Sabotage Studio was formed by Martin Brouard and Thierry Boulanger in 2016 to construct THE MESSENGER, about a young ninja who ventures through a cursed world to deliver a scroll paramount to his clan’s survival in a demon-haunted world. Among many accolades and glowing reviews, the game earned Sabotage the Ubisoft Indie Series 2018 Award.
The Messenger begins as an 8-bit action platformer with a simple story only to turn into an epic time travelling tale, eventually revealing itself as a 16-bit Metroidvania packed with replay value and deadpan humor. What begins as a classic action platformer soon unravels into an expansive time-traveling adventure full of thrills, surprises, and humor.
Special Reserve Games united with Sabotage to create special packaging that nods to the game’s blend of retro-style and cutting-edge gameplay. For a special, extremely limited game bundle, we also worked to create hand-made wooden bokken.
We talked to Martin Brouard about THE MESSENGER’s Reserve Edition and the journey of the game’s development.
Special Reserve Games: You call Sabotage, which you co-founded, a “punk studio,” can you explain what you mean by that?
Martin Brouard: Thierry Boulanger and I, who are the two main co-founders of the company, we both recognize ourselves in the punk culture in general. He’s younger than me, so I’m more of an old-school punk rocker, but he’s a big fan, too. The first time I talked to him it was because he was rocking a NOFX t-shirt.
The way that we run the company, the way we approach the indie-sphere, I mean, we do it our way. But the fact is that everybody seems to have his own definition of what “indie” means, so we thought, well, we’ll just call ourselves a punk studio so nobody starts nagging us on what’s indie or not indie.
But basically Sabotage is an indie studio, where we really want everyone to have their say. We try to be as horizontal as possible, a do-it-yourself culture with a big heart. And work hard, party hard!
SRG: Where did the core idea for The Messenger come from?
Martin: Thierry Boulanger is the Creative Director and the other co-founder of Sabotage, and he’s been dreaming about making The Messenger since he was eight years old, 25 years ago. He grew up playing a lot of Ninja Gaiden II, and had this idea when he was young and was drawing ninjas everywhere.
Over the years, he became a game programmer and always had this idea that he wanted to be a game designer, but he started by doing game programming because that was his way to get into the industry and eventually make the game of his dreams.
SRG: What about the shift between 8-bit and 16-bit that happens, where did that idea come from?
Martin: Well, the game was always about time-traveling, but originally it was supposed to only be an 8-bit game. But when we were discussing the game in the car at some point, Thierry came up with this idea of, like, how cool it’d be to do a 16-bit version for the future. Then we decided to test if we could actually do a prototype where the switch happened in real-time. The idea was almost for the game to contain its own sequel.
We did some prototyping with Sylvain, one of our programmers here, and very quickly saw that it was not only feasible but extremely cool. But then we had to accept the fact that we would have to create every asset twice, which was a lot more work than we initially planned. But we did it because it made sense and made the game stand out as something that’s really, really cool.
It also made complete sense in term of the narrative and the story of the game, and that’s something that, for us, is really important, that everything makes sense. It seemed the best way for us to represent the switch in time from the past to the future because we wanted to have a way to express moving forward in time and, for us, the coolest thing was to go from one console generation to the next.
With The Messenger we also wanted to play with the players’ expectations. When people see a screenshot, they might think, “Oh, this is just like Ninja Gaiden,” but then they start to play and say, “Oh wait, there’s some humor in here. Oh, there’s all these different things, it’s more complex.” And then later on, you think the game’s about to finish, and then it switches to 16-bit, and becomes kind of a Metroidvania.
We wanted to always be surprising the players with stuff that they didn’t expect, and also didn’t want this to be just a gimmick, how the game changes from 8-bit to 16-bit. At first, we didn’t even want to mention it, but we realized that it was one of the best hooks to actually get the press and people interested in taking a closer look at the game. That’s why we put it in the first trailer. Then people played the game, and they enjoyed it.
SRG: As you say, there are a lot of neat things in The Messenger in terms of playing with expectations and the storyline. I think of the boss who’s just digging and crushing everything, where when you defeat the boss it turns out he’s not evil at all. He’s just doing his thing and everyone’s taking it the wrong way.
Martin: It’s all a misunderstanding, right? Yeah. All of the bosses in The Messenger are inspired by dreams or events in Thierry’s past, what’s going on in his head. Most of the bosses are actually not evil at all, apart maybe from the demons. They’re just interesting characters that you get to know and become friends with later on.
SRG: You’ve already mentioned the humor, but the humor in the game is really interesting and wonderful. The game even makes that early joke about how it seems similar to Ninja Gaiden but is going to get different later on, and of course there’s the snarky shopkeeper in the timeless void. Was that humour important early on or did it come in later?
Martin: Well, Thierry’s a very, very funny person. When he tells a story, people listen, he goes into these huge stories during parties and kind of steals the show. He would be the best to answer regarding his initial intent there, but I remember that we were doing a demo for a trade show, one of the first ones, and we needed to explain in the demo why we were switching from 8-bit to 16-bit.
The problem was that the switch in the game happens many hours in, but we had to create a quick demo, about 15-minutes long, so we needed to show you stuff that happens way, way further along in the game.
And the thing is, the game is much more difficult by that point, and you haven’t learned all the moves and stuff. So, we had the shopkeeper break the fourth wall and explain all that to the person playing the demo in a humorous way, and that was a test also to see if that kind of humor worked.
And it was a hit. People enjoyed it a lot, laughed a lot. That’s either when we first tried or first nailed the voice of the shopkeeper, in my memory.
SRG: When you die in The Messenger you’re saved by this creature, Quarble, who takes your money as payment for manipulating time and space to let you continue, but is a jerk about it. You also don’t re-start with full health. In a sense, you’re punished for dying, things really enliven what, in many games, is otherwise often a throwaway moment, where you die but it doesn’t matter in the story.
Martin: The philosophy of Sabotage is to use retro aesthetics but modern game design. Three lives and “Continue” are both relics from arcade machines, where you had to die three times and then put more quarters in, which was itself a relic from pinball machines and stuff like that. It doesn’t make sense in 2019 to die and have to restart from the beginning.
If you played the old NES Ninja Gaiden or other games of that era, you paid the equivalent of $100 back in the day for a cartridge that you could have probably passed in 40 minutes if it wasn’t so hard. Again, that doesn’t make any sense nowadays.
We wanted to do away with those things but still, at the same time, you need to have some kind of punishment for dying. We decided on something very light, something funny that makes sense in a story where there’s this time-travel aspect. So, the little demon is actually time-traveling you back right before you died, to the last checkpoint. And you lose some of your hard-earned currency. It’s going to sting a bit, but it’s not going to be terrible.
The other thing with Quarble is his quirks. He laughs at you depending on how you died. There are hundreds of lines of text that he can say, and most of them are triggered by how you died: if you died by spikes, if you died from projectiles, if you dropped into a chasm. We felt it was important to do this because it makes the game funnier.
SRG: When you’re writing story for a game, do you think it’s important for developers to be thinking through the death mechanic? How you handle or express the death mechanic in story terms?
Martin: Yeah, that’s totally how Thierry sees game design. He really wants to make sure, normally, that everything makes sense in the world that you’re playing. Just dying and then you continue wouldn’t fit with the story. He was looking for a way for it to make sense in the universe and in the quest and what’s going on in the game.
SRG: Another really interesting mechanic is the Cloudstep technique, where you almost double-jump when you attack something. Enemies are potential threats but also possible ways to advance forward. What were the origins of the Cloudstep?
Martin: Back to Quarble, one of the reasons we wanted to have that Quarble mechanic where he laughs at you is that from the get-go we thought about how games are being streamed nowadays. People are speed-running the games. We knew that if the game was successful, people would watch runs. That helped spawn the idea of having this dunce-cap mechanic of having the little demon follow you around. If he follows you around, it means that you fucked up! If he laughs at you, then people watching your run are going to laugh with him.
Cloudstep was another idea that we had from the get-go. When Thierry first approached me, before we started the company, he first showed me his prototype and the Cloudstep mechanic was already implemented. That’s the core of the game. That’s the main gameplay element. When I took the controller, playing with very ugly, almost non-animated sprites, even then I could actually feel the fun of these very tight controls and this Cloudstep mechanic. It’s also fun to watch, and the idea was if you’re playing a ninja then you should look the part.
When you combine the Cloudstep with the grappling hook and the wingsuit, and you master it, then it all makes for very, very fast playing. It’s cool-looking, and for speedrunners, who were part of our intended audience from the get-go, it’s what makes the game so fun to run. That mechanic was there at the beginning of the project, even before I was involved.
SRG: What was it like to actually have some of the people who created the original Ninja Gaiden play this game?
Martin: Well, it was a bigger thing for Thierry. I’ve known Ninja Gaiden most of my life, but I almost never played it because I’m older and I used to play the console generations before that. But Thierry grew up playing Ninja Gaiden, and he’s a big fan of all things in terms of Japanese videogames.
So, for him to meet his idols and have them tell him that this was Ninja Gaiden IV and that they were very impressed by the homage, it completely melted his heart. He was crying for 15 minutes when he met them.
I was with him, so I was also very, very proud of that moment because obviously it’s an achievement. But it was basically... our kid’s hearts were basically, “Hey, these guys made stuff that we really, really like, and they’re telling us that what we’re doing is awesome and that they really dig it.” So, it was magical.
SRG: Along those lines, one of the things I think is interesting about these physical releases, especially with retro-style games, is that they do, in a way, bring you back to the days of the console when you would get a cartridge, and you’d have a box and all those things. What about the physical release is significant to you?
Martin: When we were talking about the game at first, we always noted that what’s interesting is the feeling of how you remember things. It’s not just a feeling of nostalgia. When you were at your cousin’s place in the basement, opening a new cartridge and playing all weekend with him and having a blast, these magical memories. The game doesn’t need to feel exactly like it was but how you remember it to be.
For us, physical versions, and the packaging that goes with them — stickers, a booklet, a nice box — these are all things that speak to the kind of gamers that we are and the kind of gamers that we were making this game for — we made The Messenger for gamers who enjoy all sorts of video games but who also enjoy collecting stuff, and enjoy the act of taking a cartridge and putting it into a console and showing the box to their friends and filming the unboxing of their new package that just arrived.
This is all part of this big love of gaming that we share. We made this game for people like us, and so we understand the kind of relationship that they have with their video games, and that’s why we’re excited to put out the best possible product with Special Reserve.
SRG: Can you talk about the limited-edition bokken?
Martin: Yes, it’s not announced yet, but they should announce it soon. I talked to Jeff a couple of days ago. We signed scrolls. The whole team signed these beautiful scrolls that are going to be packaged with the bokken. This is for a super-limited, very deluxe edition, for people who are really into The Messenger.
It’s a beautiful parchment-like scroll with those little wooden things that you roll or unroll, so it looks like an official scroll. It has The Messenger logo on it, and all the team signed it, and Savannah, one of our artists, did a small drawing on each, different drawings. There are blue and purple ribbons so it’s really in the colors of The Messenger. That scroll is going to be bundled with every edition that comes with a bokken.
SRG: What was the most difficult part of making this game?
Martin: For me specifically, funding the company. Convincing people that your idea is going to be something really cool is always hard. However, I had extensive production and financing experience, and a lot of contacts in the industry, and I knew that Thierry and a good team could make a very, very good game.
Together, we managed to attract a top-tier team of collaborators we had worked with previously that we really wanted to work with again. Then we managed to convince a few key people to lend us some money. We did some work or-hire to finance this as well.
Just starting it all and getting the financing. That said, I’m not a developer, I’m more of the finance/administration guy, and I can’t tell you what was hardest for the team. It was a lot of work and the team really pushed hard to make this game happen, but we were all seniors and knew what we were doing.
Under Thierry’s leadership and very, very clear vision, it was mostly, “Let’s just reach the finish line and make the best possible game,” and I think we did. We didn’t really do stuff that we didn’t want to do or cut stuff that we really thought should be in the game. We made the game that we wanted to make.
SRG: What’s your advice to new developers or people starting games companies?
Martin: That’s a good question. Don’t try to make games for everyone. Don’t jump on every bandwagon or new buzzword. Just do something that you really, really like. Try to understand how a game works and why they work and why they don’t work. Surround yourself with the best team possible. Keep at it. Don’t lose your focus. This is all very cliché, but really it makes sense.
The one thing I would say first and most of all is don’t try to please everyone. You’ll just make a game that pleases no one. Target the people that you really, really want to make a game for and make the best possible game for them.
SRG: What was the most rewarding moment in this whole experience for you?
Martin: Oh, my god, there’s so many. Well, our game has been played by a lot of people, people that we really look up to, and they’ve told us how much they enjoy the game. So, that’s very, very good, seeing the pleasure on people’s faces when they stream the game, hearing them laugh during shows, having important people in this industry tell us how much they liked our game.
Seeing our team all together at PAX West in Seattle last year at the Hard Rock Café at our launch party, just saying, “Hey, you know what? We managed to do it, and we managed to bring you all to Seattle to celebrate this with the vast community of gamers.”
Just seeing Thierry’s smile when he receives some email or tweets or letters that people send us. We have a Discord community that’s insane. People are so nice. They’re so passionate about our game. All of that, you know? We put in a lot of hard work. We believed in it, but the hardest part is always getting people to acknowledge the work and appreciate what you’ve been trying to do. Having so many people so passionate about the game is really wonderful.