Linelight, like its creator, has a uniquely “Brett Taylor” charm about it. His enthusiasm for the heart and soul of Linelight infects those around him. Despite a retail release being delayed until late January 2017, Linelight's strong showing has generated buzz around the game that has had a number of people in professional development and media circles asking one another, “Have you played Linelight yet?”
Often indie games represent the most unique ends of the game industry and the people who make them are no different. I had the opportunity to talk with Brett Taylor earlier this year about his upcoming solo title, Linelight. For over a year, Taylor has been grinding out his personal passion project, a game staring a rectangle locked into a series of over 250 line-based puzzles. Though incredibly simple on the surface, Taylor has managed to leverage that core conceit into a dizzying array of clever puzzles with a surprisingly emotional core. It’s the kind of game where all the elements click together, leaving most who play it with a smile on their face.
Talking with him, it was clear just how much effort and zeal Taylor had for Linelight. He’s focused, intent, and bending all of his energy toward finishing it, a colossal task for a single developer. How does someone function as the sole coder, animator, composer, director, marketer, and producer? What does it take to finish a game alone, let alone a game that seems to charm everyone in who plays it?
Jack Gardner: What inspired you to make something like this? Why, out of all of the things that you could make, why Linelight?
Brett Taylor: Linelight actually started as a programming challenge. I was like, "Okay, what if everything takes place in line? What if you're a line and everything takes place on lines? What would that be like? Is there a game there?" My question to myself was how I would program that. And I was like, "You know, I've never done anything like this before. It's very visual, and I'm a very visual person. I'll take a crack at it." I tried it out and [it was] way harder than I thought that it would be. There's linear algebra [in Linelight], but I initially thought it would be very visual. It's super heavy, data-based stuff; way more than I could have ever anticipated - way more than I'm comfortable with. The game's like [a person, saying,] "I'm belligerent, I'm going to be hard to work with!" I'm like, "I can beat you." So I stayed with it, I was persevering.
Each of the mechanics in the game, each of the puzzles- there's no redundancy. There's no filler, it's basically as streamlined as possible with as few barriers between the player and the solution as possible. My goal was to remove all the noise from all the puzzles until I basically can't simplify it anymore.
It does feel like a relationship, so I speak of it often as if it is one. It was very hard for me to understand and come to terms and speak the same language as Linelight in the beginning, but eventually we saw eye-to-eye; now we have a great relationship. I'm completely serious about this. [laughs] But yeah, I have a fantastic relationship with this game, and I'm so glad that I pushed through. It's been so rich and generous with its mechanics, and the types of puzzles that have come out, emergence. A lot of people ask me, "Where do you come up with all these ideas for the puzzles?" and honestly, most of the time I don't. The puzzles happen naturally.
Jack: You're just discovering this game, rather than creating it?
Brett: Exactly, I'm discovering [various aspects of the game]. I'm the one unearthing these gems, basically. So I guess my job is to go to patches of dirt where, using instincts or whatever experience that I have, I believe there's a lot of really great stuff beneath the surface and then [dig to] find those things. I never know exactly what I'm going to find; and in Linelight, I found some really cool stuff. I didn't know there would be this much gameplay in this one mechanic. I have so many more ideas, some small things I prototyped, and I had to stop myself from getting too invested in those because I have to finish the game. I could keep working on this forever, but I'm like no, this is my first independent solo release.
Jack: So it's solo? It's all by yourself?
Brett: 100% me, from code, music, art, design, to sound.
Jack: [The visuals] look very Tron-esque.
Brett: What's actually funny is that there's not nearly as much consistency in what people saying that it reminds them of, or what it's like so far. I've been getting a lot of different stuff so far.
Jack: Which is really interesting because you have a very minimalist design.
Brett: Yeah, actually I feel like it's like if you look at a stick figure, a face, it's like "Oh, this looks like that person" or whatever. It's like you can see it, interpret it, in your own way. I literally had my friend's wife say, "Oh, I don't want to hurt the character. He's so cute." I'm like, "First off, how is it a he? Second, it's a rectangle."
Jack: It's a cute rectangle, though.
Brett: Yes, it's a cute rectangle. The rectangle does more than just exist. It does move and behave. I programmed it and have given it the minimal amount of life it has, so it still feels like a plain rectangle, but it actually is a character and does emote so subtly in tiny ways. Just the way it moves and bends around corners and stuff gives it [a very light] sense of personality.
Jack: Which [step of development] been the hardest for you to embrace? Music, coding, sound...?
Brett: Production. Being the producer.
Brett: I actually didn't think I would have an answer for that, but yes. Being the producer of the game is a role I did not think I was going to have to fill, but when you spend a few months telling people its 2-3 months away and you don't… I'm a very punctual person. I don't like being late, but flexibility is important too. But after having done that for a while, I was like I feel like I'm falling into a pattern that I've seen other developers fall into and that's unacceptable. [Delays are] not sustainable, I have to finish the game at some point. So being the producer was super hard because, months and months ago, I, as a producer, was very agreeable to myself.
Imagine working on a project and having a producer who, if you asked for an extension or whatever for a deadline, would always say yes. You get nothing finished. I've asked people that before, and they say that sounds great – it’s not. You need someone to hold accountability and have deadlines and boundaries. It's challenging because there's Artist Brett who's - and all of this is happening in one head, which is difficult because I'm arguing with myself - previously, Artist Brett used to win most of the arguments, now it's Producer Brett saying, "Nope, good. Ship it." and Artist Brett's like, "Yeah, alright. Fine, ship it."
Jack: So is Linelight done or is this still a couple months out?
Brett: It's very close to done. [Editor’s Note: Brett and I talked for a bit about potential release dates and when work on the game would be done, but Linelight is now on track for a release on January 31, 2017, a bit later than he speculated] It’s difficult to estimate because I'm not just making the game, I'm also self-publishing.
Jack: Which is its own headache, I'm sure.
Brett: It's a lot of nouns. All the adjectives. There's a lot of stuff that I'm doing. So my goal is that if this does really well, my next project I can hire people. I'm not the best person to be doing marketing or PR. I like going into my silo and working and working, sealing myself away. I put my phone away, it's on airplane mode every day, all the time. I don't check Facebook, I don't do any of that stuff. My friends are like, "Did you check out my Snapchat?" I'm like, "Don't take it personally, I don't check anybody's Snapchat." Because I'm super zoned in on that, which is not conducive to somebody who's trying to get Twitter following and stuff and interact with people on Twitter. So [hopefully I’ll be] getting other people to help me with that.
Jack: You're mentioning your next project. Where do you go from here? Do you stay with the minimalist stuff or do you go with something completely different?
Brett: I don't know, I don't know…. Honestly, this is….
Jack: This is your life right now, your baby?
Brett: Well, people have said it's my baby, and I get a little bit like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, this is a baby. And I am the parent of this baby, but saying "this is my baby" - my self-esteem is not tied to the success of this game, financial or critical, at least to the best of my abilities. Ideally, there would be like- there's got to be some ties there, but not too much. I don't want to get too... it's just a slippery slope.
As far as next project goes, I'm assuming a similar process to how this started. I'm going to see what's interesting and then see where that takes me. If it doesn't go anywhere then I'll find something else. Actually last year I had an idea for this game but my goal was to have 10 prototypes done by, I think it was October. So I had a few months of just prototype stuff, and then I would decide which project I wanted to work on. But Linelight kept coming back. I was working on it on the side, and eventually I added some mechanics and I was like, "Whoa! Whoa! This is really cool." and then [the game and I] sort of fell into the relationship with each other I guess.
Jack: How long have you been working on it?
Brett: It's been a full year.
Jack: Full year?
Brett: Yeah. So I worked for a casual gaming company in New York City for three years, and I left at the end of May last year. Took a month off or so just to relax and not work for a little while, a month and a half, but I have to be doing something, so I was still working a little bit. But then mid-June, mid-July or whatever, I picked Linelight back up and I was full-time into development. It's pretty much been my full-time thing since. Now I'm doing seven days a week, but it's not all development work. A lot of it's housekeeping stuff because I'm also a business owner at the same time. There are a lot of tasks no one wants to do, and [it’s difficult to find people] to hire to do those tasks because generally nobody wants to, they're not particularly rewarding.
Jack: Gotta live.
Jack: So I was going to ask, you worked at a casual gaming company. Where did you come from? What's your background?
Brett: I've always been indie at heart. I was actually afraid of working at a casual game [company]. I got the job, and I worried that if I started working there I’d get the indie beaten out of me. It was an actual fear, I'm thinking questions like, "Will I start thinking in free-to-play terms?" And actually to a degree, yeah, I've changed what I thought my ethics were out of necessity just to work at the company and survive. It was also kind of fun and interesting seeing what overlap there could be between my interests and a viable product for a casual audience. So yeah, that's my only professional experience in the game industry, but I've been making games since freshman year of college. So it's been about 8 years, since 2008. Once I discovered how to program it was like everything I wanted to do, but couldn't put into words. But I've always been a musician. I was primarily musician, that's where it started.
Jack: What did you play?
Brett: Played piano and composer as well. I grew up really wanting to write the music for video games, and then I discovered how to program and I was like, "This is super cool!” It enabled me to get the ideas in my head out, and I have a lot of design ideas and all sorts of other stuff. I also like to do music so everything just sort of falls together.
Jack: I can compose my own video games!
Brett: Exactly! It would be very strange for me to hire somebody else to write the music for my own video games. Though there are some artists in mind that can write in the style that I can't that I really like.
Jack: Like who?
Brett: Nigel Good. Nobody knows about this guy, but Nigel Good is sort of, I don't want to say like Deadmau5. It's like electronic music, super upbeat, but it's not obnoxiously so. It's hard for me to describe it, but I really like his work. I never interact with anybody else about him. I've never found anybody else that knows about him, and literally his SoundCloud profile says "Canadian school teacher by day, music producer when I have time for it." [Laughs]
Grant Kirkhope also has a place in my heart. His work hugely influenced me when I was younger. I started composing in 2003. I've been playing piano since I was 3 or 4, so I was late to the game for composing. But video game music, I was super into that.
The musical style of Linelight is very much a juxtaposition of flowy and natural with the inorganic. There's piano music and strings with this glitchy, driving percussion track. If you play the game, you'll notice it, when the enemies come in they sort of represent that soundtrack. And there's no metaphor specifically behind it. I just like the sound of it. There's been no style guide for Linelight. People ask me questions that sort of imply that there would be and there's not. Everything's made to taste, which is not useful advice if someone's looking and asks, "Hey, how do I get into this?" and [I can only say], "Well, does it feel right?" It's not useful, but that is how I've been developing it.
Jack: Is there a thematic or concrete story for Linelight, or is it a series of flowing puzzles?
Brett: There are story elements. I had much more specific ideas for the story, but I ended up scaling it back dramatically because I realized what makes the game so great is the puzzles. That's the bread and butter of Linelight. That is the core of the game. I'm going to focus on that and, unfortunately, story had to take a backseat.
Jack: Well it sounds kind of like the story fell on the same lines as your [minimalist] game design philosophy?
Brett: Yeah, it's definitely a minimalist story. There are bits and pieces of the story that- What's the best way to put it? It's not one big story, it's a lot of little stories and a lot of smaller moments. There's a lot of metaphors in the game just because it's so minimalist it's actually pretty easy to [put them in.] I could probably shoehorn whatever metaphor I wanted into it, but it did come from a deliberate place. There's an ending to the game that is probably the most specific piece of story that's like a very clear metaphor to me. It's all without text, so I'm not asking people to pick up on that, but that's for me at least.
Jack: As the creator that's the only important thing, really.
Brett: And that people play the game and enjoy it. But it all comes down to "Do I enjoy it?" My least good design decisions happen when I'm like "How are people going to react this? How can I make this communicate to other people? What would be cool for other people to experience?" It's not all about other people. I think of it in terms of like "What would be cool? Does this make sense to me?" I understand that, yeah, I have biases, but for the most part, when I ask the question "What do I think is cool?" that's where the best material comes from.
I find that's true for a lot of other people's games as well. I feel like you can really tell when a game, or any sort of creative outlet or media, has come from a place of, the creator made it because they wanted it to exist or that it came from a place that they were excited about. I think most of my favorite games all come from that place, from a creator who had the idea and they just did what they wanted with it. And the game is almost saying, “I'm this way, and you can like me or not like me.”
I'm not trying to appeal to anybody in any particular way, which is, casual gaming-wise, sort of the opposite. You want to appeal to as large an audience as you can. If I'd gone about that mission for Linelight it would be a very different game, and, ironically, it would not have appealed to nearly as many people. I swear that's totally true.
Jack: You know yourself better than you know other people.
A big thank you to Brett Taylor for taking the time to talk with me at length about his life as a solo indie game developer and his personal journey creating Linelight.
As of right now Linelight will release for PC and PlayStation 4 on January 31, 2017.