ITTA Interview: Art Out of Darkness

Published: Saturday, April 18, 2020 - 12:00 | By: Trevor Whalen
From the Depths of Despair Comes Great Beauty in ITTA

If you haven’t heard of ITTA, be sure to give the indie twin-stick shooter a look. The developer Jacob Williams was at a low point in his life, which included a stay at a psychiatric ward, when ITTA was forged. Built on themes of despair, darkness, loneliness, and hope—even when hope doesn’t make sense—ITTA is the outpouring of a soul lost in dark times.

The unrelenting waves of life's challenges are perhaps best represented by the waves of bosses and bullets: ITTA is a bullet-hell game. But as I learned from Williams, it’s much more than that. 

 
 

Out of the Struggle: Releasing Personal Pain Into ITTA

Personal experience informs art, and when that personal experience is one of intense struggle, the passion comes through all the stronger.

“I started thinking and working on the game at the lowest point of my life which I think shows in the game's tone and story,” said Williams. “Prior to game development I was attempting (failing) to make it in the film industry and I was generally surrounded by people that I wished weren't there. 

“For several years I felt a constant loneliness even though there were others around me. This definitely manifested itself into the game's overworld. Other characters can be found and spoken to pretty frequently but I don't think players [will] ever not feel a sense of loneliness[.]”

There are several NPCs around, but, from what I understand, you don’t feel enough connection to dispel the loneliness. We are all in times right now where we can relate to loneliness and disconnection. ITTA is coming just in time.

ITTA skull structure
Much of ITTA's world mirrors Williams' feelings and personal struggles.

On a practical note, I asked Williams how the development of the game actually took off. When you’re submerged in personal darkness and have just been in a psychiatric ward, how do you start building a game?

“I started writing an outline for what I hoped would be a novella, Itta. … [Then] in early January 2017 I ended up going to the hospital and spent several days in the psychiatric ward," Williams said. "While there I began realizing that I wasn't the same person that I used to be and definitely not the person that I wanted to be. That's when I decided to turn Itta into a video game and pursue game development. With the help of my partner, Emily, I quit my job and we moved in with my parents so that I could begin working on the game with less of a financial burden.”

The process was rough at the start. Williams still worked a full-time job and struggled to overcome bad habits formed during the years prior. But his journey was marked by improvement, and it was mirrored in the game: “As my mental state became more positive so did the game.”

I wanted to know more specifics behind Williams’ self-realization as a game developer. Despite trying to make it in film, he heard a calling in game development. His new focus brought him out of the darkness that had been plaguing him. But why games? Why didn’t film save him?

 

“I had been playing around with Game Maker Studio for a few years at that point. Just small things here and there but I would always stop, telling myself that I needed to focus on film because that's what I had put the past decade into achieving. Doing anything else just didn't seem like an option. For years I had stopped making decisions myself and just let others make choices for me. 

“It wasn't until hitting my rock bottom that it became clear that I was in control and I could do exactly what I wanted, and what I wanted was to make video games. It had been a long time since I felt passionate about anything and feeling that about my work definitely helped me begin to feel good about my life again.”

The turn from film to video games meant Williams was a new person. With films he wasn’t realizing his inner vision—he continued running into frustrations. As a game developer, he found the outlet he needed, and as a one-person developer he must practice enormous dedication. ITTA is a labor of passion.

From Person Hell Comes Bullet Hell

ITTA combat action
Use different weapons and attack-styles to rush bosses amidst a flurry of bullets in ITTA.

Why a bullet-hell game? Turns out while some inspirations are complex others are simple.

 

“I was playing a lot of Enter the Gungeon and Nuclear Throne at the time and... well that's it haha.” 

But Zelda also played a role, Williams said.

“My original thought was that I wanted an adventure similar to Zelda 1 with the chaos and fun of twin-stick bullet-hell games. Later it became a boss rush when I realized how much more enjoyable the bosses were to fight than the normal enemies throughout the overworld.”

The player-character, Itta, is a small, hooded figure. She is joined by the ghost of her late family's cat. This character duo was inspired by an intersection of Williams’ personal state, artistic interests, and game design technicalities.

“I didn't really think about it at the time, but it makes sense for where I was I think. Itta is a small, physically weak child that in most situations couldn't have [any] effect on the world around her, but because of the situation she has to push past those assumptions. I also watch a lot of anime so the tropes tend to fall into my work... 

“As for the cat, I have two dogs and feel that pretty much everything is more bearable with them around. So having a small companion for the sake of companionship seemed like a nice idea. As for it being a 'ghost' cat, I couldn't spend any more time on trying to make the pathfinding look natural so I made it float... Definitely worked out for the best though.”

Much of the inspiration behind this game is personal, but sometimes things are made just because it works.

Even with these game design workarounds shaping some of the game, ITTA is foremost a window into Williams’ soul.

“I would say pretty much everything in the story and characters has some root in my life. For however fantastical, the game is about how I feel/felt. It's about displacement, death, hatred, and apathy but it's also about hoping for something better and trying to make that something better happen... even if it doesn't.

“Originally while I did want ITTA to be fun, it was a pretty grim game. It had almost no levity and certainly wasn't hopeful. As I began to feel better about my life, it didn't feel okay to keep the game as dark as it was. I didn't take anything out but I built on top of what I already had, adding moments of joy or hope to the game, generally moments analogous to my something [sic] I had experienced recently.”

While I portend I would be nothing but hopeless in a challenging bullet-hell game, it’s inspiring to know that, in real life, we can always find hope.

A Perfect Motto

ITTA dialogue
Layered in the world of ITTA are themes of loneliness, despair, and hope.

ITTA is Williams’ art piece wholly: His struggle, his story, and his new calling in life all formed it. Being unbridled in his outpouring of personal style is Williams' mission. Read the Glass Revolver, Williams' company, motto on ITTA’s website: “Inspired by everything from manga to Italian gardens, [Jacob Williams] aims to deliver eclectic games that are uncompromising in their bizarre vision.” 

I had to ask Williams about this beautifully put motto.

“I think the main word I want to focus on for all my games is "uncompromising,'" he said. "I want them to be exactly what I intended. When I was an aspiring filmmaker, I let the influence of others water down my ideas and work until I felt nothing for them anymore and generally no one else felt anything for them either. At the end of the day I just want to be happy with what I make. That way, regardless of how others feel, I'll know where I stand.”

To get an uncompromised reflection of Williams’ personal struggles and his journey through despair guided by hope, check out ITTA when it launches on Switch and PC April 22.


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I am a lifelong, enthusiastic gamer, freelance writer and editor, blogger, and Thief FM aficionado. I think that exploration-heavy, open-ended first-person games are the best vehicle for story-telling, with the finest Thief missions leading the pack.