With Bit.Trip Saga and Bit.Trip Complete recently arriving on Nintendo 3DS and Wii we spoke with Alex Neuse of Gaijin Games to discuss the series and get his thoughts on the development process.
At first glance the BIT.TRIP series is a collection of simple arcade games, however the intriguing story, art direction, controls and audio push the envelope to make them much more than that. Can you tell us how these elements came together?
I’m glad that the first glance you talk about is what your first reaction is to the series. We very much wanted these games to work on multiple levels—as simple arcade fun as well as meaningful and deep experiences. Players who are having deep and meaningful experiences with the BIT.TRIP series are those who have really started delving into the intriguing story, as you put it. That story is of course told through the cut scenes, art, and gameplay as a multifaceted story package.
The games came together primarily through gameplay inspiration at first. While designing the games, I wanted to get back to what games used to be in the early 80s—pure fun. I wanted to deconstruct video games and strip them down to their purest form and see if they would still hold up when seen naked.
After that concept spawned a slew of gameplay ideas (more than anyone will ever see in this six-game series), I started noticing a theme of progression and that’s when the story hit me. I wanted to explore what it means to be a “thing”. Whether that thing is a human, an animal, or a video game, I wanted to explore that thing’s soul. Hence CommanderVideo’s mission of discovering what it means to simply “be”.
Did you always plan BIT.TRIP to be a series of games? Was each title planned in advance or do you work on a game by game basis?
BIT.TRIP was always planned as a series. At some point, after all six games are released; we’ll reveal our original sell-sheet to the world that hints at each of the six games. We used this sell-sheet to shop the game around to publishers and settled on Aksys Games as our publishing partner.
So, each game was planned, at least in concept form, from the beginning.
In some ways each BIT.TRIP title feels like episodic content, but by changing the game type you have a successfully avoided the series becoming stale and instead created a sense of anticipation. Was this a deliberate attempt to retain attention throughout the series?
Bingo. This was definitely our way of trying to keep the series fresh. Had we released BIT.TRIP BEAT and then made BEAT 2 with more levels, sure it would have been fun, but I don’t really think it would have been appropriate for what we are trying to do. We want to have the series grow with CommanderVideo’s story, and like you said, just doing more of the same would lead to stagnation rather than growth.
I’m glad that you like the fact that we’re changing up gameplay from game to game. One of my inspirations for this approach was the bitGenerations series from Nintendo. Those initial 6 games felt like part of a whole, but each was wholly different from the other. I loved that in bitGenerations, and I love it in BIT.TRIP.
The BIT.TRIP games have a retro aesthetic (albeit with a modern twist), do you have to reign in your artistic desires to keep up this look?
Every now and then there might be some reining back of our artistic vision, but honestly, there’s not much. Our Art Director, Mike Roush is a great visionary—especially if I don’t try to rein him in. As the project lead, I have a specific vision, but it only really gains its soul when all three of us add our own influence to that vision. The less we all try to rein one another in, the better the products are in the end.
Do you have any influences from the world of art and design?
Our biggest influence art-wise is the Atari 2600. We wanted to make a series of games that we felt had simple enough gameplay that they could have been made on the 2600, and we wanted the art to support that goal. By considering what 2600 art might look like in 3D, we have found our unique BIT.TRIP art style.
In terms of design, I would say that several rhythm/music games were influential as we moved forward with our own rhythm/music series. Rez stands out above and beyond the rest as my biggest design influence.
BIT.TRIP VOID features music by guest composer Nullsleep. How did that collaboration come about and did it impact the direction of the game?
For each of our games, we work with a special chip music guest star to supply us with music for the main menu and the credits scroll. All of our in-game music is composed by the good folks at Petrified Productions specifically for the in-game action.
As our soundscape is chipmusic inspired, we felt it would be fun and exciting to feature some existing chipmusic artists as sort of bookends for the game experience. Working with Nullsleep on VOID, Bubblyfish on CORE, and Bit Shifter on BEAT has been a pleasure. Each of them has been very supportive and fun to work with.
Part of the appeal of the BIT.TRIP games is that they can almost act as documents of graphic and control evolution. Was that your intention?
I don’t think that “evolution” was really our intention, but “change” definitely was. We wanted to focus on different ways to tell parts of CommanderVideo’s story through gameplay as well as music and art.
Of the games released so far, what control implementation do you feel most satisfied with?
I think I’m most satisfied with the controls of BIT.TRIP BEAT. I’m a big fan of spinner-based games, and I lament the death of the spinner controller. Being able to find a great substitute in the Wii Remote was very exciting for me. I’d love to make more games that control that way, to be honest.
It’s well documented that you have a good relationship with Nintendo. How does the team feel to now have one of the flagship WiiWare brands?
If we’re truly considered “flagship”, we are very honoured. I like the WiiWare service, and I want it to become a haven for experimental and creative games. We are doing our part to support what Nintendo has created with WiiWare and are very happy to have such a good relationship with The Big N.
You have also built a very strong community of fans though social media, events and communications, does feedback from the community ever influence the development of your games?
We love our fan community. We try to read every article, comment, and tweet about the BIT.TRIP series and several comments have influenced our development. The inclusion of checkpoints in VOID comes to mind, but there are others as well. Basically, we listen to our fans and we love their compliments and criticism. Sometimes some of the suggestions are out of our scope, but they’re all very helpful to read, and we consider it all during our development cycle.
It’s also really fun to get fanart from the community. I love seeing what people can do with the little world we’ve created.
Recently you got together with Robotube at the Blip Festival and attempted to make a game in a day. How did you get on?
Basically, Blip Festival was a giant love-fest of BIT.TRIP friendlies. We got on very well with Robotube despite having never met Jason Cirillo in person. Making our game, BIT.TONIK, was a blast. It turned out to be pretty fun (even though it’s not 100% complete), and in the end, the adventure of that project was exhilarating and rewarding. I look forward to working with Robotube more in the future.
In addition to the Robotube/Gaijin love in, we finally met our guest star chip musicians in person, which was very nice. They’re all very lovely people.
Also in attendance were several indie developers who were rooting us on and razzing us as we attempted to finish up BIT.TONIK while being sleep deprived and several rounds of whiskey in. It was good clean fun.