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Interview: Dan Benmergui (The Moon, Storyteller)
DECEMBER 10, 2008
A transcript of the friendly chat I had with Daniel Benmergui, developer of Storyteller and I Wish I Were the Moon. Both games were recently chosen to be presented during the first Sense of Wonder Night event (held at Tokyo Game Show); the latter game was also well-received by the Kongregate community, regularly lavished with praises and applauded for managing to tug at the heartstrings of many.
Hi Daniel, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you're currently residing in, what it is exactly that you do for a living, and what games have you made.
My name's Daniel Benmergui, and I'm from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some of you might know me as the developer of experimental games such as Storyteller and I Wish I Were the Moon.
Right now I'm living off the money I made while working in the mainstream games industry. This complete freedom started six months ago, and it's due in another six months. I'm trying to do as much as I can during this time. I'm also the organizer of CODEAR, a Hispanic indie games contest (which we've just launched the Single Boss Challenge by the way).
How did the inspiration for I Wish I Were the Moon came about? And why did you choose that name as the title? Did you consider other names for that particular work?
It was actually a combination of two things which inspired me to make the game. One was from Italo Calvino's short story "The Distance of the Moon", which left me feeling like I had a knot in my stomach after I had reached the ending. Then one day while I was listening to Enigma's "Sitting on the Moon", and I was struck with an image in my head. The game as it is now looks exactly like that image I had thought of at that moment. I had no idea where I was going gameplay-wise, although the camera mechanic was something I already had from an old prototype.
I wanted a name that hinted at what's inside. I could have called it "The Moon" or "The Affair", but "I Wish I Were the Moon" tries to tell you that it's not the usual game.
Can you describe I Wish I Were the Moon in your own words to readers who have not heard about it?
Moon was an experiment to me on different planes. For a game so simple, a lot of stuff was going on when I was making it. I wanted players to feel how touched I was by "The Distance of the Moon" through the game, for one. I wanted it to capture the emotional impact of a tragic situation, not to tell a story. Like having a picture of someone's face who has been heartbroken in the exact moment you took it.
I didn't want to the game to have any text or dialogue as well, though I violated this rule a little by including endings. This was quite a challenge... I was not dealing with simple emotions like fear or sadness... I needed to convey jealousy, regret, guilt, fascination. I am quite proud of what the game achieved. It only uses eyes and very limited body language, and relies heavily on context and interpretation. Fortunately the players managed to fill in the lack of information by induction.
The camera mechanic went back and forth. I could have replace it with a drag and drop user interface. In the end, I decided to go for the camera to give players the sensation of being an omnipotent voyeurist on the situation.
Were the characters in I Wish I Were the Moon based on any real life personalities?
I wouldn't say "personalities", since characters in Moon are not about who they are, but the situation they are in. The situation was, indeed, close to me.
Do you have some sort of fascination for the moon? Is that why you decided to create the game?
Not a deep fascination... but I appreciate the moon being there to remind us how insignificant we are. Stars reminds us of how far we are.
How has the reception been for the game? Were you happy with the responses and comments you've received for it?
I was very surprised. I liked Storyteller a lot more, but honest players (not developers) ignored it and preferred Moon instead. I guess players are hungry for more "human", and maybe also more mature games.
What was the best praise you've heard for I Wish I Were the Moon? And the worst comment?
The best was receiving mails from people who wrote them while being emotionally shaken, to tell me how important was for them to play it. Whether it was because the game stirred something personal, or they were in that state before playing, I don't know. I like to think it's the former.
As for the worst... there are two kinds of answers: the colorful, and the true. "Fagget piece of shit" is the most colorful. But the critique that hurt a bit is that it's shallow gameplay-wise. It hurt because it's true, but I decided not do anything about it.
Do you plan on working on it (The Moon) any further, or is the Redux version the final update? Any thoughts about a sequel?
No, no more updates to it. The Redux version tried to fix some of the bad decisions I made, but it was solely for the IGF. I left Moon behind so I can focus on what's happening to me now. And what I'm going through now has very little to do with Moon.
Can you tell us something that no one knows about I Wish I Were the Moon?
Moon was a manifestation of a process of change I am undergoing. It would have never existed without Guadalupe, my girlfriend, making the necessary emotional room for me to dare do this game. So there's an invisible (female) hand behind its creation. Maybe that's why some people think it's "fagget".
Are you up to anything at the moment (development-wise)?
Always. Though I'm having a hard time deciding which games to pursue. I have dozens of prototypes. One project is starting to take shape now, and I really like the potential it has. It's called "Before You Leave Me", but it's completely in an experimental stage. And it's a lot less naive than Moon on the subject it deals with.
Did you know anything about other games (e.g. Snapshot) with similar gameplay elements implemented?
There have been many games implementing cameras before. At the time I made Moon, I didn't know of any that allowed the pictures to change reality itself.
Played any good indie games as of late? Any recommendations?
I'm not sure which I would recommend. It all depends on the person. Lately I've been playing Immortal Defense and browsing Edmund's This is a Cry for Help.
Any unreleased indie games you can't wait to get your hands on?
Not really. I don't get hyped easily. Maybe it's because I'm too lazy to watch or read previews.
Have you tried out any of the other games submitted to IGF yet? Any favorites?
There's a lot of games this year, and many can't even be tried. It will take me a while to form an opinion.
You've submitted I Wish I Were the Moon for the IGF competition. What are your modest expectations on how well your game would do in it?
I don't expect it to go anywhere, but I wish it would, since I rather not pay up for a GDC pass this year (big expenses reduce the amount of time I have to spend on developing indie games).
On the Subject of Art
You recently visited Japan to attend the inaugural Sense of Wonder Night event. Can you tell us more about that particular experience?
I had a lot of fun during the Sense of Wonder Night. Many of the games presented were awesome, and all attendees were given a noise-making toy they were told to wave if they felt sense of wonder during our presentations. I was relieved to discover that the audience reacted positively to my own. I particularly liked The Unfinished Swan and Gomibako.
But the experience was only a fraction of how it felt to visit Japan. It was... surreal. That trip was one of the best experiences I had this year.
What are your thoughts on the subject of art games?
I'll leave the formal definition to people who cares about it. My rule of thumb for considering a game "art" is: If you don't feel personally exposed when publishing the game, you did not make art.
Do you consider I Wish I Were the Moon an "art game" then?
Well, most of the games I made were out of the need to flesh out that strong impression I had. I must confess, however, that at some point I transformed it into a more digestible piece by adding explicit goals (figuring out the endings) and adding some fancy endings . I did that out of fear of it being too unusual for SOWN.
Patrick Dugan had once commented that you will one day become the South American equivalent of Jonathan Blow (or Chris Crawford). How far do you think you are from achieving that?
I will probably never be. I do admire Jonathan Blow's depth of thought and Chris Crawford's will to jump into the unknown, but my goal in life at this point is not to make a long game like Braid, or build a world-changing technology. I just want to make small experiments to suprise people and myself.
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