Talking Simulator: William Zack Wood

Two years ago William Zack Wood alias Zack created some characters for a game jam entry, nowadays they are the main protagonists of his own game project called “Monster Garden”. The American has already experienced a lot in his life: He studied East Asian Studies at the Stanford University and Manga at the Kyoto Seika University, later he moved to Berlin and works there as a translator (from Japanese to English). In this interview, he talked with us about the inspirations for his characters, his new game and monster love.

Sebastian: Could you tell me more about the origins of “Monster Garden”?

Zack: Sure. At Castle Game Jam 2015 in Sweden, my team made a game called “Fika Time”, for which I was the character designer and got to make tons of pixelated aliens for the player to interact with. I had a field day because I love monsters and aliens! There were a few that people really liked, so I redid them as characters for “Monster Garden”.

Sebastian: I played the demo version and as I understand it so far, it is about ‘fighting’ bosses and progress through levels via communication?

Zack: Correct. There are no boss fights, but boss conversations. During the level you kind of get a sense of what the boss is going to be like and how your different monster characters could interact with it.

Sebastian: Reminds me a little bit of “UNDERTALE”.

Zack: Like “UNDERTALE”, but there is no overarching story or battle. It is more like a walking and conversation simulator with a focus on characters.

Sebastian: So it is not just a focus on characters, but a focus on friendship as well. I mean, as player you are able to befriend the different monsters. What is the message of that game mechanic?

Zack: I wanted to focus on the fun of exploration of strange areas and meeting new friends, which is a side aspect in a lot of games, but I wanted to cut away everything else and just focus on that. Your playstyle determines what monsters you get, and what monsters you get determines stuff that happens and what other monsters you get… So it is kind of just a little way to play around and see what monsters you end up with and… Maybe learn something about yourself in the process? I do not know. At least I hope that the players can feel some monster love. I just always have been into monsters. There is something nice about them in games… Something mysterious, cute and creepy that you cannot get with human characters.

Sebastian: I thought it might be just some reflection of friendship in general: Regardless who you are, when you meet someone nice – even if they might appear like a ‘monster’ at first sight -, you can still be friends with them.

Zack: Well, yes… A big part of the game is that each monster is like a simplified and exaggerated personality trait to make them more silly and cute. And some might start out scary, but they all turn out friendly in the end.

Screenshot of "Fika Time"

Sebastian: The total absence of violence is remarkable. Do you disguise violence in video games?

Zack: These days there are many non-violent gaming experiences, but none that I know of where wandering around and meeting lovable monsters is the focus of the entire game. Even in one of my favorite games – “Harvest Moon” – and other games like it, meeting characters is
still kind of secondary to gaining money and other goals… So basically I decided to make a game about the things I like most in games. Also, I could not bear to make any of my monsters evil or let alone get killed! They are my preciouses.

Sebastian: Your fascination with monsters is interesting. How did it come to that?

Zack: It is lifelong. If I start drawing I just start drawing monsters. There is something about them I love… I like how they always seem kind of mysterious and unknown. And I am just sick of orcs, dwarves, humans and elves in games and stories. I wish there were more made-up monsters. I like how anyone can identify with a monster character. Also, it can also be simpler and sillier and more mysterious than a human at the same time.

Science fiction is usually the only place you get any variety in the form of aliens. Just think of the “Star Wars” movies or the “Mass Effect” games et cetera. But I wish more stories had new and original creatures and characters. I hereby vow to never put a skeleton, a zombie or an orc in any of my games ever!

Screenshot of "Monster Garden"

Sebastian: Got something like a favorite monster or non-human character?

Zack: Yeah, many! Most of them were inspirations for certain “Monster Garden” characters. Just take Aylee from the comic “Sluggy Freelance”. Also I love kappas! And I must mention Ghostwheel in Roger Zelazny’s “The Chronicles of Amber” as well.

Sebastian: How exactly do you come up with your characters? Do you first scribble them and then, when you are satisfied, you think of some kind of personality?

Zack: I scribble a lot and then sometimes stumble on a good monster. So before starting “Monster Garden” I went through a bunch of sketchbooks and found all the usable monsters and collected them on one sheet. Obviously they were really rough, but I could tell there was something there. So I worked it out when i made the pixel versions in Photoshop.

Scribbles of William Zack Wood

Sebastian: You studied East Asian Studies at the Stanford University and Manga at the Kyoto Seika University. Would you say that some of your artistical inspirations come from your university education?

Zack: I do not know how much Stanford influenced me artistically, but for me it was all
about being inspired by games, manga and anime. I played video games in Japanese for the independent study project we had to do in senior year in Japanese class. And I wrote my senior thesis about Japanese and American RPGs.

Actually my Stanford years were when I kind of left behind art and thought that I should be more practical and not going off the deep end of imagination. Kyoto Seika was a super creative and inspiring time, but it was not until recently that I decided to do what I truly want: To realize my game with no thought for marketing or money.

Sebastian: What would be the criteria for you to see “Monster Garden” as a success?

Zack: If I enjoyed working on it and feel like I got better at pixel art and managed to make some lovable monsters, then I will feel like I accomplished what I set out to do. I feel like I am succeeding by those standards now, but I just want to see if I can tie it all together and make it a nice overall experience.

But I have already been blown away by people saying they liked the characters and the writing. They seemed genuinely touched by the game, so that is already far more than I expected. Any more appreciation from people is just an amazing icing on the cake.

Screenshot of "Monster Garden"

Sebastian: What do you hope that the players experience?

Zack: I wanted to playfully reward them no matter what they do. There is no way to lose: Even if you reject all monsters and ignore everything, that unlocks another secret monster that likes ignoring and rejecting things. The game is supposed to playfully respond to every possible playstyle.

So I guess I really want people to experience monster love. And the path to get them to feel that is by exploring and developing a monster garden. I just make all game design decisions by what makes me giggle. That is why I get so sad when a game has nice monster characters and then they treat them in a way not filled with respect…

Sebastian: So it is a specific world view you are trying to represent? A peaceful world with friendship and possibilities for everyone?

Zack: Yeah, something like that… I want to present a very scary and creepy world, but then you realize that it is not scary at all and that everyone is a friend. I guess that is the way to trigger the monster love.