Emilios Manolidis – Gleaner Heights Interview Transcript

When did you first get into game development? What initially sparked your interest?

I began programming around 1998. My first game was a Tetris clone made in Visual Basic 6 and using DirectX. Since then I made some small freeware games which can be found here. My first commercial game was Emerge: Cities of the Apocalypse, released in spring 2016. It was a strategy/defense game made in Game Maker 8.

Since I was a kid, I used to design platform game levels on paper and had ideas for various games going around in my head. I also used to make up board games and we even played some of them with my friends! So I guess game development was a natural progression that would scratch that creative itch.

Development for Gleaner Heights first started back in 2016, but when did the idea first form?

I first played the SNES Harvest Moon game back in 2003. I liked it a lot. Soon other Harvest Moon games followed. Also in 2012 I started watching the Twin Peaks series. The idea came somewhere around then: What if there was a farming game, seemingly innocent like Harvest Moon, but with Twin Peaks-y stuff going on underneath?

Did anything from your previous game, Emerge: Cities of the Apocalypse carry over to Gleaner Heights? Such as any skills or knowledge learnt?

Emerge was a large project: I began developing it in 2012 and I was on and off with it until 2016, since I also had various other full-time jobs. Emerge ended up a fairly complex project. I had to push the boundaries of Game maker 8 to make it possible and I also had to learn to do some digital art (like character portraits) for it. I always had an affinity for computer graphics but Emerge really helped with how I approach digital graphics. So I guess it helped me boost my skills by a fair amount.

The original name for the game was Harvest Peaks, but was changed due to potential legal issues. But how did you come up with the title Gleaner Heights?

To be fair, I am still not sure if Harvest Peaks would incur the wrath of the big guys, but better safe than sorry. I went through a few other names before, some of them were quite silly too: Yeoman Heights. Planter, Feeder, Lover, Sinner. Over the grapevine. Fallow Heights. But in the end Gleaner Heights took the cake. It sounded okay as a place name, plus in the game you get to “glean” information about townspeople’s lives. Also gleaning is a farming-related activity, so the name kinda killed lots of birds with one stone.

I noticed the game takes heavy inspiration from Twin Peaks, at times it feels like an actual game adaptation. With the constant nods and references, I’m curious – why are you such a huge fan of Twin Peaks?

I wouldn’t say that I am a hugely huge fan as far as TV series go, but it sure was an interesting thing to watch. I liked the atmosphere and music a lot, and the typical Lynchian approach to urban/suburban life where nothing is as it seems, along with the surreal, dream-like approach to practically everything.

Aside from Twin Peaks, did you draw inspiration from any other TV Shows or Movies when it came to the characters and setting for Gleaner Heights?

Aside from many nods to horror literature, like Edgar Allan Poe for instance, I wouldn’t say that there were any other particular influences from other TV shows/movies. Then again, I tend to forget easily, and Gleaner Heights is a big game.

I’ve seen you talk about being a huge fan of the older Harvest Moon titles, when inventories weren’t as simplified or streamlined. Can you talk about how this influenced the design decisions for UI and controls in Gleaner Heights?

To the best of my recollection, the inventory system is pretty much what it was like with Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. I found it functional enough, and since that game was designed for younger audiences in mind (i.e. a small kid could play it), I never gave it a second thought.

Speaking of Harvest Moon games though, what were some of your favourite entries in the series? As well as which specific Harvest Moon games influenced Gleaner Heights most?

All “older” Harvest Moon games, up to but not including Harvest Moon for the Nintendo DS were a major influence: So we have the SNES, N64, Playstation and Gameboy Advance versions of the game. I never played the Gameboy version though.

As for a specific game, I would say Friends of Mineral Town for the Gameboy Advance. Buuuut, the SNES version was my first ever, so let’s add it at the side.

The Harvest Moon series isn’t really known for combat, so why did you choose to focus more heavily on combat/bosses for Gleaner Heights?

Because I am a huge fan of the Souls series and couldn’t help myself.

Where did you draw inspiration for the boss designs? I felt some Lovecraftian vibes from a few, but did they come from anywhere specific?

The Automaton Knight is a nod to Dark Souls, hence its propensity to hand new players their asses. Other bosses were mainly interesting to add from a mechanics standpoint. The more humanoid/nightmarish characters were indeed inspired by older horror stories. Also Lee is just an asshole.

Harvest Moon is known to be a pretty vibrant and colourful game, in comparison Gleaner Heights looks much more dark and dreary, what were the design decisions behind that?

The game’s concept would work if the world was pixel-arty and moderately cartoonish/cheerful, but not too cheerful. I tried to strike some balance for this antithesis (cartoony world-dark undertones) to work. In later versions though, I added a Vibrance filter because even I ended up thinking the colors were a bit too muddled.

Gleaner Heights was one of your first ventures into the world of pixel art. Are you able to talk about that experience and what tools did you use to create sprites?

Any decent freeware image editing program will do it for me. Except Microsoft Paint, I am not skilled enough or crazy enough to use it. The game has about 16,000 individual images (from a tiny apple to an attack animation to a huge tileset), so yeah, I had a lot of room to practice. I still have much to learn about pixel art but it was a start. In general I like pixel art a lot and I believe it is a very viable, serviceable and aesthetically pleasing choice for many games. It is, indeed, as the name says, art.

What was the thought process behind the design to be able to permanently kill off NPCs? It’s a pretty rare gameplay mechanic, and extremely unique for a Harvest Moon-like title.

In older RPG games it was not that rare. I am a big Fallout fan, and I mean the older games, Fallout 1&2, not Bethesda’s walking simulators. In these games, you could kill anything. Nowadays you can’t kill plot-important characters because h-how am I going to save the world and become the chosen one? The quest will break and I will not get the pat on the b-I mean, the Achievement! Jokes aside, I don’t like killing in games at all. I just find that games who allow such freedom of movement are generally better designed than many pseudo-choice modern ones. So my inspiration that NPCs can be killed stems from these older games.

In Gleaner Heights, of course, you can’t go around randomly killing people. This is an extreme result of certain choices you make. Choices you will have to live with and that may alter your ultimate destiny. The game doesn’t reward players for doing bad things (no matter what you perceive as “moral” as a person, in the game a certain entity watches your actions and comes closer to you the more…life-changing they are). And no matter what happens with the “main plot”, people you kill will come back to you occasionally, as brief flashes of your vile deeds. I hope you won’t be fishing as much if you have caused a certain person to drown. Or chop wood as much when you have killed another person yourself…

Gleaner Heights tackles some extremely dark topics with its characters and plot. Was the story ever hard for you to write? Were you ever scared of backlash from the community?

Interestingly enough, the proto-idea in my head was much more edgier and trollish. For example, it had actual, literal voyeurism in it. Sometimes I think what would happen if I stuck to that vision. Then I think I can always make an expansion. Then I will probably be banned from game development forever and/or go to jail.

Initially, the game was thought of more like a period piece: Suburban 90’s town, close-minded people, damsels in distress, sexism, bigotry, protagonist is only male etc. That is, a much more oppressive and backwards setting. But then I started receiving lots of messages from people regarding same sex romances. This would ruin my original concept…How would I be able, for example, to make an in-game story about a person who is secretly gay and the ensuing rejection by the community, along with how players would react to such a thing? But, this was 2018, and if I didn’t include same-sex marriage some people would mark me as a homophobic developer and crucify me. So I did what every reasonable, self-respecting developer did and I preemptively caved in. Apparently some people only play these games for the romances, so, there you have it people. Go romance whoever you want.

What were the biggest challenges you faced during development for Gleaner Heights, and how did you overcome them?

Everything was a challenge. Game design decisions conflicted with each other, graphics seemed to take forever, townspeople schedules was an enormous chore to create and test, animals would go out of their fenced areas at will, you name it. Not to mention the music. I have no formal music education. I had some tunes in my head and I struggled to make them real in my music software. 100,000 lines of code later, things seem to work, more or less.

Did self-publishing affect the game at all? And are you able to talk about the process of getting the game published on Steam?

It is hilariously easy to publish a game on Steam nowadays. What is not easy is to draw some press attention to it. Thankfully enough, the idea proved to be interesting so the game managed to get some decent press coverage.

I chose not to turn to a publisher. On one hand, you buy some more time, and someone else can handle stuff like PR, which plays a large role if you are solo. On the other hand, they get their share for things that you could have done yourself. Going full solo was an experiment, I am still new to this professional game dev business and I am testing things as I go along.

I’ve read recently that there has been issues with porting the game to consoles, are you able to shed any light on that?

You are in college. You have to turn in your graduation research paper to your professor. They want you to do 23413 things about it. You turn it in, hope you’re done. They hand it back. Thing #34 was wrong. Thing #527 was not the way I want it. Thing #16792 is not exactly wrong but not exactly right as well. Fix them and resubmit. Repeat 10 times. The game eng…err…word processor you use for your project keeps having various obscure bugs which may or may not get fixed next update, which may or may not come next month. Oh, and if you have a pressing question, they will reply after 1-2 days and God forbid if you’re nearing the weekend. I hope this helps shed some light.

Who are your favourite characters in Gleaner Heights?

I had fun writing Emily’s, Father Renesco’s and Tobias’ dialogues. But I’d say Renesco takes the cake. The guy is a priest, tries to understand the world but ultimately fails in a funny and innocent way. Plus he proves why chickens are atheists, you gotta hand him that.

Aside from the console ports, do you have any other plans to support Gleaner Heights in the future? Such as a potential content update?

There are many ideas and many directions to choose from. Right now it is a number one priority to sort out the transition to Game maker Studio 2. This will benefit PC players too. I have already implemented an alternate, more gamepad-friendly menu navigation scheme which takes into account the “norm” for console menus: A is always confirm, B is always cancel etc. Plus I have added more button functions depending on context. Game Maker Studio 2 will serve as the foundation for console porting and all future updates, so the transition has to be done properly. As for ideas…boy, where do ideas stop? I will have to see if the game goes well on consoles, and based on the time I will be able to gain for more development, I may have to tech players How Meat Is Made.

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