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Interview with Dreaming Media

The Independent Games Festival was established in 1998 as a forum for independent developers to exhibit their work, receive recognition, and meet with commercial publishers. Finalists to this event attend the GDC and compete for several awards and cash prizes. This year's Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000 (up from $10,000 last year).

I finally had the chance this weekend to sit down with the two brothers, Ted and Mick Skolnick, behind Dreaming Media and the game Bad Milk, an original interactive live video puzzle adventure. We had a great interview as they explained the game and their humble beginnings, as well as their take on the IGF and what theyıre looking forward to in the future.

So who are you guys, and what do you do?
Mick: Iıve been living in NY for 10 yrs, studied art, used to paint but no longer. I make my living doing high end photo retouching for cosmetic ads.
Ted: My background is in software, studied engineering, and did a bit of artwork on the side, but programming pays the bills.

And you guys live right down the hall from each other huh?
Ted: Yeah I started out in NY by sleeping on the floor at Mick's place until another apartment became available on the same floor.
Mick: That is when we started brainstorming together.

And that brainstorm became Bad Milk? Or was it something else at first?
Mick: At first we had ideas for video installations... but somewhere along the line we decided to use virtual space instead of real space, mostly because of the high cost of real estate in NYC. Also, interactive projects were the best way to combine our skills.
Ted: The game format seemed like a good fit, since a lot of interactive art is hard to slog through, and we wanted to have some hook to draw people in.
Mick: We wanted to make something that was more entertaining and accessible than most video art.

So who did what during the development of Bad Milk?
Ted: Creative direction came from us both, equally. Mick was really in charge of art direction, I did the programming. We both did filming, Mick did the sound, most video editing, and he is the one who shaved his head and eyebrows. Oh yeah, and Mick did all the acting, except for a few cameos from friends. My acting was cut.

What's the whole point/theme behind the game?
Mick: Well, reincarnation is one theme. The whole game takes place in a kind of afterlife. Winning the game entails escaping and being born. So, the prize is birth, along with unconditional love. The head piece, also the screen saver, have to do with mortality and the passage of time...
Ted: The head piece, for those who have not seen the game (and there are many), is a time lapse film shot in 360 degrees over 5 weeks of Mick's shaven head as it grows back hair, eyebrows and beard.

And the game is mostly puzzle-based with an interactive story?
Ted: Yup, it is a series of puzzles that you need to solve in order to make your escape.
Mick: The puzzles don't strictly reinforce the theme; there are a variety of ideas, because the whole thing was tethered together in an experimental way. Partly we were experimenting with the medium and with interface design.

Explain the playerıs role in the story; in what ways does he interact with the environment?
Ted: Itıs a first person view, and you travel through a space. We wander from that a little in some places, but you generally feel that you are moving through the space. In particular we have a bit we call a soundscape where you are thrown into the dark and you hear your footsteps as you walk through a space.
Mick: We wanted it to feel like you are walking through a fun house, or a contemporary art museum, which remind me a lot of carnival funhouses that we went to as kids. Each piece is surprise. I also had in mind Terry Gilliamıs cartoons from Monty Python. I always loved the way things would transform suddenly, and also the way he would suggest vast spaces with sound. The element of surprise is great in his cartoons.

Did you guys try any other live action puzzle games like Grim Fandango to see what might have been cliché or to get ideas?
Ted: We did try Grim Fandango, and Myst, but we really didn't play a lot of games. Grim Fandango was quite cool, but we were not interested in pursuing computer-generated imagery, we tried to take all our imagery from life through photos and video.
Mick: We also played the Neverhood, it was incredibly charming and clever.

How long was Bad Milk in development? Was it a full-time project or were you both pursuing other interests as well at the time?
Mick: We worked part time for one year to make it.
Ted: We would have liked to work full time, but we had to the pay the bills.
Mick: Hardware and software included we spent about 12 thousand dollars.
Ted: It was just Mick and I working out of our apartments the entire time.
Mick: Living in the same building helped.

Yes, communication is normally a problem in development. Seems your were spared that. What other problems cropped up over course of development?
Mick: It was certainly hard work, but no major problems. It took a lot of stamina and perseverance. I am proud of what we made, I think it is a very interesting piece, in that there is nothing quite like it out there.
Ted: I agree. No major problems, just a lot of hard work.
Mick: I am proud that we pulled it off. That people know about it.
Ted: Yup, that was my big fear too. It is tough to see a project like this through to completion, I am glad we made it.

What tools and software did you use to develop Bad Milk?
Ted: We worked on both Mac and PC to make it a hybrid CD. For software we used Director 7, Premiere for video, a little Sony handy cam, and Pro Tools for audio... We did all the filming in and around our building here in Queens. Itıs an industrial looking neighborhood, and had some good images for us. Oh yeah... Mick used a photoshop a fair amount too. It was a lot of work to line up the individual frames of the head movie.

When did you guys decided to enter Bad Milk into the IGF?
Ted: A few months back, I read an article from a game reviewer that mentioned IGF and another conference. I was very excited to see that contests like this existed to give us independent folks a chance. So I submitted Bad Milk right away to IGF.

Looking at the other finalists in this yearıs competition, the selection is extremely wide and varied. How do you think you guys stack up?
Ted: The competition looks good - Pencil Whipped is pretty funny. I think what we have going for us is that Bad Milk is unusual and most people find it surprising.
Mick: Itıs hard to know what the judges are looking for.

Did you guys even expect to make it to the finals? What was it like when you heard you were finalists?
Mick: Yes and No. I looked at the prize categories and I can't see us winning any particular category, but overall, if I were a judge I'd be happy to see something very original. So, in that sense, I am not too surprised that we are in the running. Just a little bit surprised.
Ted: I was a little surprised to be a finalist, but I guess I thought we had a chance for the same reasons Mick gave. We were quite thrilled to find out we were finalists, because we had only had recognition in art festivals, this was the first from the gaming world.
Mick: Now we can say we have had some success in both worlds in game/entertainment and new media art. Where as before, we were worried about not fitting in either place.

Do you think you guys will be making any other forages into the game development world in the future?
Mick: We are hoping to develop something on a larger scale with some real financial backing, if someone takes an interest in us.
Ted: Bad Milk was a lot of fun, and I really enjoy having done it. I would like to do more projects, and we are of course looking to use Bad Milk as leverage for something biggerŠ Big Bad Milk

Haha. At the same time, is there anything else you guys are interested in pursuing?
Mick: We have a number of ideas percolating. Too soon to describe them.
Ted: Yup, we are always talking about ideas. We'll see what comes next. We haven't committed to anything yet.
Mick: The fact that Bad Milk was spatial is real interesting. I see very little experimentation with space in gaming, it's usually very literal, but could get much more surreal and experimental, because moving through an interesting space is satisfying in and of itself.... I am thinking again of the surprising sense of scale in Terry Gilliamıs cartoons and movies. I'd like use powerful rendering tools like XBox to create spaces that don't exist in real life, except perhaps in dreams.

Sounds great guys. Good luck at the GDC and thanks a lot for doing the interview :)

Brothers: Our pleasure, thank you!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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