Features: The History of BIT.TRIP, Part 3
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
In this installment, Gaijin explains their carefully laid plan for game four's runaway popularity, go through BIT.TRIP hell and reflect on the end of the series.
The team somewhat jokingly chalks RUNNER’s popularity, apart from being very good, up to the existence of a character who looks like a person, unlike previous games where CommanderVideo was represented as a paddle, brick and black hole. And what better way to humanify shapes than to slap eyeballs on everything? Enemies, backgrounds, obstacles, everything must ogle. “It’s really just a game about eyeballs,” lead designer and Gaijin co-founder Alex Neuse joked.
RUNNER was their attempt at fleshing out the BIT.TRIP universe into a fuller, richer place by showing players what exactly the world looked like: an optimistic and colorful place while at the same time dreary and hostile. Fewer experimental concepts than the first three games also helped lure in players; boiling gameplay down to running and jumping knocked down walls that allowed players to instantly understand what to do, Neuse thought.
Originally there were to be nods to all previous BIT.TRIPs through CommanderVideo’s abilities in the game. One such power alluded to CORE’s lasers, allowing players to shoot bats with beams from Video’s eyes — which Neuse thought was “so rad.” Another quoted VOID by making black beats balloon the character to absorb other beats, but these all proved to push the experience too far into insane territory. “Everyone we put in front of the game with all seven skills got overwhelmed and confused,” Neuse said.
Gaijin spent four months on RUNNER and received nothing but positive feedback from all who had played it, so by the time they had wrapped it up they were confident that it would do very well for them. To their surprise, it’s even a game that they play in their own time at home. “When you’re making a game all day, you don’t always want to keep playing it, especially if you’ve been playing it for three months,” artist and co-founder Mike Roush said. “At the end, I was still playing it. I still play it at my house.”
RUNNER was submitted for Nintendo approval right as VOID was released in North America, and CommanderVideo's happy-go-lucky world discovery tour was to take a darker turn for game five, whose development got so hairy as to prompt the code name BIT.TRIP HELL.
Of all the games, FATE posed the most serious challenge to achieving the high standards Gaijin holds. They knew they wanted a darker mood for the game and that it would be a space shooter of some sort; at first, the game had CommanderVideo zooming around free-form in a spaceship only able to shoot straight ahead, which Neuse and Roush said they found to be too open and bland. Despite many iterations, the team struggled to make the concept meet their high standards. To make matters worse, the new growth of the company restricted Neuse’s time to focus on development.
FATE was once intended as a free-movement shooter with a competitive/co-operative multiplayer component.
Fresh blood was needed, so they called in Danny Johnson, a former co-worker and friend of theirs from Santa Cruz Games, to help iron things out. Johnson was out of a job at that point anyway as Santa Cruz went under after Neuse, Roush and programmer Chris Osborn left, he said, and the small company that he had helped get off the ground fizzled out. Johnson jumped at their offer to join the team; he had wanted to work with Gaijin for a while, but their size wouldn’t allow it.
Johnson’s entry helped reinvigorate the team and spurred examination of what was and wasn’t working in FATE, eventually leading to the concept of “riding the vibe.” A competitive/co-operative multiplayer mode called Dominator and Parasite — which ran the concept gamut from player two controlling a Jet Force Gemini-style gunner tethered to player one for firing support, to a score/energy-draining mechanic — that Gaijin had tinkered with but felt to be lacking was cut once the vibe came along as they felt it clashed with the fiction: this was CommanderVideo’s story, his fate, and having a second character along for the ride didn’t make sense to include. A rhythm-based bomb mechanic was cut as well; the idea was that timing shots correctly would unleash a screen-clearing blast, but paired with movement and shooting became “just bonkers,” Neuse said. “It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. If you tried to hop on one foot while doing that, it becomes too much.”
From then on, everything fell into place. Thanks to Johnson, the game was saved.
FATE's role in the series' fiction is crucial, but before development had really gotten underway on the game Neuse had another concept he wanted to explore he called "Party." The idea was to further expand the world of BIT.TRIP by showing CommanderVideo in his new community, throwing a happy, fun party for his food-shaped friends. With music thumping and "all these CommanderVideos dancing in windows," as Neuse put it, players would manage the doors to "let the party people in but (not) let the spiders in." It was "super silly," they said, and an eventual missed opportunity to introduce a ton of new characters shaped like pizzas and hamburgers, but at its root was too close to CORE and didn't fit where the story was going.
"(Instead) we decided to make something 100% different, something that was way way way more difficult to make, super depressing and then he dies," Roush said. "So there’s that.”
An early render of CommanderVideo in FATE.
The idea was always to start and end the series in a basic manner as far as mechanics, so FLUX took the foundation of series-kickstarter BEAT and applied a slew of new ideas and fixes. “Everybody gets a checkpoint now,” Neuse said, “and they damn well better like it.”
Reasons for this were two-fold: not only would it appease complaints from back when BEAT dropped, checkpoints ensured that all players, not only series veterans, would stand a fighting chance of reaching the end of CommanderVideo’s journey and “take in the aural and visual feast” the game offered, Neuse said.
“We realized we needed to make it either the easiest or the hardest to play,” Johnson said. The former won out, but Gaijin rigged the story so that while everyone could complete the game, only the most talented players would have access to the whole tale by playing in the upper modes reached through skillful play.
FLUX marks the end of the BIT.TRIP series on WiiWare, and emotions ran high in the offices of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based developer as they watched the story and franchise they spent the last three years of their life living and breathing, and FLUX’s ending cinematic tied it all together in a very powerful way for the team. “The end is such a touching experience,” Roush said, “and we want everyone to have that experience. […] It’s a very sweet farewell that I don’t think a lot of people are getting in games these days.”
“[FLUX is] a very special send-off to us,” Neuse said, “and I think it’s come across to other people as very special too.”
BIT.TRIP’s fiction is surprisingly heavy, exploring what it means to be human before birth, during life and death and beyond, and the crew said they’re ready to move on to something else for their next game, hoping “just make something that’s fun,” Neuse said. That’s a sentiment that Roush and Johnson shared. “It sounds dumb, but we’re ready to do something kinda stupid,” Roush said. “We’ve put a lot of thought into feelings and emotions into these games. […] However, if I know us, we will not do that and will probably do something deep, complex and bizarre.”
“I’m just so thrilled that it’s over,” Neuse said. “We stuck to our story, we’re happy to have told it, but we’re happy it’s done because we have a whole bunch of other ideas to explore as a game studio. We’re not just the BIT.TRIP studio, we don’t just want to make retro music games, so we’re really happy to start branching out a little bit.”
With FLUX done and dusted for WiiWare, the franchise hasn't exactly rested on its laurels, with Gaijin busying themselves with BIT.TRIP adaptations for PC, Mac and iOS platforms. Their success has allowed them to grow both in size and direction, bringing on a handful of new employees; dipping their toe in the waters of publishing through the WiiWare version of lilt line; and absorbing the one-man band of Robotube, which they plan on developing as a brand for experimental, casual (but not in the "bad" sense of the term, Roush quickly clarified) and just plain fun new games and ideas. Osborn decided that he wanted to move in a different direction than where Gaijin was headed, so he hung his hat once FLUX wrapped to start Tracer, a studio of his own.
The studio's desks also currently play host to 3DS development kits, and Neuse said they’re about a third of the way through a project for the new hardware, which, fingers firmly crossed, might see release as early as a nebulous “this summer.” Gaijin'll talk about their new handheld project when they're good and ready to, they said.
With such a hectic development cycle and a creed of “one done, on to the next,” the Gaijin team never had time to take a moment for themselves and celebrate their accomplishments. Incredibly, they’ve yet to throw a single celebration for releasing a game, let alone six of them, that they struggled so hard and for so long to make.
“One of these days we’ll have a launch party,” Neuse said.
Roush agreed. “We’re due for one.”