When attempting to describe the games of Calgarian independent developer Calvin French, the word ‘weird’ is one of the first things that may come to mind. Their subject matter is by no means the standard fare of mainstream games — the strange blend of magic and metaphysics found in French’s 2012 game The Real Texas garnered equal amounts of critical acclaim and confused head scratching and the neon-laced zen of his latest game, Paradise Perfect Boat Rescue, will surely be considered by many as another exercise in weird.
However, this peculiarity is far from purposeful.
“The ‘weirdness’ in a game pretty much already exists by the time I’m making it,” explains French. “I don’t ever intentionally make anything weird and I didn’t even notice that The Real Texas was weird until after I had released it. People were saying that it made no sense and was illogical and I was just like, ‘What?’ It all made sense to me within the game’s internal logic.”
Even though the concept for Paradise Perfect Boat Rescue at first seems fairly normal — the player is tasked with ferrying people between islands on a small boat known as a sampan — the details of the game instill an extra sense of strangeness. Your passengers complain and bicker nearly constantly, some islands are named after ice cream flavours and the player is occasionally treated to pieces of surprisingly profound wisdom from a man named Boatmaster Taro. All of these aspects add up to an unexpectedly surreal experience, one that French explains was partially inspired by a trip to Hong Kong.
“I went on a sampan ride in Hong Kong once, on this cool little weird boat that was kind of like the boat in the game,” says French. “They would drive you out to some island, and then you could just hang out and have a picnic on this little island. The game was largely inspired by that, and there are quite a few references to Hong Kong in there.”
The game that would eventually become Paradise Perfect Boat Rescue was originally developed in 2010 in an attempt to get $500 from an Intel promotion, but French had shelved the game because he was unable to properly code the physics for the boat. French rediscovered the project earlier this year, however, and realized that it was something he could use.
“In March I was digging around my projects folder and found this old weird boat game,” says French. “I realized there was a lot there — it had a lot of detail, all of the sound effects were put in and it looked pretty nice. I knew then how to implement the boat physics because I had become more knowledgeable about this kind of thing. So I fixed it, and I was surprised because it actually worked incredibly well.”
French deliberately intended to make the game much shorter and simpler than the sprawling The Real Texas, in an attempt to avoid a similarly lengthy development cycle.
“What I needed to do with the game was just get it out,” explains French. “My habit is to take a really long time to develop ideas fully, which is what happened with The Real Texas. I didn’t want to do that, to fall into that trap, so I actually set a firm release date for May.”
While the game at launch was rather short, French has been putting out weekly updates for Paradise Perfect Boat Rescue which add new levels, features and pieces of the story. French hopes this episodic structure will draw people back to the game every week.
“It’s like a TV show, but a crappy TV show,” says French. “Not like a well-produced show — no Game of Thrones or anything. Just something that makes people go, ‘Oh, that was fun!’ ”
French has been working full-time as an independent developer since the success of The Real Texas, which allows him the time needed to make weekly updates for Paradise Perfect Boat Rescue. A graduate of the University of Calgary’s computer science program, French is one of only a few full-time video game developers based out of Calgary — a city that lacks the same kind of game scene that many other Canadian cities have.
“There’s a small community, but I think because there is not a big professional game development scene in Calgary not much can grow up around that,” says French. “There are a few indie developers around — people who do it on the side or in their free time — but the scene isn’t that great.”
As the video game industry grows in Canada and more developers begin to flock to Calgary, the city’s indie game scene is bound to grow as well. But even so, it would be hard to imagine another Calgarian — or another developer, for that matter — making games as uniquely weird and charming as French’s.
“What I have realized is that I should just embrace it,” says French. “I’m not going to analyze everything. I’m just going to make the things I want to make. Not everything has to be streamlined, or have purpose or meaning. For me the approach is more subconscious, or a stream of consciousness. Why is Paradise Perfect Boat Rescue the way it is? Because it just is.”