Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin

Solo dev Alex Goodwin shares his approach to crafting the beauty of Selfloss

Brian Crecente |
October 26, 2021

Aleksandr Khoroshavin (Alex Goodwin) is an indie developer and the creator of Selfloss. He has spent five years in the game industry both in game development (Unreal Engine 4/Unity) and as a game design teacher.
For the past three years, Alex Goodwin has been slowly piecing together the elements of his video game Selfloss. He’s handled the art, music, programming, and design by himself for most of that time. The result is a game, due out next year, that uses Icelandic and Slavic folktales as a rich backdrop to the story of an old man’s journey to heal his wounded soul.

The story, haunting music, and post-impressionistic art style aim to deliver a memorable experience.

We chatted with Goodwin about how he got into game development, the inspiration for his game, how he goes about creating experiences on his own, and how Unreal Engine helped him bring his concept to life.
 

You’ve previously stated that you are a self-taught game developer who does everything— the art, music, programming, design—in your games. How did you first get into game development?

Alex Goodwin:
Yes, this is true. So my passion for game development started really suddenly and weirdly, nobody inspired me or anything like that. It all began when I was in my third year of studying for a bachelor’s degree about six years ago. I was on the IT faculty and, although I didn’t have any trouble with programming, I didn't really enjoy it. I felt that it was not enough fun for me. I started to worry about my future career and that a common programmer job was absolutely not for me. Of course, I am a big lover of video games. My parents used to lock the room with a PC when I was younger because I would be playing straight for 10 hours, not doing schoolwork. Sometimes, my mom would just remove the power cable from the home PC and take it to work. I think it’s actually quite a common situation for many young players back then. So, around my 20s, the idea that video games are also made by people and not born from the air struck me like lightning.

I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out. Games are a magical combination of many art forms plus programming and I was really into any art form since I was eleven. My parents used to force me to go to music and painting clubs and schools back in childhood but I never stayed there longer than three months because I just hated all those academic approaches to art. I think it is quite a common problem with kids because children can not really understand and appreciate classical music or classical painting at that period of age. That was true with me too, but I enjoyed creating artistic stuff. This thought that I probably could develop a game just lit up my soul and passion. So, I made a couple of small mobile projects which brought me zero money (those games were entirely free) and then switched to making a serious PC game (not Selfloss). This actually opened a path for me to Russian game conferences, and things kept spinning from there.

Is Selfloss also a solo effort, or are you working with others this time around?

Goodwin:
Well, Selfloss has been in development for three years. The first two years were pure solo development, but for the last year, my girlfriend (who also has her own indie game in development) basically took over all character creation and rigging in Selfloss. Usually, it’s hard for me to give some part of the work to others but she has a talent for creating cool stylized character models (the concepts are still from me).
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin
How do you go about building a new game when you’re in charge of everything? Do you always use the same process and start in the same place?

Goodwin:
Well, it’s not possible to start in the same place every time because I’m changing over the years. I think one of the most positive things about solo development (or if you are a very small team) is that players, in the end, will feel that the game was actually made by a person with a specific ego and emotions and not by a faceless army of people. But, usually, I find that I start a new game with the main protagonist. Who is this character? What does he look like? What does he love? What does he hate? What is his pain and the main conflict? If such a character inspires me then I start to think about the core mechanics of the game and usually start to add content of different types (models and sounds) around the protagonist. I do all of this for one month and at the end of the month, I have a small playable level with content that might resemble the final feel of the game. I look at it and play it carefully, and if I still love the work I've been doing during this month, I continue making the game. If I feel that there is no passion left for the character and the game process, I just start all over again. I had moments when I could make two or three small working prototypes during one day and in the end, decided that I just didn’t like them.

Where did the idea for Selfloss come from?

Goodwin:
It started simple, I just wanted to make a game about an old man. I like fantasy stories a lot, rewatching and rereading Lord of the Rings every year and all that. And I also love Icelandic culture, although I have never been there. I've been listening to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós since middle school and just never get bored of them. So, I decided that the world of Selfloss is a fantasy world that resembles landscapes of Iceland, but I wanted to make something on my own, and not just interpret and decide what aspects of Icelandic and Slavic (especially Russian) folklore that I wanted to marry.

The title of the game has a direct connection with the concept of the game, self-loss, but I discovered it much later in the development, you might say it is even a lucky coincidence. There is a town called Selfoss (without the l) in Iceland and this is exactly where the title of the game came from. It was a calm evening and I was almost sleeping while there was a Sigur Rós video playing on the TV. It’s a long video (about nine hours) on Youtube of the band driving around Iceland while their songs are playing in the background and they show the names of towns from time to time as they pass by. And there was a moment when I was somewhere between a dream state and awake that I glimpsed the name of a town called Selfoss, and it somehow touched my heart, and because I was dozing off, I pronounced it Selfloss in my head. I liked how it sounded very much. At the core of the Selfloss’ story are concepts about whale worshiping, rituals of religion, but they all came during the development. The starting point was just this desire to make a game about an old man and love for Iceland and Slavic folklore and fantasy overall.
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin
What can you tell us about the game’s old man and his backstory?

Goodwin:
So, the old man has a name, Kazimir. And he is a Volkov, which is similar to a magician but more like a priest and usually does not have super magic powers. During his life, he performed many rituals of different nature. He was especially good at healing wounds of any kind. Selfloss is the name of a specific ritual that can heal soul wounds when you’ve lost someone you loved. And Kazimir is a master of this ritual. He has helped numerous people with it during his long life. But, alas, he also loses someone who he has loved and is not able to perform selfloss for himself. And there are no other people who could perform this ritual for him. This is the short premise of the game, and I don’t want to reveal too much about it. It’s just better to experience it yourself when the game comes out. 

Considering the game takes place across a tapestry of Slavic fairy tales pulled from Russian and Icelandic myths, were there particular stories or creatures that ignited your interest in this specific mythology?

Goodwin:
A lot of information came from classical Russian fairy tales. My grandma used to tell me a lot of them when I was very young. I’ve also read a few translated collections of Icelandic fairy tales. I try to not take particular plots from them but only character descriptions. It is just a pleasure for me to imagine a creature from its text description, more often it is not 100% true to the source but it’s not my aim. As I said, I like to create new things and not just interpret them. Here are some examples of creatures from Slavic and Iceland mythology that you will find in the game.
Selfloss has a very somber tone. Why was that right for the game?

Goodwin:
I didn’t aim to create a somber feeling, I guess it just comes from my temperament. This doesn't mean that everything will be depressing in the game and that there won’t be happy or funny moments. I am a pretty melancholic person in my daily life but I still like to party and joke. I just feel more comfortable when everything is slightly sad, maybe it’s some Russian zeitgeist.
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin
You received an Epic MegaGrant for your game. How impactful was that for you and Selfloss?

Goodwin:
It made an enormous impact on the game. First of all, I acquired more time to make and polish the game. Some additional money also provides more safety in creativity. Rushing a game’s development can be very bad, that's obviously wise advice. There is a phrase in Russian: Поспешишь - людей насмешишь, which translates to “haste makes waste.” It perfectly fits into game development. Another great thing is that I actually found an investor later on and I am sure that it was in part because the Epic MegaGrant added more value to the game. Overall, I acquired many very useful connections with people through Epic.

You describe the game’s art style as inspired by post-impressionism. Were there particular artists like Van Gough or Cezanne, or particular works that drew you to that art style? In general, this style explores color, line, and form in almost a surrealistic way, does this approach inform your game’s story as well?

Goodwin
: I have a visual type of cognitivity and when I play any game, I start by analyzing its virtual style, its graphics, technical, and creative approaches that are used in a game. And, of course, it is very important for me to make outstanding and creative visuals as much as possible for a solo developer. It's trivial, but I am just cosmically delighted by Van Gough’s paintings. His oil works have this static yet movie-like feel and I wanted to bring that to the game. So I just made materials that have different albedo textures that are blending slightly overtime on each other. Sometimes players don't notice that but it gives additional depth and dynamics to the final image. And, overall, just like in post-impressionism, I try to focus on the feeling from the visual object and not on its actual details. I guess this is why it starts to look simple yet rich. It is not like I am spending too much time thinking about colors or composition. It is just an iterative process on each level and each segment of any level until I stop only when I feel the ding in my head and heart. Then it means that it is beautiful enough and you can abandon this part of the level and start working on the next one. Just like with any art, it never will be perfect nor completed, you can only abandon it. In the same sense, I really like David Lynch's approaches in his movies and TV shows. There are breadcrumbs of the story and tips for connecting these breadcrumbs that are enough to understand the idea behind the story correctly and at the same time to give you an opportunity to understand the story on your own and still be pleased with it. For me, it is the main goal, to leave an emotionally saturated aftertaste in the player’s mind after their completion of Selfloss.
 
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin

How did you create the game’s emotive music and what were you hoping to achieve with it?

Goodwin:
I use an electric guitar plus violin or electrical bow with some music software. Also, I use a very simple midi keyboard for making special sounds and melodies. I record everything right at home, just using an external sound card. I try to achieve ambient and somber sound most of the time. And as the world of the game builds on Slavic and Iceland themes, I use this approach in the sound and music design of the game. Sound design makes up half of the overall game experience so I just want to make it so that players would easily immerse themselves into this world and feel a connection with it and the characters.

Where did you come up with the idea of having players controlling the hero with one thumbstick and his staff with the other?

Goodwin:
I just needed a core mechanic element that would feel somehow fresh and work for the story. At first, I was slightly afraid of doing this but after I played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I realized that this is fine; using one gamepad for controlling two subjects is fine. And since many game mechanics are grown from the use of the magical staff, it makes sense that all of them have this foundation of cool simultaneous control. It just feels more interesting to play.
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin
You’ve talked about your diegetic approach to the game’s user interface. How do you find the right balance between providing not enough and providing too much information to the player to help them read what is happening?

Goodwin:
This one is really hard to answer. First of all, I feel that there is a common misconception about diegetic user interfaces. Everyone thinks that it should be used as much as possible, right? Wrong. There’s even analytical data that shows that perception of diegetic drastically varies along with different genres, player types, ages, sex, and many other factors. There is just no right solution. UI should be balanced between several axes: diegetic, non-diegetic, spatial UI, and meta UI. And you can find the right position for your particular UI only through playtests and reviewing players’ feedback. It helped me a lot during development and made me cut several diegetic elements.
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin
How did your efforts on your earlier works impact the design choices and process of your work on Selfloss?
 
Goodwin:
Two main conclusions that I’ve received from previous projects for myself: 

1. Don’t rush. Do everything the proper way.

2. I need to think about the player's experience and how to make it the best it can be and emotional. The player should be my focus and not what’s on my mind as the author. Everything else just evolves naturally as you gain more knowledge and expertise. 

Considering you teach Unity to children and Unreal Engine courses at ITMO University in St. Petersburg. What made you decide to go with Unreal Engine for this game’s development?

Goodwin:
I’ve been working on my Ph.D. for three years and also teaching Unreal Engine and Game Design for Master’s students at ITMO University. There were a couple of clean reasons why I switched to Unreal:

1. The lab where I was working while getting my Ph.D. used Unreal as the main tool for any kind of scientific and entertainment project. Although they had some Unity tasks, for me, I needed to learn Unreal fast enough to be able to help on other Unreal Engine projects in the lab. There were really smart guys there, smarter than me but not too many artistic specialists so I felt like a missing puzzle for most of the Unreal lab projects.

2. The right question is not always about the engine but about the ecosystem as a whole. And I say it without any adulation and considering only facts that happened while I was using Unity and Unreal, Epic Games is a better provider of the engine and provider of your career as a game developer. The main third reason here is, I just never felt any attention from Unity to me as a developer. And I knew based on my friends who work with Unreal Engine that it is not like this with Epic. And just like in a good relationship, attention from your partner is much more important than anything else.

Are there particular elements of the Unreal Engine that have helped you—as a solo developer—achieve the sort of experiences you hope to bring to life in your games?
 
Goodwin:
At first I was kinda hustling with the game framework architecture inside Unreal. All those game modes, game states, game instances, all that. But after some time I realized that it actually helps me to avoid certain architectural mistakes and helps to save time. Another great thing is the material editors. Of course, there were no official visual material editors in Unity back in 2018, so, for me as a visual guy, it was a blessing to make any kind of material easily. The same goes for the sound graph. 
 
What are your thoughts on Unreal Engine 5 and what are you hoping to do with it once it fully releases?
 
Goodwin:
I think I am most interested in the new audio approaches in Unreal Engine 5. Real-time GI is super cool. I’m interested in using UE5 to explore stylized-looking games.
Image courtesy of Alex Goodwin
Are there any obstacles you overcame or in-game moments you’re particularly proud of from your time making Selfloss that you can walk us through?

Goodwin:
The whole boat movement was not an easy task. The boat bounces in the water (I’ve used a plugin from Marketplace but had to make some changes in the code since it was not working well for my type of game). And there are still possibilities to improve its control and movement. It’s more challenging than it initially seemed. There is wind resistance, flow resistance, river rapids, different impacts from obstacles, and—at the same time—it should be easy and fun to control, right? A lot of work and programming skills were put into the boat. Overall, I am proud of everything concerning the staff and its game mechanics. Somehow, I managed to make a smart and neat inheritance in game classes so that now it’s really fast to add interactable objects into the game with different behaviors depending on the magic you are using. 

I notice the phrase “games as an art form” on your Steam page description, what does that mean to you and for the games you create?

Goodwin:
I think it’s just a catchy, cool-looking phrase that I made up. It’s kinda naive but represents for me this idea of games I want to play and make. So that these games won’t be just digital “toys” but artistic experiences which players would remember for a long time, in a positive way, of course.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your work in game development or Selfloss?

Goodwin:
Apart from my game dev career, I really like teaching and feel that this like a secret talent of mine (based on the achievements of my students at least, some of them work on really popular and big game franchises) and I would love to make a game design or game production course in the future, maybe after Selfloss releases. Although there are quite a few courses and videos about game dev on the Internet, I still feel that there are plenty of things to cover or to structure properly. This is like one of my life aims: I want to provide people with knowledge and inspiration about game production.

Where can people find out more about you and Selfloss?

Goodwin:
Of course you should absolutely add Selfloss to your wishlist on Steam. You can also follow me on Twitter and on Youtube.

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