AltChar caught up with Rami Ismail, independent games developer and co-founder of Vlambeer, best known for Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing, during last week's Reboot Develop conference in Dubrovnik. Rami has some interesting thoughts on how cultural backgrounds can affect a game.
The Dutch independent studio Vlambeer is a two man operation made up of Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman. Between the two, Jan Willem is in charge of the development side of things, while Rami takes care of business. Rami says that they dislike each other greatly, but more often than not, it is an advantage for the company rather than a hindrance. They both hold veto rights with the aspects of Vlambeer they are responsible for, but work together closely on pretty much everything.
The video game industry is rapidly expanding, indie and AAA, with developers from Eastern Europe being the most recent grand entry onto the global scene. They have brought a wealth of art, tradition, folklore, history and a fresh way of looking at the world with them, which has enriched the gaming landscape immensely.
Rami's father was an Egyptian immigrant and Rami himself has maintained a connection to his heritage and Islam.
"I think that the Arab/Muslim world has a tremendous history both in in art and music, but also in mathematics, early programing and algebra. There is an enormous wealth of thematics to pick from. One of the things I find most interesting during my travels is learning that having a different world view also means that you see the possibility space of mechanics differently", Rami said.
"There is this game named Farsh, made by an Iranian developer named Mahdi Bahrami and what fascinated me about it is that it's an entirely new mechanic. It's a game about rolling and unrolling a carpet, with any tile that is under the carpet basically being stuck to it. If you rotate your carpet, you rotate all the tiles underneath along with it. It's a traversal puzzle, so you need to get from point A to point B. You use that mechanic to move the tiles around, so you can build a bridge to the exit. It's a really simple mechanic, but nobody had ever thought of it. I started wondering why, and I realised that in Iranian culture carpets are quite prevalent, so when he wanted to make an abstract game with sort of an abstract protagonist, he ended up with a carpet. Then it was a very short leap to carpet cover sleeves and what can be done with that. It's not a mechanic that a western developer would have come up with."
"The beautiful thing about this is that it is impossible to know which parts of a culture are going to be a part of games in a meaningful or interesting way. What we do know is that, as we get more perspectives, we are going to see more unexpected things. Examples that we can now discuss and talk about are obviously exciting, but the things that are really exciting to me are those that we still have to look at and go - Oh, that makes sense. It's so obvious, and I never thought of it. Every time an area of the world, a territory or a community joins the games industry you just look at a game they created and have to say - That's it, that's the thing I never would have seen anywhere else. That is what is most exciting to me."
Being very active as a game developer and speaker in the past 7 years, Rami has had the unique opportunity to compare different approaches to designing games from across the world.
"I think the main thing that is interesting about Vlambeer, in this regard, is a very subtle detail and it's not really an important thing at all. We have a game about a fisherman out on the sea. He is kind of miserable and kind of alone. The one thing that always amuses me is that there is no alcohol on the boat. Because I'm a Muslim and I didn't want to depict alcohol in the game. It's such a little thing, but some people pick up on it, and usually the first question is - Why is this guy not drunk? He clearly looks like he should have been drunk. With most of my games, I am not the main designer, but my co-founder is. He is in charge of what we make - but my background still shimmers through it. I think that is one of the beautiful things about games; so many little personalities can shine through a game."
"You will never see us make a USA centric war game for example, you will never see us use real life conflicts and things like that. Because as an Arab, we have especially recently been on the abused or defeated side of most conflicts, so it's not really a thing we like to talk about all that much. I feel very similarly about Eastern Europe, with a game like This War of Mine, which could never have been made in the west. Because Americans for example might have a hard time seeing themselves in a game, in a loosing position", Rami said.
This makes a lot of sense, considering that games are designed and developed as interactive experiences, and it would be close to impossible to take to such task without a clear and specific frame of reference.
"Even games like Homefront, which was supposed to be a game about America being taken over by Korea - it was still about heroes. They can't make a game like This War of Mine, it is not a part of their collective consciousness. So, unless someone is really rebelling against their own world view, it would be very hard for an American to make such a game. But in Eastern Europe, it makes so much sense to think of war as something bad, instead of something heroic. Those are the small differences, that can become a huge deal for a game, and that is something I am very excited about."