In a year filled with all sorts of incredible co-op announcements, one title stands out as the most entertainingly chaotic brain-melter of all. No, it does not feature next-generation pore physics or lighting effects that dynamically react to the real-time position of your character’s top-left incisor. Rather, it’s the insanely adorable Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, a genre-shattering gem from the three-man team at Toronto-based indie studio Asteroid Base. During Microsoft’s stage event last week, Lovers was revealed to be en route to the Xbox One, an exciting coup for Microsoft’s big black box. We recently caught up with two of the three men responsible for Lovers, Matt Hammill (Animator, Programmer, and Game Designer) and Adam Winkels (Programmer and Game Designer) for what can only be described as one of the most ridiculous gaming interviews you’ll ever read. Buckle up and hold on tight.
[Hardcore Gamer] Could you describe what Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is for anyone who doesn’t know what the game is? When you see it in video form without having played it, it can sometimes be pretty difficult to understand what it is you’re seeing.
[Matt Hammill] Okay, so it’s (mostly) a two-player co-op platform game inside the cross-section of a spaceship. So you’re running and jumping around the corridors of this spaceship. You’re climbing ladders so you can sit at different computers, each of which controls your turrets, or your engine, or your shield because in addition to playing this little platform game inside the spaceship, your spaceship is just one spaceship on a bigger screen full of other spaceships. You have to shoot and destroy these other ships along with evil robots and asteroids. If two players are playing, they have to share the engine, the shield, the turrets, and the Super-Laser, and you’re always running frantically back and forth between the different computers. You end up shouting things back and forth at each other like, “Put up the shield!” “No, you put up the shield!” There’s a one-player mode too, in which case you have a loyal pet space-dog who you manage. You sort of send him around as if he’s your other player.
So what were your inspirations for the game? Trying to describe it using standard genre conventions is extremely difficult because it has a little bit of platforming, a little bit of shoot-’em-up, and a little bit of real-time-strategy in it.
[Adam Winkels] There were a couple of different ones. There was a PC game called Artemis, which is sort of like a super nerdy Star Trek bridge simulator where everyone brings a laptop and plays a role on a fake Starship Enterprise. So one player has the captain station and every other player has the tactical station, or the link station, or the communication station. We really liked that idea, but it’s a big ask to have people have like six laptops. We really wanted to boil something like that down to a more simple experience.
The other inspiration was the scene in Star Wars where Luke and Han are in the Millennium Falcon and they’re being attacked by TIE Fighters. They’re running to the turrets and yelling at each other; Luke shoots one and Han says, “Oh, don’t get cocky kid.” That sense of camaraderie and joking back and forth is something that we really wanted to capture with the game.
[Hammill] We actually started it at a game jam a little over two years ago, and I guess it was our second project together for game jams. We knew we wanted to do a co-op game, and we knew that before we knew what kind of co-op game we wanted to do. There are some other developers in Toronto that have done really great little interesting co-op games, and we got really inspired by some of them. People like Damian Sommer and Spooky Squid have done some really cool co-op stuff. So then we were thinking, what kind of co-op game could we do? We hit on that scene from Star Wars; just the shouting and the dialogue, the idea of two people working together.
There was one thing that left me wondering after playing Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime: why are you saving bunnies?
[Winkels] Well, first and foremost, bunnies are extremely cute. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. Though it’s a space game, we wanted something in the aesthetic that wasn’t grey and metal, your typical aesthetic conventions for that genre. So we wanted everything kind of cute and charming, so bunnies seemed like a perfect fit for that bright, colorful universe.
[Hammill] Our idea was to try and open up the sci-fi to people that aren’t already into Aliens and Star Wars and all that stuff that already has a lot of games out there.
Was that the idea that came first? Were you thinking, “Oh let’s open up the sci-fi genre,” and then think, “Bunnies! That’ll work.”?
[Hammill] …it all sort of happened.
[Winkels] We came up with the name of the game about halfway through the 48 to 72-hour game jam. As soon as we realized the name of the game was going to have “Love” in it, we took that idea and cranked it up even more. We added more hearts and more pink and rainbows and that kind of thing.
[Hammill] I guess at the game jam we felt a little guilty for making yet another game inspired by Star Wars, so we wanted to see if we could at least go somewhere else with the look of it all. The bunnies just sort of happened from there.
[Winkels] It’s also secretly sort of a Star Fox reference because in other levels we’re planning on having frogs and birds and foxes and stuff like that. The whole saga should be represented in there hopefully.
The Xbox One announcement was obviously somewhat of a surprise, since during the Microsoft Press Conference there was that ID@Xbox mash-up with stuff like Cuphead – I don’t know what that is, but it looks hilarious. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
[Winkels] So good.
[Hammill] That game looks incredible.
You guys kind of got featured a little bit, so it brings up the question, “Why the Xbox One and not the PS4?” With the two consoles being so similar, what makes the Xbox One the right system for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime?
[Winkels] Ideally we want the game to be everywhere; we want the game to be played by as many people as possible, but we’re only a three-person team. As such, we can only focus on PC and Mac and a console. Other than that, we just don’t have the manpower to do more than that. Microsoft approached us a little while ago about getting Lovers onto the Xbox, and they’ve been really really great to us. They’ve been really responsive, really helpful to us in getting us the tools and everything we need to start working on an Xbox version of the game. I think that’s a big part of it. The ID@Xbox program has been super helpful, and anything to get our game on consoles and a TV so people can play side-by-side on the couch – that’s always what we’ve been aiming for.
There was some news in a recent press release about how the environments have a procedural generation aspect to them. Judging off of my time with an early build of Lovers, it’s not something you notice when that’s something that’s done really well. Could you explain the procedural generation a little more?
[Hammill] So in each level, you have to rescue these bunnies, or frogs, or what have you from all these different situations.
[Winkels] Cute space creatures!
[Hammill] Some of them are in jail, some of them are next to bombs that explode, some of them require killing mini-bosses. You travel around through little galaxies, moving through enemies and different environments, to find these little dangerous situations. It’s tile-based, so we’re making a bunch of different environment tiles with floating asteroids and stuff. They can all be rotated and shuffled and combined differently.
[Winkels] He’s only the game designer, you shouldn’t expect him to describe the game’s design!
[Hammill] What it all started from, more than making a roguelike (we’re really into Spelunky), was making something that two people with different levels of skill could play and it would be new to both of them. So we’d have one skilled person thinking, “Oh yeah, there’s a power-up in this corner! We have to go here, and then we go here.” We wanted it to be new to both players no matter where they’re coming from. You both have to teach the other player how it works rather than just where everything is.
We used to have a ton of fun playing Left 4 Dead. Me and some friends…and Adam too, we would hook up two Xboxs together and just play on two TV screens. Just that idea of it being different every time, you weren’t sure what was going to happen.
[Winkels] You weren’t sure what the flavor of each would be; things are always sort of shuffled. As you’re playing it with someone else, there’s the game and then there’s a meta-game of what your partner is doing. That kind of builds another layer to the experience that everyone is having.
What are your favorite games of all time? You can’t pick Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime.
[Winkels] Oh man, favorite game of all time. It’s probably going to be pretty boring. I’ve got to go with, probably, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which I’m sure is 90% of people’s answers, but it’s the whole package. It’s got amazing level design and amazingly tight controls. That opening scene, you walk outside and it’s raining. Man, everything about that game is so perfect.
[Hammill] Aaaah! The game that gave me the most instant delight the first time the first time I played it was probably Katamari Damacy. That just blew my mind – the music, the visuals, the experience, the craziness. I don’t think I’ve ever been more delighted than the first time I played that game.
What is the craziest glitch you’ve ever seen in a game?
[Hammill] In Mass Effect 3, you’re going through the endgame sequence seeing all your old buddies, having one last conversation with each one. There’s this glitch in the game where, if you were wearing this one particular helmet at the time, your character will take off his helmet and his eyes would be bulging out of their sockets.
The eyeballs were like three times the size on your face. You know at the end of Roger Rabbit where what’s-his-name’s eyes were just bulging out of his head? It was like that during the most heartbreaking goodbyes to all your friends and you’re just staring at them with these gigantic eyes. So weird.
At first I thought, “My character has some kind of sickness; he’s being infected by something.” Then I thought, “Wait, why aren’t any of his friends mentioning his giant eyes?”
[Winkels] Yeah, that’s tough to beat. I don’t think I can think of any better than that.
What’s your favorite in-game cheat?
[Winkels] The one I’ve been doing a lot, and this is really bad because it’s absolutely ruining the spirit of the game, but I’ve been hacking my FTL saves to give me infinite scrap. That game is so punishingly difficult and I just can’t take it, so I just went in and found a hex editor and found someone who decoded all of the hex, and gave myself all this scrap. Now I can just burn through that game and feel god-like. I don’t know if that’s a cheat so much as me being a cheater, but it sure made me feel a lot better about that game once I could actually beat it.
[Hammill] I guess debug mode in the old Sonic games. You could just build anything into the level, you could just drop it into the scene. That was was pretty cool.
[Hammill] Yeah, if you went to “Decode” and the music menu, or whatever, you could cycle through the buttons, and your character would turn floaty first of all, you could move him anywhere. Then you could cycle through every object in the game, like you could make rings or platforms or enemies or bullets. Then you would just stamp them into the scene, it was pretty cool.
[Winkels] That reminds me of when I was a kid. I would go into “Sound Test” mode on Donkey Kong Country and then record the tracks from the game onto a cassette tape so I could walk around with my Walkman and listen to that music. I don’t know why. In retrospect, that was pretty silly. I loved that music at the time.
[Hammill] The worst game cheat is making yourself Frog Mario in Mario 3. You’d get to this one spot and you can’t fit through, you can’t do a Duck Slide, so you’re just stuck. Frog Mario can’t Duck Slide.
On the spot, give me the dumbest game idea you can think of.
[Winkels] How about a praying mantis dating simulator?
[Hammill] What about Dig Dug, but you’re on the shore, so everything is water so if you dig you just start drowning.
[Winkels] See, I like Praying Mantis Dating Simulator because you’d have to go through a bunch of dialogue trees and everything to get lucky, and at the end it just ends up being a Fatality.