By Elizabeth Ballou
Ape Out, independent developer Gabe Cuzzillo’s latest beat-’em-up game, is a smash hit – literally. Playing the titular ape, players smash, blast, and scramble through gauntlets of guards as they escape captivity. Isaac Espinosa, who reviewed Ape Out for the Critics Circle, wrote that the game was “sure to bring out the primal instinct in anyone who plays it.”
Cuzzillo made Ape Out after studying game design at NYU’s Game Center, where I’m a current MFA student.The Game Center is associated with many of of the indie scene’s most unexpected hits, like Killer Queen, Cibele, Flight Simulator, and – now – Ape Out. In 2015, Cuzzillo entered the Game Center’s incubator (a program that provides space, time, and funding for game devs with promising projects) to work on the game that would become Ape Out. Four years later, Ape Out is earning industry-wide accolades. This all made me wonder: how did the game change over the course of development? Furthermore, how did Cuzzillo go from disaffected film student to game designer?
To get answers to these questions and more, I sat down with Cuzzillo at the Game Center’s Brooklyn campus.
EB: You’ve been in New York for a while now, right? How did you end up at NYU?
GC: Film school. It was my only plan for college – I just wanted to go to a good film school. But I got disillusioned after about a year and a half of film school.
EB: Over anything in particular? Or does that happen to all film school students?
GC: You don’t get to make a movie for at least a year. People say to you, “Everyone wants to be a director, but you’re not going to be a director.” So you have to pick a niche, and that’s how you’re hired in the industry. And when you get hired, you’re probably going to get coffee for somebody who’s been doing a job in your niche that you would like to be doing.
Not everybody is like that. But [that attitude] sucked.
EB: And so you ended up in the NYU Game Center.
GC: I took Games 101 [a class about the history of games] and Frank [Lantz, director of the Game Center] was teaching it at the time. Frank has a very different way of tackling things than anybody in the film department. It felt much more alive, and obvious to me that I should do games.
EB: Had you had any experience making games before you took Games 101?
GC: No. Over winter break, I started playing with gaming. My brother is a computer science person. He started teaching me how to use Game Maker and how to code. That summer I decided I was going to try to make a game, so I made Foiled.
The early version of that game was released for free in 2013. I showed it to Charles and then to Bennett. [A/N: Charles Pratt is a Game Center professor and freelance game designer; Bennett Foddy is also a Game Center professor and the creator of Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy.] Charles suggested that I do an independent study with Bennett, so I did that, and it was great. And then I started working on Ape Out about a week after.
EB: Wow. No time to rest on your laurels.
GC: It wasn’t Ape Out at the time, but it was something. I was trying to make a top-down game that felt good.
Then I decided to go on with Unity [AN: a popular game engine] because that’s a big-boy engine. I ran into a bunch of problems with Game Maker when I was trying to release Foiled. But to use Unity, you really have to know how to program, and I didn’t know how to program at all. I only knew enough to make Foiled. In Game Maker, you don’t really have to understand any fundamental code. There was all this stuff I didn’t know that I didn’t know with Unity.
EB: It’s heartening to hear you say that, because I also come from a humanities background, and a lot of us have been discouraged from learning how to code. We never learned how to do it until we got here.
GC: Yeah. I was scared of coding at first. My brother tried to teach me Lisp when I was ten. Lisp is hard. I’m still scared of Lisp.
When I first started playing with Game Maker, I was like, “Okay, I’m not gonna write any code.” Eventually my brother convinced me that I could. I took to it pretty quickly in Game Maker. I enjoyed it, the feeling of understanding why things were working. There was this sense of deep truth.
EB: Understanding code is very satisfying.
GC: But moving over to Unity, I was totally lost. I just remember being a month in [on this new project] and being totally lost. I didn’t understand why things were happening. It took me a lot of time to be comfortable with Unity. Game Maker gives you very direct control over how things move, but Unity isn’t like that. It took me six months just to get to the point where anything worked.
Eventually, I had a prototype where you would push and grab things. You weren’t a gorilla yet. You were a bald guy who had little bald guy heads for his hands, too. And the guards had a bald spot.
That was funny.
EB: But then the character became a gorilla, which is extremely hairy…
GC: Yeah, I pulled the hirsute dial in both directions.
EB: Is there some kind of connection between you going from no hair to all the hair?
GC: No. The reason it became a gorilla was because the verbs had become ‘grab’ and ‘push,’ and it didn’t make sense that it was a dude any more. And the reason for having grabbing wasn’t even to grab people. It was just to grab walls and peek around the corner. But then if you have a grab button, you have to be able to grab people too.
In that initial project, it was still very much a sneaky game. But by the summer of 2014, it had become about a gorilla. It was in the incubator in 2015, and it got a lot better – but I only had one level. For at least 90% of the incubator, it was just one long level. Very similar to what the fourth level of the game is now. It was hard.
EB: It’s still hard! Full disclosure, I haven’t gotten past that level. I keep doing it over and over, but I always get shot right before I’m done.
GC: Hah. Yes, it is still hard.
EB: Do you prefer games to be really hard?
GC: I think [Foiled and Ape Out] are both simple, accessible games. They have the same amount of control complexity, just two buttons and a stick. But the difficulty in Ape Out is…well. I still have conflicting feelings about it.
EB: Explain that.
GC: It’s something that I struggled with throughout development. I knew that it was gonna be a hard game. To bring out the nuance in a game that’s so simple, it has to be a little bit hard. There’s a lot of richness in it that you aren’t forced to engage with unless it’s difficult.
EB: This reminds me of the concept of elegance, which I learned about in Games 101. [An elegant game is one that is simple, but deep, like chess.] Would you say Ape Out is elegant?
GC: Maybe. There’s a flavor of elegance, I guess, which is my favorite kind: minimalist controls with maximalist output and environments. Having a simple interface to deal with a very complex set of situations and environmental things
EB: Are you thinking of any games in particular that do this?
GC: Spelunky is a good example. The game is just so full of stuff. The Binding of Isaac is another. They have very simple control schemes with very complex systems underneath. With Ape Out, I was trying to have as much richness in the interaction and combat as possible while still maintaining that very simple pick-up-and-play feeling.
EB: It sounds like it took a few years for you get the feel of that.
GC: Yeah. The period between the end of the incubator and now was just trying to figure out how it was going to be a full-length video game. There were a lot of false starts in that process. Structure was a thing that I struggled with until I settled on the one that I have now.
EB: Do you think there’s a reason for structure being hard to come by?
GC: Well, I knew that I wanted the game to be procedurally generated, but not for the reasons that games are typically procedurally generated.
EB: And what are the typical reasons?
GC: All the roguelike reasons for replayability and very divergent outcomes. In a real roguelike, every time you play, your character is very different at the end of the run. You find different stuff.
In a typical roguelike, you’re trying to make every run very different so that people play over and over again. The character has a lot of states, a lot of divergence in terms of health and armor. And for a while, Ape Out was going to be structured that way. There was going to be a home base.
But I was also committed to not putting any states on the player. The only state I thought was okay was health. I tried a lot of thought experiments for externalizing states. Like, you could enter the alarm state. But none of those things really panned out.
I didn’t want to get rid of the procedural generation because it was forcing you to play in an improvisational way. So many repeat action games are about memorizing a level and honing a route through it. I wanted this game to be much more about reacting on the fly.
EB: Yeah, I tried memorizing levels [in Ape Out], but you can’t really do that.
GC: You can get a sense of the flow of the level. But for the most part, I think it is successful at forcing you to just deal with what you find.
EB: I was intrigued by the disc system, which references the game’s jazz soundtrack. [A/N: The levels of Ape Out are organized into four ‘discs,’ each of which has eight levels.] Why jazz music for this game? Is it because jazz is also an improvisational system?
GC: That was a big part of it. There was a song I was obsessed with called “You Got to Have Freedom” by Pharaoh Sanders, which is the credit music in the game. It really grabbed me. I was trying to make something that matched the vibe of that song. It definitely informed the aesthetic and the music.
EB: What was the decision to bring on Matt Boch to help with the music? [A/N: Matt Boch is a Game Center professor and former creative director of Dance Central.]
GC: Matt had committed to working on it pretty early. He wanted to do this adaptive drum system, which I thought was a cool idea. It was during 2018 that the whole adaptive music system came in. It is miraculous.
EB: Did you know when Matt came on board that the soundtrack was going to be just drums?
GC: Everything with the cymbals matching the kills and the percussion-only soundtrack – that existed in the incubator. But Matt made it this system that reacts in many different ways. The gist is that there are thousands of live drum samples in there, put together on the fly based on which area you’re in. Matt did a bunch of stuff to simulate how those drums are played. The tempo goes up over the course of an album, and the drummer will lag or lead based on the intensity.
EB: And what about bringing on Bennett Foddy to provide some art assets?
GC: The conversation with Bennett happened in the summer of 2018. At first, he was just coming on to make props and variations of level tiles. But he also ended up doing the album covers and a bunch of little things to make everything prettier. Some of it is level design, and some of it is global shaders that subtly change the look of the game. Bennett had been advising me in bits and pieces over the years, so it wasn’t that big of a transition.
EB: You could see Bennett’s footprints in the game early on, then?
GC: Yes. He actually made the footprints for the ape.
EB: So you could literally see his footprints?
GC: Hah. Yes.
EB: You and Bennett and Matt all live in New York City. Would you say that the city has influenced the speed of the game?
GC: It’s not really the city. I feel like games get faster the longer you work on them. It’s a trend I’ve noticed. If you’ve ever played the early version of Nidhogg versus the released version of Nidhogg, that got a lot faster over the course of its development. As your brain gets used to interpreting this stuff, you want it to go faster and feel more impactful. I turned that dial as hard as I could before it felt wrong.
EB: Do you feel like Ape Out is ever too fast?
GC: No. I remember during the incubator, I would make gifs of the game and they would run at double speed, and I’d be like, “Yeah, that!” And then I would speed everything up. There was never a point where I think I would turn it down, really.
EB: You ended up publishing the game with Devolver. What was that like?
GC: They were pretty easy. Devolver is very chill company. The game took way longer than I was a expecting it to take, and they gave me space and time. It was all pretty easy. I’ve heard horror stories about other publishers, but Devolver was very hands-off.
EB: That’s a nice counterpoint to the normal narrative.
GC: Yes, definitely.
EB: A final thought: something that struck me about Ape Out is that it’s violent, but not in a gory or graphic way. It’s tasteful dismemberment.
GC: Yeah, that’s the goal. I like violence in video games but I also am sensitive to the way it’s portrayed. Real violence being portrayed in a fun way grosses me out. Some movies are like violence porn. Blue Ruin felt this way to me. And you’ve seen AAA video games that do this. So I wanted to stay away from anything that felt gross. I wanted it to feel joyous and impressionistic. It is not trying to take itself too seriously.
Elizabeth Ballou is a New York Videogame Critics Circle intern/contributing writer who’s part of the MFA program at NYU’s Game Center. Follow her on Twitter: @lizbetballou.