Episode 19: Sasquatchers

Christa Mrgan: You know how it is when you’re an influencer. You’ve really gotta hustle to get those views, likes and subscribes. And now that you’ve joined a team of cryptid hunters, you’re in charge of strategizing where and how to draw out those elusive, mythical creatures and keep cranking out your sweet content without getting crop dusted by a skunk ape!

Christa Mrgan: 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.

Christa Mrgan: Today I’m talking with Chuck Jordan, whose game Sasquatchers mixes turn-based tactics with cryptid group photography.

Christa Mrgan: Big time spoiler alert this week! We talk about the overall gist of the game, and Chuck mentions some of the creatures that show up and a bit of the AI that drives them, as well as providing some in-game photography tips. We don’t spoil everything, but definitely consider yourself warned!

Christa Mrgan: Okay. Let’s meet Chuck and hear a little bit about his background in games.

Chuck Jordan: I’m Chuck Jordan, I’m the I guess designer and programmer and “artist” for Sasquatchers, along with Jared Emerson Johnson, who did the music and sound effects, and Ghia Mercado, who helped out a lot with art cleanup.

Chuck Jordan: I started at Lucas Arts on a couple of the adventure games. The first one was Curse of Monkey Island, and then I worked on, I guess the notable stuff is SimCity 4 and several projects with Disney Imagineering for like interactive games inside the parks at Disney World and Telltale Games. I was most heavily involved in Sam and Max, and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People. And a little bit on the first season, Walking Dead.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, okay. So just some of the most iconic adventure games of all time, uh, a little game called SimCity and… Disney World. Sorry to gush, but that is a pretty stellar resume.

Christa Mrgan: Anyway, "Sasquatchers" is a great name. So what is this game all about?

Chuck Jordan: I’ve been calling it “tactical cryptozoology.” It’s a light, strategy game where you’re playing a group of cryptid hunters trying to maximize their views and likes on online media by getting the best pictures possible of the Bigfoots and other creatures that they find in the woods.

Christa Mrgan: Awesome. And how did Chuck come to make a game for Playdate, anyway?

Chuck Jordan: It’s all Jake Rodin’s fault. After I left Telltale, I was kind of feeling disconnected from the games industry and kind of burn out on the whole thing, so I just, yeah, he was in the middle of working on Firewatch at the time.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, Jake Rodkin is awesome. He’s a writer, game designer and podcaster who co-founded Campo Santo makers of the adventure game “Firewatch”, which was published by Panic in 2016.

Chuck Jordan: And so I just talked to him to see really just, you know, what is going on in games these days 'cuz I’ve kind of been in the Telltale bubble for years.

Christa Mrgan: Telltale was an Adventure games focused game development company.

Chuck Jordan: And so I talked to him and he gave me a rough idea, but then he said, yeah, Cabel is working on this weird little game device that has a crank.

Christa Mrgan: Cabel Sasser is one of Pan

Chuck Jordan: ic’s co-founders.

Chuck Jordan: And I was like, okay, that sounds like it could be interesting. So at a Firewatch launch party Jake introduced me to Cabel and I talked about the first pitch that I had, and then I’ve been working on it in all the years since.

Christa Mrgan: Nice. Okay, so you’re a team of cryptid hunters trying to gather photographic evidence to post to your various social media platforms. Where did that idea come from?

Chuck Jordan: I guess I won’t name 'em cuz it’d be rude. But there’s a couple of like reality shows where they have like a team of ghost hunters and they’re just kind of comically inept at and like over exaggerating everything.

Christa Mrgan: Got it. So why Cryptids instead of ghosts?

Chuck Jordan: I mean, it is kind of like, I’ve been a, a fan of them for some time, so it’s kind of just like background stuff that I know vaguely about. I’m not a true believer or anything, but I think it’s just fascinating. And I’ve been watching a series on YouTube called Monstrum that is all about like different cryptids and it’s a doctor, who of, I think she studies folklore and she does a lot research about the different monsters and I think part of it actually was the original Sam and Max that “Hit the Road” game, when they had the Sasquatches.

Christa Mrgan: Hit The Road was one of the awesome graphic adventure games in the Sam and Max Series from Lucas Arts. It was released in 1993.

Chuck Jordan: And it was around then that I heard about the skunk ape, which is just my favorite cryptid.

Christa Mrgan: Watch out for the skunk ape!

Chuck Jordan: And I’ve always loved The little strategy games, like I say little, but smaller platform strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars and Pokemon Snap. So it was just how can I combine the two and make it silly?

Christa Mrgan: Oh, yeah, that makes sense! Sasquatchers features a top-down map grid that definitely feels influenced by both Advance Wars, which is a turn based strategy game for GameBoy Advanced, released in 2001, and Final Fantasy Tactics, a tactical role playing game released in 1997 that uses an isometric world map.

Christa Mrgan: But then a lot of the gameplay in Sasquatchers focuses on a first person photo mode where you use the crank to move the camera. And apart from the crank, it’s really reminiscent of Pokemon Snap, a first person photography game from 1999, where the goal is to take high quality photos of Pokemon to accompany some scientific research.

Christa Mrgan: Both modes feel so natural and crucial to the game, that I was surprised to learn that the first person photo mode wasn’t part of Sasquatchers from the beginning.

Chuck Jordan: It was kind of a, a late edition where like the entire game started out as a, as a overhead view. Because I didn’t want to, you know, push my art skills too far past the breaking point. But it just kind of wasn’t gelling into something and I wasn’t using the crank enough.

Chuck Jordan: So I eventually like switched it to it can go into first person mode where you’re kind of actually composing a shot. And then as part of that, like you got to see more of the characters. So I figured You know, the most fun that I’ve had in games has been as a, as a writer for the comedy games.

Chuck Jordan: So why not, you know, inject a little bit of that into it and have their characters come through.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. I love the writing in this game. It’s goofy and funny, and each character definitely has their own personality that’s revealed through their pithy little exchange

Christa Mrgan: Even the tutorial just feels really natural, because the core team members introduce themselves to you and the flow of the dialogue is like a sitcom about cryptid influencers, which I think is totally a sitcom I would watch. So maybe a spinoff idea there, Chuck. Anyway.

Chuck Jordan: but yeah, the, the original version was just this top down view, cuz that was what I knew from the games that I had seen. And if they ever showed anything close up, it was kind of like just a, a brief cutaway.

Chuck Jordan: And so there, there was this idea of you had just the frame and you were trying to get as many of the tiles around you in shot as possible. So it was all kind of like wrangling the animals into place so that you could get a shot with as many things in it as possible. And then again, it was one of those cases where it had, you know, I’d been working on it for a long time and it was kind of like a nice diversion, but there wasn’t any real soul to it.

Chuck Jordan: The, the only crank usage that I had in there, and some of that is still there, is that a lot of the other characters have these tools that incorporate the crank some way or another. But it was all top down. And again, you know, I had these little characters I was trying to hint at, but it seemed like it’d be fun to show them.

Chuck Jordan: So yeah, I went in and, the idea itself is very simple, where they’re just, it just figures out where they’re on the grid and then treats that like a, you know, circle around you. And then for the previous game that I did, I had the parallax. It was all scrolling. So I had a little bit of code that would do very, very simple, you know, parallax scrolling of different things. So, It’s all completely fake because it is, it is 2D assets,

Christa Mrgan: Oh, yeah, parallax scrolling is a technique used in animation, web design, and video game graphics, where background elements move more slowly than foreground elements. It helps create the illusion of depth.

Chuck Jordan: So, It was actually kind of, it just felt natural to, to combine those. But I think it was interesting in that it provided the hook of you having to do that mental calculation of going from the top down grid to the first person and figuring out, oh, this is gonna be blocked by a tree and this is gonna be hiding behind a rock.

Chuck Jordan: And if I want to get him and this monster I have to stand right here.

Christa Mrgan: So here’s where a kind of spoilery tip comes in. I was frustrated that I would use my turn to move my character into position to get that perfect shot, but then I kept getting dinged in the game for taking blurry photos of cryptids.

Christa Mrgan: So I asked what the trick was. Maybe laying Playdate absolutely flat, to avoid any kind of movement at all? I assumed it had to have something to do with the accelerometer.

Chuck Jordan: The trick is that you want to move the character after taking the shot.

Chuck Jordan: So it’s not based on any of the device capabilities, it’s just based on whether the character has moved that turn or not.

Christa Mrgan: Ohhh! Man, I felt pretty dumb learning this, but maybe it’ll help someone else, too.

Chuck Jordan: And it’s like the, the host who does selfies. It’s a little bit more tolerant cuz he is got a nicer cell phone than the photographer who’s trying to take pictures in low light.

Chuck Jordan: So yeah, the idea there is that you can’t just go up and like go right up to the monster and then take a picture. You have to kind of plan ahead and lure them into the range so that the photographer won’t have to move before taking the picture.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, this makes so much sense, and of course makes the map strategizing that much trickier. But it does solve the problem of blurry photos. So pro tip, I mean, it was probably obvious to everyone else, but anyway, I just figured it was dependent on the accelerometer and I was jostling the Playdate around too much each time!

Chuck Jordan: Because you’ve got a deliberately lofi screen, And a device that is contemporary, that has all these sensors and inputs and everything that it kind of implies it’s doing more than, than it actually is when you know, oh, it could be taking advantage of the accelerometer.

Chuck Jordan: And just another spoiler-y thing, I did ha used to have a psychic character that I had to scope out. And so there would be ghosts and banshees on the level as well. And her interaction was instead of using the crank, it had old planchette, like a Ouija board and you had to like move it to communicate with

Christa Mrgan: What? That sounds awesome

Chuck Jordan: Yeah, There was originally a scientist and a psychic and the scientist kind of got rolled into the audio engineer, like all of his stuff. And then the psychic is for, I guess, dlc.

Christa Mrgan: Ooh, downloadable content?

Chuck Jordan: Everything you can unlock is kind of visible from the start. Both with the team members and then the kind of like, who’s that Pokemon style cryptid display and the locations that you can unlock.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the game is really user-friendly in that way. There’s a lot of hinting about what might be coming next without giving everything away. And there are a lot of clever tools to help you strategize, giving you ways to scout for and call the cryptids, and being able to pick up a different team member later in the game lets you unlock even more abilities so there’s always momentum driving you forward.

Chuck Jordan: Oh, I’m glad to hear that, that it’s working cuz yeah, that’s been like the biggest thing that I’ve been trying to tackle with the game is that finding what that hook is, but also not letting my ambitions get outta control because this was like way outta scope for me when I when I first got the idea of including the first person mode. So I kept messing around with stuff and it, it would, you know, I, I felt like I had a interesting dynamic where you were spending a lot of time searching for the cryptids and, trying to get that last elusive one. So I started putting in more stuff to help you find them.

Chuck Jordan: And then I made like a, to be honest, accidental change to the ai. So the monsters were like, way too aggressive about approaching you because they do have some sophistication, which isn’t always visible, but they try to stay like just on the outskirts of the light circle. So they try not to get too close to you, but they’re curious and they try to get to the outskirts of the circle.

Chuck Jordan: And I made a mistake where they all just like, were pursuing you. And that was too much. But it did make me realize that that was the right kind of pacing for it, where this kind of wants to be a just pick up and play it. It is kind of an even different pacing than Advance Wars, where it’s less of a, I’m figuring out a strategy for this whole map and it’s more like I want to engage with something for five minutes.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. You can strategize very locally within the game on a mission by mission basis without necessarily planning out your next 10 moves and needing to remember all of that the next time you pick it up.

Christa Mrgan: And I also really like the sound design and music in the game. It’s very atmospheric and then also the sounds will sometimes play into the game’s humor.

Chuck Jordan: I worked with Jared at Telltale and the thing about him is on top of being just like really talented as a musician, like absurdly talented as a musician, he’s also you know, sound design, but also he just gets it in a way that’s tough to describe. When he would be doing voice direction for the games, I would be ready to, to explain a joke.

Chuck Jordan: And he’s like, no, it’s like this, this, and this. And he’s not laughing at 'em, but he gets . So a lot of times I unfairly would like cuz my brain just works in pastiche and, and so I would kind of unfairly say, I want something that’s, The Space 1999 theme plus you know, Psycho music or just like these oddball combinations, and he would deliver something that immediately reference those, but wasn’t just a, a copy like I would’ve expected. So I’ve learned over the years that with Jared, you say, here’s the basic idea that I’ve got, and he makes something brilliant and then just delivers it to you fully. So for this, I, I knew that I wanted to be, Referencing all the tactical strategy games that I really liked, and I wanted it to feel lofi. And so I sent him a video of the original XCOM introduction and he just nailed the feel of it without making it a copy. And so I just, I, I admit that I’ll sometimes just leave it on the title screen cuz I like the music.

Chuck Jordan: So much. It calls back to the eighties, if you remember the a or the early nineties, if you remember the nineties. But if not, it just has like a, a peculiar vibe and it feels spooky. Just One other thing that I really like about it is it feels like it’s trying to be edgy, which is, which is one of the things that I wanted to get across for this game.

Chuck Jordan: That they were silly, but they thought they were cool.

Christa Mrgan: I really like the little musical stings in the first person camera mode.

Chuck Jordan: Yeah. Those things. That, that was one of the pleasant surprises that he just delivered those like. Like if you need these little stingers for extra things here they are. And I had no idea how to use them yet. But then when I put the camera mode in it was just like, oh, this is perfect.

Christa Mrgan: nice. I also love the call that a character makes to summon the cryptids. It’s really funny.

Chuck Jordan: That’s an uncredited, but very very bad voice actor. He’s also a game developer and artist. This is like multiple times that I’ve tried to do a voice for the game, and then I hear it back and it’s like, oh, I should not be doing voice work, but I figured something silly like that. Those would be all right.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, I totally get that. I thought I’d get used to hearing my own voice after editing this podcast for a while, but turns out, nope, still not my favorite. Anyway! I of course wanted to hear what developing for Playdate was like, generally.

Chuck Jordan: I keep saying that, it reminds me very much of like early Macintosh, back when I had my old Mac Plus. And that’s obvious cuz you got a bunch of like hard line Mac devotees in Panic. And then also obviously the one bit display. And it just reminds me a lot of making little games in HyperCard

Christa Mrgan: HyperCard was an app and lightweight software development kit for Apple computers in the late eighties through the end of the nineties. it was geared toward non-programmers and let you build and connect interactive software and games. It was kind of a precursor to the internet.

Chuck Jordan: And specifically that at the, that time it felt like you could do anything. And then once they came up with a color Macs I was like, well, that’s it for me cuz I have no, I have no artistic sensibilities.

Christa Mrgan: That is obviously not true. The art in Sasquatchers is delightful. The map design is awesome. The characters have a fun cartoon style. It looks great!

Chuck Jordan: So it was just kind of nice getting back to that and just proving to myself that I could, you know, finish a game.

Chuck Jordan: Cause I’ve been on these projects that. You know, the teams kept getting bigger and bigger and the closest experience to doing a game from start to finish was on those Strong Bad games we did. Little silly. Like each episode had a little silly ar arcade game, and the designer of that episode was kind of responsible for doing it all themselves, and that was so much fun.

Chuck Jordan: So I kind of wanted that experience again.

Chuck Jordan: I mean, It’s been really fun. I’m not, I’ve, I’ve worked with Lua a lot, like since uh, Grim Fandango days.

Christa Mrgan: Uh, yes, he did just drop a reference to yet another classic Lucas Arts Adventure game he worked on. No big deal. And, Lua is one of the programming languages you can use to create Playdate games.

Chuck Jordan: And I kind of have a love ongoing love hate relationship with it where it gives you so much rope to hang yourself with. So it’s just, it’s excellent for just like, oh, I have an idea for this.

Chuck Jordan: I want to try it out quickly. So for a lot of the things, it’s like, oh, I, if I need to add a new skill for the character, like the actual process of it would be like a day which, Seems like unheard of in other other development environments, but it just, it made it super easy to go quickly and it’s really nice to see not all that surprising, knowing Panic’s attention to detail and stuff, but having been with the Playdate project for so long, seeing the SDK evolve and seeing them add more stuff and just make it more user friendly to the point of like, opening it up wide is is like, oh yeah, that’ll, that’ll totally work.

Chuck Jordan: even though I’ve been working on it for so long, like so much of it came together just basically after my deadline where because of, of Covid and everything where the, the deadlines kept getting extended. But everything kind of just seemed to coalesce and there were all these happy accidents.

Chuck Jordan: Like, you know, adding the first person stuff gives you this and, and This accidental AI tweak made it feel like this and getting some feedback from some early play testers and just seeing that people got it. I, I think it’s been a nice a nice confluence, of happy accidents.

Chuck Jordan: But Yeah, it Is so nice that it’s filling me with such nostalgia for the Mac plus days when I had HyperCard in front of me and it just felt like I could make anything and you know, years of professional game development had kind of pounded that out of me, and then getting the Playdate again was just like, oh no, I can do this. This is really fun. I remember what this was like.

Christa Mrgan: Awesome. So will there be more Playdate games from Chuck in the future?

Chuck Jordan: Yeah, I think so. It’s hard like going into the developer forums and not being inspired, seeing all the stuff that people are making and my hesitancy usually when I’m. In an environment like that is knowing that I can’t do the art myself. And so seeing the range of stuff and, and having it still be like lofi enough that I, I feel like, oh no, I can do this.

Chuck Jordan: I can , I can totally make something like this. I’m just kind of inspired to do all this other stuff. And again, you know, you have all these sensors and stuff and my game, as long as I’ve been working on it, has not really taken huge advantage of all this stuff on there and I’ve got all these, you know, it seems like there’s so much potential in that device.

Chuck Jordan: I’ve kind of got the bug now and I wanna make another Playdate game, but I’ve got too many ideas for it.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, totally. A good problem to have, I guess? I’d love to see another game from Chuck

Chuck Jordan: [Ha, I appreciate it!]

Christa Mrgan: For now, what are his hopes for Sasquatchers?

Chuck Jordan: I’d say, yeah, I hope people have fun with it and they are encouraged to pick it up, try a mission and then see how far they can get and yeah, just enjoy how silly it is.

Christa Mrgan: Yes! Well, I hope you have as much fun as I did playing my “That’s So Moth Man” Adventure in Sasquatchers.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, did I mention you get to select a funny title at the beginning of the game?

Christa Mrgan: And I hope you get tons of views, likes and subscribes for your awesome cryptid content.

Christa Mrgan: You can learn more about game designer and developer Chuck Jordan and Music and Sound composer Jared Emerson Johnson, as well as other topics we covered, via the links and the show notes. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more episodes coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed.

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 are by Jared Emerson Johnson and come from Sasquatchers. There are also clips from Psycho, XCOM, and Space 1999.

Christa Mrgan: Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website, James Moore for building me an awesome PDA file 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.

Chuck Jordan: I was so delighted that you were saying that the character was coming through in in the Sasquatchers game because that’s kind of the thing that I want to do, where it’s like you get a feel for what’s going on, instead of you’re being told what’s going on.