Linelight’s Brett Taylor Talks Development, Bob Ross & the Perils of Going Solo

It’s safe to say that Linelight, developed by one-man studio My Dog Zorro, may well be finding itself among the contenders for Best Surprise this year (least in this writer’s opinion). A testament to how [still] the indie community can banish any preconceived assumptions that a non-AAA project can’t deliver the same level of profound interest, no matter how much still we may laud this section of the industry with such undue stigma. And while it’s become almost a common trend in itself to perhaps stumble upon a game that more than exceeds expectations, just what is it exactly that goes into the production — both beforehand and during — of such small but emotively-grand titles such as this? I recently had the chance to sit down with Brett Taylor, the man behind the moniker, in order to find out.

[Hardcore Gamer] Where did the concept behind Linelight originally stem from, both creatively and personally? Given how well it makes subtle nods towards genres other than the conventional puzzle game, I can’t imagine Linelight is simply a homage to just one genre.

[Brett Taylor] I was thinking up alternative game control ideas, and I thought “what if you could only move on the floor and walls, and not in the actual space in the room?” Then I realized, what would the point of the room be? What if it was just the floor and walls? Everything would technically be on lines…I wondered how I’d program it, and suddenly I was hooked…that was what was so alluring to me: I can say “everything’s on lines” and visualize what it’d look like. It started as a programming challenge on the side…and the reason I stuck with it was because it was so hard. It kept blowing my mind how challenging it was to program something so simple. As for genre, I wasn’t sure what Linelight would become. I kept my mind open and worked to follow what made the game fun. Linelight borrows tons from other games, but doesn’t take a lot from any one game. The core mechanic is so unique that I don’t think I could have borrowed a lot of design from one specific game even if I’d tried.

Was the game’s minimalist art-style and aesthetic a decision you’d inevitably reached over other possible choices, or one you’d strictly chosen when first starting this project?

It happened very naturally. The design was all about simplicity. I kept the art style as minimal as possible throughout for two main reasons: one, to match the simplicity of the design/not upstage the levels and two, because it was way easier to keep it abstract than spend lots of time making non-abstract art. Early on, I wanted the lines in the game to look like streets: much thicker, and the objects in the game existed inside the streets. But as a one-man team, I was like…I preferred focusing on the game’s design rather than getting sucked into making the art too early on. The minimalist design worked great, so I kept it. I spruced it up with ambient particles and stuff, but that’s about it. Lastly, I always go for readability first when designing games. It can look beautiful, but if the player can’t parse what’s happening on the screen, I’m not happy.

I spoke, in my review of the game, of how Linelight — though not heavily reliant on some concrete story — does this wonderful and clever thing of making the experience feel as much about solving puzzles as it is this sensual drive of being a part of some grander journey. This one little white line striving to reach its end goal/destination. Was that always your intention, to make Linelight less about brief, short-term systems (i.e the puzzles) and more about the long-term sensation of reaching some satisfying, figurative destination?

Great question. I’m happy to hear that’s the experience you had! That was certainly on my mind during development. It was sort of a side-agenda…like, all of the elements in the game had a metaphorical representation of real-life stuff to me. I guess the best answer is that I gently ushered it in that direction, though it wasn’t a high priority. My main focus was making the puzzles as awesome as possible. The whole game is a journey and it’s not about getting to the end. It’s super cheesy, but I like this message a lot. Like, there’s no external incentive to collect all the stars in the game — they don’t actually do anything. The joy of playing the game isn’t getting to some bigger-picture destination, it’s about smelling all the amazing flowers on the way. Connecting all the levels together really made a difference too.

One of the elements I found uplifting was the way in which the second half of each World played out and how the game blossoms into this part-quirky, story-but-not-a-story of inevitably reaching each World’s end. At what point during development did you decide on this intentional structural change and had you experimented beforehand with the way this shift in gameplay was presented — not to mention executed — to the player?

I watched and painted along with Bob Ross during development and I’ve learned a lot from him. There would just be this magical little detail in his painting I’d try to recreate, but just couldn’t. I learned over time that he doesn’t plan on making these little magical details — he simply rolls with what happens on the canvas and his paintings are so much better for it. I tried to emulate the same ethic…and it shows in the finale sequences of every world. I didn’t plan it that way from the start; I allowed it to happen. I wanted some sort of climax at the end of each world.

Something about the format clicked…so I’d decided that every world would end with a finale sequence that was all about the world’s mechanics. It worked with the game, and it would be fun to make. I didn’t see the “finale friends” as characters until near the end of development, when I suddenly realized: “Whoa, I’ve got an attachment to these lines. These are characters and I like them.” And it tied in great to what I’d originally wanted the players to experience emotionally. Once I’d made that mental shift, the rest of the finale sequences (and the game’s endings) fell into place naturally. It’s such a small part of the game overall, yet people have really connected with it.

Let’s talk about the soundtrack to Linelight. Piano-led instrumentation is nothing new and it’s become, for better or worse, a kind of standard for developers to either implement or simply lean on with their sound design. While Linelight doesn’t solely rely on piano, were you aware, at the time, of piano music’s strong presence in video games, and how did Linelight’s structural design play into the creation of its music?

Piano is naturally part of my musical style: it’s my go-to instrument, and I have to actively try not to lean on it in songs I write without it. The same thing goes with pizzicato strings and glockenspiel/celesta, too. I love these sounds, and I have to hold myself back from leaning on them in everything I write (because I like trying out new and wacky things, and I like variety).

It’s tough to answer, because a lot of these decisions went on in the back of my brain and I just sort of went with (like the Bob Ross technique) rather than planning in advance. I wrote the main theme to Linelight (World 1’s song) in October 2015. It suddenly made the game so much better, so [I] used it as the reference point for all the game’s music in terms of feel, tempo, and percussion style. I was really afraid of writing anything after it, because I didn’t think I could top it. It was five months before I finally wrote another song, and fortunately, I absolutely love every song I wrote for the game. There was something super cool about the glitchy percussion layered on top of smooth instrumentals, which I stumbled upon in the first song and repeated for many of the other songs in the game. I wrote each song in a day, and didn’t change a thing. Which is the exact opposite of how I designed the levels in this game.

Literally from the word go, being at the start menu, Linelight’s emphasis on melody and phrasing is clearly there and so poignant as a result. In a World of chords, orchestras, multi-layered effects and ample post-production, what made you want to take that step back and offer your players this more intimate approach to sound? Of being able to clearly hear and identify these instruments against the backdrop of the game’s aesthetic?

This is just sort of how I’ve always written music. I taught myself how to compose by studying what composers at the time were doing (in the time of N64 and MIDI) and it was composers like Grant Kirkhope who had the biggest influence on my early musical style in terms of simplicity, catchy melody and upbeat mood…I didn’t take a step back; I just stood where I already was.

I want to end with asking you about the promising upturn in lone developers, of games being created by one, solitary individual. Given we’ve had great success stories as of late – Toby Fox’s Undertale, Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge, Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island – as a “one-man studio” yourself, do you consider this but another positive effect of the continuing rise of independent games, or do you consider the presence of lone developers/composers a byproduct of something else?

I think it can be a bit dangerous to glorify solo-developer success stories. It’s alluring for sure, but the success stories aren’t the norm, they’re the exception. The vast majority of solo projects don’t reach this level of success, and when things don’t pan out the way they do in an uplifting story, it can be really rough being the only person suffering disappointment, with no one else with you to share the weight. I don’t recommend aspiring developers try to emulate the solo, successful artist. Something about it feels like aspiring jazz musicians doing heroin because that’s what their heroes did, and their heroes were incredible musicians.

My advice is: do what works for you. I made a game on my own because that’s what I’m used to; I love almost every facet of game development, and I work well solo. After Linelight though, I’m kind of done working alone. It gets lonely! I’m going to start working regularly around other enthusiastic developers, and soon bring on-board one or two other people to help me make much more ambitious projects I can’t possibly handle on my own. It’s really an individual thing, and it’s a learning experience, so don’t be afraid of trying things out.

Last but not least, where does My Dog Zorro go from here? Early days sure, but is Linelight 2 a more likely venture, or are you instead interested in tackling other genres/conventions?

While Linelight 2 would be amazing, I’m interested in variety. I want to do something completely different. I’ve been making prototypes here and there over the last few months, one of which is a 3D Pikmin-esque time-management game. I have some pretty ambitious ideas for my next project, though I’ve recently been leaning towards doing a small project first before I jump into another multi-year commitment. I want to explore my range as a studio and see how far I can push myself. My goal is to make something that’s completely unprecedented. For that though, I’m going to need a few more people.

I want My Dog Zorro to be known for its range as a studio, rather than a one-trick pony. I considered specializing in puzzle games — I’ve learned so much from Linelight and I’m a way better designer than when I started out — but I want more of a challenge. I tend to bite off more than I can chew and I’m probably doing that by planning on throwing myself into unfamiliar territory with every new title. That’s the only guideline for now though…I will be going with the flow into where the future takes me.

Linelight is available now for PS4 & PC.