Episode 15: Questy Chess

Christa Mrgan: In the heart of a machine surrounded by corrupted data, you persist as the sole pawn from an outmoded chess program who refuses to be updated. Can you find new ways to use an old rule set to solve the puzzles that will save you from being overwritten?

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 Hawken King, Dan Clarke, and Justin DiCenzo, who created Questy Chess for Playdate.

Slight spoiler alert: we talk about the overall gist of the game, a little bit about gameplay progression, and some powerups. Okay, let’s meet the team!

Hawken King: My name is Hawken King and I was the director on Questy Chess. I came up with a game idea I created a team to create the game.

Dan Clarke: My name’s Dan Clarke. I’m a designer based in the northwest of England, and I was the graphic designer for Questy Chess.

Justin DiCenzo: I am Justin Dicenzo, the composer and sound designer on the game, Questy Chess.

Hawken King: It’s a role playing chess game. You are the last surviving pawn from a software reset. And you must battle against the update from happening. It’s loosely based on chess and you can collect powerups and different items to augment the game.

I first heard about the Playdate through magazines, friends, and the internet. I thought it was very interesting and I’d already heard of Panic. I already used Coda,

Christa Mrgan: Coda was a precursor to Nova, Panic’s Native Mac Code editor.

Hawken King: So I’ve already was a fan already. And the Playdate looked like a very attractive device to play games on and design games for. And I was at a meetup called Tokyo Indies and a friend of mine just told me that they were looking for people to make games for this device. And maybe I should get in touch.

Dan Clarke: I first heard about Playdate, I think it was through the Edge issue with the yellow cover. So as soon as I saw it, I instantly fell in love with it. I’ve got a couple of the sort of Game and Watch style pocket operators that Teenage Engineering did a few years ago. And the idea of kind of low-fi console with their involvement was sort of my dream, really.

Justin DiCenzo: Hawken approached me and said, Hey, I’d like you to write music for this game I’m working on. It’s called Questy Chess and it’s for the platform, the Playdate, which all of these new words I was not aware of. So I had to actually search online and say, What in the world is a Playdate? So I wasn’t tied into that world yet but was really excited when I realized that there was going to be something like the Playdate coming out to market.

Dan Clarke: For the game itself, me and Hawkin met on Twitter. And I think just through conversation, we talked about collaborating on a project for quite a while.

Hawken King: I reached out to Dan. I said like, Hey, would you be interested in joining a really minimal, simplistic graphical project about chess? And he’s like, Yeah, of course. That’s me! So…

Dan Clarke: So it just seemed like a good opportunity to get together and try and make something cool.

Hawken King: So I’ve always had an interest in chess playing as a, a young lad at school. I was in the chess club. I’m not particularly good at chess, but I I enjoy that, that there’s like a fixed rule set and it’s the universal game that anyone can play and anyone can become amazing at.

I also like RPGs and I thought, well, maybe you could mix the two together, see what happens. And my first few ideas were a bit too detailed or like, didn’t really hit the concept on the head. And then I talked with good friend of mine and then he helped me kind of like streamline my ideas a bit by sound boarding and just we, we had a few chats about it and eventually I, I got the main idea kind of nailed down a bit. So, I wanted Questy Chess to have a puzzle mechanic and different levels and being able to traverse different, types of levels, have different types of things to interact with and different elements. And I want it to be progressive. So when you start the game, you, you’re just learning about how Questy Chess works, but by the middle of the game, I’m introducing new concepts to the player by the end of the game, I want them to feel like they fully understand all the concepts and how to, how to play the game.

To conceive all the different puzzles I just pulled on my experience as someone who played puzzle games, I didn’t directly reference anything. I just sat down with a piece of software called Tiled and with the, the rules and different types of tiles that I can use. I iterated on, on the different puzzles.

So I made them in Tiled. And then on the Playdate, I was able to quickly go through the level, see what will work, see what didn’t, and then go back to Tiled and, and change a again. So eventually I, I’m left with a level that I fully understand and I’m able to beat but only just! Once I found the level I made difficult, I knew then it was ready to be a level in the game.

I wanted to scale the player’s progress in the same way that chess assigns value to pieces. So you start as a pawn and you end up as a queen who’s all- powerful. So I, I wanted to open up those different powers along the way and I think it, it worked out.

Every level needs to be completed in and not necessarily in order. There are ways to skip around levels. So there’s like a, a Super Mario Brothers three style map view. And then when you go into the level a Super Mario Brothers three is kind a weird point because if you press the B button on the play date, you a.

The inventory menu pops up in exactly the same way as it does in Super Mario Brothers three, and it was, it wasn’t exactly intentional, but I think it’s like game of roots kind of thing. Seeping in.

So the, the game needs to be played using chess rules, but I don’t think you’d need to know how to play chess to play the game. But it’s definitely a bonus for people who are into chess.

the general feedback is that people would love to be able to keep the powers, but it, within the game you have to use different pieces to solve different puzzles.

I didn’t want to make an easy game. I definitely wanted to make something that was a bit of a head scratcher, but not difficult that people would put down… . But I think that even if people do put the game down, I’ve heard that people will pick up the game later with an idea in their head about how to finish the level. So that is basically what I was aiming for.

Christa Mrgan: When it came to the game’s visual design, Hawken knew he wanted something very minimal and stylized that would lean heavily on the iconography of chess. He thought Dan Clarke’s work would be ideal for the game.

Hawken King: I thought he was absolutely perfect for the role. And When it came to the, art, I already had a mental image of Bauhaus style, iconographic artwork, especially in monochrome.

Christa Mrgan: Bauhaus design is known for its clean, precise, geometric shapes without much ornamentation. The name literally means "construction house" after the German art school that pioneered the design movement in the 1920s.

Hawken King: And, he took it on wholeheartedly and it created a lot very nice visuals for the game.

Dan Clarke: I would say the art aesthetic is minimal. , I think I would call it functional, but cool. And it sort of aims to evoke that computer terminal style. So when we spoke about Questy Chess, we talked about the idea that the game should feel like it’s sort of a product of an era.

And I think it was all about trying to make it feel like some long lost piece of software. So everything from the type iconography and the UI was an aim to capture that. And I think the other thing was we really tried to make it feel like there was a direct link between the lore and the sort of backstory of the game and the aesthetics so that it all tied together. It was always about distilling the language of chess down to something that was legible, so leading with function. It’s kind of always been a part of the way that I do design, so we arrived at that direction relatively quickly.

So the design for the pieces, it was really just about legibility, mainly, with a bit of personality. So I think from a brief perspective, it was really making sure that players could distinguish them and recognize what they were, unprompted. So I went through a lot of variations to try and make them feel like a full chess set. And it was quite fun to do the evil pieces as well.

And I think in terms of the monochrome style, it also lent itself quite well to that as well.

I really loved working with the one bit rule set I didn’t find it too challenging. As generally I tend to be sort of self-imposed with restrictions in my own projects and my own work, so it was kind of a natural fit for me anyway. And I kind of love working with grids and minimal palettes in color.

And I think working within limits tends to keep you focused and your output will generally be more efficient in my opinion.

Christa Mrgan: And Dan even created a unique font for the game using a pixel font editor and the Playdate SDK’s font creation tool, Caps.

Dan Clarke: Yes, the font is bespoke. I thought an OS- or a terminal- style would be a good fit for the look and the lore of the game. So it’s just a very simple geometric mono font that we created.

Christa Mrgan: And of course, the music and sound design contribute a lot to the game’s moody, mysterious ambiance.

Hawken King: I gave Justin some very loose guidelines. I didn’t want there to be repetitive or electronic music in the game. I wanted it to kind of relaxed but unsettling experience. So I asked him to make music in the style of drone. He does a lot of different types of music, but his ambient works are on, on the level of like, Brian Eno, they’re amazing. So I, I said to him like you just, can you just make like a drone thing that’s inspired by old eight bit computers, but not eight audio? He’s like, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I said, Okay, just make some drone stuff.

Justin DiCenzo: Composing the soundtrack for the game was-- it was an adventure. Hawken said, I would like you to write something ominous and something that would fit this fantasy world, two dimensional chess quest. I grew up playing chess and so I was excited to learn about this really brilliant idea that Hawken and the team had come up with and I wrote the first level soundtrack in a weird, like manic way. In the middle of the night I had a recording studio set up in an Italian area of my hometown in a what’s what’s known as a mother-in-law house. It’s like a carriage house behind someone’s home. It was a converted garage basically, that I lived in and had this idea that because the first level was supposed to be in the woods and that it was a forest level, that I would create something organic that used things with wood. So I got my koto out-- that I so Japanese instrument that I studied in Japan where I met Hawken-- and I think I got my shamisen out.

I had my upright base out. I’m a, a jazz musician and play a lot of upright bass. So I had that laying on the floor. I had a Fender Rhodes keyboard set up. I had a bunch of things out and I was just recording all the channels all at the same time. And what I ended up doing was you know, doing weird things like putting my hands on the neck of the upright base and twisting my hands.

So there’s some like creaking sounds in that recording you can hear that’s like, that’s, that’s my hands. Like on the neck of the upright base, just like rubbing against the wood. And there’s a lot of knocking sound. That’s the me tapping on the koto. I play the shamisen a little bit. You can hear a ding, ding, ding, ding.

Kind of like a banjo like sound in the background. It’s not banjo-ish. That’s a bad word for it.

Christa Mrgan: I mean, it could be a distant relative of the banjo! It has a drum- like resonator that’s similar to the banjo’s, but it’s definitely its own thing. I put links to the Wikipedia articles for both the shamisen and the koto in the show notes if you want to check them out.

Justin DiCenzo: Anyway, the first, the first experience was it was an adventure. I stayed up until probably three in the morning just making noise and being weird and had microphones set up everywhere and ended up doing multitracks and, and so, so at that point I had kind of like a, I had an idea of what kind of framework I would work in and trying to create this. This world that, you know, Hawken had described to me. I arrived at the ominous drone-y ambience because this was a genre that Hawken had mentioned that he thought I did really well. I have some albums under my name that are ambient and droney and kind of strange. And that’s what Hawken thought would be appropriate for Questy Chess.

My favorite movie of all time is Tron. The 1982 version. and my father’s an aeronautical engineer and also loves computers. And so I spent a lot of time building computers with my dad in the 1980s. And when I saw the movie Tron, I thought, Yeah, like, what’s that like to be inside of a computer? What is that? What is that feeling? And what is that, What is that like to be a little you know, a set of code if, if it has any feeling?

I know it, it doesn’t, but, you know, imagining that world of Tron again and, and thinking about putting personalities and people into machines really helped me just dive into that. And so one thing that I did in this soundtrack was go after old computer sounds. So I dug into some synthesizers that I knew were developed in that time.

The Fairlight was probably the biggest one. You know, those are like, Incredibly expensive machines for the time. And I knew a few composers that used to use them on TV shows, like Disney’s Old Gummy Bears. And I decided that this soundtrack needed something that went back to that back to period of time that when, when technology was so fresh and exciting and everything being on a circuit board was just wild. Imagining electrons moving through that ones and zeros and all that, so.

Christa Mrgan: In Questy Chess, you move through different zones and each one has a distinct soundscape as well as landscape.

Hawken King: There’s four zones. There’s forest, marsh, lava, and then lasers. Lagoon. Yeah, lagoon, not marsh, lagoon!

Justin DiCenzo: Each one had a different word that I was trying to grab. But each one I tried to think of like, how can I synthesize a natural element in those places? And that’s how these different zones came about.

I did a lot of the sound design that’s in the game. The menus were already predetermined by Hawken. He had already set up that real clever in interesting noise and the beginning of the game with the user interface.

But when we got into the actual game, he said, “I’d like you to write all this.”

And I said, "Sure." And, and what I ended up doing is using the same instruments. So I brought in a lot of the sounds that I was already using from different parts of the game, just used those to come up with these sounds.

The different attack sounds and the, all the stuff that you hear throughout the gameplay. And one thing I’ll say is that I was conscientious of the key of the music that would be in the background and the sound design element in case it had a tonality. I tried to make sure either it would fit or clash on purpose.

Christa Mrgan: But not everything Justin tried ended up working out for the game.

Justin DiCenzo: Drums did not pan out. I, I tried doing things with drums. I used some loops that I, I made with some, with like wild sounds.

And there were a couple pieces that I just had to keep redoing. I don’t remember which one it was, but I wrote and wrote, and wrote and finally came to a place.

Christa Mrgan: While Justin worked on the music and sound design, Hawken dialed in the gameplay. Questy Chess mostly uses the d-pad and buttons, but he couldn’t resist adding in some crank action

Hawken King: I think the crank is really interesting, but I’m not sure if it really applied to the game particularly. Everything that you can do in the game with crank, you could do the d-pad as well. So I don’t think it is like an essential part of the game as opposed to something like, you know, fishing or

But I wanted to. Use the crank for sure. There was always a kind of terraforming or like rewinding time or some kind of like element where we could play around with the, the game that let the player interact with the terrain somehow. So I think it’s really a plus point that the crank adds that tactile feeling that you are changing the terrain instead of just using the d-pad.

Christa Mrgan: And to ensure that mechanism worked and that levels were challenging, but still playable. The team took the game through a lot of play testing.

Hawken King: I’d say probably play tested the game to death. It was a long journey to make the game and making sure that the game ran smoothly, didn’t crash, the levels were completable. Nothing weird happened, you know, it took a lot of play testing.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, game development is definitely an iterative process that requires a lot of cycles of testing and trying new things and testing again. So what was development like overall?

Hawken King: So I already worked with a programmer who was very adept at working with different programming languages, and I asked him, "Hey, can you build something for the Playdate in Lua?" And he, he was already fluent with a few different languages, but not Lua. So he took it on as a project.

We came in really early on the Playdate development cycle. I think we were one of the first in a bunch of 12 games. We had access to the Playdate Simulator and the SDK.

And we also were able to use the font creation tool. But apart from that, yeah, we were, we were pretty much flying blind, but the SDK obviously had everything in there for us to make a game, and now it’s a lot easier to make Playdate games. You can make them on the web.

Christa Mrgan: Yes, you can make adventure style games for Playdate using our free browser based tool, Pulp, even if you have no experience writing code.

Hawken King: So that’s good news and I hope to see some amazing games coming out.

Christa Mrgan: So what kind of experience does the team hope that people will have with Questy Chess?

Hawken King: So when people just play this game I hope they get a feeling of progression through the game. I kind of want people to get frustrated. I don’t want it to be an easy game. I didn’t build it with the intention of making it easy. There’s a lot of easy games. It’s a quick win.

But I, I wanted the game to be a bit tricky, provide a bit of challenge, but not, too much so that you, throw the game controller, no Mario Kart moments here. And then when they reach the end and not giving anything away, they go what?? That’s one of the reactions I would like for people to have.

Dan Clarke: I think the main thing for me was that I hope that people enjoy the pace of the game. I think the feel of it is really pensive, and I think between the way that it looks and the way that it sounds, it kind of makes for a really relaxing experience.

So, I hope people get that from the game when they play it.

Justin DiCenzo: I hope that people are able to get lost in it. I love being able to get lost in games. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I think it’s really important to immerse yourself in something. And I love that I can get immersed, even though the Playdate’s so small, I can sit there and play Questy Chess and it’s just really enjoyable for me.

Christa Mrgan: Me, too. And I hope you enjoy working your way through the dark underworld of this software update gone wrong, as you solve the puzzles in Questy Chess!

Designer and developer Hawken King founded games company Dadako in 2009. You can learn more about Hawken and Dadako as well as about Dan Clarke and Justin DiCenzo 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.

Hawken King: Nice talking to you.

Christa Mrgan:

Bye for now!

Hawken King: 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 and sound effects were composed by Justin DiCenzo and come from Questy Chess, with some additional sound effects by Hawken King.

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 and site design.

And thanks as always to everyone at Panic. Playdate is shipping now and available for pre-order at play.date.

Hawken King: For us, it was a black box kind of situation where you just code and see what works. It’s a bit like that scene out of Wallace and Gromit where the, the dog’s putting down the train track as the train’s running on the train track, Right? So yeah, there were definitely things that came out whilst we were making the game that made life easier for sure.