Hahaha I’m actually not gonna take a ton of time up here because this interview is very long, but there’s a good reason. I had the pleasure of talking with Jay Tholen, the developer of Hypnospace Outlaw, which was nominated for multiple Indie of the Year awards in 2018. He’s also one of the best interviewees I’ve had on the column so far; I think we talked for like two hours about his journey into development and how he created this crazy weird trippy unique game. Believe me, read it all. It’s well worth your time. So, as always:

This is me.

This is Jay.

This is a cool GIF.

Alright so Jay, we start every interview with the same question: how’d you get into gaming as a hobby? First game/console?

My first console was an NES. Probably around 1994ish? Well into the 16-bit era. I don’t think my parents could afford a SNES/Genesis, though I did play my share of those at friends’ houses. As such, my first games were Mario 3 and Duck Hunt.

Haha you can never go wrong when you start off with one of the best games of all time (Super Mario Bros 3.)

Yeah, in some ways I’m happy that we couldn’t afford the newest or else I’d have missed out on an entire generation. In the same way, the only software we could afford when we got a PC in 1997 was old shareware stuff and demo discs. I’d get a game on my birthday or Christmas but that was it generally. So I was schooled in the classic adventure games of the early 1990s even though they were a little before my time.

Yea I’m the exact same way. We couldn’t afford an N64 so we got an SNES and damn I am so glad we did.

I first got into developing games after finding a demo of Klik & Play (or The Games Factory? Not sure, pretty much the same exact program) in a “goodies” folder of a Sim Tower CD-ROM. That would’ve been 1998 or 1999.

Ok, yea so let’s talk about your path from gaming as a hobby to gaming as a career. Was it your first choice as a career path? Also, you’re in Denmark right now but you spend time in the US as well right?

I grew up in the states and moved here to Germany (the DE is for Deutschland) a few years ago after marrying a German.

Dammit, you’ve exposed my ignorance to the rest of the world lol.

Hah, it’s OK, I would’ve thought the same thing probably before heading over here. My geography is bad also. Something common to Americans perhaps. 😛

Oh very common to Americans. We don’t know anything about the outside world except China has too many people and North Korea wants us dead haha.

But yeah, back to your other question: I suppose I didn’t have much of a career path. I had a rough time in school, both due to external family issues and my own ADHD and just bombed it. By 12th grade, I had something like a 1.35 GPA and couldn’t graduate. Math absolutely murdered me.

Haha, yeah, I’m still bad about most non-Europe regions. So, I dropped out of high school and just kept making my little games as a hobby. Posted them on websites like The Daily Click for feedback and later TigSource. In the meantime, I had a slew of Telemarketing jobs. Also worked at a supermarket and factory.

So how were those early years? I’d imagine you were still living at home right? Did your parents support your ideas?

Yeah, I lived with my dad in the middle of nowhere. He thought it was cool and I think he believed in me more than a lot of dads might if you tell them you want to make vidya games. Though I don’t think he was convinced until I was able to get my butt out of his house at 29, haha.

That’s awesome. It definitely helps when those close to you support your dreams. Ok so let’s continue through your journey. In those early years, how’d you come up with ideas for games? And when did Dropsy come into play? How far along in your game dev career were you?

So I guess everything started in ~2004 when I made a little zombie platformer called Dark Aftermath. I ended up abandoning it due to an enormous deluge of bugs and still had a few sprites laying around from a circus level. Dropsy’s sprite was originally a clown boss for the game. So I used that sprite and made a little MS Paint adventure game in a forum thread on the Something Awful forums. That got decently popular for the time. The forum members helped shape his character (hugging people, etc). After the thread wrapped up, a few people contacted me about possibly making an adventure game out of it, and in 2011 I ran a super tiny Kickstarter for funds to buy software to make it. It makes me cringe to look at now.

So you ran it as a “forum adventure” for 3 years?

Yeah, there were a few different Dropsy threads over that 3 years. Only finished the story of the first one. It’s a neat format for games and I miss forums being more popular for that reason.

So how much of that helped you turn Dropsy into an actual point and click game?

Well, I flubbed around a ton for the next 2 years. Made a bunch of design docs and plans and art and music but couldn’t code to save my life, so in 2013 I ran another Kickstarter to bring on a programmer to help. And at that point, it began to coalesce into the real final product. The forum game definitely helped shape the character, though I ended up easing up on Dropsy’s penchant for accidentally killing people. I was beginning to feel that the whole twisted killer klown thing was a bit overplayed, and I just wanted to say something uplifting through the game.

Haha yea I agree. He still looks creepy as hell though, which adds to the satire a bit. You’ve got this creepy ass clown that’s just trying to clear his name and make everyone hug haha.

Yeah, and I think it’s a neat subversion when people buy and play the game. They’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop and some big reveal where Dropsy has a shed full of dead bodies or something. It’s interesting that the tension is there for the first half of the game, just because of how he looks. It’s fun to play with expectations like that a bit. Though, of course, there ARE weird things towards the end, though not super murdery ones.

So continuing along that development path, Devolver Digital eventually became involved and published the game. How did that come about? What was it like working with them?

Ahh yeah, Devolver’s involvement was pure divine intervention or something. When I ran the 2013 Kickstarter I emailed about 40 or 50 press outlets trying to get coverage. Only 2 or 3 wrote up anything about the game, one being Rock Paper Shotgun and one of the guys from Devolver saw that article and emailed me. Back then I didn’t even have a playable prototype for them, so it was quite risky but I think they liked the look and animation enough to go for it. I think there were far fewer titles to choose from in 2013 as well. I don’t know if they’d have signed me nowadays; I doubt it. Working with them was great though. Everyone there seems to legitimately care about the developers and they’re very hands-off with the creative process.

I love that. Absolutely love it.

Ok so let’s move onto the big boy: Hypnospace Outlaw. First, how did you come up with the idea for the game?

While working on Dropsy I made a teeny tiny little 2-week game called Hypnospace Enforcer. It played with the whole “Information Superhighway” concept from the 1990s and presented it as a literal highway that users were surfing while they slept. So originally Hypnospace Outlaw was going to be much more like that, with the OS and fake internet being only about ~20% of the experience. It was always going to have a similar aesthetic, only set in the future with future tech and be more the twitchy car game than a thinky detective game.

And how did it evolve into the final product? Conceptually I mean.

I think the game transitioned into being primarily OS based in late 2015/early 2016. I’d started posting gifs and video clips of the various prototype OS features and people were giving them much more attention than the car bits ever saw. At the same time, I was doing a lot of reading about the dot com bubble and some of the bonkers 1990s web/tech startups that went under. Oh, I was also watching a LOT of Net Cafe. So my interests were already there and I was having way more fun mocking up pages and aping the design aesthetics used by these companies than messing with my fiddly car bits. Probably in part because the car game stuff required math, and at the time I was going it alone. There were also a bunch of games at around 2015-2016 that people were making on the TigSource forums and elsewhere (Mainlining, Nathalie Lawhead’s work, Frog Days, and a few others). So the timing “felt right” and it almost felt like being part of the first significant wave of this 1990s OS/internet revival. In late 2016, after bringing on coder Mike Lasch to help me polish up my prototype, we ran a Kickstarter for Hypnospace and that did quite well. He became the game’s main coder and we started really working away at the end of 2016.

Ok so let’s talk about the game itself. You are an internet enforcer looking for people performing illegal activity, so you have to browse through different internet pages and report the different violations to your employer. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg; you added such depth to not only the webpages and the narrative but also the virtual PC itself. What was it like to plan this all out? I feel like my brain would be tied into knots trying to map out the whole game. Add to all of it that this is happening in the “hypnospace”, a virtual internet that people in the real world access when they go to sleep.

Haha, thanks. One guiding principle of this was that we really need to go as far as our engine allowed to make it feel like a real fleshed out operating system. Yeah, all of that together makes it an incredibly difficult game to describe to people. Especially if people aren’t necessarily playing lots of games. We just had a few people visiting from our church last night and I was stumbling over my words describing the dang thing.

I can only imagine the amount of people that played this game and were like “this developer was on shrooms when he came up with this idea” hahaha

Ha, oh I bet. But yeah, so it was very important to us to make it feel somewhat real. There are a few ‘fake OS’ games that tease you a bit with desktop icons but often you can’t drag them, delete them, etc. SOMETIMES you can’t even open the programs.

You added such depth to each webpage. How in the world did you come up with all of those ideas?

So we started the whole thing by making two tools: a page builder and a sequencer. We didn’t even start the OS until we had mostly finished our fake webpage and sequenced music formats. This allowed me to start pumping out pages while Mike added features to the OS. We kept adding features to both of those things until like the last month of development, it was quite a messy iterative process. At no point did we have a design doc where we said: “yup, this is it!”

I can imagine. Like I said, my brain would be in a pretzel. I would be so stressed out haha. How many different page concepts did you come up with at the start? Did you just do a brainstorming session with some friends?

So way early on in 2016 we had a few streams and some of the folks joined a Skype call with me and we brainstormed a few pages together. Trennis came from that. It was quite chaotic and I’d really like to do it again. One of the people on the call 3D-modeled a Trennis court while the stream was happening and by the end, I put it on a page. Most of the pages were just me going with whatever dumb idea I had and making a page out of it. Hmm, maybe today I’ll do a bigfoot-esque conspiracy theory guy?!?” and then really just went in with no plan and made it. maybe I’d reference a Geocities page archive to see what the ‘real’ conspiracy pages looked like. I’m a decent artist and musician so that was the fun part for me. Making all the random companies/users and their pages. This DID become a problem though because about 1.5 years into development we came to a point where we had this massive collection of pages, but there was still only one puzzle.

My favorite page is the Goodtime Valley page. Who came up with that idea?

Ahh, yeah, the boomer zone. All the zones were mine, as were most pages. Though I did try and show that these are real humans too with their own hopes and fears and stuff. For example, you can dig up some nice little cards that the Sandy lady made for various other hypnospace users. Nice junk like that. Didn’t want to make anyone a 100% pastiche or parody or whatever. But there’s def some of my own frustration with that generation put into the zone, haha. And I think it’s just more realistic that all people have good and bad things about them.

But yea, so we ended up with this problem where basically we had a fun OS to mess around with, and a gazillion amusing pages, but no real gameplay to speak of. And figuring out how to guide players from one case to the next (also overtime periods) was really breaking my brain. We didn’t want people to feel like they were trapped in a linear game. We wanted it to feel like a living network, and giving these cases/puzzles one at a time really kind of made it feel that way at first. So my old pal Xalavier Nelson Jr. came on to help guide the story and really made it memorable I think. He also ended up writing some of the pages as well. He did all of the news reports, for example.

Yea I think that the game can seem overwhelming to anyone at times but also for people who enjoy exploring the virtual world you created, it has the perfect amount of depth. How did you feel when you got nominated for awards??

We were shocked! Mostly because the version we sent them was from October of 2018. That’s like 6 months before the proper release. It was quite unpolished. But of course happy to have been nominated. Hopefully, we’ll make someone’s indie GOTY list.

I mean I think you’ve got a very decent shot. It’s one of the most unique, crazy, weird, funny, original games that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve played a lot of games. Like A LOT of games. If I added up the hours I’ve played video games I’m pretty sure I’ve played for at least a year of my life. So last thing before we go into rapid-fire: have you already started working on your next project? Wanna give us a hint?

Nah, we’re still working on Hypnospace actually. Adding in some modding capability; i.e add your own pages/zones/cases/applications/whatever. You could make an entirely different game out of it, really. Also hopefully getting a Switch port rolling.

That would be awesome. I can only imagine the crazy things people will come up with.

I’m excited to see it, hah. People have already made Windows 95/XP-ish themes.

Alright well, thank you so much for your time today. You ready to wrap this up with some rapid-fire questions?

No prob, it’s been a pleasure. Yeah let’s do it!

Alright, favorite game of all time?

GAHHHH hmm. Earthbound.

Favorite game this year?

Not sure if it counts but I’ve been enjoying No Man’s Sky’s Beyond update released this summer. It’s my chill game right now. I want to find time to play Bloodstained tho, which I’ll probably like a lot

Definitely counts. Ohhhh yea, Bloodstained looks great. It’s on my list to play when I have the time. You played Hollow Knight?

Yeah, though I suck real bad and need to give it more time.

Haha ok, what do you think is the most overrated game of all time?

Hmm. Possibly the Assassin’s Creed series. I do love the visuals but I wish they were a bit less hand-holdy.

AGREED. How about most underrated? Other than your games of course.

Total Annihilation could’ve used more love.

Bleh. RTS games belong where they are now: in a deep dark hole. Haha, what about game that you refuse to play (for whatever reason)?

Haha, I generally agree but TA was an exception. We can argue about this later. Hmmm, I can’t think of much I’d refuse to play. Probably Hatred. Would make me feel like crap to play.

Don’t know if I’ve ever heard of it but I’ll check it out. Give me something about Dropsy or Hypnospace Outlaw that no one else knows.

Dropsy was almost part of the Frog Fractions 2 ARG, I even added mysterious art to the game for it. We didn’t finish in time though so it never happened. Most people know all the Hypnospace secrets by now, unfortunately! Counselor Ronnie almost had an anti-drug song but I didn’t finish it in time.

Ok last question, do you think Fortnite is a good game?

I haven’t played it! It does look like it’d be fun with friends if I ever tried to sink the time into it. Don’t think I’d just play with random people though. I could go without seeing folks floss for the rest of time tho.

Oh its a ton of fun until you realize that an 8-year-old builds you into a box and makes you question your entire existence.

Hahaha, I bet.

Alright man, thank you so much again for your time! Look forward to speaking with you again sometime soon!

SO, if you made it this far congratulations! You’ve read the longest interview/post I’ve ever made on PartyChat. Also, you should go follow Jay on Twitter to keep up with all things Hypnospace Outlaw and much more (like how does chili actually last in a fridge?). And as always, make sure you join me next week for another edition of Behind the Mask!