This interview for "Vintage to Retro" is with Yellow Swerve, a game designer and WR holder for several extended category speedruns for Ultrakill. We explore how Ultrakill is a special kind of FPS—one with vertically oriented platforming and fast, brutal combat, but also tremendous speedrunning potential; we also delve into platforming, or a lack thereof, in other shooter titles, including Survival Horror.
"From Vintage to Retro" interviews FPS players and developers. In terms of vintage FPS, the series covers includes single-player "Doom clones" and Build titles; to multiplayer frag-fests like Doom deathmatch, Quake arenas, and Unreal Tournament(s); to "pure," arcade-style shooters, "looter shooters" and FPS-RPG hybrids. In terms of retro FPS, it examines Dusk, Ion Fury and Prodeus, as well as Nightdive Studios' latter-day revival of classic FPS.
Click here to access the entire series and read about its research goals.
Nick: Hi, I'm Nick van der Waard. A Gothic ludologist, I write about horror in videogames. My specialty is Metroidvania, but I also research FPS.
Yellow Swerve, can you tell us more about yourself in terms of your game design work?
Yellow Swerve: So I'm a CS: Game Design major at UCSC, and I'm currently doing my senior capstone. The past games I've worked on are a music game, a bullet hell focused around music and currently a cooking game where you cook through combat. You can find most of my game design stuff on itch. My main focus for design work is level design, UI/UX design and just gameplay design in general.
Nick: Sounds like you've really dipped your toes in a lot of different game design aspects so far.
Yellow Swerve: Yep! I've also done sound/music for a couple of my games. I also totally left out that I contributed a pretty good amount to a Super Mario World romhack called Super Mario /v/orld 2. All of my significant projects so far have been made with other people. Working with different people means I have to kinda fill in whatever roles that are needed along with design stuff.
Nick: As far as your speedrunning accomplishes are concerned, you're a WR holder in Ultrakill, specifically in the All P-ranks subcategories. Were you a speedrunner before you played Ultrakill?
Yellow Swerve: I casually speedran a couple games. I think my first was a Punch-out!-style game called Pato Bax. With Pato Box I was [also] the WR holder, but I pretty quickly lost interest in the game and stopped running it all together. That game is also considerably smaller than Ultrakill. And after that a little bit of Mega Man X6, as well as some Super Mario World. All [these runs were] really casual, and none of those games really stuck with me.
The rest of the interview is divided into four main sections:
- Sui Generis
- Vintage and Retro FPS
- Survival Horror
Nick: To determine what makes Ultrakill sui genesis (re: "constituting a class alone," unique), I've outlined a series of points for us to explore: no hitscanners; a full arsenal at all times; no pickups; and vertical world design.
My research is partly focused on new, evolving types of FPS. Ultrakill seems like an excellent title to study in that respect; it feels pretty unique when compared to vintage/retro FPS.
Yellow Swerve: I would certainly agree that Ultrakill is the perfect candidate. Being a game design major myself, I've studied lots of FPS and Ultrakill is like nothing I've ever played before.
I wouldn't necessarily consider Ultrakill to be "vintage" or "retro" by a more strict definition, though. The only thing it really has in common with older FPS is the visuals. It breaks a lot of traditions with health, stamina, ammo and weapon loadouts. However it is a very fast paced game that has been deconstructed quite a bit and really encourages players to play as fast as possible.
Nick: Ultrakill features no hitscanners. Its open-area, arena-style gameplay would be impossible because you'd need cover to avoid their undodgeable attacks. Hitscanners usually require patient strategies like door fighting (re: bottlenecks). In his Wolfenstein 3D review, Civvie mentions kiting enemies into a bottleneck to survive. I used a similar strategy in Far Cry 1 on realistic mode.
What do you enjoy about not needing cover in Ultrakill?
Yellow Swerve: Mainly the freedom I get and how I can express myself through the combat. Self-expression has always been a big thing for me in the games I play. So being able to express myself as much as I want and still realistically make it out of every fight is really satisfying in Ultrakill.
Nick: Is there anything to recommend about claustrophobic levels, but also using doors and walls for cover in a platforming-heavy game like Ultrakill?
Yellow Swerve: With the movement options given I don't think there's any reason to need to take cover at all, which adds to the game's appeal. There's never downtime where you just have to wait to do things; you can always be on the offensive and honestly kind of need to be, which encourages all level sizes. I really prefer some of the smaller ones, though; it makes you think a lot more about how you're going to navigate the area you're in, and take on its enemies.
Nick: So, there's no cover in the game, but you still don't want too much space?
Yellow Swerve: Ultrakill does explore some bigger levels, but to me the bigger arenas usually end up feeling like several smaller arenas that share the same space (my view might be skewed a bit since I speedrun the game, though).
Nick: Are there any levels in Ultrakill that feel too empty for their size, or is there generally always enough enemies?
Yellow Swerve: Personally I feel like there's always more than enough enemies. The grandest level is probably 2-1, "Bridgeburner," and even that level feels really populated with enemies.
Nick: Slowly upgrading your arsenal is an FPS staple. How does this work in Ultrakill, and does it do a good job of acclimating new players to secondary attacks and combos?
Yellow Swerve: So in Ultrakill the player only starts out with the default "Piercer" pistol and then slowly gets the main weapons as they progress: pistol, then shotgun, then nail gun, then rail cannon. After that, the game allows you to buy their variations the level after they're obtained. Currently they receive their final base weapon eleven levels in. There's also a secret weapon to be found as well.
I'm honestly not to sure on the teaching part of this one though. I personally found it very easy to learn how to use all the weapons and their alternate attacks, but I know some newer players will get the nailgun and just stick to that the entire game (despite it being potentially the weakest of all the weapons). I feel like the game pushes players towards more creative play but some will stick to what they think is good.
The game doesn't force use you to use a particular weapon to survive on hardest difficulties; the player could beat the game with the pistol if they wanted to.
Nick: Is there a shop system you can access in between levels? How does one accrue wealth to make purchases?
Yellow Swerve: You get style points that you can use at shops at the start of each level to buy the weapon variations [editor's note: This concept can be traced all the way back to scrolling shooters like Bloodmoney]. The blue versions are the defaults and the other colors you buy. They're just different takes on the same base weapon pretty much.
Nick: Doesn't Ultrakill introduce the player to new arm upgrades so you progress? Is the arm different than weapons, and can you swap it out during the level like a Doom weapon mod?
Yellow Swerve: The arm is treated as just another weapon in your arsenal, any time during gameplay you can switch between the two once the second one is obtained. It's functionally the arm opposite your gun hand, allowing your character to attack with the weapon arm and their gun simultaneously.
Nick: Does your character have any innate abilities they can perform from the start of the game, or is wall-jumping only something you can do so many levels in?
Yellow Swerve: Sliding, dashing, dash jumping, ground pounding and wall jumping are all things you have right out the gate. There's a myriad of other things you can do using all of these things, but they're all more advanced tech the game doesn't ever explain.
Nick: Does the level design complement these abilities, allowing for the player to move in different ways while using their weapons, to help keep things fresh?
Yellow Swerve: Very much so. It's one of the big reasons I love the game. And while the levels aren't designed around some of the advanced tech, it still feels very natural to use this tech in a lot of the levels.
No Pickups / Verticality
Nick: There's not always a lot to compare to with older games, but I did notice a funny distant similarity with Wolfenstein 3D to Ultrakill. Ultrakill features no pickups, so the player heals by standing in blood; in Wolfenstein, you can heal standing on viscera, but only if your health is below 10%.
In your mind, what did Ultrakill borrow from to become an FPS without pickups?
Yellow Swerve: I can't find too many similarities to older games either except for the linear level design. I know Doom 2016 had a glory kill system—slow and not super fun, but still necessary. I believe, this inspired the faster heal mechanic in Ultrakill.
Nick: FPS diverged away from older genres by making speed and vacuum-style movement central. Move, shoot, pick up shit. Newer FPS are started to forsake pickups. Doom Eternal, for example, forces the player to treat enemies as health, armor, and ammo (re: glory kills, chainsaw, and flame belch).
Conversely Ultrakill totally excises armor and ammo. There is only health, and the player heals by standing in blood. Does the combat loop feel simplistic in relation to the level design; or does it avoid feeling like a resource farm? If so, how?
Yellow Swerve: I would say that any FPS combat loop is extremely simplistic. It always boils down to: don't get shot and shoot things. But making those things feel good and fun is a whole different story.
I think Ultrakill does this very well. Instead of making you stop your momentum to finish an enemy off, you just blast 'em and keep moving. You simply collect health along the way. The verticality and speed of things helps make encounters feel very dynamic, despite making you keep track of numerous things at the same time. And thanks to "hard damage" being a thing (re: lowering your max health as you take damage), you can't just "face tank" every source of damage and heal it back; you have to be somewhat smart about your approaches.
Nick: Zero hitscanners or pickups strips Ultrakill of unessential systems. And yet, the outcome isn't a horizontal shooter with nothing to do but shoot. Ultrakill combat occurs in a game world where vertical movement shaped the design of the game in uniquely refreshing ways.
Why do you think Ultrakill succeeds at combining platforming and combat better than so many other FPS, despite not having pickups at all? Would pickups "ground" the game, do you think?
Yellow Swerve: It succeeds in combining platforming and combat so well because it puts all the style in the player's hands. If you can't do stylish things, they simply won't happen. Traditional pickups would turn it into every other shooter, where you just run around at a distance picking off enemies slowly. Players would likely still be jumping around a lot, but the gameplay would go from in-your-face and violent, to pussyfooting around things until they're dead.
Nick: The real achievement from Ultrakill—incorporating verticality and platforming meaningfully through all aspects of gameplay—has yet to be achieved by id Studios. Quake allows for jumping, but bunny-hopping and rocket jumping feel emergent: discovered by players, but not necessarily reflective of how developers expected players to navigate their gameworld. Classic Doom has no Y axis; Doom 2016 felt fairly compartmentalized and grounded; and Doom Eternal allows for a much more mobile player, but can't incorporate platforming into the entire game.
Why do you think cohesive platforming as been so illusive for id, when Metroid Prime allowed for solid platforming and FPS gameplay all the way back in 2002?
Yellow Swerve: I don't think id are incapable, but they know that it'll be too much for the average player. I haven't played any Eternal and barely played 2016, but I can say that Metroid Prime was focused on slow exploration. You never had to make fast decisions, so the platforming and combat fit together because combat was usually just clearing hazards that were out of the player's way. There's barely any combat during platforming sections, and when there is you usually just sit in one place and hope you don't fall. It really wasn't done well at all, but it wasn't done badly either.
The Metroid Prime team knew the gameplay they were working with and worked around it. Ultrakill succeeds by allowing players to just skip enemies entirely during platforming sections, but [incentivizes combat by] making some enemies glorified "health packs" [the player needs to survive].
Nick: Do speedruns in Ultrakill feel unique compared to classic platformers and classic FPS that you've seen run?
Yellow Swerve: I would say they're unique in Ultrakill, but also feel familiar. Looking at classic FPS runs you see damage-boosting and health management, and you get a lot of the same things, here; the biggest difference is how movement is handled and where you get your health from.
Nick: Ultrakill was made for speedrunning as a FPS/platformer hybrid (whereas Super Metroid has shooting gameplay in a 2D side-scroller/parallax format). It invites the player to go faster, including an incredibly accurate timer, but also control schemes that encourage speedrunning behavior from both classic platformers and classic FPS.
If you were to compare Ultrakill speedruns to classic FPS and classic Metroidvania, does it feel more like one than the other?
Yellow Swerve: I think it depends on the category, but more than likely [Ultrakill feels more like] classic FPS. [Even so,] the "No Monsters" and "any%" categories are really focused on movement and getting through areas as efficiently as possible (with occasional combat thrown in). Currently P% emphasizes combat a lot more.
Nick: Do you find yourself doing a lot of glitches in your runs, or does Ultrakill give the player a lot of room to move fast in the gameworld?
Yellow Swerve: That's a tough question because it's really hard to define a "glitch." I would say we exploit some of the games mechanics to instantly kill a lot of things though—specifically bosses or any other major enemies.
Nick: I'd define glitch as something emergent, but could divide it further as "straight-up broken" and "using functions properly for unintended reasons." The straight-up broken stuff for me in FPS feels more like going out of bounds and skipping combat altogether.
Yellow Swerve: In the p% category there's very few OOBs (out-of-bounds) because you have to kill everything. The only one currently in the game is the current "final level" of the run. But in any% basically the entire run is OOB, haha!
Nick: I love the rank system in Ultrakill because it keeps the speedrunner inside the game world. The category is forming alongside what the developers designed. Does the combat itself feel "broken" or glitchy in your eyes? In other words, does what you're doing combat-wise feel outside what the developers ever allowed for, or could have predicted themselves?
Yellow Swerve: I think the damage output you can achieve at a high level is busted as shit, but I also don't see anything wrong with that due to how high the execution required for it is. I think what runners do is far beyond what the devs ever thought possible. Hakita doesn't speedrun the game himself, but is very aware of all the things we do and how quickly we clear rooms. He's more than happy to keep it all in. Most likely because it rewards players willing to learn and most of the time [these strats] won't be used by casual players.
Nick: I know the Doom Eternal devs were deliberately removing glitches and tricks found by speedrunners because they were interfering with the game's supposed Demon Invasion mode (that still hasn't shown up). Adding invisible walls. Stuff like that.
Yellow Swerve: I know sometimes devs don't like speedrunners because they break the game; [these devs] actively change things which is really unfortunate.
Vintage and Retro FPS
Nick: This section explores vintage and retro titles relative to the speedrunning and platforming aspects exemplified by Ultrakill. This ranges from id's Doom franchise to Half-Life to Deus Ex.
Nick: Doom Eternal gives the player way too many resources* without having to explore; conversely, a game like Ion Fury rewards exploration by granting the player armor bests and special power-ups they can't acquire from enemies: double damage, blast accelerator. These let the player "farm" armor shards from enemies by gibbing them.
*For more on this issue, read my critique "Spectating FPS Speedruns: Potential Pitfalls Exemplified by Doom Eternal."
You haven't played Ion Fury. But what sounds appealing about its intricate level design and resource systems? What's good rewarding players for being frugal or inquisitive, versus simply throwing resources at them?
Yellow Swerve: I personally like having exploration in traditional FPS because it encourages players to "just exist" in the environments a lot more. When it comes to running levels, this allows for a lot more interesting routing than, get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Runs are a lot more complicated because now you can account for more "damage boosts" [re: deliberately taking damage to boost your speed], or being about to clear out certain enemies faster by abusing AoE (area-of-effect) attacks.
Nick: More damage boosts because of pick-ups, a la the turkeys from Castlevania?
Yellow Swerve: Essentially. For more knowledgeable players in harder runs it also allows them to adapt to situations on the fly if they need more health or ammo at any given point [re: "backup strats" in case a main strategy fails].
Nick: You've played classic Doom extensively. What's appealing about a game where you can't even jump, compared to games like Ultrakill with their unprecedented mobility?
Yellow Swerve: To me, it's mainly how fast your ground speed is; your run speed is way too fast in classic Doom, and it's really fun to just zip around levels killing things and looking for secrets.
Nick: With classic Doom in particular, death is very bad; it starts you at the beginning of the current level without any of your guns. On one hand, this is a challenge players can subvert through the save system; on the other, accepting the challenge by not loading a previous save lets players trying to survive the current level with only the pickups they can find.
As long as the level design gives the player enough items to start a level naked, is this system one you approve of?
Yellow Swerve: Oh, definitely! And I think a lot of classic games were designed with this in mind. Serious Sam does the same thing and both games feel like their levels were very intentionally designed around only starting with a pistol.
Nick: Do you think this helps classic FPS runs, which cater more to individual level runs versus full game runs?
Yellow Swerve: Totally. It makes running a lot more accessible. Full-game runs are time consuming and stressful, while ILs you can practice for a few minutes and then stop if you need to. It's a lot harder to do that with a full game.
Half-life 1Nick: Half-life 1 is known for bringing the self-contained, cinematic-style narrative and silent protagonist to FPS games, but also platforming puzzles. What did you enjoy about the game's platforming puzzles, and how well did the platforming itself mesh with the game's FPS combat?
Nick: Xen is plagued with a number of issues that make it the worst part of the game for many. Does any of this have to do with the overreliance on platforming?
Yellow Swerve: I've only played Black Mesa, so I wouldn't know [about classic Xen.] But I know that Black Mesa did it amazingly well and the platforming there was really fun. I loved how fast it was, and how in control I felt the entire time. You could also do a lot of crazy movement tech with how speed was conserved, so it was fun just sliding around everywhere
Fallout 3 / New Vegas
Nick: What appeals to you most about Bethesda's Fallout games—the FPS mechanics, or the RPG elements?
Yellow Swerve: Definitely the RPG elements. The FPS mechanics have always felt terrible to me up until Fallout 4 (which had the worse RPG elements, unfortunately).
Nick: Do FPS and RPG elements feel mutually exclusive in your eyes?
Yellow Swerve: Not at all. Fallout 3 and New Vegas just have terrible feedback and gun feel. If you just slapped 4's gunplay into either of those they'd be amazing.
Nick: Speaking of FPS with RPG elements, have you played Deus Ex?
Yellow Swerve: Deus Ex (2000) is possibly one of the best RPGs FPS I've ever played, and I can't recommend it enough. I personally really dislike everything after the original; it felt the most intensive in terms of the Deus Ex formula.
Nick: Does the original Deus Ex have pretty good gunplay? Or does its endearing qualities strictly come more from its RPG elements?
Yellow Swerve: The gunplay is ok at best, but the freedom you're given to approach situations makes it easily avoidable. After the start of the game, I hardly used any ranged weapons besides the sniper rifle on occasion, and rockets; and it was always really clear when I was (or wasn't) hitting things.
Nick: Does stealth in Deus Ex mesh well with the FPS components, and is there enough room for platforming?
Yellow Swerve: For me, stealth was a big factor in Deus Ex. I never felt like failing to stealth was the end of the world, though; there was always some way out, regardless of the situation I got myself into. I thought there was a decent amount of platforming in Deus Ex (at least how I played the game, that is).
Nick: What makes this combination of stealth, platforming and guns so much better in the original Deus Ex than in the sequels?
Yellow Swerve: I felt a lot more freedom in the original. From the very little I've played of the sequels, they felt really streamlined and guided. In the original I felt like I was doing things "wrong" the entire game, but I absolutely loved it.
Nick: Most of the FPS we've examined have sci-fi and horror elements, including an isolated hero who must try and survive till the end. Sometimes this requires guns; sometimes platforming or RPG choices. But jumping seems to disappear in survival horror titles. This includes the System Shock series, including the remake; as well as Alien: Isolation and the Resident Evil series.
How big a role does jumping play in making FPS* less difficult, but also less scary? I guess what I mean is, if a player is less mobile, like Amanda Ripley—and faced with a monster who's very mobile—can having the player just as, or more mobile than, the monster make the experience less scary? I.e., being able to run circles around the enemy.
*This more of a question centered on shooter sequels like Dead Space 2, which make the player too mobile or powerful, gun-wise.
Yellow Swerve: In that scenario, yes, jumping makes FPS much less scary. An enemy is always a lot more scary when you can't outrun it; [a lack of player mobility] forces the player to play a lot more cautiously or get more creative with their escape maneuvers.
Nick: Do you think a game can still be scary when it's a highly mobile FPS? Can a game like Ultrakill be scary?
Yellow Swerve: To me? No to many many others? Yes. There's a certain secret stage that strips you of all your weapons except a pistol, and a huge number of players are terrified of it despite being able to move just as fast as always.
Nick: Do you think a game's monster design could creep you out at all, despite you being able to fill said creatures full of holes? Something like Pyramid Head, Mother Brain, or the Tyrant?
Yellow Swerve: It really depends on the mechanics of the game. Silent Hill and Resident Evil give you lots of weapons, but their restrictive movement makes things a lot more scary. Ultrakill is a total power trip at all times with its excessive movement, so I'm not sure if the game could scare me at all.
Nick: I recall feeling invincible in Super Metroid until Mother Brain paralyzed me. But it seems like a lot of FPS players hate being immobilized. How do you feel about enemies or areas that immobilize players in FPS?
Yellow Swerve: I love messing with power dynamics like that. A big recent example is the final boss of Risk of Rain 2 stripping you of all your powers and making them his own. Players hated, and still hate it, even after he got nerfed really hard. I still think it's one of the most memorable moments I've had with any game ever.
Nick: Though not strictly an FPS, do you feel Resident Evil worked best before they became more action intensive?
Yellow Swerve: For sure. I even think that RE2 took the action too far. I started with RE4-7 and then went back and played RE1 and Zero for the first time. RE1 was just a master work of horror that only the first half of RE7 and Zero could even compare too.
Nick: Are you referring to the 1996 version, or the 2002 Gamecube remake?
Yellow Swerve: Both, but more so the remake; it's nice how faithful the remake is to the original.
Nick: It really is the best classic RE game, though what did you think of RE4 with all its groovy 3rd person gunplay?
Yellow Swerve: It has a lot of nice touches and the animations are beautiful. I love how much Leon shakes when aiming. It's a very nice touch, RE4 is much more actiony but it hits some really nice balances between horror and action—especially with the Regenerators!
Nick: What are your thoughts on RE in the 1st person? Does it translate fairly well, or are there issues with the change in view relative to the survival horror action?
Yellow Swerve: I think it translates incredibly well. Especially with how RE7 handled things. If the game had fixed camera angles it would look and feel exactly like classic RE.
Nick: One of my favorite things about RE4 were all the ways the player could see Leon die. Dead Space 1 did this even better (the Hunter kill animation for Isaac is fabulous). Do you think there should be more death animations like these in horror-themed FPS, or is it enough that the player-avatar screams and stops moving (re: classic Doom)?
Yellow Swerve: I think the death animations add a lot to it all. In both RE4 and Dead Space 1 I barely died so I didn't see many—but they made death that much more impactful when they did happen!
Nick: Concerning power versus enfeeblement, when you play FPS games do you generally want to feel empowered by the game—to feel strong as a player? Do you feel like FPS are generally good at doing this, and if so, why?
Conversely, when you play survival horror like Resident Evil, do you want to feel disempowered—trapped in the gameworld, with precious few resources to survive? Do you think this is why many people opt for this type of survival experience, versus doomguy's one-man-army approach in the Doom franchise?
Yellow Swerve: It honestly really depends on the game, both the FPS and TPS (third-person shooter) genres can scratch that itch equally. Resident Evil 7 for example really gives you that hopeless feeling, while TPS like Vanquish can make you feel ultra powerful. So I get how both genres can do both things equally well.
But depending on what the game sets out to do—and the tone it sets in advance—I definitely want immersion to be preserved. In terms of empowerment versus disempowerment, I don't think anything really attracts people from one type of game to another other than how it's presented. Lots of FPS and TPS are power trips these days, and I honestly feel like survival games are becoming a bit more niche again (other than the few big names).
Nick: This concludes the interview! Thanks so much for taking the time, Yellow Swerve! I hope it wasn't too painful to do!
Yellow Swerve: It wasn't painful at all!
Nick: Where can people reach you these days? Where are your games available online?
Yellow Swerve: It's probably easiest to reach me on either Twitter or Twitch, and my games are all available on my Itch page. I make sure to keep my name the same on everything so everywhere I'm just "YellowSwerve."
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