As pre-orders for The Machine open, we wanted to get to know the game a little better, from the perspective of the developer! So, we had a quick chat with Ben Jelter to talk to him about his vision for the game, some of the inspiration behind it, and his experience in developing a Game Boy Color game in the modern day. If you’re as curious as we were, you can read the full interview below!
How was The Machine born?
Ben Jelter: Oddly, the idea for this game came to me back in 2019 when it was still impossible for me to make a Gameboy game. I did a little pixel-art doodle of the title screen in the resolution of the Gameboy Advance on my phone while on a trip to Norway. The whole idea behind the game was that the main antagonist was going to be the society you live in rather than a villain. A few months later I discovered Gb Studio and realized that my discarded idea was actually possible.
What has development been like?
Ben Jelter: It's common knowledge among game devs that nonlinear stories can be a complete nightmare to design and debug. I knew that it would be difficult when I started it. Nonlinear games are so rare despite the fact that people seem to really enjoy them. Most developers have a philosophy that you shouldn't make content that people won't see. I wanted to flip that on its head and make it so that a single playthrough would only show you a small fraction of the total possibilities. I know that no major studio would do it because of the expense so it seemed like an area in which an indie game could excel.
What makes The Machine special?
Ben Jelter: The Machine takes a different approach to story design than most games. In story-based games, I think there is usually an emphasis on rewarding the player by having them play in order to 'win' the game. In The Machine, I try to subvert a lot of gamey expectations. Sometimes your hard work and/or principled stands are not rewarded. Sometimes even though you can make a decision, you are not really that important. It's kind of the opposite of a power fantasy. As someone who plays a lot of games myself, I find it kind of embarassing how desperately games try to pump up your ego and constantly reward you to hold your attention. I feel like the equivalent in a book would be a book where every other sentence was something like "Whoever is reading this is very smart and good looking!" In this way the storytelling is more realistic than a typical video game.
What games influenced The Machine the most?
Ben Jelter: I think that The Machine was as influenced by games as it was by books and movies. It's influenced by history and current events too. To be honest, the game that influenced it the most is one I have never played. My friend would often tell me about a game he played when he was younger where it took place over a short period of time but within that time there were very different options and paths. It's called 'Way of the Samurai.' This inspired me to try to make what I call a 'pancake adventure' where instead of having a long, branching story tree, it is a very wide story tree that isn't as tall. This makes the development time more reasonable while giving the player meaningful choices.
Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Ben Jelter: When I was about halfway through development I took a week off working on The Machine to enter a game jam so I could blow off some steam with a smaller project. My nine-day game (Opossum Country) got a ton of attention. It was weird to be sitting on another project that I had spent a whole year and a half on already and wondering if it would get as much attention. It made me think that maybe I should be making lots of smaller games instead... but I felt like if I could just finish The Machine it could be a really cool final product.
Another interesting development when I was making the game was that GB Studio went from version 1.2 to 2.0 to 3.0 all while I was developing the game. I migrated from 1.2 to 2.0 because 2.0 gave us a ton of options for making a game full color. It was very challenging though. I had to rewrite a lot of scenes. By the time 3.0 came out I was practically done with the game so I didn't migrate to 3.0. I probably will never attempt to migrate another large project.
What were the major lessons learned?
Ben Jelter: The #1 lesson that I have learned while making the game is something called encapsulating code. It is possible to make custom events in GB Studio and they are incredibly useful. If I place all of the logic for something in a custom event, it allows me to change the custom event once and have those changes propagate to every time that event is used in the entire project. Without this method, I would never be able to fix bugs in the project because of the amount of manual work that would be required every time I need to change how something works.
How have your previous experiences helped in creating The Machine?
Ben Jelter: I am an illustrator and comic artist so all of my prior experience drawing helped me a lot to make interesting art quickly. Since I wanted the story to be a sort of story of human societies throughout time, I was also inspired by all of the art I have seen visiting art museums.
Making comics also helped me learn how to plan and execute a large project that takes over a year to complete. I know that it is possible to get stuck in an endless cycle of revisions so I keep a close eye on how many months I have been working on something.
How do you want The Machine to ultimately be remembered?
Ben Jelter: I hope that The Machine is considered one of the best Gameboy games. I designed it with the platform in mind to be exactly the experience I would want on a Gameboy. The Gameboy was my first video game system and I really loved playing the classic games like Link's Awakening and Donkey Kong `94. There was something about their simple, self-contained nature that really appealed to me in terms of minimalist design. I'm not sure if The Machine is quite as minimalist but I think it will be a great adventure. If it could be in people's collections alongside the old classics, I would consider that a high honor.
Part of the reason that I made the game a Gameboy game is also to preserve the game for a long time. Many recent games have already been lost to time but we can still play Gameboy games because of emulation. I figure that future computers and game systems will likely have Gameboy emulators too. It's sort of a modern version of engraving the story in stone. I think it goes well with the theme of human history throughout time.
Ben Jelter: Well, that is an interesting question because for so long the next thing has been finishing this game for me! I think that my next plan is to work with my friend Tom (Gumpy Function) on expanding our game Unearthed from the GB Compo21 into a full project and publishing that. It is a sci-fi puzzle game where you play as a mech operator. I have started messing with GB Studio 3.0 and I plan to make a game with it but I think it's too early to talk about that one.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Ben Jelter: If you are playing the digital edition of The Machine in an emulator, please make sure that it corrects the colors to more closely match the GB Color. I designed the game to look right on the original hardware and as a result it can look far too saturated on emulators that show the game at full saturation.
I want to thank the many people who have helped to make this project a reality. Chris Maltby and all of the GB Studio devs who made it possible for me to make a Gameboy game, all of the people who played it and gave me feedback and encouragement, everyone in the GB Studio Discord who so patiently helped me solve all of the problems I ran into with GB studio, my friends and family for their love and support, and my publisher Incube8 for handling the publishing and production of the final product.