An Interview with the Man Behind Dopesmoker: The Game


A little while back we scooped the lamestream metal press with news that a fan was creating a video game based on Sleep’s legendary Dopesmoker. Intrigued, we tracked down the man behind the project and spoke with him about totally sweet video games, heavy metal, and a whole bunch of nerd shit.

First things first, please tell us just a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How old are you?

DREW: I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville is the setting of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, though it’s best known for its appearance in that episode of the Simpsons where Nelson knocks over the Sunsphere with a rock. I’m 29 years old.

An actual photo of Knoxville

An actual photo of Knoxville

I love the retro aesthetic of your game. Are you doing all of the art yourself? What are some of your favorite vintage games?

Thanks! I’m doing all the art myself, though Arik Roper is responsible for the original album artwork that inspired it. I’m an RPG kind of guy, so Squaresoft’s SNES games are the nearest and dearest to my heart. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 2 and 3 (4 and 6). I’m also a fan of sidescrolling platformers. I recently went back and played Bucky O’Hare, which was one of my favorites as a kid. The graphics in that game are gorgeous. It’s a space game, so there’s a lot of contrast with black backgrounds and little bits of this really bright Fruity Pebbles’ish palette. It’s a hard game though. I don’t know how I ever had the patience for it as a kid. I usually find that the NES games I enjoyed most as a kid appealed to me on more of an aesthetic level than anything gameplay related.

What is your background in gaming? Have you built any games previously?

In my really early years, I played a lot of Mario and Ninja Turtles games. TMNT 3: The Manhattan Project is one of the ones I spent the most time playing. I was terrible at it though. Same with Mario. But I think I was especially terrible at Mario because of the whole taking turns multiplayer setup. I’d get so nervous about fucking up on that first goomba and having to wait my turn again while my sister or some neighborhood kids or whoever got to play halfway through half the game, that once the music kicked in, I’d haul ass right into the damn goomba. Or I’d run off the ledge if I beat the goomba and got the mushroom. Eventually, my mom got the bright idea to get another controller to serve as a dummy controller. They’d leave it unplugged and tell me it was my turn while the real player 2 was actually taking their turn. That plan fell through though because I insisted on standing about two inches from the TV, which pissed everyone off. I didn’t get decent at games until we got an SNES when I was about four or five, around the same time it was discovered that I was in terrible need of glasses. The living room arcade gang had fizzled out though, and my sister didn’t give as much of a shit about playing after she unlocked everything in Mario Kart. I guess we were at that age gap (she’s five years older than me) where she was making more friends and didn’t have as much interest in games. She definitely didn’t think Turtles in Time was the be-all-end-all like I did. I’m sure there was some Baptist youth-group minister projecting the idea that video games were a “boy thing,” considering our location. Either way, once we got the SNES, I got to play in solitude most of the time. Practice without all the anxiety of sucking and getting in the way of other kids who were just including me because some adult told them it was the right thing to do. Which was great the first time I rented Final Fantasy 2. I was in kindergarten, I was learning how to read (although anything outside of the battle menu went right over my head). I probably wouldn’t really care as much for games these days if I hadn’t discovered something as chill and exploration based. I rented the same copy of Final Fantasy 2 just about every weekend for years until the nice people at Hunt Road Video let me keep it for a final, one time fee of fifteen dollars. It’s definitely the only material object I own that would make me go back into a house fire.

Drew is either a giant or he has a tiny drum kit

Drew is either a giant or he has a tiny drum kit

My short history with game development has resulted in a lot of prototypes that’ll never see the green light of Steam. I’ve got a pretty large collection of original sprites though. I submitted a game for the Game Maker subreddit’s GM48 last month, which is a seasonal 48 hour game jam based on a theme that participants receive once the timer starts. This one was “Only One Level,” and I ended up with this abomination of a game called “Bossman Doggroth of the First Level of Gwylenhythe Heights.” I spent 40 of those 48 hours on the artwork, so it plays like a real nightmare. People seemed to get a kick out of it though, with lots of props to the protagonist’s sprite. He’s a piss-yellow dog man that has a very expressive attack animation. I might actually rebuild that one as a browser game at some point in the future. There’s enough madness there to make for a crazy multiplayer game or something. I was actually in the middle of another game jam when Dopesmoker started getting attention. There was a month time limit, so I was able to focus attention where needed. It’s a horizontal shmup (shoot ’em up) inspired by Akira and John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s really close to being done, so I might set aside a week or so to finish it even though the jam is over.

You’re obviously a fan of the band. How did you first find Sleep? What inspired you to create a game in honor of the band?

I first found out about Sleep about ten years ago, around the time The Sword‘s Age of Winters came out. I played it for my buddy, Jeff, who was always turning me onto really obscure and important metal bands. I said something about it sounding like Black Sabbath, to which he said, “Sounds like Sleep more than anything,” probably in reference to the opening track. His brief description of Jerusalem, as he then knew it, somehow didn’t involve anything about it being one really long song. And so began a really confusing attempt at finding this Jerusalem album on Limewire or Kazaa or whatever was the piracy software of choice at the time. I thought I was downloading variations of just one of the album’s many tracks, like when you end up with the live version of something that doesn’t say anything about it being a live version in the description. I finally found a forum that lead me in the right direction to the release as Dopesmoker.

Dopesmoker gameplay
Dopesmoker translates pretty well to 8-bit music. What are some video game soundtracks you really love? What other metal records would sound great in an 8-bit format?

Another NES game I sucked complete dick at was T&C Surf Designs Wood & Water Rage, which is a weird skateboarding and surfing game. It’s not quite shovelware, but it kind of is. It plays this one song through the whole game, this surf-rock track in the vein of Cecelia Anne by The Pixies, but I could never get to the first checkpoint of the skate level to see if the music actually changed or not. The surfing is damn near impossible no matter who you are, so the song always stopped short there, too. Just look it up on YouTube. The general reaction is one of absolute confusion and rage (hence the title, I guess). But the song always stuck with me. When I was looking up Let’s Plays of it recently, I learned that the song, once you get past the point I always got stuck at, breaks into this Nels Cline sounding shred fest, successfully emulated a whammy bar dive-bomb. It’s crazy. And come to find out, it was composed by Tsukasa Masuko, the guy responsible for the music of the early Shin Megami Tensei games, which is another favorite series of mine. According to the his page on the Shin Megami Tensei wiki, he composed under the alias “Project SATAN,” which is probably the coolest alias you could do anything under.

Chrono Trigger is a classic, of course. I think anyone into video games and any form of progressive music will tell you that it’s probably one of the best examples of just how good game music can be. In a league of its own, but still really contemporary. Nobuo Uematsu, the guy who composed the early Final Fantasy soundtracks (and even some of Chrono Trigger’s) is up there with Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmore as one of my all time favorite musicians.
Recently, I started delving some of the Sega classics I missed out on, since I only had the Nintendo systems in those days. There’s this game called Devilish that has to be one of the weirdest, most fascinating Breakout clones you’ll ever play. It’s sort of dark fantasy themed, almost like Dark Souls or Castlevania, but you control two paddles to knock the ball around the stage in regular Breakout fashion, killing monsters and busting through doors. And there’s a storyline about how the paddles were once a prince and princess who were cursed by a demon. It’s completely bat-shit. But it’s a lot of fun and the soundtrack is absolutely beautiful. A good mix of metal and that jazzy progression your hear in a lot of other Sega games, like Streets of Rage. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard, especially the track “Prairie.”

Dethklok‘s music would sound pretty rad remade as game music, seeing as how Brendan Small makes smart use of synthesizers to fill out places where most other musicians or producers would just layer in another guitar to fill things out. And that, at least in my experience, seems to be important when composing game music–having a decent balance between your lead melody and the rhythm instruments that’ll both compliment the melody without being intrusive and fill out the track. Since most metal is lead-centric and loud, it makes sense to fill things out with more guitars, but, I dunno, I always get a feeling, especially in the case of Brendan’s music, that there’s a lot being conveyed in those leads that I might not pickup otherwise if the songs were mucked up with more rhythm guitars. And while I think Dethklok’s stuff would translate well to game music, I’d be more interested to hear what Brendan could come up with if he made a game soundtrack or chiptune album of all original songs. He’s got the kind of ear for melody that you need to make magic with the limits of chiptune production. The solo/outro of Comet Song sounds like something you’d blast waves of throwing stars to in what my grandmother would call “one of them ninja fightin’ games.” .

What can players expect from the full release of the game? What do you hope that they’ll get out of it?

I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. I probably already fucked up by putting that thing in the description about an ATB (Active Time Battle system where the player and enemies take turns attacking one another with time to strategize), but since I’ve had time to really think about it, I want to make sure everything keeps with the spirit of the song, and while I prefer ATBs to real time combat in RPGs, that kind of setup is more of a dance than a trudge. I’m still experimenting a bit, so I might have a change of heart. I guess you could say I’m trying to see if whatever it is that draws people to the song can be made interactive. Legitimate intrigue that doesn’t rely on the usual addictive mechanics to bring people back. I’m putting a lot of effort into making it clear that what you’re experiencing is through the perspectives of three characters with gigantic bong machines strapped to their backs, so players can expect a lot of visual interpretations of things you might feel or perceive during an altered state of mind. One of my big inspirations is a game called Yume Nikki, which is about dreams. In that game, things that wouldn’t come off as anything more than interesting in a dream state can appear almost horrific depending on the player. It’s a pretty chill game any way you look at it though. That’s actually the sort of vibe I’m going for. An experience that doesn’t really tell anyone how to feel about it. Hopefully I’ll have the latest update up and running by the time people are reading this.

Dopesmoker Menu
What platforms will you release it on? When will it be available?

So far, it’s just available in browsers via People have made it clear that mobile is a must, so that’s a top priority. When I forget about the fact that the game is essentially someone else’s intellectual property, I get visions of Atlus style pre-order bundles. Atlus games are about the only games I still pre-order when I can afford it. They definitely give a shit about making people happy. Anyway, imagining I’m not playing with someone else’s intellectual property, a physical release for PC or even the Vita would be cool, especially with an art book. I tend to sketch out ideas, so I’ve got a lot of stuff that’ll never see the light of day unless I post it to Tumblr. Maybe I’ll do a digital artbook regardless. But I think the best kind of physical release would be an NES version with a green cartridge. Which is way beyond the scope of my basic-of-basics JavaScript knowledge, but people still make NES games all the time. Wizards still live among us, Harry.

As far as a release date goes, I don’t really have a clue. I figured I’ll just go on with releasing updates as it develops, but that sounds like a recipe for vaporware, so I should probably set an actual date. It’d be easier if Kickstarter or some kind of crowdfunding was an option, but I’m not sure fan games fall under that possibility. I’ll make a post on the game’s page once I decide on something feasible though.

Do you think Matt Pike will like the game?

You know, I was thinking of adding an Easter egg to the game where you find the Lost Tomb of Matt Pike’s shirts. For real though, I saw an interview with him on YouTube recently where he ranted briefly about what a shit show Instagram is, specifically the way people seem to take what they see in snapshots entirely out of context due to a kind of shortsightedness caused by our addiction to social media. I can’t remember the quote exactly, but he made some good points. Maybe he’ll find the mobile version of the game to be a good distraction from all the drama. Either way, I hope he at least finds it amusing. .

What other bands deserve their own video game?

Somebody needs to make a crazy-as-hell arcade racer based on the song “Fuel” by Metallica. Just have that one song looping over and over while you tear ass around a dirt track or something. It’s essentially a song about vehicular mischief, which is always best exercised in an enclosed or virtual environment. I’m sure people would roll their eyes, like, “Gosh, look at what this joker did…” but it has the potential to be the racing equivalent of Ken Griffey Jr.’s Major League Baseball. And that’s not a knock towards Metallica or anything. Or Ken Griffey.

I think Opeth‘s music could be interpreted into something really interesting. Still Life is one of my favorite albums ever, and the concept has a kind of Twin Peaks or maybe even Silent Hill feel to it. A dude going back home to crash a wedding, only to find that the place has gone beyond bonkers with religious loony tunes just sounds like the perfect setup for a survival horror game. I also think My Arms, Your Hearse would make for one of those cool experimental first person games.

You can check out Drew let’s playing his demo in this video right here:

Based on the answers to my questions, I’m pretty sure Drew is my kindred spirit. Thanks for chatting with me! Dopesmoker is still in progress, but you can play an early (and infinite) demo of it right here. Check out Drew’s Github here for more info and some of his other projects.

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