Interview: Mike Kleine and developing narrative Bitsy games

“Restrictions, I’ve discovered, are what allow me to complete the games I want to make.”

Michael Kleine was born in West Africa, and used to be an active musician until he got obsessed with his other nowadays passions: writing books and film criticism. I don’t know where does he get the time to do all of this, as his portfolio is pretty impressive already, but recently he has been getting invested into game development as well.

Last year, with the help of Twine and as a platform, Kleine released haus of araki and xyzzy to the world. But then he got interested in Bitsy, a visual style that has been getting more and more popular in the last couple of months, featuring a limited set of available pixels per “screen”. 1+1 and Detective Fatima and the Bruce High Quality Foundation are two of Kleine’s works using this technique.

Into The Spine spoke to Kleine about the influence of his hobbies in games development, Bitsy’s limitations and his current work.

When did you start to think on giving game development a try, and why?
“In high school, I tried out some version of RPG Maker (I can’t remember which—this was a while ago) it was neat, but none of it was really doing what I wanted. Mainly, I wasn’t able to figure out how to import my own sprites. Granted, I was super-impatient. Fast forward a ton of years, in late 2016, I discovered Twine and started to work on a game. I spent about a year working on the elements and even consulted with a few friends. Eventually, I released the game via a literary mag as I felt it was more for a literary crowd than for gamers (or anyone else, really.) But as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in game development.
It’s just really hard to have one idea and stick with that idea until completion. And there’s so much to do: art, music, writing, coding, etc. Working alone on a project can very easily spiral out of control. Last year, there was a Steam sale for the program Clickteam Fusion 2.5. I used that for a bit, and while it was cool there just weren’t enough restrictions. Imagine that! So I recently discovered Bitsy and it’s totally changed my life. I’ve accomplished more in one month than I have in the last five years! Restrictions, I’ve discovered, are what allow me to complete the games I want to make.
Currently, I am working on a brand-new game. It’s a little more ambitious (but not too ambitious). Oh, and I am not using Bitsy!”

Do you have any inspirations in particular?
“I do. I get most of my visual inspiration from film. Pinterest is also neat, once you are able to figure out how to navigate the website and curate what you actually want to see. And then dialogue & story, for me, comes from the sort of books or fiction I read. Since I also like to make my own music, I’m usually influenced by bands that sound nothing like the music I actually make. But depending on what’s going on, I have different audio projects I am always working on, (ambient, vapourwave, house/techno, indie rock—you name it).
At the moment, for the game I am working on, I would say influences include (and this is in no particular order): the game Pen Pals, Yuichi Yokoyama, the Lars von Trier film Dogville, Bruno Munari’s designs, stick and poke tattoos, OG Mac graphics, the Heta-uma style, poésie conrète, the films of Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, Pop Team Epic, SD Laika, Kool AD’s new book Aztec Yoga, Magicwire album covers and games where the protagonist only has 1 HP (Health Point).”

How do you translate your knowledge as a film critic when developing experiences with a big focus on narrative?
“I would say 99% of what I create has to do with narrative. Sure, unique game mechanics are interesting but I am not a coder and I do not possess the skills to make those types of games. Instead, I’ll play with my strengths. Whenever I write about film, I like to talk about how the film is about what it is about. Does that make sense? In other words, I really dislike film summaries, as they do nothing for the film (I feel). The most interesting books and films and games I have ever experienced almost always have to do with a super-interesting story or atmosphere (more so than game mechanics, for me). I guess I’m really into the look and feel of things. I don’t always need to be battling something or progressing toward some endpoint.”

Based on your experience, what are both the challenges and the liberties when making Bitsy games?
“The biggest challenge is spending 10 minutes trying to create something I know I cannot make in Bitsy, because those 10 minutes then turn into 2 hours, and I keep telling myself, ‘There has to be a way to do this!’ There’s a very fine line between productivity and just wasting time, and you have to know how to keep yourself in check. In Bitsy, you’re only given 64 little squares to design something. This might sound like a lot, but it’s really hard to make something look like an actual something when you are so constrained.
At the same time, these limitations are a major liberty. It’s easy to get an idea down in just 5 minutes, and then spend like, the next couple of days chipping away at the project until it’s to the point where you want it to be. I really cannot recommend Bitsy enough to aspiring developers and storytellers. It reminds me of the game Sleep is Death by Jason Rohrer, except you control everything and you literally can do whatever you want (within reason) ha!”


Something I have noticed is how, so far, your games always tend to draw the player back to the beginning, as if it were a hub. Is there a reason for that?
“The beginning, to me, is what gives something meaning. It allows you to understand (maybe) why what’s happening or has happened happened. And a lot of my stories begin in media res, so for most of the narrative, the player is trying to figure out, “What the heck is actually going on?” I think that by bringing it all back to the beginning, full circle as it were—this allows the player to realize why, again, what’s happened happened the way it happened, if that makes sense? Another way to put it maybe, as you replay my games, you realize that the beginning actually happens more toward the middle of the game; it’s hardly ever the beginning of the game that represents the game’s true beginning.
And this is much like real life. There is no such thing has clear-cut beginnings and ends. Everything is sort of just happening all at the same time, always! And there is nothing we can do about it.”

It seems like you’ve been experimenting with a 3D first person experience in Unity. Is this a new direction for you or just an experimentation?
“I would like for it to become a new direction (but I also don’t have a direction for what I want to make in 3D). Making games in Unity can be so rewarding tho. My current preference is to do a bunch of smaller games (to prove to myself that I can finish something) and then use that knowledge to work on something that’s a little more substantial (not that little games aren’t substantial—because I truly think they are).
At the moment, I am fascinated by people who are creating walking simulators (Connor Sherlock, as an example) and also horror experiences (Kitty Horrorshow and Puppet Combo come to mind). But when you break it all down and if you ask me, “What is your desert island game genre?” I will always love those old point and click adventure games (Secret of Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry, Beneath a Steel Sky, Sanitarium, etc.)”

If you would have the chance to work on a bigger project, would you still be developing on your own, or do you have any friends or colleagues in mind to build a team?
“It really depends on the situation. For me, it’s the financial aspect that concerns me the most. If someone or some company is able to back me and provide funding, I could absolutely work on a larger project, full-time. I would do all the code and art and music by myself. I believe I possess the drive. At the end of the day, I write books to tell stories. And with the advancement of technology, and how easy it’s become to truly do your own thing, I think telling a story using video games as a medium is just as compelling. So yeah, I would just take my time with it and make sure I am not compromising the story in any way—make sure it is 100% my vision.”

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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