Sylvius Fischer, Founder of Fumiko Game Studio

Sylvius Fischer has tried out many things, studying graphic design, working for a medical IT solutions company, and he even bought the Wii U and thoroughly likes it. In between, he acquired the knowledge he needed to create his first professional game, Fumiko!

In early May, I sat down with Sylvius to talk about video game development, anime, RPG Maker, and more. The transcript of our conversation is below, edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the first video game you ever played?

The first video game I ever played was The Great Giana Sisters. We had a Commodore 64 that my father brought us from somewhere and it had all these different games on it. I was actually too young to play it at the time. I was about five or six, so I watched my sisters and brother play the game until I was old enough and had learned enough to play it myself. It’s kind of a Super Mario clone and it was so similar in terms of gameplay that they had to pull it off the shelves. Even so, it had a lot of its own ideas and was a darker game. I preferred it over Super Mario.

What made you decide to go into video games?

I was always in touch with computer games. Later, I got in touch with DOS games and PC games in general. When I was eleven or twelve, my father told me that making games was really complicated. Rather than frightening me, it got me hooked even more. [Laughs] I was really fascinated with these games and I wanted to know how they were made.

My father bought me a C# book for beginners and I tried to learn from it. When you’re at that age, you’re working slowly and making small steps. I had a friend who was a bit older than me and he taught me about C++ and I started to make a text-based adventure with his help called Der Graue Wanderer. Once no one was holding my hand, it was difficult for me to make actual progress. I learned a lot but I was stuck.

RPG Maker 2000 interface

I knew about making games and it had something to do with assets as well as programming. I was visiting a really good friend of mine and we turned on Google and we typed in something like “how to make games.” We found and downloaded a copy of RPG Maker 2000 somewhere on the Internet. I can’t describe the absolute joy we had when we started that thing up for the first time. We were fascinated by it. In some way, we recognized all the patterns and we knew that if we put enough work into it, we would be able to create a game. From that point on, I knew I wanted to make RPG Maker games. That was one of my favorite hobbies for five, ten years.

I’ve never worked with RPG Maker, but I do remember when I saw the PlayStation 1 version of RPG Maker. I was greatly excited by it and I thought it was so incredibly cool, the idea of making my own RPG. But while I was thinking about it, I suddenly stumbled on one little detail: how am I supposed to get other people to play my RPG?

[Laughs] Yes, that’s true. One of the reasons I didn’t stop making RPG Maker games was that in my efforts, I was also looking for like-minded people. I searched the Internet for RPG Maker [Laughs] and found these RPG Maker communities, which were huge. There were giant online forums with quite a lot of people who were actively making RPG Maker games. It was much bigger than it is today. We all shared our games and ideas and tried to get feedback and inspiration from other members. Sometimes, we’d get smashed by the feedback from others. [Laughs] We weren’t thinking “How do I get other people to play my game?” or “How can I maybe live off this?” We wanted to prove we were the best. We wanted to show the members of the community that we can make great games. It was a fun time.

Can you give us some insights into your development process?

Fumiko! took me roughly three years to create and it still does keep me occupied. I’m currently working on an upcoming update for it. It started as a simple side project while I was working for a medical solutions IT company. The German game industry is small and it’s difficult to find a permanent position, so I had to find something else similar to what I wanted to do. I chose to do technical stuff. In this case, I was doing quality assurance which was all sorts of fun.

Quality assurance, fun, he says… right…

[Laughs] Yes, all sorts of fun! I quickly began to fear I’d unlearn all the things I had learned about game dev. I just started working on what became Fumiko! one day in my free time. I started doing some basic animation work on a character, and after I made the character, I tried to place it in a virtual environment. I wanted to see the animations actually work, so I started to implement some basic controls. After I was able to walk around, I wanted to jump, so I added jumping.

Whenever I start working on a project in my free time, it quickly becomes more important to me than whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. [Laughs] If I have something in my mind that I want to create, I’ll start counting the hours until I finally get home. That also hurt my grades in school. Making RPG Maker games was absolutely fantastic in my eyes, but not in everyone else’s. [Laughs]

I quickly gave the game a name and started working on a prototype. I had friends who wanted to make contributions to the game, so I accepted their help – some 3D models, some ideas, some of the initial programming like camera movement and script, things that gave me a really big headache when I first started working on the game. After that, I made everything else by myself.

My girlfriend and I ended up moving back to our hometown and I got another job, a part-time one that let me spend two full days each week working on Fumiko! After two years, I had a choice of either convincing the company to keep me on or work full time on the game, and I chose the latter. I spent 80% of my time in our living room with the curtains closed, working on models and levels and mechanics and dialogue. In the evenings, my girlfriend would come home and open the curtains. [Laughs] Oh, no, not the sun!

[Laughs] On the bright side, I really enjoyed looking at Fumiko! It had this… familiar feeling that I could not for the life of me place. Could you share where the visual inspiration came from?

The actual look of the game is – how can I describe it? It does not have a real source. I explained how I created the game, but early on, I felt like the environment I made – which was all gray and dark – was kind of boring, so I added colorful visuals. It just… happened.

I’m a big fan of color, of matching color sets, so I always tried to give it a unique and harmonious look of colors. I usually start with the 3D model, which is all gray, and then I start coloring it. Setting ambient lighting correctly, giving it a unique touch, so the look of the Fumiko! is the result of my process. I very often don’t know where I’ll land.

Related to that, but what are the major influences that have inspired you as a creator?

For Fumiko!, it’s actually an anime. It doesn’t have too many similarities to the game, but the biggest inspiration for Fumiko! was actually Serial Experiments Lain. I watched it when I was young and it is really strange, but fascinating. The protagonist, Lain, attempts to interact with the Wired, a kind of Internet which is so very surreal. I still have the copy of the series I got from that time on my hard drive, and carry it over onto a new drive each time I have a new computer.

Serial Experiments Lain

In one episode, Lain enters the Wired and meets the avatar of a man. The avatar is only a giant mouth. The idea is that the more complete your avatar, the higher your status and your wealth. To meet someone in the Wired who looks human is like encountering a god. That idea always stuck to me and I knew I wanted to make a game set in a digital world that felt like the mysterious and strange Wired.

There were other influences, like technical speeches about our times, the economy, innovation, and things like that. There were many topics that I wanted to incorporate into the creation of this second world experience and I was chaotically creative while making it. I tried to build a world where the topics were meaningfully presented. To me, Fumiko! is more about exploring this digital dystopia and unraveling things like artificial intelligence and open source.

The Wired is more muted, while Fumiko! is bright and colorful. Is there something in color that can express and also conceal the sort of dystopia that lurks beneath the surface?

I feel like the game has become much more colorful than initially planned. It’s a thing I learned from the first levels I made. If you play around with darkness in video games, you often need to compromise for the gameplay mechanics. Things like platforms you cannot see are really bad. It gets players really frustrated.

There’s one level in Fumiko! which is almost completely dark. In Hyperion, there’s a social hub where people are living. You are able to enter what’s called a home world from there. Home worlds are player homes like those seen in MMOs. One of those home worlds is a very sad one, a completely dark place. The player needs to figure out the home world owner’s story and why the place he or she lives in is so… unhappy. Beneath all the color, things are much darker than they appear.

Well, that certainly sounds similar to Serial Experiments Lain. Happy family on top, darker and more surreal the deeper you dig.

There are some things about games that make it more difficult to tell a story. Games need to be playable in some way. They also need to be accessible, even enjoyable experiences. Sometimes you want to tell a cryptic and mysterious story where not everything is as it’s presented, so players need to dig around and find things first. That’s something that is really in conflict with the modern approach of more or less telling people where they have to go. Someone mentioned to me they had a really bad flashback to games from the 90s in one of the prototype levels.

 [Laughs] What do you think of the current state of gaming?

I think games have evolved in a way beyond what I was hoping for. I think we have more variety today and many thought-provoking games we can experience. It always makes me a bit sad when companies make games only for the sake of sales. For me, games are an artistic and creative medium. I was a bit sad about the direction mobile games went in. Even big AAA games of the past year have shown me that you can tell rich stories and present them with great detail and still be commercial successful. I think we’ve taken the right turns with them. Games like The Witcher, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, even MMORPGs are in that scenario, where they can tell really good stories… if they want to.

I think they’re all signs that video games are in a good spot, as long as they’re kept as a creative medium that tell a story, and not just as a commercial product. While I have lot of nostalgia for games I played as a kid, I think my most touching experiences were with modern games. I strongly admire games like Life is Stange and Oxenfree. If we’re talking about dark stories like Serial Experiments Lain, I feel like the Dark Souls series, especially Dark Souls 3, painted a dark world that I personally only knew from nightmares. They really nailed the storytelling and visuals and showed us things we had not seen yet.

There’s a lot of creativity in modern games and I would like to see more of it. I’d like to see people honor that, so that we don’t find ourselves in the scenario where games are only catering to the biggest audience. I was scared for a little while about the mobile market, because games like Candy Crush resemble the scenario I fear. They are slowly moving it forward.

Thinking of moving forward, what’s the future for gaming?

I would like games to continue being a medium that combines all creative professions. I would be happy to see virtual reality make huge steps forward, while still keeping the creativity and depth many games have shown. As long as that is the case, I think we’ll be in a really good spot and we will have fantastic stories and many talents we can experience.

What’s your favorite game?

[Laughs] I usually don’t pick favorites. I love them all, even the really weird and unfinished games. I would say the Dark Souls series is absolutely fantastic. I also really like my Wii U. There’s a JRPG, Xenoblade Chronicles, that I enjoy. I bought the HD remaster for it and Xenoblade Chronicles X as well.