Snap, Crackle, Pop: Crunch & self-mutilation in Swery's new puzzler The Missing
Swery’s new game The Missing is about a woman breaking herself to achieve her goals. Right now, it’s hard to look at it and not think about crunch.
Announced earlier this year, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is a side-scrolling adventure in which protagonist J.J. searches for a missing friend, solving puzzles with her supernatural ability to heal from (nearly) any injury.
Launched today across consoles and PC, this is the first game developed in-house at Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro’s studio White Owls, which opened in Osaka back in 2016 and is now 12 people strong. White Owls is relying on publisher Arc System Works for support with tasks like QA and marketing, but Swery says the game itself is something he and his team have been focused on since they set up shop.
“We've been sort of working on it ever since,” Swery said during a recent chat with Gamasutra. “This game was made all in-house at White Owls, and so a lot of my vision, my ideas, have materialized in this game very accurately.”
Working on two games at once
The Missing is reminiscent of Playdead’s atmospheric puzzle-platformers Limbo and Inside; protagonist J.J. strolls from left to right across a seamless and surreal island landscape, traversing obstacles by breaking her body (snapping a hand off on an obstacle and throwing it to knock a key item out of a tree, for example) and regenerating it back together.
It's anodyne cruelty. J.J. is repeatedly beaten and broken, crying in pain as she loses limbs or snaps her spine, but there's no blood (just sprays of white) and she always heals herself back to normal at the press of a button. Swery has described it publicly as a sort of love letter to the 2D platformers and puzzlers he grew up playing, games like Out of this World and the original Prince of Persia.
"The influence of Inside and Limbo was really, you know, them bringing this genre back to life. And I was able to then jump on that."
“By the time I got into game development, those genres had already died down, at least in Japan,” said Swery. “But in recent years, with Limbo and Inside coming out and garnering a lot of popularity, it seemed like a good opportunity for me to make a side-scrolling game. The influence of Inside and Limbo was really, you know, them bringing this genre back to life. And I was able to then jump on that.”
It’s a sharp departure from The Good Life, the debt repayment RPG that Swery has also been promoting and working on. Unlike The Missing, The Good Life was narrowly crowdfunded and is chiefly being developed by Grounding (a Japanese studio only a bit larger than White Owls) with Swery’s input on creative matters.
This seems like a decent hustle, if you can swing it: two projects in the works means potentially Too Much work, but it’s also two chances to ship a successful game. Swery claims he’s intentionally taking two different tacks with these projects, to up his chances that at least one lands and finds lasting purchase.
“I'm doing this and The Good Life, and I have a bit of a strategy with this,” Swery said. “The Missing is something that a triple-A publisher would never touch, right; it's got very extreme themes. But then to have Swery do that is like ‘oh yeah, this is what Swery does.’ So I think [my name] does help it a little bit.”
“The Good Life, we took a different approach. We started out with crowdfunding, and we wanted that title to be familiar with people, from starting development on through release,” he continued. “It's drastically different from The Missing, and while I think they're both indie, they're two different approaches that are really thought through in trying to give both games longevity.”
Bringing Arc on as a publishing partner for The Missing is something Swery is especially keen to talk about, as he says the game wasn’t an easy pitch -- and Arc’s decision to get involved makes him much more confident about its sales opportunities in Asia.
“At first, when I showed it to the people at Arc, they were very taken aback. ‘Oh no, we can't do anything like this.’ But after explaining to them the essential theme and concept and idea behind this game, they finally gave me the opportunity to go ahead with the production and publishing,” said Swery. “Arc has a very big fanbase in Asia, their domestic market. So I feel like we cover that, but at the same time I feel like my fanbase is very international, so I think we're able to hit both sides.”
This is important because Swery is keen on the value of a good publisher nowadays, especially to indies who are trying to sell games without a big existing fanbase.
“I think right now it's really important to establish your identity, and have something that's very unique. And that's very very difficult to do, in the face of a lot of triple-A titles and triple-A companies going into the indie market as well,” he said. “So I think it's very important, and I would recommend up-and-coming developers partner with a publisher, if they can, to really help them get up there.”
Combating crunch on a small indie team
It all sounds like a lot of long hours, which is hard to stop thinking about when you’re demoing a game about a woman who can only succeed by hurting herself.
Crunch is a perennial problem in the industry, and the recent spate of layoffs and studio closures is especially insulting to devs already accustomed to overworking themselves in pursuit of goals like milestones and ship dates. Swery says he's no stranger to it, though he does claim to try and minimize it at White Owls.
"I think the crunch that you brought up is a pretty big problem in Japan as well, it's very common. But at White Owls we try to sort of deviate from that sort of Japanese tradition, or the Japanese tendency to crunch," said Swery. "In my company I let all my team members work on their own schedule, within their own time, and really be flexible with the work schedule. And I also let them remote work if they need to. That's something I do to ensure people stay healthy, and that they're not overworking themselves."
Swery stops short of saying The Missing is "about" crunch, instead suggesting it's designed to help players empathize with J.J. by making the metaphorical literal: hurt yourself to achieve something, heal, repeat.
"I wanted this process of hurting yourself and recovery, that cycle, to be this journey to the next stage," said Swery. "I think that in life, wherever you are, there's going to be some pain and suffering that you can't avoid, at times. And you really have to get through that pain and suffering in order to move on in life."
"Sometimes we change the course, or change the content, or change the plan so that people stay healthy and they're not overworking and they're not breaking their bones."
And while he admits that White Owls does sometimes work overtime ("the days leading up to the master build upload are probably the most stressful and most work-intensive time"), Swery claims that he keeps a keen eye out to ensure nobody is being overworked. He says this isn't just to be kind: it's a small studio, and if one person gets sick White Owls loses a significant asset.
This is especially notable if you work at or help run a small studio, as Swery describes his crunch-foiling process as a sort of friendly intervention by the rest of the staff, one that can end in cuts or changes being made to the project.
"Any time before [that final sprint], if there's any time that I feel like the staff is overworking or anything, we have a system in place to make sure that they're not overworking or overstressing. It's sort of like, they put up a red flag. So if something is a little too much for any individual on staff, we sort of get together and have a little intervention and say okay, how can we make the game project so that it's not as difficult?" Swery said.
"We try to make adjustments so as to not put a lot of stress on the developers and the team. And since we're such a small team, we're only 12 people, and we don't have a lot of money...it's not like we can hire people left and right. We have to work with what we have. So sometimes we change the course, or change the content, or change the plan so that people stay healthy and they're not overworking and they're not breaking their bones."
Swery says White Owls has one person who's in charge of keeping tabs on the hours everyone is working, and the studio also contracts with a third-party labor consultant ("Certified Social Insurance Labor Consultant") to help ensure nobody is being overworked.
"We have one administrator who monitors everyone's work hours. Like, time you get to work and time you finish work. So everyone's work hours are documented," Swery added. "We also have another company that supports us in doing this as well. I'm not sure if there are agencies like this in the US, but it's a separate company that monitors the employee vs. company relationship, and makes sure the employee is not being abused or anything. It's sort of like a social benefits watchdog program, or something like that. So we partner with them, and if there's a red flag in overtime or anything like that, that red flag gets sent to me directly, and then I take action from there."
The veteran game designer claims this is all inspired by his time at Access Games, working on projects like Deadly Premonition and D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die. It was a much bigger and more bureaucratic operation, which made it harder (at least, according to Swery) for Access to offer staffers the care and support they needed.
"It was a lot more corporate, and very systematic, and very machine-like. I didn't feel like they were actually taking care of the people themselves," said Swery.
"We had like, periodic doctor's visits, but those are just required things, mandatory things we just had to do. It was like a process. It didn't really feel like they were watching people and making sure they were okay. So what I did differently was to really focus on making sure people were okay, and doing what they were trying to do, and were able to accomplish what they wanted to do, and making sure they don't break in that process. So I incorporated what's required to do that, and shaved off the extra stuff that seemed like systematic, mandatory stuff. I wanted to focus on taking care of people."
It's the opposite of what The Missing asks of players, who must ceaselessly throw themselves into harm's way and snap off their own limbs in order to get through the game. These puzzles can be gruesome, but they're also strangely dream-like; for example, during the demo J.J. had to snap her neck so that A) if she was a living, breathing person she definitely wouldn't be anymore and B) everything looked upside down -- which meant gravity reversed and she was able to reach an otherwise inaccessible ledge.
"Traditionally my fans know me for story-driven games...the gameplay, maybe not so much...Setting up White Owls and putting out The Missing is my attempt to break away from that."
"We were thinking about, how can we make bone-breaking part of a puzzle? How can we design puzzles around this idea of bone-breaking?" he explained.
"And one of our programmers said 'Hey, when you break your neck or whatever, you sort of see the world upside down.' So I jumped in and said 'Hey that sounds cool, can we even flip gravity, on top of that?' And the programmer was like 'hmmmm.....', because from a programmer's perspective it's very difficult to make such things happen. But they sat down and thought about it more, and they eventually tried it, and when they saw the build come to life, it was actually very interesting, so we sort of ran with it."
("Something that is difficult, or is deemed difficult by a programmer -- that usually means it hasn't been done or isn't very conventional in other games," Swery added. "I think that's a good indicator that you're creating something new.")
Flipping gravity has been done in games before, but it's still a big deal for Swery. For him, The Missing is an opportunity to grow beyond his public persona as a storyteller, and show that he has the chops to design engaging, challenging, mechanics-heavy games.
"Traditionally my fans know me for story-driven games, games that are very character-driven and story-driven. The gameplay, maybe not so much. But Swery's got the story, that's where he's at, right. Setting up White Owls and putting out The Missing is my attempt to break away from that. That sort of shell that I'm in right now, I want to sort of evolve from that," Swery concluded.
"I wanted to show my fans I'm not just all about the story, I'm not just all about the characters. I can create good game mechanics that are engaging...this is my attempt at breaking that shell and expanding, and showing a side of Swery that no one's ever seen before."