Summerland – in Which You Do Wrong (For All the Right Reasons)

Summerland – in Which You Do Wrong (For All the Right Reasons)

After three days of being unable to find the right words to begin this piece, I heave a sigh of relief as I finally start writing.  

It’s not that I dislike writing – I love it. That is why I’m here in the first place. It’s one of the few things that gives me indescribable joy in life. But some days it’s just so hard to feel motivated. The ideas don’t appear and the words no longer flow along smoothly but fall through in a highly irregular manner, getting all mixed up in the process.

It’s something I’ve always struggled with. I pick up a project, bursting with enthusiasm, ideas overflowing, overwhelming me. I channel it the best I can, I dive into hours of work for a couple of weeks, and then regular life overtakes all desire to continue. Before I know it, a day’s break turns into a week, and the next week bleeds into the next month. The project is relegated to a forgotten folder for an indeterminate amount of time, only to meet its demise during a routine clean-up of my drive.

Stumbling onto Summerland

Which is why I find it personally fascinating when I come across a source of inspiration. Something that makes you want to start a project of your own but only this time, stick with it to the finish. Something that makes you realize what the deadly combination of imagination, dedication and effort can achieve. Occasionally, you come across games that make you feel that way. It could be an extremely well-written story, photorealistic graphics, a massive open-world with tons of side activities or – in Summerland’s case – the effort put into a game by a single man that leaves you amazed.

I am always on the lookout for free Indie titles on Steam. There are quite a few games that don’t take more than an hour and are perfect to relax with on Friday evenings with a cup of coffee. In this way, I have stumbled upon Missed Messages, Marie’s Room and Answer Knot. Last December, I came across Summerland.

I knew the second I read the description that I needed to play this game: Summerland toys with the idea of being judged in the afterlife for your actions on Earth. And I knew the second I finished playing it that I needed to talk to the developer. It is a project shouldered single-handedly (for the most part) by Conner Rush of FYRE Games – I could not believe this was the first I was hearing of him. By all accounts, this was a creator I would really want to keep up with in the coming years.

A Chat with Conner Rush

A picture of Conner Rush of FYRE Games drinking from a mug, looking up in surprise.

Image Credit: Conner Rush/FYRE Games

When Conner Rush answered the phone, I could practically sense the contentedness that comes from being involved with something you absolutely love. It’s the kind of emotion that is extremely infectious; it seeps through the phone, travelling thousands of miles and infusing in its beholder a burning desire to dream, plan and (most importantly) create.

Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Conner.

Firstly, let me just say how much I loved Summerland. I am yet to catch up with your other games though. For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with your work too, could you talk a bit about your past projects?

I taught myself to code at a young age, around 10-11. My first game was called Into the Unknown. It’s about waking up in the woods, exploring and uncovering the mystery of how you came to be there. I started making it when I was 13 for a school competition. It took me around 6 months to make that game. My second game was Welcome to the Dreamscape. I was way more ambitious with that one, and I implemented combat too. I realized that there was an audience out there for the kind of games I was making. The game deals with exploring your past through your dreams, and I started making it right after Into the Unknown. It took me about two and a half years to complete.

That is commendable; you managed to stick with the project for so long, especially at an age where hobbies come and go far too often before you land on something you really enjoy. That makes me wonder, how did you get into gaming? Any favourite games that made you want to make one yourself?

I remember being at my Dad’s apartment, playing the PS2. One of the first games that I really loved was Kingdom Hearts II – I was captivated by the graphics, the gameplay. I was intrigued by the movements of the character – it made me think, how does it work? How does the character move onscreen when I press the button on my controller? Another game I remember loving was the first Uncharted that I played on the PS3.

So, you’ve always been a console gamer?

Honestly, yeah, I’ve only recently started with PC games, I’ve mostly been playing them on consoles.

Before we dive into Summerland itself, was there a PlayStation version in the pipeline at any point?

No, Summerland was something that I made exclusively for the PC. I knew that the audience I have… they were mostly going to play this game on the PC.

Right, that makes sense. Moving onto Summerland, it has these themes of morality, specifically –  is an action still ‘bad’ if the motivations behind it are noble, and so on. What was the inspiration behind the story? Any other games or tv shows?

Well, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ve probably picked it up already, but The Good Place was a big inspiration behind making this game. Seeing the scenes where Chidi teaches the concepts of ethics and moral philosophy to Eleanor, I knew I really wanted to put that stuff in there. I wanted the hallway in Summerland too; I didn’t even have the whole story at that point, but I knew I wanted it in there, so I went ahead and set up the hallway scene.

The hallway scene from Summerland showing a series of locked doors, each one a 'trial' that shows you a portion of your past within.

A series of locked doors, each with a slice of your past within
Image Credit: FYRE Games

There are other references too, the first shot has the words “Remain Calm!” on the wall in front of you; that’s a combined reference to The Good Place and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m a musician too – I composed the music for Summerland under the name ‘Auric Echoes’ –

Sorry to interrupt – that was you?

(Conner lets out a light laugh, slightly amused. He probably gets this a lot).

Yeah, that was me. I put my records as objects in the game too. At the police precinct in Summerland, there are name plates on desks and such inspired by people I know in real life, or people I admire from shows.

Left: The first shot of Summerland
Right: The Good Place, a show that also has its own take on the afterlife

Can you tell us a bit more about how your development process has evolved compared to your previous works?

With each game that came before it, I learnt a lot that I was able to apply to the development of Summerland. I scaled back my ambition for this project and maintained reasonable expectations, and I feel that helped me make the story shorter and more gripping, better in terms of quality too. I was able to focus on what mattered in this way. It really helped me develop my skills.

I love making games, so it never feels like a chore or a task to me. I would keep working on it for hours and wouldn’t even realize how much time had passed. It’s a passion, and I genuinely enjoy doing it.

What was the best experience you had while making Summerland, a moment that made you go ‘aha, this was all worth it!’ Also, what is something that you would have liked to do differently?

One of the most positive experiences I had while developing Summerland came after we had wrapped up the voice acting. So, I put in some extra money for the voice acting because it was really important to this game, and the response I had to the auditions was amazing. Several industry veterans showed up too, it was just great. We had a ton of auditions, and the actors were finally cast, and the dialogue recorded and implemented in the game. ‘Til that point, I had the environments ready, the gameplay too, but no dialogue. When I could finally hear the voice acting in the game itself, the whole experience felt complete. I knew in that moment that this was something special.

(Conner pauses to laugh again; this time, it’s quieter, laced with self-awareness and just a touch of embarrassment; it’s almost as if we were in on a secret.)

As for the other thing, well, I’m a very anxious person. I put a lot of stress on myself to make sure that my work is the best it could be, that everything is perfect.

(Even though I’m sitting in my room all by myself, I nod my head, as if we’re having this conversation in-person.)

I understand completely, that’s relatable. We certainly need to learn how to take it easy. Any other hobbies that help you relax?

Like I said before, I’m a musician; I made the music for Summerland and released the soundtrack separately too. So yeah, that’s something I want to continue with.

What games have you been playing this quarantine? Any must-plays that got you through the tough times?

Oh, funny story there. When you release a game on Steam, you need to pay a $100 developer’s fee; so far, I always paid that using Steam Cards. I’d buy a bunch of them and then use them to pay the fee. I did the same thing for Summerland, but then I found out I couldn’t complete the payment because they had discontinued the use of Steam Cards for paying it. So basically, I was left with $100 worth of Steam cards. I ended up buying around 20 games during the Steam sale. I got Inside (loved Limbo, so had to play this one too), Little Nightmares, the Metro games (haven’t played any of them yet).

Those are a couple of great Indie titles on your playlist there.

Definitely. I feel like Indie devs aren’t restricted by this need to fulfil players’ expectations in terms of providing massive open-world environments or tons of activities to engage in. They can take risks in terms of story, gameplay and do things major studios wouldn’t be willing to. I understand, big studios have their own limitations, so it’s better to stick to a proven, safer formula. But yes, indie titles are among my favourites. I loved Virginia, Firewatch – they were my inspiration behind Summerland – and What Remains of Edith Finch is my personal favourite, it’s a masterpiece.

Agreed, love all of them, and Firewatch is my personal favourite. Could you tell us about any upcoming projects? Any final thoughts?

I’m working on my music right now, so maybe an album – no definite release date at the moment though. In terms of games, I’m in the very early stages of exploring some ideas. All I can say is that it’s something very different compared to what I’ve done before, a completely new direction.

Thanks a lot for having me, I love interacting with the community. It’s wonderful. At the end of the day, I’m just a college kid trying to get my ideas out there. It feels great when you find me inspiring or love my work. Thanks for that!

That sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for your time, Conner. A college student who’s already putting out games and has more ideas in the pipeline – that’s honestly inspiring, not just for budding game devs but anyone who wants a lesson in following their passion. I can’t wait for more games from you. Good luck with all your future projects!

Summerland is out now (and free to play) on Steam and itch.io.

Thank you for joining us at Gamer’s Waypoint! Which is your favourite indie gem on Steam? Let us know in the comments below. While you’re here, why not check out our Twitter page and latest YouTube video?

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