By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Downfall: Redux, a horror adventure game from the creator of The Cat Lady, describing it as “brilliantly written and beautifully put together.” A remake of the 2009 point-and-click adventure game Downfall, it tells the story of troubled husband Joe Davis as he tries to save his wife from their ill-fated getaway to the Quiet Haven Hotel. The story is as gripping today – with updated graphics, overhauled puzzles and controls, brand new music and the addition of voice acting – as it was in 2009. AMO is therefore delighted to welcome back auteur game designer Remigiusz Michalski for another exclusive online interview!
Hi Rem, thank you for your time and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online!
Thanks for having me! You guys are the best!
What have you been up to since I last interviewed you about The Cat Lady in 2013?
Well, I did actually flip my whole life upside down… but in the best way possible. The success of The Cat Lady has allowed me to move back to my little hometown in Poland and get my first own apartment. So I said goodbye to England after 12 years… which was kinda bittersweet, but inevitable. Now I can proudly say I’m a full-time game developer! Sure, it’s still mainly me making games with the help from my internet friends all over the world… but I always said the good thing about this business is being able to work anywhere, even the top of Mount Everest, as long as there’s good internet connection (which I don’t think there is on Mount Everest but still…)!
Downfall: Redux is a remake of your first game Downfall from 2009 – what made you decide to revisit this project?
After The Cat Lady the door to the magical Steam Store stood open for all my future games. No more of that Greenlight stuff. And a lot of people wanted to see my first game Downfall in there but I looked at it and thought… well to be perfectly honest, I thought it was shit. Don’t get me wrong, Downfall WAS a major turning point in my life, it started off my “career” as a game developer, and there were some aspects of it I still like to this day. But there was so much WRONG with it too, that I just couldn’t put it on Steam without feeling bad about it. I’ve learned so much in the post-Downfall years that I knew exactly how to take this raw, immature (but in some ways promising) kind of mess and shape it into a decent game. One that will proudly sit beside The Cat Lady. And finally, a game that is part of the trilogy and ties in the characters from The Cat Lady in a meaningful way. So, out with the cheesy stuff, cranking up the horror to 11, removing the god-awful boss battle, explaining the characters better, redoing everything from scratch – that was the plan. I thought I’d manage to do it in one year. It took two… but that’s okay. I think it was worth it.
What can returning and new players expect from the game – what’s Downfall: Redux all about?
Downfall 2016 is about telling a really fucked up horror story. Unlike The Cat Lady, it is not meant to send life changing messages. It’s meant to shock you, make you laugh, make you scared, make you care about the characters and then question their sanity, confuse you… and most importantly, it is meant to allow you to interpret the story in the way you see fit. I see a lot of people on the forums trying to get to the bottom of what actually really happened in this game, but I always think there isn’t one answer to that. What happened is whatever you think happened! Returning players will find tons of references and some returning characters that are sure to put a smile on their face if they played and liked The Cat Lady. But new players can enjoy the game without any knowledge of my previous games. Both Downfall and The Cat Lady take place in the same universe, so it’s only natural that some characters will cross over.
How much has been changed from the original game?
Everything, except for the basic outline of the story. Every dialogue has been written from scratch, mainly from what I remembered in my head, not really referring to the original script. I only kept some phrases that I thought were iconic, like when Ivy says they’re “over the bridge” when the couple admit to having failed in their marriage, or some stupid little things, like the receptionist saying “Breakfast at 8 AM, don’t be late!” like it’s the most important thing in the world – that has always seemed kinda funny to me. Adding the The Cat Lady interface has affected the puzzle mechanics. It is no longer a point-and-click game in the strict sense. While I will always have a special fondness towards the original, despite its many flaws, the new Downfall is the game it was always meant to be and I’m really proud of it.
Was there anything in particular that you’d been itching to alter/change/remove?
I knew from the start that the boss fight had to go… I remember feedback from players back in the old days and they all either hated it or found it super-hilarious. Which it was, to be honest. But now that it’s gone I hear people saying they miss it… “Where’s the boss fight?” – well, sorry, it sucked! It was glitchy and pointless! And it will never ever come back! But seriously, if you wanna shoot a big monster in a game you’ll do better playing Resident Evil than Downfall. Other big changes were to do with fleshing out the characters better. If we’re gonna spend an entire game trying to save our wife, it has to be someone we care about, someone tragically lovely. And I think Ivy is just that now. Not just a “princess” that pops up in the first 30 seconds of the game and then gets taken to “another castle” without giving us any good motivation to rescue her. She is a broken human being… but aren’t we all?
I noticed the film studio location is absent in the remake. Where did the idea for that location in the original game come from and why did you decide to remove it in the remake?
The film studio is another example of how a very tiny insignificant concept from the old game is being missed, despite it being just one background. I guess it’s something to do with players’ memories of that part of the game. If they were to look at it now, they’d think “Oh, it’s actually kinda ‘meh’…”. Originally, it was my little tribute to Horror Soft’s Elvira games. I try to include some sort of tribute in all my games – Maniac Mansion in The Cat Lady, Elvira/Waxworks in original Downfall, and Slender: The Eight Pages in the remake. They’re usually very subtle and not many people get them… but those who do really like it. And why did I eventually remove the film studio?… I simply forgot about it. It brought nothing to the game anyway.
The control system has been made to match the keyboard arrow-based system found in The Cat Lady, rather than using the original point-and-click interface. Is this your preferred control scheme? What benefits do you think it gives the player to be in direct control?
It actually changes a lot when you’re in direct control of your character in a horror game. It makes you feel more like you’re in their shoes… never knowing what will happen around the next corner. The Cat Lady interface is something I gave a lot of thought to and while it is a little clunky I think it’s become a sort of trademark for Harvester Games. I’ve managed to improve it a little since The Cat Lady, too. Now it looks slicker, it doesn’t block a big part of the screen with the inventory always displayed, and you can more easily pop in and out if it. I’m also not a very big fan of point-and-click games anymore… With some exceptions, they’re not usually very immersive in my opinion.
The voice acting certainly adds a whole new dimension to the experience! Can you tell us a little bit more about the talented main voice actors and how you found them?
Jesse Gunn, the voice actor for Joe, has been my friend for a few years now. He’s a very talented musician under the name Warmer. He got in touch after the release of Downfall in 2009 and basically gave me his whole catalogue of music to use in my games in any way I want. I was just starting work on The Cat Lady and thought it would be a cool idea to include songs in the game (that one moment in Red Dead Redemption where Jose Gonzalez’ song starts playing all of a sudden when riding a horse through Mexico has inspired it in a big way, I won’t deny it). Jesse already gave voice to Joe Davis when he had his cameo in The Cat Lady so it was obviously going to be him in the new game too.
We actually synchronized the release of the game with the release of his new album Decisions. The actress playing the role of Agnes is his girlfriend, Tina. They met through The Cat Lady and seem like such a happy couple. Unlike the other actors, Jesse and Tina recorded their lines together, like a real conversation, with two microphones. That is a rare luxury in indie games to have that! And the chemistry they both have with each other is insane! There’s also a bunch of YouTubers in the game, including Cry, NicoB, Daveosity, ThatInsaneDane and Chisaleya, who all did Let’s Play videos of The Cat Lady in the past and clearly like my games. David Firth comes back too, this time as a crazy German doctor! I love that guy!
How would you describe the character of Joe Davis?
There isn’t really one way to describe Joe. Going through the game, we get a chance to shape his character with our decisions and dialogue choices. But one thing needs to be said: he definitely loves his wife, or at least did, until the situation got completely out of hand. But even so, can we really blame a man for having enough? His wife Ivy has put him through a lot. It was always her problems and her inner demons that dominated their life and turned it into a nightmare… He’s trying to deal with all that in his own way, trying to save her… But can you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? What is right and what is wrong?
Minor spoiler alert: do you think Joe is truly evil, simply insane… or something else?
Oh, he’s not evil at all! I always saw Joe as a man who tried to help but did more harm instead. Sure he’s lost it a bit… but it’s all a big metaphor, really. You can take everything that happens in the game literally and then you have a story about a crazy guy with an axe, murdering people, which is cool – this is how most people will perceive Joe. But the way I think about it… it’s more about his real life struggle with his wife’s illness, which in-game is being translated into a crazy fairytale for adults.
What’s your favourite part of Downfall: Redux?
I really like the scene where Joe and Ivy lie in bed and talk about her self-image issues, eating disorders and… getting a cat. I know it’s nothing groundbreaking, but I’m happy with how the dialogue turned out, the choices I gave to the player, offering just enough freedom, the way we can see them up close for the first time not talking about anything out of this world… and the actors did well, too. The “I love you” line in the end turned out just perfect.
I absolutely love the character of Anges! What made you decide to expand her part in the remake?
Every story needs a good sidekick character! I only truly understood who Agnes was AFTER I made the original Downfall. I went to Warsaw to meet with some movie producer who at the time was interested in turning it into a film and I had to pitch the game’s story to him… and that’s when it occurred to me, that ALL female characters in Downfall were Joe’s wife, broken into pieces like a mirror that reflected her. And Agnes was that best part of her, the one that made Joe fall in love with her in the first place. She’s one of the major reasons I had to make this game again and really put this idea across. Also, for some reason, my animator Stefano Collavini really liked Agnes and gave her plenty of cool little animations that really helped to flesh her character out.
Your brother (micAmic) returned to create the soundtrack. What was it like working with him again and how much of the original game’s music was used/changed?
Oh, it’s always great to work with him! Now, we live next door to each other, so it’s much easier to communicate. He made an entirely new soundtrack for Downfall 2016. And it’s HUGE! As brothers, we always did projects together when we were kids – making comic books, playing Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPGs, we had a rock band called Harvester (I was a drummer and he played guitar). It really helps that we understand each other and have this great connection. All brothers should.
The additional songs from Warmer, 5iah, Ben & Alfie and Black Casino And The Ghost also add greatly to the experience. How did their music end up being used – did you approach them or vice versa?
I like using Warmer’s music in my games – that way we can both promote each other’s art. I don’t think I actually asked him about using his songs in Downfall… but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mind. Same with 5iah – he sent me a bunch of songs some time ago and said I’m free to use them if I want. I guess that way new people discover their music and some end up becoming fans. But with Black Casino And The Ghost it was a different story… I needed a really powerful ass-kicking song for the game’s ending and I spent hours and hours looking through stuff on Bandcamp. And then I found them and I instantly knew that was it. That was the song I needed! The perfect accent to end the game on. And what a cool bunch of people they turned out to be! We’re still in touch. They’re even playing my games now!
Downfall: Redux does a great job of bringing the game closer – into the same in-game universe – with The Cat Lady. Was this important to you?
Yes and no. I really wanted to get rid of the detective Bill Hookway from the original game, because I found him to be extremely cheesy. And who better to replace him than the Cat Lady?!? These two had to meet sooner or later. It was bound to happen. They do live next door to each other after all! It was nice writing for Susan again.
Downfall: Redux is once again built using Adventure Game Studio. Has the engine changed much since you created The Cat Lady? Will you be using AGS for your next project?
I’m using a slightly newer version of AGS now, but no major changes there. I love AGS, but it’s got some terrible problems to it, like making games much more demanding than 2D games should be… Still, it seems to be working fine on most PCs. I was going to start using Unity for the new game but my producer has convinced me to make the third and final game in the trilogy with AGS so… I think I’m gonna listen to him about that one. There are two good reasons for that: it will be more consistent with the previous two games and also by now I’ve gotten really efficient with AGS and I can make a new game much quicker this way. So, after that – it’s Unity, even if it takes me not nine but nine hundred lives to learn it!
I’ve heard rumours of a planned third game (Lorelai) which would eventually make these games into a trilogy. Can you tell us anything more about this?
Yes. Lorelai… I actually started working on it two years ago but then we decided Downfall remake was a higher priority, so it was put on hold. I didn’t really get very far with it anyway. And now in retrospective I’m kinda glad, because I wasn’t really going in the right direction with that game. So now I’m starting from scratch. All I kept is the title. The third and defining chapter in the Devil Came Through Here trilogy. But I can’t tell you what it’ll be about… because I don’t really know myself! My design documents consist of just a few words: epic, long, loosely tied to the other two games, making people laugh and making people cry. This is how I make my games! Sorry!
What’s next for you Rem?
I think I’m gonna stay here for a while. I want to finally grow some roots. Watch my kids grow up. Become the Stephen King of video games! Oh yes, and I really want to make a PlayStation 4 game. I’ve always been a huge Sony consoles fanboy! And that’s one important reason to learn Unity!
Thank you for your time! As you know I’ve been a massive fan for many years now and I always greatly appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and let me pick your mind. I can’t wait to see what you do next!
Thank you for all your support, dude. It’s very appreciated!
Stay tuned for more Downfall: Redux interviews coming soon – with the voice actors of Joe Davis, Agnes and Ivy!