Video games are a catch-22. When you’re young you have all the time in the world to rot in front of a screen playing video games, but at best a paperboy’s budget to spend on them. And when you can finally afford all the video games you’d like, you inevitably find yourself preoccupied with distractions such as your job, your wife, your kids, or your idiot dog who somehow managed to swallow an entire sweat sock and now needs to go to the vet. (I turned my back for three seconds.)
Marina Kittaka always loved video games, yet she and her older brother weren’t blessed with parents who were willing to throw money at so productive a hobby. The dauntless siblings turned to the internet for free games, no doubt finding both gems and stinkers. During their digital travels they also discovered the budding hobbyist game developer community – independent video game creators working on a shoestring budget, yet also without some corporate taskmaster dictating what their games have to be like.
Marina found an outlet for this passion when she met her creative partner Melos Han Tani. Together they founded Analgesic Productions and created Anodyne, a loving homage to the 16-bit era with mind-bending twists, Even the Ocean, a charming little romp through what looks like a collection of oil paintings, and Anodyne 2: Return to Dust, a gorgeous 3D game which defies summarization. Now based in Minneapolis, Marina is creating worlds as much as she is making video games.
“While I gradually started helping Melos more and more with design, my main role has always been creating our games’ artwork,” said Marina. “And depending on the kind of game you’re creating, there are a lot of different ways to approach art. Anodyne, for example, had low-resolution pixel art – like what you would have seen in the early ’90s – but I found that working within those constraints can lead to some really creative and expressive outcomes.
“Creating a retro style game can be artistically limiting in some senses, but even for a game as simple as Anodyne I was able to create environments inspired by my own world travels, as well as van Gogh paintings. A retro style game also lets you toy with the player’s nostalgia, introducing modern gameplay elements that subvert their expectations for a game that otherwise looks like something they could have played 30 years ago.
“I think violence is an interesting topic when it comes to video games. Sometimes people ask me questions like ‘Oh, you make those kinds of violent video games that I don’t want my kid playing?’ That’s not always the case. One of the reasons we made Even the Ocean was because we wanted to see what we could do with a game design that wasn’t centered around fighting. Even the Ocean is all about moving through spaces while balancing your energy, not killing things.
“To be honest, I am interested in violence, because the world is a violent place at times. Anodyne 2 focuses not on combat violence but on structural violence: the way many social structures ultimately support the hoarding of wealth and power at devastating ecological and human costs.
“The independent model of selling video games is not new. Indie game developers used to mail out floppy discs back in the old days, though the internet has made the distribution side of things a whole lot easier. In spite of that it’s still very difficult for small developers to find an audience for their work. The mainstream video games industry has traditionally sold itself on a narrative of linear progress where everything bigger, newer, and shinier has more value. But by taking a step back from the marketing machine, we can experience a more vibrant world with games of all shapes and sizes.
“Melos and I have been lucky to find such a wide audience for our games in an industry where so little press is devoted to small creators. We never could have expected to receive so much support after publishing Anodyne back when we were still in college. I’m sure there are a lot more ups and downs to come, and we’re excited to continue this creative journey together.”
Analgesic Productions’ narrative-driven experimental adventure games are available on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. You can learn more about the studio online at analgesic.productions, or by checking out the developers’ Twitter feeds at @even_kei and @han_tani.
By David Scheller