Interview: Nicholas Lister on Imp Paired
The application of games in a therapeutic context is a well-documented phenomenon. There has been less discussion of the therapeutic potential of game design, however, which is perhaps why the story behind iOS title Imp Paired is so fascinating. Its developer, Nicholas Lister, credits the game with having helped him answer various post-scholastic life questions, yet the final product is no grim, existential meditation. On the contrary, it’s a colourful, fun take on the memory-match genre, complete with sharp dialogue and a strong message about taking control.
Similarly, the interview that follows is an upbeat conversation, with no mentions of Sartre or Camus. Sylvain Chomet gets a mention, though, as does the intersection between architecture and games, the challenges of making a classic genre feel fresh, and some more interesting applications for gaming.
To start with, I was wondering if you could tell our readers the story of how you came to make this game.
Sure. I trained as an architect for six years, got to the end of my formal education and went out into the big wide world. I was at a point where I was a bit unsure of myself, and a bit ambivalent about the architechtural profession and architecture in general. Over a number of years, I came to realise that, as much as I loved architecture, the profession itself wasn’t for me. It wasn’t somewhere I felt I was going to be able to let my creative juices flow, or feel at home.
So I cast around for something else to do, some other outlet. I tried writing, graphic design, stuff like that, but nothing really stuck until a conversation I had with a friend who was into video games. We were talking about video games in general, and the idea of it as a career didn’t come up at the time. But that conversation flipped a switch somewhere in the back of my mind. I thought “Okay, I could make games.”
I felt that I had some of the skills I needed, some graphic skills and stuff like that. And also, at that time, there were these new delivery platforms like the App Store. That meant that someone like me, working alone, could make something small and get it out there. I was at a point where I didn’t really want to go back to formal education to learn how to make games, partly because I didn’t know if it would stick, but also because I was a bit disenchanted with this divide between formal education and practice.
So I decided to pick it up and teach myself, which was in retrospect possibly a little foolish. But I think the naivete of doing that has contributed to how I’ve gone about making games, and I think it brings some elements of success with it. I just started planning games, and trying to get started on them – obviously, I did the whole thing of working on a project that was massively overambitious for someone with very few skills.
I ditched that relatively quickly, and decided to start with a simple mechanic that I knew fairly well, and try to make something interesting with that single mechanic. That’s where Imp Paired came from. It started out as this simple little game, but that… I wouldn’t say it bloated, but it certainly expanded to encompass a world around it that was much more significant than just its simple, base mechanic.
And then two years of making this game, and teaching myself how to make games. Going down blind alleys, and exploring, and experimenting with a lot of different things. I’ve come to the end of this learning project, but I’ve also got quite a significant game. That’s how I got from there to here.
In the beta test video for the game, you said “it’s a game that was born out of my experiences coming to terms with the challenges and frustrations of modern life.” Could you expand on that? What was it about this particular game that was linked to your mindset at the time?
There are a couple of things. One is that the world of Imp Paired is a world of work, and coming to terms with a world of work through play. It’s based on analysis of the casual puzzle genre, and a lot of that genre is focused on these tasks that are worklike, in a way. Also, I was at a point in time where I was trying to find my own route through a world of work – find out what I wanted to do with my life, what career path I was going to take and how I was going to go about doing that. A lot of those concerns naturally found their way into the game. They were the foremost concerns in my life at the time, and when you make something on your own, it’s inevitably quite a personal outpouring – it can’t be any other way.
So there was that, and I was suffering from depression for several years up until I started making this game. I’m coming to the end of the healing process of that now, and I feel like I’m over it to a degree. That meant that those feelings of frustration and difficulty were heightened within my life at that the time that I started this, and that became another focus of the game. The initial idea of it was that these imps would pop up and make these simple tasks needlessly difficult, which was an interesting idea but not actually fun in practice. So that got transformed into this playful, psychological tormenting and teasing, this repartee between the player character and these imp characters.
The whole process of making this game has been a process of coming to terms with both that world of work, and coming terms with my own issues about the world in general that lead to a depressive state. Working those out through making this game, giving them air and putting them into something.
Well, I’m reluctant to say that games should be any one way.
I think that it’s important that games are allowed to be as many things as they possibly can be. That architectural crossover is really a way of looking at making games, and seeing if there’s any fertile ground to explore. It’s the process of taking the eye of an architect, and applying it to the systems and environments that you create in games. Taking the research and experience of the architectural world and transferring it over to the game world, where people might not have thought that way.
Just a piece of insight, I suppose, that allows you to see something that is not a piece of received wisdom, and go off on a bit of a tangent. I guess that’s a playfulness in itself, that allows you to spark a direction of inquiry that’s maybe a little bit against the grain or tangential. Does that answer your question?
Yeah, that’s fine. Obviously, it’s such an interesting topic, we could probably do a whole interview based on it alone.
Yeah. Well, it’s something that I’m continuing to think about. For a long time, I turned away from architecture. When I started doing game design, I was fed up with it and I wanted to get away from it. In the past few months, I started to come back to my interest in architecture, and this emerging interest in how games and architecture cross over. So those articles are ways of forcing me to think about what this subject is that I’m interested in. They’re outpourings, workings out of this… I don’t know if I can call it a thesis yet, but there’s a broad area of interest that I’m still figuring out, and starting to talk about a lot more.
I hope to do a lot more of that in the future, both taking architecture over to games, and taking games over to architecture. It’s something that I was interested in at archiecture school, but I hadn’t put it in that formal sense. But looking back on my work now, it makes sense that these were things that I was making. It’s always nice to tie that stuff up, isn’t it? So I’m doing that, but also exploring this fertile ground that I think will have something to offer.
You’ve mentioned that the core mechanics of Imp Paired are derived from the classic card-matching game of Pelmanism. How do you go about making a classic genre feel fresh?
I think it’s important that you use the tools that are available. Imp Paired uses the computer to take that very simple card game mechanic, and freshen it up. It introduces extra packages or, if you were talking about a card game, extra cards to the board. There’s an algorithm under that. It’s not the most sophisticated, but it can be explored a lot to introduce extra elements, keep it balanced, keep shifting the mechanic a little bit, allowing the algorithmic process to make something more than just a classical card game. A bit more modern than that straightforward, mechanical game.
How do I approach it? Through a lot of trial and error. Coming up with something that is borrowing mechanics, and trying to combine things. Trying to hit upon that core idea that you can build out from, which in this was taking that classical matching mechanic and crossing it with that Tetris mechanic of keeping the board from filling up. That’s how it started, and I just built it out from there, kept playtesting it, kept showing it people. Trying to keep it fresh and interesting, and make it something that people hadn’t seen before.
It’s interesting that you talk about making the game more modern, because one of the things that stood out to me was that the packages are arranged in a very disorganised way. It’s not like classical memory games, where the cards tend to be organised. This might be a bit of a tangent on my part, but was that something deliberate?
Yeah, it was. I can’t tell you how long I spent figuring out how to do that! The idea was to have this chaotic space that these things occupy. Originally, there was a sort of grid, but it didn’t feel right. What I was trying to do with the game was create this maelstrom that you’ve got to take control of. There’s this chaotic environment, this jumble of packages, that are bunched in together, and there are chaotic imp characters. All of these things, you’ve got to try to deal with, and find a way to mentally encompass them and overcome the game. Does that make sense?
Yeah. It just occurred to me, when you said it was more modern, that this chaos seemed to be quite a modern idea.
Yeah, I suppose when you’re in a modern environment, you are throwing yourself into the machine. That’s the dillemma of the modern world, and I think that’s represented quite interestingly in Imp Paired.
Were there any particular influences on the style and tone of the game?
There are a number of different influences, from different places. For the writing, there are a few different things in the back of my mind. There’s the writing in Portal, which has this very acerbic tone to it. There was thing on Twitter from a guy called October Jones, who did this series of texts with his dog. There are these short conversations, which are sort of friendly and playful and funny, but also antagonistic.
For the graphic style, over six years of archiecture school, and continuing to draw and stuff, you kind of develop your own style. I was also, for a previous project, looking at animation. There’s a very classical Disney style about some of the characters, and how they’re put together. And that’s mixed with other animators who I really love, like Sylvain Chomet. Do you know Sylvain Chomet?
No, I’m not familiar.
He was the guy behind Belleville Rendez-vous, which is probably his most famous thing. So there was that, and that very hard, black outline, and the colouring, as well. There’s an element of that in it. It’s just a melange of different art styles, and obviously I’m fascinated by mechanics and mechanistic things. I was always drawn to those Heath Robinson machines, and things like that. They always seemed bizzarre, and modern, but also chaotic. I suppose it’s a theme that’s emerged through it.
Now that you’ve had this experience in game design, is it something that you’re going to pursue in the future? Do you have any ideas about future projects?
It’s definitely something that I’m going to pursue in the future, but it’s not something that I can make into a career at the moment. It’s such a risk, and a difficult world to make money in. So I’m starting up a business. The idea is to go into organisations and run games that help them deal with their internal issues. There’s a project right now, which me and another organisation are trying to pitch, which is to go into a big, public institution and help them with their budgeting issues by running a management sim. I don’t know if I can talk about that too much, but that’s the project which I’m trying to launch this thing off of.
If it can get going, then that will able to fund more of the stuff that I want to make. I think you’ve always got to treat that as a bit of a sideline – that’s a realisation that I’m coming to. Until there’s some real traction and something takes off, which you can never bank on, I think you’ve got to treat it as “This is something I’m doing because I love doing it”, and the other stuff… I love doing it, but that’s where the money side of the business lies.