The nominations for the inaugural Debug Indie Game Awards 2024 have been announced! Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends is one of many great games nominated for Most Anticipated! One of the most beautifully animated games we’ve seen in a long time – check out the trailer below! And ahead of the big night, we spoke to Chris Totten, lead developer…
CHRIS TOTTEN – INDIE GAME DEVELOPER
THE J: Who are you and what’s your involvement with Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends?
CHRIS TOTTEN: My name is Chris Totten. I’m an indie game developer. Founder of Pie for Breakfast Studios and Team Nemo, Inc..
And university professor at Kent State University in Ohio, who studies the intersections of games and the arts.
THE J: What career path did you take to end up developing your own video game?
CHRIS TOTTEN: I’m another of those game developers whose origin story involves video games and drawing a lot. But along the way, I also went to architecture school. A friend of mine on my swim team, who was a computer science major, approached me one day. He asked if I’d be interested in teaming up to make games together. He knew how to code and I knew how to use different kinds of art software. We only made a few small things (like a bad Tetris clone), but I caught the game design bug and started reading a lot about it. I eventually did my architecture school thesis on intersections between game design and architecture.
I used that experience and my knowledge of 3D art to get a job teaching 3D art classes for game design students. During that period, I hung out at the local IGDA (International Game Developers Association) chapter a lot. I found my way onto some mobile game projects. From there I worked my way through different universities, “serious games” (games made to address real world issues) studios, and worked on my own stuff. I also became involved in the Conference Associates program at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), where I met my Nemo teammates, Ben Cole and Adrian Sandoval.
KUDZU (NINTENDO GAME BOY)
THE J: Kudzu on the Gameboy has already been released!? What can you tell us about it?
CHRIS TOTTEN: I learned about this invasive vine, kudzu, during a school project. Nobody in my group knew what it was, so we all made the “cool ivy” part of our projects…
My wife grew up in the southern US and her brother, Max, fought back aggressive vines in her backyard with a machete. We joked that it would be funny to make a game about Max fighting an evil kudzu plant and planned out a whole adventure for fun… But it sat on a shelf for over a decade because the scope would have been too big for us to make ourselves. When GB Studio, a game engine that lets you make games for Game Boy without a lot of complicated coding, appeared I thought that Kudzu might be a great project for it. And that the Game Boy’s limitations would keep the scope in check.
It still ended up being a 3-year project! But it got enough buzz that I was able to sign on with Mega Cat Studios to have it published on physical cartridges. It is also available on Nintendo Switch.
It’s my love letter to the Game Boy, Zelda, Metroid, and all that exploratory gameplay I love. It has also been a great “lab” in which to test out level design ideas that we want to do in Nemo. Since both were in development at the same time, the 2 projects are forever linked in that way.
THE J: There have been Little Nemo video games before, how does this compare?
CHRIS TOTTEN: Little Nemo in Slumberland was originally a comic strip from 1905 by comics and animation pioneer Winsor McCay. It is very much in the public domain. Capcom had their game in the 1990’s for the NES. Based on Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland movie. In that game, Nemo could feed animals candy and wear them as suits when they went to sleep, with those suits each giving you different abilities that let you explore the world. A lot of people associate Nemo with animal suits and a very 90’s vibe. And because of the public domain status, there are even other current indie games that lean into that aspect of the character’s history (which we’re also really excited about).
THE J: What a legacy to contend with!?
CHRIS TOTTEN: In the 2000’s, trying to find more info on the NES game led me to those original comics, which if you have not seen, are less like your typical “Sunday Funnies” and more like full-page Art Nouveau-style stained glass windows. McCay’s art is absolutely jaw-dropping and uses a lot of linear perspective to create some really dazzling architectural fantasy-scapes. I remember thinking “where is THIS game?!” The goal with Nightmare Fiends has been to honor folks’ retrogaming nostalgia with big exploratory worlds, etc, but it’s very much a project aimed at bringing back McCay’s Nemo (minus, of course, the problematic elements one finds with very old media).
For that, we’ve focused less on aspects like animal suits and more on giving exploratory abilities to cast members of the original comics like Flip and the Princess of Slumberland (as well as a new character we’ve created for the game, Peony).
We’ve also tried to make the art style and “feel” of the comic a major feature of the game: things are drawn like McCay’s art, but with touches from artists that came after or who were inspired by him. Also kind of like the comics, we want it to be a world where you’re always discovering things, both in terms of gameplay (hidden items and whatnot), but also just having spectacle in the backgrounds and through the visual design – there are lots of moments where we want you to just pause and enjoy a view.
CHRIS TOTTEN (continued): Composer Wayne Strange’s music has also been a big part of that too – he’s really captured the feeling of wonder in the original comic. We want to make it so people can appreciate the art of McCay’s Slumberland and its contributions to the history of comics and animation – much of which have been forgotten.
THE J: Is the intention to always keep your games on an “indie” scale? Or would there be scope for an AAA title in the future?
CHRIS TOTTEN: I think every game developer has their big AAA dream, right? It’s tempting to think about how cool it would be to contribute to a Star Wars project or something with another big name attached. I’m personally a fan of games with lots of exploration and richly detailed story worlds like Control or Dishonored.
Early in my career, that was certainly a goal, but I eventually got married and had kids, and HAVE been approached about opportunities, but they didn’t necessarily jive with where my life is – I can’t just up and move to Texas or California and live the crunch lifestyle. I’m at a point where I have tenure at a university in the Midwestern US, which gives me the freedom to make my own things while having a house and a much more reasonable cost of living than on the coasts (I lived in Washington DC for years, which was terribly expensive.)
I also cannot understate how much I enjoy teaching – it’s really awesome to mentor upcoming game designers and help them find their way in the industry. With how difficult and toxic the game industry can be, I really do believe that it’s important to make pockets where people can feel welcome in schools, communities, etc.
THE J: How have Little Nemo fans received it so far?
CHRIS TOTTEN: The reactions have been really enthusiastic and we’ve gotten a lot of praise for the art style. Comics fans seem to be over the moon and even folks who’ve never seen the comic (or maybe known Nemo just from the NES game) are discovering it through our game. Occasionally I’ll get an online comment that I’m “drawing Nemo wrong” because he doesn’t have purple hair like the NES game. Or that the Winsor McCay comics aren’t “my Nemo” for someone. But in my experience, those people probably weren’t going to buy the game anyway.
At the beginning, there were folks who were skeptical because we weren’t just doing a straight retro revival, but after explaining what we were trying to balance that spirit, but do things like having more of Nemo’s friends playable, bring in these other fantasy worlds from the comic, etc. even the skeptics were on board.
THE J: How far into development did Mega Cat Studios & 8-bit make contact with you?
CHRIS TOTTEN: I had known Mega Cat for a few years from going to regional gamedev conferences on the East Coast. Both the Nemo team and they were part of a group of devs who all regularly attended MAGFest, which is like a combination music festival and gaming convention. While showing Nemo, Ben recommended I take Kudzu (which I had in my pocket on my Game Boy) over to Mega Cat’s booth to see what they thought, and things moved forward from there. At that point, I would say Kudzu was about half-finished content-wise, while all of the main gameplay systems were in place, so technically that would be “alpha.” Both Mega Cat and 8-Bit Legit have been wonderful to work with and have really pushed me to keep the quality of the experience high.
THE J: Will Little Nemo get the same treatment? There’s rumours of a demo release soon, right?
CHRIS TOTTEN: We’re certainly hoping so! Given our alignment with the original Little Nemo comics (we’re even going to include a gallery of original Winsor McCay comics in the game), we think there are some opportunities to do some really cool things. And yes – our goal is a new demo very soon. We’ve been working on some fun stuff in the background that will show folks more content. Also, more of the exploratory adventure-style vision of the game.
DEBUG INDIE GAMES AWARDS 2024
THE J: What will you do if you win at the Debug Indie Games Awards?
CHRIS TOTTEN: Oh man – that would be a dream come true, right? Getting that nomination was really important, because it showed that we’re on the right track. That we’re doing things that people are responding to. It’s a cliche to say “it’s an honor just to be nominated”, but look at the games we were nominated with! We’ve got a long way to go yet, but nominations (or potential wins) like this help you keep your head up when you’re buried in the really technical elements of a game.
THE J: Could winning a “Most Anticipated” add even more pressure?
CHRIS TOTTEN: Little Nemo (and Winsor McCay’s work in general), is what part of what inspired Walt Disney, Maurice Sendak, Moebius, and lots of other amazing artists and animators to do what they did… So living up to that legacy already comes with its own type of pressure! Managing audience expectations is always tough. But we’ve also gotten into a good rhythm with posts and updates that folks have been generally supportive of. Disappearing is the worst thing you can do. So we’re managing any external pressure by trying to stay visible to let folks know how the project is going. If winning could start conversations, we would certainly love that too. We’re biased, but we also think we’re onto something really special with our approach to Slumberland. Both fans and the industry are really responding to it.
THE J: What does the future hold for you after this?
CHRIS TOTTEN: A vacation would be nice! Seriously though, doing stuff like this in the industry helps me be a better teacher and mentor. It also helps me bring a more informed perspective to my writing about game design. I’ve published a few level design books. There’s a new one on 2D action-adventure games in the works co-authored with one of my Nemo teammates, Adrian Sandoval. In terms of games, there are certainly a few ideas I’d love to work on. If Nemo and Kudzu prove popular enough, it could certainly be cool to do sequels! Right now though, it’s back to Slumberland for me!