May 23, 2022

8-Bit Interviews: Existensis

Any Button Gaming talks to Ozzie Sneddon, head of Librarium Studios and the one man force majeure behind upcoming explorer, Existensis. Bring your thinking caps

Esistensis

Welcome to ABG’s 8-Bit interviews, a series of ‘byte’ sized talks with fascinating folk from every inch of the Gaming Industry. From Indie teams daring to dream big, animators with ambitions, dedicated devs or the hottest streamer on the digital block, we’ve got you covered. This month we are talking with solo developer Ozzie Sneddon, and his upcoming exceptional, existential explorer, aptly named Existensis.

Pitched as an artist trying to complete his opus, this remarkable game puts you on a journey of self discovery, setting off on a pilgrimage of inspiration to seek life’s meaning and death’s purpose. It’s fair to say, Ozzie isn’t afraid to break new ground in the medium. Aside from the incredible art style, harking back to simpler times, we talk Tolkien, universe building and the meaning of life as we explore the furthest reaches of this inspirational developer’s mind, ahead of the upcoming release. Enjoy.

The incredible, unique art style in Existensis speaks for itself

ABG: So first off, can you give us a bit of background on yourself? Your name, how you came to the industry etc. A bit of background to help frame things for our readers

Ozzie: My name is Ozzie Sneddon, I’ve been developing games since 2014. I’ve been drawing all my life, and have been making stories for just as long. How I came to land on making video games is a bit funny.

So, when I was young, I wanted to be a musician. Then an animator, then a comic book artist, then a writer, then comic book artist again, then animator again, and I couldn’t decide which I wanted to be.

So I decided I would do all of it, and became a solo game dev!

ABG: That leads quite naturally into my next question. You describe yourself as an illustrator, animator, musician, storyteller, programmer, game developer, and writer. That’s quite a lot of talent for one guy.

Why did development distinguish itself?

There are no enemies in Esistensis, with passive exploration the main focus

Ozzie: I have ADHD. Doing just one thing loses it’s charm very quickly, so being a “jack of all trades” allows me to explore so many interesting avenues of storytelling, and I can use pretty much all of them with game development. Game dev is something special, it allows you to tell stories that can be much more difficult to tell in other mediums because it invites the player to make themself a part of the story.

Above everything else, I consider myself a storyteller.

ABG: That’s crystal clear from the Libarium Studio backlist.

Ozzie: Ah! So you’ve looked into my other work!

ABG: You seem to be creating a universe, rather than independent games. What’s the idea behind the “Age of Empathy” universe?

Ozzie: Indeed. My first game was a prototype of that world, which The Müll Littoral and Existensis are exploring. The Age of Empathy was built on the idea of a “post-post-apocalypse” that looks at a slightly alternate history and theoretical future of earth. I had a lot of anxieties about natural disasters, the yellowstone supervolcano, and other various things. The Age of Empathy presents a potential way the world might be rebuilt after these disasters to be something beautiful. It’s a world where thoughts, ideas, and emotions can manifest in a far more physical way.

My graphic novel, Adian, takes place in 1996, and acts as a prologue to the universe of the games. My next project, another graphic novel, will expand upon that prologue.

All animation in Existensis is hand-drawn, a feat of immeasurable dedication for a single developer

ABG: So you’re using a variety of medium to tell parts of the overarching story?

Ozzie: Yes! I feel some stories are told better in different mediums. I consider the graphic novels something of a historical account of the world of the games. It makes more sense to present history as something that can’t be interacted with or changed, rather than as a game where the player is able to have influence over the world.

Each of these stories is self-contained. You don’t need to consume one to enjoy the others, but together, they form something greater.

ABG: A sort of historical doctrine that informs the current playable world

Ozzie: Precisely! You worded it far more concisely than I did!

ABG: Before we get to Existensis specifically, there seems to me to be a running theme of mental health in your work. I’m immediately drawn to make comparisons with games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Or Celeste, two games that have tackled that topic incredibly

Hellblade, Senua’s Sacrifice presents an incredible take on mental health

Ozzie: Indeed. The Müll Littoral was made in an attempt to inform people who hadn’t interacted with mental illness to perhaps show them what they can do to help a friend who might have it. It’s informed by my own experiences helping friends through suicidal depression. I also ADORE Hellblade.

ABG: Do you feel that games play an important role in bringing that mental health to life, in a way that other media are unable? Hellblade is an exceptional game, we’re all looking forward to the sequel

Ozzie: Yes. You can read however much you want about mental health, but it’s a whole new level of empathy to be put into the shoes of someone who has it.

ABG: We couldn’t agree more. You should play Celeste if you haven’t already

Ozzie: Oh man, I know it’s ironic, but I’m terrible at platformers.

It’s no secret we love Celeste at Any Button Gaming

ABG: That is ironic, considering you’re making one. Existensis sees your character on a quest to set off on a pilgrimage of inspiration to seek life’s meaning and death’s purpose. Heavy stuff, but where did the idea come from?

Ozzie: To be honest, a lot of stuff that handles those sorts of topics are terribly depressing. Why does the meaning of life have to be depressing? Why does the idea of death have to be depressing? Existensis is the happiest project I’ve ever worked on by design, because I think it’s important that these topics not always be portrayed as something heavy. It’s a optimistic and delightful take on an existential crisis, I suppose.

ABG: So then, the answer to the meaning of life isn’t 42 then?

Ozzie: I’ve actually considered adding that to the game as an easter egg, ha ha.

ABG: You absolutely must. To change subject a little, your chosen art style is absolutely beautiful, and frankly, without comparison. Can you explain the animation style, and why you chose it?

Ozzie: I mean, I just enjoy doing traditional art more. I enjoy looking at digital art, and have great respect for digital artists, it’s just not something I particularly enjoy doing. There’s no logistic or technical reason… I just do it this way because I enjoy doing it this way! Ah, and to explain the animation style, all of the art and animation in the game is drawn on paper. It’s all traditionally animated.

The ever-changing, ethereal backdrop to Existensis has us drooling

ABG: That must be an incredible time sink

Ozzie: I’ve been doing it long enough to where I can do it relatively efficiently. It’s all about time management.

ABG: We’re not complaining, the impact is sublime. The game-play is described as having no enemies to fight, no health bar, just you and the world around you to explore at your leisure. This immediately draws parallels with games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. Was your gameplay choice informed by the current state of things?

Ozzie: I came up with Existensis loooong before lockdown. It just coincidentally became thematic with what people are drawn to at this point in history. I’ll tell you, it’s been a great way of keeping myself sane during the pandemic to have such a long term project to work on. All that being said, I’ve been playing a lot of both Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley.

ABG: I suppose we knew you must have started the project before the pandemic. Perhaps the better question is that games of this ilk, that create a non-threatening escape for the play, seem to be growing in popularity. I wonder if you think this is something that has grown in popularity as the world we live in seems to become increasingly harrowing

Dialogue and character interaction seem integral to the Mayor’s journey

Ozzie: Oh definitely. There’s a sense of escapism, but I think more than that, it is a vision of what the world can be. It’s an aspiration. People see the issues in the world, and imagine how they might want to live after these issues are solved, or maybe as a way to solve these issues. Having a nice little public farm to tend to, finding common ground with your neighbors, traveling to different lands with an enthusiastic delight.

With Existensis, I want to present a world that has many cultures that each have different takes on the meaning of life, and I want to present all of them as being a valid interpretation. My aspiration is that the physical world can maybe one day do the same.

ABG: You are describing utopia.

Ozzie: Yes. Utopia is unrealistic, maybe, but it’s something to aspire for, and games can be an interesting way of exploring ideas of utopia.

ABG: Games typically focus on the opposite, dystopia, it’s a refreshing angle.

Ozzie: I mean, be the change you want to see in the world, and all that. I am not going to claim that The Age of Empathy is a perfect utopia. There are aspects of it that definitely prevent it from being a perfect utopia. But, at the very least, it’s a world I wouldn’t mind living in.

Simply spectacular

ABG: I just think a lot of people have probably had their fill of zombie apocalypses by now. Ok to the characters in the game. Can you tell us something of the other characters in Existensis? Does Death make an appearance?

Ozzie: Death with a capital “D”? No, certainly not. The main character is The Mayor, who is not a mayor of anything, but is the most famous artist in a city of artists, so people just started calling him that.

A recurring character is The Poet, a friend who seems to always be one step ahead of where The Mayor is going, no matter where he goes.

Then there’s the man wearing a golden skull who seems to greet you at the end of each iteration of your journey, and he is there to reset your journey in order for you to experience other paths, other iterations.

I could go on for hours about all of the characters in this game, there’s quite a few and I’ve grown to really enjoy writing them all.

The Mayor consults his diary perhaps in yet another biome of Existensis

ABG: Do any of the characters appear in any other works from the studio?

Ozzie: Yes! You get to see the grown up version of the main character of my previous game. There’s quite a few other characters that either make an appearance, or are referenced to from my previous works.

ABG: You really are creating a universe.

Ozzie: I find great joy in worldbuilding.

ABG: Its a skill, and some of the greatest stories have come from a much deeper place. Tolkien developed an entirely new language, and then wrote the Lord of the Rings. Do you take inspiration from any great fictional works in particular? A literary hero? Apart from Douglas Adams, of course

Ozzie: There’s a series of books called “The Edge Chronicles” that presents one of the most unique fantasy worlds I’ve ever seen. The stories are paired with fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddel, and were very formative in my youth. That series was consistently successful in drawing you in to its world and fantastic adventures. It takes place on a continent sized cliff that looks off into the unknown. That series is glorious.

ABG: A more serious discworld, perhaps.

Ozzie: I’m sure you could find some similarities

Books don’t grow on trees, or perhaps they do in Esistensis

ABG: Ok a word on the development process. Are you entirely self funded?

Ozzie: Yep!

ABG: Has that ever presented a challenge?

Ozzie: I am in a very fortunate position. I’m currently living with my parents, who also enjoy the projects I make. I feel like being in this position and say, starting a Kickstarter, would be a little scummy, you know? I teach an art workshop for teens at a local studio, and that brings me more than enough money to pay for supplies. So, no, it hasn’t presented any real challenge.

I feel like being in this position and not attempting to make something incredible would be a disservice to how fortunate I’ve been.

ABG: We have no doubt that Existensis will indeed be incredible. You’re getting pretty close to the release date. What are the final aspects you are working on now ahead of the release proper?

Ozzie: Well, the final two levels, and beyond that, a bunch of stuff to do with iterating on the start of the game, transitions between scenes, sound effects, optimizations, QA testing, and a few other minor things.

I have the next few months completely scheduled out.

ABG: Sounds like you are on top of things

Check out the original announcement trailer for Existensis on Steam

Ozzie: I mean, I have to be.

ABG: Considering the number of delays we’ve seen recently, I suppose that’s one benefit of being a solo dev!

Ozzie: Yeah! I am fully aware of what I am able to achieve in a day/week. I even take into consideration that there might be days where I am unable to work on the game for one reason or another. I’d rather not be stressed out by crunch, building a project this big is difficult enough as it is!

ABG: Do you have something lined up beyond Esistensis?

Ozzie: Yes. After Existensis will be the next graphic novel, “Deleary”. But in between those two things will be a much-needed vacation. I’m hoping by the time Existensis is done that I’ll be able to do some traveling.

ABG: You and about 7 billion other people. Ok, final question. We are frequently blown away by what a small but dedicated team can achieve, and Librarium Studios are no exception. What advice would you give a new indie on the block looking to launch its first title? In your case, what a solo dev can achieve

Ozzie: Make a small project first. Figure out what is possible, learn what you are able to do. Your first project won’t be your best, but it will help inform you on how to make your future projects even better.

I am able to make Existensis as good as it is because I’ve taken the time to learn what to do and what not to do by making two previous games (and quite a few small flash-games before those two projects).

ABG: RIP Flash

Ozzie: RIP Flash indeed. [ABG]

Existensis launches on Steam, on 19th July 2021. If you like what you;’ve read, be sure to check out the official Existensis website here, and th vast myriad of work, and worlds Ozzie has created on the Librarium Studios website too.

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