Interview with Adrian Gavrilita / Programmer at Nicalis (The Binding of Isaac)

Interview with Adrian Gavrilita / Programmer at Nicalis (The Binding of Isaac)


My name is Adrian, I am a developer at Nicalis and I am working on the game The Binding of Isaac which was ported from Flash. Now it has been rewritten in C++ for XBox, PlayStation, Nintendo and other platforms, including Windows, Mac and Linux. The current version is Afterbirth Plus, so those who are playing it know what I am talking about. What motivated you to become a game developer? Perhaps, like all the other gamers who skipped classes to go to Internet Cafes, I was playing a lot of games and every game had its own shortcomings that you wanted to change, add something new and different. You like the game, but there is something missing that you would like to be there. This is why I’ve been considering making my own game for some time. To implement my own changes and mods that I have always wanted to try, not being dependent on someone else’s visions. Now, I think I am close to achieving my childhood dreams. What was your first big project? Unfortunately, I didn’t start out with games, but I was working on VFX. This helped me understand algorithms and things like problem solving making it in time for deadlines, which initiated me into the world of IT. As a hobby and out of my willingness to draw parallels to gaming, I was studying independently various programming languages, including C++ that Isaac is now written in, and also different image rendering programs like DirectX and OpenGL. Initially, they were alien to me and I had to actively search and ask. Unfortunately, I had no acquaintance working in this field which is why I found it hard to get to a decent level. Later, I started making some minigames or tests, tried different algorithms flight simulators, car driving simulators… What technologies did you base your creations on? Initially, during the learning process, I started from scratch. I tried learning OpenGL, drawing everything from triangles to BSFs and other algorithms for games. Renderings, rendering optimisations… How difficult was it to get to where you are now? To be honest, it has been really difficult, because when I started out I did not even know about Google or other search engines so I had to seek any possible source, including a friend of mine-Vadim who helped me out with coding Even though I had no PC at the time, I called him everytime to ask how to do this or that. I was getting into Javascript and incidentally he was working on some websites. He provided a lot of help, but I was getting quite bothersome because at one point he asked me not to call him again. I was calling him 3-4 times a day with stupid questions. Later, I started reading books and ever since Google came along with the possibility to find tutorials and articles on the said subject I began studying it in-depth. But the process was indeed rather tough. Are you religious? Personally not, but my parents are. Ergo, I respect it and keep to the family traditions. Sometimes I go to the Eucharist, to Church… Are you bothered by the themes concerning religion in The Binding of Isaac? Not in negative way, but I like the religious approach in Isaac, namely what concerns deals with the Devil and Angels, meaning you can choose the good or bad path. Unfortunately, the design was made in such a way that the deals with Angels give you weaker items, and obviously everyone is tempted to make a pact with the Devil. Perhaps Edmund intended it on purpose because in real life we are often attracted to evil temptations and we have to make a choice. We either suffer on the good side or take the good items. Why did you choose the 8-bit style? This was Edmund’s initial vision just like he stated in an interview that he had the 8-bit image in his mind throughout the whole design process. Unfortunately, what we have today is not exactly 8-bit, but rather some sort of 8-bit+ or 16-bit+. Now it has gradients and things that are not so retro but they help build the atmosphere nonetheless. Edmund, seeing the possibility of a future collaboration with Nicalis understood that he can fulfill his initial vision. He would have wanted it to be in Flash, he wanted it be in Flash but it is much more complicated to do pixel art in Flash. This is why he drew it however he could and drew some attention towards his interesting style with thick outlines which he calls lazy drawing. At the same time, it has thematic connotations, because the game is a child’s vision who drew… Actually, everything we see in Isaac is *spoiler alert* Isaac’s vision, his vision and what he feels in the context of his family problems. I haven’t told you the spoiler about the dad, right? What is the most interesting/strangest thing about the fan community? The most interesting things I have seen within the Isaac community are the mods and the fan art. I find it fascinating how so many good artists, fans of Isaac have gathered and are making high quality fan art. Everyday, there are new comics about Isaac, about different situations found in the game, situations that some find stressful, some find amusing. The strangest thing is perhaps Rule Number 34, that I think could be applied to any game. I think you know what it’s about. It has some erotic connotations, for those that don’t know. And it is indeed rather strange for a game about a child who is looking for his place within religion, his place in life, i.e. choosing between good and bad. Where does all the love for Isaac spring from? Oh, first of all he’s very cute, plus instead of shooting a weapon, he is using his own tears to destroy his enemies. Moreover, we all identify with Isaac to a certain degree. There is an Isaac in all of us, fighting his own internal or life struggles. Perhaps it even has to do with religion, a choice that many children don’t understand. We are told from a young age to beware of the Devil, not to do that, not to sin or we’ll go to Hell. Respectively, this game creates a childish vision questioning what Hell is, why would I go there if I ate too much chocolate or something of the sort. This is what motivated Edmund to make this game, since he was tormented by the subject of religion, having grown up with extremely religious parents. Is it easier to work for a company or being an indie? I am sure it is more pleasant to work in an indie company, because you are in closer contact with the design department, or even the sound department, for example I had to take a decision concerning the sound. You will never see that in a big company, a programmer getting to make such decisions. These companies have a clearer hierarchy and separation of departments. And another problem with big corporations is that you may work on some code that you’re not even told what it is. They may ask you to work on some algorithm or create some function or library that you don’t even know where it will end up in the end. Conversely, indie companies consist of a couple of developers, designers, artists that openly collaborate, discuss and everyone’s opinion matters. Clearly, the wages are different, I think, though it also depends on the company, but the working process is much more pleasing in indie companies. You are not a mere employee that no one cares about and maybe the boss doesn’t even know about your existence…or the designer. This is why it’s important that your opinion matters, so that you feel that you are actually doing something and not wasting your time, so that it doesn’t become a routine job. Is it part of Nicalis’ culture to have shocking creations? There was a problem with Isaac, the bosses from Nicalis being quite religious. So when they wanted to start a collaboration with Edmund, there was a small debate whether they wanted to have anything to do with such kind of games, because it does indeed touch some serious religious themes, that in the end made their way even to Nintendo, who have some strict rules concerning these things and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s among the only Nintendo games that have drugs and religion in it. Which is why I think the managers did a good job bringing it to Nintendo, it was probably difficult. Is it thanks to the community that Isaac was released on the Nintendo Switch? Yes, I am sure the community played an important role and namely Isaac’s popularity made the game what it is today. Respectively, I got to work on Isaac from within the community, therefore I think it’s the community that praised the game to the skies and made it into what it is today. What is your favourite game genre? To be honest, FPS was my favourite for a long time, but recently it’s been losing ground to Rogue-like platformers, because there is something about these 2D games that makes you focus on skill, on fine controls, to reach the right platform, to get used to timeframes, whereas FPS is more about strategy, where to stand, what weapons to choose whom to shoot… Consequently, they do have some tangents but are ultimately different and provide different enjoyment. I think that platformers, namely Rogue-like ones, are growing before my eyes. What is your relationship with your mother? I am glad that it’s a very good relationship, unlike Isaac’s. She provided me with a lot of support during my development in the IT field. Initially, I was a musician and it was difficult to get rid of music to start something new. My mum was among the people who supported me most and helped me become what I am today. Probably I’ve inherited her logic because she’s an accountant and works with numbers. My father is a musician, so is my sister, I, too, should have been one. I have studied the violin, the piano, the clarinet, but ended up a game programmer, of which I am glad. I still play the piano once in a while, I’ve also studied electronic music, made on computers. This is why I could give my own opinion regarding some aspects of the game’s soundtrack. What is your favourite classic game? Out of the old games, my favourite one would be Double Dragon Battletoads, namely because it’s very dynamic and the graphics are beautiful and it has lots of different actions you can lift, throw or hit the enemy, you can run, move up and down, back and forth, which is really nice for those NES days. Obviously, there were other games, like Ninja Turtles,that I also liked a lot, especially the third part. But Double Dragon and Battletoads will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve even played it recently and was surprised that I passed it alone from the first try. Even though I still remember the cheat I used, I can even tell it now… A game that indeed had a great impact on my life. What is your favourite modern game? Overwatch. Yeah, I’ve wasted a lot of time in Overwatch and I like it because it combines FPS elements with RPG. For some time, I’ve played Counter Strike with WoW mods, which gets you something close to Overwatch with superpowers… while CS is based on upgrades and Overwatch is more skill-based. It’s very dynamic and visually pleasing, a game that I recommend to others. What motivates you? I am motivated by all the challenges that could occur during the development process and namely the new algorithms, situations, even the same collision detection, there are so many approaches that you could choose from, like tile-based, etc and how each of them interacts differently. There are lots of interesting algorithms that could be approached from different angles. Many programmers, fresh graduates, might say bubble sorting is not really used all that much, however many games welcome iterative sorting like bubble sorting. This is indeed rather fascinating, finding approaches to problems that occur during development. Another reason I like game programming compared to other programming fields, like programs for companies, etc, is that it’s dynamic, you see the result of you work, it’s something you can play, it’s something… It’s like raising your own child that you can see moving, jumping… You can even tell a story in this game. Games integrate numerous art styles like drawing, music, programming, story, hence why games offer a vast terrain for all these fields. You use algorithms, just like in other software but it has a whole different impact, including visually… The so-called path-finding. How did you get employed at Nicalis? Well, when the Flash version of Isaac first appeared, I started watching let’s plays on YouTube and I stumbled upon a channel “Let’s Play In Russian” which was often mentioning Northernlion I got curious and decided to check who this Northernlion was, because he got all his ideas from there, he was also watching him. I started watching his videos and I liked his style of Let’s Play, his commentary, how he played, it was rather entertaining. I have probably watched about 600 episodes, I was watching it like a TV series, waiting for new episodes. At one point, he began complaining about some aspects and started modding the game, doing mod runs, special runs in which he was using Cheat Engine to give himself some items, to challenge himself by making it harder or easier, more interesting. He would often complain that some features were missing or some things could be done easier. I began by making some simple modifications in Cheat Engine, so that he’ll find the cheats easier He didn’t notice me, but I carried on and began working on a project- Spider Mod for the Flash version of Isaac. It consisted of bug fixes and some new features for Isaac, even cheats, it had an integrated cheat engine, so I translated the cheats from CE to Spider Mod. There were all the integrated cheats, there was also a wrapper, meaning the game was integrated and you could make it bigger, smaller or full-screen. It also had the possibility to change the graphics settings and some other options which allowed you to see the enemy’s HP, your damage… By the end, there was the idea of introducing plugin support, A rather popular mod created for my Spider Mod was something called Arena Mode, which changed Isaac’s idea of dungeons into a survival battle. There were different waves of enemies that Isaac had to defeat and receive new items after each one. It was indeed very interesting. However, it also lacked popularity in the beginning, because Northerlion wouldn’t notice it, and my main idea was for him to use it in his videos. At some point I decided not to rely on Northerlion anymore and switch to reddit, where I could share it with the whole community. The subreddit exploded and the mod became extremely popular, lots of people were using it, because it solved certain issues that the devs didn’t solve to the disappointment of many fans, some people couldn’t even play it. The mod was popular, getting 2000-3000 daily downloads and it even had a dedicated site. When Nicalis started their collaboration with Edmund, there was an interview with Edmund McMillen, Tyrone and Northernlion, it was an interview with Let’s Players. Northerlion asked Edmund his opinion towards Spider Mod, to which he answered: “I think Nicalis should hire the person behind this mod”. It was during the collaboration between Edmund and Nicalis, that I was contacted and three days later I was already working on Isaac. It was a a pleasant surprised, I really didn’t expect it. At the moment I was working on VFX and it was a sudden transition. And, yeah, I was overjoyed that I got to work on a game in which I invested so much time and of which I was a big fan. I do believe it is a dream shared by any gamer, to be able to work on one’s favourite game. Is the remote work a challenge for you? It is indeed a challenge, because the lack of physical interaction and not knowing whether the other person is behind their PC when you need a quick solution to a problem, these do hinder the development process. However, over time you get used to it and develop a workflow based on remote work. Office work brings some benefits and has its own pros, but clearly working from home also has some pros. Should we wait for a new expansion after Afterbirth+? Unfortunately no, because as Edmund said, Afterbirth was in fact the last version. Afterbirth+ was a necessity because Edmund’s been wishing for a long time to integrate modding support. Afterbirth+ should have been an extension that introduced modding support, but eventually they decided for it to be a mini DLC with new items and enemies. So it turned out as a mini DLC that will be the last one, because the initial idea was till Afterbirth. I won’t tell you what comes next, it’s a secret… My name is Adrian, a programmer working on The Binding of Isaac. Thank you for being with us and greeting from Games Moldova. Bye!

2 thoughts to “Interview with Adrian Gavrilita / Programmer at Nicalis (The Binding of Isaac)”

  1. I love you dude. Iti mulțumesc din tot sufletul meu pentru Tboi. Am jucat primul pentru peste 1000 ore, dar, nu am destui bani pt Rebirth. Îți mulțumesc că ne faci poporul mai cunoscut și mai plăcut. Continua. Sper sa te vad în continuare la următoarele jocuri!

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