Spooky Poo’s Happy Hell is a 3D platformer that was recently Kickstarted (also on Steam Greenlight). You can see why it was successful: it has a similar vibe to one of Rare’s 3D platformers, mixed in with its creator’s own blend of “occultoon” (that’s occult and cartoon).
Unfortunately, Happy Hell didn’t reach the stretch goals required to fund console ports, where a game like this should thrive. Could it still happen? This is one of the questions that Siliconera asked the game’s solo developer, and head of Occultimate Games, Polygonzo Trismegistus.
He also talked to Siliconera about how Happy Hell is a reaction against the formalism that Nintendo practices (especially as seen in Mario 64), explains how the magick system works and how the game can be completed without it, as well as explaining where Happy Hell’s weirder characteristics come from.
It seems you’ve worked on lots of projects before Happy Hell. So why are you making it now, and why by yourself?
Polygonzo Trismegistus, developer: The demise of my last employer was the catalyst. When that studio went under, the owner generously gave me some old PCs and a Unity license. At that point, after 9 years as a 3D artist/designer, I knew that no mainstream studio would ever go for the games in my head, so I took the opportunity to do my own thing once and for all. I spent 6 months and most of my money digging into Unity 3D. Soon I was convinced that I could tackle a 3D platformer, something I’d long wanted to make but previously thought far too ambitious.
As for working alone, it just feels right, at least for the foreseeable future. A lot of my overarching game design flows from intuition. I like to follow weird whims and entertain absurd ideas. This doesn’t really fly at a professional game studio and even a good independent team can (understandably) go mad with this kind of improvisational approach. It’s a key ingredient to Happy Hell though. But then again, perhaps I’ll learn to better articulate my vision for future collaborations. It’s still early days for Occultimate Games.
Either way, learning the game inside and out, the art, code and design, has been really satisfying and crucial to how dynamically I’ve been able to work. And I do have some artist/coder friends for support should I need it, plus a musician who’s along for the ride as well. Oh yeah, and keeping in touch with backers and fans will also prevent me from getting too lost in my own head.
Before we get further into the ins and outs of the game could you give a brief overview for those not familiar with it?
Happy Hell is a 3D platformer that wants to serve you some slapstick action, mind altering exploration and puzzles of the occultoon variety. Here’s the all permissive premise: Spooky Poo wants to make a wish, so he strikes a deal with the Devil. To get his wish, he must survive all 9 levels of Happy Hell and make it to Satan’s doorstep at the bottom. That’s the simple setup. What happens on the way down is limited only by my imagination and abilities as a human being.
As far as other video games go, Happy Hell is inspired by the acrobatic action of Mario 64, the whimsical weirdness of Rareware games like Banjo-Kazooie, and the enigmatic exploration of Dark Souls. I hold the Mario games in especially high regard, but at the same time Happy Hell is kind of a reaction against some of Nintendo’s formalism. I enjoy aspects of metroidvania as well so I’m planning the game with sequence breaking in mind (although I’m not sure I can call it that since it’s built into the world design?).
There seems to be a slight revival of 3D platformers at the moment. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?
I’m really looking forward to playing some more indie 3D action adventure games! There’s a new wave of devs (including me) who are making games inspired by their early experiences with the N64 and PS1. Tools like Unity are making this possible for more creative types than ever before. People trash some of the indie Unity games (sometimes justifiably) but devs are getting a better hold on it and we’ll be seeing some killer 3D action games soon enough.
How did Happy Hell acquire its more bizarre, occult qualities (particularly the characters) – perhaps it’s part of your own interests or personality?
As I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my very own 3D platformer, I realised that my design aspirations were echoing my interest in the occult. For a long time I’d dreamt about creating worlds that were mysterious, full of esoteric challenges and hidden secrets. Spooky Poo’s Faustian quest for magick powers and the ambiguous sense of progression played right into that occultist sensibility. Casting all of these heavy concepts as a cartoon was an important decision too.
For people that are open to it, there can be a sense of freedom in subverting evil icons that inspire fear and negativity, while also acknowledging their power. Even as people laugh at the silliness of Happy Hell, they often have visceral reactions to things like the psychopathic cycloptic black pyramids in the demo. Happy Hell hopes to inhabit a gradually endearing realm between cute and grotesque, funny and unsettling, dream and nightmare. I’ve no plans to include any graphic violence, sex, or language, but sometimes a keen sense of irreverence can be just as provocative.
Could you explain how the world is designed both structurally and in terms of what characters / stories can be discovered within it?
Happy Hell is composed of 9 levels stacked on top of each other. Spooky starts at the top (in Little Limbo actually) and works his way down. Each level has a large central hub area with a defining landmark (volcano, desert, castle, forest, etc). These hub areas then branch out into caves, labyrinths, rabbit holes and alternate dimensions that connect the 9 levels together.
My ambitious ambition is to combine Mario 64-style action with the more organic and ambiguous exploration of Dark Souls. I know it’s already cliché to cite Souls games as inspiration, but I think their influence on Happy Hell will produce some unique results if I do it right. While level progression is still goal-oriented like previous N64 platformers (complete a level objective, win an object, use objects to access new areas) Happy Hell unfolds in a more open-ended fashion.
Throughout Spooky’s trip, there’ll be action-puzzle boss fights (at least 1 per world), NPC quests and all sorts of side-story scenarios I’ll talk about further into development. I’m just starting to implement the dialogue system which is pretty exciting for me. There are going to be plenty of freakazoid characters that Spooky Poo crosses paths with.
How does the magick system work? And is it considered a challenge to get through the game without acquiring any magick?
Spooky Poo starts the game with only a handful of basic abilities: run, jump, wall kick, limited swimming skills… It is possible to beat the game with just those moves, but it will be damn hard and probably not too “fun” for a first time playthrough. Happy Hell is primarily designed around the use of 12-15 black magick powers that can be found/won throughout its levels. Powers like flight, firepower, telepathy and telekinesis.
However, level goals will be designed with “backdoors and loopholes” that allow for overcoming obstacles in different ways. The fewer magick powers one utilises, the more difficult progression becomes. The puzzles become more convoluted, the platforming more challenging, and the enemies more dangerous. It’s a temptation for weirdos that are tempted by that sort of thing…and I didn’t even mention that Spooky has to sell a bit of his soul to get each power! Yeah that’s probably worth mentioning, and depending on how much he sells throughout the course of the game, his wish will change at the end.
Why did you decide to take the game to Kickstarter?
I knew there was an audience for a fresh new 3D platformer and I didn’t want to be restricted by a publisher, so Kickstarter seemed like an appropriate option. After 6 months of work on Happy Hell I was confident that it was unique enough to draw an audience. I seriously underestimated how hard it is to get press for an indie Kickstarter! Happy Hell received very little attention from the big game sites and only barely reached its goal.
While I’m still a bit surprised and kind of miffed at the lack of exposure, I admit my presentation of the game could have been better. For one thing, the visuals and gameplay mechanics are still pretty rough. I was also reminded that, yeah, the world of Happy Hell is weird and off-putting to a lot of people! There were bloggers and players alike who told me how much it freaked them out or turned them off. And that’s fine! This is a wilfully freaky piece of entertainment. Plus, I’m not a very well connected person and networking is not my forte so it was an uphill battle.
Anyway, I’m very glad to be able to continue working on this game, and very grateful for my new fans. To those of you I haven’t won over yet, I am working hard to do just that! My public presentation of Happy Hell will only improve with more work.
You had stretch goals in place to bring Happy Hell to more platforms but didn’t reach them. Is there any chance of it coming to Wii U, PS4, and any others still?
It is a bummer that none of the stretch goals were reached. Still, I’m exploring my options. A lot of people (me included) want to see Happy Hell on a console, and that would require a significant chunk of additional funding. I’m working on it! Right now I’m concentrating on my backers and the core gameplay mechanics, but there has been some outside interest in Happy Hell that could lead to additional funding and finding a wider audience so… I hope you’ll stay tuned!