Shapes and constellations: An interview with Super Hexagon creator Terry Cavanagh
When you meet Terry Cavanagh, he isn’t what you expect. The modesty, the generous listening – it can’t be the same man behind slippery, prickly games such as VVVVVV and Super Hexagon, all angles and grinning absurdity. You envisage someone in leather, walking a very large dog.
Cavanagh is an auteur in the best possible sense. He mines a particular aesthetic, often nodding to 8-bit-era graphics, sometimes stripped down to purely geometric gauntlets. He focuses explicitly on gameplay and flow, but pulls on everything from Greek myth to concrete poetry.
A new game by Cavanagh is due to be premiered at Now Play This, which takes place from 7 to 9 April at Somerset House. To learn more about this game, and a little about his approach to design, I sent him over a few questions by email.
(Above: Terry Cavanagh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
TM: What can you tell us about the newly commissioned game for Now Play This?
TC: The new game, Constellation is a sort of sequel to Constellation Machine, a tiny game I made (and released) for a game jam in 2016. In Constellation Machine, you play by typing in some words, and then the game reacts to whatever you’ve typed – creating shapes and colours and movement. I really loved the simplicity and expressive power of this interface – it’s really exciting to explore and discover new things that work! Since releasing that prototype, I’ve been really keen to explore that further.
Constellation starts with that same interface – but with the ability to respond to much more of what you’re typing, and to create much more interesting and unique scenes. I’d been poking at the idea ever since releasing the original prototype, and when Now Play This approached me about making something for their festival, I thought it was a perfect fit.
(Above: Constellation Machine)
TM: Many of your past games have been freeware. Is that approach something you consciously aim for? To what degree do you think developers can experiment with ideas in free games, in a way they perhaps can’t with games that are sold?
I always start off by assuming it will be a freeware game
TC: Speaking for myself, my process has always been to work through ideas in prototypes and jam games – and I always start off by assuming it will be a freeware game. There are games that I’ve worked on on-and-off for years that I ultimately decided to release as freeware.
TM: In the past you’ve spoken about wanting to hone Super Hexagon until it was “as simple and pure as possible”. To what extent does that idea permeate throughout your design?
TC: It really depends on the game. As much as I would sometimes like to find that thread which pulls all my work together, the truth is that all my games seem to be driven in their own different directions. Super Hexagon wanted to be as simple and pure as possible, but Constellation seems to want to be about discovery, about surprises, about unexpected combinatorial complexity.
(Above: Super Hexagon)
TM: I read that in VVVVVV you found it useful to limit the background tiles for each room to just five shades of one colour – that you found it easier to work within tight graphical limits. Is this an approach you still find useful?
I probably have some weird ideas about what looks good
TC: Absolutely, yeah. My visuals have gotten a lot better since I made VVVVVV, but I still think of my style as “programmer art”, and I still think I probably have some weird ideas about what looks good.
Constellation has been interesting to work on in that sense, actually, since what’s cool about the game is learning how to create these big, abstract, weird visual images.
TM: Do you consider your games to be narrative games?
TC: Not so much. When my games have a story they want to tell, I usually prefer to tell it through the mechanics.
TM: You used to work as a market risk analyst. Did anything from that job influence your approach to game design?
TC: Honestly, not really. It was a job I was lucky to get after college, and I’m thankful that it enabled me to save up and go indie, but it wasn’t something I was very good at!
You can play Constellation for yourself at Now Play This, which runs from 7 to 9 April at Somerset House as part of London Games Festival. Last year we chatted to its director, Holly Gramazio. You can read that interview over here.