Hellsinker – 2019 Developer Interview

Hellsinker – 2019 Developer Interview

This in-depth Hellsinker interview first appeared on jp.ign. Befitting the notorious complexity of Hellsinker, it’s one of the more high-level and abstract conversations featured here on shmuplations. Creator Tonnor has a very “meta” way of analyzing the STG genre and Hellsinker’s design choices. This interview was commissioned by yukkuritime, who generously gave permission to host it here.

—Well then… first off, what name do you go by?

Tonnor: You can just call me Tonnor.

—Well then, Tonnor. You’ve released a number of doujin games over the years, but my understanding is that you are essentially a hobbyist developer who creates in your spare time, outside of your primary means of livelihood?

Tonnor: That’s correct. My real job has no connection to my development work, basically. It’s a hobby, something I dive into whenever I can make the time. Which is why I sometimes have long breaks between. (In the past I’ve done some contract work for a development company that I had a relationship with, though)

—Where does your motivation come from, to spend so much of your own time developing doujin games?

Tonnor: I suppose it comes down to my desire to see the vision I have take shape in reality. And maybe there’s also an element of dissatisfaction that fires me, dissatisfaction that this thing *doesn’t* exist already.

—Up until this new Steam release, Hellsinker was mainly distributed at Comiket. Before that you had distributed it as a free download online, too. How did you get involved with selling at the Comiket Markets and doujin shops?

Tonnor: If you compared the doujin scene and the online free game scene back in 2007, the doujin scene had a certain active, engaged side to it, and my impression was that there wasn’t a lot of overlap between these groups. So I was interested in sharing Hellsinker there, with the doujin scene, as well.

—How did the Hellsinker development get started? Was it a natural outgrowth of the work on your previous STG, RADIO ZONDE?

Tonnor: More than that, I would say it was that my skills and knowhow as a developer had improved, so I felt confident about wanting to make a brand new standalone game.

—How would you describe the state of STG in the doujin scene then? RADIO ZONDE was released in 2002, and that year saw the commercial release of games like Treasure’s Ikaruga, various Cave danmaku games, and Gradius V. Furthermore, in the doujin world you had the trilogy of Touhou games for Windows PCs. It was a surprisingly rich era for STG games. The doujin scene in general was steadily gaining popularity too, with games like “higurashi ga naku koro ni” and the Touhou Project being released to critical acclaim.

Tonnor: Speaking for my own games only, in terms of influences, I don’t pay much mind to “genre” or the current trends—that is to say, I don’t limit myself to one specific kind of media. It’s more the case that everything I have touched and seen in my life up to now eventually makes itself felt in my work. I see similarities and patterns in the structure and context of various things I experience, and those provide hints to me for the direction I want to take, and I also like to include things that are somewhat “rough” or not overly touched-up, and that’s how I go about iterating on and fleshing out my ideas.

Stage 2 from Tonnor’s first doujin STG, RADIO ZONDE.

—If there are any specific games or works that have influenced you, would you mind sharing them?

Tonnor: In talking about this I don’t limit myself to genre or medium, so honestly it’s a bit difficult to point to one thing and say “this!”, but in terms of games, I think both console games (original titles for the Famicom, PC Engine, and Super Famicom) and PC games (PC-98 era stuff mainly) would form a big foundation for me.

—What do you consider to be the appeal of the STG genre? Game design, story, world and setting, characters, music… please share your opinions on each of these facets.

Tonnor: In terms of game design, I would say the pivotal center of most game design lies in contending with prepared sections the designers have crafted, and when certain specific conventions and context predominates, we call that a “STG game.”

To an extent, if you have a game with forced scrolling and one where it’s possible to replicate the same results every time (I mean, with the same series of key inputs), then the basic goal of the game would be to puzzle out the right timing and movements for a given section, developing patterns and pacing that correspond to your individual abilities and shortcomings. I think that’s a very big part of the appeal of STGs, and many games would satisfy those conditions.

Even if there are random or improvisational elements, provided there is an established “grammar” and it’s not merely repetitive or totally indeterminate, then I think the visual aesthetic can change but we’re still talking about the same overall type, or genre, of game.

On top of that, STG games share certain common features: the action gameplay, which has certain conditions unique to the genre like the shape of the playfield and the forced scrolling. Then there are common rules like having a certain number of lives, etc. I think these clearly established conventions, to an extent, give rise to a distinctive “STG feeling.”

Beyond that, though, whether a given game is interesting or not turns more on the individual qualities of that game, I think, rather than its genre. Simply put, if a game has enough interesting elements it’s an interesting game; we can then talk about the individual elements that make it fun, I think. Picking apart the elements of a specific genre is putting the cart before the horse; there’s just no way to have a meaningful discussion of what makes a game fun in a broad, sweeping way like that. In terms of how we process something as “fun” or not, the truth is we don’t experience “genres” when we play, we always experience individual games.

In terms of characters, I think a big part of their role is to represent distinct personalities and values. A well-made character, in my view, is one about which you can say “their abilities == their strengths and weaknesses == their character”. This isn’t something specific to the STG genre, but I think one interesting aspect of STG games is the way the gameplay evolves depending on the character you choose.

—For the characters, do you figure out their abilities at the same time you’re creating the setting?

Tonnor: Whatever overall direction or thrust that the plot and setting may share, I’m of course trying to bring out a sense of differentiation, contrast, or nuance, with the different characters’ abilities.

—In light of your comments above about what makes STGs interesting, what aspects of Hellsinker’s design did you place a particular emphasis on?

Tonnor: I don’t really consider story, setting, characters, and music as something standing apart from “game design” per se. Even if one of those elements is excellent, it’s more about the holistic, overall vision I’m trying to present, and in that sense, all those elements are just one part of the whole (on the other hand, provided it doesn’t feel like something is lacking, not everything has to be “perfect” for me). Ultimately one is creating a single cohesive experience, and I think it should be conceived that way from the outset.

—In other words, from what I’ve gathered from your responses so far, would it be correct to say that for you the gameplay experience is paramount, and game design, story, music, characters are all constructed in its service?

Tonnor: I think so. There’s an experience that’s important to me, and I create rules and an environment so that I can present that experience to players.

Official key art of Hellsinker’s three primary characters: DEAD LIAR, MINOGAME and FOSSIL MAIDEN.

—It seems to me like your approach would make it very hard to divide up the labor of the development among multiple people. Is there a connection there with your creative process, when we consider how Hellsinker was developed almost entirely on your own?

Tonnor: Being the person who grasps the whole picture, there can difficulties with sharing your vision with others. Even if you do a very thorough job describing your setting and world, the finer details of that image must be firmed up during the development itself, and that “fleshing out” will necessarily be left to each individual-in-charge, so you can’t ultimately avoid some amount of negotiation and varying interpretations.

To be sure, even when working alone, there will be times when things turn out differently from what you initially imagined. But when you develop by yourself, the process of reconciling those differences is semi-automatic—it just happens naturally—and that’s another advantage, I think.

—The weapon/defense system and controls in Hellsinker are extremely complex. How did it end up this way? Do you have a penchant for complicated designs?

Tonnor: As a STG game, that may be true, but outside of that frame, I don’t think Hellsinker is particularly complex. It’s only as difficult as the classic 2D action games of yesteryear, and the feel of the controls and the pacing both hew closely to that style. Perhaps it’s the forced scrolling that makes certain scenes feel very busy.

In contrast, though, I intentionally included many sections that would drag on for unskilled players, but for skilled players could be passed through quite speedily. This is also true for all aspects of Hellsinker, but the reason I went with this kind of weapon/control system is that I wanted there to be a clear difference between beginners and the players who had mastered the controls and fully understood how to utilize these systems. In other words, I wanted there to be room for a meaningful sense of progression, growth, and achievement for players.

The way Hellsinker divides actions into different buttons and button combinations (and the way a single button can have different actions depending on how it’s pressed, ie held down or tapped rapidly) creates a huge variety of actions for the player—if everything were on one button, it would necessarily exclude the possibility of combination and simultaneous attacks and the like. Another reason for these complex button assignments is to allow more precision and delineation in players’ strategies (the scoring patterns players create). If each weapon in Hellsinker had its own individual button, it would be a completely different game, and I think it would be a much looser, sloppier game overall. Perhaps my thinking here is closer in many respects to older 2D action and versus fighting games..?

—I see. Given the number of actions that require you to hold down multiple buttons, I was wondering what your thoughts were on the button assignments. When you were making Hellsinker, did you have an ideal controller in mind?

Tonnor: Early in the development I was using a Sega Saturn pad (with a PCI slot card interface called IF-SEGA), but midway through I started using a Playstation controller; realistically this was a better standard. Another reason was that around the time of Hellsinker’s release, Playstation controllers were fairly easy to find and several manufacturers made converters.

—Hellsinker also figures an amazing diversity of approaches to scoring. What inspired you to create such variety here?

Tonnor: The skills that Hellsinker demands of the player cannot be easily captured in a single consolidated number; but by separating the scoring elements into individual components, it becomes possible to evaluate things individually. That was my main reason for doing it this way.

This approach allows the players to make clear distinctions between different strategies, and also allows me, the designer, the create clearly delineated scoring sections. With each section and scoring element having an obvious goal, compromise and contradiction are kept at bay. Basically, it’s a way to remove the pointless ambiguity that arises from having too many choices.

—When you first see Hellsinker, it can be hard to tell what’s happening on-screen. Was this a deliberate effort to create a visual style that hadn’t been seen in the world of arcade STG before?

Tonnor: Rather than a visual “style”, I would say it’s the visuals themselves that are paramount to me: which is to say, it’s an opportunity for the player to experience the unknown. It’s not to communicate something per se, but rather my attempt to depict, in the raw, a phenomenon occurring as-it-is.

—But this point underpins the philosophy of many elements in Hellsinker, doesn’t it? To what extent were you intentionally trying to provoke the player’s own introspection, I wonder? There’s been quite a lot of theorizing and experimentation from players; has that exceeded your expectations, or was it about the amount you thought?

Tonnor: I placed things in Hellsinker suspecting that they would elicit a certain response, or range of responses, from players. Certainly some of the responses I’ve heard from players have overlapped with my intentions, but there have also been interesting ones that exceeded those bounds.

Hellsinker’s somewhat intimidating screen layout; broadly speaking, the left side of the HUD contains more crucial survival oriented date, with score-focused data contained to the right side. For the Steam version, additional gauges and pop-ups were added around the player-character.

—Hellsinker also features a heavily text-based method of storytelling, which you don’t see in your typical STG. Was this an influence from other genres, or does it reflect your desire to try something new for the STG genre?

Tonnor: Yeah, part of it was simply the fact that this hadn’t been done very often before. I simply see it as one completely valid approach for the PC single-player format. To put it another way, if there is no clear meaning to a prohibition, then following precedent is little more than a continuation of likenesses, I suppose.

—For Hellsinker’s story, then, was there anything you paid specific attention to, in terms of the possibilities of storytelling within a STG game?

Tonnor: I think you could describe the structure of Hellsinker’s story thus: an incremental progression that is linear (despite there being branches) and a force which seeks to bar the player from moving forward (with countless repetitions). That’s how I crafted it.

—I see. That kind of story structure (the so-called “loop” structure) is common in novel games, but seems rare in STGs. Was it, as I suspect, an attempt to encourage multiple playthroughs?

Tonnor: As far as motifs go, “reclaiming our stolen land” is something universal, so it didn’t feel strange to use it in something like a STG game.

There are innumerable works out there that only depict the conclusion of some enterprise that must have taken many generations worth of effort. However, even in those works, a “compression of the grand repetition” (ie extraordinary foes and trials) will be enfolded into the narrative, several times, allowing you to experience the depth of the story: this didn’t all just come out of nowhere, it’s the end-result of something much grander.

Narrative structure provides a firm foundation for one’s story, but it is the particulars of the story that embellish the context of that structure. I think things which mutually reinforce each other like this, rather than being separate, can almost be thought of as the same thing, which is how I approached Hellsinker.

—How did you end up choosing such a unique name for the last boss, “Summary and Guide”? The way you’ve interwoven an aesthetic of rules and controls that one would normally find in a manual into the larger world and setting of Hellsinker is very unusual.

Tonnor: Part of it is that I wanted to show that the environment, or underlying conditions, should not be considered separately from other individual elements—they are together one whole. However, I extended that concept to the written documents (the instruction manual) outside of the game itself for the following reasons.

The custom of reading the manual (or other documents bundled with a game) before you start playing was already dying out by the time I was working on Hellsinker. It was common in older PC games, however, for the makers to include really thick documentation, booklets, things like that. Those written materials served as both an entryway into the game world and a delineation of its boundaries, thus acting as a kind of mysterious “twilight zone” between our world and the game world.

After a short introduction, the manual transmits the bare minimum info required to understand the system and controls, and the remaining part of the manual is meant to be seen as a part of the game. You could say it’s a collection of homages and nods to my personal hobbies and things I’ve loved…

—I think it’s extremely interesting, though, how you took these common STG tropes (like lives, bombs, how the ship flies) and explained them in language and terminology unique to Hellsinker’s world. Why did you feel it was necessary to re-interpret and explain these concepts in this way?

Tonnor: Just because two things look the same, it doesn’t mean they act the same way. It’s all too easy to hear a word and think, “oh it’s the same as this other thing I know”, and rather than invite these lazy misunderstandings in players, I thought it would be far better to challenge people to re-examine their understanding of what they think they know.

For example, for the “Discharge” attack in Hellsinker, if I had just called that “bomb”, it would tend to make players imagine the bombs they’ve experienced in previous games (and all the attendant use / limits / restrictions thereof).

Hellsinker’s manual offers extensive background lore behind the game’s concepts and terminology, shown here is an explanation for the game’s “life” system.

—I see, that is definitely a valid stance. Changing the subject, the music of Hellsinker has been highly praised. Please share your thoughts on the importance of music STG games generally, and what you were aiming for with the music of Hellsinker.

Tonnor: Music in STG games can be used to signal changes in the progression of the stages, or it can be used to enhance the emotion, atmosphere, and narrative quality of the game, and in both cases I think it’s fulfilling a similar role to the backgrounds. One big role it plays, I believe, is as a kind of mediator that momentarily brings together and unifies disparate elements of the game into one cohesive experience. It functions like a glue that integrates meaning and impression. In genres where the axis of time and pacing are very important (and I believe STGs are a strong example), music has a uniquely important role to play.

In Hellsinker, there’s a couple themes I had in mind. One was the isolation and loneliness of places and things which have no one to remember them, where there is now only a reverberation or echo of former glory. Another is the deeply rooted causes and sentiments of the past coming to life once more, if only for a moment. That’s what I aimed to evoke when I wrote the music. I would say the former can be heard more in the introduction and stages, while the latter is found more as you approach the climax.

—Several motifs reappear as melodies throughout the songs, but I was wondering, how did the music writing process relate to the creation of the stages and other design aspects?

Tonnor: I think there’s, generally speaking, two different approaches here, but for me it was more common for the stages to be completed first. Once the foundation of the stages was completed I could create a general outline for the song, and after matching those up I’d make further adjustments to the stages. The opposite approach (which I also did, though less often) was to lock in the stage length and design first, and in those cases I would measure in seconds how long each section was and create the music accordingly.

—The Steam release of Hellsinker marks the first time you’ve released the soundtrack, as DLC. Why did you choose to do this now?

Tonnor: The publisher was pushing hard for it (and there were requests from the testplayers too) so it was something I looked into after considering the need both for additional content for the Steam release, and as a nod to existing players who have been dedicated of fans of Hellsinker for a while now. I also managed to dig up a utility to extract the music resources from my old development machine, which allowed me to release the music in a lossless format.

—Could you tell us roughly how many copies Hellsinker has sold, both physical and digital?

Tonnor: The CD-ROM version, which was mainly sold in doujin shops, has sold just under 6500 copies. The downloaded version at Booth, which began this year around the beginning of January, has sold about 420.

The CD-ROM version of Hellsinker, pictured alongside a handful of the Hellsinker fanzines owned by the interviewer.

—After the Booth release, you also made a major update the UI in Hellsinker. Was this something you had wanted to implement during the development? If not, why did you choose to change it now? Is there anything else you’re planning to update?

Tonnor: There were several things I would have liked to include in Hellsinker but when I considered the development environment and the average PC users’ hardware specs, it would have come out half-baked so I didn’t try. There was the limited video memory, and the fill rate problem too. I would have also needed a lot of time to put things in place for pixel shaders and so on. And I was concerned with how long Directx9 would be in use for PC games (in fact, Hellsinker does use Directx9, though up to version 6 it ran on Directx7).

And one other thing, regarding the full-screen mode and re-sizing windowed mode, Hellsinker was made a long time ago so it’s quite far removed from today’s modern software environment and several issues came up that I couldn’t originally resolve, though now I have—this was the main core of the update, actually. The remainder were things like the “info augmentation” messages, all stuff I wanted to add but couldn’t in the original game.

If you turn them all off, it’s the exact same game as the original, which is a point of pride for me. The options are there for convenience, and perhaps as a bit of extra flavoring, like a condiment.

This is a digression, but in Hellsinker, there were things where I thought, “this is definitely an interesting idea, but if I get too attached to it, I’ll never finish this game.” And I was very deliberate about separating those types of ideas out. I think you can see this philosophy clearly in the differences in the way each character handles, the multi-pronged approach to scoring, and the feel of the extra stages added for this edition.

—Your next game in development now appears to be an RPG?

Tonnor: It looks that way, though there’s several small projects I’ll probably end up doing in the interim. In fact, this Hellsinker official version release was one such project.

—How far along is the RPG development?

Tonnor: About 40%, I’d say? The system are all firmed up and I’ve consolidated a lot of the underlying data for the game now.

—What made you want to make an RPG?

Tonnor: It’s a genre I’m very familiar with, as it was foundational for my own personal gaming history. Over the years I’ve been steadily accumulating ideas for an RPG, things I want to do. And when I first began learning to program as a hobby, I created a traditional RPG-ish battle system… (this was on my graphing calculator, which had no graphics or even a directional pad).

—In a previous interview, you said something that left an impression on me: “Every time I hear someone say dismissively ‘this genre is dead’ or played out, these strong feelings well up in me and I want to reply defiantly, ‘are you so sure? in what ways…?'” Given this stance of yours, can we expect your RPG (will it be a dungeon RPG?) to go deeper into exploring the possibilities of the genre?

Tonnor: I feel like there aren’t many genres which are totally exhausted (though of course there are many products released into the world which intentionally ape existing tropes, so perhaps it’s easy to think that way?). We commonly call these games “RPGs” and “Dungeon RPGs”, but I think a more appropriate description might be exploration games where there’s a heavy emphasis on forming your party and managing your inventory… Hellsinker, you see, was made less from my own personal interests and more as a collection and melding of individual concepts; but this RPG I’m developing, on the other hand, perhaps prioritizes my own personal interests a bit more? Maybe.

—Are there any other developer’s projects you’re looking forward to at the moment?

Tonnor: I’ll tell you, in today’s world, the scale of everything has gotten so big and overwhelming that it’s really difficult to narrow things down to a manageable size! (I never imagined we’d find ourselves in an era where just finding the time to play a game you’ve bought is itself a challenge). Recently I’ve become interested in Saebashi’s Tokoyo no Tou (The Tower of Perpetuity). I’m very curious to see how that will turn out!

A comprehensive Hellsinker superplay by world record holder TwilightEX, commentated by the ever-knowledgeable Xaerock and Legless.

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