Interview with Paul Conway of Spooky Doorway, Creators of The Darkside Detective Series
I recently had the pleasure of playing The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark and was instantly enamored with it. The clever writing, fantastic pixel art style, and references to pop culture from the 80s and 90s had me hooked immediately. Curious to know more about the magic behind The Darkside Detective games, we at WayTooManyGames reached out to the developers at Spooky Doorway. Paul Conway, CEO and Lead Artist of Spooky Doorway, granted us peek behind the curtain to give us some insight into how Darkside became a reality.
First off, let me just say how thrilled I am to have discovered The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark, even if it was purely by chance. I guess you could say I stumbled across your Fumble. Sorry for the terrible joke.
We’re fans of terrible jokes. Welcome to the club!
So how did your dream team come together? Were you all friends prior to creating The Darkside Detective or did you meet while working in the gaming industry?
Dave and Treasa were already a couple, and they met me (Paul) on the small island of Inishbofin off the west coast of Ireland in 2015. There was an Irish developer gathering happening there for the weekend where everyone unplugged from their laptops and got to meet each other. We all got along quite well when we met. There was an immediate connection among the three of us so we stayed in touch.
A few weeks later there was a game jam in Galway city where a pal and I came up with a basic demo for an adventure game called The Darkside. It was terrible, it had only 4 screens and the puzzles didn’t make much sense, but when I posted the demo and screenshots online it got a surprisingly good reaction. People liked it, the art, setting and short length. It had charm despite all its flaws so I was encouraged to turn it into a full game.
Dave and Treasa reached out and asked if I needed help working on it. I did, I’m an artist and a biz guy more than anything else, so it was great to have a writer and coder want to come on board. We quickly joined forces and the terrible demo with bad jokes quickly started to become a well programmed game with good dialogue and funny characters.
We’ve had other folks come and go as we’ve worked on the two games, recently we’ve had Ben Marquez Keenan helping with development and Robert Megone for QA and mini game programming.
There are tons of references to pop culture icons, with the town of Twin Lakes being an obvious play on Twin Peaks. What are some of the other sources of inspiration for The Darkside Detective games?
The inspirations for The Darkside Detective are fairly broad. There is obviously the TV shows and movies of the 80s and 90s that we all grew up watching. Parodying the X-Files and Twin Peaks were a big part of us finding the voice for the world of Darkside, but a lot of the flavor of the game comes from our Irish interpretation of Americana.
Older classic adventure games like Space Quest and Monkey Island were also huge influences on the design of the game and lots of the characters are versions of people who Dave met on his travels, or parodies of tropey characters from older movies. We pluck our inspirations from everywhere, but you could say most of it was discovered on old VHS tapes or floppy disks.
Does Dave McCabe come up with all of the writing and jokes by himself or is some of it a collective effort?
All the dialogue and minute to minute jokes are written by Dave, but the structure of a case and the silly scenario are usually written by both Dave and Treasa. I contribute with some sight gags or help smooth out the delivery of a joke once it’s in the game, but overall, most of what makes players laugh in The Darkside Detective is from Mr McCabe.
Are there any jokes or storylines that didn’t make the cut? If so, what kinds of things ended up on the cutting room floor?
Quite a few jokes from an earlier version of the first game were scrapped completely. Tonally Darkside is a wholesome experience that celebrates friendship and weirdness, but an earlier version of McQueen was a little too snarky at times which felt wrong. Some of his comments we softened or the meanness taken out completely. Nobody really wants to play as a jerk.
There are also a few subtle adult jokes in the game. We try to make those work in an almost hidden way. Lots of our players have played the games with their kids and we love to hear that, so we don’t want to ruin that experience. Any adult jokes have to work as either a weird comment that goes over kids’ heads, or as a layered joke which is funny on a few levels. More than a few jokes were dumped for this reason.
We’ve also killed a few darlings when we discovered a section or flow of a case wasn’t working as we hoped. Sometimes it was easier to pull out some content and replace it with new areas, characters or dialogue than to try to fix them.
Each of the cases Detective McQueen and Officer Dooley investigate starts off with one seemingly simple concern that ends up taking a pretty drastic turn into the bizarre and unexpected. Do you start off with the twist as your main idea and work around that or do you think of a relatively mundane problem and then let the weirdness lead you? Can you give us some insight on the creative process?
Generally, each Darkside case starts off with us figuring out with where we’d like to set a story. It’s important that the setting is in line with our version of Americana and our silly call backs to movies or TV shows, and the location can translate well in to the simple pixel art style of The Darkside Detective. Once we’ve figured out that much it inspires the villain or scenario. Clowns at a carnival, spooky trains at a subway station, over active old folks at a retirement home.
The set up usually works with our characters being called to a location for one thing, or accidentally wandering into a situation, which then escalates into something else entirely. We try to subvert the player’s expectation once the central mystery or problem is revealed. Half the time the “monster of the week” is not the villain, but someone who needs a little help.
When we figure out a setting and general idea story, Dave and Treasa will go away and flesh out the idea and find ways to evolve the weirdness. They also design a flow of the case. What goes where? Who does what? How to get from A to Z, etc… Once that’s in place we’ll put together a badly drawn version of a case in Unity that we can play and see if it works and flows like we want it to.
A lot times at this stage we’ve dumped whole cases which just don’t work, or have gone back to the drawing board to figure out how to reshape and improve them. It’s surprising how different a game can feel when you’re playing it instead of how you think it will work when writing a document. When that’s all done, I’ll start putting in art in and Dave will add dialogue and interactions and Treasa and the dev team will start making it all work.
For being a pixelated game, I was impressed by the sheer amount of detail in each scene, as well as the character designs. How did you decide to go with this art style? Was it a budgetary choice or a purposeful decision to pay homage to the point-and-click adventures from the 80s and 90s?
The big pixel art style came about because of the game originated in a short game jam. There wasn’t much time to make the demo on the day, so I decided to do some really low-resolution pixel art to try and deliver as many graphics as possible. Less pixels meant less work, and adding the lighting effects quickly gave it a surprising amount of atmosphere and character. People really liked it when we posted screenshots and the art style works well with the genre. It arrived as a happy accident but has added a lot of character to both games.
I really enjoyed the soundtrack for The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark, which also seemed to capture the spirit of many movies and TV shows from the 80s and 90s. Did you give the composer, Thomas O’Boyle, ideas on what exactly you wanted for each scene or did he produce the ideas on his own based off what he saw?
Our direction for the soundtrack was pretty much the same as the first game. We got Thomas to listen to some John Carpenter soundtracks, particularly the Prince of Darkness OST, and suggested this as a starting point. We wanted a synth heavy semi-serious sound as the foundation, but he was free to go wherever he felt it should after that. The setting of a case, like the one set in Ireland or at the carnival, help to steer what you might expect to hear, but Thomas always goes a little further and finds interesting sounds that work really well in a case.
There’s a mysterious seventh file at the end of The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark that’s simply labeled “To Be Continued”. Are you planning on adding any DLC to it later?
We are definitely adding a free seventh case called Tales from The Darkside, which is an anthology case following some short stories of other characters in the Darkside universe. We’re currently doing some planning work on that one and we hope to deliver it soon. We’re not sure if we’ll add more than the seventh case, though. We have some ideas, but we’re not certain if we should save those for another season, or add shortened versions of them as DLC to A Fumble in the Dark.
You have a relatively small team for a game studio. With the success of both The Darkside Detective and The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark, do you think you’ll expand the current team you have for future titles?
We’re definitely hoping to expand the team as needed on future titles if the budget allows it. We’ve delivered a lot for such a small team, but we’ll definitely need more help as time goes on. We’re all getting older and have kids, so we don’t necessarily have the energy or time to keep delivering the games on our own. It’s really a matter of expanding at a sustainable rate for the studio while trying not to disrupt our creative process too much.
Are all of you at Spooky Doorway sticking to The Darkside Detective for the foreseeable future or are you thinking of branching out into other projects?
As a team we’re looking at working on some other titles. We’ve two other demos in the works right now which are very different from The Darkside Detective. Our next demo, Eldritch House, is another detective game, but it’s 3D and much more serious in tone and also a lot more mechanics focused than what we’ve done with The Darkside Detective. We hope some of our streamlined design philosophy will translate well to the new title.
Now that I’ve discovered this series, I can’t get enough of it! Do you have ideas for more seasons later on?
From day one we’ve always seen The Darkside Detective as a trilogy. We’ve definitely enough ideas for another season. If the series continues to be as popular as it has been though we’ll make more than 3. We’ve just got to figure out how to continue making more Darkside while also having the time to explore our other ideas.