Daniel-David Guertin is a respected independent videogame developer, who does not feel compelled to rush or force finish his projects. Rebirth is an intriguing game that he started development on back in 2007. After some failed iterations, he put the game on ice until he had a ‘spark of inspiration’ to wrap it up in 2011.
For full abandoned game mode pictures and explanations, see the link at the bottom of the page.
Where are you from?
I’m from Montreal, Quebec.
I’m a 29 year old game developer.
What do you do?
I’ve been creating games professionally since 2004 and playing them for as far as I can remember.
Development tool(s) of choice?
I’ve worked on numerous platforms and tinkered with a many tools like Flash, Multimedia Fusion, homemade editors from amateur projects, Game Maker, and level editors from big games. Since I’m not a great engineer, meaning that I’m not very talented for building well-structured and efficient code, I tend to stick with the simple stuff that does the rough work for me.
I’ve been using Blitz Basic for a couple of years now. It’s quick, flexible and efficient for what I want to create. I started using Blitz Basic for quick prototyping and kept using it for side projects. Since I’m more an artist than a programmer, Photoshop is my weapon of choice when it comes to graphics. I’m currently learning ActionScript and I’m enjoying it. My next projects will probably be browser-based.
How did game development begin for you?
As a kid, I always wanted to make games but had no idea how they actually worked. They were just nice pixelated pictures moving on the tube. That didn’t stop me from drawing and writing down ideas for games. During my late high school years, I really got into comic book art and stopped playing games for a while. I developed illustrations skills and made a few amateur comics.
After college, as I was trying to find a career within the comic book industry, I found that many artists ended up working in game studios creating concept art. It got me back into games and this time around I was old enough to find out how they were made. I poked around the web, got some pixel art work for amateur projects, got some experience and ended up being hired as a professional game designer. As I got experience on the field, I started doing personal projects on the side.
What are your goals as a game developer?
As a game developer during this era of the video game industry, I feel it’s my duty to push the boundaries of what’s been done. When the pioneers of video games started, there were no such things as an “industry”. These people crafted unique experiences on simple computer hardware and showed the world that video games were able to reach a broad audience. Their followers built a worldwide business that revolutionized how people could be entertained.
Today, we “modern” developers can reap the seeds planted by the developers before us. Their tools and knowledge are now easily accessible through blogs, websites, hundreds of book, and game courses. We can start focusing on the “what we are doing” rather than the “how we are going to do it”. My goal is to push things forward, change our perspective and our definition of what a “video game” is and what it can be. We have the tools, we now need to use them creatively.
I’m not saying to change everything and forget about our past; I’m aiming for more choices not replacement. The experiences we are being offered today are amazing and I would like to have more styles, more genres, and more daring titles. This is what I aim for when creating games: crafting new ways of experiencing emotions within video games while embracing what we have done before. I have no idea if I’ll achieve my goal but I’m gonna give it a good shot!
You recently released a game called Rebirth. What can you share about its meaning and symbolism, without ruining the experience for the player?
Rebirth is a simple game focused on its message. Its goal is to communicate a vision of our modern society to the player through in-game actions. I wanted to talk about our greedy ways and how we should let go of the pressure of a system that cares more about money than life. It’s a common theme but I wanted to execute it in a game without using any existing genres.
I wanted to design the game so that the core message would be the main focus. I usually feel like most games have a great dissonance between the player’s action and the goal of the game. “Save the world for freedom and kindness by killing hundreds of people with advanced weapons”. I didn’t want that in the game and I put great effort into its design to reach this goal. If you play the game and pay attention to the feedback loops, rewards and control scheme, they all follow an intended feel. For example, you receive neither rewards nor interesting feedback for killing the person behind you. Nothing stops you from doing it but you gain absolutely nothing.
Also, I wanted to have imagery that would punch you straight in the face. I didn’t want this to be all “butterflies and pink ribbons”; I wanted the player to want to rip his / her own arms off willingly in the game.
You may have noticed that some have called the game pretentious. Did you expect this and what do you say to those people?
I’m going to have to answer this question with a small story. Here we go!
So some guy is walking down Main Street. There’s like 30 different restaurants. He’s hungry and spots one named “Only Fish Sushi”. He walks in, gets to the counter and asks “Yeah, so can I get a burger and some fries please?” The cashier says “We only serve fish sushi here”. The guy gets pissed off, asks for the chef and starts insulting him. “This place sucks! You don’t know how to make good food! You think you are so good with your fancy fish! I don’t like fish! You are just a pompous chef who doesn’t know how to cook a meal that pleases my personal taste.” And the chef replies “What did you expect when you walked in here? Hell, if you want a burger, there’s like 15 burger joints right across the street!” Angered, the man retorts “Well it’s the last time you see my face here!”, only to have the chef say “Who cares! You don’t even like fish!”
If you’re a player that doesn’t want to play games that are experimental, or that are unconventional, don’t freakin’ play them. I was well aware that many people would react this way when I released Rebirth. Anything that looks like an art game gets bad responses these days. Many half-done “art games” were released in the course of the last 5 years and gave experimental games a bad reputation.
I expected some bad responses and I’m glad it happened. Part of the goal of the game was to make people react. I really don’t feel Rebirth is pretentious at all but some people just want attention at all cost. They’ll even try games that are clearly stating that they are experimental and whine about them being experimental. They’ll post the same pre-baked comments they’ve posted before. I stopped counting the amount of “This is stupid and pretentious, stop making games” comments posted on experimental game posts in blogs and game websites. If someone out there felt like he or she could do better, I highly encourage him / her to do so.
Being challenged is a great way to make things move forward. Like the old saying goes, if you wanna talk the talk, walk the walk. That’s what I did. I’m a fan of these types of games but I’m not satisfied with them. I thought I could do better. I got up and acted; I created a game I felt was closer to my vision of what this “genre” could be. I’m very happy that the people who like this kind of game enjoyed it. I’ve received many positive responses to the game. It was created for the fan of this genre, not for all players, and I am well aware of it.
Can you give an example of any experimental games that you believe have been successful in what they were trying to achieve?
I feel like the game Façade is one of these rare experimental games that manages to bring something really special to the world of gaming. The creators wanted to create an experience where you feel uncomfortable while behind caught in-between a dysfunctional couple. They also let the player be very free in what they can do or say. Conceptually, the game is great. When I started playing the game, I felt surprised and intrigued. The characters reacted according to what I just typed. They listened and responded to my advice. I felt like the characters were a real couple.
Unfortunately, after a few minutes, I felt like I needed something else to do and wanted to test the limits of the system. The experience intended by the creators was then kinda ruined by swearing and obscene propositions but even then, I was happy to see that the characters reacted in a “normal” way (not agreeing to what I had typed in). Of course I’m not going to say what I typed because part of the fun of the game comes from trying to figure out what will make the couple react! Ha ha ha!
In all seriousness, even when I played the game with the intention to break it, I felt like the game manages to pull off something interesting: I cared about the characters. I wanted to help them or make them angry or feel awkward. I wanted them to react because I cared. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have even bothered typing in obscenities.
You described Rebirth as an ‘interactive poem’. What do you mean by that exactly?
Poems are usually very short. Every word counts. Poems have a core message they deliver but can be re-interpreted by the reader. Poems usually use strong imagery to explain their message and sometimes you need to read it a few times to truly capture its essence. That’s the philosophy I had while creating the game. Every input, every image, every game mode counts.
The first time you play, you know that there’s something going on. You see the images, you see the basic message, you try to figure out what to do, and why you would do it. If you play through the game a second time, everything seems to take shape into something else, the experience changes. After a couple of plays you have seen what the game has to offer. Then, you are free to play the game by following your interpretation of the message.
A couple of comments mentioned a H.R. Giger influence in the visuals of Rebirth, however it seems you hadn’t heard of him before. The visuals are very distinct. What did influence the game, visually?
Yes! I’ve been very surprised by the H.R. Giger comments. It’s quite flattering. I discovered this artist after the game was released and loved his stuff. I’m an avid fan of pop culture and H.R. Giger influenced many artists from many fields (movies, music, etc). I suppose that his style has indirectly influenced me. For example, I’m a fan of late ’90s metal and industrial music and the mix between machine and human is at the core of the look and feel of this musical culture. In fact, Giger designed American nu metal band Korn’s microphone stand.
The visuals for the game came very naturally for me. They are very “pure”; they are usually the first ideas that popped in my mind when designing the game modes. I remember thinking about using the heart that can split open to illustrate the first stage of the game very early in the design process. The image remained almost unchanged during the entire development. It’s hard to pin-point a precise influence since the visual direction aside, there were years of observation and consumption of pop culture.
Where do you sit, regarding the ‘games can or cannot be art’ argument? Is Rebirth an attempt at art?
Rebirth is first and foremost an attempt at making a game where the message has the spotlight instead of the rewards or winning conditions. I wanted a game where the player would have fun by choosing a moral path and not by defeating classic opponents or jump on platforms. I never thought about the game as an “art game”. I made the game while thinking about how the players would feel when playing.
Personally, I feel games as we know it are much closer to sports than art. However, video games are a peculiar beast. They require the player to be involved physically and rationally in order to achieve supremacy over an opponent, like sports and traditional games. They also have the power to deliver series of involving events where the player becomes emotionally attached with the virtual world and its rules rather than the other living participants.
For instance, when you play hockey, you don’t get attached to the puck nor the net but rather your team-mates or the other team. These individuals are tangible, real and are emotionally connectable. When enjoying a novel, you get attached with characters that do not exist. In certain video games, you get attached to characters that are virtual but with whom you have emotionally real interactions. You can end up having a relationship with something that does not exist, like the relationship you can have with your favourite movie character.
I believe that video games can evolve into something else but this something else will be a kind on its own. Some types of games will remain more sport-like, focused on the exploits of the players, like Tetris, Mario or Starcraft. Other games will branch out and use their own vocabulary and sets of rules. I’m really looking forward to this time because it will offer player more variety in video game entertainment. It’s okay for movies to offer documentaries, drama, stoner comedies, and repertoire films all at the same time. I don’t see the harm in offering the same in the world of video games.
How has your professional work effected your personal projects?
My professional work has tremendously affected the way I want to make games on my own. In fact, one of the reasons why I am more willing to work on experimental games in my personal time is because I work on more “traditional” video games during the day. If my day job had me working on one single style of game, let’s say a first person shooter, then maybe when I came home I’d work on a puzzle game or a platformer.
Since my past day jobs had me working on many different styles of games for different audiences, creating something different at home is a relief. I don’t think I’d have created a game like Rebirth if I had not spent the last four years working on Disney titles, casino games, casual puzzlers, old-school RPGs or arcade scrolling shooters for the companies that hired me. When I work on more “mainstream” projects, you have to think about cost and return. You have to think how much time you are going to spend on a project, which audience is going to buy it and make sure they do. This often means that some design choices are going to be commercially geared. Rebirth is at the opposite of this: most of the design choices were anti-commercial and that’s what made it fun to create.
What are your biggest obstacles in finishing personal projects?
Motivation and self-confidence. When creating a personal project, it needs motivation to stay focused on it. There are always hundreds of things I could be doing instead! Video games take a long while to create and it’s easy to think of other games to develop that would be better or finished quicker. And if you switch to this new “better” project, there’s still a huge chance that you’ll think of an even better game that would be finished even faster. It takes a good deal of motivation and dedication to stick with a project and finish it. But if you do finish one, it helps to motivate during other projects.
Self-confidence is also something that affects me during the creation of a personal game. I’m used to working in a team and when I have to do everything by myself, I don’t always feel 100% confident that I can make everything as pretty or as solid as it could be. When working on more experimental projects, like Rebirth, it’s also a matter of trying to come up with something that works. It’s extremely hard on my confidence when I can’t figure out a way to make something enjoyable.
I’m pretty proud of what I did with Rebirth because, for a long while, the game was flat, dull and extremely repetitive. The finished project has a good level of enjoyment while still carrying the message. That was very hard to pull off for me because the message is extremely depressive and games are crafted for fun. I had to find a way to make a game about being a helpless prisoner that doesn’t resort to any kind of violence or conflict enjoyable. For a long while, I couldn’t find the solution and that affected me greatly. So to finish a project I need to be able to motivate myself properly and surpass the “I’m not good enough and won’t be able to make something good“ hurdle.