I recently reached out to the folks at Bedtime Digital Games, developers and publishers of quirky indie puzzler Back to Bed to delve deeper into their thought process in creating the game. Jonas Byrresen, co-founder and lead game designer, was happy to answer. In keeping with the bedtime setting of Back to Bed, I chose to conduct the interview in my footie pajamas.
Jake Richards: I was very excited to see the Magritte, Dali, and Escher references. What made you decide on surreal art as backdrop to your game?
Jonas Byrresen: The aim from the start was to create a game universe that was a blend of dreams and the real world, as well as create dream elements that some players would be able to relate to from their own experience. To achieve this, we went to Dali for inspiration, since his art takes “normal” elements and use them in a new and strange way, something that could very well take place in a dream. Relatable, yet strange and different.
The Escher part was mostly implemented as a challenge to ourselves in the level design. The impossible shapes were something that feel very dream-like, but mostly we were driven by the fact that it would be cool to build levels around these shapes.
Implementing these impossible shapes and buildings forced us to use specific camera tricks. Combined with the Dali inspiration, this created the picturesque art style which is a defining part of Back to Bed; a style that we feel really stands out, utilizes the artistic skills of our art director and has ended up influencing the way we create game universes.
The Magritte inspiration was actually a bit coincidental. We needed a friendly object for the player to use often, and we ended up with the apple, due to its shape and color. It was not until afterwards that someone pointed out that it felt like a Magritte reference, so we just went with it.
JR: What are some other sources of inspiration, whether they be games or other forms of media?
JB: The basic idea was inspired a lot by the old Disney cartoons where the different characters sleepwalk. There is one where Goofy sleepwalks on a construction yard, but somehow never is harmed by the moving machinery or swinging objects, and there is a Donald Duck cartoon where Donald sleepwalks and is somehow able to walk on walls. This gave us the idea that sleepwalkers must have something or someone that helps them and keeps them safe, and this character could be any number of things, from an animal to an out of the body spirit.
A game which provided a large source of inspiration – and which may be a bit surprising – is actually World of Warcraft, or more precisely the escort quests from this game. These quest are sometimes loathed by the players, but a large part of the reason for this is that they offer a different challenge than the rest of the game and force alternate approaches to combat. You, as the player, have to worry about another character that you have limited control over, and this provides a different challenge than the classic “kill all enemies” and “reach the goal”.
JR: Bob suffers from narcolepsy. Do you have personal experience with the disorder?
JB: Nope. Luckily none of us have any serious sleep disorders, except for the occasional lack of sleep due to work crunches and large amounts of coffee 😛
Our goal was always a caricature of the sleep disorder, something that many could understand. We have talked to some people who sleepwalk, and they found the game funny and could relate to some of the elements, so we must have gotten something right.
JR: There’s a lot of discussions in forums over what Bob’s companion Subob actually is! Is he a dog, a cat, or something wholly other?
JB: We avoided defining the nature of Subob on purpose, as we wanted the players to interpret it for themselves what he is in relation to Bob, and it has been interesting to follow the different names for and theories about him. In early development, we only referred to him as a power animal, but testers and players have called him anything from dog to goat, and someone even called him a scorpion.
His true nature, as we see it, is that he is essentially the personification of Bob the sleepwalker’s survival instinct and is therefore part of Bob, hence the shared face. This is also the reason for the game world being half dream and half reality, since we see the world from Subob’s view and he is part of Bob’s sub consciousness. His dog-like form is to represent that he is a loyal companion, just as someone’s survival instinct ought to be, but also because we simply find the form likable.
JR: Bob’s dream enemies are numerous – man eating manholes, large black dogs, trains, etc. Are these Freudian glimpses into Bob’s real life stresses and fears?
JB: Those would be valid interpretations, as there are some elements from the game that can be seen in the short glimpses we get into Bob’s daily life.
Our original idea is that these enemies are normal “dangers” from the real world that a sleepwalker would face when sleepwalking through a city. Things like angry pedestrians, traffic and the occasional open sewer (though the latter is mostly just a movie trope). These dangers are then experienced through the sleeping mind of Bob and thereby given new forms that fit either his fears or simply something which is on his mind at the time, such as the train near the harbor becoming a large dark whale. If we saw the game from another angle, we might just see a man sleepwalking through town, somehow always turning at the right point to avoid being run over.
JR: Isometric games are becoming a lot less frequently (distressingly!) seen. What made you decide on this particular layout?
JB: There are several reasons for us going with the approach:
First, we need a locked camera to do the impossible Escher inspired building and shapes, as these do not work from every perspective. Isometric view allows for these shapes to work, along with some changes to the camera. Furthermore, this strengthens the picturesque visual style that looks like a painting.
Secondly, we like the overview this approach gives the player in relation to a puzzle. You have a much better chance of understanding the consequences of certain action in relation to both the levels and the sleepwalker. Our puzzle philosophy is that it is far better and more rewarding to solve a puzzle in Back to Bed by understanding the layout, rather than to just try different approaches and be lucky in the end.
Lastly, we just like the isometric angle as designers and players. Some of us because we are old school gamers that love that type of game and others because they like the visual sprawling levels the angle allows.
JR: You guys have been getting lots of positive feedback from the community. Are there any changes or updates to come for Back to Bed?
JB: Right now we are focusing on ensuring that the game runs on all platforms and that any newly-discovered bug is fixed as soon as possible. Besides that we listen to feedback and constantly evaluate if a change is needed, for example we just made a small change to how the controls are introduced to the players, as some people have a hard time finding the alternative controls.
Besides that, we are working towards getting the game on more platforms, as well as localized version for the major markets.
JR: Back to Bed was excellent but left me wanting more. Are there any plans for DLC or a sequel?
JB: We have no current plan for DLC, but we are working on a larger spiritual successor with the working title Dream Factory. The idea is to take all the things we learned from Back to Bed and apply it to a larger game with a good deal more focus on story and adventure, but still with strange and surreal puzzles.
Dream Factory will not be a direct sequel, but a new story, new characters and our unique art style taken to the next level. We have shown some concept art at Nordic Game this year, as we got some support from the Nordic Game Fund, but the game is still in early development and will likely change a lot.
JR: Back to Bed is available where digital games can be downloaded for 5.99 USD. In my review, I awarded it an 8 out of 10 for its bizarre, beautiful setting, its challenging puzzles, and a short but sweet narrative.