come…
although that could be a bit too much

auntie: you’d better.

Jesse: hahaha

auntie: so let’s talk about your games. starting with how i became aware of your work: karoshi 2.0.
karoshi 2.0 isn’t much like the first karoshi, which is a fairly traditional puzzle platformer, aside from the fact that the player’s trying to kill herself. how did the sequel become such a digression?

Jesse: i actually think it’s a logical continuation. In Karoshi 1 the first half is very puzzle like straight forward/logic thinking. after making that part i wasn’t sure what to do and didn’t work on it for a month or so (not sure if i remember correctly). i think it was Psychosomnium among other things that made me think of going more crazy and trying different things in levels. so after the first half of levels i made more crazy ones, and in Karoshi 2.0 i did that as well and got a surprisingly large amount of ideas
initially after making 1 i didn’t think i could make another, i thought i did what i could with the concept

auntie: karoshi 2.0 incorporates a lot of things into the actual play that we as players usually take for granted, like the menu screen and the quit button.

Jesse: uhuh

auntie: you mentioned in an interview with pc zone that you cut a level that required the player to email an address you set up for a password.
i’m sort of disappointed that got cut!

Jesse: hehe… i was afraid that there could turn up problems in the future or something. like emails geting into the spam box or so
i set it up so it auto replied with the password

auntie: you weren’t worried that players might think it was asking too much of them?

Jesse: yeah that as well

auntie: ha. gregory weir, who does a podcast called ludus novus, has said that karoshi 2.0 repeatedly subverts an unwritten rule between the game and the player: that the rules won’t change without warning. specifically, he was talking about how pressing the R button to restart the level doesn’t always restart everything, or sometimes does something entirely different. do you feel like there’s a limit to what you can get away with with the player? is there a line you try not to cross?

Jesse: yes definitely. for example the level with the CD, which is the first idea ever i had for the game btw, comes near the end. i would never put that at the start. also with things like pressing R, i made sure you learned that restarted a level way before you use it in those different ways, etc. it’s really important how you lay out the levels, and i think it could’ve been done better even

auntie: yeah. the rules are all very clearly established before they’re subverted.

Jesse: yeah
i think it’s level 4 with the 4 big crates floating above the ground that is a bit hard for people

auntie: “the first real puzzle.”

Jesse: yeah….

auntie: did you find a lot of people getting confused or frustrated when you were playtesting the game, or after it was released?

Jesse: not really frustrated but stuck, yeah, though not too much actually

auntie: though i think getting stuck for a little while is part of the experience, isn’t it?

Jesse: definitely, though sometimes it took too long where i had to step in
but i think i did a good job of not having that happen TOO much

auntie: yeah, you clearly put a lot of work into making sure the game wasn’t too unreasonable. can you give me an example of a level that got changed before the game was released?

Jesse: hmm i have to think about that
let’s see…

auntie: it’s okay if you can’t. i’m just a little curious about your approach to design.

Jesse: levels got changed all the time during development ofc and i changed a couple as well after playtesting but i don’t remember details : (

auntie: it’s cool. a lot of your games, karoshi, you made it, deaths, are platform games. is this because platform games have so many established tropes that you can subvert as a designer?

Jesse: yeah also because it’s something people understand, and can relate to a little because it looks a bit like the real world (it’s less abstract than some other genres). Jonathan Blow said the same about it being a concept that people understand, so you can play with it as a designer (like what he did in Braid)
i also just like to play them
and… dunno, you can just do a lot with it, because of the gravity aspect… i mean…
well… yeah

auntie: yeah. usually in platformers you avoid spikes. in karoshi spikes are usually a goal for the player. karoshi factory, which is the most recent karoshi game, is a lot closer to the original karoshi than to karoshi 2.0. do you feel like you did as much with karoshi 2.0’s premise as you could without it becoming tired?

Jesse: i’m reading your question 3 times over trying to grasp heh… you mean if i did enough in Factory without it getting tired or if i already did everything i could in 2.0?

auntie: i mean that karoshi factory goes back to a lot of the stuff in the first karoshi. pushing blocks, flipping switches. it’s less like karoshi 2.0, which asks the player to use the mouse, to quit to the menu, etc. did you feel you did as much of that kind of thing as you could in karoshi 2.0? is that why karoshi factory is more straightforward?

Jesse: yeah, i was hoping i could do enough new things with just the fact you use different players. it’s indeed a little disappointing if you expect more things like 2.0. it’s also that i developed the game in a couple days to have it finished before the deadline

auntie: oh, that was for a yoyo games competition, wasn’t it?

Jesse: yea
theme = cooperation
initially i wasn’t going to make anything
i thought of karoshi with multiple characters longer ago but didn’t make it then because i didn’t think it’d win, and still don’t think it will, but made it anyway in the end, for fun

auntie: i think it’s a pretty good game! frozzd was made for – and won – a yoyo competition too, right? “winter?” as a designer, do you find it easier to start having a theme?

Jesse: it can spark ideas, and sometimes i start with a theme, but it can be anything i start with. i think it’s best to start with a new gameplay idea and take the theme that best explains that
frozzd could work with a different theme

auntie: yeah, the real themes of frozzd are jumping from small planet to small planet and sort of engaging in combat that you the player don’t actually participate in, aren’t they?

Jesse: yeah
i did start with the winter theme for the game, but the gameplay changed a lot during development
initially i had a snowball that grew so big that it would be as big as the moon, and then you’d go to different planets… so a katamari type idea
it didn’t feel right. i changed the ball into a little guy and immediately it played very different
even though the code was the same. just because you could see which direction he was facing
you’re not actually participating in the combat btw, because that’d make it too confusing with also having the gravity

auntie: yeah, that’s actually the thing i find the most interesting about frozzd. there’s always fighting going on, but the player never actually fights or gets hurt. even if all the mubblies are frozen, the player can still wander around the level totally unharmed.

Jesse: yeah makes it kind of casual and also it’s something you don’t see a lot
at first i tried doing a platform shooter
but aiming with the mouse as well as walking upside down etc was hard
then i thought of having a helper that’d shoot for you
and that turned into the idea of having more of them so you’d make an army, et voila

auntie: it’s interesting. games don’t often give you that kind of indirect control over what’s going on. pazzon does this a bit too.

Jesse: well pazzon is kinda weird, how that game came about
initially it was a contnuation of the frozzd gameplay
i had the idea of 3 different types of “mubblies” and that’d make the gameplay interesting
i stopped working on it a little later… and eventually got the idea of making a game where if you’d die… you could never start over
i put that into pazzon since i still had that game, but in the end took it out because it wasn’t a good idea to shoehorn it onto pazzon
i actually didn’t plan on releasing the game then, but cactus said he liked it

auntie: yeah, it seems like the sort of thing cactus would like.
i like that pazzon is abstract enough to allow for a variety of different interpretations. when it was first released, i compared it to george orwell’s animal farm.

Jesse: yeah, i read that
the story is thin and open, and also seems to be a little incorrect
which makes you automatically think of ways to make it correct, something people do
i only realize this just now btw…

auntie: heh
the game where if you lose you could never start over: that became execution, didn’t it?

Jesse: no actually, that came after execution, but it was a continuation of that idea yeah
execution was interesting (and got so much more response than i ever imagined) but not really much of a game
the idea behind GAME OVER FOREVER, as it was called, was that every simple jump would feel exciting because you knew you wouldn’t be able to try again
the game would also be fairly easy so you could only die by your own stupid mistake

auntie: but you were unwilling to make pazzon be that easy game? i know i died a few times playing through pazzon.

Jesse: the beginning of the game is very slow and easy, but yeah later on it’s tougher..the gameplay just was like that, another reason why the idea really didn’t fit pazzon :P
made me realize even more how important it is that everything in a game makes sure the idea behind it “gets through” gets executed in the best way

auntie: so a lot of your recent work seems to have involved things carrying over between plays, often unexpectedly. i remember some people actually getting upset because they couldn’t just restart execution in the way that we can restart most games after losing.

Jesse: i’m just trying to break rules as a way to get new interesting gameplay …:)
in art progression is marked by breaking rules i think…?

auntie: i think so. a lot of the rules your games break are ones players tend to take for granted. like “you will be able to try again if you lose.” i don’t think most people who played execution realized how much they expect that until it was taken away from them.

Jesse: yeah

auntie: how was the reaction to that game?

Jesse: a lot of discussion about the meaning and whether it was art, and people saying they disagreed with the fact that killing him means you lose

auntie: yeah, the one legitimate complaint i heard was that if you “win” the game, the prisoner is still tied up. if the only way to see the entire game is to kill the prisoner, does that mean that killing him is actually winning?

Jesse: i probably should have made it so that if you win, and you start it up again, that he’s gone
my idea was to create a response from the player, a surprise because restarting does not work…
it was a bit of an experiment in seeing how i could influence the players feelings

auntie: one of the interesting outcomes, i think, is that some players actually found where the game stored its save data, deleted it, and actually got to restart the game. do you see this as a legitimate way to play the game, or is this just denying the game’s premise, that you have to accept the consequences of your actions?

Jesse: if i could have made it so that people couldn’t do this i would have
but it’s interesting to see people find that out and use it just to see what happens if you win
which isn’t much…

auntie: so do you think that players need to be willing to make concessions to a game in order to fully experience what the author wants them to experience?

Jesse: interesting. i think so yeah, and often as a designer you have to make it so that people are willing to
keeping people interested can be hard depending on the game. i mean, for example Messhoff‘s punishment games, he does a good job of that

auntie: well the thing is that in the first punishment, he does a good job of making the player feel like she’s being punished for her own mistakes. i missed the jump, so i fall down and have to repeat a screen. in the second punishment i felt like i was being punished for something arbitrary. i keep having to hit the switches over and over because that’s the game, not because i messed up.

Jesse: true, but i think in punishment 2 you start mastering the controls better, and each time you do it all over it goes quicker, which makes it less annoying

auntie: that’s true.
but you have to establish trust with the player before you can do these sorts of things to them, right?

Jesse: yeah though, with freeware games you can be more harsh, especially when you have an audience

auntie: yeah. execution doesn’t need to spend time earning the player’s trust because it’s five seconds long. players approach a game with certain expectations, though.

Jesse: yeah expectation is really what i played with a lot so far

auntie: yes. deaths does something similiar with player deaths having a consequence. the interesting thing is that one player’s death has consequences for every other person who plays the game.

Jesse: yeah i realize now it’s a lot like Spore actually
Spore also uses a database with information, instead of having real-time multiplayer
maybe i’ll do more with the idea

auntie: i’d love if you did. i was disappointed when i heard you’d stopped working on deaths, because i think there was more room to explore that concept.

Jesse: yeah probably
(btw, i have 64000 registered deaths now in my database)

auntie: so you have an ongoing database of every death, though a player will only see the fifty most recent?

Jesse: yes, more would make the game run slow. but that’s because of the body parts. if i only show the marked points i could show maybe all of it
which would be interesting…

auntie: it’s interesting because it allows a limited kind of communication between players in what is otherwise a single-player game. even if the communication is usually “there’s a trap here.”

Jesse: yep

auntie: but the other interesting thing is that the bodies of players are actually game objects that other players can walk on or bump into, so players are actually changing the levels for other players when they play. a friend of mine died over and over in the same spot and built a wall of corpses that kept other players from passing.

Jesse: hahaha, that’s pretty funny

auntie: yes, my friend’s a jerk.

Jesse: i think maybe randomly generated levels could work

auntie: ha
i could imagine levels that get easier as more people play them, like maybe there’s a gun that’s hard to dodge, but as players are killed by it their bodies form a wall that blocks the gun shooting at later players.

Jesse: yeah… it’s kinda hard though to really make good levels with it

auntie: i would imagine these kind of levels being tricky to plan.
have you seen other developers adopting this idea of deaths sticking around to mark trouble spots? i know hot ninja moon moon does it, and maverick, this flash game i played the other day, leaves tombstones where the player dies.

Jesse: yeah i watched Bytejacker, show about downloadable games, and was a little annoyed with seeing it in Hot Ninja Moon. I didn’t know about Maverick
my reaction was just “crap, that’s my idea” but i guess it shows i had a good idea if others adopt it
actually there was a game at E3 that did the same too
the misadventures of PB winterbottom

auntie: i don’t think hot ninja moon uses it very well, though. the only reason the player leaves a corpse behind in that game is because the actual spikes that killed her are impossible to see.

Jesse: haha ok…

auntie: bytejacker’s kind of an annoying show. one of my games was featured on it too.

Jesse: oh, cool. how is it annoying?

auntie: i don’t know, the whole “gamers with short attention spans” thing. it reminds me of mainstream games television like g4. i do like that they give time to freeware developers.

Jesse: yeah i see what you mean. threw me off a little too but i look past it now

auntie: so you made it also plays with this idea of marking death. the screen never refreshes in you made it, so as the game goes on the screen gets more and more cluttered. when the player dies, though, blood spurts out and “cleans up” that area.

Jesse: yeah…

auntie: did you made it come out of what you were doing with deaths?

Jesse: no
actually i had the blood first
i made the blood effect for the Flash version of Karoshi
so it was exported as images, imported in flash and vectorized
it only looked like that when i would turn of the screen refreshing (that makes it look like “lines” of blood, when it’s actually just circles that have a speed direction, and gravity)
i liked how it looked so much i thought of making a game with it… and it forced me to turn of the screen refreshing because otherwise it wouldn’t look like that. otherwise i wouldn’t have thought of actually using that for gameplay

auntie: i think it’s appropriate that you made it saves a screenshot at the end. that screen has basically the entire game in it. i think i’ve been working with game maker almost as long as you have, and i’m continually impressed by all the lesser known features of game maker you exploit in your games.

Jesse: :)
* :)
huh i don ‘t see my smilies…

auntie: it’s okay. i see them.

Jesse: heh ok

auntie: so how do you find game maker?

Jesse: it’s really very great. i actually tried making games before that with flash, but i couldn’t do much. GM really made it possible for me to experiment with a lot

auntie: yeah, i think game maker brought in a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be making games.

Jesse: yeah, i’m thankful for that

auntie: i think it’s a little deceptive in that you can’t actually do too much just by dragging and dropping icons. you have to do coding if you want to make anything a little bit complicated.

Jesse: true

auntie: are you going to continue to work in game maker? are you working on any projects right now, or is your internship keeping you too busy?

Jesse: my internship isn’t really too busy but i don’t want to be making games 24/7 so i promised myself to not make anything when in japan :) i have 1 little game that i was working on and that maybe i’ll finish after the internship, and i’m currently selling the Flash version of Karoshi
i have too many ideas too

auntie: selling the flash version of karoshi?

Jesse: yeah it’s really neat how it works. there’s a site where you can put up your flash game and sponsors can bid on it
i’ll be doing more with flash in the future i think, but maybe not programming myself
with 2 class mates i’ve been working on Karoshi Flash

auntie: wow, i need to learn flash.
i know cactus has gotten into flash games recently.

Jesse: yeah but he didn’t sell his latest i believe

auntie: you mentioned psychosomnium earlier, and punishment. what developers do you admire?

Jesse: well, them.. i actually don’t really play their or anyone’s games thoroughly but their ideas are inspiring. i also like Shigeru Miyamoto for what he did, Suda Goichi (maker of Killer 7), and i liked Portal

auntie: suda51 is one of the more interesting designers in the industry right now, i think.

Jesse: yeah i actually should read more of his interviews. i saw one and it was interesting what he said
i really liked Killer 7 too, but i haven’t tried No More Heroes yet

auntie: no more heroes is pretty interesting. i saw suda at gdc a few years ago. he talked a lot about punk, but i’m not sure he knows what punk actually means.

Jesse: hahaha

auntie: someone asked him about independent developers, and he was very insistent that developers should try and sign contracts with publishers.

Jesse: interesting

auntie: yeah. do you think you’d compromise some of the freedom you have as a freeware developer if you worked for a larger studio or publisher?

Jesse: if it’s really necessary but hopefully not

auntie: it would be hard to pitch karoshi 2.0 to a publisher, i think.

Jesse: i’m gonna talk with someone soon about doing an iPhone version
but it would be hard, i guess
also for example on Xbox Live Arcade they have rules that prevent from doing things
like, using restarting as a way to solve a level is against their rules.. not that they specifically state that…

auntie: yeah, i know jonathan blow had some trouble bringing braid to xbox live, because they’re very insistant that games have big menus and pages full of instructions, and he really wanted the player to just start in the game and learn by playing.

Jesse: yeah
rules like that are pretty silly

auntie: i agree.
karoshi on the iphone, though?
that’s pretty exciting!

Jesse: no idea either how it’s gonna work
yeah definitely
the game has to be really different for it to work, but i like that because the formula is wearing off
i don’t know yet if it’s really gonna be made tho

auntie: have you gotten the chance to play around with an iphone yet?

Jesse: i tried a few games for a minute on my friend’s iPod Touch, but i don’t own one myself

auntie: i havn’t gotten to use one, but they seem to have some interesting possibilities. i could see a karoshi where you have to tilt the iphone to drop a crate on the office guy’s head.

Jesse: yeah there’s some neat possibilities with the input methods
there’s no keys though for walking around with your character

auntie: there aren’t, aren’t there? this is going to be interesting.
you’d better make this game, now.

Jesse: hehe
it ‘s only after my internship that i can really go do things
but i do want to “break new ground”

auntie: so i’ve kept you for over two hours now. i think i’m going to let you go.

Jesse: ok, i hope it’s been interesting

auntie: it has! i hope it’s been interesting for you too. i admire you a lot as a developer, and i was terrified i was going to bore you.

Jesse: haha definitely not

17 thoughts on “the jesse venbrux interview”

  1. Very interesting discussion, thanks a lot for this. There aren’t enough long and detailed interviews with game designers around.

  2. This was a great read :) I love long interviews like these, especially when they’re such a natural conversation. It makes it much more interesting to read, and I especially like hearing what both of you think about these topics instead of just one person.

    (While I’m here, I also want to let you know that I absolutely love Mighty Jill Off and Calamity Annie!)

  3. One of the two best interviews I have read in awhile and they both involve you, Dess!

    This came at a very good time for me because I have just been playing some of Jesse’s games recently. Psychosomnium in particular really interested me.

  4. Very nice interview. :)

    I think a lot of controversy around Execution (or at least a lot of it that I saw) came around the fact that the “game” saves it save information in a pretty obscure place on the machine using it. I agree that there has to be an understanding between a player and a game developer in how the game is meant to be played; but, at the same time, there needs to be a trust between the player and the developer that the game won’t do anything to subvert the system using it. Sure, I can delete the executable, but there’s still that hidden data buried away in the computer, sitting there indefinitely.

    There needs to be an understanding that this is the way the game is meant to be played, and also an understanding that your game won’t do anything to my computer without telling me that it does so. I mean, the save file isn’t going to cost anyone any signifcant hard drive space, but there’s a certain principle there that shouldn’t be violated.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents. :)

  5. yes, i remember that point being raised. the obvious but unsatisfying response is that every game maker game stores save information, secretly, in the same place, (calamity annie does too) and that someone who’s played game maker games before probably has more than a few high score and saved data files hanging around her hard drive. that doesn’t address the question of whether it’s ethical, however.

  6. The interview I am reading doesn’t seem to be the one being commented about! What is Game Over Forever? It isn’t mentioned in the article at all!

  7. Howdy, this is interviewer from I highly appreciate your comments on my interview and doing your own. It seems like you had alot of fun talking with him!
    Ironically, Jesse and I also had a long pleasant friendly talk, just like yours. The main difference being that we met at a cafe outside (without any recording devices), not with the intent to get very technical, but instead a casual, discussion. And after that I turned the talk into a concentrated introduction to the man, hopefully apetizing the reader to check out his website, his work and other reviews (we’ve made) for his games. Ultimately, I felt that the games he makes should speak for themselves, because that seemed to be Jesse’s attitude.

    It’s a shame to hear you were dissapointed. Indeed, PlayThisThing can (and probably should) have more spice to their interviews. Maybe you’ll be next?

  8. my frustration is that there’s still very little substantial talk of design (jesse seems to echo this frustration when he talks about his school); there’s no real forum for game designers to talk about their craft. while i appreciate the invitation to explore jesse’s work, what i think our goal as interviewers should be is to provide designers with a venue to talk about design.

    i’m all for more playthisthing interviews, possibly with me.

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