In many ways, the progression and resulting diversity of video games has been a resounding success, increasing their artistic value, improving representation levels, and resulting in a plethora of choice and genre that make modern games so popular, whether players care about a well-told story or just want honed gameplay and the chance to shoot some enemies with friends on multiplayer.
Sometimes, however, a throwback can be just as fresh as anything new, and that is definitely true of Tormentor x Punisher, an indie game that harks back to the arcade age with an irreverent, violent, and comic modern twist. OnlySP spoke to lead designer and composer Joonas Turner about a plethora of topics, including where the idea for the game came from, how he decided on its concept, and what went in to its soundtrack and sound design.
Before all that though, what felt important was asking Turner about where his passion for both games and music came from. He began with his first forays into music: “I’ve been interested in music from a very young age,” he said. “I used to go to this computer club as a kid where we had a bunch of equipment to work with, and I saw these older kids using the computers, and I was always wondering what they were doing. Then I realised that they were making music using this software called FastTracker, and I ended up getting a copy for myself. Back then I didn’t really know what I was doing so it didn’t really go anywhere, but it planted a seed in my head.”
From this moment, Turner’s interest flourished. “In my teen years I started playing in bands playing guitar, almost by accident. I was supposed to get a bass guitar but my friend got me a guitar instead, we probably didn’t know the difference back then! So I just bought it, started playing that and got a taste for music from there. Years went by, and I was the person who would learn to mix our shows in the band, learn to use the mixer, and CD recorders and stuff. I started doing demos for friends and their bands, live mixing for friends at my own shows, other people’s shows and so on. I’ve been making music ever since.”
Music was the first love—that much is clear—and Turner agreed. “Video games came much later,” he explained. “I started making my own games as a hobby, and it kind of jumped to a bigger gear when I met a friend at a show. This was a person called Jukio Kallio, who made the music for Nuclear Throne among other things. I met him ages ago and we were talking about games and stuff, and he showed me some new programs to use, and from there I started making my own games with music, as well as the sound design for them too. From that route I started making sounds and music for other people’s games.”
This move into the gaming world did not come completely out of the blue though, and Turner expanded on the passion he had for games as a child. “I always loved playing video games, board games, role playing games, and all that stuff. Video games have always had a special place for me. My first game was…I used to live in England as a kid until I was 4, before we moved to Finland. I had this ninja throwing star game, and you could throw the stars at ninjas and get points. I remember playing that as a kid which I thought was sweet and at some point we got an 8-bit Nintendo so I was pretty much sold from there.”
One of the defining features of Tormentor x Punisher is its throwback feel, from the design to many aspects of the gameplay. Those early games clearly had an impact on Turner. He agreed, but what he took away was how they sounded more than how they looked.
“I loved ‘90s DOS games; even to this day I still love playing them. In Finland, we had a huge boom of people making their own games, DOS games, or early Windows games, stuff like that. I played a bunch of DOS games and the cool thing about them was that they would have sample-based sounds instead of synthetic sounds, which meant that I grew up with games already having soundclips in them—not necessarily clips, but recorded sounds. I would always be veered towards games that have proper sounds, in my opinion. If a game had synthesised sounds I would be like ‘eh’, I always enjoyed hearing proper sounds, so it has had an impact.”
Turner took that mentality into his game, and decided to update it, drawing some inspiration from Geometry Wars. “Tormentor x Punisher started as a game for which I kind of had two goals,” he explained. “One was to do an arcade game that was a bit like Geometry Wars, with enemies spawning in an arena. I also had this sound idea in my head, I wanted to make certain kinds of sounds to a certain setting, so I decided to make a game that would serve both of these purposes.”
From that point, prototyping began, more as a passion project than with any particular end goal in mind. “I didn’t think of the prototype as a prototype really. I thought ’hey, we made a game!’ From that point, we showed it to a bunch of people at GDC, who asked if it was being published, but we just made it for fun. After showing it off at the release party for a game called Broforce that I worked on, I decided that maybe I should do something with it. A friend of mine said I should pitch it to Raw Fury, who liked the idea, and I ended up hiring Beau Blyth to design it with me, which was huge. I always loved his games like Samurai Gunn, so I was nervous about it, but, once he was in, we decided to make it a proper game.”
However, Tormentor is no ‘normal’ arcade game; it is the epitome of organised chaos: a great blend of retro aesthetics with a modern, irreverent, and unabashedly rude sense of humour. Turner said the inspiration for this thematic choice came from outside of games. “A huge inspiration for the game were animations and comic books, especially Adult Swim shows, loads of those, and things like Adventure Time and Rick & Morty, along with Prison Pit, King Star King and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cartoons where it’s just hectic and things are happening all the time. Weird monsters, weird names, dumb swearing and all that stuff. I was like ‘yeah, I want to make this in to a game.’ There are games that are similar like Mad World or stuff like that, but they are usually a bit too ambitious I feel like, in a sense, where it’s usually a bigger game that tries to do that, and then it just falls apart because there isn’t enough resources to make other stuff. With Tormentor it’s a small enough game to where I thought that we could totally cram everything in and make it happen.”
This sensibility is particularly evident with the game’s introduction, which sets the tone for the incoming shenanigans and also evokes a lot of Adult Swim works in its animation style and sense of humour. “The cool thing was that the intro was actually animated by Jon Vermilyea and David Gemmill, both of whom worked with Cartoon Network and on Rick & Morty, and Raw Fury said they’d pay for it! I was super excited about it.”
Once the concept was laid out, another major element of the game was in focus: the music and sound design. Turner wanted to find a way to convey the game’s atmosphere and sense of chaotic fun with a soundtrack and sound design that matched the game’s violent sensibility while never losing that sense of fun. He decided that distortion would be a major part of this goal.
“I had already experimented on Nuclear Throne with using distortion as a design element, but, on Tormentor x Punisher, I wanted to use distortion almost as a key element. In Nuclear Throne, it tied the sounds together to make it feel like an old movie, whereas in this I wanted distortion to be in your face all the time, so it hits really hard and grabs your attention. By doing that and using it as a design dogma, it was kind of a fun challenge to make it so that, even though everything grabs your attention, you can still understand what happens in the game, and you know that, for example, from the top right of the map there’s an enemy spawning.”
The music has that very same feeling, and Turner explained that that was exactly what he wanted. “When I recorded it, I used distorted guitars, distorted bass guitars, and when I recorded the drumset, we routed the kick drum in to a guitar amplifier, the snare drum in to a guitar amplifier, we had all these different elements bringing more of a distorted, angry, compressed feel.”
For a game that is extremely light on plot, the sound and music help to build an amazing atmosphere, especially for a title that is so brutal to play. No lives are present in Tormentor x Punisher; one shot kills the player character, and navigating the map becomes progressively harder, but the level of energy created by the sound design and score mean it is a gripping experience rather than a frustrating one. Turner explained that he used a lot of elements to create this blustering energetic feeling.
“We used a lot of tricks with the music and sound,” Turner said. “For example, when you shoot the machine gun, it’s actually in rhythm with the music without being locked to the music. You can obviously shoot whenever you press the button, but it has a rhythm that works with the music. Every time the player is shooting, they’re kind of creating music or jamming along with the music, creating rhythms. I could see people bobbing their heads and playing the game. I decided that the main music should fade away the closer you are to spawning a boss, so at some points there’s barely any music, but the player is creating it by playing the game themselves, and then suddenly, when you realise that the music isn’t there, a boss suddenly spawns with their own song.
“For example, there’s this boss called Big Bones, which is a maggot-like creature with a huge mouth where his belly should be. This boss has this guitar riff that sounds really raw and sludgy, and that quality makes you listen to it more and feel it, as well as understand that it’s a new boss. As soon as the boss dies, another song starts, it’s almost a DJ system. Everything is 120 beats per minute,” he continued. “All the songs are the same tempo and that emphasises the rhythm aspect a lot. The fact that even the gameplay gels with the music creates a trancelike state.”
As well as playing that pivotal role in keeping the player’s eyes glued to the screen, the music and sound also accentuates the gameplay. Turner explained how he used sound to differentiate massively between the machine gun (the main weapon that the player uses in the game) and the shotgun, the secondary weapon with its own explosive qualities. “With the machine gun, that’s a sound that you’re gonna be hearing all the time. Since it’s in sync with the music I wanted it to be neutral in sound; it doesn’t have as much bass or punch or hi-tones as the shotgun—you just hear a consistent sound. The shotgun on the other hand has more depth to it, more bass, more hit, more impact too. It has the high-anvil sound, which is really distinctive. I made sure the shotgun has more punch to it than the machine gun, to make it feel more special. And here we also use screen shaking techniques, so the machine gun kind of pushes the camera out to the left and right or up and down, but the shotgun actually zooms in when you shoot it, quickly. It zooms in and then straight back out to give it more power. You can also upgrade your shotgun in the game by pulling various tricks. We have fire sounds, electric sounds, and other things to accompany the shooting when you have learned upgrades to go with it.”
The extra features available on the weapons are not explained in a tutorial or a menu screen. The player finds out about them as they play, learning by doing. This process, for Turner, was a crucial part of the game and something he felt was necessary for a more visceral experience. A large part of creating that experience is the way that reloading works in-game, which both plays to the irreverent, humorous tone and is also an ingenious way of introducing the mechanic without making it too tiresome.
“I’d take design elements that I liked, and I’d think about design elements that I disliked, and thought about how I could change them to a version that I would like. That’s how the reload came in. In video games, I hate reloading. To me, reloading in a video game doesn’t make sense unless you’re making a realistic simulator, so when I play a game I have to reload. That’s time out of the game for me, if that makes sense. In Tormentor, I thought about how I didn’t like that, and when I took it away I understood more why it is necessary and why they have it. It has a pacing quality as well. So, I thought about how I would pace the game so that people don’t always use the machine gun. That’s when I thought ‘what if you don’t actually pick up weapons? What if you reload the machine gun by shooting another weapon?’ Thus I introduced the shotgun that shoots three bullets in a wide spread. I liked that, and I made reloading an active ability rather than a passive ability.”
This seemingly crazy method definitely works, and its absurdity is a hallmark of the game. “It kind of emphasises the cartoony style of the game,” Turner said, before expanding on another element he wanted to incorporate to ensure maximum carnage. “I actually wanted the game to have no menu whatsoever, so when you open the game on Steam, it takes you right away in to the game itself. Sadly, that wasn’t commercially viable so that didn’t happen. It’s really hard to actually do that.”
Despite the fact a menu is present at the start, the load time is minimal, so the game achieves that snappiness and acts as another sign that Turner has no time for elements that take players out of the experience. “I’m a huge fan of Dark Souls and Bloodborne and the new Zelda game, but when you die in these games it takes so long to get back in. I hate that, and I just thought that I didn’t want any loading for that reason. We had to design the architecture of the game around that idea, which was really fun.”
This ethos means that the player has no time to really think about why they have died before they are thrown back in to the fray again, forced to try to do better this time. This responsiveness was always Turner’s goal. “Yeah, I love that! I guess it’s because I have skateboarding in my background. With that, when you fall, you shouldn’t lie down and dwell on it, you should get up right away, try the trick again before the fear kicks in. That kind of mentality came to the game as well: just trying again as soon as possible. That’s the core idea for the upgrades as well. I didn’t want any menus. In video games, when I pick up weapons or learn a new skill I have to pause the game, go through multiple sub menus, then try to find whatever I picked up and read about it, apply skills and have to read what the skill does. I hate that in games, cooking or brewing in games? I never do it. That takes time away from the game itself for me, and, in this, I just wanted to make it more straightforward.”
As an avid skateboarder, he took inspiration from that field, even in video games. “I compared it to other games, and one I thought of was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. In that, you get points from tricks, and I wanted that in my game. I wanted to transfer that to an action game. So we thought ‘what if you get upgrades for doing things like bouncing bullets off of walls and killing enemies?’ We thought of a way to tell people that without tutorials, and came up with this pie chart system. So you see this small pie chart appear and slowly more gets added to the pie chart. It’s really subtle; you might not notice it at first, but soon you start noticing that it appears. They always have the same name per the action that you did. Then, when it fills up, suddenly your player is shouting and blinking and stuff. Next time you shoot, something different happens, and you suddenly realise that you learn an upgrade. I wanted people to realise this by themselves instead of a tutorial telling them, making it more personal to them.”
The learning curve is definitely steep. After a while though, the reward of having to figure things out for oneself as a player becomes clear, and that fulfilment is what Turner was chasing. He explained how he enjoyed how strange that was for players.
“It was super fun to see how avid gamers both young and old, who learned to play with tutorials, found the game super hard to grasp. I sometimes read comments on YouTube and other things, and people often talk about there is nothing to tell them what to do, and I just think ‘well that’s the point.’ But, people have grown up with tutorials, so they take it at face value, but I hope that at least to some Tormentor is a breath of fresh air.”
And it definitely is.
Tormentor x Punisher, which is out now on Steam, recently won the audience award at the Game Audio Awards, and was also a finalist at the Independent Games Festival for Excellence in Audio. The soundtrack, in its entirety, is available here.