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ZAMBONI SIMULATOR 2019: An Examination of Existential Nihilism as it Pertains to Ice Resurfacing (By Marmot.Games)
(Content Warning: Discussions of Divorce, Suicide, Self-harm, Substance abuse, assault, domestic abuse, Depression)

Zamboni Simulator was a particularly memorable entry in the Philosophy Game Jam that took place earlier this month. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a man’s psyche threatening to swerve off course as he slowly pieces his life back together, and a reflection on resisting temptation and impulsive behavior.

After writing about the piece in our round-up, we reached out to the creators Scott Thunelius & Aaron Hecht for the following interview

REBIND: Why’d you choose the philosophy game jam? 

SCOTT & AARON: We initially had the rough idea for the game before we found a fitting jam. The concept for the game stemmed from me going to a minor league hockey game and watching the Zamboni drivers do their thing and thinking “This is a lot like those German simulator games, I wonder if that exists!” It didn’t, and so after a flurry of texts we decided to fill that niche. The original idea was to go hyper-realistic like they do, but that turned out to be quite unfeasible given the time constraints of the jam.

REBIND: Tell us a little bit about yourselves as developers, your inspirations and influences. 

SCOTT: I’ve been in the games industry for 16 years. I’m currently a developer at Unknown Worlds working on the game Subnautica Below Zero. I love all types of games especially simulators which you can see influences of in ZS19.

AARON: I’m not really a game developer, professionally. I did all the writing and a lot of the assistant/coordinating work and some of the asset implementation, but mostly I just enjoy writing as a hobby. For the writing, Camus was a big influence. I read The Stranger to prepare for this project, and read a bit of existentialist and nihilist philosophy. There are a few subtle nods in the game to famous Nihilists.

REBIND: Zamboni Simulator 2019 is.. quite the mouthful, how’d the concept come to be when you set out on participation in the Jam? 

AARON: We had been playing a lot of Farm Simulator 2017 and then 2019. It’s a great time sink. But me being a storyteller, I was always disappointed that there was no story element, no character progression. You can do missions and all that, but it never means anything. So I decided that what I wanted was a Simulator game that had a story. A meaning. It was not coincidental that our “meaningful story” is about meaninglessness, which can sort of be applied to the Simulator genre as a whole. 

REBIND: The narration is one of the strongest parts of the game, writing aside; not only did you put together an incredibly authentic portrait of a struggling working class individual, the acting here really sells it. How’d you find the right actor in such a short span of time?

AARON: Thank you! The voice actor is just a bit of good luck, honestly. Originally I was in contact with a friend who has an excellent voice but no real acting experience. Unfortunately he had to drop out somewhat last minute due to a family emergency. Luckily, my cousin Daniel is an aspiring voice actor. I gave him a quick summary and it was right up his alley. The guy’s got a dark enough sense of humor to understand our character, along with the intrinsic millennial ennui, so it just fit. He was able to craft our main character’s voice in about 5 minutes! We recorded all the dialogue at my house in a couple hours with minimal coaching, the kid’s a star. My roommate then mixed it all and we were set. Sometimes living in LA has its advantages, creative people abound!

REBIND: There’s a bit of “The Mechanics Is The Message” parallelism at play here, the very act of resurfacing the ice is reflective, along with the empty arena acting as an auditorium for the main character’s monologues. The game really establishes itself on multiple levels, how much of that is intentional versus a happy coincidence?

AARON: Almost all of it was intentional in some way or another. We were constantly tweaking the ideas, constantly playing around with the meanings. The original idea was to resurface in a crowd, but it’s so much more in line with the message when he does it alone and in the dark. In the first chapter, walking through the tunnel, a bright flash. It’s death, and here you are. In limbo. Sisyphus reborn as a Zamboni driver.

REBIND: The writing is obviously very intimate in how well structured and real it is to the point where the game almost has a documentary overtone. Is the main character a composite of people you’ve known throughout your life, or did you come to this from more of a Cinéma vérité angle?

AARON: The structure was very important to us. Our original idea was to tell the story almost randomly. You’d get out on to the ice and a random bit of remembrance would play. That ended up being a concept that worked better on paper. We decided to tell the story in a structured non-linear sense. The remembrances seem almost random because they’re happening out of chronological order, but they make sense inside the context of what you know, or at least what we’ve implied. We worked hard not to overwhelm the player too quickly. I have a bad tendency to lore-dump on players. Scott is great at reigning me in there. My girlfriend Kari helped me write a few of the sections, a couple of the harder ones for me to write, and was an immense help in setting up some of the main character’s flaws. Our main character is not really an amalgamation of anyone I know, but I did draw a little from The Stranger in inspiration. Our guy is more rash and emotional, but I wanted him to also be wistful and reflective.

REBIND: There’s clearly a lot of production value put into this. You managed to pack an immense amount of content into such a small game in an even smaller development window, how did you make all of this come together so effectively?

SCOTT: I’ve done this for so many years I’m pretty good at knowing time scales and planning what’s realistic and what’s not. We sat down and planned out the project well before we wrote a single line or code or dialogue. That really helped us get in all the content we wanted — there was no mid-stream decisions to be made. We just churned out the game we planned.

AARON: This is 90% because Scott is a pro. I just did what I was told. It was a few 12 hour days of “No those footsteps are too crunchy! Find less crunchy footsteps!”

REBIND: The music is particularly phenomenal, how intentional was the audio design and use of the soundtrack?

AARON: Completely and totally intentional! I am so glad you like the music. I had originally planned to try composing something myself but I am way too much of an amateur to have been able to either reach the quality or hit the deadline. When I realized that I was going to need to find music, Scott pointed me to a game dev subreddit. I put up a post, I replied to a couple guys and asked for some submissions. I told them minimalist music was our theme and pointed them to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies & Gnossiennes for inspiration. What they returned to me was just beyond any expectation. True heroes. Both of them came up with their pieces in less than a day!

REBIND: The game reads as exhaustively cynical at times, which fits the theme; was there a specific message you were trying to convey? 

AARON: Well, I am not a nihilist. No one working on this game is, I don’t think. So it was sort of hard for me to leave it at “Yep nothing matters, have a good day. Or don’t because it doesn’t matter.” So I think my message was a mix of nihilism with a little absurdity of life. Maybe it all does matter? If it matters to you, why is that not good enough? I think that might be the end message of the game, “As long as what you’re doing matters to you then it matters.”

REBIND: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!

SCOTT: Thanks so much! Glad you liked the game

AARON: Thank you for the interview! I was so excited to hear people actually understood the game, and even like it!

Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice