The CG Interview: Dylan "Mr. PixelJunk" Cuthbert
His games are filled with dancing turtles, rock monsters that are both huggable and menacing at once, and hooky, MIDI keyboard-caliber tunes. They're available via download on PlayStation Network, but they feel like games you could discover at the back of an old, salt-eaten Jersey Shore arcade.
At a time when many developers are evolving the medium in the direction of film, even going so far as to hire Hollywood talent to produce live-action cut scenes (see Need for Speed: Undercover), Dylan Cuthbert and Q-Games look very much like anachronisms. They almost seem determined to devolve the medium, in the name of keeping gaming true to its roots.
Dylan Cuthbert: Putting his magic spell on you with his eyes.
We recently had the chance to sit down with the lank-haired, endearingly nerdy Cuthbert over bottles of cold tea in a Tokyo cafeteria. Here's what he had to say for himself.
Crispy Gamer: Did you see our "The 10 People We Hope Will Shut the F*** Up at This Year's E3" story? We had you listed on the "Six People We Wish Would Say More" side?
Dylan Cuthbert: Oh, I did. It was great to be included on a list like that. It's the first time I've ever been included in anything like that. I have to say, at first I thought I was on the bad side. I thought, Why are they putting me there? Man, I hardly say anything. But then I looked more closely.
Crispy Gamer: Oh, we definitely want to hear more from you. The sort of quirky games that are coming out of your development house -- PixelJunk Eden, PixelJunk Monsters, etc. -- could these kinds of games be made in the States? Could they be made anywhere other than Kyoto [the location of Q-Games]?
Cuthbert: There's a very strong, cohesive arts community based in Kyoto. So, if our games are influenced by anything regionally, I'd say it's that community.
Crispy Gamer: So that explains to some degree the unique visual aesthetics in the games.
Cuthbert: Yes. And Kyoto's also a much more neighborly person-to-person community where people know other people, as opposed to Tokyo, where everything is pretty spread out. So our games, I feel, are maybe more relatable on a personal level because of that.
Crispy Gamer: You're making these self-consciously artistic, small games. And yet somehow they seem to be finding a mainstream audience.
Cuthbert: I'd argue that it's still a niche mainstream audience.
Crispy Gamer: OK, "niche mainstream audience." To what do you attribute their niche-mainstream popularity?
Cuthbert: I'd attribute it mostly to when I was growing up, and the time period when I learned to program back in 1982. Games back then were mostly raw experiences. What I'm trying to do is to pull from that simpler time period, and integrate it into the games we make today. The other aspect of it is that you obviously can't sell our games at full price. But with something like PSN, you can sell [games] for much lower prices, and do the things that you want to do, rather than solely make big blockbuster games.
Crispy Gamer: Can you give me an example of a "raw experience"?
Cuthbert: Well, I grew up in England, and so I grew up on the ZX. [Editor's note: He's referring to the ZX Spectrum, a line of affordable home computers.] There were a lot of homegrown games floating around for the ZX back then, most of them unfinished. I used to get a lot of those for free and play them.
Crispy Gamer: No doubt they came on those old-school cassette tapes, right?
Cuthbert: Yes. Those were the days.
Crispy Gamer: You know, looking at your bio, it feels like you've already had three or four careers at this point.
Cuthbert: In some ways, I have. There was America, England and Japan. I was in America for three years working in the Bay Area, working on the original PlayStation. [Editor's note: He also worked on the Super Nintendo version of Star Fox, and he developed Ape Escape for the PlayStation.]
PixelJunk Eden, a.k.a., the real Spore.
Crispy Gamer: The trend these days seems to be to make games that increasingly resemble movies. Look at something like Dead Space, or perhaps a more extreme example, Metal Gear Solid 4. But that's not what you're doing. How come you're betting the other way?
Cuthbert: Our goal is really simple. We're trying to make games that are strictly games. Nothing more.
Crispy Gamer: Does that mean we'll never see a cut scene in any of the PixelJunk games?
Cuthbert: You know, I don't mind a bit of a story arc. But we don't want it to be obtrusive. We haven't put in any real story yet [in any of the PixelJunk games] -- just enough to give [gamers] the gist of a story.
Crispy Gamer: OK, enough softballs. Now for the tough questions. Let's talk about the much-discussed difficulty level of your games.
Cuthbert: Which game are you referring to?
Crispy Gamer: Well, they're all prohibitively difficult.
Cuthbert: We're actually addressing that in the near future with a patch [for PixelJunk Monsters]. In the beginning, I wanted to encourage gamers to get back into how they used to play games. Right now, games are a bit light, in my opinion. And it shouldn't be that way; it should be more hardcore.
Crispy Gamer: True. We do live in an age where you can spend 60 dollars on a game and six hours later you've beaten it.
The only person ever to have actually seen this level is Cuthbert's wife.
Cuthbert: Yes, exactly. We want to make the kinds of games where you get really hooked, so hooked that you're playing through it in your mind before you go to sleep at night, coming up with new strategies, and then trying those strategies the next time you play.
Crispy Gamer: Tell the truth: Can you beat Monsters?
Cuthbert: [Laughs] I can. My wife has even beaten it. And she's not even a gamer.
Crispy Gamer: Really?
Crispy Gamer: Now I'm ashamed.
Cuthbert: [Laughs] I actually made PixelJunk Monsters Encore because my wife kept bothering me to make more levels for her.
Crispy Gamer: OK, now you're just rubbing it in. Any advice for PixelJunk losers like myself?
Cuthbert: [Laughs] You know, the thing I see often is that a lot of people get sucked into these pre-set rules that they set for themselves. The key to the game is that you need to forget them and just try different things to succeed. Be creative. In our patch, we actually rebalance a lot of things, decreasing the power of some items while increasing the power of other things.
Crispy Gamer: In an era when casual gaming is fast becoming a bona-fide movement, your game looks very casual. But it's not.
Cuthbert: Well, we [play-] tested easier difficulty levels and it just lost something. It may look like it's random, but we determined the difficulty level by [considering] what works. The idea was to try and get people hooked on it for the long term. Nothing in the game is random; everything is considered.
Crispy Gamer: The concept of dancing inside of an object to make that object more powerful [as the turtle does in Monsters]; where did that come from?
Cuthbert: I actually came up with that.
Crispy Gamer: Did you try different styles of dancing?
Cuthbert: No, no. I just asked the artist to come up with something cute.
Crispy Gamer: So do you or any of the Q-Games employees ever stand around and actually do this dance?
Cuthbert: [Laughs] No. But I've heard that people do it at Sony though.
Crispy Gamer: Again, it's all so very cute and endearing, and you just want to hug that little dancing turtle, and then you suddenly realize that the game is hard as balls.
Cuthbert: Well, not for my wife it isn't.
Crispy Gamer: Right. A lot of people talk about games as art. You, and Q-Games, are obviously walking that line.
Cuthbert: I haven't actually had anyone talk to me about that yet. But maybe that's because I'm here [in Japan] and not in the West.
Crispy Gamer: Do you feel like these games stand up as works of art?
Cuthbert: I think they're more games than art.
Crispy Gamer: You've been in the business a long time. What's your take on where we are now as a medium?
Cuthbert's wedding: You can rent Miyamoto for your next wedding or bar mitzvah.
Cuthbert: I'm honestly concerned about the games that take tens of millions to make, and after six hours you've finished them; you've seen everything there is to see. I read an article recently about how you can judge how much money it took to make a game based on one cut scene. The point of the article was, for the amount of time that the gamer sees that cut scene, it's just not worth [the cost]. Because of that, I think you're going to see a lot more [game-makers] taking advantage of things like PSN.
Crispy Gamer: It seems like Q-Games couldn't be more cost-effective. You have no cut scenes, no CGI, no voiceover actors to pay, etc.
Cuthbert: But it depends on what some people want. Some want the big story, the big Hollywood movie. Others don't. It's not like one is remarkably better than the other; it's a case where different people just want to make different things. This way, the consumer has many different [experiences] to choose from.
Crispy Gamer: Where does the term "PixelJunk" come from?
Cuthbert: Honestly, it's just my username. I created a Japanese technology and art blog a while back, which dealt with trends coming from the West. The blog was pretty popular out here back then, and my pen name was always PixelJunk. It's just something I came up with one day, out of the blue.
Crispy Gamer: So you feel that's the signature name behind Q-Games at this point?
Cuthbert: Well, we make games for Nintendo, as well. The PixelJunk team accounts for only about half of our company.
Crispy Gamer: So obviously you're busy making games. But have you had a chance to play anything recently?
Cuthbert: The LittleBigPlanet beta. I got into that. That was some impressive stuff.
Crispy Gamer: LBP reminds me a lot of what you do with your games: You take a simple concept, then give it depth and range. Yet LBP feels to me like perhaps they've over-thought it a bit.
Cuthbert: I think that once you see the whole thing put together, it will look pretty cool.
Crispy Gamer: Like all game developers, is it a series of long days and long nights?
Cuthbert: We try not to work long nights.
Crispy Gamer: What do you do when you're burned out?
Cuthbert: I try to go to Okinawa for a long weekend.
Crispy Gamer: That helps you remember that there's a world outside of Q-Games?
Cuthbert: Exactly. We try to build a social life into the company. We try not to work as insanely as other companies do.
Crispy Gamer: What keeps you in Kyoto?
Cuthbert: I tried living in Tokyo for a while, but it didn't really work for me. There's a much better mix of the modern and the ancient [in Kyoto].
Crispy Gamer: And you can see that modern/ancient mix in the games. I doubt you'd see that mix if you were based in Tokyo.
Cuthbert: You know, I think you're exactly right.