It's not often we get to do in-person interviews these days. It's even less frequent that we get to travel to a game studio to do them. But this might be a first, because for this interview, we actually got to go to a developer's house.
It turns out that Max Inferno, the two-person studio making upcoming Switch game A Little to the Left, is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia — just around the corner from our Staff Writer, Kate. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to bag a world-exclusive chat with Lukas and Annie, the two developers of this charming tidying-up puzzle game, and we're glad we did, because we think the game is exactly what many of us need right now: Something quiet, contemplative, and a little bit magical. Also, it's out right now, as announced in the November 9th Indie World Showcase! What a neat bit of synergy.
Read on for our chat, and to find out more about where Max Inferno's ideas come from, what's next for the couple, and what it's like to live and work with the same person every day...
Full disclosure: Lukas and Annie made some extremely tasty berry scones for Kate when she visited, and then gave her even more to take home. She has already eaten
two three of them. They were really good.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Cleaning, control, and comedy
Kate Gray (Staff Writer, Nintendo Life): So how did the idea come about for A Little to the Left?
We came up with the idea of this person who is coping with the feeling of being out of control
Annie Macmillan (Illustrator, Animator): We signed up for a game jam in 2020, and the theme was "Out of Control", and [Lukas] was gonna do it all on his own! I realised, you need help! It was a 48-hour event and he was gonna program it and do all the art. So I jumped in there, and we came up with the idea of this person who is coping with the feeling of being out of control, and by having intense control over the objects in their environment down to just the tiniest little adjustments of things.
That's something we can relate with personally, like when I'm anxious, I'm always fiddling.
[Annie demonstrates with a small pile of rocks and shells on the table]
Annie: We did move away from it being all about this anxiety that you cope with, to it being more magic realism. The idea of tidying becomes a bit more strange and more surreal, and it's pushed a little further. So we're tidying absurd things like shadows and stars, and tidying becomes this really loose framework as you go throughout the game. And to me, it just adds a bit more humour and magic too.
Lukas Steinman (Programmer, Designer): We backed away a little bit from the anxiety side, so it actually becomes a bit more of a celebration of observation and playfulness. That was more fun, and a better creative seed for us to be able to come up with more ideas. We wanted to see come to life the things that we think were fun and surprising.
Annie: There's always been a tension in the concept of tidying as the motivation, because that means something to everybody differently. Cleaning is a highly personal thing, and you have a lot of different thresholds, and they'll respond to it in completely different ways and at different times. So we had to establish these really basic rules at the beginning, and then try to subvert them as you go.
Kate: A lot of wholesome games are about control — Stardew Valley is about controlling your environment, Unpacking is about controlling where things go, but you've also got this humour that's inherent in A Little to the Left. How do you marry the idea of controlling everything, but also, actually having fun?
Lukas: The cat's a huge part of that.
Annie: Yeah, the cat brings this comedic relief, and I think it's always meant to be like, "don't take yourself so seriously, I'm gonna ruin your stuff, I have a different point of view, we all coexist together in this house, and yours isn't the right way anyway."
Don't take yourself so seriously... yours isn't the right way anyway
Lukas: And control is futile.
Annie: I have this thought about Buster Keaton. His stuff was funny because he prepared you for what you were to expect, then he did it, and then he did something that subverted your expectations, and I think that there's something satisfying about being presented with something, and you know what you have to do, you go through it and you do it, and the sounds are satisfying... And then at some point in the game, there is a twist and a subversion of your expectations, with the cat coming in, or the puzzles changing.
Lukas: The game sets up rules and then it kind of breaks the rules as you continue through it. And that's a theme that has been really important throughout, is that there's not just one way to do things, and that structures are best when broken.
Kate: Are you worried that people will get upset that their solution isn't correct? Because I know with Unpacking, people said, "why can't I put this in this room?"
Annie: Our ways of organizing things and some levels are super strange, and it's not the most logical thing! I want to hear how people would do it, but I also want people to not take the game super literally. It's not trying to capture how everybody organizes. It's trying to introduce you to this person who has a really particular way of organizing that's maybe odd.
Lukas: it's interesting to watch people play because it's meant to be intuitive, but everybody has a different intuition of what to do, and sometimes people will do solutions that, to them, make perfect sense, but it can be really personal.
Does it bring you joy?
Kate: So, this being your first full product of a game – has it been fun to make? I mean, it's obviously gonna be a lot of learning, but like it sounds like you've had a lot of fun.
Annie: Yeah, I think we've been lucky. I'm just so excited – we wouldn't have been able to do this a year and a half ago. We were not game developers, and just sort of fell into this, and everyone was warning us, "oh my god, it's so much work," and we foolishly didn't realize how much work it really is.
But I would say we've worked through the struggles really well. We've managed the stresses really well. We just work well together in general.
We would talk about puzzles in the hammock. We talked about puzzles at dinner, on the drive to Wolfville. Everywhere.
Annie: Making things with Lukas has always been my favourite thing. Whether it's Halloween costumes, or just dinner. It's my favourite thing about Lukas, honestly! That's what drew me to him, was just his creativity.
So I'd say I've had a lot of fun, even though it's also been the most stressful ever.
Lukas: It's all-encompassing, there's no getting away from it.
Kate: Especially when it's about your house!
Annie: And it's kind of invasive, but we set it up this way.
Lukas: Yeah! I think one of the core motivators for us, to choose a concept to go with, is that it needs to be fun for us. So, it was nice that the format was very kind of bite-sized. So we could prototype things quickly, we could have the art for a puzzle come together in a day. Once we had our tools up and running, we could see how that was interacting and tweak it.
And coming up with the multiple solutions, those were puzzles for us, you know? Obviously we're designing the puzzles in the first place, but then we would be working with the puzzle, implementing it, creating the art, and realize that there are more layers to it. Those would be really fun to think about.
Annie: We would talk about puzzles in the hammock. We talked about puzzles at dinner, on the drive to Wolfville [a nearby Nova Scotian town]. Everywhere. And it's just a fun project.
"Max Inferno, corner cupboard, down the street, we discovered"
Kate: Lukas, I found an old game of yours called Peanut Butter Toast. You can't play it right now, but there are videos of it, so I looked at a few — and I was surprised, because it has a lot of visual similarities to A Little To The Left. Do you think that's your style? Or was that just a process?
Lukas: Oh boy. I don't know! I don't know how that really happened! I guess that is a little bit of a style, although I don't know if I'm completely stuck to that, but it was what I knew how to do. And with this game starting as a game jam game, that was more or less just the easiest avenue to get into it. And then we kind of liked the way that that felt, I suppose!
Annie: I don't think I understood that the origins of our game were so rooted in that work you had been doing as a personal project. Because it was the foundation that we were able to adopt, and completely change the content and the topic.
Lukas: With that game, things are all kind of out of order, which I guess is also kind of like a mess as well! But I hadn't really drawn the connections, because it's not a puzzle game, but there are simple interactions with some of the visual elements –
Annie: You get to choose the topping for your toast and spread it on! It's cute!
Lukas: And it had similar sound design too, where things were quite environmental. I like the play between these really flat, illustrated, somewhat abstracted, simplified visuals, mixed with real sounds, which makes you feel like you're actually in a place.
Kate: It's cool to see the through line, even if it wasn't entirely intentional.
Annie: You're probably the first person to bring it up!
Lukas: It's such a niche thing, I didn't even realize that there were videos of it online! And that was before we were Max Inferno. That was a good project.
Kate: Speaking of Max Inferno, what's the story behind the name there?
Annie & Lukas: Oh, yeah!
Annie: So, we started dating in about 2006, or 2005? And we would walk to NSCAD [The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design] together, the art school here, and we would meet at this corner, on Cunard and Hunter —
Lukas: I lived on Hunter Street at the time.
Annie: — and so, we just gave a funny name to that corner. We called it "Max Inferno".
Lukas: We called it that because there was a flame mural that was painted across the street. The doors were painted with flames.
We made a weird little rhyme: Max Inferno, corner cupboard, down the street, we discovered...
Annie: And we made a little weird rhyme: Max Inferno, corner cupboard, down the street, we discovered. Inferno! Inferno! Infern...YES!
Lukas: We'd be walking down the street together, singing this.
Annie: So it's very cute. Maybe too much. But yeah, the flame is supposed to be this dorky, "oh, we love working together" Max Inferno, but also tough. Like, lovey, but don't want to admit it, tough guy. That sort of sums up our cartoony versions of ourselves. I have this tough exterior, and Lukas has this gentle, kind exterior.
Lukas: It's also meant to speak to the creative spark, and it's a little bit absurd as well because...
Annie: ...because an inferno is already max!
Lukas: Yeah, what is a max inferno? There is no max!
Annie: It just made us laugh, because it's so silly.
Kate: I learned while doing research for this game and this interview that those little plastic bread clippies have a name. Did you know this? I think it's a name that came up after people started collecting them, but they're called occlupanids.
Annie & Lukas: Woooooah.
Annie: Oh my gosh. I love that.
Kate: Have you discovered anything like that while making the game?
Annie: I know that 90% of shells spiral to the right. And that only a small percentage — I guess 10% — spiral to the left...
Kate: It's like being left-handed. For snails.
Annie: Yeah, it's a sinistral spiral. But we didn't really apply that to the level!
Kate: I also did read that the stickers on fruit are technically edible, but I don't know if I believe that.
Annie: We should put that in there.
Kate: I was wondering how the Daily Tidy works – the daily puzzles that you can download after the game is out – because that seems like a lot of work. So, why did you decide to do that?
Annie: We were really into the idea of a bite-sized puzzle every day, and hoping that would keep people coming back to our game. We did like doing Wordle every day for a really long time, and it was a nice ritual. We thought it would be really cool if people had made our game part of their morning ritual. And it's a way for us to be able to keep the game alive, beyond that initial playthrough.
Kate: How does the Daily Tidy work? Have you made a bunch of puzzles and loaded them into the cannon? Or are you gonna keep coming back to it?
Annie: Both! There are puzzles in there that are procedurally jumbled up, and you get a different one every day for a certain number of days before it comes back to have a jumbled up version of the same type of puzzle.
Lukas: Like Mario Party.
Annie: The idea is to add more types as we go, so it feels like it doesn't loop very often. Right now you wouldn't notice it looping for a long time.
Cleaning up or tidying is like this kind of never-ending thing... Each day, there's always a new mess
Someone put in my head a while ago the idea of "infinite gameplay": People who just like to know what to expect and to go through the actions of doing it. The core game gives you something new every time, and that's really exciting, but some people will go back and play the same level over and over again. [The Daily Tidy] allows them to at least have different items or different arrangements, and it's different solutions each time.
Lukas: I guess, you know, cleaning up or tidying is like this kind of never-ending thing... Each day, there's always a new mess.
Annie: We've had people report to us that they've played our 15 minute demo for over three hours! And we're just like, "well, we gotta get you new content!"
Kate: What is it like to have a game on the Switch? Were you Nintendo kids?
Lukas: Yes, absolutely, it has always been a dream of mine. I was three years old when I watched my brother play Mega Man on the NES, and I bawled at the ending! It's always been a dream of mine to make a video game, especially for a Nintendo console. And the fact that we're actually going to have a game on it is just... you never really thought it would happen.
Annie: A dream come true!
Lukas: It is a dream come true, yeah! And so the Switch has always been a target for us. It makes sense based on the type of game it is, and how we imagine people to play it. Still, all of this doesn't feel real, so I feel like maybe once we boot up the eShop and see it listed there, we can download it... I'm hoping that that will be the moment that's like...
Annie: We got to do this, we're lucky.
Lukas: Yeah. Lucky. It's really exciting.
An heirloom clock, and a messy workbench
Kate: What is your favourite puzzle to make and what was your favourite puzzle to play?
Annie: I can think of the ones that were really not fun to make.
Annie: But the clock one, that was a turning point for me in the game. The clock, I was the most proud of when I got to it, because you're moving time, and as you move the clock hands, the shadows shift. And that was the first moment of venturing into the surreal.
That's when I thought, "oh my gosh, we're not just tethered to the literal world"
And that's when I thought, "oh my gosh, we're not just tethered to the literal world" – that was a huge moment, and I don't think I realised it. It was really important to me, my dad gave that clock to me. You have to wind it every seven days. I've basically mentally scarred myself to always remember to wind that clock, because it was just so important to me to not forget. I would say that was the most significant puzzle, maybe not the most fun, but it was significant.
Annie: It's fun to watch people play the workbench level.
Lukas: That was gonna be my favourite to play!
Annie: Because you can forget where everything goes even if you just solved it. You go to play it again, and you're like, I don't remember where anything goes! It's so funny.
Lukas: I really like that one because it's similar to the junk drawer, but it doesn't give you the shapes. It only gives you an indication of where something might be placed, and we created it, yet I'm always like, "wait, does this go here?" And it's silly, too – if you put something in the wrong place, it causes other things to get knocked off and everything's tumbling around, and there's fun sounds... So I think that's maybe my favourite to play.
Lukas: One that I did really like making was the record player, which is a little bit more of a toy type level. There is a bit of a puzzle to it, but it's a little different than everything else. Each track on it is a different song from the game, so you get these little five second snippets of these wonky versions of the tunes, and you can speed it up and slow it down and shift the pitches.
What's next (and a brief aside about dog faces)
Kate: When the game is done, when the game is out, do you have a thing you're gonna do, or buy, or see – do you have a treat planned?
Annie: I'd love to go on a trip!
Lukas: Yeah, we've been kind of daydreaming about what we'll do when it's not our number one priority. We'll still be working on the game for quite a while but yes, once it's out there, that's a huge step. We would like to go on a trip.
Annie: I've never been to Newfoundland. Things to buy... Oh, record player!
Kate: So, you didn't have one when you made the puzzle?
Lukas: No! But I know what one is. It would be really funny if we made one... Like, you know when you go to a classical museum and they've got paintings where they painted animals or a dog or something, and it does NOT look like a dog at all? It's as if somebody had explained the dog from memory.
Kate: "Yeah, a dog, the one with the human face. I know what dogs look like."
Lukas: It would be really funny if the record player was like one of those.
Kate: "It's like a circle, with a thing. I know what it looks like."
Lukas: We are looking forward to shifting gears. And, you know, we're continuing on with A Little to the Left, but coming up with some new ideas too... We've got a lot of game concepts. We've got a long list of things we want to explore in prototype, need to speak to some folks to see if they're interested in working with us...
Kate: I'll keep an eye out. A Little to the... Right.
[Everyone laughs at Kate's very good joke]
Massive thanks go out to Secret Mode for helping us set this up, to Max Inferno for their time and their scones, and to Rookie the cat for making a brief but much-awaited appearance.
A Little to the Left is out right now on the Nintendo Switch eShop. Get tidying already!