Christa Mrgan: In what feels like a scene from an eighties teen movie, one night you’re on the phone with your brother hearing about some of his college antics, when he tells you what he knows about the ancient grimoire you’ve recently found under his bed. Pretty soon, you’re hanging out in the attic with some carefully chosen school friends. And you know what they say: “It’s all fun and games until somebody summons a demon from hell.”
Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from game designers, developers, and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank. I’m Christa Mrgan.
Today, I’m talking with Duncan Fyfe, a writer and game designer for Demon Quest '85.
Spoiler alert: we talk about the gist of mechanics of the game, as well as the general storyline and a few details here and there. But without any major reveals apart, from letting you know about something that definitely won’t happen.
Okay. let’s meet Duncan!
Duncan Fyfe: My name is Duncan Fyfe and I was a writer and designer on Demon Quest.
Demon Quest is a role playing game, I think, but without statistics or combat. So given that, we ended up calling it a visual novel instead.
Christa Mrgan: Role playing games, or RPGs, are video games where you control a specific character or characters on a quest in some kind of explicitly defined world. They usually involve player statistics and an inventory of useful items. Visual novels are narrative games that tell interactive stories, typically where you also play as a specific character, though visual novels tend to be less focused on statistics and inventories.
Duncan Fyfe: It is a game about demons, and casts you as a high school student at some indeterminate time in the 1980s, in some indeterminate place in America who stumbles upon an ancient grimoire, which I believe is pronounced the ARS GOETIA and uses this book to summon demons from the canonical panoply of Kings and Marquis of Hell, and can in conversation with those demons, use them to solve the problems of you and your high school buddies. It sort of takes place in two halves. There’s a puzzle element, which is you have a menu of demons that you are able to summon and by reading clues into their description, you can piece together various items from your house. You have to pick the right music for your demon. You have to pick the right food or sort of tribute, and then you have to pick the right company.
You basically put together an RPG-like party from your schoolmates, picking them out of your high school yearbook. You can have two characters from a, I think there’s about 12 at any one time, and they will have a significant role in the conversation. You can sort of make choices about how you might invite that, the demon, you, someone to solve the problems of your friends, they all have some something going on. And if you do all that correctly, you are able to to talk to them.
And then as you’re doing that, you also have the opportunity to exert some influence about whatever sort of campaigns of war are going on in hell while that demon is helping your friend to find her lost notebook or whatever it is. And then as you’re doing this, there’s a little bit of an overarching story, which is the more that you use this book and the more that you become a notable figure among the denizens of hell, they start to take more of a notice of you and that becomes more apparent as the game progresses.
Christa Mrgan: Yeah, Demon Quest '85 features a ton of really funny juxtaposition of teen and demon drama. And you’re trying to help out where you can! But how did the team come to make a game for Playdate?
Duncan Fyfe: We were asked pretty early on by Cabel. I think I was working at the time with Campo Santo who was in development then on Firewatch, and Panic was publisher and sort of a backer of Firewatch. They were very involved. So I knew them a little bit through that.
Christa Mrgan: Yeah. Firewatch is an adventure game by Campo Santo, where you play a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest. It was published by Panic in 2016.
Duncan Fyfe: And Alex and Lawrence and I had been kicking around ideas for a while about a game that we could make on our own.
Christa Mrgan: Alex Ashby is a programmer and voice actor, And also co-hosted the "Something True" podcast with Duncan. Lawrence Bishop is a game developer who worked on "Proteus," among other titles, and is currently the tech lead at Cinder Cone Games.
Duncan Fyfe: And we were asked if we would want to pitch some ideas for the Playdate because Cabel and Steven and, and everyone was starting to think about bringing developers in.
And so we pitched a couple of ideas. I think at the time we knew basically what the hardware was. And we knew that one of the big selling points of the machine was the crank. And we decided, let’s pitch like three things and one is like, “Crank: the Game.” It’s just gonna be crank city.
One thing should not have anything to do with the crank at all, because, you know the hardware should be more than just the crank, you know, what a sophisticated library we were imagining the Playdate would have, and we don’t need the crank.
And then another game, which was just like, "well, we have the crank sometimes." And Demon Quest was the game that basically has, has no crank is just a game that you play with a d-pad and two buttons. And that was the game that had the most traction. We were just very excited by the idea of the Playdate.
We were trying to second guess with Demon Quest, what a lot of the games on the Playdate would be. And we liked the idea even without knowing what other people were making. It’s like, it might be nice to have something that feels different. And I think in the end it hasn’t ended up being that different. I know there are other visual novels for Playdate, which is great. But I’m glad that we made something that I think will stand out a little bit in the library without feeling like it doesn’t fit.
At the start, we were just thinking about like, what’s a game for the Playdate? And I think an idea. that I had at first was thinking about people playing with each other on the Playdate. We, we thought at the time what if there’s some ability, like very limited ability to network with other players?
And we knew based on the specifications or just even the rough specifications, if you can network, there’s gonna be very limited bandwidth for what you can do with another player. You’re not gonna be able to do a multiplayer game , in the modern sense, but what you might be able to do is like trade messages back and forth. like, if you could just exchange like text, like, or just one line. And then that led me to thinking of a Ouija Board. Like, what if you have one player who has the Ouija Board and they ask a question and there’s another player with another Playdate who receives this message and can provide an answer, which is just four or five characters.
And so we were thinking about that for a while. I think we realized it would be tedious to write an answer, write a question rather on Ouija Board, or just write a question using like a a text parser on the Playdate, if you’re just sort of selecting every letter with, with the d-pad. And so that didn’t seem like it would be very fun.
But we, I think we liked the idea of summoning things or just having some sort of dialogue with something that exists beyond the player’s screen, it ended up being, “well, we’ll just write it, instead of having another player provide it.” And I think simultaneously we were thinking about
the limitations of the hardware or the specifications of the hardware. And the easiest way we sort of got to grips with what a Playdate game would look like would be like, well, it would look kind of like a GameBoy game in terms of appearance and sort of control input.
And so we were thinking, that’s what I think that is one of the things that led us to, what, if we are making something that feels like or presents itself as an artifact from the 1980s? Like this, something that could have been a Game Boy game, now available for the first time on Panic’s Playdate.
And that I think linked up in my mind with the sort of eighties vibe of finding this lost book and having your friends and just no internet, you’re just fully deep in the book on a Friday night in the attic. So we didn’t go very far down the networked multiplayer route.
But we thought we might be able to create tools for players to have this interaction, but I think wisely for us decided we didn’t know how to do that, but we would be able to write dialogue trees and make make it possible for you to navigate a house by a menu.
And we could stitch all that together in a way that provided the essence of the experience that we had originally thought about if not the letter. And I think we did not stick, especially close to the purity of the, "it could be a game from the 1980s" kind of feel, because I think it, it looks better than it would if it were made in 1985.
I think crucially, it sounds a lot better.
The music was by Jared Emerson Johnson who he and his studio are very prolific. I think they scored all of Telltale’s games and a lot of others.
Christa Mrgan: Telltale is a game development company focused on creating narrative adventure games.
Duncan Fyfe: and we sort of knew him and we wanted, you know, a score and we asked him and we had this conversation early on.
Like if we’re truly trying to be true to a 1980s aesthetic, the sound palette is going to be very limited. And I think we just decided we didn’t want to hear that. Like if he could, we sort of revised our expectations up. Like what if it’s like a 1991 game and it’s on the Sound Blaster.
Christa Mrgan: Sound Blaster was a series of sound cards for PCs manufactured by Creative Labs in the late eighties and early nineties. They were definitely cutting edge at the time.
Duncan Fyfe: And it’s, you know, at that level of fidelity, so we sort of fudged that and I’m glad we did the game is actually called Demon Quest '85. And in retrospect, It was sort of like it’s, you know, it’s Football Manager '85, it’s the 1985 version of Demon Quest. And we put one out every other year. I don’t know that we needed to do that.
I think it could just be called Demon Quest. So, yeah, all of these things synthesized together, I think fairly well. I remember we just basically did the vertical slice, which is the in effect, the first level of the game, just to look at, would this be enjoyable if it’s just one big dialogue tree?
Would that be fun on the Playdate? If you’re just having a a long conversation with a demon and then we could build in some more complexity about the wider context for why you’re talking to them and who’s talking to them, and who do you have with you and how is their relate, those characters and those relationships changing and building some facility for tracking all that.
But we were happy that we captured the vibe we were going for at least initially.
it felt like an exceptionally easy development. And it wasn’t, it was a lot of work and there were a lot of things that seemed like unsolvable problems along the way.
Like, we’ve written a game with so much onscreen text. And the further we got it started to feel like, have we just completely shot ourselves in the foot because I’m thinking is this just not the platform for that? And have we gone so far that we are in trouble?
We were very worried, I think about the text and whether it would be legible on Playdate. Cause we knew how small the screen would be going in. And I think I tend to write long and we wanted Visuals to be a big part of the game. So we didn’t wanna just have text.
I think it was a while before we could actually get it running on the hardware itself and see like, is this gonna look terrible? Like, is this gonna like, cause serious eye strain on the hardware? So for a long time, I think I was very nervous about, about how it would look.
I think it looks all right. We cut down. We cut every line basically in half, so it would display okay.
Christa Mrgan: While Season One games, including Demon Quest '85, are legible for the majority of players, Playdate’s small screen can be challenging for some people with eyesight impairments. In part to make Playdate more accessible, Panic created the free Mirror tool for Mac, Linux, or PC that you can download and run on your computer. It allows you to use Playdate’s controls while mirroring what’s happening on your device to your computer-- at twice the resolution. You can also use mirror to capture or stream video, and there are also some cool community hacks, like a 3D printable magnifying glass holder that works with lens cards. You can find the links for Mirror and that DIY project in the show notes.
Duncan Fyfe: And I think getting that to work felt like a huge relief, but there was a long time when I think it did not seem like this project would really work at all. And, but we had two other ideas that were much more gameplay first and I think were much more sort of derived from ideas of like, “how would it be fun to use a crank on the Playdate?” And those seemed like much more easily achievable, much more viable ideas that we sort of prototyped a little bit. And we were working along with those simultaneously with Demon Quest at first. And I don’t know why Demon Quest clicked so much more because the others seemed just like conceptually very safe and not even safe, but just like very sound. Like you could imagine how they would play. But I don’t know. I’m, I’m sort of surprised that it’s the one that made it at all, Demon Quest, of those three. Because the others just, I don’t know, we ne we never quite seemed to crack them.
I also think it was very helpful for us in retrospect, to think about what kind of games we liked and what kind of games we wanted to make in general, rather than just what is a Playdate game, and what works as a Playdate game specifically? I think Demon Quest-- I’m glad we made it for the Playdate, but I think it survived our initial development process because it was a game that I think we would’ve liked to play no matter what platform it was on. And I think that was an interesting lesson for us. I’m always so focused on like, what is the thing we’re making here and is going to be a Playdate game? What does it mean to be a Playdate game? Okay. So let’s not try and make a PlayStation game and then sort of scale it to Playdate.
Let’s think about Playdate, but I’m glad that we were not too prescriptive about that. And that’s why we have a game, is because we allowed ourselves to get slightly too ambitious in a way that made things difficult for us, but ultimately made a game that we were very happy that we made.
Christa Mrgan: It’s a really entertaining game. The thing that makes Demon Quest '85 work for me is the humor that comes from juxtaposing these unserious, often sarcastic teenagers and their relatively small problems with literal demons from hell and their underworld power struggles.
Duncan Fyfe: We rely a lot on, on the juxtaposition of classical depictions of demons as they would’ve been portrayed in, I don’t know, 11th century literature and much more contemporary portrayals of teenagers who don’t have a ton of respect for demons or history.
And are not even unimpressed by them, just are much more concerned with whatever is going on in their own lives. It’s a short game. So I think we didn’t overstay our welcome by doing this, but I feel like we get a lot of mileage out of that concept.
One of the the thematic concepts that appealed to me and I think has stayed consistent throughout the development was that the game kind of takes place inside of a very specific vibe, which is the feeling of finding a book like this. The, the sort of like the ancient grimoire or finding something like Oiuja Board and bringing your friends over to be like, “Haha let’s play with this. Isn’t this silly.” And then at some point as you’re, you know, using the Ouija Board long into the night this sort of chill settles over you and you’re like, wait, maybe this isn’t actually as funny as it seems. And that was a vibe I think, or just a specific kind of feeling that I was very interested in and it informed a lot of why, I mean, the game is nominally takes place in the 1980s. And part of the reason that it is, is because I think that sort of sensation that I’m describing is something that has been obviated by the internet. I think if you discovered a grimoire in the woods, outside of your house, you would be able to find out what it’s about pretty quickly on the internet, or you would be able to find out that Ouija Board was developed by the Parker Brothers. And it’s kind of not a real thing anyway, but I think if you’re a kid in that moment, in that space of time. And you’ve just got this very strange book and have no ability to get any sort of context for it. And you just get kind of lost in it as a result. You can get very deep into it in a way that I think you cannot do anymore.
And that’s why the game is is set in the 1980s, the last, I think one of the last times you could kind. Have that sort of strange horror-adjacent thrill.
Christa Mrgan: Horror- adjacent. Yes. But don’t worry. Nothing truly terrifying happens.
Duncan Fyfe: It’s not a horror game. It is a comedy. We were quite careful, I think. Nothing bad can ever happen in the game, really, which was important for the tone of it, I think. And I think part of the reason we were able to maintain that tone while keeping the demon characters as fairly serious, fairly, I think, authentic to how they would be portrayed in literature is that the tone is completely set by the teen characters who do not have anything going on in their lives that is especially dramatic or high stakes. So yeah, we didn’t want you to kill anybody.
Christa Mrgan: Yeah. Spoiler, you don’t end up killing any of your high school classmates or anything. But still a lot can happen. And since you’re dealing with the Kings and Marques of hell, it’s not all good! But I asked Duncan how he managed to keep all of those branching paths organized.
Duncan Fyfe: There’s a lot of branching. And it mostly is felt in the cast of characters and your relationship to them.
There’s a sort of suggested order in which you can take the story, but you can mix and match a little bit, but there are five demons in the game, which is sort of like five levels as it were.
And in each of those, you make a choice from a menu of choices about what’s going on in the demon’s world. You also make a choice about which of your friends is being helped or is, is receiving an intervention from the demon and you exert some influence in how that pans out. So. Those characters, the human characters, your friends, can change very dramatically each level.
And we keep track of that, and then it starts to accumulate and in the end game, a lot of the choices that you’ve made will come into play. There are a couple of different endings and the characters, your friends will have more or less of an influence in the outcome of the game, depending on what happened to them in the course of events. As to how we actually kept track of that.
I think the answer is very poorly. This is the first game that I ever wrote and I worked with, designed the game with Alex Ashby and Lawrence Bishop, who are two veteran programmers, but we had never really done a game like this before. I wrote the game in Microsoft Excel which was not, I don’t know, Alex and Lawrence might disagree. I think in retrospect, having written games since this, this was a very poor way of doing it. Every line of dialogue was in a cell and you know, we said like, if next to the cell, I would leave a note saying if this happened three levels ago, this is the line you use. Now I understand that there are scripting languages which have flags and, and variables by which to track that information, but basically wrote it by hand, in, in Excel sheet, which was not the most effective way of doing it, but it also feels like when you’re writing like that, you can also.
I, I think you are less aware of the implementation cost of everything that you’re doing. So you end up in the head space where you can write a lot. And that meant that there is a, just a ton of dialogue and conditional and optional dialogue and even just scenes and, and outcomes that can happen because it was just so easy to write those in the moment.
And Alex and Lawrence did a great job of implementing all of that. But yeah, it’s definitely a game whose breadth and scope is informed a lot by my naivete at the time. Yeah. I haven’t written a game in Excel since. I don’t recommend it, really.
Christa Mrgan: Noted.
Well, one thing I enjoyed in exploring these branching narrative paths was the menu you used to navigate the different areas of the house. It’s a head- on illustration of a darkened house at night under a full moon and ominous passing clouds. Using the d-pad, you can illuminate and then select the window of the room you’d like to enter.
Whether it be the bedroom where you browse your yearbook to select your classmates, the lounge, where you can put on appropriate music for the demon you’d like to please, the kitchen where you can choose a tribute for that demon, and finally, the attic, the natural place to read the grimoire and summon a demon.
The illustration style is great, from the house itself to the yearbook portraits, and even the tape cassette covers, my favorite of which is "Suddenly Brass."
And I appreciated that the high school students were drawn in a friendly, more cartoonish style than the demons, whose illustrations in the Ars Goetia align with their more serious dialogue. I wasn’t able to speak with artist Belinda Leung for this episode, but Duncan said that the collaboration went really well. Duncan Fyfe: Yeah, it was fantastic. 'Cause the core development team was three of us and neither of us, are artists. So a lot of the game was done without any art because we knew it’s a series of menus, basically, as a game. So it’s fairly easy to prototype without any real art, but you’re basically playing a text adventure and Belinda Leung is a concept artist who works with a lot of games and Lawrence I believe had worked with her in the past and suggested her. And there were kind of two things that she had to nail. More than two things, but one was the house, as you say. And just like we wanted a house that had a vibe and it seemed like a house that would have an interesting attic with a place that you could imagine teenagers would spend a lot of time. You get to explore the house, but in a sort of I don’t know, Myst- like way or an Encarta-like way where you click on rooms and then you see what’s in the room, but you don’t explore the house yourself, you know, with direct control. So with a very limited amount of art, I think you had to convey a lot of mood. And that was something that she just, I, I think nailed. I was always really curious because she had to draw about, I don’t know, about a dozen human characters. And then there’s about five demons and those are very different styles. I don’t know, like a, a sort of cartoony, but realistic eighties, sort of high school character. And then, you know a medieval conception of a demon. And I think the key to all of this working was if you have all this stuff on the screen together, like if you have the quintessential high school jock on screen with I don’t know, like a medieval monk’s depiction of the Marquis Shax of Hell, and if all of that is clicking, if all of that looks like what it’s supposed to look, and then it looks funny when it’s all together. That was what I was nervously hoping would happen. And I was so happy with all the portraits she did of everyone and just how that stuff all looked when it was assembled together, I thought was just fantastic. I mean, she just understood what we were going for with a very sort of skewed tone of the game, so well and just, I think, I mean the, the look of it is entirely her and I, yeah, I am so grateful for her and to her for, for realizing that look. It just, it made me so happy to see. It makes a big difference when you’re just going from your characters, being cells in an Excel spreadsheet to having faces that sort of move and change. And whose illustration suggests so much more about who they are beyond that. What you’ve written. So yeah, the game is, is so much about her. I know that it went basically fine. And I think we had a lot to communicate about, well, this is, you know, the limitations of what the screen is and what we can display. So we’re working within, you know, a very specific box. And that was all fine. It seemed like a fairly straightforward process. Christa Mrgan: Since the “85” implies more iterations of Demon Quest, are we likely to see a sequel or other Playdate games the team might collaborate on in the future? Duncan Fyfe: I think so. I mean, there it is inherent in the title of Demon Quest that there is limitless potential for sequels that you have a Demon Quest every year. So I would be very happy to make Demon Quest '86. We did talk about making Demon Quest '95, which would be like, sort of Windows 95 themed. I’m not sure how that would work on a Playdate, but I would certainly work on the Playdate again. It It was a very enjoyable development experience. Christa Mrgan: Duncan Fyfe is a writer who splits his time between writing video games-- in addition to Demon Quest '85 he was a writer on “Neocab” and “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine”-- and writing about video games. You can find more info about him and the rest of the team who created Demon Quest '85, via the links in the show notes. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more episodes coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed. Duncan Fyfe: Thanks, bye! Christa Mrgan: The Playdate Podcast was written, produced and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song. Additional music was composed by Jared Emerson Johnson and comes from Demon Quest '85. Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website, James Moore for making me an awesome Playdate audio extraction app, and Neven Mrgan, who created the podcast artwork in site design.
And thanks, as always, to everyone at Panic. Playdate is shipping now and available for pre-order at play.date.
Duncan Fyfe: I divide my time between journalism and making video games in the way people say they divide their time between living in New York and LA. Whenever I talk about my career, it seems like it’s a very unsustainable mix of things going on, but it’s, it’s going okay.