Regulars trained by years of scrutinizing tiny bits of pixels may have noticed something slightly different in today’s post. Oh yes, for all you life-long junkies of button mashing that just cannot get enough of the digital world, your ultra-nerd frenemies at Kill Screen are happy to introduce Side Quest, occasional editorial DLC that will appear in addition to your regularly-scheduled programming of posts every fortnight (no, not Fornite, fortnight as in once every two weeks) focusing on a variety of premieres relevant to your good screen addiction.
That’s exactly the case with upcoming album Drawing Secret Circles by NYC “one-man” grind project Manipulator, which, if word didn’t make it over previously, will have Manipulator! the Video Game launching alongside it on November 2. While deluxe editions, promo videos and unusual merch items (Frozen Soul’s ice scraper being a particular favorite) certainly catch attention and raise an eyebrow, an entire game designed specifically to coincide with an album release is something that we cannot ignore. And at the more than reasonable price point of “free,” we feel it’s not something for our readership to ignore either. To delve into further this phenomenal combination, we spoke with Andrew Nosch, Maniuplator (the band) mastermind and P.J. Randol, Manipulator! the Video Game developer and owner of SpaceMicroscope Studios.
Drawing Secret Circles includes a video that runs the full length of the album and an art book. What motivated you to include a game as well?
Nosch: Basically just putting way too much effort into stuff for the sole sake of the love of it. Truly. I wrote and recorded the album and then immediately started thinking about, OK, this is a one-man project, that is not playing live—at least not right now—what can I do, to make this more of an encompassing idea? It started with, Make a music video for it. So, we made an album-length music video for it, and we ended up cutting it up into all these different things, per song, and then being the trying-too-hard person I am, I was like, Alright, let’s make an art book. And then I started talking to P.J. and I was like, “Hey, this is a total joke, but do you want to make a video game?” And then he immediately said, “Yes.” And then that’s how this started. I think it’s just a cool way to create an additional bit of interactivity for a band that’s not playing live.
A similar idea was mentioned in a past interview [with Outer Heaven vocalist Austin Haines], and that this is a ton more work than [one] would think. P.J., was this something that, when initially pitched, was a quite daunting task, or was this something like, “I can get something reasonably playable together”?
Randol: Well, I’m a game developer, so I already know a sentence to a developer can cost $10,000. [Laughs] I always knew that it was going to be a sort of back-burner project for me, and Andrew gave me a ton of heads-up time, and of course vinyl records always get delayed…
Nosch: That was helpful. [Laughs]
Randol: I was able to just sort of moonlight it over time doing really slow work. Andrew gave me most of the artwork so I knew that I didn’t have to worry about that, and obviously I didn’t have to worry about putting music in it, so that was already two things. We just made sure to scope it so that it was doable as a smaller project and could get out and get done.
When you said you did the art, did you do all of the pixel art involved with the game?
Nosch: I would say about 50%. We took some pre-existing things for the bottoms and tops and sides of the levels, but all of the actual background art is the same that’s in the book, in the music videos, so it’s pulled all together. The character design was using reference from a bunch of existing characters and trying to draw something, and it seems to work reasonably well.
The actual “feature” of it is the music and the artistic aspect of the levels. P.J. had the idea to put in Art Mode, where you can just click through the levels and actually look at everything. And then he found that really cool CRT monitor way of displaying everything that just makes it look ridiculous. Then the 3D parallaxing stuff blew me away when I first saw it. It’s very cool.
There was mention that each level corresponds to one track on the album. That sounds like it could be difficult in terms of design and programming. Why specifically did you want to go with that approach?
Randol: I felt it was the most logical way of going about it. It just so happened that the way the album is structured there’s a long song at the beginning which can be used to ease the player in. It’s a grindcore album, so the songs get real short at times, and you sort of get to take control away from the player, and it’s more like they’re watching something rather than playing something for a bit. [This is] also why Art Mode is necessary because some of the backgrounds show up for less than a second.
You’ve got a couple four- and five-second songs on this track list.
Nosch: If you’re going to do it, why not do it all the way, right?
Randol: I wanted it to be an actual video game where there was a challenge, rather than a walking simulator type of thing. Not to say that that’s bad or anything, I just didn’t want to do that.
Nosch: Just different.
What were the game influences for Manipulator!?
Randol: I’d probably go with a little bit of Castlevania, and Mario, I just wanted to make it as, you pick up the game and if you’ve played any video game at all, you already know what’s happening.
Nosch: There’s no learning curve.
Randol: There’s literally two buttons: You can jump and you can hit.
Nosch: It’s like the perfect thing with metal music, too, in that you can change it to 8-bit and it instantly sounds like Castlevania or Mega Man.
This was designed for mobile phones. What lead you to focus on mobile as a direction?
Randol: It’s the widest audience, so anyone can play it. I wanted to make sure that as many people could play it as possible. I didn’t want there to be any barrier to entry. And so people could grab it and get it wherever they are, too.
Nosch: That’s what I was going to say. You tell someone, “I had an album come out, I made a video game”—boom, download it. “Oh, and it’s free. Here you go.”
Randol: The game I’ve been working on is coming to early access the day before this one. It’s coming out on PC, so I’ve already alienated 70% of my friends! [Laughs]
What ideally do you hope that people come away with when they play this game and listen to this album?
Nosch: I just want people to have fun. Specifically, the kind of ethos of Manipulator is catharsis through chaos. It sounds so cheesy to say out loud, but self-improvement and betterment. Kind of just taking everything that sucks in your life, all the “manipulators” in your life, and beating them over the head with a bone, like the little man in the video game does. Also, while listening to music. This project started as one of those kind of tongue-in-cheek, It would be fun to start a little quarantine grind project, and then it turned into this bigger thing where people are throwing money towards it to get vinyl pressing and stuff.
When you were designing the game, were you specifically trying to do something to embody a cathartic gameplay experience? Or did it just flow in?
Randol: The scope of the project and the art that I knew I was going to get already set the tone pretty up front. I sorta leaned into that, so essentially when you play it you’re on a virtual console. It looks like a Game Boy, but it’s got a CRT on it, which is some sort of dystopian nightmare where we didn’t come up with LCD screens.
I wanted every inch of it to be in alignment with the album as best as I could. Throughout the levels both flow quotes from the lyrics from the album and random stuff I kinda came up with, whether me and him just spat at each other, appear through the thing. Even though it’s like you’re a little skeleton hitting rats it still feels very Manipulator, as cartoony as it is when you look at it on its face.
Nosch: “Cartoony” is a good way to say it. There “technically” is another member of Manipulator—our friend Tim [Bradley] is the one who writes most of the lyrics, and he does the sound design, he pulls in all the samples, and makes them sound all crazy, and then we layer that in on top of everything. He’s also a tattooer out in Seattle, so I had him draw up the skeleton smashing the rat. And it’s super cartoony. It’s so different visually than everything else that Manipulator is, which is just, like, black and white skulls, very serious looking, and I love that, because it’s just this totally different way of approaching the same concept, the same idea and just representing it in a different way. That’s what I think is so cool about this.
Within metal music specifically there’s so many people that take this so seriously, and I am not that. It’s a grind album, it’s ridiculous. Like we were saying earlier, there’s a couple songs that are less than six seconds. How can you take this seriously? It’s fun. Period. [Laughs] But also taking this seriously, because that’s important as well.
The two of you also worked together on SwordCar, which is described as a “heavy metal drift car slaughter party.” Why should the Decibel readership get both games at once?
Randol: Andrew also did the soundtrack for that. That one is my debut game coming from being a metal musician. It is sort of like from the jump. I posted the prototype and someone was just like, “Are you going to be drifting in a parking lot listening to doom metal and slicing up business men?” And I was like, “Yeah, probably, that’s what’s going to end up happening.” SwordCar is dripping in the kind of aesthetic that I feel like people who read Decibel are going to be into.
Nosch: I don’t have the vast video game knowledge that all you guys do, but that is the most metal game I’ve ever played. For sure.
Randol: SwordCar should be out on November 2. It was just approved for that release date a couple days ago. This was my first game, so I haven’t worked on any games that anyone would know. If they’ve heard about me before it was either when I played in Aiza or Lungs, back in Minnesota.
Nosch: Funnily enough, P.J. and I both used to live in Minneapolis, and played in various bands there and played shows together. [We] never really talked to each other, and never knew each other. Then [we] both were living in New York, and then got in touch through someone there, and then we got this band going, and then there was a global pandemic, and then everything fell apart, and had a member pass away unfortunately, and then all this weird stuff, and now we’re here.
So you ended up working on a game after previously being in a different band?
Nosch: Yeah, basically. We were playing with a group called God’s Bastard, we never got the point of playing live, but there’s actually a really cool EP that the guitarist Drew [Hays], the one that passed away, has online. It’s excellent.
We were basically taking that EP that he had recorded with Lev [Weinstein] from Krallice and all that on drums and trying to make that a real, actual band, and then the world fell apart. In those scraps is where P.J. got really into taking on this game development stuff in real time, and this is where I got into the Manipulator and other remote projects.
I keep saying for me, the best thing I’ve ever done for my music career is not be in a band. Even though I’m working with other people, doing stuff on your own terms is just amazing. It’s unreal in how I’ve been collaborating with people in Minnesota and Seattle and Argentina, it’s just wild in how this all is able to happen now because we don’t have the confines of a physical space.
Trying to meet up at 5 o’clock every Tuesday or whatever…
Nosch: I’m also really looking forward to doing that though! It’s been years at this point.
Drawing Secret Circles is available November 2 via Bandcamp.
Follow Manipulator on Instagram.
Manipulator! the Video Game can be downloaded for free via the Google Play and iOS app stores on November 2.
SpaceMicroscope Studios can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
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