Remigiusz Michalski

Harvester Games

Posted by Gustavo Calvo-Simmons, Philip Jong.
First posted on 18 August 2009. Last updated on 26 February 2013.
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Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski is the founder of Harvester Games, developer of Downfall.
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski
Remigiusz Michalski

About the game

Downfall is a classic point-and-click horror adventure game developed by Harvester Games. It tells the strange, psychological story of Joe Davis, who must confront the horrific aftermath of his wife Lucy's disappearance at the Quiet Haven Hotel where they have just stayed for the night during a raging storm while on vacation in the small town of Devonshire. The game features a mature storyline, multiple playable characters, hand-drawn macabre artwork, and an original haunting soundtrack.

For more information, visit Harvester Games.

The following article contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.
It is an understatement to simply describe Remigiusz Michalski as a controversial indie game developer from Exeter, England who is not afraid to speak his mind about adventure games. Michalski is the founder of Harvester Games and the developer of Downfall, a psychological thriller and horror adventure game which takes upon itself to explore the darkest side of the human condition. According to Michalski, Downfall is a game that focuses on delivering "a mature story-driven experience in the horror genre" that will appeal to hardcore adventure game fans. Not surprisingly, the game's portrayal of violence and gore as well as sexual content is both unapologetic and unfettered—a philosophy that has also earned the intrepid developer a fair share of criticism, which Michalski accepts but is quick to dismiss. The game's controversial content is even enough for Steam, a popular online game portal and digital game distributor, to outright reject the game from its store (though Michalski states that he does not hold this rejection against it). Fortunately, Michalski succeeds in striking a distribution deal with Direct2Drive, and Downfall is finally released after nearly 5 years of development.

We are privileged to have the opportunity to interview the talented and outspoken indie game designer. In the interview, Michalski speaks candidly about the development history of Downfall, the controversial themes that Downfall explores, his own attitude towards censorship in video games, and what other game project his company has planned for the near future.

Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept art from Downfall!

Horror is a common theme exploited in adventure games. In what ways is this theme explored differently in Downfall?

In Downfall horror is just a setting used to conceal the real themes of the game. There is no ancient burial ground, no monsters and no ghosts, and even if you're lead to believe at some points of the game that this is all just a supernatural thrill ride, you will be proven wrong. In that way Downfall strives from the genre stereotypes, instead looking deeper into the darker side of our minds. In most horror games it's the good against the evil. In Downfall these lines are blurred, as in life.

What inspired the story of Downfall? To what extent was the exploration of raw human emotions, such as love and loneliness, in the game drawn from your own personal experiences?

It's definitely a very personal game... I can't pretend that I haven't drawn inspiration from my own relationships and experiences. In the end, this is what actually makes the story of the game believable. Most games put you in the shoes of a hero you'll never be in your life. And that's good, because it's fun to pretend we're some tough guys on a mission to save the world. But it gets a bit boring after a while--how many castles can we conquer and how many aliens can we kill and still not get enough of that same old thing? This is why Joe, the hero of Downfall, is far from perfect. He is lost, he's lonely and confused. He makes mistakes. His mission isn't to save the world, but to find his wife and save his marriage... but the very task might reveal truths about himself that he'd never wanted to acknowledge.

When did the development of the game begin? Approximately how many hours did you spend on development? What were the biggest challenges you faced during production?

It started in 2004. At first it was just an idea I had, to make a game I'd like to play myself. I was doing a lot of night shifts at the time and had plenty of time to work on the backgrounds at work. I sat there with a pencil in hand for hours. I could never tell you how much time it took... but it was a lot. As I drew them, the ideas for the story came flooding in. There was so many of them that I only managed to squeeze maybe just a half of them in the game! Then I started putting everything together and work on the puzzles and dialogs and sprites... There were a lot of things I had to learn about. Scripting had proven especially tricky for someone like me--an artist rather than programmer.

Still, the biggest challenge of all was getting the game published. It was a whole new world to me. Turns out most of the portals that specialize in digital downloads are only there for quick money and aren't willing to risk publishing a game that is controversial, gory or deep. They'd rather go for another "put three diamonds of the same colour in a row" game. That sucks...

But, I'm so glad I've found someone who believed in me and my project. This must've been my biggest victory so far.

What were the step-by-step processes of creating the almost surreal, hand-painted artworks in Downfall? How were these artworks composed together for the game?

First, I make a pencil drawing, trying to make it as detailed as possible, but also bearing in mind that it has to work with the game mechanics. Then I scan it, put it in Paint Shop and adjust contrast and brightness. Finally, I add another layer for colours or greys, create some shiny surfaces or deep shadows. And blood, of course... Lots of blood. Sometimes I draw something without having completely thought it through and I just go with the instinct, adding elements to the picture that are surreal and bizarre, such as the wall made of television screens or blood-soaked sheets that cover something that could be furniture, but it could also be a person standing still in the dark corner of the room... From the feedback I've received so far people find these things that you can't quite understand or see clearly most frightening...

What experience did you have in game development prior to Downfall? What formal art training, if any, did you have?

I've had no experience at all! Well, I made a little game before, but it was just a little project for and about my friends only. Five years on, this game has grown to become almost legendary for a lot of people in my hometown!

I've never been to art school either. I believe you can learn yourself in life and as long as you have enough passion to drive you forward you might actually become pretty good at what you're doing!

Without any spoiler, what is your favourite part of the story in Downfall? Why? Who are the major characters in the game? Which characters will the player control?

I suppose it will be the Agnes episode, which is included in the game's demo. It is completely irrelevant to the main story, but somehow, it compliments it perfectly, adding a bit of humour to the otherwise very heavy game. Writing the dialog lines for Agnes was really smooth and came naturally, because this particular character is based on my partner (of the same name, in fact). So I thought--what would Agnes say now? And I knew instantly, that it'd be something ironic and that she'd complain a lot but in the same time she'd go along with the task and do it to the best of her abilities. I knew she'd also lie about a lot of things (wedding dress), get easily embarrassed and moan about pretty much everything, but eventually come across as a very likeable character, a perfect sidekick.

Another very important character is Sophie. The very fact of her existence is a bit of a mystery. Is it a real person, or is it just a part of Joe's wife that he fails to recognize, the part that cries for help but is terribly misunderstood?

Joe also meets a German doctor, whose main ambition is to resurrect the dead, but it's never really clear if he just wants to use Joe for his experiment or genuinely help him.

There are three playable characters in the game. The identity of the third one I can't reveal... It's a bit of a surprise.

The music in Downfall was scored by your brother Michael Michalski. What was the inspiration for the music? What was the process of scoring the music for the game?

When I first asked my brother to compose the music for Downfall, I told him it should be something similar to the music in Elvira 2: Jaws Of Cerberus and Waxworks. For some reason, music in the 80's and early 90's horror films and games always seems spot on to me and I wanted to recreate that feeling of B-grade movies electronic sound. I think over time, as the tracks kept coming, it turned more into something more reminiscent of Twin Peaks than George Romero's films, but it certainly added to the atmosphere of the game in general.

Michal is a qualified guitar player, but for this project he composed the score using entirely electronic sounds. The only exception is the ending song, which we both recorded last summer. I wrote it on a napkin in a pub actually, long after midnight. Then I came outside and played it on a guitar... and it seemed right. Two days later we sat down, I did the vocals and he took care of the rest.

Why did you choose to use Adventure Game Studio to develop Downfall? What other development tools did you use to manage production assets?

It's only program I know how to use! But really, it is one of the best available for free editors used for making adventure games. It's got a whole great community of users who are always willing to help with technical issues and support indie developers in all possible ways.

The only other program I used is Jasc Paint Shop Pro, which I always found superior to PhotoShop. It handles pixel-art perfectly and allows me to do exactly what I need with my graphics.

Harvester, DreamWeb, Dark Seed, and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream are adventure games that have been criticized (rightly or wrongly) for their gratuitous use of violence. In what ways does the violence depicted in Downfall differ from the violence depicted in these other games? When do you consider the depiction of violence to be gratuitous?

Well, I have only ever played DarkSeed, so I can't really say much about other games you mention... DarkSeed didn't have that much violence in it though, did it? Anyway, I find that a lot of people see it as an issue. In today's world, we are surrounded with violence in one form or the other, we are used to seeing it on the news and in the papers, so why is it such a bad thing to make violent games, especially if it's used for a particular reason of telling a fictional story? Downfall is a game intended for adult mature players. It's not for children. I believe that people who buy my game are wise enough to understand that violence in Downfall is meaningful and serves the right purpose.

Downfall confronts the player with a number of mature themes, such as sadism, abuse, and homicide, in a completely unapologetic manner. To what extent are you making a statement about the human condition and morality in the game? How do you explore such themes responsibly within a narrative (the game) that is primarily meant to entertain the audience? How do you answer critics who may claim that these themes are better explored in another medium?

To explore such themes in a game and make it entertaining is a difficult task. It could easily turn into one of those long, ambitious but boring stories. That's why I added the whole horror background, to make it more attractive but also to tell the story of the game not directly, but as a metaphor. Joe enters a strange world created by a sick mind of Sophie. He takes it for granted and soon stops questioning what is reality and what is not. All he does is killing memories, ghosts. It doesn't seem like much of a crime, does it? In that other world, everything is played by different rules and Joe quickly adjusts to them and does what he must do to stop the person he loves from getting hurt. In many ways, it's a perfect material for a game, if used right.

Like art, to what extent do you agree or disagree with censorship in video games? What has been your own experience dealing with censorship in Downfall by the gaming press, publishers, or distributors?

I don't agree with censorship at all! I do agree with respecting the age rating, though.

Some critics kept going on about the use of violence in Downfall but I don't take much notice. I am an extremely peaceful person myself, never hurt or had urges to hurt anyone, but I do like violent games and films. They don't make me want to go and murder people! It's only people who suffer from serious mental health problems that get inspired by gruesome stories. There were numerous crimes inspired by Stephen King's novels, each time a psychopath picking up the idea from a book, and nobody tells him to stop writing. Is it because people automatically assume that books are generally for adults and games for kids? I call it bullshit. If someone's got it in them they will find a reasoning one way or another, whether it's a book, a game or a video clip, or anything else for that matter.

The game itself hasn't been censored at all but the trailer you can watch on Direct2Drive's page has been edited to exclude all gory scenes. You can still find the Director's Cut version on many websites, though, including GameTrailers and YouTube.

Is there any plan for a sequel to Downfall (even though it may be too soon to ask)? What other projects do you have in development for the near future?

Probably not, I'm not starting a franchise here. We have too many of those anyway, haven't we? It's a one off story. Instead, I'm focusing on another project, a game which at the moment is titled Love As A Gun. It will include completely different controls and user interface, and it will be, of course, another horror story. I can't say too much at this point as it's very early stages only. What I can say, is that it will feature rendered backgrounds and a very inventive new way of animating characters, and of course a new soundtrack by Michal Michalski.

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