Their 2014 game Monument Valley, upon winning iPad game of the year, not only set the gaming world alight but managed to inspire a serious discussion about what the very act of gaming could and should entail.
Selling over four million copies to date, Monument Valley has even received its own minor plot line in the hit TV show House of Cards. However, creator Neil McFarland hasn’t always been the head of a successful games company. Working in many different guises, Neil applied his trade as an art director to album art (Fila Brazilia and Super Furry Animals), pornography, comics, paintings, TV and so much more.
When The Insight sat down to talk with Neil, we chose to leapfrog over a cliched discussion on gaming, and focus more on why Neil (and USTWO) is on a quest to make gaming a legitimate part of the technology and art conversation.
You have a very diverse background – a world away from Monument Valley. Tell us how you got here?
Well, going back to Fila Brazilia years, that was actually the first thing I ever got paid for as an artist. I wanted to be a cartoonist and ended up drawing a bunch of cartoons for their album cover, then the first time I did animation was for a song on that album. Really, I just wanted to draw comic strips, but that morphed into being a commercial artist.
I’ve always done a selection of things, but all based around my love of drawing, which is at the core of everything. I draw all the time and it’s allowed me to do all these really fun and interesting things; it’s constantly evolving and exciting.
I’m working in games now, but that was just the evolution of being able to draw. I’m really quite privileged to work with some incredible game designers who have dedicated themselves to that role, whereas I’ve always been a game player, but now I find myself on the other side of the fence; helping make the games. It’s been an interesting journey to get here and I guess the amount of references you’ve thrown at me make me think “wow, that’s me!”
You’ve said of your own work as a whole, “the huge psychedelic influence on my work can come across as sadness or longing, but I think this is a by-product of trying to capture that state of mind of being ‘out there’, disengaged from trivial matters.” What do you mean by that?
I think that’s right. I mean, when we’re discussing ideas for a new game, part of that is “what do we make?” or “what are our games?”
When we talk about what kind of games we want to make, we use words like ‘progressive’, in the sense that we want to be so. The idea being that games started off with crappy graphics, but improved so they became massively exciting, like Halo or whatever.
So we got to a point where graphics were no problem anymore, and innovation stalled. Obviously there are good people out there doing good things, but it’s plateaued and it seems like we want to say something more meaningful. It’s like, we love games but we’re not getting what we want – we would love to see more games that are progressive.
I have said this a few times, but maybe Monument Valley is a love letter to gaming.
We don’t think Monument Valley is a gateway drug that will get kids into playing first-person shooting games or anything like that, so it’s almost like turning people onto games but also feeding them something new and progressive – something different that other game makers will see as a challenge.
What do you think of the games industry as a whole?
Sometimes I think there are too many people making games altogether. There are just so many games and I can’t play them all, so I don’t know if I’m missing good ones. On the flip-side, there are clearly a lot of bad games getting made because it’s too easy to make them.
So, I have mixed feelings – on the one hand, there has never been a better time to make games and on the other hand there is now so much out there, it’s overwhelming.
Other parts of the industry are facing some big challenges; you’ve got brands like Nintendo who are not doing very well with their console, and you can’t imagine that their next thing will be groundbreaking like Wii was.
On the whole, it’s never been better, but there are a lot of problems as well.
I think we’re at a very interesting intersection, not just in games but also in technology, although obviously they go hand-in-hand. There is a lot of talk about new frameworks like Occulus Rift and the virtual reality industry, so where does gaming go from here? There was the Sega and Nintendo era, and they’ve subsided, but now we have endless opportunities to make incredible games that are only limited by imagination.
From a technology angle, we’re currently working with Occulus Rift and Samsung on a new virtual reality game, which has been really rewarding. It’s effectively a new piece of technology that we’re developing and we we’re very much taking our learning and aesthetics over from Monument Valley to VR (Virtual Reality).
But, even though we make games, we almost feel like people don’t really need games. That sounds weird but let me explain: something like Monument Valley is very experiential and we feel like that is part of the delight of the game. But sometimes the games themselves get in the way of that, for example they have put arbitrary rules and difficult puzzles or strange task in place or they are poorly implemented and badly designed.
“I have said this a few times, but maybe Monument Valley is a love letter to gaming.”
Are you even developing a ‘game’ then? Is Monument Valley not a game?
Yes, but we often ask ‘what is gaming?’. I think maybe you’re right; maybe games are at a stage where the word ‘game’ is a bit outmoded. In the same way, what does ‘film’ say about films? They’re not even shot on film anymore! It’s a strange word for this thing, this industry, this set of experiences that we’re creating, as it doesn’t necessarily hold them all anymore.
But VR will test how many will be brave enough to open up to the possibilities that it can do. I think that’s the question, are these people brave enough? I felt a little brave whilst doing Monument Valley, we just want more people to be brave.
There have been a ton of accolades for Monument Valley. I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times, but were you prepared for such a reaction, when the accolades were coming in what was the general feeling in the company?
I think it exceeded our expectations. We believed it was a great game and we felt we were making a statement, but has it really sunk in? I think so, because we’re still getting awards and we’re aware of what it has done. Hopefully we’re also learning lessons as to why it has been so well received.
What are those lessons you learnt from making Monument Valley?
Well, that you can kind of trust your instincts and there is room to be a little bit brave as there is a receptive audience. The success also suggests that there is a sort of hunger and a need from people to have these kinds of new challenges and game experiences. The awards have been amazing, a massive validation.
Also, fan art and the personal stories that have been sent to us are incredibly powerful and have made us realise that some of the things we thought were going to be important really were. Like, we thought finishing the game was going to be a powerful emotion and it really was. Also, keeping the player anonymous and letting the story allow people to bring something of themselves into the game, which is something I think games can do and other mediums can’t.
Basically, it’s taught us all that loads of things that we kind of thought might be true, are actually true.
I’d like to know if there is a philosophy behind what your company does as a whole?
We are increasingly separate from the bigger USTWO part of the company; in fact, USTWO recently put out a mission statement that succinctly said what they do, but I can’t remember!
I’ve known the guys who started this company since before they even started the company. They’ve always been driven by this passion for design. They’ve always done everything with their heart and just want to produce the best design for their applications – everything has to be as frictionless as possible.
It seems as though you’ve tapped into something lucrative. The video games industry could be worth as much as £1.72 billion to the UK economy alone. Gaming hardware was worth $67 billion in 2014 and the games industry is expected to be worth more than $100 billion in the next three years. These are staggering figures. As a planet, we spend 3 billion hours a week playing video games. Do these mammoth figures inspire USTWO, especially after selling over two million copies of Monument Valley?
Well no, not really. We’ve only just hired our tenth person and I don’t think there’s a feeling or a need to hire and invest in growth, but a desire to grow organically. We’ve found that the success we’ve had can be put down to the chemistry in the team. I think the next challenge is to come up with games that resonate at least half as well as Monument Valley.
“The success also suggests that there is a sort of a hunger and a need from people to have these kinds of new challenges and game experiences. The awards for Monument Valley have been amazing, a massive validation.”
Are you scared of the challenge?
I think there’s definitely pressure, but it’s more a sense of wanting to think about things a little longer – to consider things.
The next game will either be as big as or bigger, or half as good as Monument Valley, but as long as it feels like we’ve achieved some success, we’re under no illusion that we have to do the same thing again, because Monument Valley did so phenomenally well.
We will do our best to make sure we achieve the same artistic goals, then we’ll find out if we have failed to achieve that or not. There is no ‘real’ pressure because we haven’t increased overheads much and we’re aware that there are a lot of factors in play. We cannot predict the future but it’s definitely influenced by us.
No discussion of technology and gaming would be complete without a mention of Apple. What do you think of the brand?
I think that I’d like for them to talk to us more. The way I see it, Apple is sitting on a potentially revolutionary gaming platform; they’ve got these handsets in so many people’s hands. I think they make the best kit, and I think it comes down to that. I mean, if you are a game developer you are much happier with Apple, because you have a consistent platform – you know what you’re targeting, whereas with Android it’s much harder. There are more Android handsets out there, whereas with Apple you have this standard technology, which, if you can afford it, is great. There are also values which are the same as ours – user experience, seamlessness and ease of use. Our philosophies are very similar.
I think the gaming industry is something that Apple have been reluctant to engage with as a product company. Their app store has revolutionised gaming and accessibility but I’m left wondering if they could do more to turn their incredible talents to hardware support and cause a console revolution.
Games are not given the right public scrutiny that they need. They are often talked about in a derogatory manner on TV and in film, that’s why we were so over the moon when House of Cards used Monument Valley.
“I think that I’d like for them [Apple] to talk to us more. The way I see it, Apple is sitting on a potentially revolutionary gaming platform; they’ve got these handsets in so many people’s hands.”
Here you have a character – who is defined by playing video games, therefore they are using video games as a narrative element. That’s good for a start, because it legitimizes it. I think people need to start considering the economic power and the amount of time people spend gaming as well. It’s still treated as a novelty.
Actually, its interesting you brought up House of Cards, because Kevin Spacey’s character almost used the game Monument Valley to escape reality in a negative way.
Well, actually I haven’t seen the whole episode, I’ve just skipped through that to the part where Monument Valley was in it!
But his character is quite soulless and is a tyrant – he doesn’t care about people. The way they portray him using the game is interesting because even though he’s culturally informed, it’s still very much the case that Kevin Spacey’s character is unable to deal with his emotions and is childlike, so he escapes to games.
I don’t think games are totally to blame for that. I mean, I stopped playing games because I realised I was playing too much. I realised that my life could be going better if I put in as much effort into something else. It’s easy to lose balance with games. They should be treated with more respect in terms of cultural significance but I also think players need to treat them with more respect in terms of how much time they spend. Then the challenge for developers and designers is not to waste a player’s time. Why make a forty hour game when what you’re saying could be said in ten?
So, lastly, I am interested to know what you think about gaming as an art form. To me it’s a really authentic art, but one quote I recently read, which summed up the other school of thought said: “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilised and empathetic.” Perhaps Monument Valley is the first shift in that discussion?
“Games are not given the right public scrutiny that they need. They are often talked about in a derogatory manner on TV and in film, that’s why we were so over the moon when House of Cards used Monument Valley.”
Actually, we were just discussing what art is over lunch, in reference to this. What is a games artist? Are games an art form? Whenever we talk it’s full of analogies. Is music an art form? Yes, but some isn’t. I argue with my partner about this. I think the debate is over in the fact that games can be art but a lot of them aren’t.
It’s the same with films; there are a lot of films that get churned out that are not artistic – they are a product, and games suffer the same thing. It’s like my example of the 40-hour game; any art in there has probably been diluted into this big, long product. There’s this perception that people who spend money on games need a huge amount of content because of the amount they pay for it, and that ruins game developers’ chances of creating art.
Journey is another example of a game approaching art, in that it does away with so much and just leaves the essentials. It is possible to make an artistic statement and if one definition of ‘art’ is to produce an emotional response in people then Journey definitely did that to me. Some games do manage that and, unfortunately, a lot don’t.
“One the greatest American authors of all time and pivotal in the conception of meaningful animation and comic strips. His work is a constant source of inspiration because of its inventiveness, beauty and integrity. His Little Nemo strip never fails to stagger me with its ability to capture the absolute essence of the lucid power of childhood dreams.”
“I’ve tried so many kinds of sketchbooks over the years because I have a very intimate relationship with mine, they go everywhere with me and have helped me create everything I’ve ever done. The paper in Moleskine Plain Notebook paper is really ‘fast’ and works exactly how I need it to for my drawing style. They just make me a happier person.”