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Interview with Adam Butcher creator of Tobias and the Dark Sceptres

Hello, Adam Butcher! First of all I’d like to thank you for taking the time to be Top Shelf Gaming’s first interview! I’m very excited for this opportunity and am equally excited to learn more about the man behind the game that took over a decade. The game of course is Tobias and the Dark Sceptres, a 13 year labor of love which released last Wednesday! How are you feeling now that the game is out?

Butcher: Honestly, like a weight has been lifted. It feels good.

You started Tobias when you were just 14. How did you first get into making games? What was the inspiration behind it?

Butcher: For as long as I can remember I’d been designing video games on pen and paper. Then I got obsessively into the Klik ‘n’ Play demo around age 11. It went on from there. I think my first proper game was actually another platform-adventure-with-puzzles, I used a generic KnP sprite to make The Adventures of Spinney. It was pretty stupid.

Aside from Zelda and Lord of the Rings, Tobias was definitely inspired by little-known dungeon-crawler Egoboo. You can see the similarity in Tobias’ square head and lumpy hands.

The software you developed the game with was Multimedia Fusion. In the span of 13 years, the program has undoubtedly changed a lot. How has that affected the progress of the game?

Butcher: I think the actual problem was that MMF didn’t change over all this time. It meant some of the plugins and functions I was using became out of date on people’s newer machines. Still, I tried putting my project into the more up-to-date MMF2, but this caused even more legacy issues. It all slowed down the progress and made bug-hunting pretty difficult. Oh well.

You released a short documentary called The Game That Time Forgot in conjunction with the release of the game. What motivated you to make this video?

Butcher: After 13 years making the game, it felt like I had a story to tell – maybe not that unique, but at least quite extreme. My primary passion/career lies in filmmaking, so I thought it’d be fun to commemorate the project with a little video. It only took me 2 months – I’m definitely a slower gamemaker.

The documentary suggests that you coded it all, did all the art, and pretty much everything else. Was this an entirely solo project or did you have help?

Butcher: It’s pretty much a solo project as you say. My brother Luke was invaluable though – he playtested everything and gave loads of advice to make it better and more playable. He even did a few bits of graphics for me – the spinning diamonds in Chapter 5 I think…

The only other co-worker was Alisdair, a friend in real life. I needed some extra music tracks for the levels and knew he’d be great for it. I’d tried sourcing music from a forum at an earlier point, but it was hard getting committed composers…

The game itself is very complex. I am quite a ways into it and so far no concept has been repeated twice. How many of these ideas did you plan on implementing in the beginning and how much of these game mechanics did you come up with partway through development?

Butcher: There weren’t many game mechanics that I knew I’d have from the very beginning – I made a lot of it up dungeon by dungeon. The only principle that was set in stone was that I wanted puzzles that made you think laterally. If I thought up an item (eg. the crossbow) I had to think of a good bunch of unexpected uses for it. Otherwise it wasn’t worth implementing.

Tobias comes with a Puzzle Solver application for when players get stumped on a level. Admittedly, I’ve already had to use it myself. You crafted a very thoughtful puzzle-platformer that is fair challenge for even the most experienced gamers. Tobias does not hold the player’s hand very much. Talk about some of the decisions you made in creating the difficulty of the game the way you did.

Butcher: The game is difficult in two ways – 1) the puzzles and 2) the die-and-restart gameplay. I’m still happy with the hardness of point (1), but point (2) feels a bit out-dated now.

I think I was a big admirer of games like Goldeneye when I first made this game. In Goldeneye you might spend 10-15min playing a really hard level, die, and then just have to do it again from the top. It was difficult, but it forced you to learn, improve and strategize. When I first made Tobias, there was only a Hard mode (50% the health of “Medium” now) and *no* checkpoints. I’m glad I made it less brutal, but there’s still some of that brutality lingering.

Why have you released the game as Freeware? Do you have any plans to release the game on other platforms or through outlets like Steam?

Butcher: I wanted as many people to play it as possible! And I always figured that if people wanted to give me money they could pay-what-they-want for the soundtrack. People have been generous which is nice!

I’ve not got any plans for a Steam/Desura release, but that’s because I don’t really know what more they could give me…

You made other games including Teletrooper in 2012. How have your past projects influenced the final outcome of Tobias?

Butcher: I’m really proud of Teletrooper. It gave me some confidence and knowledge on how to launch this game, as well an idea of the bugs I might get from launching another old MMF game!

You’re not just a gamemaker; you’re also a talented writer and director. Your film Arcadia was thought-provoking in its storytelling and unique in the stylized set dressing, while other smaller projects like MU[sic] show off some of the same creative prowess that is alive in Tobias and the Dark Sceptres. I understand that you recently finished a script. Can you tell me a bit about that and your goals as a filmmaker?

Butcher: Amazing you saw Arcadia, that’s quite an old one! I guess I’m more well-known (in a loose sense of the word) for Internet Story and Bradley Manning Had Secrets.

Ultimately, I want to write and direct feature-length movies. Movies are the best! I recently finished a script for an apocalyptic love story set in England, and am currently doing some re-writes before talking to producers.

Finally, now that your passion project Tobias is out there, do you plan to keep on making games or focus on your career in film?

Butcher: Honestly I’m going to try and focus on film. It’s where my true passion and (I suspect) talents lie.

However, I’m always going to have little game ideas floating around in my head. Maybe they’ll see the light of day after I’ve made my first big film…

That’s all I have for you! Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. As for everyone else, Tobias and the Dark Sceptres is available for download on PC for free! Check it out at tobiasgame.co.uk!

Written by Marcus Garrett

Marcus created Top Shelf Gaming to celebrate the awesome things about the video game industry while challenging the areas of the video game community that could be improved. He loves playing guitar and eating tacos, but never at the same time.

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