Words by David C. Obenour
Fear of the unknown lives strongly within each of us. When things are known, mystery is shone in light and with it comes understanding. But no canvas is more blank for horrors real, imaginary, and those lurking just beyond our imagination than the darkness. Anything could exist inside of there.
Playing with this primal fear is Smirk and Dagger’s latest game, The Night Cage – designed by Chris Chan, Chris McMahon and Roswell Saunders. Players awaken to find themselves inside an unknowable labyrinth. Hallways illuminate, darken and reappear – shifted and twisted from the time before. The only source of hope is a flickering light on a melting candle. Will you and your fellow outcasts be able to locate the keys and meet back at the gate in time? Or will the darkness and all the horrors within consume you first?
Off Shelf: I’m always interested in the initial inspiration for a game. With The Night Cage, what thoughts first sparked the concept for your game?
Chris Chan: Like many of the better creative concepts that advertising people come up with, this one came out of good conversation and a long lunch. I’d love to offer a more high minded answer than burgers and beers, but those are the moments that let a group of minds wander down some strange pathways in search of a side project. Advertising creatives are always looking for a side project and that search often feels like getting lost in an ever changing maze of ideas.
Chris McMahon: So the question of if you could do a solipsistic board game, where only what you can see actually exists, just sort of tumbled out of our weird conversations.
Roswell Saunders: It really helped that our lunch spot had square coasters to play with when the concept of a literal ever changing maze of ideas and observations came up. The game took on a life of its own from there.
OS: I want to ask a few questions about music and The Night Cage. Before getting to the music that you made with Massive Music, I wanted to talk about some of your own inspirations. The art and setting for Night Cage feels straight out of the liner notes of a metal album – were there any albums or artists that you took thematic inspiration from?
CC: There were a lot of iterations to the art direction with plenty of artists referenced but none of them were metal albums. It’s a bit ironic considering how much metal both Chrises listen to. Stanley Donwood’s illustration for “The Eraser” by Thom Yorke is the only album cover on the early moodboards. That said, here are a few other artists whose work also helped shape our vision in no particular order: Nico Delort, Carl Krull, Sky Kim, Lynd Ward, Hiromu Arakawa, Junji Ito, Kentaro Miura, Atelier Van Lieshout, Edward Gorey, and John Kenn.
As for the music you worked on with Massive Music – how did this partnership begin?
CM: Part of our shared advertising background is that we’re always around other creative people with a variety of skills. Elijah Torn has been a friend and collaborator of ours for years. He had expressed an interest in doing music for The Night Cage even in the very early stages of development. Obviously he’s an experienced and talented composer, but he also understood the game’s theme and narrative completely. It was also an excellent opportunity to incorporate original experimental guitar work from David Torn.
OS: What did you hope the original score would add to the game? Having then heard it as tracks approached their final mixes, was there anything you were surprised to find it added to your experience of the game?
CM: Part of what drew Elijah and Massive Music to the project was the challenge. A score for a movie is synchronized to the picture, and a score for a digital game is programmed to respond to what the player is doing. But for a board game, the game state can’t interact with the score.
We spent a great deal of time arranging, testing, and re-arranging the score so that it tracked with The Night Cage’s consistent narrative arc of increasing tension. The result is for most playthroughs, players are at the point in the soundtrack that was designed for the “phase” of the game they’re in.
And even though the soundtrack technically doesn’t know that you just made a dramatic move on the board, it remarkably manages one or two really well timed musical stings in every game we’ve played with it.
I’m probably forgetting something, so feel free to draw info from the conversation between Chris McMahon and Elijah Torn if you haven’t seen it already.
OS: Outside of music, what other inspirations from cinema or art did you build on?
CC: We all watch too much anime and own a bit of manga. While it wasn’t a deliberate choice, it’s impossible for us to ignore the inspiration that we took from Fullmetal Alchemist and Berserk for some of the monsters. It gets a little bit thornier from there with three designers. You’d think Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves would be higher on this list but some of us only just finished the book this year.
CM: That’s mostly because whenever we get a copy, it mysteriously goes missing.
CC: The same applies to movies like Cube – the similar headspace is clear but not all of us have seen it at the time of this writing.
OS: You created a really creepy setting and equally creepy monsters with very sparse and hidden art and minimal explanation. How do you rely on the unknown when it comes to The Night Cage? How do you balance giving enough but not too much?
CC: The scariest thing about the dark is knowing that you don’t know something. So from a mechanical and an artistic point of view, the challenge was how we should frame what players do know and what they don’t.
Mechanically, the center of a tile laying game is the act of placing a tile. Players know they will place tiles and where, but they don’t know what they will be. So hope and fear coexist every time they reveal a tile. Will it be a key or a monster this time? Furthermore, by imposing the constraint that they would only ever see and place one tile at a time, we intended to create a structure that felt like turning an unknown corner with every draw.
Artistically, it was important to represent the threats that prisoners faced with a visual language appropriate to their situation. The black and white art direction is a restriction of information rooted in the idea that the human eye does not process color well in the dark. Without color, there is more room for the imagination to fill in the gaps with a more personal type of dread. The same principle applies to our monster design. For example, while the swirling silhouettes of the wax eaters are easy enough to recognize as game icons, they are also meant to make a player wonder what they really look like. Given the right prompt, any player can scare themself more than we can.
OS: Did any of how you play or think about The Night Cage change after the depths of isolation, uncertainty and to some degree, fear that came from the last year of the pandemic?
RS: If only we could have designed the game that fast! We had the idea for the game in late 2017 and its world was well-developed by the time we started submitting it around to contests in 2018-2019. By vilifying the darkness, we wanted to tap into a timeless, primordial type of fear. The pandemic definitely made certain elements of it feel much closer to home, from a player’s standpoint, but as designers in 2020 our biggest fear was simply getting the game out there in that environment.
OS: I’m always impressed with games that can create a “wow” factor without the heavy pricetag of numerous miniatures. Can you talk about how you first came up with the concept of the candle tile holder? From early concepts to figuring out the logistics of mass production.
CM: It was a practical choice at first. Have you ever tried to stack 70+ chipboard tiles? It doesn’t work so well. Early prototypes experimented with a blind draw bag, but it didn’t take long for us to seek a less component-damaging and more thematic solution.
CC: We always knew that tiles represented wax on the candle. After we made the first prototype, we saw an opportunity to save ourselves that explanation. It quickly took on the silhouette of a candle. That said, the earlier iterations were kind of flimsy. Thankfully, I have an architect in my life and Jennifer Ng problem-solved the structural issue for us. After that, it was just a matter of making sure it was tall enough to fit everything and short enough to fit in the box.
OS: That said, you also created a small run of metal miniatures that beautifully encapsulated the early days of D&D minis. Can you talk about concepting and creating those?
CC: We wanted players to see their own features in the shadows of the prisoners’ faces. By stripping the prisoners of individual identities, the intent was a more personal kind of connection between prisoners and players. Of course, different silhouettes and costumes are really useful tools to communicate whose avatar is whose. This put a lot of emphasis on the poses of the minis. I looked at a lot of Rodin and other highly emotive sculptors to develop a gestural language that felt right.
RS: Since we collaborated with a team in Poland to sculpt these minis, Chris needed to make a fairly precise series of drawings for them. We hear there are a bunch of funny looking reference photos of Chris contorting himself into these poses, but he won’t show them to us.
OS: What aspect of the game added by your fellow designers excited you the most?
RS: In a collaborative process like ours, there’s almost no concept or mechanic that goes completely untouched by the others. But a few things stick out as memories from our development.
We used to have player elimination (cue gasps and boos) when prisoners were attacked by monsters, but then Chris McMahon realized that wax consumption was a more deliciously painful punishment for the group.
CC: Ross was an early proponent of Pits and Pit Jumping. We were trying to prevent a player from getting “stuck” in the maze, and Pits gave us that while also providing an exciting high-risk, high reward mobility option.
CM: Nerve came about when Chris Chan pushed for us to evolve the action economy for players. After a few rounds of messing with card or hand management, we discovered the part we wanted the most was the ability to move faster and change the tempo of our turns. Thus, Nerve was born as a simple personal currency for actions in The Night Cage.
IS: Either through expansions or other games – or even completely other media – in the same universe, do you find yourself wanting to explore this world further? Any idea on what that would look like?
CM: It’s always tricky to expand on a concept that’s rooted in uncertainty and mystery. One of the things that makes the theme so compelling is how much it invites the players to fill in the blanks with their own fears. Further explorations of this universe have to keep those spaces open for the audience to project themselves.
That said…none of us are done with The Night Cage yet.