According to their website, Joao Brant and Lucas Mattos—the pair of programmers at the center of Brazilian dev team Long Hat House— “make games that you would maybe make your granny play someday.”
They say that Brant wrote that slogan while grasping for something random — something that would suggest that anything could come from this then-unknown indie team — and then promptly forgot about it while caught up in creating their debut mobile shooter Magenta Arcade. But, there’s some truth to it.
The approach that their 2018 Metroid-Dark Souls fusion Dandara took to movement— eschewing running and jumping for a shooter-like kinetic fling— is counterintuitive at first, requiring even a veteran gamer to relearn the most basic skill. It was like learning to walk again, except without the walking.
But, maybe that’s part of the appeal. Maybe Dandara is the kind of game your granny would play. Perhaps the unique movement that throws the hardcore off guard would come naturally to the non-gamer. It’s possible that if given the option, nursing home residents might flock to Dandara like a shiny new Wii with the bowling ready to go.
Well, maybe not. But what I do know is that Long Hat House’s four-person team—composed of Brant, Lucas, composer Thommaz Kauffman and artist Victor Leão—produced one of the best games of 2018 so far, and it’s a Metroidvania that somehow takes a new, novel approach in one of indie gaming’s most populous genres.
I recently chatted with Brant and Mattos over Skype and asked them about Dandara’s unique approach to movement, its ties to the historical figure of the same name and the games (beyond Dark Souls and Super Metroid) that inspired their sophomore effort.
As you guys know, I reviewed Dandara for GameCritics and I loved it, but how have people been responding to it, generally? Has the game performed as well as you guys expected it to?
Lucas Mattos: We’ve had some good response, I think. We are really happy with it. Yeah, we had some mixed reviews. Not everybody enjoyed it.
João Brant: I think it could be better, but at the same time, it could be a lot worse. It could be like way worse. So, we’re fine.
How does the response to Dandara compare to Magenta Arcade?
Mattos: I don’t think we can even compare that. It’s another scale of fame. Dandara got a lot more attention.
You guys met at college in Belo Horizonte, correct?
Where did you guys grow up? Did you both grow up in Brazil? And where in the country?
Brant: Well, we were at university together, [studying] computer science, and that’s where we met; where we talked about like, ‘Let’s make games,’ every day. But college doesn’t let you do that that easy, right? You have to do all this work and stuff and we didn’t think about it seriously until our last year. The World Cup was in Brazil and that gave us like an extended holiday, so that’s when we got together and just worked full-time on a project. And that’s how it started and it never ended, we never stopped working together when we graduated.
What came out of that time? Was it small, game jam stuff or was that Magenta Arcade?
Brant: We did a few prototypes, but we would never show it. We would try some things. But, Magenta Arcade was what came from that.
What lessons did you learn from Magenta Arcade that carried over to Dandara?
Brant: From a design standpoint, Dandara is almost like a Magenta Arcade 2, because Dandara began as a touchscreen game. And that game taught us what to do, and what not to do on a touchscreen, like not keeping the finger inside the action too much of the time so people can see their own character. And we brought that to Dandara. So, I don’t think that Dandara would be like it is without Magenta Arcade. We didn’t reuse code or anything, but a lot of design came from that.
That’s interesting. The movement in Dandara is pretty unique. Did the movement that you decided to use in Dandara—instead of the typical platformer run-and-jump—was that because you were coming from a touch shooter background?
Mattos: Kind of. Because we wanted to do a platformer on the touch screen, where you can fight and defend yourself against enemies and swiping was really good for setting a direction and confirming it. So, we could do a straight jump and we learned from Magenta Arcade that lesson, of how that was going to be important.
What design challenges did that open up for you guys—having that kind of movement—and did it shut out any opportunities because you were using that unique movement?
Brant: We had a lot of trouble because we couldn’t have references from other games. Everything we knew about platforming didn’t work. Using the gravity as a challenge to avoid some shots or something like that [didn’t work]. That was pretty challenging for us. We don’t have gravity and that changes everything.
And the opportunity that it opens up is that you have this map that sprawls out in every direction. It seems like that let you guys do this really pure version of the Metroidvania map because it can stretch in any direction. What were the inspirations for that map and for the way that the world unfolded?
Brant: Initially it came from Zelda. We were trying to do something based on dungeons in Zelda, like there’s a hub in the middle of the dungeon. We had, ‘The camp’s over there. So we can like always retry from there.’ But, over the development, we did stray away from that a little bit… Our main inspiration was the Resident Evil games. We really wanted to make every room feel different and Resident Evil does a really good job of that. Games like Killer 7 that also had that feeling of having really different rooms. We really wanted that. That was our main inspiration. Knowing the map and how the pacing of things feels, like somewhere with a lot of battles and then a calm space. We really were interested in stuff like that.
The influences that I noticed, and that other critics brought up, were the Dark Souls games and the Metroidvania genre. Last year, Hollow Knight and Dead Cells came out and both of those games blended the Metroidvania and the Souls-like formulas. What do you think it is about those two genres that makes them mix well together?
Mattos: I think that Joao is right: when we talk about it he always calls Dark Souls a Metroidvania. And I think that’s a right way of seeing it. Metroidvanias are the games where you can explore and the world connects itself and you don’t have like clear, linear paths, and Dark Souls is like that. So, I think it already connects pretty good. And although people complain about the repetition [in Dark Souls] Metroidvanias— the usual ones— they also had this. But, it could be even worse because you lose your progress and then you had to redo it; if you got a powerup you had to redo it. And Dark Souls allows you to not have to redo it, and your exploration’s still there. So, also, it allows a bit of grinding which balances the game, a little bit, because if the player has a lot of trouble, they can do a bit of grinding. We try to not ask people to grind. But, it’s something that happens, so it balances the game a little bit. So, I think that’s why Metroidvania and Dark Souls are blending together at the moment.
So, in your minds, Metroidvanias and Dark Souls are existing in the same genre already?
Mattos: They have the same flow of how you explore the world, I think.
Brant: There is the retrieval system, as well. Because it makes you care about dying, and that’s really important in an exploration game, or else you would just die to get back to the camp quickly. And we really wanted people to care about trying enemies and not avoiding them and the retrieval system punishes you in a way that makes you think about battles more and not ignore them at all. We really wanted that kind of feeling and that’s why we put it in.
Changing gears, let’s talk about the story: the real Dandara was an Afro-Brazilian freedom fighter. And in the game, this Dandara has the same name but she’s fighting oppression in a sci-fi world. How much did you draw from the real Dandara’s story as you created this fictional Dandara’s universe?
Mattos: From the story we didn’t get much of it. It’s mostly about a character and what she means and who she is. What happened is that we were developing a different narrative and it was more about slavery and her real fight, and we got inspiration from Dandara dos Palmares to design the character. Dandara was a project name. It was more as an homage, but then we got attached to the name and the name started getting known from other people. So we changed the narrative, but Dandara still brought a lot of meaning just by having this name so that if we changed the name the narrative doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. We have some other characters in the game that also draw meaning from other people or real life people.
Are there lots of references in the game either in visuals or in names that non-Brazilians are not going to pick up on? What are the things that only people from Brazil are going to appreciate?
Brant: There’s a lot of things from our city. The entire first level, the Village of Artists, is based on where we live, Belo Horizonte, here in Brazil. The street signs, the dumpsters, things like that. There’s a graffiti cupcake, and it’s everywhere in the city and it’s everywhere in the Village of Artists, as well.
Lucas, you said that there were characters whose names were drawn from historical characters. Who were those characters?
Mattos: Tarsila is a clear one. It’s based on a Tarsila do Amaral painting, her shape. So, Tarsila do Amaral is a famous painter from Brazil. She also took part in some artistic movements. She painted this ‘Abaporu’ painting that has that shape. So that’s a reference to her. We have Thommaz, who is our musician and not a famous character, but it also draws inspiration from them.
That’s something I wanted to ask about. Dandara’s tools as she’s fighting oppression are gifts from the artists that she meets. So, I wanted to ask you guys, what do you see as the role of art in the fight against oppressive governments or regimes?
Brant: Not all tools that Dandara gets are based on artists. But, in the end, she inspires the artist to open the path for her. We feel like it’s not about society as much where it’s about how art inspires yourself to fight oppression. It has a role to inform, to inspire, to make you make other art and other work as good as you can, and that’s what it is about in the game.
Mattos: It has both sides. There is this one that the art is to fight against it, and also, in this case, there is a lot of the artist being the oppressed one. And then Dandara comes to help that. So she gets helped and she helps others.
What’s the development scene like in Belo Horizonte? Are there a lot of other game devs in the city?
J: It’s just in the beginning of everything. It is just like a small dev scene, for now. I’ve seen everyone who was doing their first games finally show me their second projects and the jump in quality was amazing to see. And that’s where we’re at: seeing the second projects and people understanding what they’re good at, and understanding their team and starting to show each other their projects right in the beginning. None of the: “Oh no, they’re going to steal my idea,” kind of thing, nothing like that. I think most of the first barriers are already gone through. We need to keep going. But, it’s still in the beginning.
What’s next for Long Hat House? Can we expect Dandara 2 or maybe DLC or are you guys going to move onto something as different from Dandara as Dandara is from Magenta Arcade?
Brant: We are working on some updates now, some problems that we found in the game after launch, bugs and improving some things. We released an update that gives more use to the map, as we realized that people were using the map in a different way than we intended and they weren’t enjoying it as much… For the future we are not sure yet. We have ideas, but very rudimentary.
For updates on what Brant and Mattos do next with their “very rudimentary” ideas, follow them on Twitter: @longhathouse.