Interview by Timothy Courtney
Interview Published: 04/01/2016
Timothy Courtney interviews Daniel Benmergui, an indie game developer who created I Wish I Were the Moon and Today I Die. He is also working on Storyteller and an RPG called Ernesto.
Timothy Courtney: Hey Daniel, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. What are some fond memories you have of growing up in Buenos Aires? Did you live in an urban part or further into a rural area, and what was your homelife like?
Daniel Benmergui: I had a childhood home inland in Argentina, far from Buenos Aires at a time where you could leave your door open. This gave me the freedom to wander around with friends, making up projects, exploring the neighborhood and hanging out with kids much older than me. I’m grateful I had that privilege; seeing young people in Buenos Aires spending their most playful years locked up in their parent’s house they go clearly neurotic and frankly I believe it will be extremely damaging to them and those around them.
What did you enjoy most about school? Did you have a particular subject you were very interested in?
I did not enjoy school very much at any stage. In fact, I wished I was sent to learn programming, and music and good literature and all the stuff I was interested in instead of having a taste of institutional imprisoning. I had a few good teachers but nothing will ever make up for the vast amount of wasted time.
College was better because you didn’t need to attend class, and since the best education in Buenos Aires is public, you did not need to be chained to student debt or feel the need to graduate. I studied Computer Science until the last year and I dropped out when I realized I took everything that mattered to me already.
At what age do you remember first getting involved with art, and what was it?
In practice, all my life in one form or another! But what we could consider “formal art”, it was when I realized I wanted to make games about things that were personally important to me.
I tried my hand at drawing, writing, music and poetry. But my strong suit was always to tell stories. I really like doing that. Although I very rarely do that in English!
You studied computer science, eventually worked for a big game studio, but left to make your own games. Why did you need to strike out on your own? What was it about the mainstream game environment that made you say, I have to get out of here?
It was not that I wanted to get out. It was that I felt I was learning to be a good cog in a huge machine instead of learning to make good games. The skill I developed the most as an employee was to navigate the political waters of a company. That’s very useful, unless you want to be a designer, then it sort of gets in the way badly.
I was waiting for me to come up with a good game idea so I could quit but time went by and my mind was occupied with work stuff, so after a few months I decided to quit empty handed and see where fate took me. Every time I did that in my life, everything turned out for the better eventually: it’s half luck and half the world helping out people who do bold things.
What was the moment when you decided, I’m not going to make a typical gamer’s game, but a personal experimental game / art game?
I didn’t decide it really, I was making other games that were more “gamey”. It just happened that I felt the need to make “I Wish I Were the Moon” and “Today I Die” and I did without much awareness or faith in their relevance. I was the most surprised at the results when I released them!
At the time I was in the middle of an emotional revolution at the time, which fueled that need to express it in some way, and I was fortunate to find the outlet in game making.
People are always trying to define what makes a game. Why do you think most people have to have a definition?
I guess it’s an identity thing. Many people find in games a microscopic universe where they feel they are in control of what happens to them and how they feel. Games that break that stability can be scary then. Definitions help keep the boundaries around you neat and safe.
How much do you play darbouka, and what is your favorite type of music?
Not much anymore! I stopped training this year as I noticed I don’t have the motivation to do the hard work needed to go to the next level.
My music changes as time goes by. I’m listening to a lot of Royksopp right now.
You managed 120 coders at Gameloft. Was that a little bit like herding cats? What was that like for you and what did it teach you?
I didn’t have to herd a lot, since they had producers taking care of their productivity. My job was to define and enforce policies on how things are supposed to be done, as well as help with complicated technical problems. I became wiser on how to deal with people, something I am quickly unlearning now!
I think you made 6 games in 2008 and 2009, and some time has passed, now you’re hard at it with Ernesto. Do you get bursts of creative passion, and if so, what are those cycles like for you?
Exactly that: cycles. Sometimes I am productive designing, others programming, others just thinking, and yet others in which I’m not very productive at anything. It is frustrating how at the mercy of our emotional states we are sometimes.
I Wish I Were the Moon and Today I Die are the games that received the most attention, but which game do you feel was your best work? Why?
I’m proud of Today I Die, although I was horrified when I finished it. I thought it was really bad at the time.
The art in your games doesn’t distract from the gameplay or message. You also tend to create less detailed but endearing assets. Is that what you’re drawn to, or is that a design decision? How do you decide on the art style of a game?
For my games so far: pixel art is relatively easy to do effectively and my skills only go that far. I’m glad Jeremías Babini, the artist of Ernesto is handling all that now. The results are so much better!
The Witness was just released and you were one of Jonathon Blow’s primary testers from early on. You have to be very trustworthy and thoughtful, and aware of the possible effects of what you say, but what more specifically, did you learn from that experience, and has it helped with Ernesto?
I spent three months in San Francisco, hanging out with Chris Hecker, Marc Ten Bosch and Jonathan. Watching them work has helped me greatly to develop a frame of thought to deal with design. Of course, I’m still learning.
Ernesto was clearly influenced by the time I spent thinking and sitting down to do design for The Witness. That said, the idea for a crawler like that existed since a long time ago.
Which programming language do you enjoy most?
I’m enjoying Haxe right now, but I wish I could go more low level without falling into the tar pits of C/C++. I hope Jonathan Blow makes his Jai project a reality.
Being an indie developer usually means watching a budget, and it’s a pricey choice to attend a conference or festival and submit your game. Do you think it’s always worth it and why/why not?
I don’t think attending conferences are of much use to me anymore. I’ve been going to GDC for ten years now and I am no longer drawing that much out of it. That said, when starting to make games it’s crucial to travel to the conferences in fashion so you can meet the people that will help you find your place in the industry.
Do you ever think about taking a break away from games to just do something else, and if so, what do you think it would be?
I do all the time, and I think I’d like to do theater acting. I trained for that for a few years and it’s been wonderful. It’s visceral, involves the whole body and a good part of who you are. A high contrast with the indirection and slowness of making videogames.
What stage are you at in your growth as a game designer as far as confidence goes. Do you feel like you trust your decisions and know what you want in the direction you’re going?
I feel I’m getting there. I am definitely much better than when I suspended development of Storyteller!
Some people might wonder why you’re focusing on an RPG when they’re hopeful that you’ll release a new art game, so what was it about Ernesto that made you break out once again?
I like doing different things. I don’t see myself staying in a niche for long. Ernesto is a technical study of design, if you want. I tried making another artgame and it didn’t work. When the time is right to make another one, I’ll know and I’ll be a much better game maker then.
Aside from games, and music, what hobby or activity are you into?
Acting! I also like playing Soccer (Fútbol), but I’m not good at it. I wish I was though.
Can you give some advice to someone who also wants to leave their mainstream development or other technical job and follow in your footsteps?
You can get involved in the community of game developers before quitting any jobs. That way you can measure if you are ready for it or not.
But something I learned is that if you quit, it better be to do exactly what you want. Quitting a job to do middle ground free to play games to see if you can make a buck is kind of sad, unless you desperately want to do one of those. A lot of people assume that making games, however uninteresting, is better than not making games, but I disagree. There are much better things to do if you can’t live off games. And you can always do small free games in your spare time if the need is great. Locomalito does this and his games are good!
How can people follow you and your work?
💘 Interview by Timothy Courtney