The Messenger

Announced during Nintendo's Nindies Direct in March, side-scrolling action platformer The Messenger has caught our eye by keeping a retro feel but subverting player expectations, using classic graphical styles to compliment a time-travelling narrative. 

When a small, isolated village is attacked by an army of demons, the task of carrying a sacred scroll across a cursed world falls to you - a young ninja student. Armed with both an array of powerful weapons and acrobatic abilities, The Messenger aims to put a fresh spin on a beloved genre.

We took the chance to talk to Thierry Boulanger, Martin Brouard and composer Eric W. Brown from developer Sabotage about the game.

Nintendo Life: So, are there many ninjas in Quebec?!

Thierry Boulanger: Ha! I wish there were! I guess it depends on your definition. I’ve never seen anyone in Quebec doing front flips and chopping off demon heads, but then it may simply be because I’ve never seen any demons either. But if you look at it from the conceptual angle, Ninjas setting their ego aside to give their all to a cause they deem meaningful and being impossibly good and at what they do with full dedication, I’d say my grandmother was a ninja.

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There are callbacks to classics like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden in your game, but are there any other influences?

TB: The short answer is “all the games!”. Indeed, Ninja Gaiden is the biggest influence as far as moment-to-moment gameplay is concerned. But more precisely, and without giving too much away, when it comes to the story, cast of characters, dialogue and late game mechanics, players should also feel the love for MetroidCastlevania: Symphony of the Night, and even Monkey Island. Also, while The Messenger doesn’t have directly identifiable game mechanics relating to Chrono Trigger, it is by far my favourite game and biggest influence. It’s kind of subtle I guess, but careful attention has been paid to its key takeaways, like keeping things lean in general and having a script with a high density of surprises and meaningful events.

The Messenger has been a passion project of yours since childhood. How has the journey been from inception to imminent release?

TB: Emotional. I mean it’s been almost 25 years for me, since I was drawing ninjas back in elementary school. I never really gave up on that little world, just thinking up nuggets of story or moments that I thought would be cool to see in a ninja adventure. About ten years ago I did the obligatory awful prototype as I was studying game programming, then it took me eight years to finally have the courage to quit everything and give my humble game idea a real shot, shifting from code to design overnight. I still can’t believe it all ended up happening. All these incredibly talented people who decided to join Sabotage and make this all a thing, I don’t think I’m ever getting over that.

I guess I understand better now how it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. No matter what happens past this point we made it up to here, and nothing is taking that away, ever. The game is now done and we are just about to announce the release date. Obviously, I can only speak for myself, but I play it a lot these days, and I am in the very fortunate position of being happy with it. I don’t wish we had had an extra two months, or a better animator, or anything. This is truly the best I can do, so I am ready to let the public decide whether or not I deserve to work on my next idea. Fingers crossed!

How has the game changed during that time?

TB: The ninja, the scroll, the shopkeeper and the time travel (rendered through the 8/16-bit worlds) were always part of the concept, but aside from a few other core pillars, it has changed a lot. Or rather, as a team we let it emerge. It was quite something to feel that moment about a year back, when the game started to speak for itself. It just hit us during a build review that we had reached a point where we felt we had something unique and clearly defined, so from that point on adding content became a process of paying attention to what felt right and listening to the game to let it become more of what it was trying to be. Does that make sense!?

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Your team is made up of industry veterans and must compliment each other well. How important was the whole team’s contribution to the overall experience during development and the end product?

TB: I can’t overstate how important every single team member has been! While I’m certainly the one to blame if the proposed scenario and overall gameplay experience isn’t interesting to players, careful and proper execution is the real make-or-break no matter what the initial idea is worth. We work with a small team that requires no management, where every team member is very good at their respective craft while all being fans of each other. So Mik, our level artist will be like “Eric’s new track is so good, I have to rework that background illustration so it lives up to it”, or I’ll be playing the latest boss and think I should rewrite that intro dialogue. We constantly inspire each other and the team has as much leeway as they care to play with, so the end result is very much the get together of all these minds.

You mentioned to us during our hands-on time at Bitsummit that you ‘altered’ the look one of the bosses. What was the design process of the game's characters and environments?

TB: The initial concepts always come from a very personal and vulnerable place for me. Everything in The Messenger is a theme or archetype I needed to address, show the world, defeat or redeem in order to move on. It’s my final step to, quite like our hero literally does, leave the past behind. Now while I could talk about the “ramifications of past trauma” and the importance of “reconnecting with your inner child” all day, it’s really all about how it becomes an actual game, and that’s where the team comes in.

Things are brought to life thanks to that feedback loop with the team. I mean sure, I’m the “creative head”, but obviously everyone else on the team is also creative. The way I see my role is I have to spark their creativity first and let them go with the minimum amount of limitations (i.e. this boss is an ogre, let’s not make it a car), and from there propositions come in and we go with a design that serves the story and general vision I’m trying to bring into focus, while also making sure the team will be happy to write code and make animations for it all. Maybe that would be a question for the team, but I tried to really make a point to never have anyone roll with something they didn’t agree was an interesting concept to explore.

What I’ll provide for a given environment looks like would be along the lines of, “Ok so this area is called the Cloud Ruins, it’s the remnants of a civilization of giants who used to live in the skies. Everything is huge, and structures are floating in the air because of magical runes etched into their bases. It should be a mix of clouds and stone structures, with the player mostly navigating in the upper portion of the screen while the endless pitfall is constantly present below and taking a lot of space, to really work that feeling of being high up and in a precarious situation.” From there we get art, music, and general level design ideas and just iterate all together to hone in on the final version of the base concept.

‘Cloudstepping’ is just one of the cool mechanics our protagonist has at his disposal. How is the game balanced between combat, platforming, and exploration?

TB: Cloudstepping is very much core to the gameplay. The idea in level design was to constantly have something to look for, use, and optimize through so that getting to an objective doesn’t feel like task, as you have a neat little mechanic you’re happy to get to use along the way. It’s all about this concept of “resonance”, where a mechanic feeds back into another. Resonance between navigation and combat was the main objective. Through cloudstepping, the loop is created where skilful navigation leads to better combat opportunities like getting behind an enemy, and skilful combat leads to better navigation opportunities like skipping parts of the level. And since we’re very much looking at speedrunnners with The Messenger, it was important to attempt to make a game that has elements to master, where anyone watching can instantly get that a certain move demanded skill. If you’re going to play a Ninja, you should look the part, right?

Without giving too much away, there’s also an element of time travel. Does this affect the game narratively as well as aesthetically?

TB: Yes! A few hours in you are sent into the future, and that is when the game turns to 16bit. So the past and future worlds a represented by the 8 and 16-bit renditions of the audio and visuals. Eventually, you go back and forth in real time between the two, but yeah, let’s not give too much away!

The soundtrack also exists in both 8 and 16-bit. How was this approached?

Eric W. Brown: The Messenger's soundtrack needed to be approached with the same level of authenticity and attention to detail that went into the visual and design elements, so the only way in my mind that this could be done is by using special programs that are built around the limitations of the sound chips of yore. I don't mess around when it comes to authentic chiptune, and I can spot a fake from a mile away... but I'm not here to discuss the morality of "fake" chiptune so I'll just tell you about what works for me.

It was not as simple as writing a song in an "8-bit style" and then slapping a new skin on it for a 16-bit facelift; each track was programmed from the ground up twice, using two different programs, which are able to output files suitable for playback on the original consoles themselves.

The 8-bit music was written in a program called 0cc-Famitracker, which is a modified version of the original Famitracker program with a few subtle differences. I utilized the VRC6 expansion chip (found in some Japanese games like Akumajou Densetsu, the JP version of Castlevania 3) which gave me three additional channels of polyphony to play around with.

For the 16-bit side, I used a program called Deflemask, a multi-chip tracker with Genesis sound support. Defle also has the NES chip as an option but does not have VRC6 support, hence the need to use two different programs. I should mention these programs are all in active development and free to download and use, with a community of users around the world.

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After exporting finished songs from each program, there are inconsistencies in the overall volume of the track as well as a few milliseconds of silence at the start of the NES tracks, so I had to line them up in Logic to make sure the loops were seamless, and throughout the course of the project I was working on my mastering chain to level out volumes and tame some of the harsher frequencies before exporting the final version of what ends up in the game.

I grew up as a Genesis kid so it will forever be one of my favourite sound palates, making the decision to go for a Genesis-style 16-bit soundtrack a no-brainer. With a few exceptions, I had the majority of the soundtrack written in 8 before I moved on to 16, but from there I would keep both programs open and just work on copying over one channel at a time until all the notes were in there from top to bottom, then go back around and tweak instrument settings and add effects to make it sound more like music.

I used these same programs to make all the sound effects in the game as well. Between using two different trackers on PC, audio software on Mac, and then back to PC for uploading into the backend, no doubt it was a lot of time-consuming file juggling but it's all worth it to get it done right!

How have you ensured that The Messenger is more than just a homage to the games of the 8-bit era?

TB: The idea behind Sabotage is to make games with retro aesthetics and modern game design. I just have a thing for harsh limitations forcing you to have a solid core, kind of like movies before visual effects where you just had to have a great script. The process was to have a lean experience based on moment-to-moment gameplay, and analyze more deeply all these retro games we still play to this day, to figure out the bits that aged well and the elements that should be re-imagined. The general guidelines were to hit the nostalgia string hard, rethink systems where it made sense, and avoid fixing what wasn’t broken.

Is there also an element of humour in the game?

TB: Definitely. The idea with dialogue, especially through the Shopkeeper, was to make the game slightly self-aware, to acknowledge its influences, and also pick on the clichés these types of adventure. A band like Spinal Tap is a good example of this, where everything is a bit tongue in cheek; making this contract with the player that since we are both aware of the cheesier tropes of these types of games, we can then indulge guiltlessly.

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What does it mean to you and the team to see your debut game on a Nintendo system?

TB: It’s surreal! We all grew up on their systems, and they were the king of the 8-bit era, so it’s both an honour and a natural fit. Everyone at Sabotage feels this way, especially seeing how the soundtrack was made using Famitracker, meaning the music can be exported as a legitimate NES Rom (and I have a feeling Eric does that sometimes, just because he can).

Any update on when we will be seeing The Messenger on the eShop?

TB: I wish I could tell you more, but at this point the best I can do is say “very soon”. Probably sooner than you would think by reading this!

Any plans for a physical release?

Martin Brouard: Of course we’d love to see a physical version of The Messenger, but as an indie developer we need to prioritize the digital launch and see whether it makes sense based on sales.

What’s next for Sabotage?

TB: Probably sleep for a few weeks! Then, it will depend on how the game is received. The dream, of course, is to have the means to work on our second project. We’ll see!

We would like to thank Thierry, Martin and Eric for their time.