Interview with Argon Vile, creator of 'Monster Mind'
Following on from my review of Monster Mind, I metaphorically sat down with Argon Vile to discuss the game. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and consistency. Let's jump straight into it!
Rakuen: In the credits, you say Monster Mind was pretty much just done by you, although you took various assets from others. How long did it take to put everything together and what kept you motivated through it all?
Argon Vile: Development of Monster Mind began in January 2016 and finished in April 2018. When I first started the project, I tried to strike a balance between working on the game and working on my art. But after six months, I realized the scope of what I was creating, how long it would take. I decided to fully focus on the game, but I was still dissatisfied with the amount of progress I was making. I eventually adopted a motivational technique Jerry Seinfeld popularized, which is to take a physical wall calendar (being physical is important) and set a daily goal for yourself. My goal was to work on my game for one hour. Every day that I worked on my game, I would put an X on the calendar for that day. And eventually I would accumulate a string of five or 10 Xs in a row, and it would feel good. And that was my goal; don't break the chain.
Eventually there were days where I would be exhausted after work, and not want to program. On those days I learned it was best to take a nap, and program after; that usually worked. But then there were days where I would be so exhausted, I would take a nap, and still not feel like programming. I learned the best way to avoid that from happening was to wake up an hour earlier, and get my programming done first thing in the morning. This had a positive impact in two ways. Firstly, I would always be full of energy to work on my game, regardless of what is happening at work. Secondly, I would frequently code something in my game and hit a sticking point, "Should Heracross still give a player money if they don't interact with a Pokémon at all?" So it was nice being able to ruminate about these things at work, while they were fresh in my mind.
Rakuen: The game has a lot of really interesting dialogue. Some of it is purely for entertainment but there's a lot there delving into issues of relationships, distance, sexuality and acceptance. For example, there's one conversation about labelling people as either gay or straight, whether that serves a purpose or whether we should treat individuals as individuals. How much of the writing reflects your own thoughts? Or was it just a way to think through various topics?
Argon Vile: In some cases the dialog was my own ideas, and in many cases I was either repeating opinions others had told me, opinions I'd read about, or playing devil's advocate. I created the characters to make flawed arguments, or say things I disagree with. And many of the characters of course simply rub people the wrong way. That is on purpose. Regarding Grovyle's dialog and my own sexuality; I have come out of the closet and I identify as gay. I think some day maybe I will meet a girl and identify as bi, or identify as straight. That hasn't happened yet and I don't think it will ever happen, but it could happen theoretically. It's a big world. There are a lot of girls in it.
Grovyle's dialog is of course up to interpretation and I'm more curious what other people think, rather than telling them what I think. But as far as what I disagree with: I don't think there's any contradiction between assuming a label, and also being fluid in your sexuality. I think if you have the kind of friends who think negatively about you or talk behind your back because you "became gay" or "used to be bi", then you should find nicer friends. Grovyle's fatal flaw is assuming the worst of society; but I don't think this is because of a negative character trait or "something wrong with her" as much as maybe some negative personal experiences she had.
Rakuen: There's a lot of diversity with the characters in your game. I'm not just talking about different Pokémon species or genders but that includes body types (even ones one would not normally think of sexually) and how they react to specific sexual acts or sex in general. Was that just done to keep things interesting or does it serve a bigger purpose?
Argon Vile: The different body types was by design. I wanted to constantly subvert player's expectations of what to see in the game. If I were selfishly designing a game just to cater to my sexual interests, I would probably just make ten cute bipedal Pokémon and be done with it. But I thought, wouldn't it be funny to have a Pokémon that's SO BIG it doesn't even fit on the screen!? What about a Pokémon that literally doesn't have anything resembling genitals? What about a Pokémon that doesn't have a body at all!? I wanted to have a lot of moments where the player simply is in disbelief, that they wouldn't expect a Pokémon like that to be included.
My favorite NES game is Battletoads. Not because of the graphics or music or because it is still challenging after 25 years—but it is because the levels are so insanely variable in their design. You play through the first level, and it's sort of like Double Dragon; you stumble around and beat people up. But then there's a boss fight and... What!? You're fighting the boss from the PERSPECTIVE of the boss!? This is insane! And then you beat level one and... This entire level is vertical!? There is literally not a single platform, in what is a platformer game!? And it continues on and on, every level in Battletoads has something that is absolutely insane and absolutely distinct. If someone played the first seven levels, they would never guess what happens on level eight. There is no way to guess.
I wanted to design a game with that level of variability. I think it is difficult to achieve in a puzzle game (and very difficult with only one programmer and artist), but hopefully my game blows people's minds every once in awhile.
Rakuen: I haven't played Battletoads myself but I understand what you mean about bringing in variations and things to keep it fresh. Making a massive change with every level does bring a bit of risk that you might have something awful come in which wouldn't exist if you stick with solid core gameplay.
Argon Vile: I hadn't noticed this. In general I stay away from cat and dog-shaped Pokémon, as I'm not very good with their anatomy and people have a sharper eye for when I draw them incorrectly, because they see them every day. But I enjoy drawing turtles and quadrupedal dragons; in hindsight I'm surprised none of them made it into my game.
Rakuen: Did you worry at all whether the mix of Pokémon porn and logic puzzles could shrink the audience? Some people might not want sex coming up between their puzzles or other people don't want to think so much before getting to the "good part."
Argon Vile: Yes, I took great care in catering to players at both extremes. One of my testers was, thankfully, very "anti-sex," he did not like any sort of graphic sexual intercourse or sexual fluids in the game. So to cater to those kinds of players, I introduced an item early on which has a dual purpose, one of which is to eliminate all sex from the game.
I did not have any play testers who hated puzzles. But, I predicted some people would just want to have sex as fast as possible, or that they would struggle with the puzzles. When I first designed Monster Mind, it was just 5-peg puzzles. And this is probably sort of overly cruel to say, but I simplified the puzzles to 4-peg puzzles, and then simplified them to 3-peg puzzles which I felt were trivial. But I wanted to simplify them even further just in case... How low could I go! One-peg puzzles? Two-peg puzzles? I tried out 2-peg puzzles but they were too simple, but I came up with an interesting alternative which has become the "Novice" puzzles. I do not think these should be too difficult for anyone—but if they are, then there is a hint feature.
If you have played my previous Brick Break game [XXX version], I balanced it similarly. I designed the "expert mode" first, which was based on my own ability and creating a balanced play experience; with enough practice I would win the game on my own merit, or lose if I messed up. Afterwards, I created two additional difficulties which I felt were insultingly easy. But, when designing a game like this which is incentivizing players with pornography, I think it's very important to cater to everyone, no matter what their skill level is. After all it's a very cruel message to tell someone that they're "too unskilled to have sex." I already receive that message enough in my real life!!! I do not need a video game to pile on that message...
Rakuen: You're obviously a fan of these sorts of logic puzzles and I think the game mentions other Japanese puzzles at some point. How good are you at the game's puzzles? Is it all easy or do you still struggle?
Argon Vile: I am currently rank 43, if that gives you an idea of my skill level! [Rakuen: I'm currently rank 46!] It is an OK rank, but I have been surpassed by many members of the Monster Mind Discord server, which makes me incredibly happy! I have never had someone overcome my skill level at a game I designed. Before this game, I designed Toadsy, Brick Break, and an unpublished "BubbleGame.swf". And for all of those games, many people would try out my games or play for a few hours, and two or three people would "fully explore" the games to do things like, earn all of the platinum medals. But, nobody ever challenged my skill at the games; I always held the high scores and made it the furthest in my games.
I have heard an anecdote about Terry Cavanagh; when he released Super Hexagon, he was at the top of his own leader boards. People eventually beat his times, but he would always reclaim the top spot. He was not doing this to bully people, but merely to demonstrate that the skill cap for the game exceeded their skill level, there was still room to improve. You've beaten the game? Well try surviving the ending for 30 seconds! You've survived for 30 seconds? Well how about two minutes! You've survived for two minutes? Try 10 minutes!
I always try hard to design games with a very high skill cap, a cap which far exceeds my own personal skill level. I have tried to design games where even after playing for 50-100 hours, I still acknowledge I am making mistakes and can improve my skill. So, I sometimes feel sad when after publishing a game, nobody beats me at my game. So I am very glad this finally happened with Monster Mind! It feels great to finally lose at my own game, and I congratulate anybody who can exceed rank 43 as it is a very difficult climb beyond that.
Rakuen: You've made a brick breaking game and now this. Are you planning to make another game?
Argon Vile: I am planning to make more games, I have my next two games planned out. The complexity is that Flash will reach its end of life in 2020. This is sad, because Flash does one thing very well—it creates a sandboxed environment for games which be enjoyed across any platform, and which can be published trivially on the internet by sharing a single file.
Some will say, "Well HTML5 kind of does what Flash does." Yes, but you cannot publish or download an HTML5 game trivially, it includes a whole bunch of different files and assets which need to be collected. Some will say, "Well, you can just release a Windows game using Unity." Yes, but I will have to deal with platform differences, on top of the security implications which come from downloading a mysterious EXE from a porn site on the internet!!! For every 100 Windows users who open an SWF in their browser, what percent of those do you think would download and install a random EXE? I would estimate maybe two or three. I know I personally would not do it.
So, I have my next two games planned out. The first game will be an action-puzzle game similar to Tetris which will have no story/pornography elements; it will be something quick so that I can learn whatever new platform I end up running on. The second game I have in mind will be a much larger tactical RPG, with dialog similar in tone and scope to Monster Mind's dialog. However, I'd like both of these games to omit the use of copyrighted characters. I don't want to sell my games, as I want them to reach as broad an audience as possible. But even if the games are free, I have received encouragement to start a Patreon to fund development, so that I can do this kind of stuff full-time. I think that's an interesting idea, but it means I will need to distance myself from other people's intellectual property.
I'm really looking forward to working on these new games, and have a million ideas! But ideas are the easy part of game development. In 2-3 years, after the Flash issue is sorted out, maybe I will sit down and we can see if I am actually disciplined enough to create a second game. But if nothing else, Monster Mind has showed me that it can be done. Maybe that will make it easier the second time around.
Rakuen: I think the end of Flash's life will be quite sad. It's not quite any platform because, certainly Android, doesn't really support flash very well. But anything run in a browser has cross-platform compatibility. You can make an EXE game but then you're excluding anyone using a smartphone or a tablet or a Unix OS. Maybe that's just a small portion of your potential audience but I think it's sad.
An RPG with similar story elements to Monster Mind would certainly be appealing. If it's also going to keep the sex heavy aspect, would you say it would be something broadly similar to Corruption of Champions (NSFW link)?
Argon Vile: I'm not familiar with that game! I would not be surprised if the idea I have in mind bears similarity to existing games out there. I would assume Monster Mind followed a similar formula to some existing hentai games, even if I had never played them.
Rakuen: The main puzzles are clearly just extensions of the standard Master Mind formula. For the seven peg challenge, was that an existing variant on the game or something you came up with on your own?
Argon Vile: The 7-peg puzzles were initially included as a joke. I wanted to include a 5-peg tutorial for aesthetic symmetry, but anybody who was solving 5-peg puzzles would certainly not require a tutorial, and the techniques were identical to 4-peg techniques. So, there was the question of, what do I put in a 5-peg tutorial? I decided to use this tutorial as a gateway into Abra's mind, where you learn just how awful Abra is at relating to a layperson's thought process. A part of this would be an insurmountably complex puzzle which nobody but Abra would ever find interesting. Designing this puzzle required a tiny bit of innovation, as I wanted a harder variant of the classic Master Mind puzzle which would still not require more than 6 clues. But yes, this variant was my own design.
Unfortunately after creating the joke puzzle, one of my testers wanted the opportunity to solve the puzzle for real. This created a dilemma as I did not want to include the 7-peg puzzles on the main menu, as they're incredibly difficult and not very much fun. So, they are sort of hidden away as an Easter egg. There is no reward for solving them. Except of course, lots and lots of money. Also, it turns out some people think they are very fun. I try not to judge those people. But, I judge them a little.
Rakuen: The joke about Abra's inability to explain is definitely apparent. I couldn't follow Abra's explanation of the 7-peg puzzle. It was just too quick. But, I am one of those weird people who really like the 7-peg puzzles. To me, the three and 4-peg challenges are way too easy; the 3-peg puzzles can sometimes be solved instantly. Five pegs is all-right but except for rare circumstances, don't require too much effort. The 7-peg puzzles though… they were really tough at first but I've been picking up techniques to do them and I was so glad when I finally solved one without a single hint! I even managed to finish one where it was pretty much necessary to solve all the colours at once which was really something.
Is there anything else that you would like to add? Maybe a message to people who haven't played Master Mind or something you think is important that I didn't cover?
Argon Vile: Sure! I'll just let them know that there are a lot of spoilers out there, but I think the game is best enjoyed with minimal knowledge and an open mind. So, try not to look up too much about the game. It is a puzzle game which involves talking to male or female Pokémon and taking off their clothes. I often talk to people who dislike the puzzles or don't care for the porn or skip the dialog—none of these three facets are essential to the game, so just give it a try! You will know in the first three minutes if it is your kind of game or not.