INTERVIEW WITH WLAD MARHULETS : DARQ By Twinsen Threepwood

Wlad Marhulets, designer of the game DARQ Every gamer has already dreamt of creating its own video game, one day or another. Only a few ones dared to do so, especially as an amateur. Some self-made video games became legends, such as Eric Chahi’s Another Word, but their developers had a thorough knowledge as far as developing video games is concerned.

However, in 2016, Wlad Marhulets, a professional composer, decided to take the plunge. Without any experience, he will design his own video game. It took him four intense years, during which he’s learnt a lot, before finally releasing his work; Darq, an adventure-puzzle game, born from a passionate mind, whose desire was to take the gamer exploring in a dreamlike and dark world.

Not only Darq’s been a runaway success, acclaimed by the critics, but also from this achievement emerge a breeding-ground for future independent game’s developers. Interview with Darq’s creator exclusively for Gameforever. An interview eagerly awaited as the game’s won unanimous support of our community.

[GF] : Hello, and thank you for accepting this short interview for our website! We are very happy to finally talk with you!

Wlad Marhulets : My pleasure!

[GF] : Before talking about Darq itself, could you summarize for us your career before the creation of the game and what prompted you to get started with this project?

Wlad Marhulets is a former composer As a former music composer, I was mostly involved in writing both concert and film music. Fresh out of college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue the career of a film composer. I was fortunate to contribute additional music to such films as The Giver, November Man, Hitman: Agent 47. My last film project involved scoring a short VR movie starring Eminem, called Marshall From Detroit.

I decided to try game development in late 2015. To many, it might have seen as an arbitrary decision. I guess I always had a desire to make something of my own. One of my motivations to make DARQ was to write music for it. Paradoxically, I ended up removing most of it from the game by the end of the development.

[GF] : You are an autodidact. You have therefore decided to learn on your own everything related to the creation of a game (game design, programming, modeling, texture, etc.). Can you tell us, in summary, how long did it take you to learn it all?

Making the base game, excluding the DLC’s, took about 3.5 years, or about 10,000 hours of work. A lot of this time was spent on education and acquiring the necessary experience. I had to start the game from scratch 3 times. I’d say the actual development took about 2 - 2.5 years. The rest was spent on “trying things out.” I never took courses or anything like that. YouTube and Google were my only teachers.

Draft of a character for DARQ Artwork by Mariam Beiruty (September 2017)

[GF] : Darq is an adventure puzzle game which takes place in a horrific atmosphere. What has inspired you to make this choice? Was it a pragmatic choice or have you a special taste for the genre?

Image of the unfinished version of the game (2017) Actually, I wouldn’t call the atmosphere horrific – the game was never meant to be truly scary. Early on, I decided that all environments would be clean, beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. Elegance was the keyword behind every art-related decision. The game has its creepy moments, but it certainly isn’t terrifying in nature.

I wanted to create the atmosphere of a wicked fairy tale. One of the movies that inspired the game was Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro – while it’s a dark story, it has a whimsical quality to it that I like very much. I also grew up watching a lot of Tim Burton’s movies. I’m a big fan of things that are twisted and different, not necessarily scary.

[GF] : Are there any games or artworks that you used as a reference?

As a former film composer, I rarely had the time to play games, but Limbo and Inside certainly influenced me in some way. I love those games. As for artworks, I’d say M.C. Escher, H.R. Giger, Z. Beksinski.

[GF] : Darq's level design constantly employs a reversal of perspective and a three-dimensional "block" approach to space. Can you tell us more about it?

I wanted to push the definition of the 2.5D concept to the limits. The fact that the game is set in a dream world allowed for the exploration of various game mechanics that wouldn’t make sense in any other settings. The abstract nature of the world made it possible to introduce gravity and environment manipulation into the gameplay.

Developing a level for Darq. Here, "The Tower “(DLC) Design of a building Furniture modeling

[GF] : Did you have a clear vision of the size and course of the game from the start or did you add chapters and build your game as things progressed?

I was completely inexperienced when I got started, so I naturally lacked the ability to predict how long the development would take. Even experienced developers tend to underestimate how long things take. At first, I naively thought DARQ would take 6 months to develop. It ended up taking 3.5 years, or...close to 5 if you count the DLC’s and console releases. I tend to care a lot about quality, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Early levels never made it to the final build, they simply weren’t good enough. I scrapped a lot of content to keep the quality high consistently throughout the game. Also, as I mentioned, I started the game from scratch a couple of times, which was done in pursuit of quality. Had I not done that, the development would have taken less time. I doubt the game would have been noticed if it wasn’t as polished as it is though.

Darq, first version VS Darq final version (1/2) Darq, first version VS Darq final version (2/2) Evolution of Darq’s logo

[GF] : What inspires you when you create a puzzle ?

Puzzles tend to “design themselves” as a result of experimentation and playing with the game mechanics introduced in each level. Let me explain.

Every level of DARQ introduces a new mechanic (in addition to shifting gravity and the ability to walk on walls and ceilings, which is possible in every level). For example, Chapter 3 of DARQ takes place in a rainy town, where the player has the ability to rotate the world by 90 degrees at the intersection. Even though the game is a “side-scroller,” rotating the world by 90 degrees allows the player to explore the town in all 4 directions.

Most of the puzzles in this level are built with this mechanic in mind. The player has to view the environment from multiple angles to be able to see everything there is to see. There are puzzles that require rotating the world in the middle of solving them. In other words, the unique dream-like mechanics of each level create a variety of opportunities for interesting puzzle design.

Chapter 3 is based on a central intersection... ... which will change your perspective Example of a puzzle with a dynamic and three-dimensional approach

[GF] : There is very few music in Darq. Is it a constrained or a voluntary choice to support the atmosphere?

The composer himself composed the score of the game At the end of the development, I had an opportunity to record the soundtrack for DARQ with Budapest Scoring Orchestra. It was a lot of fun, and a dream come true. As a composer, I was so excited to share this music through my game. As a game developer, I realized that the game didn’t need much music. I had to choose between my composer’s ego and what was right for the game. I ended up removing most of the music from the game and letting sound design take over. Having a lot of music in the game makes the game feel too “scripted” or “designed.” It makes players feel that they participate in my experience. Removing music creates a very different experience. Players are now alone with the world. It’s their world and their dream.

[GF] : A huge amount of work has been carried out regarding the sound design. Besides you received help to succeed with that. Can you tell us more about it?

Bjørn Jacobsen, distinguished Sound Designer and awarded for his work on the game DARQ was made mostly solo (about 5% of modeling and animation was outsourced). As a former film composer, I have a good understanding of audio and I knew how important sound design would be in a game like DARQ. I was going to delegate the creation of sound design entirely. I was about to sign a contract with two sound designers. On the same day, I received an email from Bjørn Jacobsen, a sound designer who was working on Cyberpunk 2077 at the time. He said he had just watched DARQ’s trailer and was interested in working on it. After a skype call, I realized we were on the same page creatively, and the rest is history. Bjørn had nearly infinite creative control over the sound design of DARQ, so all the credit for it goes to him.

Darq won many awards [GF] : How did it feel like to see your game compete for awards with other studios? How did you feel when Darq was declared the great winner?

It’s completely surreal. DARQ was nominated for (and won) many awards. The highlight of them all was getting nominated for the Music and Sound Award, alongside such titles as Death Stranding. It was a big honor to lose this one to Hideo Kojima, my childhood hero.

[GF] : A complete edition is about to be released on home console. You have made the choice to entrust this project to a service provider. Why? Did the collaboration go well?

Mosaic of the Darq project’s history It took quite a long time to find the right publisher for the console releases. I’m couldn’t be happier to have partnered with Feardemic, the publishing arm of the Bloober Team (The Medium, Blair Witch, Observer, Layers of Fear). They have been the perfect partner on this journey. We’re also partnered with Dreamloop Games – a team of tech geniuses who deserve all the credit for the technical work that went into porting. Both teams at Feardemic and Dreamloop Games are amazing at what they do. They’re truly great people, too. So far we have successfully released DARQ on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. PS5 and Xbox Series S|X releases are coming on March 25th. Those who own DARQ on the old-gen consoles qualify for a free upgrade. Also, physical releases will follow in the second quarter of this year.

[GF] : You released a book to help young designers making the game they dream of. Looking backward, are there things you would do differently to create Darq?

Wlad Marhulets’s successful book I’m delighted that my book “GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful” was helpful to so many people. I wrote it when the pandemic started – I didn’t expect it to gain much visibility. It ended up being praised by Forbes as their “favorite book on game development by far.” It was recently endorsed by the faculty of Laguna College of Art and Design, too.
The book assumes no knowledge of game development, it’s written for beginners. It contains advice that I wish I had received when I started working on DARQ. If I read this book back then, it would have saved me at least a year of development. The book covers virtually every aspect of game development: mindset, preproduction, production, marketing, PR, community management, business, law, team management, contracts, trademarks, copyright, time and risk management, distribution, pre-launch, launch, and post-launch strategies. The advice shared in the book is both derived from my own experience and the experience of other developers (industry veterans as well as other successful indies).

The future comic book to come (2021) will deepen the universe of the game. [GF] : Darq‘s universe will be extended with a comic book, being released soon. (Dark: Dream Journal); is there a releasing date?

I’m super excited about the upcoming comic book release. At last, the comic will uncover the secrets behind DARQ’s story and expand on it significantly, introducing new characters and events not seen in the game. While there are many theories about DARQ’s meaning on the internet, none of them is accurate.
There’s no release date yet, but we’re aiming for mid-2021. If you want to be notified when it’s released, you can sign up for our mailing list at darqgame.com.

[GF] : You were recently defined as a model for the Kickstarter campaign Prim, Common Colors Studio’s very first game. How does it feel to be supporting creators?

Prim is a very promising game, I loved checking out the demo. I feel it’s my duty to support fellow creators, especially those whose work I find inspiring. Writing the book was one of the ways to support the community.
I also took the time to organize Unfold Games Awards – I believe it’s the biggest indie game contest when it comes to the total prize pool (over $170,000 in funding and prizes) that is free to enter. It wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of the sponsors: Intel, Unity, Pixologic, Integral Capital, FMOD, and McArthur Law Firm. The competition is judged by 20 industry veterans, comprised of both AAA professionals and members of the press (IGN, GameSpot, Forbes).

Indie game Prim caught the attention of Wlad Marhulets ... and Gameforever! The challengers who compete for the Unfold Games Awards

[GF] : My last two questions! You wrote on Twitter that you were working on a new project. Can you tell us a bit more about it? Are you going to become a full-time game designer?

Actually, I’ve been a full-time game developer for multiple years now. The new project is still in the early stages of development, but I’ll be able to announce it in the near future.

[GF] : Wlad Marhulets, thank you so much for this interview!

Thank you as well!

Interview on 21st March 2021

DARQ's official website
Sound designer Bjørn Jacobsen's website
Version française de cette interview

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