Atop a single bed in his barracks dorm room, Justin Ng was daydreaming again. He'd been conscripted to the Armed Forces - a statutory requirement of all Singaporean citizens. At night he'd borrow comics books, whittle the hours away drawing over and over.
Justin Ng didn't want to be a soldier. No.
Justin Ng wanted to make video games.
Ng is the “Design and Business Guy” at Gattai Games, an independent game development studio based in Singapore. When we first meet, in a small room along Melbourne’s Yarra River, he springs out of his chair to shake my hand.
He’s in the middle of a long run of interviews, right in the throes of PAX Australia hysteria, but bounces around on the balls of his feet as he greets me. Ng's at PAX to discuss his team's new Playstation VR title Stifled, a sound-based horror game that utilises the system’s microphone to illuminate the world. Ng explains: it’s a game where you “use sound to see, kind of like echolocation or sonar.”
When you load up Stifled in the PSVR headset, you’re essentially blinded – until you make a sound.
That sound may come from in-game footsteps or your own voice. When you speak a pulse bursts forth like a ripple in a lake. The world appears in stark, clean white lines. Sound is your ally, but it is two-faced and unkind. It orients you in the world, but provides those who wish to hurt you a way of locating you in the darkness.
“All the enemies in the game hear sound. The more sound you make, the more you see but there’s a higher chance that enemies come get you.”
Ng tells me the game began coming together three years ago as a student project. The team had watched the animated short Out of Sight, itself a production by three students at the National Taiwan University of Arts. Out of Sight follows a blind, young girl who has her bag stolen. She interacts with her surroundings via touch and sound.
With one sense entirely blunted, she makes a new world for herself, imagining all the things she’s bumping up against, touching, hearing or smelling.
The inspiration began to form ideas in Ng’s head, eventually leading to Lurking, an inchoate form of the game that would become Stifled. But game development was something that Ng had been thinking about since he was in primary school. As a younger kid he played a lot of games – but didn’t study hard or do well at school. Once he moved to higher education, a decision had to be made.
“Do I want to go ahead with more books – math and lecture – or go to design and do arts stuff? I started doing game design and I realised it was a lot more work than I thought it was.”
During his time as a National Serviceman, Ng would spend his days practicing military drills, interspersing the more physical busywork with administrative duties. Once the days formalities were out of the way, he’d take up his pencils.
“In the evening you’ve got your own free time. I borrowed comic books, drawing books and I just kept drawing, drawing, drawing to get better at it.”
Upon enlisting you leave family and friends and live on a barracks. Although those that complete their service still form Singapore’s ‘Reserves’ upon completion of their two years, the career path is largely transitory unless you’ve committed to staying. For Ng, the spare time was a chance to gather thoughts and forge future paths.
“I graduated from tertiary education and then I went to army. Before that I did a bunch of odd jobs - I did office work, I did sales but when I was in the army I had a lot of time to think. I said ‘okay, do I want to go back to sales or office jobs or should I do something I really want to do in my life?’”
It turns out that that something was exactly what he’d been thinking about since he was a kid: Making Games. Two years in the Army didn’t dull that edge he’d been sharpening since youth.
“Big thing for me in Army? I learned how to communicate with people. I think that plays very well to game development – because it’s a very communal, very team-based thing”
Horror-based games live and die on YouTube. A huge part of their success comes from the big YouTube channels that scream and shout for their millions of subscribers. The core gameplay element of Stifled lends itself perfectly to the 'Let’s Play' scene and the often-exaggerated responses of its most popular personalities.
PewDiePie played Stifled’s predecessor Lurking in 2014, and for Ng and the team it was a tremendous confidence booster. Controversial personality aside, landing on the front page for the biggest YouTuber in the planet holds weight.
It was the first Singaporean game PewDiePie had ever played. Within minutes of his playthrough going live, Lurking’s website had crashed.
“That’s when it clicked. We’re gonna make this game. I don’t know if we’re gonna make money but this is worth making – this should exist.” With that moment solidifying his vision, Ng marched into indie development. Like the protagonist in Lurking, he was blind.
In the Armed Forces, Ng knew the end result – he knew that he’d become an Operationally Ready National Servicemen. A cog in Singapore’s Army Reserve. Those results were tangible, obvious. Assured.
Game development was entirely different.
“It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation right? To sit in an office with five people making a game and just staring at it the whole time like “Is this gonna work?” and when it goes out, we’ll find out.”
“It takes a lot of perseverance and…” Ng pauses. He lowers his voice a few decibels as if saying this out loud makes him feel it a little more “... it takes a lot of stupidity.”
The human eye is an elegant example of evolution. It’s ability to discern and focus light is so astounding that Charles Darwin once remarked that it was ‘absurd’ to believe it could arise from natural selection. But, Darwin also proffered, the absurdity of the human eye isn’t so hard to fathom when you realise the time that it took to ‘perfect’ it.
The aeons of building on incremental changes. Genes tinkering away making tiny improvements.
With time, near-unfathomable time, the eyes that sit within the hollows of your skull were crafted.
In a way, the journey that Ng’s development studio is on follows that same path.
Lurking was born of a desire to make games, inspired by a short film about a blind girl. Stifled was the natural progression, expanding on the strong core gameplay mechanic and utilising virtual reality to complement the player’s experience. An addition, carefully selected, to capitalise on the vulnerability of feeling alone in the dark.
A month post-release, it’s clear that Stifled hasn’t quite reached the levels of acclaim that Ng may have dreamed about.
“The reviews have been polarizing to say the least. But regardless, we shipped, and there are players who love the game. So that's something.”
It’s obvious that the journey has taken its toll.
“I spoke to my mum earlier today and told her I was stressed that our 3 years might amount to nothing and we'll have to give up on this dream. My mum said, ‘don't fret, we'll be here for you’. I almost cried.”
Far removed from the barracks where he spent two years training, Ng isn’t cynical or bitter. He’s hopeful. Appreciative. He’s looking forward.
“The people we’ve met, the things we’ve learnt will allow us to do more and better in the future”
And he doesn’t have to wait until he has free time in the evening to do what he wants to do anymore.
Success or not, he gets to keep doing what he always wanted to do.
“I just wanna keep making cool shit.”