Interview: Not A Sailor Studios, developers of Buddy Simulator 1984

by VR Lars
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Buddy Simulator 1984 is a fascinating indie game full of mystery, wholesome horror, and creativity. We reviewed the game following its release late last month, and we were so impressed by what we saw, we just had to talk to the minds behind it. Here’s our in-depth conversation with Not A Sailor Studios – we talk game dev, stories and scrapped concepts with the team.

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Could you start out by introducing yourself/Not A Sailor Studios? Where did your team start out?

JOSH: Heyo, I’m Josh Eckhart! I am the Writer, Producer, and Community Manager for Buddy sim!
DEMARCO: Hey, I’m DeMarco Scarnegie! I am one of the artists and the animator for Buddy Sim!
VINCE: I’m Vince Weiss, Artist and Graphic Designer of the group. I mainly did promotional material and background assets for Buddy Sim.
BRANDON: Hey! I’m Brandon Hesslau – the programmer, composer, and concept creator for Buddy Simulator 1984.

VINCE: Our team started out with Brandon and I back in our senior year of high school. Because of some money issues, one of the schools in our district had to close down, so a lot of the kids from Brandon’s school including Brandon had to move to my school. We ended up connecting and making small little game ideas in my basement. Then, later in college Brandon found Josh through a company that they were both working for and ended up having a board game night together with DeMarco and a few others.

After Brandon showed some of the games, he and I worked on them together a bit. Josh and DeMarco wanted to do a collaboration with us on a game jam game which led to the creation of Not a Sailor Studios.

“Ultimately, we really wanted to find a unique aesthetic of a kind of wholesome horror.”

-Brandon hesslau

Buddy Simulator 1984 is quite a unique experience. Did you take any inspiration from other games during development?

BRANDON: Oh boy, so there’s a lot I could talk about, but I’ll try to summarize best I can. So when the game was still an early idea during my Freshman year of college (almost 4 years ago), I wasn’t necessarily looking at other games to be inspired by, at least for the narrative-side of the game. As boring as it is, I just sort of kept jotting down ideas and doodling little sketches when I should have been note-taking for class, and building prototypes when I should have been working on class projects.

Buddy Sim

Eventually, an idea finally began to show itself during the process. Ultimately, we really wanted to find a unique aesthetic of a kind of wholesome horror. Of course, when it came to the text adventure mechanics we could look at games like Zork or even Stories Untold. DeMarco was a big fan of the Mario Super Saga series, so that’s where we were able to look for inspiration during the combat sequences. A lot of the personality in the game was just a mix of what we thought would either be funny or scary from our own personal experiences.

Were there any other iterations of this concept before the finished product we have today? 

BRANDON: Actually, yes! Before Not a Sailor Studios was even a concept, I had gone through quite a few  ideas before the final game came to fruition. I won’t get into every single one, but the very original idea, before a lot of the narrative was thought-out, was to create a scary hide n’ seek game with a virtual AI friend, who coincidentally at the time, took on the image of creepy 2D ghost.

Of course, this then branched into ideas of “oh, what if it keeps trying to make new games for the player” and “what if the game started out primal, and slowly worked its way into 3D”. This led to the first early prototype, built in Unity, which still had the base idea of a terminal, but was much more simplified emulating a Windows-esque command prompt window.

Visually, it looked much different from the terminal we have in the final game. It featured Pong as one of the mini-games and at the end your Buddy would download a picture of your favorite animal (even shaded in your favorite color) to your desktop. It was a fun idea, but internet-dependant mechanics felt a bit too much.

Another prototype was built in straight C++ using the command prompt window as the actual game screen. It even featured an ASCII talking face for buddy. It was a really cool idea for a concept, but I knew once things got to 3D everything was going to get very complicated. This then led to the final iteration built in Unity which ultimately ended up being the base for the demo and final game.

The game’s world seems to be full of secrets, and we felt like we’d barely scratched the surface in our first playthrough. Is there anything so well hidden you don’t expect anyone to find it? 

JOSH: We really wanted to focus on a replayability aspect of our game in the long run. With tons of different characters to meet and try, new secret areas or items to find, and a plethora of secrets hidden around the game, we thought we’d have people digging for a while. To our surprise, we’ve had some incredible Discord sleuths uncover, decode, and dig through a lot of the game, finding a good amount of secrets we never expected anyone to uncover so fast!

I don’t want to spoil anything, but one of our favorites that some people have found only occurred when they dug through the game files. There are, of course, a few secrets we left so vague and so hard to find, that we don’t think anyone will be finding them anytime soon.

Buddy Simulator has a lot of layers and depth to it, with all the different styles of game it cycles through. Were there any unique challenges in developing those concepts?

 DEMARCO: There definitely were a lot of challenges with developing the art style. Early on, it was especially tough since we didn’t know the full extent of how the game was going to evolve. It was especially difficult to advertise this game because we didn’t want to spoil the lengths of how exactly the game changes over time which was very hard because a majority of the game’s production took place after the 2D aspect of the game. Another challenge was how we tackled the chapter between 2D and 3D.

“Developing the combat was incredibly hard behind-the-scenes since we had to coordinate timing and animation with code.”

-Demarco scarnegie

We wanted to breathe new life into the game, but we decided that a mix between 2D and 3D with a pop of color (and shading!) was the best way to go about it! Not only visually, but gameplay-wise the game also had to evolve. We went through a lot of iterations of how we felt we should tackle such a thing. The original idea for the 2.5D part of the game was a Zelda-style slash em up and later became the turn-based combat that you see today. Developing the combat was incredibly hard behind-the-scenes since we had to coordinate timing and animation with code.

Are there any features that haven’t made it into the final release? The way the buddy customises the experience based on some simple personal questions was very effective, but did you ever feel like you wanted to go deeper with it?

DEMARCO: There were lots! For example, one feature we intended on adding was enabling the player’s camera and having their “reflection” faintly shown on the monitor. However, due to privacy reasons (and people likely freaking out seeing their camera turn on), we decided to scrap it.

A second idea that was scrapped was a Buddy Questionnaire where they would ask you questions, and your responses would later be used against you at later points in the game, but we had problems figuring out the technicalities and squeezing it into the story that we just decided to scrap it entirely and make Tuesday April 2nd. Fun fact: if you play the Demo, Tuesday April 2nd is not the bonus game at the beginning of the game! Something else that we scrapped for the final release!

Would you say that the game has a definitive plot (as hinted at by the hidden text files we unearth) or is it intentionally vague, left up to player interpretation? 

JOSH: This is a tough question to answer without spoiling too much of the game, but I would say it’s a nice mix of the two. Behind the scenes, the team and I definitely have a solid idea of the overall plot and story, but a lot of the game is left up to interpretation. Who knows, maybe some hidden secrets could reveal something new you can’t see on the top layer of it all!

Finally, you’ve stated that Buddy Simulator won’t be expanded upon, but do you guys have any idea what might be coming up next for you? What lessons have you learned from developing it?

VINCE: As far as Not a Sailor moving forward there are still a lot of things up in the air. We would all definitely love for this game to allow us to continue doing indie dev full time, but you never know with these kinds of things. But as far as us being a group I feel like we can all agree that we wanna continue working with each other in some form and be creating fun stuff together. Only time will tell!

A huge thank you to the Not A Sailor Studios guys for taking the time to speak with us. You can read Kaesiya’s 10/10 review of Buddy Simulator 1984 right here.

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