On July 17th, Micheal Hick’s puzzle platformer,The Path of Motus, released on PC and consoles. When I saw it at PAX East this year, it’s peculiar blend of logic cyphers, jumping sequences, and color-matching call/response duels created an incredibly unique experience for the genre. It’s been months since I played that demo and weeks since I ran through the final product, and I still can’t quite find a game I could argue is any thing like it.
Being a completely unique game seems like secondary goal for Hicks. Primarily, Motus is a vessel for an anti-bullying message that is very important to him. Getting to the heart of the social elements that create bullying culture in young people is Motus’ true purpose. Distilling the concepts of using wit over aggression, and persevering through pressure into clever game mechanics is just a bi product of that.
As we close in on a month since the release of Path of Motus, I caught up with Hicks to discuss how things are going post-launch. Outside of the topics we discussed here – like anticipated feedback or getting this game in public schools – Mike has been busy since launch. His recently announced partnership with The Cyber Smile Foundation, an non-profit, anti-cyberbullying organization, is just another example of him putting his Motus where his mouth is.
How has the response been? Are you getting the feedback you anticipated?
I’ve actually been surprised! I showed the game at several conventions, so I had a feeling of what the response would be. Most people played for 30 minutes or more at these sessions; that’s usually a good sign if they’re getting that immersed in it.
However, a few days before launch we let the media have early copies of the game, and three or four critics hunted my email down to send a paragraph about how much they connected with the game. On launch day there were people that emailed me and said the game moved them to tears and it’s an experience they would remember for the rest of their life. It really resonated with certain people and it surprised me how deep it hit home for some.
But, for every person saying something strong like that there’s another critic that’s bashing the game. It gets confusing after a while: some people loved the story, some people thought the writing was horrible. Some people loved the music, some people thought it was a disaster. Some people thought the game design was amazing, some people thought the game design was horrible. Literally for every review I’ve read that praises the game, there’s someone else saying the complete opposite. It makes you realize that it’s not a good idea to pay too much attention to this stuff.
If you look at our Metacritic it says we received mixed reviews, but it’s only calculating like four scores. If you look at all 30-40 website reviews we received, most of the scores were in the 7 to 8 range. So yeah, I’ve decided to let all of this go and not care about it anymore. If some people are connecting that deeply to it, I feel it’s been a success.
Have you found the player’s reception to be similar to critics?
From what I’ve seen, I think players have been enjoy the game a little more consistently than the critics!
As basically a one-man show, how daunting was prepping for launch yourself?
Very daunting; it was a ton of work! I’ve shipped games on consoles before, so I knew how to handle the technical side, it’s just the work load that destroys you. When I told other programmers we’re launching on Steam, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and that I’m the only programmer, a lot of them laughed in my face. Like “yeah, good luck with that.” But I got it done!
I also handled the PR for launch, but luckily I had help from an amazing PR agency called Plan of Attack, so that helped my stress levels go down a bit!
Would you handle the whole process alone again for the next game?
For Path of Motus, my friend Goncalo Antunes handled all of the art and I did the other things. For the type of games I make, I actually prefer to handle most of the elements so the games feel personal and cohesive… but I don’t think I’m going to dive into a large scale game again. My plan is to make some smaller games for the next year or so. I need a break from the hardcore development cycle!
Is Path of Motus the sort of title that is conducive to post-launch content, and is that something you’re considering?
I don’t think that will happen. This is a project that has a very clear beginning, middle and end in the story, so it would feel weird to have DLC. However, we have an Educational Version of the game that I’ll continue to update as we gradually roll it out to schools and get feedback from teachers.
Games in schools still seems like an opportunity that hasn’t fully been capitalized on yet. Do you think there’s a future where Motus is the new Math Blaster?
Yeah, I agree! The educational market is pretty competitive, but there’s no one pushing a game like Motus so I feel pretty optimistic about it. Bullying is a hot subject lately and our game provides some unique angles for teachers to address the subject. I’ve reached out to a few educators and so far the response has been really strong. The problem is that it takes forever to get anything done in schools, at least from what I’ve heard. You can’t just purchase the game, you have to get approval from the school board etc. I expect to spend the next year focusing on school outreach.
What have you found to be the hardest part of explaining Motus to people?
I think people generally understand the concept when I pitch it to them; most people understand that it’s about bullying and shouting words is the main combat mechanic. The main issue I’ve seen is that when playing the game some people are so steeped in how they think a platformer should play that they can’t see what the game is trying to communicate.
For example, people see that it’s a 2D platformer and immediately have all of these expectations: it should be fast paced, fair and predictable etc. Motus really isn’t like that. There are reflex based challenges in the platforming, but a lot of it is about changing your perspective to find ways around the bullies. The platforming becomes more and more puzzle-like when you do this. If you go in guns blazing the game beats you down pretty fast, and that makes some people mad. A lot of criticism towards the game design seems to be from these areas… like there are times when the enemies fire words faster than the player can. The idea is that you have to think outside of the box and find a way around them, but some people just never get that because they want to fight back with force…. then they complain that the game is unfair etc. The respawning enemies is another source of criticism. People kill the respawning bullies over and over again expecting them to eventually stop. Again, the idea is that you’re supposed to think about ways to get around these enemies without using brute force.
I guess this is my fault, maybe the game could have been presented better to get this idea across… I suppose I made some weird design choices in the platforming sections. We’ll see how I feel about these decisions in a few years!
I feel like decades of genre tropes and archetypes can create a pattern of play that can be hard for gamers to break. Are there any other unforseen challenges you kinda got wind of regarding how players interact with Motus?
I agree! Another example is the ending of the game. Motus was literally designed to be played two times; there’s two playthroughs worth of puzzles and platforming. At the end of the first playthrough the game rewinds to the beginning and leads you in this direction, but I’ve seen a lot of people not care about this and then complain that the game is only an hour long. I’ve seen at least three reviews now where the person admits to not finishing all of the side area puzzles, and not playing the game a second time, but then they bash the game for being too short. Maybe this is because a lot of optional content in games aren’t seen as important… like in RPGs, lots of people only play the main quest because sometimes the side quests can feel like filler. That’s not the case in Motus though, you can’t say you’ve experienced the full game until you’ve 100% completed everything. Super hardcore achievement hunters can probably beat the game in two hours, but most people take 3 – 4 hours.
What sort of process goes into developing the number/line puzzles?
Each puzzle in the game is about a specific idea. I can’t explain the creative process of how I arrived at the final versions of these puzzles, but my goal was to make the line puzzles link back into the narrative. For example, the first puzzle door you come across is in the cave. You find a poem from Motus where he talks about feeling isolated from the world, but no matter how much he wants to be alone he’ll always be connected to other people. Immediately after that you solve some line puzzles, and they were designed in a way where most people want to intuitively isolate the nodes into two partitions. However, when that happens a voice over from the poem plays and then people understand that all of the nodes have to be connected. Each one of the door puzzles do something like this, which I’m pretty proud of! I can’t think of another game that approaches puzzle design quite like this.
Did you have specific artists or sources in mind when putting together art style for Motus?
My friend Goncalo Antunes from Portugal drew all of the art for Motus. In 2012 I made an early version of this game for Xbox 360 and I went to Newgrounds looking for an artist. His concept art really stuck out to me; he has a really unique style and it felt like a perfect fit. We’ve become good friends since then, and we’re usually on the same page creatively. He brings a lot of great ideas to the project, and puts a lot of love into the details of the environments.
Verbal and Social Bullying is still a common issue in high school aged kids. How important is it to create media that addresses the subject directly, while also remaining approachable to the kids who need it most?
When picking projects to work on, I try to tackle subjects that I’m either super immersed in or have some type of real life connection to. My philosophy is to make games that come from an honest place, and I think that’s the only way to make something that resonates with people. When it comes to kids, I think they can sense when something is inauthentic, so it’s important to be vulnerable and open if you want them to take something away from your project. Of course, I think the more honest and direct you are the more you drive other people away. There’s a reason why love songs are the biggest pop hits; they write these songs in a way where they have universal appeal etc. The same goes with game design and game narratives, except I think there’s very few people making games that try to give an authentic experience of their subject matter. Most game developers, including indies, try to make their designs universal and pleasing to the masses.
Consider my game and what I said earlier about the combat being brutal. I want this to be an authentic experience of how it feels to be bullied and constantly put down in your life. This is almost at complete odds with “good game design” that’s supposed to be balanced, fair and fun. I had to be very careful when designing this game, because I wanted to push people’s buttons just a little bit in this area but not too much where they’re rage quitting left and right. I think I pulled it off, but like I mentioned earlier there’s been criticism so maybe this game isn’t as approachable as it should be.
There was one review of the game that was kind of mixed, basically she said that the game brought out negative feelings and memories from her life that she’d rather forget. She said that any game that can pull these things out of her is both a blessing and a curse. I think most game developers would freak out about a comment like this…. “oh my God, we’re making people face something nasty and negative from real life! We need to polish this up and focus test it ASAP!!” But considering what my goals were with this game, reading a review like that makes me feel that the game has been a resounding success. I hope people who have experienced bullying find a source of healing from this game. I can’t speak for others, but sad songs make me feel less alone. Sure, when you’re listening to them maybe you get emotional and think about painful memories… but at the end of it I’m always like “yeah, that person gets it, I’m not alone.” I hope this game has a similar feel when people play it! I think there are many different messages that you can take away from the game, so hopefully everyone has their own unique experience playing it.
I really like that comment about how being truly evocative can be at odds with “good game design.” Have games as a development culture given up on trying to make this ludic and emergent medium a truly personal one?
Yeah, it definitely feels that way. I was really inspired by the “art game movement” that was happening around 2008. There was a huge wave of people trying to experiment with communicating things in a way that’s unique to games. They weren’t just rehashing old mechanics and adding a personal narrative, but deeply experimenting with the core structure of games and using that as a way to express their message. I think there were some amazing titles that came out of this, like Gravitation by Jason Rohrer. That game totally changed how I look at game design and is one of my favorite games.
Unfortunately, I think this school of thought has almost entirely shriveled up. There are lots of people talking about the potential of video games and giving pretty speeches on the topic, but hardly no one is actually experimenting and trying to make it happen. I was talking with Ryan Green from That Dragon, Cancer (probably the most personal game released) a few weeks ago and he shared my concern. He said that as an industry we’re lacking a body of work to point to when it comes to personal or artistic video games. I thought that comment really hit the nail on the head; we have a lot of work to do as creators!
I’d say video games as a medium doesn’t do a great deal to prevent or discourage bullying. Is that gaming’s fault by design, or is it just the nature of any sort of medium that allows people to interact with each other freely?
I’m not sure! I’d say the internet plays a large part into this… when you’re online people feel like they can say anything. That probably helps enable bullying and other nasty behavior! I’ve met a couple of people that are socially inhibited in real life and barely speak, but if you look at their Twitter they are lighting it up with all types of insults haha. I feel like video games attract those types of people in general, but I don’t know for sure!
If you want to know more about Micheal Hicks and his game, The Path of Motus, check out his website here.