An Interview With Diego Garcia
By Krystle Wong
You're in space. You're the captain of a space exploration team. You have with you a crew of men and women as well as a cat and a dog on the ship. Then your ship explodes, spitting everyone out into the dark, ever-expanding universe. You're the only one with a jet-pack; the rest of your crew is scattered around helplessly on barren planets. There's no food, no water, no way back to earth. What's a captain to do? "One option remains," says SunBurn! on their website (playsunburn.com). "Gather your crew... And jump into the sun." In the literal and darkly funny universe of indie mobile game Sunburn!, your worst fear isn't dying – it's dying alone. I speak to Brooklyn-based Diego Garcia, who came up with the game's concept and design, and ask him what that's all about.
K: What is Sunburn! about?
D: That Ray Bradbury short story (editor's note: Kaleidoscope) was a big part of it. Have you read it?
K: Yeah, I have.
D: That was a book that was given to me. I really like the sense of loneliness and uncertainty in it, and I wanted to try and make it into a game. I think the horror in the Bradbury story comes from this idea that they're all drifting away from each other alone and being totally alone in this vast emptiness. What's interesting is that they can still communicate. So they're discussing their individual terrors and freaking out, but they're still connected over their communication devices. And then devices start to cut out. That's the scary part for me. You can't see anything, you're alone and disoriented and just like in a dark space. And slowly one by one your connection to the world is dropping out. But it just seemed too dark. For me, the way to deal with dark stuff is generally humor. So I thought it would be better to make it happy and give it a comedic feel. The thing I compare it to is that scene in Toy Story 3, where they all know they are about to die and they sort of accept it–they decide they're going to meet their fate together. I wanted to make something that's a little bit more about making the best of a bad situation and finding togetherness in that last moment.
K: Tell me a little bit more about that. Like, at what point does loneliness become scarier than death itself?
D: I don't know if it's necessarily scarier to be lonely, to me. But I think the idea of dying completely alone with no one knowing where you are and you having no idea where you are in relation to other people, just having no one to talk to and to comfort you… I think that's much scarier than dying. We're a social species, right? I think being lonely is inherently pretty scary so to have your last moment be that sort of panic... It just seems pretty horrifying to me. I think that's what this story is about. There're a lot of ways to write a story about dying, right, but the scary thing about the Bradbury story is that they know they’re going to die, but they’re not about to die. They have to sorta wait it out. So it’s not just that they’re going to die alone, it’s that they’re going to be completely alone while just waiting for it.
K: Sunburn!, on the other hand, is much more purposeful. You have this sense of control in the game and a mission that makes it kinda cute. It makes it feel like it’s a fate you have chosen and so it's not as bleak.
D: Sunburn! was almost a sort of a reaction to the Bradbury story. I mean, I like the story, I don’t mean it as a critique of the story. I just mean the idea behind Sunburn! is more about finding togetherness than it is about exploring that terror of dying alone. The Bradbury story struck me as powerful and was really just a jumping-off point.
K: It’s very redeeming actually. It’s a very redeeming take on the Bradbury story.
D: Yeah, we tried to make it feel a little bit warm and friendly rather than empty and scared.
K: Do you think we’re more okay with the certainty of death if we get to choose the timing and method of it?
D: I think that’s part of it. Like I said, I like to think of the game as making the best out of a bad situation. Sometimes when we show the game, people are upset that it’s about dying. They think it’s so dark and grim. I see why people feel that way but it’s not a grim thing to me. It’s about taking control of that situation and finding the best option and being with people you care about at the end.
K: So what did people say when you first came up with this story?
D: We came up with it at the game center while we were at school. I had pitched the original concept which was a little different but had the same sort of basic underlying idea. At the game centre, I think people understood it. But once we started to show it at festivals and tech events that weren’t necessarily games-focused... I think people hear the concept and they’re so, like, repelled by the idea that you’re supposed to die. That dying was the goal. Some people say like: "It’s too sad", or "Why can’t they survive at the end?" or "You should make it so that you just land on a planet and like live there." Build a colony there or whatever. And we thought about that at one point ‘cos we were a little worried that it would be received poorly when we released it. But we decided that sticking to our guns was a better idea. The other thing people say is like: "That’s so twisted! That’s hilarious and gruesome!" And that’s fine too but that’s just not the way I see it.
K: Given all those initial reactions, what made you guys choose suicide over survival as the goal?
D: The whole reason we started to make the game was because of this concept. It wasn’t a game that began with people jumping from planet to planet and it’d be funny if you were dying. It was the other way around. We wanted to make a game about dying with your friends instead of dying alone. So it had always been a driving force and we were reluctant to move away from it at any point. And the other thing was that, promotionally, in terms of PR, it makes the game stand out in a big way. Just the headline, right? "In this game, you die to win." That on its own is a little bit unique. And when people play a little bit deeper and realise that it’s not a joke or a twisted dark thing...I think it sticks with people a little bit more.
K: It seems like an obvious thing once you say it out loud. Not a lot of games are doing this, if any at all. Why aren’t there more games that turn death on its head?
D: I wonder if… I don’t know why there aren’t more. I think the ones that do tend to be the twisted gruesome versions. Like there was a flash game that was really popular where you were a businessman and had to kill yourself on every level. I think people are just starting now to make games that are a little more personal and about the darker, lonelier things they think about. And I think in terms of marketing it can be hard, maybe for the same reasons that made us think about switching. When you get people who feel strongly against your idea but you’re trying to make something with mass appeal, you’re taking a risk to some extent.
K: It looks like most people are loving Sunburn!.
D: The response has been really positive.
K: When you’re in the game, there is this one moment when you’re jumping from planet to planet, you're collecting all your teammates, you’re holding both sides of the screen down, and you’re just about to make the final jump… Have you ever experienced this strange tension just before releasing yourself into the sun? Where you're just like: "What would it be like to live? We’re all together now."
D: I personally haven’t really felt that. I do like enjoy walking around with a big string of people and listening to them talk, watching them float around. I have seen people in playtests and people playing the game joke about that. Like: "I’m just going to stay here."
K: Like: I’m just going to be happy. And not win the game. Because being together and being alive is...winning?
D: Exactly. (laughs) Eventually they get bored and they go to the next level. But some people do say they just wanna stay on the planet. And sometimes people don’t get the goal immediately either. So they all just kinda hang out on a planet, wondering what to do. Early on, that kept happening. And occasionally it still happens with people that don’t have that much experience with games.
K: Could it be that at that final jump, people are thinking: "I’ve saved everyone. I've done all the acrobatics. I've beaten the physics. I've kept myself alive. Just to die."
D: Sometimes people get to the end and decide they just want to hang out and get bored. But no, I haven’t seen anyone really hesitate. I do like the moment when someone has been playing through 10 levels and then it suddenly occurs to them, dawns on them, that they’ve been killing themselves every level, like they haven’t even been paying attention to that fact. Then that’s kinda interesting, when they’re like: "OHHH weird. I’m actually killing myself every level. This is strange."
K: Over and over again. Yeah.
D: I don’t know. I like that. I’m curious how it feels for other people.
K: I find it interesting that you’re basically alive again in every level and that you have to die again in every level. Was that level structure something you guys decided on early on or did you also consider making a longer game where everyone dies after several levels?
D: The original concept went through a lot of different versions. The first concept I pitched was sort of like a Peggle-style puzzle game where you would place your ship and blow it up and astronauts would fly out and you would have to place the ships in such a way that it would pull them into the sun. Once we started doing this platformer-y 2D planet-hopper, our idea was to make a longer Zelda-structured game, moving through sectors and exploring space. In that version, it wasn’t that you all had to die together but that you had to create groups of people. The idea was that instead of having the captain die with the crew, you would fly towards the sun and cut the rope so the crew would go and die in a group but you’d go to the next sector and find more people there. But it just seemed more complicated and it would have required more buttons and it felt a little less elegant. So we moved to this sort of level structure where you die at the end of each level. We had thought about ways to make the captain live and move to the next level, but ultimately we decided that it didn’t matter that much, that it was fine to have the captain back alive at each level.
K: When you reach the final level. You kinda get it. This is the end now. There won’t be a new sector for me to mess around in. It feels a real death then.
D: Yeah. We thought about doing an ending. Like a cut-scene or something. At one point in the original we had a screenshot that said thank you and it had like ghosts and shrapnel dancing in space. For the iOS version, we also thought of doing a cut-scene. One idea was to have the captain go into a wormhole on the last level, and instead of going towards the sun, you’d be going towards earth.
K: So there was redemption somewhere...
D: Well! It was going to be a fade-out. The idea was that you’d be flying towards earth and you'd just burn up in the atmosphere.
D: But that just felt like it went against the message of the game. It felt too much like that twisted idea that we didn’t want to do.
K: That would be killing off all hope.
D: Yeah. It just felt mean. And also I think a fairly low percentage of the people who play the game will beat all those 60 levels. So we didn’t feel it was worth our production time to do something like that.
K: I'm guessing most people would choose survival over suicide. But this is one of those situations where you’re forced to prefer one over the other.
D: Yeah I think the idea in this game is there isn’t an option for survival? I mean you can stay on an oxygenated planet but you’re still going to starve to death. You just have to make use of the least terrible way to end this situation that you’re in.
K: Do you think deaths in games feel trivial?
D: I think it can. It depends how much the game is about the characters. Which is something we thought about in our game. Originally all the astronauts looked the same and they all shared the same kind of randomised dialogue they could say. The game definitely felt more powerful after we designed them each to be individuals and gave them their own personalities and dialogue. I’m not sure how much people pay attention to that and get that. But it’s something that we’ve thought about.
K: I think it works. It’s adorable. I like that there’s a cat and a dog.
D: It’s so funny. The main time people hesitate and don’t want to kill anybody, don’t want to finish the level, is when it’s a cat or dog level. First time they see the cat and the dog. People feel really sad. They’re FINE with killing people, but with a dog, it’s not okay.
K: (laughing) Why?!
D: No idea. I think maybe because… I wonder if it’s like… When you see a pixel art person, it’s like, that’s an abstraction. But when you see a cute animal, for some reason, maybe because animals don’t talk and can’t really communicate with you, there’s just some connection that’s different.
K: Maybe with animals, it’s that they don't get to choose. We choose their fate for them.
D: Right, yeah. That’s part of it.