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Check out the most beautiful corporate horror survival RPG ever made
Tim Denee sheds some light on where this game came from
I got to interview Tim Denee, the writer and artist behind Deathmatch Island, an achingly perfect survival horror RPG in the vein of Squid Game and Battle Royale. He answered some questions that I’ve been wanting to ask him for years.
NOTE: Deathmatch Island is funding on Backerkit now!
Hi Tim! Can you introduce yourself and tell us your connection with the RPG world?
Hey Dave! I’m a graphic designer by day (I’ve variously done book design and layout, web design, illustration, art direction, etc). In my spare time I make games and maps and RPG actual play comics under the banner of Old Dog Games. I’ve been noodling around with this stuff for some years now, starting with a D&D tumblr where I posted battlemaps, and then later a bunch of little Blades in the Dark hacks and assets, and more recently I’ve started making my own games.
I think a lot of people discovered you from your Twitter(/X) posts. The most notable thread for me was the one that updated your followers on your playthrough of Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings. It was so inspiring to me that you actually gave me your blessing to narrate and sort of animate the story using your awesome art! Can you tell us the story of how and why you made that deliciously illustrated TYOV playthrough in the first place?
That video is so good, Dave.
Whenever I come across a strong emergent narrative in a game I’m playing, I have an impulse to record and share the story. It’s like when you see a beautiful sunset and you HAVE to take a photo. When I play a game and an amazing story organically emerges, I just have to capture it in some way so I can share it with others.
I actually first did this way back in 2010, playing Dwarf Fortress. I was struck by a sequence of events in my playthrough and so I documented them in the comic Bronzemurder, which remains the most-viewed thing I’ve ever created (it had around two million views over a few weeks).
When I sat down to play Thousand Year Old Vampire, I had never played a solo RPG before and I was, I admit, sceptical of the whole idea. TYOV won me over almost immediately, and once again I just had to document the story in some fashion. The illustrated playthrough is the result. Like with Dwarf Fortress, playing TYOV really felt like I was discovering a story rather than creating one. Totally emergent. That feeling is so surprising and powerful.
You’ve just launched your latest game on Backerkit. Can you give us your pitch for Deathmatch Island (DMI)?
Deathmatch Island is about a deadly gameshow on a chain of islands. You play a team of competitors, who wake up on a boat together with little memory of how they got there. Over the course of the season they will compete to survive as they learn more about both themselves and the strange mysteries of Deathmatch Island itself. Eventually they’ll reach the End Game, and they will have to decide whether they’re going to Play to Win (and fight against each other until a sole winner emerges) or unite to break the game.
It’s a game with two sides, represented by the two halves of the logo (the skull and the globe). There’s the straight deathmatch battle royale side, and the weird unsettling mystery-box side. Play to Win or Break the Game.
I think the most striking thing about DMI is that I really feel like I’m holding a survival manual handed to me in some dystopian world where the corporation which has dumped me on this island is just completely cynical and evil, and I’m in the deepest of shit. Can you break down where you borrowed this whole concept from?
You nailed it. The obvious touchstones are deathmatch / battle royale media, and that’s where I started – Squid Game, Battle Royale, Hunger Games, and videogames like PUBG. There’s a ton of deathmatch media to choose from!
What we discovered as we playtested and developed the game was that the behind-the-scenes mysteries are actually what’s compelling with this genre. It’s funny, because when you think of the film and TV show examples they’re always about going behind the curtain and blowing the damn game up, but the video game examples are almost always just about playing the game straight. When you play PUBG, there’s no option to fight your way to the producer’s viewing box and put a stop to the madness once and for all. But that’s actually such a big part of the film/TV touchstones, from Battle Royale to Squid Game and all the rest.
So although I started with a pretty straight deathmatch game, it quickly became a game where you have a REDACTED stat you can use to break the rules of the game and go places you’re not supposed to. And to make THAT work, I had to really develop DMI as this deeply weird corporation with all sorts of secrets and conspiracies.
If the players are going to look behind the curtain, there has to be something there to see.
Why do you think this battle royale genre has become so popular in the past ten or fifteen years?
I think it’s the whole late-stage capitalism thing, right? Deathmatch media and battle royales are a commentary on modern society; we already feel like we’re forced to compete in a vicious zero-sum game, every day, and so it can be cathartic to see that rendered in extreme and literal terms. To go back to the previous question, that’s also why (outside of the video games) battle royale media almost always ends with the protagonist finding a way to break the system (or die trying). It’s cathartic.
I once asked you for some advice on how to lay out a book, and you generously explained to me your approach, which is to make everything appear diegetic, or in-world. You did this with an RPG using the Paragon system by John Harper and Sean Nittner titled Odyssey Aquatica. And notably for Deathmatch Island as well. The diegetic artifacts in the book are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Where did you learn your graphic design skills and sensibilities?
Cheers! I came up through design school and I’ve been working in the field for almost 20 years now (do you ever get dizzy thinking about time?). In many ways, Deathmatch Island is me weaponizing two decades of experience working in branding and design to create a work of corporate horror.
More seriously, I can’t separate my graphic design sensibilities from my game design. I think Deathmatch Island probably started because I had a vision of how it could look as much as how it would play. The first two things I created were the logo and the character sheet. I knew that if the game was going to work, the vibes had to be right. It’s all part of the same experience.
As mentioned, you have used the Paragon rules system before. What do you like about the system, which originally debuted in the second edition of Harper and Nittner’s game AGON if I’m not mistaken?
Yeah, my first exposure to the system was playing AGON (2e) with my regular group. We had a blast and really clicked with it, so I immediately started thinking about how I could use the system for other games.
One thing I love about AGON is how fast it plays – you can get through a whole adventure in one sitting. And it’s really good at producing a satisfying narrative even at that speed, with a sort of three-act structure and dramatic climax built into the mechanics.
The final piece that appeals to me is how it encourages competition between players and player characters; in AGON they’re greek heroes competing to earn the most glory. It’s not PVP, but friendly competition, and it adds a lot of fun at the table. Hacking that interplayer competition was a big part of Deathmatch Island’s genesis.
In DMI, you play as “Competitors” who advance from island to island, facing challenges on each one. Both the contests and the downtime activities between islands are very procedural in nature, due to the way the Paragon system is framed and structured. How do you think that procedural nature affects replayability of your game?
Good question. You’re right that the basic flow of the game is very procedural. What I think might surprise people if they sit down to play the game is how the REDACTED stat, and the idea of breaking the rules, can completely alter the experience. In my experience with playtesting, things start very procedural and almost prescribed, but by the end of a season (three islands) they’re veering wildly off the rails.
What changes every time is how fast that process of going off the rails happens, and where it ends up. In that way there’s a lot of replayability. Each island is a point-crawl with about 16 locations, and players will only visit 5-6 locations each playthrough. So each replay is going to have different competitors making different decisions in different locations, and the overall tone could be anything from strictly finding out which player is going to win this battle royale to the players completely breaking every rule of the game and blowing the whole thing up.
Can you explain what “New Game+” is in DMI?
After you’ve completed a standard season of DMI you can play it again in New Game+ mode. The difference here is that instead of starting with a blank memory, your competitors know everything the players do (which may not be everything there is to know!). If your first group of competitors found secret maps and hidden locations, the New Game+ crew has access to those same secrets and assets from the start. Some of them might play returning competitors.
So you’re playing people who already know a bit about the conspiracy and they’re here to put a stop to it. They’re undercover agents, saboteurs pretending to be competitors.
There are “Casts” offered in the book. What are those?
Originally I had a ton of random tables for making NPC competitors and NPC teams, but during playtesting I found that this random process didn’t always lead to the most interesting or dynamic interrelationships between teams, or between NPCs and the PCs. Casts are the solution to that.
Each Cast details an intake of competitors for one season of Deathmatch Island, and they’re designed so that they have interesting tensions and competing relationships from the jump. Essentially each one is a pre-designed powderkeg, and the interesting part is how the players will deal with that explosive situation.
The game has four complete NPC casts included, so if you play multiple seasons of Deathmatch Island you can introduce a different cast of NPC competitors each time, always with interesting dynamics ready to go.
There are essentially two ways that a game of DMI can end for players in the final phase: Play to Win or Break the Game. Can you explain those two?
The end game is a Prisoner’s Dilemma, if you’re familiar with that philosophical conundrum. Each player privately chooses whether they’re going to Play to Win (meaning they want to fight the others and win the big prize for themselves) or Break the Game (meaning they want to work together to blow this whole thing up).
If everyone chooses Break the Game, then you enter the REDACTED end game and the player competitors fight against Production itself.
But if even just one player chooses Play to Win, the others first have to fight those competitor(s), and on top of that the competitors who chose Play to Win get an advantage.
The fictional layer here is that if we both enter an arena and I think we’re going to work together but you’re planning to stab me in the back, you have an advantage, right? Solidarity requires being vulnerable, but that vulnerability can be exploited by the cynical.
So what you have is this situation where you want to say “screw this” and give Production the finger, but doing so requires that you trust your whole team completely. Can you do it?
I assume you’ve played DMI at least a few times. What kind of endings have you experienced thus far?
Yeah, I’ve had the whole range of results, and the best part is that about 50% have been Break the Game and 50% have been Play to Win. So it always feels very unpredictable, on a knife’s edge, could go either way. That moment when everybody reveals their intentions is totally electric. Both results are a lot of fun, too. If everyone breaks the game together it feels so cathartic, but if it ends with someone betraying the others and claiming the prize money it can be tragic and surprising and hilarious.
How cynical are you really, Tim? The dark humor found in this game depicts a corporation (or whatever it is) that has absolutely no regard for human life. Do you think we could ever get there as a civilization?
Hah! I have to admit I once worked with someone who described me as the most cynical person they had ever met, although I think that’s an exaggeration. I’m actually an idealist in many ways, which I guess leads naturally to cynicism. I will gladly admit to being cynical about corporate communications and brand values and “mission statements”, but I think the game is quite optimistic about people’s ability to work together in spite of a system trying its best to stop that exact thing happening. I 100% believe in our ability to choose the “break the game” ending!
Disclaimer: I did Philosophy 101 at uni, and we did an exercise where myself and another student were in a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If we both chose “cooperate”, we got half a chocolate bar each. Long story short, he “cooperated” and I “defected”, which meant he had to do 10 push-ups and I got the chocolate bar to myself.
I regret nothing. Play to Win™.
Deathmatch Island is crowdfunding on Backerkit.