Vlambeer, the Dutch studio behind indie hits like Super Crate Box and Luftrausers, took a hiatus after the launch of Nuclear Throne in 2015, and it left co-founder Rami Ismail with some time to think about his place in the world of video games: a world he entered eight years ago with the studio’s founding in 2010.
“The hiatus didn’t mean Vlambeer didn’t exist anymore,” says Ismail. “It meant that me and my co-founder, JW [Jan Willem Nijman] really needed a break from each other. Infamously, we don’t like each other, and that is absolutely true. It doesn’t mean we don’t like working with each other, it just means that working with each other takes energy.”
This means that after intensive projects, the pair needs some time apart – and Vlambeer’s most intensive project yet was Nuclear Throne, which updated once a week for 99 weeks on Steam Early Access.
“We decided to take a year off and focus on the things that we were interested in at that point,” Ismail says. “Which for me was a lot of diversity work, and just structural industry work, trying to find my place… I’ve been going to events for a year or two, helping people work on their games and it’s just exciting for me to have a game of my own again.”
Vlambeer is now working on prototypes again, and Ismail is glad to be digging back into development: “It’s not that I resent not having a game or was unhappy not having a game, it’s just really exciting being able to work with something again. I do get a little stressed if I don’t get to programme for extended periods of time. So it’s nice to be back and to wrestle with computers, because that’s the kind of thing I love and that’s the reason I ended up here. All this other stuff? It just kind of happened.”
The “other stuff” that Ismail refers to is how he has been thrust into a position as an unofficial spokesperson for indie development and inclusivity in the industry around the globe. The studio found prominence originally when its browser game Ridiculous Fishing was cloned for mobile storefronts before Vlambeer itself could release the title on mobile.
Being Dutch with Egyptian heritage, Ismail has also found himself positioned as a key voice in the conversation about diversity. However, diversity is a typically western way of viewing the problem, he explains.
“I think that for all the work being done getting those additional voices in, like women’s voices, or making sure there’s more queer voices, or that there’s enough voices from different races – that conversation remains very focused on the western world in particular,” says Ismail.
“I want to support all of those fights. I want to support the fight for more women’s voices, for more queer voices, for more voices of different races, for voices of people with disabilities. I think those are all extremely important and I’m 100 per cent behind each and every one of them.
“But I’m also a little worried about just the word diversity in itself. It’s a very simple criticism but my problem with the word diversity is that it’s an English word. I don’t like it. It’s a word of English. We have a diversity discussion, which in itself is English, written in the Latin alphabet, which already immediately excludes everybody else. Suddenly the rest of the planet does not feel part of that discussion. I’ve travelled around the world and asked people: ‘How do you feel about all this diversity stuff?’ And they respond: ‘That’s an American or European thing. We’re not included. We don’t matter’.”
Diversity, says Ismail, can be turned into quotas or tokenism. “So for me inclusively becomes the fight,” he adds. “Diversity is not my fight. Diversity is something that we can keep doing forever until every single human on earth is included, which we’ll never achieve. My quest is not to get every single person on earth to make games. My quest is to make sure that every person who would want to make games feels like they will be welcome here and feels that they will be safe here. That’s the fight.”
He continues: “Inclusivity is an ideology. It’s a state of welcoming.” He mentions that playing games from different viewpoints to the usual western-eastern development centres can bring titles such as This War of Mine, a game from Polish developers 11 Bit Studios that’s about surviving war, rather than taking part in it.
“It’s not a game that anybody in the US would have made because the US cultural understanding of war is: ‘We fight them and hopefully we win.’ But the Polish understanding of war is: ‘They happen to us and hopefully we survive them.’ Just that simple cultural difference really makes for a revolutionary game, and that’s why there’s nothing out there quite like it.”
Ismail mentions several other games that are products of the cultures that developed them: take Farsh, a game about rolling carpets from Iran, or Broforce, a South African satirical game about being movie stars in America. “It’s actually sort of an anti-American game but a lot of Americans just still see it as pro-American,” Ismail says. “It’s the way South Africa deals with difficult issues and there’s many of them in their history. And they’ve found that finding metaphor and sarcasm and cynicism is a good way of handling those. And it’s just a little cultural thing.
“We all look at these games and say: ‘Wow, these are brand new!’ These are not brand new, you just never gave people from these cultures the ability to make games before! [Games] have brought me to worlds in which giant rings that hover in space can destroy our entire civilization and I have to punch a bunch of religious zealot monsters in a green suit of armour, to make sure that the rings don’t kill us all. I’ve been to that world and that world works but I’ve never been to countries on earth. How are we, as a medium, OK with the fact that in 2018, the E3 presentation of The Last of Us had the first video game kiss that actually looked like a kiss?”
Ismail pauses for a second and grins.
“Of course, that’s an American kiss. What does a kiss from the Middle East look like?”
Ismail is a familiar industry face all around the world due to an Escheresque travel schedule that often sees him going from event to event on the same day. He tweets out the numbers of his flights as he gets them and seems to be perpetually on the move.
Speaking to him at 4am in Berlin, several years before the interview for this article, Ismail confessed that he didn’t think he had any concept of an internal clock anymore and merely slept when there was time. By the time I’d awoken at midday the next day, Ismail had given a keynote talk with Leigh Alexander and was already onboard a flight to Croatia.
This level of presence, and the fact that Ismail very clearly cares about the industry he’s entrenched in and the people within in, have elevated him to being one of the few figureheads of the increasingly disparate indie games development scene. Something that Ismail himself is a big critic.
“It was stressful. It was very stressful. Realising that the things I said meant more than I thought they would. That people would take my word as important is scary to me. I think culturally one of the metaphors that I took with me from being younger is in Islam. I was raised Muslim. In Islam the idea is that when somebody gives advice about religious things you say ???? ???? (see image left) or ‘only Allah knows’. You say that before and after your advice and it was meant to qualify your statement as just a human’s opinion. ‘This is just my human opinion on this large topic, so I might be wrong’. It is meant as a way to say: ‘Don’t just blindly take my advice’.
“I started doing this travel and public speaking thing because the Dutch press has a reach of about 15 million people of which only a tiny part care about video games. Well, if I hop to London and I can talk to the press there, I suddenly have a reach of pretty much any English-speaking country, right?
“So the dream was always to get our work into the English press and that’s why I started public speaking. Slowly but certainly this kind of took off. People liked what I talked about. People liked my viewpoints on things and I was given this platform by many to speak, which meant that more people started listening, which meant that my voice became weightier.”
He continues: “I don’t need an ambassador award. I don’t need the game changer award. But if my name scrolls by in the credits of a little game, that a few hundred people played, but I know it was made in a community that I visited a few years ago and I gave them some feedback, that is the ultimate reward. The reward for any of this is knowing that somewhere in the world I made a small difference.”
Ismail says being painted into the role of an ambassador or a leader has been a puzzle because at heart, he’s an indie developer.
“I am very bad with authority,” he explains. “I am very bad at listening to people just because they have a loud voice. And I recognise that I have become just a loud voice.” The answer, Ismail says, is to disagree with him. To not take all of his word as gospel just because he’s one of the loudest voices in the scene.
“Please fight me. Fight me on Twitter. Bring it. Tell me how I’m wrong.
“I remember in South Africa a kid asked me if he should drop out of school and I gave him my political answer, which is: ‘If you’re asking me, you shouldn’t. But if you’re 100 per cent sure you should drop out of school, if you have a plan, if you have a game, if you’re all ready, if I had said stay in school and you would have still dropped out of school, that’s when you should drop out of school’.
“Then a teacher came to me afterwards and said: ‘If you ever say that again, you’re never coming back to this school again.’ And when I queried it she straight up said: ‘If he takes your advice you will have likely killed him. What do you think happens in South Africa? You know what happens in the Netherlands. You have social nets.You know you’ll get some money from the government. He’ll get a job. He can go to school. What do you think happens in Johannesburg?’
“I guess I’d never really thought about that. Those moments of challenge is what allows me to be a better version of myself, and that’s what we should all be aiming for.”
Ismail is happy to admit that he messes up sometimes, and that he is doing his best to learn as he goes, mentioning that Vlambeer and the attention that came from that has meant he’s had to grow up under the constant scrutiny of the public eye.
Ismail refers to his 150,000 Twitter followers, and reckons maybe 110,000 of the total are game developers, an audience he never thought he’d have.
“That’s a loud voice. That’s a lot of responsibility. And I try to make sure that I take responsibility for that but what do we know? Twitter is new. I can try, and if I fail, I’ll do it in public and hopefully people will call me out.
“It remains scary to me that there are people in the world who see a tweet of mine and think: ‘Oh yeah, it’s Rami. He must be right.’ I don’t know how to deal with that. I will never know how to deal with that.
“People ask me about legacy and ‘where do you see yourself in five years’,” says Ismail with a grin. “Fuck if I know. If I knew I would probably quit because it would be very boring. I just want to make a positive change.”