November 22nd 2011
Indie Wave - An interview with Jak Locke
interview by: W.D. Conine
Jak Locke is a songwriter, performer, author, filmmaker, artist, and indie game developer. Based in New Orleans, Jak has recently released his first video game; Black Lodge 2600. Based on the final scenes of Twin Peaks, designed as a modern day Atari 2600 game, his game has attracted wide spread attention; even being featured on G4's "Attack of the Blog". Mr. Locke was kind enough to sit down with Indie Wave and have a chat about his breakout game.
Jak Locke: I'm a person who can't settle on a single medium. I come across something I like and always think "Wow, that sure looks like fun!" While music is what I make most of my living off of at the moment, I've been into programming and gaming since I was 4.
W.D. Conine: Since gaming and programming has been such an interest to you for so long, have you been designing games for a long time or is Black Lodge 2600 your first real stab at it?
JL: Name any stage in the game development process and I've probably got a game that's been frozen at that stage for years!
While Black Lodge 2600 isn't the first one I've completed, it's the first one I've distributed beyond putting on a local BBS or just giving to my friends. I started out on an Atari 800XL and sort of gradually graduated to more sophisticated languages as technology improved -- Atari BASIC to GW-BASIC to QBasic and then to a variety of object-oriented IDEs.
WD: All that in addition to conquering nearly every other artistic medium. You seem too good to be true. Starting out on the Atari 800XL, can I assume that's why you went with the Atari 2600 aesthetics for Black Lodge 2600 or was there more to it?
JL: The Black Lodge sequence in Twin Peaks seemed like it was made to be an old Atari chase game. Nearly all the major game mechanics were already right there in the episode!
I started off keeping it very strict to the 2600 aesthetic and limitations but that made for a really unrecognizably ugly and unplayable game, so it eventually ended up somewhere between that and what you'd see on an Atari 8-bit or Nintendo Entertainment System. In the manual I put something ridiculous like "this cartridge has special chips installed to enhance the graphics and audio".
Had a Twin Peaks-licensed game actually come out during the show's run in the early 90's, it definitely would not have been on the Atari 2600. I felt the gameplay was too simplistic to get away with a full-on NES presentation.
WD: What program did you use to make Black Lodge 2600?
JL: I went with a drag-and-drop IDE called Game Maker for the code. For the graphics I used a 1998 build of Paint Shop Pro 4 to draw each asset by pixel.
Sound effects and music were less straightforward. Using Paul Slocum's Synthcart on an Atari 2600 emulator, I dumped scales of raw WAVs of six voices and then cut and arranged the individual notes in Audacity to make the music. I wanted to stay absolutely authentic with the music, if nothing else!
For the voices, I used AnalogX SayIt and had to get extremely creative with spelling to have it pronounce somewhat recognizable words.
WD: While I'm not an expert with the Atari 2600, I can say, as a general retrogamer, you did a great job recreating 2600 audio.
Black Lodge 2600 seems to be a great public debut but do you future plans for your modern atari game? Perhaps an Atari Lynx port?
JL: I might add more rooms to the rotation one day but beyond that, there isn't really much else I can think of to do with it. When I finished it, I didn't expect any more than a few of my friends to play it. The response to it has definitely given me more motivation to work on all these other games that have been just kind of languishing in shadowy corners of my hard drives. While I know the bulk of the interest in it is because it's based off a property like Twin Peaks, it's just really cool to know someone's taken the time to play your game.
WD: Can you tell us anything about your other video game projects?
JL: I've got countless text adventures and simplistic action games I made as a kid and dozens of QBasic games I made in my early teens with my friend Gregg that are probably still sitting on some old New Orleans BBS's forgotten hard drive.
Most of the more recent games I've been working on are genre hybrids -- I've always enjoyed playing those kinds of games the most, regardless of system, so I find a lot of enjoyment in making them.
One is an adventure/puzzle/action game structured around moving up the ranks of a janitorial crime family; that one's called "The Mopfia". I like ridiculous premises too, obviously.
Another one I'm pretty excited about is a combination of a vertical shooter like Ikaruga and a run'n'gun like Contra with an exploration aspect.
I've been writing a Sierra adventure-style game in my head for years that I'd like to put together one day with AGS or one of the similar engines. A roguelike mixed with a construction/battle game, a platformer where your success is contingent on glitches, and on and on.
Lately it's extremely rare that I get to work on any of these with everything else I'm involved in. I've got an "Abandoned Projects" folder on my computer that's nearly 8 gigs and most of that is from games I keep meaning to get to! I think that makes them that much more of a joy to work on though, like I'm getting away with something.
WD: With such an interest in game design, what kind of video games do you play yourself?
JL: There are countless games I've really enjoyed that I could go on and on about so I'll just highlight what I'm playing right now.
Lately the rotation on my 2600 is Mountain King, Gyruss, Fantastic Voyage and Wizard Of Wor. On the NES I'm (very very slowly) working through the Lolo/Eggerland series for the third time, Faxanadu and The Magic Of Scheherezade. I finished Agent USA and Blue Max on the Atari 8-bit just last week, both for the first time, so I'll be trying the advanced settings on those next.
Every few years I'll play through Earthbound or Final Fantasy 6 again. Those games have an awful lot of character. FF: Mystic Quest is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I think I'm supposed to keep that to myself or something.
My girlfriend and I are currently going through Silent Hill since the HD collection of 2 and 3 is coming out soon. I'm kind of surprised at how effective the first game still is at setting the mood. I was expecting it to be like "ooh, scary, a bunch of polygons," but the sound really does push that one where it needs to be.
I don't play too many of the more modern games but I find I enjoy the more story-focused ones best, like the Metal Gear Solid series. I thought BioShock was fantastic, which I wasn't expecting at all because I've been kind of burnt out on first-person shooters since Doom. I finally gave the massively multiplayer thing a go last year with Dungeons & Dragons Online and had a good time with that for about six months before I lost interest. Didn't even level cap a single character, how shameful of me!
If you want to know what the three best games in the universe are though, they're the Robotron 2084 arcade machine, Astrosmash on the Intellivision, and 4-player Warlords on the 2600. I'll play any of those until I'm dizzy.
WD: Well, your influences are a lot clearer. A much more devoted retrogamer then I. Do you use those games as references when your designing your own or is your design process more flowing?
JL: I'd say my approach is more flowing, but at the same time I think it's impossible to not at least subconsciously reference successful aspects of games you like that are similar to parts of what you're doing. I usually let the idea dictate the game mechanics rather than set out to make a particular kind of game. The early Black Lodge 2600 didn't include any block puzzles until I had ten rooms done and started thinking about what other obstacles I could throw at Cooper to trip him up. And of course, I'm going to compare my execution of the block puzzle to something like Adventures of Lolo or Sokoban.
WD: Well, you've come out the starting gate running with Black Lodge 2600. What advice do you have other aspiring independent game developers? Or, rather, any artistic medium since you seem to have them all covered besides painting and sculpting.
JL: Create what you want, don't worry about impressing people and don't be scared to fail. Always aspire to improve, no matter how good you might think you are. And most importantly, good luck!