Adios is one Kansan’s dream game about mob-based body disposal on a pig farm
GB “Doc” Burford is a video game creator, writer, and consultant who works out of the Kansas area. Doc (a KU grad) and his new small indie game company have just announced a game coming to major consoles where you play a man attempted to break-up with the mob. His work has won awards across genres, and now he’s tackling something in Adios that can best be described as “oppressively melancholy.”
We sat down with Doc to discuss the announcement of this new title and what it’s like out there for a Midwest indie game creator.
Now, I suppose growing up you would’ve been an absolute hero of mine, because—it didn’t make sense and probably doesn’t make sense to a lot of people—how do you end up making video games in Kansas? That’s one of those things where you have to be in San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York to do.
Doc: Yeah, It is pretty challenging. In fact, when I was going to Butler Community College down in Witchita, the department head for our 3D Interactive Studies course was like, “Sorry, I’m not going to be teaching you video game tech, I’m going to be teaching your engineering tech because the state thinks video game jobs are going to be leaving Kansas. We have a lot of engineering jobs here so I’m going to be teaching you that.” I was like, “That’s not what I paid for.”
Wait, what Kansas video game jobs were leaving? That sounds wild.
Right, so they didn’t want to teach anyone real game stuff for fear that they would leave. Of course, I went to the film school at KU and those jobs are all going to Hollywood, that’s what they advertised there. I think there’s even a bias against games. One thing that makes video games unique is that you can make them from anywhere because you are building them in 3D and 2D. Because it’s all square, you can do it distributed. In our current game Adios, I have one from Croatia, one from Sweden, people all over. I have a programmer in Rhode Island. We are completely distributed. We don’t have to go anywhere to film, we just sit down and build an entire world from scratch and go from there. There’s an advantage, you get to work remotely, but the disadvantage is that everything costs exactly the same, whether it’s in the real world or totally fictitious.
What do you mean by that?
In Hollywood, they make horror movies a lot because horror movies are cheap to make. You just go somewhere and have a guy in a costume stabbing people. It’s pretty easy to do. But if you want to go make, say, Black Panther, you have to build this entire environment with green screens and actors and that sort of thing. You start blending fiction and reality and it ends up costing $200-300 million to make. So there’s this huge spectrum of cost, and in games, everything costs the same to make because all of it is 3D. On one hand, it’s expensive to make, but on the other hand I can make whatever I want. There’s no real limitation, which lets me be a little bit more imaginative, I think.
We did a cover story at The Pitch about how Kansas City is this sort of blossoming indie games community. For people that have not followed games for the last decade or so, there’s been an interesting thing in the last forty or so years of its existence of video games, they were mostly made by one person or two people. Then there were four or five people, and then everything ramped up very quickly to where we have Call of Duty games that have five hundred people on it for billions of dollars. Within the last decade the technology grew so that it allowed us to go back to making games that were just one person or two people, so we live in a very exciting time. Digital technology snapped for indie cinema, and you can have Doc in Lawrence or Witchita working with someone in Yugoslavia and they’ll turn out a game that will wind up on the exact same store or the exact same console as the others, and that’s exciting.
Oh yeah, digital distribution has helped a whole lot and to put my game on Steam or Xbox and have people download it, that helps me out a lot. Before digital distribution exploded around 2008-2009, you tried to go to somewhere like Gamestop and you’d be like, “I want you to put my game on your shelves.” They’d be like, “Our stores are only the size of a shoebox—we can only fit DVD-sized cases on our shelves, so we don’t have room for you. Your game is not going to have the same ROI that a game with billions of dollars of marketing will.” So it made it really challenging. Now that we have digital distribution, we can do our own marketing, we can find audiences that might not be browsing our shelves who are looking for strange experiences, things like that. So going digital has really helped the industry and it’s allowed riskier, stranger games to get made, so that’s good for us as a whole.
You certainly enjoy dabbling in that sort of thing. You get into games and you take on some very fascinating singular “Doc” sort of games and, both in your individual work and how you advise on games and so on and so forth, you are a narrative designer. What is a narrative designer? What do you do that makes your art different?
The best way I can think to describe it is: when you’re writing for a movie, generally a studio comes to you and is like, “Hey, we really like this book our execs picked up in an airport, and we want you to basically write down how to make this into a two-hour movie.” The person writes it down and they end up going through a bunch of revisions, and eventually, there is a shooting script, the thing the cast uses to make the movie. In games, the narrative designer is writing the story, but I’m also assuming the player is going to walk into a room, and then I’ll say that this thing is occurring to the player, so we need to have animators to come in and do this. Someone might be walking around an office building, and they go over to a computer and they’re able to read what’s on the computer. So narrative design is anything that happens in games.
So you’re not just making one script, you’re making a story where any player can do anything at any time and you have to be able to predict that or push them in a direction that helps move the story along.
Yep, and it’s not just plot. It could just be writing up a grocery list and sticking it on a fridge so that a player can come along and see what the character like eating. With my game Adios, what I did was write a journal for the farmer. Most of it’s like, “Here are the things that the player can do” but if you flip the pages enough, you should get a sense of who he was through his daily schedule. He had a doctor’s appointment and stuff like that. It’s a mixture of plot and adding stuff to the world.
Your team just announced this game Adios. As you put it online, eighteen months ago, you were like, “Hey, do pigs eat human bodies?” You looked into it and found out that yes, pigs do eat human bodies if the mob hires a pig farmer to dispose of human bodies. What happens if the pig farmer decides that he doesn’t want to dispose of human bodies anymore? So you guys made a game which is basically that you’re playing a pig farmer on the day he quits his job while dealing with the hitman that has been sent there to either take care of the pigs himself or to kill you for quitting. As the trailer seems to show, you’re doing chores around the farm while this man follows you, trying to talk you out of your choice. That’s not a video game that anyone else comes up with, Doc. That’s so wild to me.
So for me, my ultimate super amazing dream game is something significant enough that I’d need money for. I’d employ 50-100 people to work on it. I can’t afford that, I’m just a guy from Kansas who needs to make a name for myself or whatever. So I started thinking about the cheapest games to make, and one is called a walking sim, where it’s just a story played at you. There are no animations involved—well, sometimes they are—so it’s very cheap and it’s often just listening to audio files played at you. I didn’t like that. I wrote an essay on how I didn’t like it and how I thought I could fix it. I presented an idea to an acquaintance of mine, like, “Here’s the project I’d like to make.” I just wanted to make a little free demonstration to show some skills, and they ended up telling me that it should be a commercial project so we worked as hard as we could. I ended up getting hospitalized because it turns out I have a congenital heart defect and the stress broke me. I made a weird little video game about smuggling videotapes of a murder and the videotapes because the murder was supernatural in nature, the tapes change the bodies of the people who watch them. So it’s a weird little horror game, but—
It’s a really fun award-winning title I still love.
There’s definitely nothing like it. I sat there and said that I want to do verbs. In video games, a verb is a thing you can do, right? So I want birdwatching, I want conversations. I want to go to a gas station and talk to the guy at the gas station. I want to drive cars. I tried to think of a list of things you could actually do and made a game around it. It won some awards, people seemed to like it, and that got us the notice of Microsoft, whose ID@Xbox program liked our game. So they gave us a little funding to make our next game. I started a new company with a really good team. We spent time working on good team health, so I don’t have to go back to the hospital again and no one else does. We try to pay everyone really well. I sat there and went, “I want to advance my ideas.” My first idea was that a game should have really good verbs. The next was, “What if you could occupy a single space with another person, like a living, breathing person?” I think if we had hundreds of millions of dollars, we could make something like Milo, which is a super experimental game that Microsoft had years ago and tried to publish, but didn’t. We have this game where you have to tell—it was the smallest game I could think of—you have one farm, one location, and you have to tell this guy, “I’m quitting.” He doesn’t want you to quit because you’re friends and he knows what he’ll have to do if you really mean this. He doesn’t want to do it. Even though he kills people all the time, he knows you and he really doesn’t want that to happen. It ends up being this game that’s kind of an argument, but I think the farmer ends up letting go, so he goes around the farm kind of showing the hitman what his life was like, and they get to talking about it. There’s push and pull and one guy’s like, “Won’t you miss this?” and other times he’s like, “I’m lonely out here.” There’s this push and pull, I tried to add variety to it. What if we could do a lot of different things? You can cook your last meal while there’s another person present. A lot of the game is him being present while you get your affairs in order, then he comes back and the game resolves.
This game has all the workings of a Tracy Letts play or something like that. A single location, one day, it feels like something you can put on the stage in that way, but it’s more interesting and exciting because it’s entirely up to the player to make those choices and feel the weight of those emotions. That’s something that’s so exciting about indie games and the immersion of letting someone interact like this. I love the idea of two best friends locked in a discussion about death, where we’re not talking about death as much as we’re talking about horseshoes on a rural Kansas farm. It’s a lot of things that you’re just not going to see in a lot of video games; the next Call of Duty won’t have this. People aren’t going to find this unless they come to you, which is so exciting.
Yeah, I crave game experiences that aren’t like anything else. One of the biggest games of the year, a super-celebrated title, I streamed it and yeah, I didn’t like it. I sat there with a friend of mine who works in tv, and we just talked our way through it like, “Why are these decisions here? Which movie is this copying from? Oh man, this is literally a scene from The Walking Dead tv show.” A lot of it felt derivative and boring, so I didn’t enjoy it for a super-expensive critically acclaimed game.
There’s a million guys on YouTube or Twitch who can play a game and be like, “It sucks,” but you sit there and really break down things. Often, I think you’re usually trying to fix it too, like, “If they had simply done this, that would’ve worked better.” I’m like, “Oh, they probably should’ve hired you to consult on this one, too.”
Yeah, I don’t want games to be bad. There are people who know you get clicks from negativity, so that’s what they do. I’m not interested in being negative, although I know people do seem more interested in seeing me play a game they think I won’t enjoy. When I enjoy something, I think I spend a little less time going, “Here’s how it could be better.” It’s never meant to be negative, it’s “Hey, what is this? Why is this interesting? What are the decisions at play that led to this?” I grew up with Levar Burton and Mister Rogers, and sneaking Bill Nye the Science Guy—my parents didn’t really like him because they are super religious and didn’t believe in evolution. I watched people go “Here’s a complicated subject, but it’s actually very easy to understand.” If you’re curious and excited, you can learn a lot and it can help you grow as a person. I had no idea I wanted to know how crayons were made until I watched Mister Rogers and he showed that off one time. There’s something beautiful about understanding how the soup gets made, you know? I played a surrealist game called The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place, a short, free game made by people in India about colonialism in India and the emotional experience of that. It’s not something that’s going to appeal to everybody, but it’s super interesting. It was only thirty or forty minutes long, but it was absolutely worth my time.
Also, neither you nor I could make that game. That’s not an experience that we could ever share with anyone.
The only way we’re going to learn about that is via their experiences.
Yep. So I’m always hungry for what’s new. I will play the big important games if it means I can get paid, but what I really get excited by are surprises. I love playing things that I’ve never seen before. As with both games that I made, I tweeted about them first. I was like, “Hey, this sounds interesting.” I have a running thread of games I want to make. The filter I pass those through is, “Have I seen this before?” If the answer is no, I say it’s good to go, it’s what I want to make. It has to be interesting. If it’s not interesting to me, it’s not worth it. I don’t want to be one of those people who just kind of writes genre and hits all the beats. I don’t want to be predictable. There are plenty of, I would say dependable people in Hollywood that are “a brand”. If you’re going to write a screenplay in a certain genre, if you want a Batman movie, you’re going to go to David S. Goyer. A lot of people tend to go for very specific people. Me, I made a horror game, I made a melancholy game, who knows what I’ll make next. I’m thinking maybe like a Studio Ghibli-game, very heartwarming and sad. That may be my next game, it may be a super hyper-aggressive first-person shooter. I don’t know yet, I only know that no one else has made what I’m going to make.
That was going to be what I wanted to end on. I watched the trailer and I was already excited, and there was a moment that made me shout-laugh at my screen. People won’t know this about you and so there may be some disconnect, but one of my favorite things about you is that you are a connoisseur of shotguns in video games. You have a very, very specific taste and you know exactly what you want out of a gun in a video game. In the middle of the trailer for this, you didn’t have any real violence in this trailer at all but your character picks up a shotgun and I was like, “Ah! Doc’s game, I can tell right there. There we are.”
Yeah, the two of you get to go play skeet. Right now, given the budget we have, we’re probably not going to let you compete with each other, but if we had more of a budget, that’s what we would probably do. The two of you would have a friendly game of skeet. I’ve joked that if we make a million dollars, we’ll add a basketball hoop and let you two play a game of H-O-R-S-E, but who knows?
The cost of things in video games is wild.
Oh yeah. If I’m going to do a basketball, I have to do all the sounds for it and have somebody go record the sounds and send them to me. I have to get the physics of a basketball getting thrown and bouncing around. I have to figure out what happens if a basketball rolls off the court and where it goes if it hits a place that the player can’t get to it. I have to take into account everything. In a movie, you could knock out a game of H-O-R-S-E in a single day.
Where can people follow your work and where can they follow the game?
The game is coming through XBox and it’s currently on Steam. We’re going to release it on a couple of other PC platforms, if that works out. Maybe other consoles, but if I was going to release those, I couldn’t talk about it. The best place to follow is to look up Adios on Steam. You can follow my company @mischiefdevelop on Twitter—our company name is Mischief, but someone is already sitting on that. You can find me personally @docsquiddy on Twitter.