On Tuesday, Ska Studios’s Salt and Sanctuary releases its “Drowned Tome Edition” for the Nintendo Switch. The package includes the game, a download code for the original Salt and Sanctuary soundtrack, and a double-sided poster that features art on one side and a map of the game’s setting on the other.
Salt and Sanctuary has been available for download on the Switch since August, but the Drowned Tome Edition marks the first time it’s ever been offered for sale on physical media.
It’s a final send off for Salt and Sanctuary, which was released in 2016 on the PlayStation 4 to critical acclaim. It’s a dark, moody action game, meant to deliberately blend the unforgiving gameplay of the popular Dark Souls series with the graphics and two-dimensional map of earlier games, most notably Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The combination’s proven popular, and Salt and Sanctuary has gradually made its way from the PS4 to Windows, macOS, Linux, and PlayStation Vita before reaching the Switch.
Ska Studios, based in Seattle, is a “two-person, two-cat” husband-and-wife team, James and Michelle Silva, that has been making dark, bloody indie games since 2007. Its previous releases include the two Dishwasher action games, the heavy-metal-themed beat-‘em-up Charlie Murder, and the XBLA indie game — this is its actual name — I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!
We interviewed the Silvas via Skype, to talk about the development process on Salt and Sanctuary, their history as developers, and their particular creative process.
Thomas Wilde, GeekWire: I’d played the Dishwasher games on Xbox Live Arcade before. You went from bloody arcade-style sort of beat-‘em-ups with those to Salt and Sanctuary, which is a “Metroidvania” that hates the player.
James Silva: [chuckles] Yeah. I guess the stupid, obvious secret of how we set out to make games … this is all unfair to Michelle. It used to just be me making games, and that worked well enough, so after Michelle joined on, we try to meet in the middle. I do end up making way more executive decisions than I should be allowed to. But you know, it works at the end of the day. I think Michelle’s like, “I tolerate this.”
Michelle Silva: I knew coming into this that this was James’ studio. I don’t know, it ends up working out. The reason why I knew James, and was interested in what he was making, was because I was interested in those kinds of games anyway. We ended up liking and falling in love with this whole thing together.
J. Silva: When I start making a game, I’ve been playing another game. I’ve been obsessed with another game, and I’ve been wanting to experiment with the game’s mechanics on my own. Let’s construct everything here, let’s try to emulate everything I like, and then see what happens if we tweak stuff. Just play with it. It’s just a desire to turn all the knobs and levers, which means first you have to make the machine to turn all the knobs and levers.
Dishwasher: Dead Samurai came from a love of Devil May Cry III. I was playing it all the time, and I wondered if you could make it work as a side-scroller, and what if you could warp around like Nightcrawler? Because X-Men 2 had just come out in theaters, I think. It was the desire to clunk around with all the variables and such.
I find it incredibly refreshing that you’re open about that. “I love Dark Souls, so this became a Souls game.” A lot of developers will kinda act like it all came out of their own heads, fully formed.
J. Silva: Yeah. “I was sitting in a vacuum one day when…”
M. Silva: I think we both got into this because we wanted to make the things that we also enjoy. I’ve got enough of my own side projects. James enjoys his things, I enjoy my things, and we meet in the middle with a lot of it.
So you, James, have been working on games since 2007?
J. Silva: Really, I’ve been doing it forever as a hobby and a dream, but yeah, 2007 was my big break. I won a contest to make a game for Microsoft’s new framework that they were targeting indies with. It was called the XNA Framework. I submitted my game to that contest and I kind of abandoned hope. That was actually my senior year in college; I submitted the game, abandoned all hope, finished college, got a day job, discovered I hated my day job, discovered I hated real life … but you know, I decided I had to do this anyway, because we all do.
And then, two months into this real job that I hated — I thought my coworkers were great, I just hated that life. I just wanted to make games my whole life, and I thought I had to abandon it because it wasn’t gonna happen. Then, two months into this real job, I got a notification to come to Redmond to see who won the contest. I was like, that’s an awful, weird thing to tell me, and they said, “No, no, you want to come to this conference.”
Sure enough, the game won, which meant I got to quit my job and basically work full-time for the next year, going through my savings, until I finished what became The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. I’ve been able to do this since.
And Michelle, you used to work at Arena.net?
M. Silva: Yeah, Arena.net was my last job before going indie, so to speak, and joining up with James. Before that, it was WB Games, and then my foot-in-the-door job was at this contracting testing company in Redmond. One of the first games that I was a tester on was Dead Samurai, which was how I got to know about Ska Studios, and this crazy thing where one guy was making a game all by himself. It was really exciting.
That’s how we met, and kept in contact over the years. I kept working as a tester, and eventually had a job at Arena.net, and at some point decided that, you know what, I guess I want to move where James is. So I moved across the country like a crazy person, where I didn’t know anybody except for James. We ended up working together, and then moved back to the Northwest, because it’s great here. I really love it. James loves it too.
J. Silva: Yeah.
M. Silva: I hope. [laughter]
J. Silva: [laughter] I don’t miss the northeast.
The Drowned Tome Edition on Salt and Sanctuary is your first physical media release, right?
M. Silva: Yeah. We’re going to find out if it’s a horrible idea.
J. Silva: [laughter] Way to sell it.
Oh, man. It’s a weird, scary thing. You kinda get used to having realistic humility. Who knows how things are going to go?
M. Silva: With everything we do, we kind of are waiting for something to fail. Like, Charlie Murder didn’t do super well. We consider that less than successful. But we’re not super-confident people. We’ve been really fortunate with Salt and Sanctuary. I’m not sure how this physical release will do, because you know, there are people who do want physical copies of things and I understand that, but is it going to be enough people? So it’s a big question mark so far.
J. Silva: The thing for us is the plushies. Do we talk about the plushies?
M. Silva: In terms of physical things like merchandise, posters sell all right. T-shirts sell all right. At some point maybe five years ago, we made these Vampire Smile plushies and they’ve just been sitting in our garage ever since. There are 12 boxes of them. We sell them here and there, and at PAX, but they’re kind of a failure.
J. Silva: I feel like this is absolutely the worst tone for talking about our physical edition. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this is going to be in stores. It’s super exciting and super scary and … boy. It’s so surreal.
When indies took off, they were digital first, or digital only. That just became the way of things, and it seemed like there was this sort of invisible boundary between indies, existing only in digital marketplaces, and real games, which exist in stores. Transcending that boundary is scary and weird and hard to wrap our minds around. But I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it. I’m confident.
M. Silva: You don’t wanna sound too much like a marketer.
J. Silva: It’s just us, you know, Michelle and me. It’s hard to approach this as a business person. We’re just people. We plunked away at computers for a few years and a game came out. I guess it’s okay. People like it. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around it being anything greater than you sitting at a desk in front of a computer, smelling bad, and kind of hungry, and you’ve only eaten apple pie today …
M. Silva: That’s true. I made apple pie last night, and that was breakfast.
J. Silva: You’re supposed to be more responsible than that, right? [laughter] It’s hard to comprehend, but it’s super exciting. Michelle has been working on the manual for it. It’s going to just be so weird to have a physical edition.
M. Silva: It is pretty different. We’ve always worked on digital games, so it’s going to be very different to see it in a store for real. It’s exciting, though. It’ll be more surreal to see in person.
It’s not a real thing until it’s something physical you can hand to an older relative to confuse them.
M. Silva: Oh, yeah. I’m looking forward to that.
J. Silva: The weirdness with that… so, being able to make games has been my dream for my whole life. After I won the XNA Framework contest, a publisher approached me about it: “Hey, you made this game in this framework that everyone wants to learn how to use. Will you make a book about how you made the game? We can give you an advance.”
I was like, “An advance? That’s great. I’m broke.” So I made the book, and for some reason, my mother is so proud of the book, but not the games. The way we’re actually able to support ourselves is the games.
M. Silva: The book sold five copies. Why are you proud of this?
So is the Drowned Tome Edition the Director’s Cut/Game of the Year edition of Salt and Sanctuary?
M. Silva: The game itself is not any different. It’s the same build as what’s out there digitally right now. The additions you get are the two-sided poster, where one side’s a map, of all things. A map, and a poster of the Sodden Knight, from our fancy key art that we’ve been using. Then, a hefty manual, and a download key for the soundtrack.
J. Silva: The map is kind of a spoiler, but the idea was that it’s more of a collector’s edition. I think that’s why people tend to get boxed copies of indie games.
You showed me an early draft of the map at PAX. It looked kind of Castlevania-ish and cool.
M. Silva: If you open up the in-game map editor, it’s a copy of that, but I’ve redrawn it by hand. If it was just the print-out from the editor, it’d be impossible to read.
I’m curious about the division of labor between the two of you. I’ve heard a couple of times that James is the programmer and Michelle is the artist?
M. Silva: Yeah, it’s not really the case. James does everything, and then I’m also an artist, and handle the business side of things. I make almost all of the marketing things, like the front-facing art. James is the primary developer. I help out with art assets within the game.
J. Silva: People are really confused by a programmer that also does art. For Vampire Smile and Dead Samurai, I just hand-drew all the art — actually, with Dead Samurai, I wouldn’t say “hand-drew,” because I used the mouse. I got a tablet for Vampire Smile. Actually, while we’re talking right now, I’m drawing for our next game, which is a secret right now.
I’ve always liked drawing. I also like engineering-type problems. The awesome thing about making games is that it gave me an outlet to explore both areas.
But a lot of people are like, all right, you’re the guy, you must be the programmer. She’s the lady, she must be the artist. And then together, in holy matrimony, that is how a game is supposed to be produced.
M. Silva: Yeah, it’s a lot more mixed and confused than that. It’s a little bit of everything. We both wear many, many hats. It’s not quite divided up that simply and nicely.
J. Silva: I possess all the tools to make a game by myself, but for Salt and Sanctuary, and Charlie Murder too—
M. Silva: That was a boatload of content.
J. Silva: Yeah, it would come down to how we’re making a ton of assets, and I can’t do this all by myself. But I started out by myself, and set the style and the feel. A lot of the art is more programmatic than anything. I’ll be making all these post-processing shaders to give it certain looks, and the animation is all that 2D, puppety-style, and that’s all its own system that I had to create from the ground up.
[as an aside] Which you can actually read about in my book! [laughter]
It’s a lot of processes going toward imagining things, to putting them together, and I kind of have a hand in all of them. I like art; I like drawing; I like programming, but I’m not good at it. I guess I’m not good at art, either. But I’m good at rigging things up together, so the product emerges.
M. Silva: I’ve been saying that you don’t have to be particularly great at one thing. It’s a jack-of-all-trades situation where you’re good enough at each category, and good enough to put them all together to make something happen.
J. Silva: You think that whoever said “the jack of all trades is master of none” was just jealous of someone who had more skills than they did?
M. Silva: Maybe.
You ship games. You’ve got that going for you.
M. Silva: Right. The most important part is being able to finish something and ship it, and have the tenacity to keep going at it when things fail.
J. Silva: When we interview, it’s kind of like a confession of our feelings of guilt.
M. Silva: I don’t know why we succeeded.
J. Silva: I have to confess, I still don’t know what I’m doing.
When we were just making 360 games, Microsoft would publish them, and they would handle so many pieces of it that I hadn’t really considered. Strangely enough, there’s no class on how to do this stuff that I would’ve taken. Microsoft would say, here are your goals, here are your dates, here’s all the information we can provide. Here are the bugs you have to fix, here’s all your text translated into seven languages for you to put in the game. You just fix the bugs and give us a build. That’s all we need.
That was my first picture of how games are made. It was just getting there, getting finished, and shipping a game. I really didn’t mind the Microsoft model. Salt and Sanctuary was originally published through Sony, and now that we’ve experienced that, now that we know how to do all this stuff that we didn’t know how to do, I definitely prefer it. I liked just having to finish a build, ship it out, and hopefully find out what went wrong and right.
Now we have to wear more hats. Michelle’s really been spearheading all of that. Now that we’re self-published, there are a lot fewer strings, so we’ve been able to hit multiple platforms. Michelle’s been producing all of that, going between porting houses, and QA, and PR, release managing, all of that. I guess Michelle can talk about that.
M. Silva: I don’t know. You’re doing a good job. That’s pretty much all of the kind of production work that I’ve been doing. We’re a little bit disorganized. I try to wrangle it together.
So much of what we do starts out as one thing and becomes something completely different. It ends up better for it, for the iterative process. But as soon as you start trying to organize it too much, it loses its personality.
J. Silva: Salt and Sanctuary was super organic and off the cuff. So much of it was always having a very rough idea of what I wanted the world to look like, and then filling in all the blanks as I went.
That’s interesting. It’s got a lot of math under the hood compared to something like Dishwasher. Your most mathematical game is also your most improvised.
J. Silva: Even so, it was probably still better planned than the previous ones.
M. Silva: Everything gets a little bit better, every game gets a little bit better in all categories across the board, and I think you can see that in the games themselves. They get a little bit better each time.
J. Silva: I think a big part of what’s happening, on a personal level, is just a lack of confidence about the whole product. It’s a small team with not a lot of resources, so if you spend a month planning a game that turns out to be no good, that’s a month wasted. If you spent a month just putting together a game and you like what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter if there was planning. If the game is enjoyable, then you know how the planning could go: the lore, the world, where are we going with this, how will this progress, what happens beyond the first five minutes. The more time you spend planning, the more you could end up wasting, if the game doesn’t turn out to be fun.
I was thinking, okay, if you take Castlevania aspects, Dark Souls aspects, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, Dishwasher aspects, and mix them together, will these work? The big mystery for the longest time was, how do we capture the dance of combat? In Dark Souls, there’s a dance to combat where you’re circling your foe, they’re circling you, you’re both looking for an opportunity. If you try to run away, they’ll chase you. There’s an amount of pressure that’s being put on you. How do you react to that pressure? Does it feel like it’s a threat? How would that translate to 2D?
Especially when you compare it to Castlevania, where a lot of the enemies are just brain-dead automatons. They’ll move to the left of the ledge, to the right, they’ll throw an axe or a bone in a specific arc, and that’s their behavior. There’s no sense of pressure from that. We wanted to have the sense of pressure from Dark Souls and see how that translated.
These were the most important questions to answer, and the only way to answer them was just by sitting down and making the damn game. Any sort of planning just kinda came secondary to answering those questions of gameplay. Everything in terms of filling in the world was very off the cuff, but yeah, we got it all in there, in time and tenacity.
M. Silva: And it works.
J. Silva: And a world was built.
M. Silva: And with a lot of iteration. Just doing things over and over until they look good enough.