Old School Gamer chats with They Bleed Pixels developer Miguel Sternberg, who lets us know what makes the game a special one.
Old School Gamer: How was this game born?
Miguel Sternberg: They Bleed Pixels was originally released 8 years ago. Looking back at it now, as we prepare to release it on Nintendo Switch, it is both a great game that holds up well after all these years, and also a snapshot of a very specific time in games. That period was a bit of a golden era for indie games, the scene was really just starting to blow up. Interesting new work by small teams was getting noticed for the first time since the early 90’s and it wasn’t that crowded yet. You didn’t need to worry as much about how marketable a game might be, or how well it might stream. It was a really exciting time to be making games.
When we started on They Bleed Pixels we’d just had to shelve a way too ambitious stealth game called Guerrilla Gardening: Seeds of Revolution and were looking for something completely different to work on next. The name came first, and the character and gameplay kind of grew organically out of that.
Old School Gamer: What is your role in the game?
Sternberg: I was the artist and game designer, so I came up with the core mechanics and designed all the levels (with the exception of the guest ones), drew all the art etc.
The team overall was quite small especially by modern indie standards! Andrij Pikiw programmed it, Shaun Hatton (aka DJ Finish Him) created the soundtrack and we had some additional help on sound near the end of production. The Nintendo Switch port is by Ethan Lee who also did our Mac and Linux ports.
Old School Gamer: What has development been like?
Sternberg: Looking back, it’s probably the most improvisational of our games to design. Before and after They Bleed Pixels I’ve usually worked pretty heavily from a design doc. But with They Bleed Pixels most of what’s in our initial document never made it in and we added a lot of stuff during production based on watching players or feeling out what we thought would be fun as we iterated on the design. One of the game’s most unique systems, it’s earnable checkpoints, wasn’t even in the initial pitch.
Old School Gamer: What makes this game special?
Sternberg: I think the way it balances combat and platforming equally is pretty unique. Generally if a game has challenging complex platforming the combat will be pretty shallow and vice versa, if you have combat with a large move set you usually have very simple jumping puzzles. They Bleed Pixels really asks the player to master both and throws some real challenges at them.
The combat system itself is pretty unusual. Everything is mapped to just attack and jump. The use of holds and directions makes it play something like a stripped down version of Smash Bros. We also really encourage the player to use the platforming hazards in the environment to take down enemies, kicking them into saws, spikes etc.
The combat leads right into the earnable checkpoint system. The fancier the kills you pull off the faster you fill your checkpoint meter. When it’s full you get a checkpoint you can place wherever and whenever you like. Holding on to it will double your points though, so if you’re going for a score challenge there’s a temptation to hold on to it and put your progress on the line in return for that multiplier.
Old School Gamer: What game’s influenced this one the most?
Sternberg: The platforming was heavily inspired by Knytt Stories, a free indie game by Nifflas which has a lot of really fun jumping puzzles built around wall clings and double jumps with few platforms to land on. Most platformers don’t make great use of double jumping and just treat it as a higher jump. Knytt Stories showed you could do so much more with that movement mechanic.
The combat was inspired by playing early pre-release versions of Nidhogg, I loved how it mapped a lot of moves to a single attack button, with things like timing and direction changing what you did. Something about that control scheme just feels good to me and more approachable than traditional fighting game controls.
Old School Gamer: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Sternberg: Not development exactly, but taking the game to Tokyo Game Show and being interviewed on the indie live stage was absolutely surreal. It was a very different way of presenting indie games than I was used to. They had someone in a lab coat pointing out my answers to questions like what my favorite food was during my visit to Japan and such.
Old School Gamer: What were the major lessons learned?
Sternberg: Just how hard it is to teach players new mechanics, we took the game to a lot of events and were constantly iterating on various ways to teach the player. I now know that any time I introduce a new mechanic or deviate from common conventions I’m going to need to devote a significant chunk of design time to teaching it to players.
Old School Gamer: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Sternberg: I have mixed feelings about the common framing of indie games as just preserving older mechanics and being rooted in nostalgia. 2D platformers aren’t a “retro genre”, they’re just a genre with a longer history. I think most of the modern platformers being made are fundamentally new games. Just like the latest AAA shooter, modern platformers are building and commenting on all the games that came before them and doing so in new and novel ways.
Even in an older genre like 2D platforming you can see design trends that mark when they were made. Look at Super Mario Brothers and Celeste for instance. It’s very clear that they are from entirely different eras of game design. There is no way that Celeste could have been made in the mid 80’s even though it was technically possible on that hardware (with a bit of a graphical downgrade of course). It’s a game that’s fundamentally building on decades of design knowledge.
Old School Gamer: What’s your favorite memory as a gamer?
Sternberg: Probably the late 90 early 2000’s, living in a house full of friends who loved games. We’d have LAN parties, running cables through the ventilation, but also had DDR pads set up in the living room and lots of weird PS1 import games. It was a pretty diverse crew with a wide range of game tastes. I think I learned a lot about game design in those years just seeing how and what everyone played.
Old School Gamer: How have your previous experiences in the industry helped this game?
Sternberg: I had close to a decade of professional pixel art experience going into They Bleed Pixels. Outside of just building my skills I think it helped inform how the game looks. For instance, we knew going in that we wanted really fluid complex animation for the main character so she couldn’t be too detailed and needed a strong silhouette. Her giant claws came directly from that knowledge. Similar factors contributed to it’s paper and ink aesthetic, black and white level tiles etc.
Old School Gamer: How do you want this game to ultimately be remembered?
Sternberg: I hope it’s looked at the same way a beloved cult horror film is. It may not have the highest budget, it leans hard into genre tropes but also it has beautiful cinematography and experiments in a way a big Hollywood blockbuster never could. Basically that feeling, but as a game!
Old School Gamer: What’s next?
Sternberg: I’m in the middle of porting our most recent game Russian Subway Dogs to Xbox One, PS4 and PS Vita(!). It’s a systemic arcade game inspired by the real life stray dogs of the Moscow Metro. It’s already out on Steam but I’m excited to get it in front of console gamers soon! After that I have a number of ideas I’d love to work on, including a spiritual successor to the cult classic Game Boy roguelike Cave Noire. I don’t like repeating myself so whatever is next it’ll probably be a different genre than They Bleed Pixels or Russian Subway Dogs.
Old School Gamer: Anything else you’d like to add?
Sternberg: If people want to see the game being played at a ridiculously high level I recommend they check out Squidclaw’s speedrun from AGDQ2015. It has live commentary from myself and Adrij and it’s absolutely wild to see it finished in well under an hour.