Interview: Montague’s Mount Creator, Matt Clifton

by on October 23, 2013

In case you’ve not already read it, I rather enjoyed Montague’s Mount, so what better way to spend an afternoon than to sit down and chat with the game’s creator, Matt Clifton.

Tell us a little about Montague’s Mount, for those who might not be familiar with it, please.

Montague’s Mount is an exploration, puzzle-type game that’s been in production for about 18 months now, primarily a narrative driven game. It’s not a horror title like the stereotypical ‘someone may jump out at you at any moment and stab you in the back’ type of game, I consciously tried to stay away from gore and the blood and cheap shocks. I wanted the thrill of the story to push through the horror aspect.

To be honest, when I was making it, the environment was the thing I was trying to get correct. I don’t know if your readers know Donegal at all but it’s in the north of Ireland on the Atlantic coast and it is bleak. So what you see in the game is basically what I see outside of my window.

The game is based on a true story. Could you tell us a little more about that, without potentially spoiling anything?

Yeah it’s one of those things like in cinema where there is a certain amount of artistic license used with a statement like that, but it’s based on me really. I’m originally from the UK, and I moved over to Ireland probably about 7 or 8 years ago, so coming over was a bit like a fish out of water scenario. The way of life here is so much slower than the cities of England, and although I wouldn’t say it’s strictly semi-autobiographical, there is a lot of me in the story.

In the game, every object you see is described in Irish, and I added that to convey the feeling of alienation. The narration is the player’s default language but the in-game objects descriptions are in Gaelic, with a very small subtitle, and I did that the heighten that emotion and force the player to read what is actually going on.

Learning Irish – well I say ‘learning’ Irish even though I wouldn’t even know how to order a glass of beer or a glass of milk [laughs] – with my wife, who’s fairly fluent, involved going to the Gaeltacht and the other Irish speaking areas. They are the ones who the did the translations.

Getting back to your question, it’s one of those stories that could happen anywhere but it is loosely based on parts of my life.

It’s so odd to see Irish in a video game, especially since most Irish people are exposed to less and less of it as time goes on…

I think it’s probably the first mainstream game that tries to promote the Irish language. Having never learned the language myself, it was nice for me to get immersed in it and to speak to people from the Gaeltacht who were so behind it and loved the idea even though only about 0.1% of players will actually be able to read the text! [laughs] Initially, back in the very early stages of the game, we thought about even having the narration in Irish but I think that would have been a step too far.

There has been a lot of talk in Ireland recently about the decline of our native language. From your experience while making Montague’s Mount have you any thoughts on how this might be reversed? Perhaps with more games like this?

I think it starts in the education system. My wife is a teacher of young children and she says herself that the children come to her with very minimal exposure to the language. It’s going to take a lot reinvigorate it to the state where it will make a comeback. Obviously the Gaeltacht areas are still very Irish orientated, but I don’t know if the youth of today want to embrace it, to be honest.

With emigration and migration and people leaving the country left, right and centre due to the economy and the influx of foreigners, like myself, there’s going to be less and less Irish people in Ireland. As time progresses I think there will be fewer and fewer kids coming up with a strong Irish background. It’s one of those languages, like Welsh, it’s always going to be there but I’m not sure how prominently it will feature.

So what was it like to build this game, all on your own in the wilds of Donegal?

It’s weird, I’ve got this development dungeon that I just sit in on my own; I seem to have been in it for months now doing 12 hour days and up to 14 hours as we were getting the release versions finished. I haven’t really seen any family or anyone outside of my room for about 12 months [laughs]. So I think a trip to pub is in order, the Irish way!

But it’s been great, I enjoy it. Originally I wouldn’t really have been from a gaming/developer background, although I’ve been making games in my bedroom, so to speak, for about 15 or 20 years, but I never really finished anything or released anything commercially. And then as you know, the economy in Ireland went belly up and at the time I was working in IT as a programmer doing web services and database frontends but I was made redundant. So we had the choice then, the family that is. We tried to look at the finances as best we could and I thought about moving to Dublin or London to try and get a job and split the family or do we just give this a go. It was a sort of hobby for me and I really enjoyed it so we decided to just, well, give it a go.

I said to my wife, it’s going to take about 12 months to make, and two years later [laughs] I’m still working on it. And it’s all on the wife’s credit card so either the game does well or else I’ll have to get a solicitor! But as I said, I enjoy it. It’s not one of those jobs that you wake up and think ‘Oh I have to go to work today’. I sort of roll out of bed into the home office, and I can sit here quite comfortably for 12 hours and then roll back into bed.

For this game, it’s quite visually intense, so there were a lot of assets I had to make, like models etc, so it’s taken a long time. I could have done with some help along the way and I tried to get some help at the start, but by the time I had explained what I wanted, like the type of textures and models, and tweaked the assets to fit, it was quicker just to make them myself. I’m not saying I would do that again, for my next project I might get a 3D modeller or something to take some of the workload off. Everything takes time, even this week of the release I’m already working on an update and going back over everything that people had problems with or new functionality people might need. All these take time and if I had to do 3D models as well, it would take an eternity. It has been an uphill climb but it’s been enjoyable so I can’t complain that much. But I could use a day off!

As the solo talent working on this, did you find yourself second guessing any decisions you made? Did you have anyone to bounce ideas off while developing the title?

Initially, not really. But around this time last year I met the guys from Mastertronics, the publisher, and they were very interested in what I was doing so they came on board. They didn’t really take any artistic control away or want to stamp their authority on the project, they were just really great guys and very helpful if I had any issues. We talk around 4 or 5 times a day. Until I had spoken to them, no one else had really played it at all or even seen it, even my wife still doesn’t really know what it’s about so it was interesting to get a new perspective on it. And it was scary too, to give it to someone else and say ‘well, what do you think of it?’

But it’s been great, and ever since then we’ve been banding ideas around. They know game development from more of a user’s point of view, so they know areas where the user will need more or less help with. They came on board and helped with all the localisation and other things where I would have struggled. It’s been a great partnership.

Are there any specific influences you drew on when making the game?

For this project, it hasn’t really been from other games. I’ve been working on this so long now I haven’t opened up my steam library in a while now. I haven’t played any games for about 2 years [laughs]. Going through college I would have been very keen on photography and filmmaking and that is what I wanted to come across in the game. I wanted to make it more of a cinematic experience than anything else. And it was films like The Shining and Shutter Island that influenced this. Not so much the visual side of the Shining, but the claustrophobic feel and the concept of single guy on his own as he gradually deteriorates. That was the kind of thought process behind it. And from Shutter Island, you’ll see a lot of the same scenery: the rain, the cliffs – so it was sort of an amalgamation of the two really.

There wasn’t much game related aside from the puzzle aspect. One of my favourite games growing up was Myst so I was trying to do my own sort of take on it, the kind of bleak environment as opposed to other games like Far Cry with all the sunshine and bloom. You’ll notice in the game, when it rains it gets even more washed out and the colours fade. Whether people will embrace that or not, only time will tell, but that was the sort of look at feel I was aiming at.

Ireland, especially up the north west, is one of the most beautiful places on earth…when it’s not raining. But it rains almost every day and it’s so bleak and grey that you don’t notice the lovely hills and stuff, but when the sun comes out its gorgeous. It’s a very inspirational place.

The other main theme in the game is one of mental health, where did that influence stem from?

I think it goes back to the sort of ‘true story’ aspect of it. When I first moved to Ireland I was totally a fish out of water, as I had left all my family and friends behind. It was quite a depressing time for me and I did go through some of those issues myself. I spent so long working on this in isolation, that all these things came out in the game. It linked quite well with the storyline of the game and with the influences of Shutter Island and The Shining, it just fit so well. I tried to get some quotes related to those issues as they don’t really come up often in games, or life in general actually. They’re almost sort of swept under the carpet at times.

Games like this are more about exploration and narrative and about less about gameplay. Do you think games are more suitable than other mediums for telling these types of stories?

I think we’re in the early infancy since games like Dear Esther broke the mould a bit, which itself had hardly any gameplay and was more like an interactive art piece. It’s nice for indie developers that plot and atmosphere can come across so well in games, as we have very limited budgets and resources to work with. It’s not like movies or AAA titles where you have millions of dollars and access to great tech like motion capture, etc. So, for indies like myself it’s easier and more cost effective to concentrate on telling a story rather than big graphical masterpieces like Call of Duty or something.

I think it’s a cool way of doing it, I really like cinema so it’s cool to try and recreate those things in a sort of game scenario. The public may say ‘oh it’s boring’, ‘there’s nothing to do’ and ‘where are the guns’ – so I think it’ll take a while for people to accept this. Maybe not for people my age; if you’re thinking about a demographic to push it towards, it’s aimed at a more mature gamer. My game wouldn’t go down well with a load of 12 year old kids! It might not ever happen though, I mean, are you going to see games like this on the next-gen consoles? I don’t think you are.

What was it like to develop in Ireland? Did you have much contact with any other Irish developers? Were there any supports available to you as you were making the game here?

To be honest I didn’t speak to anyone in Ireland at all. I don’t really know of studios in the country, except for Dark Water Studios in Derry, but I’m not sure what they’re doing nowadays. It might have something to with me being so far north, I’m right up the top, just west of Malin head, so I’m pretty far away from the IT hubs of Ireland. But having said that, the indie community are such a nice bunch of people anyway so there are loads of people I can contact if I need help. There’s such camaraderie there, there’s none of this ‘my game has got to do better than yours game’ because at the end of the day they’re just like me, sitting in their bedroom just trying to make a go of it.

But within Ireland, I didn’t really have any contact or help in any way and no financial help from any sort of government agency. I was trying to get Arts Council grant but it didn’t work out in the end. It would have been nice for my wife’s credit card to get some assistance! [Laughs]

I know you’re working on Oculus Rift support for the game, is that something you’re excited for? What kind of future do you see for the device?

Yeah, when they first did the Kickstarter, I backed them then to get one of the early versions. I’m not gonna lie and say Montague’s Mount was always destined for the Rift, because I started developing before the Rift was even mentioned, but as soon as it came out I knew it was going to fit so well. We made a small demo up and we took it to Eurogamer Expo in London and it went down so well. The game is about immersion at the end of the day, and about exploration and looking around for objects, so once you have got the headset on and all your peripheral vision is taken up the game, and everywhere you look is the game, it’s fantastic. That is if you can get over the motion sickness!

It’s an amazing piece of tech but I suppose time will tell if it will take off or not. There is an issue with motion sickness but with the next iteration of the device they’ll try to counteract that. I know when this first developer version came out, it’s probably because the resolution is quite low but I would put it on and five minutes later I’d have to go lie down for a half an hour! So that’s making the development of the Oculus Rift version a bit more time consuming than the standalone version because I can only have it on for about ten minutes. So if you came into my studio you’d probably see me holding it in my hand. But it’s a fantastic thing, and until you try it, you can’t understand how different it can make something.

Do you think it could end up like 3D in cinema, with an initial push and warm reception followed by a backlash and labelled as a gimmick?

I definitely think it’s here to stay in some form or another, and they will ultimately iron out the teething problems. It’s just one of those things you can see coming a mile away, when a consumer version does come out, you can just see the tabloid headlines in the first week talking about some child having a seizure because of it. The media are very quick to blame games for everything like shootings and such and I can see that kind of backlash coming.

It would be nice to see games benefit from it, rather than just have every game shoehorn Oculus Rift support in for the sake of having it there. It’s like the Wii, Kinect and PS Move, they were some of the first physical interaction between player and game but how well did they ultimately do? Now with the Rift being the next big thing, you can see in 24 months time, the PlayStation and the Xbox having their own versions of it.

Any plans beyond Montague’s Mount? Have you thought about any games you might like to make?

To be honest, I haven’t really given it much thought, my head it still sunk in to this for the moment. I’ve had a few small ideas floating around, one was a world-building type game, another was for a sort of 2D RPG but I’m just a bit mindful at the moment about taking any time away from Montague’s Mount; I don’t want to leave it hanging in any way. For the foreseeable future, I’ll concentrate on this, and iron out any issues and requests from users, like disabling achievement notifications as I’ve been told it breaks the immersion for some people. After that the Oculus thing will probably take me up to Christmas and then we’ll see what happens then in the new year. So no prototypes or plans as of yet, but plenty of ideas. I just need to make time!

But the days are gone of the 80s and 90s when games were on cassettes and discs and you would release it and run to the hills. The buying public now know what they want, and from a developer’s point of view, if there are bugs that come up, I want them to be fixed. So I think there will always be a few days a week I will work previous projects. But it would be nice to start something new. Two years in isolation, working on the same thing is enough to sap anyone’s strength. You’re seeing the same beach, rocks, trees every day, and not only that, but I look out the window and I see that same thing! [laughs]

Any idea when we’ll see the final part of the game?

Well as soon as we can but I want to get the Oculus version all wrapped up first. A lot of the code can be re-used from the first one obviously so it’s not going to take me years to make the second part. All the story is written so it’s just a case of sitting down to do it. It’s not going to take me too long but we’re talking a few months at least. We want to see how part one goes, and get the feedback on that before I head straight on to part two, see what people liked and didn’t like and what they expect from the second part. So for the next year or so, it’s still gonna all be about Montague’s Mount for me.

For more information about Montague’s Mount, check out the official site which includes links to buy the game.

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