Over a year ago, I reviewed the horror visual novel Distress, giving it a 9.0/10 and later naming it one of my favorite games of 2018. Though this indie title is still not well known, it was the subject of a successful Kickstarter, and received free DLC for months post-release in service of the niche fanbase that supported it. However, just because its target audience may be smaller than that of a modern AAA title, that doesn’t mean Distress was any easier to make. The three-person team at Light Machine, including writer/designer Javy Gwaltney (The Terror Aboard the Speedwell), artist Ian Higginbotham and composer Erandi Huipe (The Right Side of Town), worked tirelessly for years to bring this project to fruition.
In celebration of its one year anniversary, I got the opportunity to interview Mr. Gwaltney (formerly of Game Informer Magazine) about the creation of Distress, as well as what it takes to keep Kickstarter promises, and the role crunch plays in all of it.
The text of this interview has been lightly edited for spelling and grammar.
First, where did the idea for Distress come from? Was it a natural evolution of the stories you were telling in other projects, like The Terror Aboard the Speedwell and The Right Side of Town?
Javy Gwaltney: Distress actually was an idea pitched to me by the artist of the game, Ian Higginbotham. He played Terror Aboard the Speedwell, dug it, and wanted to make a game that was more Resident Evil on a space station than Alien, which had been the main inspiration for Terror. We talked a bit, made a prototype, Kickstarted the game with that demo, and then got to work on the project.
On my end, I wanted to improve what I had done with Terror and Town by creating a cast of well-written characters that existed beyond tropes. I wanted the player to see them as a family and to fight for their survival and truly feel devastated when they lost. I also wanted to blow out the amount of endings too. You could get like 50 with Terror, so I wanted to double that, which we eventually did with the free DLC.
Looking over the Kickstarter page again, the vision of the game is clearly communicated, and the finished product fulfills the promises of the campaign quite well. How did you make sure the game stayed on track without compromising that vision, or engaging with issues, like feature creep, that other projects have faced?
Gwaltney: Crunch, unfortunately. There was a lot of personal crunching for me during the whole project (but that’s on me and trying to develop a game while working at Game Informer full-time). Near the end of Distress’ development, let’s say the last four months, I was coming home and staying up until ungodly hours in the morning banging out dialogue, tearing away branches and subplots that didn’t work, fixing typos. I think Ian really had to hammer out some stuff at the end too.
We also had a few delays because of events in all three of our personal lives and in the end we had to remove cutscenes and scale back from a lot of our grander, unspoken ambitions for the game (like having branches that let you have extended storylines off of Nova-8). In the end, we were a three-person team that managed to pack a lot of compelling story-driven content in Distress but I wish we could have had another artist to help Ian with the load or another editor to help me with mine. I would have done some things differently if I could go back.
What was it like when launch day finally came? Was there any particular feeling you remember most of all?
Gwaltney: Uh, I remember being very tired. I was on the Call of Duty Black Ops 4 cover trip when it launched. I spent the rest of the next two weeks being super tired but happy people dug it and the community that funded the game was satisfied with it.
What was the reaction from the gaming community beyond those that backed it?
Gwaltney: There weren’t that many reviews, but the few there were really seemed to like it. It sold decently too. I’m pretty happy with the reaction of our backers given that we made the game for them with their support and they were happy with it. Everything else is gravy.
You say it sold “decently.” Would you mind sharing any numbers? Or, alternatively, how it may have sold against your needs/expectations?
Gwaltney: I can’t do numbers because of contractual obligations but let’s just say “slightly above expectations.”
I ask, because you’ve supported Distress post-launch with two DLC expansions: Survive the Night and Dead Orbit. There’s also been teases for more beyond these two. In the original pitch, DLC was mentioned in the stretch goals, which were not met (at least on Kickstarter), but were essentially fulfilled anyway. Were these new paths created based on the content you mentioned being cut from the game? Or was this your plan for the DLC from the start?
Gwaltney: DLC happened the way it did because there were elements I wasn’t happy about with the final release and also because we’d delayed the game a few times because of [a] bevy of personal and professional setbacks in our lives, so having free content felt like a good way to apologize sincerely to the community over that (though they were never anything other than supportive).
I liked the idea of getting away from Demetria for a bit to explore someone else’s consciousness so Survive the Night basically let me do that with Sara, just to add some variety to the branching paths. Dead Orbit I loved writing and putting together because it was basically just a horror-themed bottle Star Trek or Battlestar episode that got the crew off the station for a bit. Both DLC are bottle episodes I guess in the sense that I basically had to use what we had already created for the main game to make new stories. This isn’t the fault of Ian, the artist, or anything. He had produced his obligated work already and was busy with a full-time job. If I had my way, we’d have a lot more DLC content with the new art and music and branches. I really liked the idea of turning Distress into a weird visual novel take on a service game in the sense that it keeps expanding forever and ever, as long as people buy the game, with new storylines and characters. That ultimately didn’t pan out because well, it’s a niche market and Distress definitely lacks in production value compared to other VNs. We don’t have cutscenes or minigames or any of the big stuff you see in like Steins;Gate. Part of that is budget, the other part is that’s how we pitched the game: it’s a series of choices that transform the story as you go. To get more element[s] thrown in there would muddy that, throw in some filler that just would dilute what I think is special about Distress. It’s an homage to Choose Your Own Adventure books and games through and through, for better and for worse.
On to the last question: Now that Distress has been out for a year and has seen a fair amount of DLC, what’s next? Do you have another game that you’re working on?
Gwaltney: As far as what’s next: I dunno! I’m working on a couple of small projects that aren’t game related and adjusting to life after Game Informer. I don’t think I’ll be making games again anytime soon. Distress was just so draining (but still ultimately a positive experience). We’ll see what happens but for now I’m just going to take it easy and work on some non-game related things.
Distress is currently available for PC, Mac and Linux. You can find it on itch.io among other storefronts. Thanks for reading! If you’d like to reach me, you can send an email to dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com, find me on Twitter, or leave a comment below!