Halloween Week Series! Immortality’s Connor Carson On Programming Things That Make The Fire Burn And Cauldron Bubble

How do you create Immortality? In Part 3 of our Halloween Week deep dive into the game Immortality, our awesome Bronx intern Khloe Wilkerson interviews the one and only programmer for Half Mermaid, Connor Carson. Connor, coincidently, was once an excellent intern for the New York Videogame Critics Circle herself, and she speaks about her time with us. While Khloe is our youngest intern, she asks thoughtful questions about Connor’s life in games – which we’re sure you’ll find compelling.

By Khloe Wilkerson

I’m pleased to introduce Connor Carson from the Half Mermaid team today. Connor was the programmer for the video game Immortality, which has also received rave reviews. This game is ideal for Halloween, which is quickly approaching. Connor is a determined programmer who has had a passion for video games since she was a teenager playing Sierra games with her mom. She has enjoyed working with Sam Barlow to present this wonderful game to us. I’d like to begin by thanking Connor for taking time out of her day to be here. So here’s my first question…

Were you always interested in video games growing up? And if so, what were the types of video games you would like to play?

Connor Carson: Yeah, I wasn’t in a career. It didn’t even occur to me that people made video games for a living when I was younger, so I mostly just played them with my mom and my older sisters. We had an old Sega Genesis. I used to watch her play the aliens three game on that and I grew up watching her play all of the old tomb raiders, which are some of my favorite games to this day. I think the old ones still really stand on their own feet. Even now, there are a lot of puzzle games. We would play some of the old Nancy Drew games or things like mist. Seven gas was an old sort of weird, spooky puzzle game that we played together.

Khloe Wilkerson: Do you think those puzzle games could like also reflect on your personality for trying to like solve mysteries? And that’s kind of a little bit of what immortality is about, right?

Connor Carson: Yeah, I think so. I think puzzle games and mystery solving have all kind of gone hand in hand in my life and my career and certainly play a huge part in Immortality. That’s part of what drew me to the project. When I interviewed at Half Mermaid, they were in the early stages of development for Immortality. Hearing sort of what the focus of the game was: this mystery surrounding an actress and these three films that were sort of lost to time. It was like, such a weird, perfect fit and play to a lot of my interests. I mean, puzzle solving in general,  that’s largely why I think I took to programming too. I think programming is its own little case of solving puzzle after puzzle. Day in and day out, it’s quite satisfying. When you finally solve one and things start to work.

Khloe Wilkerson: That’s so cool, that you’re able to relate your childhood to even now with video games, which leads me on to my next question. 

How has your background impacted you as you went through life? And how has that changed from being a child up to now?

Connor Carson: Oh, boy, it’s impacted things in ways I did not expect. Which is why I think it’s really important not to take for granted any sort of part of your experience, no matter how related or not to video games, I actually, you know, I grew up playing them. But I pursued acting for years and years, I got my undergraduate degree in theater and just happened to take an elective class during my undergraduate degree for fun on video games, because I just love to play them. That was kind of what planted the seeds of, “people do this for a living”, maybe I should look into that. Then getting into that, I had no idea that sort of programming was what I was going to take. I wasn’t sure what aspect of video game development I was going to take to and it just so happened that that sort of puzzle solving part of my mind really latched on to programming. Then lo and behold, I graduate after getting my master’s in game design and Sam Barlow’s making a game about an actress and it’s sort of like, based on this video editing movie Ola software. So it was like this weird, perfect meeting of all these things in my life from the video games and the puzzle solving to even acting, which I never expected to come into my video game career in the way that it has when I decided to switch gears and do video games instead of acting. And yet all of that has really been so useful. So I think yeah, I think any part of your background, no matter how related or not, it seems that the time is going to play into making such, interesting surprises and become so useful in ways that you don’t expect. It’s been really fun to see and I hope that that’s the case for a lot of people that different aspects of their life come into it for them.

Khloe Wilkerson: Yeah, it seems like all of the things that You’ve done have come into hand. It’s like the universe telling you that you should do this. 

Having been offered the opportunity to work with Barlow on this video game, Immortality, how did you feel when you’re first offered that? What was a casual day for you working with him on Immortality?

Connor Carson: Being offered the job, I was on cloud nine. I was very lucky in the fact that I was able to get this job. And started basically right after I graduated from my master’s degree, and like I said, all these weird sort of Kismet things that were like, oh, all of these have to do with so many different aspects of my life. It just felt like, weirdly, this job was made for me, even though that was not obviously their intent with their putting together the job description. You know, I found my way to it and was lucky enough to be offered. It was so exciting to know that all those parts of my life are going to be useful in the development of this game. Then day to day, you know, we’re a really small full time team. It’s just Sam, my boss, Natalie Watson, our amazing producer, and then myself. So it’s really intimate, it’s not incredibly stressful for the both of us. But you know, there’s been stressful days, especially as we’ve approached launch, but the day to day is, really trust. We trust each other to do the work that we have to do, we have a stand up meeting once a day where for maybe half an hour to an hour, we chat and talk about what the things are that we need to tackle that day, or where we’re stuck. But other than that, you know, especially with remote work, we’re kind of left to our own devices. We’re all very supportive of each other, we’re in constant contact on slack just message chatting. But yeah, it’s very much just a small group trusting each other to get the job done and being in good communication.

Khloe Wilkerson: What were the best and worst parts about working with Sam Barlow for this game? And would you be willing to do something similar to this, or have any regrets, or lessons?

Connor Carson: No regrets. Definitely a lot of lessons. Especially for me just to have you know, it being the first game I’ve launched. Professionally, a lot of lessons learned in so far as working without source teams are concerned. In making the code as flexible as possible, we outsourced teams to port the game to Xbox and to mobile. They’ve been amazing. But I’ve learned a lot as the lead programmer who was kind of developing the foundation of the code. And what I can do better in the future to make it more flexible, more easy for people that need to port it to those other platforms to do so without having to, like totally overhaul very fundamental parts of the code. So those have been huge lessons. The hardest part I think about working remotely was I mean, really, it’s just like, because we’re a small team, everybody has a lot of creative input, which is wonderful. But when you’re working in isolation outside of those 30 minute meetings, you don’t necessarily have somebody next to you to bounce an idea off of or to sanity check yourself. For example, there’s this bug and I just can’t figure it out. And I just need a second set of eyes to look at it and validate that I’m not crazy right now. So you know, that’s definitely an aspect I miss of being in person, but I think we’ve made it work really well. And yeah, it’s been remote since I started because COVID was pretty much hitting full swing as I graduated and started this position, but I can definitely see there are aspects that would be better if we were all together. There are aspects that have lent itself to remote work, too. So it’s sort of pros and cons, but it balances out.

Khloe Wilkerson: I’ve heard a lot about team members being overworked and especially with a lack of people in this game.  How did you deal with this problem? Not having someone to check over you? Make sure everything you’re doing is correct. What was your approach? 

Connor Carson:  Well, I think the daily meetings are a huge step, just you know, even though we weren’t together, minute to minute hour to hour, knowing what the other person was working on. Being able to come together every day and say, here’s what I did, here’s what I need to do, here’s what I’m stuck on. Really make sure that everyone is held accountable. And I think as far as, you know, things like crunch and practices that are unfortunately, all too prevalent in the industry. I’ve been very lucky. I think the rest of our team would hopefully agree, you know, I think we’re all very cognizant of those practices. And very rarely have there been times where I’ve had to do something like work really late into the night or on a weekend, they’re far and few, the occurrences where that happens, which makes it then not horrible when they have to happen. It’s like, okay, there’s this thing, this demo coming up, I will work a Saturday to get it done knowing that I’m probably not going to work another Saturday in the next six months. So you know, Sam’s taken amazing care of us, Natalie’s taken amazing care of us, I think it really comes down to them. Planning well. Having realistic expectations, and all of us just being in good communication with each other and having a respect for each other’s time and, and personal health too. Because I mean, you know, at the end of the day, when you run somebody into the ground to get a project done, that the end product is going to suffer as well. Because that person is, you know, functioning on whatever little bit that they can to get something done. You’re going to have a lot more mistakes when you have somebody operating like that, and that’s going to take even more time.

Khloe Wilkerson:  It seems like the things that you’ve said, are most like, your values that you take into consideration. Do you think that has occurred in the game and mortality?

Connor Carson: Sorry, I’m not sure if I understood the question just in terms of like, have we liked the values to the game? 

Khloe Wilkerson: So like, some of your values in life, do you think that the game reflects on some of those?

Connor Carson: Yeah, I mean, the game itself touches on really dark themes, and really sad things that were not uncommon in the film industry in those eras and problems that are honestly still prevalent in some cases today. The things that are happening in the films and bought on behind the scenes on set, don’t reflect our values. But I think that immortality is, hopefully it comes across it, it’s a critique of those things. In the way that we critique that and we sort of, make the player confront those problematic things, I do think it’s a good reflection of my values. Personally, I think of the team’s values, those were things that we talked about a lot in terms of wanting to send the right message, you know, being true to what was happening in those areas. But being critical of it, as we were kind of exploring some of those darker themes that occur in the game.

Khloe Wilkerson: Getting into more depth about the game, you have a feature in which players are able to zoom in on certain parts and aspects. And the game will change scenes based on that certain thing, which is called match cut. 

What is the idea behind the match cut? And how did you go through changes before it? And how is it now?

Connor Carson: The match cut system was really interesting to work on. It’s definitely one of the more complicated systems in the game.  The main idea behind it was sort of giving the player a new tool by which to explore. A lot of Sam’s previous games, they used to text so people would explore, you know, based on the words that the actor said, and this sort of, forces players to engage with the movies in a way that is a little bit more cinematic. The way that a film director might think about your thinking about the visual themes and the visuals and the objects that are recurring throughout these films that are all centered around the same actress playing these really complex female characters. It forces you to sort of look beyond the text. And beyond just the pure plot of the story and into a lot of what’s being said with the way the shots are aligned with why certain objects are within line of view and a shot and why that object occurs over and over again, like, like an apple occurring over and over again, and Ambrosio, the first of a Boris’s films. (15:38) And as far as implementing that, that was, it was complicated. Honestly, it took a huge team of post production, through rotoscoping, these individual objects across every scene, that is all converted into data that the game engine can use and tracked across every single scene. Then there’s some really fun algorithms sort of guiding the player to the next thing, you know, deciding what it’s going to go to and what scene it’s going to go to. For example, if you click on an apple and see A is going to go to the Apple and see B, C, D, or E, and there’s lots of fun things, it’s tracking there about what the player is doing to make that decision. But that took a lot of fine tuning, a lot of brilliant design work by Sam and an army of post postprocessing. People that were actually rotoscoping all this data. So yeah, that was quite the process.

Khloe Wilkerson: It seems like all the hard work was able to pay off because Immortality is immortality is an amazing game. And like, I would love to be able to play it but, I’m under age. So I had the watch reviews about it. But, the main protagonist, Marissa Marcel is a lost actor in the game. 

Why did you decide to make it this way? Is there any meaning behind the name or why she was a lost actor?

Connor Carson: Well, there is, there’s some interesting reasons as to why she’s lost. Part of it has to do with very specific plot points in the game that lean a little bit more into the spooky side of things. So without giving anything away, that’s part of it. But I think so too. It was, I think it was really a choice to I’m trying to think how to talk about without giving away the secrets of the game. So that I don’t ruin it for you when you are able to play it. But, I think that she’s, missing for a long time. I think that we really want to bring the players’ attention to sort of what that means when she’s missing. But she still exists within these films, they were last time they were never released. So it makes it sort of that much more special that the players interacting with this treasure trove of footage that not only was never released, but now the actual person that starred in them is missing. You know, the game focuses a lot on themes surrounding the way that she is looked at not just by people watching the films, but by the director by the other actors who are on set with her. By everyone in this process that is really sort of participating in this kind of voyeurism around this actress in an era where actresses were not treated particularly well. So I think, having her go missing is just another way into that sort of thematically and to make the player question, you know, what, what happened to her? What does it mean that sort of everything that she was making was controlled by these outer forces and now those were never even released and now she’s gone. You have to kind of figure out why that happened. Then beyond the plot, what that means about Marisa and about the industry and about the way we sort of treat, I would say cinema and visual visual arts in general.

Khloe Wilkerson: Do you think there is anything that players often miss or misinterpret while playing the game?

Connor Carson: Hmm. That’s a great question. I have to think about that one. There are, without giving anything away, there’s another layer of things happening in the game that can be tricky to find. You do have to find it to win. So I think most players eventually find it. But it takes some time for some I’ve watched some streams, and it’s so hard to not hop in the chat and be like, maybe just try this. But I’m like, I can’t get involved. But yeah, so that sort of mechanic that comes up in the game takes people a little bit, but I think there’s some interesting things too, with regards to the plot, you know, there isn’t exactly a, “you’ve finished.” There’s a point where the credits run, but you haven’t truly necessarily finished the game, you haven’t seen everything, you might have your very own and personal interpretation of what happened to Marissa. There’s no part of the game that says like, this is exactly what happened. Here’s how close you got it right. So there’s a lot that’s left up to interpretation. And from a lore perspective, I know what did happen as far as it was written by the team. So it’s interesting to see how people interpret things differently. But I wouldn’t say that they’re wrong or missed because it is left kind of vague in that sense intentionally to see sort of, to let the player kind of come to their own conclusions about certain things, even though we have our own sort of behind the scenes truth of what happened. You know, I don’t think that they’re necessarily wrong if what they believe happened didn’t, doesn’t align with that.

Khloe Wilkerson: With players left, with more interpretation to the game itself, at the end of it, are you and your team having any future plans for the game immortality or another game? If so, what are they?

Connor Carson: We’re looking at a couple of different things right now, I don’t believe Sam can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that we’re necessarily going to continue directly off of the immortality IP. But certainly, you know, Sam loves cinema and his previous games have used live action footage and different in varying ways. And I think there’s always sort of this pattern of building off of what the last game did. So with this new match cut, mechanic and some of the other various things that we’ve incorporated into Immortality, I think it’s very possible that we’ll build off of some of those things in the next game, but yeah, Nothing’s set in stone yet, as far as the next project.

Khloe Wilkerson: How important do you think it is to have a mobile version of Immortality?

Connor Carson: I think that’s going to be really important. We want to get it out so badly. With Netflix, and we are working on it, it should be very soon. But I think because it’s such a cinematic game, I do think it has a real chance to draw a lot of people that maybe aren’t ordinarily gamers. They’re not necessarily playing on a console or playing on PC, but they might be on their Netflix app and be interested in this game, which is almost more akin to cinema in some ways than it is to games. So I think it’s really important just to be able to reach those people that might not ordinarily interact with the game.

Khloe Wilkerson: That’s cool to see that the game and its creators are being more inclusive towards other people that might not also be in the gaming career. 

Has the game Immortality changed your perspective on games? Have you always liked core or cinematic games? When you were first creating the game? Did it scare you at first?

Connor Carson: Ooh, these are good questions. I have always liked horror, or at least like certain genres of horror I’ve really been interested in. I read a lot of horror novels and a lot of, you know, Sam’s inspirations are people that I really admire a lot of like David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick and all of that, so I was a big fan going in to that. As far as cinematic games, I hadn’t really played a lot. I played her story and told lies before I interviewed just because I hadn’t had a chance to play. Before that point, I wanted to be familiar with Sam’s work. But besides that, I played some older FMV games from again, when I was growing up, and my mom was playing these games. Those were kind of the games at the time. So phantasmagoria, which is a hilarious, campy, really intense horror video game from oh, gosh, the 80s, maybe. But so yeah, I hadn’t played anything like Sam’s work leading up to getting employed by Sam. But it has been a massively educational experience, especially I mean, you know, as a team, because we were a small group. And because there was so much room for everybody to have. Narrative and design input we did a lot of days to where it would be like, alright, this is the movie reference that we’re going to look at today. We would all watch this old movie together.

And I learned so much about cinema in general, both films that I had never heard of, and filming practices and some of the darker stuff that you would find out about famous directors from like the 70s and 80s. But that is good to be aware of. And you know that that was a huge education. It’s given me a lot of respect, both for cinema and for games that veer into the more cinematic and I’ve loved working on this. I would be, I would be happy to keep working on more cinematic games. As far as getting scared, there’s been a couple moments, there’s definitely been a couple moments because there is so much footage in this game. And there are so many surprises that even as many years as I’ve been working on it, which has been about two and a half years, now a little bit more, there were surprises that I would forget about or hadn’t seen somehow, in the months working on it. And they would, they would throw me for a loop, I definitely got spooked several times, or heaven forbid, my husband would walk in on me while I’m testing something, and he would get freaked out because I was testing a particularly spooky bit that he had no idea about.

Khloe Wilkerson: That’s great. It’s like, you’re like playing the game and like you’re the programmer, and then this special thing comes up. And it’s like “Ahhh.” 

So after you made the game, did you feel like there was something you could have done better?

Connor Carson: I think just like on a very technical side, for me personally, there are things I could have done better touching again, on what I mentioned, with regards to just making the code more flexible for teams that were going to come in and port it to other platforms. Sort of boring stuff, but on a purely organizational level, doing a better job of tracking what bug fixes and different sorts of patches made it into each branch of the game. So there’s definitely been times where it’s like, I fixed that and assumed that it was fixed across Xbox and mobile only to find out a couple of weeks later, like, oh, no, we didn’t pull those changes. That’s why it’s still broken. And we’ve been hitting our heads against the wall. So it’s little things like that. That is like all right, that could have been done better going to log out away for the next game. But you know, as far as the end product of the game goes, I’m really pleased with it. We’re really, really pleased and honored with the reception that it’s gotten. It’s just been really amazing. For me to have it be my first game like I’m humbled and honored that people are reacting the way that they are. So yeah.

Khloe Wilkerson: That’s amazing. So, as we’re wrapping up, I have a few more questions left. I’ve heard you were a New York Video Game Critic Circle intern before. 

What was that like? And you wrote about Syria games for circle. How has immortality, an adventure game, affected you?

Connor Carson: Oh boy, I was an intern that was wonderful, I got to meet incredible people, I got the chance to do some write ups, including that article, which I loved writing. Because again, those are the things that grew up playing that had such a big impact on me growing up that I didn’t realize we’re going to come back around and be a part of my career. And I’ve definitely gushed about them a lot to Sam, that was definitely something I talked about quite a bit. In my interview, you know, they asked about the sort of games that I play, and all of that, and I went on and on about Sierra games. At the end of the day, I love Sierra games, because they were narrative games, they had incredible stories to them. And I think that’s really important for me, for the games that I work on, I play a lot of non narrative games that I love. But I feel like for me to get the most out of it, I love working on a game with a story and an important story that needs to be told, with the lesson beyond just the plot of what happens. I won’t say that there were massive morals behind the stories of some of the Sierra Online games, but it’s really a privilege to get to think a little bit more deeply about the stories that we’re telling now. And actually, you know, get people thinking about some more complicated, some darker, sometimes disturbing topics, but things that I think it to some degree we all have to confront.

I still love those games, I still go back to them. They’ve probably had some influence on some of my choices with Immortality although in probably way I don’t know. You know, it’s Sam’s design and again I’m privileged enough that we were a small enough team for everybody to have some design input, but largely my job was making his design happen in an interactive sense, at least. And then sneaking a little choices here and there just by saying, “I think that this would be better if I just tweak this value a little bit this way.” And Sam might tweak that number back, or he might not notice and leave that number like it is.

Khloe Wilkerson: Well, that leaves me with my final question.

As you get older, does your view on video games change? Do you still think you’ll be interested in video games even after the retirement age? 

Connor Carson: I think so! And I hope so, my view of videogames has changed massively. Because growing up, playing them, they were just wonderful, but they were distractions that I haven’t even considered could be a job. I think, a lot of times when people work on something they love, it’s easy to get burned out on something, which is sad because it sort of changes the original love that you had for that thing. But, video games are so various, so different, constantly changing, and expanding and there are so many genres, it’s almost like it’s impossible to get sick of them even when you’re working on them. I might not go play 100 hours of Immortality right now, but there’s a lot of video games that I want to play, and that I’m loving playing. I hope that I keep playing them and it’s something that I share with my family down the line. I think it’s a really important thing.

Khloe Wilkerson: I’m so glad to hear that! I think this interview went well.

Connor Carson: Yeah! Thank you for interviewing me. And you’ve been awesome!

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