Terry Cavanagh on making fewer, more ambitious games

Terry Cavanagh

Terry Cavanagh

Terry Cavanagh’s probably the closest thing the indie development scene has to its own Mark Rothko. The 28-year-old designer makes brooding, claustrophobic, and rather stark games, using simple tools and limited palettes – and they all seem to hinge on a single idea. It’s a surprise, then, to learn that his favourite game of all time is Final Fantasy VII, Square’s 1997 rambling RPG. “People always seem shocked by that,” laughs Cavanagh, who was born in Ireland and now lives in Cambridge, “but Final Fantasy VII was the game that made me want to be a game designer, and I think the reason was that it introduced me to a lot of new ideas I’d never seen before.

“I’m pretty sure that it was the first RPG I’d ever played,” he continues. “My cousin had just got a PlayStation, and before that I’d only played games on the Commodore 64 and on a friend’s Sega Genesis. To encounter this whole new genre was a pretty big thing. Then to encounter such an obliquely story-driven game was also totally new for me. It’s probably seen as being quite clichéd now, but the game’s about mind control and clones and all these things I’d never really seen stories tackle. You really get the impression when you play that game that it was trying to push the boundaries. It just felt like a huge step forward, and it was a massive thing for me to see that games could be like this. It was a huge thing to see that they could have so many ambitions.”

VVVVVV

‘Ambition’ is a word that crops up quite a lot whenever Cavanagh talks about games; it’s a quality that’s clearly very important to him, even if he ultimately struggles to define exactly what he means by it. Ask him about VVVVVV – the gravity-switching platformer that stands today as his most mainstream success – and he’ll say that, while it’s the biggest game he’s ever made, it’s a shame that it isn’t really the most, well, ambitious thing in the world.

“To me now, VVVVVV is almost an indulgence,” he laughs. “It’s a game I was making because I enjoyed the process of making it so much. I got into it in a big way and I loved the process of coming up with new ideas for it, but I don’t think VVVVVV really does anything hugely new. It’s a refinement and I like to think it’s a well-designed game, but it’s not really pushing things forward very much. Ambition’s about putting part of yourself into the game, making it really personal – and that doesn’t mean it has to be some dull art game, either. I’m incredibly proud of VVVVVV, but I hope ten years from now, when I’m looking back on some of the other games I’ve made, that I’m known for more ambitious things than that.”

Looking back over just the last four years – the period since Cavanagh left his job at a bank to become a full-time game developer – he’s already become known for his prodigious output, at least. On his website, in a note accompanying his 2010 portfolio, he admits that he worked on over 54 different games that year. This is how he has approached design up until now – sketching out an idea, and then seeing if it grabs him.

“When I say I worked on 54 games in 2010, 90 per cent of those weren’t finished,” he cautions. “I usually get really attached to any idea I work on for more than a day or two. I start to think of it as a really big thing. Normally, though, if I work on it for more than that, it starts to become clear whether it’s going to work or not.”

When talking about the games that he actually completes, he often says the same sort of thing: he was messing around and “got carried away with it”, or “it just took over”. Creativity for Cavanagh seems to be a dynamic, almost intoxicating force. He often makes himself sound powerless in its presence.

That’s not to say that Cavanagh’s games don’t have distinctive elements in common. Many of them, like Pathways and the collaborative multiplayer puzzler At A Distance, focus on unique approaches to interactive storytelling, moving in close to explore the peculiar difficulties of human communication. Others, meanwhile, go in completely the opposite direction, offering pared-back arcade action with next to no extraneous elements.

Super Hexagon

“Even when I was a teenager, making games in QBasic, I was making things that were very pure action games,” says Cavanagh. “Minimal, no-bullshitting arcade experiences. Over the years for jams, competitions – any excuse – I’d make some games that touched on that same sort of feeling. I made a game called Self Destruct that’s about flying really, really fast and absorbing bullets and then flinging them out again. It’s super chaotic, and it usually lasts about 20 seconds. I made another game called Bullet Time that’s even faster and even more chaotic, and even purer in some ways.”

Cavanagh has spent a large part of 2012 working on this kind of game, after creating a brutally tough action puzzler called Hexagon, in which the player tries to escape from a maze as its luminous walls close in.

“[Super Hexagon] is a game I really had to make,” he says. “The reason I do these sorts of games is that I feel like I’m in a different headspace, and that’s where I am with this one. The original Hexagon was made in a couple of hours and, after I made it, I realised I wanted to take longer to do it properly for once. I knew there was something there that I hadn’t explored and that I kept coming back to. Instead of the usual way I work – where I overthink everything and obsess about details – this is more like intuition, and every decision is just what feels good. What feels good drives everything. Super Hexagon is me taking that feeling and trying to do it right, over a longer period. It feels like the end-point of one of these strands of specific ideas I tend to work in: it’s where some of these games were going.”

Cavanagh put over four months’ work into readying Super Hexagon for iOS, and he admits that it’s part of a wider trend, as he increasingly focuses on bigger projects that take a little more planning. With an RPG called Nexus City on the way – it’s a long-standing collaboration with the designer Jonas Kyratzes – and another game already pencilled in once that one’s finished, the inveterate prototypist might just be starting to settle down somewhat.

“Things are changing a little,” Cavanagh admits. “I used to emerge from a game jam with eight fairly small, finished games – they’d all be ridiculous, but it was rewarding to do. The last one I went to, I came away with just two, and neither of them are finished yet.” He pauses.

“But I do think they could both be good games if I finished them properly – and I’m happier with them than with all those eight small games.”

For more on Cavanagh’s work, read our reviews of Super Hexagon and VVVVVV.