You Forgot It in Pixels Toronto's Gaming Scene Levels Up
Published Sep 24, 2012Sound Shapes, the acclaimed 2D musical platformer from Jonathan Mak's micro-studio Queasy, is the most Toronto game of all time ever. The synesthetic PS3/Vita title boasts a host of local graphic artists, developers and musicians including EDM icon Deadmau5, indie stalwart Jim Guthrie and the game's co-creator Shaw-Han Liem, an electronic musician also known as I Am Robot and Proud. (OK fine, and Beck, too.)
But much like Broken Social Scene's indie rock rise a decade ago, it did not emerge in a vacuum. "You could debatably trace the whole indie scene globally starting in Toronto," explains Queasy head Jonathan Mak, the solo designer behind 2007's unexpected PlayStation Network musical art-house hit Everyday Shooter.
Mak says that when he first graduated, the indie scene was mired in negativity. "Then Raigan [Burns] and Mare [Sheppard] from Metanet, who I went school with, put out N+ and that was the beacon of hope. That was what started it all. These two people that grew up in the freeware scene are releasing their game on XBLA, what the fuck?"
Mak's being a bit modest, since Everyday Shooter hit PSN a few months before N+, though that was admittedly an amped-up version of their 2005 browser-based freeware hit N. Regardless, this one-two punch, combined with Ontario tax breaks and a ton of talent, sent Toronto's indie scene into an upward spiral.
"It created this community where we're all helping each other out," says Mak. "We're all just trying to make it."
Toronto may seem like a more industry-oriented city than, say, Montreal, but la belle ville has long boasted a number of mega-publishers like Ubisoft and EA, which actually hinders the growth of an indie scene.
"If there's a bunch of talented people with ideas in a city that are all in their 20s with nothing to lose ― and there's no big company there to suck them up and make them do soul-crushing day labour ― then they're gonna start their own shit and make their own fun," notes Liem.
"That's what happened to me," Mak agrees. "I put out my first indie game and it failed, and I had no money left so it tried to get a job, but I couldn't find a job, so what do you do next? Make another game."
Mak was a fan of Shaw-Han's music and met him at an I Am Robot show, where he showed him Everyday Shooter. Both being into music and computers and how they interact, the pair decided to work on a visualizer program for concerts, which soon morphed into Sound Shapes. Liem quit his job, they got a government grant and when that ran out they went to Sony, who funded the rest.
Sound Shapes arrives on the heels of last year's Toronto indie smash Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, an iOS collaboration between Capybara Games, Superbrothers' pixel artist Craig Adam and Jim Guthrie, himself a veteran of that early '00s indie rock scene (Three Gut Records division) as a member of Royal City and solo artist who occasionally made music with his PlayStation.
Guthrie and Superbrothers wound up contributing a game world, er, an "album" for Sound Shapes ― levels are also considered songs, which is more than just cutesy since side-scrolling through literally creates music on the fly as you collect notes and chords ― while Capy provided logistical support. Further artwork came from Pyramid Attack, Monkeyface Studio's Colin Mancer, Capy's Vic Nguyen and North Carolina outfit PixelJam.
"When we started the game, we thought it was gonna just be us two. Then it grew and grew so we called Capy. They helped out with level design, and space in their office to work because we ran out of room," says Mak. "We're all too young and inexperienced to understand all that business shit. Capy's always been a solid company. They're like the dads of the scene."
"The Jim thing was just totally organic," adds Liem. "Sword & Sworcery came out and it was smart for us to hitch our wagon to that star in a way, but also we've know those guys forever. And I've known Jim forever, we've played music together, so I was like 'Here's this guy I know who would be really cool to work with.'"
Also natural, if less likely, was the pair's hook-up with one of the city's most successful musicians.
"Deadmau5 is publically a huge game player and a game fan," says Liem. "But we had to find a time when he was in Toronto. We went over to his giant place and showed him our little game and he hooked it up to his club-sized sound system in his living room. That was the first time we'd heard the game that loud. It was pretty cool."
Also pretty cool was the involvement of '90s legend Beck, who contributed three new "songs" for the game.
"It really just comes down to showing them how it's structured and how their music is gonna be basically taken apart and put back together in the game world," says Liem. "The gamer never hears your version of the song. Beck recorded his beautiful arrangement, and it's a song, but it's not a regular game where we take that MP3 and drop it in. He has to be OK with sharing the authorship of that song with whoever is playing it. Not only that, but all the pieces are now available for people to take and do whatever the hell they want," he adds, referencing the game's editor for user-generated levels. "Not every musician is gonna think that's cool. Certain ones like Beck, he's releasing an album as sheet music, so clearly he's open to that."
But even the presence of an American superstar can't distract from the fact that this game was born from Toronto's tight-knit indie community.
"If someone does something amazing, it makes you excited to take your game up a notch. Everyone keeps levelling up each other," says Liem. "Everyone is doing their own thing, but we all come together, we're all friends outside of the business aspect or whatever, and there's so much cross-pollination that everyone benefits from everybody else's experience."
"And we want everyone else to level up, too," adds Mak. "Anything we can do to help our friends and have them succeed, we do that ― and people have helped us a lot. I don't think we could have made Sound Shapes if it wasn't in Toronto."