17/05/2021

๐Ÿˆ Rem Michalski - Harvester Games Interview ๐Ÿˆ

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I’ve had the opportunity to interview some very cool people for Games Freezer in the past and the man behind Harvester Games – Rem Michalski – has been on my radar for a while. Having inhaled his games; Downfall, The Cat Lady and Lorelai (collectively known as ‘The Devil Came Though Here’ trilogy), I was casually checking up on possible release dates for his next project, Burnhouse Lane, when I stumbled across a limited vinyl release of The Cat Lady soundtrack through Stumpy Frog records.

After purchasing the album as quickly as physics would allow, my mind drifted back over Harvester Games’ output and it freshly dawned on me that they are good. REALLY good.

It’s always awesome to find out that the people behind adored creations are good folk and this was very much the case here, Rem is a cool guy that makes extremely memorable, high-quality games that everyone should play, quite frankly.

GF: Hi Rem! Firstly, thanks for taking the time to talk to us at Games Freezer. I’m a huge fan of your work and was introduced to Harvester Games via The Cat Lady. I was trawling Steam for high-quality horror and stumbled across it. My partner and I played through the game in a single sitting, completely hips-deep in the story of Susan Ashworth.

For those who may not be familiar with you, can you give a little background on Harvester Games?

Rem: Harvester Games for many years has been a "single guy making games" kind of studio - the very definition of indie, akin to garage bands of the '90s. There was nothing professional about the process - there was no office space, no employees responsible for different aspects of the project, no salary... Just me wearing different hats depending on what I was doing that day and trying to make it work without any knowledge or experience whatsoever and in between other jobs that supported me and my girlfriend (now wife) so we could afford the rent for our 1-bedroom flat down in Exeter. Things shifted over the years, I got popular with the success of The Cat Lady which gave us a substantial boost - I no longer had to do 12-hour shifts at the hospital and try to explain to my work colleagues the complexities of game dev (not that they cared anyway) - instead, I was finally able to make games full-time. It was about time, really - we started a family and things got serious - both personally and professionally. Each game brought something new to the table, usually in the form of people I collaborated with. While Downfall (2009) was done completely solo, The Cat Lady (2012) marked the start of my partnership with publisher Screen7, who did a great job finding voices for my characters. Downfall - Remake (2016) and Lorelai (2019) both featured a very talented freelance character artist and animator Stefano Collavini. And for the last 2 years, I've worked closely with my brother Mic, more known for his musical talents. He's mostly responsible for character art and animations but, like me, he works on pretty much all aspects of the game. While I'm still in charge of the new project - Burnhouse Lane (TBA), he has a say in everything we do and I have to admit it's super-nice to have a companion like this!

GF: Your Twitter bio states that you’ve been making games since 1982- mostly in your head for the first twenty years, where did you grow up and what are your earliest gaming memories?

Rem: I grew up in a small town in Poland. I was about 8 when I got my first computer, which is kinda late, considering how my own kids have grown up around computers that were always there and my 6-year old daughter can already play Minecraft better than me... But that was a different era and a (very) different reality. Back then making games seemed so out of reach that I didn't even dare consider it an option. Inspired by the work of Stephen King, I dreamed of being a writer, later - a painter, a few times I even wanted to be a musician! But in the end... I found I could do nothing at all in the country that Poland was at the time (well, that was LONG before the Witchers and Dying Lights and such...) so I emigrated to England. That's where my life started properly and that's where I eventually discovered that I could do all those things I always wanted to do COMBINED and that it was simply called being an "indie dev". And what an epiphany that was! Sure, it's not really a "rags-to-riches" kind of story - I still can't afford a mansion with a swimming pool and a Ferrari in the garage but... I don't even want those things. I have enough to support my family and that's what matters. I remember the young boy I was - reading gaming magazines and drawing pictures of the games I imagined I would love to play, daydreaming... I remember one of my earliest jobs - cleaning hotel rooms in Sidmouth, my hands doing the work on autopilot, but my mind in a parallel universe- planning my first game. So I... literally created it in my head whilst brushing toilets before I even bought my first laptop and learned how to do it properly. 

GF: What made you settle on the name Harvester Games?

Rem: When my first game was being published the guy handling it on Direct 2 Drive's side asked what my company's name was and I didn't know what to tell him, cos I didn't have one. It never even occurred to me that it would be required! So, since I had an entire 5 minutes to come up with something, I said Harvester Games. We used to have a band when I was 19 (with me on drums and my brother Mic on guitar), and it was called Harvester. I used to be a big fan of Dune 2 in the old Amiga days too... And you know... there were those Harvesters collecting spice in Dune?... So I went with that. And it stuck. Oh! Almost forgot - it was also in tribute to a great horror adventure game from the '90s called Harvester. I never played it, but I remember looking at the screenshots of Harvester in magazines thinking it looked so damn cool... I actually TRIED to play it last year but it's not aged well and sadly I couldn't stomach it... (and not even because of all the gore because I love gore; it was just... not for me anymore)

GF: You’ve been releasing games since 2009, how has your process as well as the industry changed over the last decade from your perspective? 

Rem: I made my first game on an old PC I got for free from a friend. I was a smoker back then, so I'd have an ashtray on the table next to me and I would chain smoke while working (back in those days people smoked everywhere and it never bothered anyone). Releasing it was a nightmare - I made a list of all gaming publishers I could find and I emailed every single one of them  - and that was like a hundred different companies, some of which - I'm pretty sure - ended up on that list by mistake. All I got was very good advice from Dave Gilbert (Wadjet Eye Games) which I remember to this day and a single company that agreed to take it further. It was a now dead Direct 2 Drive. It was with those guys that things started for me. In later years I'd take my smoking into the kitchen window, which wasn't ideal, though I used to get the best ideas during those cigarette breaks, just smoking and staring into the horizon... The conquest of Steam had begun and things were great if you managed to get onto it. When I got my acceptance email from Steam I was at work in the hospital and it was one of the best moments of my life. It changed everything. Nowadays it's easy to publish games on Steam, which is both a blessing and a curse, with the obvious downside being the piles of crappy titles flooding Steam. It's not for me to say whether it's right or wrong but it certainly doesn't feel as special as it used to be on that store. At present, with Harvester Games not making our games under publisher Screen7, we are at a crossroads once again. Once Burnhouse Lane is ready we'll have to decide whether to publish it ourselves and learn how it all works or whether it's best to look for another publisher. But that's something I'll worry about when the time is right. I'm trying to take it one step at a time, as Susan Ashworth used to say. And... it's neither here nor there but I'd quit smoking 6 years ago - so that source of my power is now gone, sadly. (I still have my coffee, though!)

GF: I believe Downfall was your first game, what made you focus on that particular story as a first creation?

Rem: I don't know. It just came. I don't usually overthink anything. I try to go with the flow, let the ideas take me to places I don't even expect myself.  I - myself - want to be surprised! Then, sometimes these stories become the reflection of a certain state of mind and if that happens, it's not really intentional. It just happens. That was the case with Downfall. It wasn't until a friend of mine visited and played the game that it suddenly hit me that it was pretty damn personal - but all that personal stuff was hidden behind a wall of metaphors I didn't even know I put in there - or that they meant anything. It became apparent to me that my stories are a way for me to overcome the hardships I've been going through. In Downfall's case - the early relationship drama mixed with mental health issues, which is something a lot of young couples go through before they learn to live with each other without starting a new war every 5 minutes. So, that was my way to cope, to deal with those issues. I gave it a name, I put a face on it... and I made Joe from Downfall chainsaw all that bad stuff, I guess. It might be questionable... but it definitely made me feel better.

GF: The Cat Lady is widely celebrated and for me is one of the finest video games ever made. The mood, dreamy, detached delivery in the voice work from Susan Ashworth’s character and overall design felt so fresh and immersive. I’m also a big fan of the simplified control scheme, which means that the narrative and tone take absolute centre stage as all puzzles are logical and slot into the story without breaking flow. Did you feel that you had created something special when you were putting it all together or were you surprised by the highly positive reception?

Rem: Every time I make a game, I fell so in love with it, for different reasons. As a dad, I can explain it like this - you might love your son for his kind heart and sense of humour, but you love your daughter just as much for the way she smiles and her intelligence. I also see the flaws in them, but that's just the way it is - nothing is without flaws. It's similar with games. When I released The Cat Lady I felt the joy and pride and fear... and I wanted it to become a success but I'd still love it regardless of whether it did well or not. To me, that game meant so much. I spent so many hours trying to bring it to life but looking back at it - it just poured out of me effortlessly. I don't remember racking my brain during any part of development. It was smooth sailing and just as therapeutic as Downfall - if not more, as the kind of shit we were going through as a couple - and simply human beings - got more intense in our late 20's. The things I wanted to convey most of all through Cat Lady was this: the most depressing story of all time can end well against all odds. There's always light at the end of the tunnel. I didn't want to lose hope and I wanted to share that idea with the others - to never give up. At first, the game's reception wasn't shockingly positive. The game didn't become an overnight success. Released at first only on the publisher's own website and low-level internet stores, then GOG, and - eventually, after a successful Greenlight campaign - on Steam it grew in popularity gradually, with YouTubers playing a big role in spreading the news about it to the community. Eventually, even the biggest and the most popular played it on their channels. I used to absolutely love watching The Cat Lady Let's Plays and would wait for a new episode to pop up each day. These days, it's considered a classic of the genre, and it's in large part thanks to all those good people who talked about it, wrote about it, made videos on YouTube. And I'm grateful to them all. 

GF: The Cat Lady also features David Firth, can you explain how that collaboration came about? When I heard his unmistakable voice, it was an awesome moment as I’ve been a fan of his work for years and your styles felt like a natural fit.

Rem: Yeah, I've been a fan of David Firth for years too. Long before The Cat Lady. A friend showed me his channel (it might have been still the Newgrounds page - before it all went up on YouTube) and both me and my wife always loved this WTF aspect of his videos. It was a long shot to ask David - cos I didn't know him or anything. But I emailed him and he just wrote back one single word: yes. He's a man of few words, it seems. But also an extremely talented individual. Having him on board was a cherry on top. He later appeared as Doctor Z in Downfall's remake and as Greta in Lorelai.

GF: Can you explain your relationship with Michal and how he works alongside you in creating the music for your games.

Rem: We've always been very close as brothers. And as best friends, really. In the 13 years, we spent apart while I lived in England we always tried to stay in touch. First letters, phone, then email, messengers... Now we live next door to each other and see each other almost every day. He knows my games inside out, which means he knows what kind of music would fit them best. It was a real blessing to have a gifted musician on my side from the start, as we often understand each other without words. 

GF: Back in 2019 you teased a ‘secret project’ that at the time was taking precedence over Burnhouse Lane, are you able to reveal more on this?

Rem: This might have confused people, actually, so let me explain. After Lorelai, in the summer of 2019, I started work on Burnhouse Lane, which was meant to be a departure from my earlier games. After ending the collaboration with Screen7 I needed a fresh start and new ideas to keep my head busy. So I worked on this game for a couple of months and things were going okay but I didn't really have a defined direction I was heading towards. It was mostly prototyping new gameplay mechanics and new visual style. Then my brother mentioned that he'd love to make a game of his own but he lacked time to do this solo, as he already has a full-time job that he enjoys. So... I said: hey, let's do this together! And so it began. At first, I called it a "secret project" because the plan was to eventually go back to that early Burnhouse Lane prototype but once we teamed up one of the first things I did was to sit down and write a script, which is something I never do... And Burnhouse Lane - as a location - played a big part in it. Soon I got so absorbed in this new project that I realized I won't probably go back to the prototype because this was it - I loved how the new Burnhouse Lane shaped up. And it felt good to have a partner working with me on it. My brother, amongst many things, is a great artist and has some neat programming skills that really came in handy. So yeah - the secret project is basically the new Burnhouse Lane, which grew from a couple of loose ideas into a fully realized story-rich horror game that will shake upon many aspects of my games that fans know and love.

GF: Does your next game, Burnhouse Lane, share the same engine and in-game universe as previous titles or this is something completely different from Harvester Games?

Rem: Just like Lorelai, it's made in Unity. I've learned a few new tricks - mostly how to optimize the game so it should run great on most slower computers. I've also ditched all the 3D graphics and 3D lighting completely. It's all back to 2D but characters have these 2D skeletal rigs on them so it's not frame by frame animation but bones-based instead. It looks super-smooth. The world itself is also built differently - instead of still images the backgrounds are made of many smaller objects that make a location - so each part of the wall, floor, furniture is a separate asset. It's a lot of fun building the game's locations this way! It's a new story, in a new universe. There won't be any references to any of the old characters from The Cat Lady, Downfall or Lorelai. And there's a new interface, which borrows elements from TCL, such as multiple options for most hotspots, but in a new streamlined way. You can also expect some combat elements, which I have wanted to introduce for quite some time but struggled to make it work in the past. There are parts in the game where if you're not careful you can most definitely die. I want to make it very clear though - this is a Harvester Games game through and through. There are familiar concepts in it, the themes, the sense of humour, the emotional aspects, the dialogues - it just evolves all those ideas and takes them to a new level. I hope that to all those people who know and love my games Burnhouse Lane will feel like Bloodborne felt to Dark Souls fans. 

GF: You previously worked as a nurse in Exeter, did that experience have an impact on Lorelai’s setting and story?

Rem: Before I worked as an auxiliary nurse in Exeter I'd been a carer in a nursing home in Sidmouth for 5 years- that's where the most inspiration came from. I just thought it was a very unique setting for a game! And it kinda is. Not many people know what goes on behind the walls of those places, what secrets they hold. It was the first time I saw a man die, as me and my colleague sat in his room, knowing he was on his way out, holding his hand and just keeping him company. I made a lot of great friends there. I learned a lot. Putting Lorelai in a similar location was pretty much my way of paying tribute to that part of my life that will always stay in my heart and will be remembered as a great life experience.

GF: I’m the proud owner of number 273 in the limited run of The Cat Lady vinyl soundtrack. Can you tell us a little about how that came to be? I stumbled across it on the Stumpy Frog Records site, having no idea that it existed, I purchased it so fast that it was almost weird purely off the back of my love for the game and was blown away by how well it works as an album, it’s a mainstay in my record player!

Rem: I wasn't really involved in this project. Wouter de Hoogd from Stumpy Frog Records came up with this idea and made it all on his own - in collaboration with Mic, who green-lighted the whole thing and supported him through production. I, as a proud owner of number 305, obviously fully support it, too!

GF: This one is more a question for Michal - due to the emotionally heavy-duty nature of the themes and levels of bleakness in The Cat Lady - especially during David Firth’s moments (that dancing sequence will remain with me forever) -  I remembered the soundtrack as more industrial and full-on but its actually quite mellow, jazzy and darkly pretty, what were some of the influences on the soundtrack and were specific passages and tracks written for scenes in the game? I was getting George ‘Fatman’ Sanger vibes from some of the tracks and quite frankly, anything that reminds me of the music in The 7th Guest is always a winner in my book.

Mic: In the case of all our games music it was created for specific scenes in-game. Sometimes we discussed details with Rem, sometimes he sent me screenshots from his early work-in-progress or his drawing and sketches. But most of all we are brothers who grew up together liking the same things and we catch our ideas really well. Our goal was to make the soundtrack diverse and this goes hand in hand with my musical interests which include classical and orchestral music, progressive rock, electronic music and film music. One of my fans pointed out that I use a lot of tritone in my music and tritone is the most dissonant interval between two notes. Tritone is also a heart of jazz and even if my soundtracks can barely be described as “jazzy” my inspiration roots deeply in jazz music from the '80s and '90s.

GF: Back to Rem for this one, you tend to have a pretty minimal social media presence, what is the best way for fans to keep up with news from Harvester Games?

Rem: I try to post as often as possible but I'm just not that kind of guy who can put up a show and be cool and funny and talk in front of a camera... I love what I do but it wouldn't feel genuine to pretend to be someone I'm not - and who I am is a quiet 39-year-old humble dad of two, a husband, a gamer (I still play video games most nights). Definitely not a bubbly personality who could talk about making games for hours (even if I spend 50% of my life-making games). But I do understand the importance of social media as a form of keeping fans in the know. My platform of preference is Facebook where I run The Cat Lady fan page and Rem Michalski - Game Dev Diary. And since you've brought this up... I feel like I should post something ASAP. Thanks for reminding me!

GF: Are ports of your games for consoles likely or will Burnhouse Lane and the Devil Came Through Here trilogy remain PC-oriented? 

Rem: I don't think Devil Came Through Here trilogy will ever appear on the consoles - despite my great love for them as a gaming platform. There are just too many technical issues, with the first 2 games made in a really console-unfriendly engine... Lorelai could've been ported, having been made in Unity, but that just doesn't feel right to separate the trilogy. And with Burnhouse Lane - who knows? It might happen! I will certainly do my best to hit the consoles market, especially since the game is much more action-oriented than my previous titles.

GF: There’s a very specific mood to your games that is rarely found elsewhere in the genre, there are always flashes of humour regardless of how dark things get for the characters and the horror is deeply psychological and of a creeping slow burn. To capture this, do you often write whilst in a specific place or mood, I’m struck by how consistent this is through all your games. It’s a sort of dreamy quality rooted in a very grounded and tough reality. 

Rem: It's just my style, I guess. Sometimes I keep re-writing a particular scene until I'm happy with it. After all, how can I expect anyone to like it if I don't like it myself? A single word can make a huge difference sometimes! I have some ground rules that I always try to apply, like never starting a game with a block of text, or - if possible - never including any blocks of text at all. Never boring the player - and that can easily happen if we don't leave any room for a bit of surreal humour no matter how great our writing skills are. Too much of the good thing is still just "too much". But the main thing is to always stick to what your gut tells you. That "feel" is something you either have, or you don't. It's like cooking, like painting, like music... You can never truly learn it - you have to reach inside your soul deep enough to find it and only then you can master it. I find it's easier to write at night and code or work on graphics during the day. There are tunes that help me get in the zone... and these change too over the years. I used to listen to a lot of prog rock back in the Downfall days. Now, it's piano tracks/ambient (recently Arcade Fire's "Song on the Beach"  - 10-hour long version has played in my ears for way longer than I'd dare to admit...), sometimes it's just Minecraft music & rain for several hours straight, or... Factorio OST? It's a different flavour every week. Usually something without lyrics. Still, the final and most important rule I've always had is this: I have to enjoy the stuff I make. If I don't like it, no one will. If I like it, AND no one else does... then I guess that means I have a weird taste but at least I haven't sold my soul making something shit?... Luckily, that's not been the case and my audience digs what I do.

GF: Have there been any games recently that have stood out for you, perhaps in the genre that you work in?

Rem: My gaming tastes have changed over the years. I grew up playing point & click adventure games that strongly influenced me as a developer - The Secret Of Monkey Island, Darkseed, Waxworks (not really a point & click but it's one of the best games of my childhood - those famous death screens haunt me to this day!)... The thing is I don't really play this genre of games anymore, and as a developer, I also slowly depart in other directions myself. I do enjoy games with inventory and light puzzle-solving such as the Resident Evil series but nowadays the main thing that draws me to a game is the experience, the feeling of stepping into an adventure that takes me somewhere unexpected and the more influence I have over that - the better. I realize that's a bit odd - that a dude like me who makes adventure games doesn't even play adventure games himself - but I don't consider my games to be just that. They have elements of the old point & click games but they've evolved into something else, especially with the upcoming Burnhouse Lane, which is more like a mixture of Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Telltale's The Walking Dead but with more inventory puzzles and different, side-scrolling perspective. If I had to choose my favourite game of all time though, I'd say it's Dead By Daylight. I've played it for more than 1.5K hours, which is the most time I've spent on a game ever. There's just something about it... Stepping into the shoes of a killer, trying to murder people... What's there not to like? That's my way of relaxing after a long day.

GF: Beyond the current projects mentioned here, do you have anything thing else in the pipeline that you can tease us with?

Rem: I'm afraid I don't. I haven't really properly teased you with Burnhouse Lane yet - because the plan was to keep it hidden until very late in development so we can make a great first impression with a tasty trailer - but hopefully, that moment will come soon. And I can't work on two projects at the same time - it's like having two wives - it's a recipe for disaster!

GF: Another one for Michal, it must have been exciting to have the opportunity for a vinyl release of The Cat Lady, how did you work out the sequencing? The album flows really well and I was also curious as to the programs and instruments used? Also, high five on that funky bass riff that opens the whole thing!

The vinyl release of the TCL soundtrack is the biggest tribute from fans and for fans. It has been produced by Wouter de Hoogd who put a lot of heart into every detail of this release including sequencing. We discussed it a lot but honestly, all credit should go to him. He also managed to make professional mastering and production of all the pieces so now they sound much better than in the game. I’m quite happy that he also included my original digital painting of Susan Ashworth inside the vinyl sleeve.

Speaking about instruments - back then I used mostly my midi keyboard, classical guitar and old-style tracker DAW. Sounds coming from the guitar are harmonically rich and can become a base to create really weird sound effects. Today I've got many more instruments in my studio including analogue synthesizers, electric guitars and bass but the piano is still in the centre of my music.    

GF: Finally, anything else you’d like to say to our readers? Personally, I just wanted to thank you for creating some of the most memorable horror games over the last decade and I look forward to Burnhouse Lane!

Rem: Thank you, for supporting me! And if you're reading this and you aren't familiar with what I do... give it a try. I'm not saying it's for everyone but who knows - maybe you'll like it? These games certainly aren't perfect in every way. But they are definitely a labour of love and not a product of mass culture. They talk about everyday things and common people and stuff that sometimes happens only in our heads... but they are honest and quite unlike everything else out there, if I may say so myself.

To keep with all things Harvester Games, Rem is on Twitter as @harvestergames and can also be found on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Video-Game/Rem-Michalski-Game-Dev-Diary-101411537913630/

The Cat Lady soundtrack can be purchased from https://www.stumpyfrog.com

5 comments:

  1. Nice read! I hope we'll hear more about Burnhouse Lane soon :)

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  2. Thanks for a good interview!

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    1. Hi Micamic - are you on Twitter at all? Be great to keep up with your work.

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  3. Hi Rem, have you ever played the "Gothic" franchise? It's a RPG, but unlike any other. It's so fantastic in atmosphere and it's a game that every game developer should have played and studied to understand how to create an immersive, organic world. It has adventure elements like climbing, swimming, diving, interaction etc. But you need a medicine called "Union" to play on modern systems. Believe me this game experience is unique. It is the best game ever made.

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  4. Great interview! Thanks for the background <3

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