Interview With MADiSON Creator Alexis Di Stefano
MADiSON is a first-person psychological horror game available on Itch.io. The demo hit virtual shelves in November 2017 to waves of positive feedback. Some have even called it one of the best indie horror games on the internet, comparable even to P.T.If you haven’t tried it yet, be sure to grab the demo here.
Today we talk to the game’s creator (and major horror enthusiast), Alexis Di Stefano about all things MADiSON and what led him to create such a fantastic piece.
About Alexis Di Stefano
My name is Alexis Di Stefano I’m from Argentina and I am the creator of MADiSON.
I was born in 1995, and I will never forget the day my parents gave me a PSX as a birthday present. That got me introduced to the world of video games. I used to play games like Spyro or Crash Bandicoot. But everything changed one day when a neighbour showed me a new game that he had just bought called Clock Tower: The Struggle Within. It was my first contact with a survival horror game, and it was certainly the best experience I’ve had so far. Only a few days after that, I bought the complete saga of Clock Tower and I just fell completely in love. That’s how it all started. I continued playing great sagas like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dino Crisis, etc, but I wasn’t truly fulfilling my passion for horror. The time was passing by, and I continued playing every horror title that came out, among them, one of my favourites, ‘Haunting Ground’.
Such was my fondness for the horror genre, that I started watching as many movies as I could. My favourite director, and one of my main sources of inspiration, is James Wan, to whom I have a deep admiration and respect. For sure, one of my greatest hopes is to be able to create such terrifying experiences as he has with great movies like “The Conjuring” or “Insidious“.
When I finished high school I knew I wanted to work in the video games industry. While I’m not a big gamer, I’m a huge fan of the horror genre in all its glory, and such is my passion that I can’t picture myself creating other stuff in the future, just games I’d enjoy playing.
I was very lucky to start studying arts and games development on 2014 and my hard work allowed me to be preparing my thesis by the end of 2016. I graduated in 2017 and since then I completely focused myself in this project to which I am dedicating my whole life.
This interview is edited with the consent of the interviewee to make it easier to read.
What Events In Your Life Led You To Create MADiSON?
“I grew up in a family that always tried to prevent me and my siblings from watching any violent media. Much less anything that could frighten us! After my first contact with survival horror (something I’d always been very distant from), I realised that all that time that went by without me knowing of its existence simply added to my later fanaticism of the genre.”
Were Your Parents Supportive of Your Decision To Get Into Video Game Development?
“I was really lucky in this regard. I talked to them about it when I was around 17 and they accepted my decision, they were supportive since the very beginning. It’s not that common or easy like saying you’ll become a doctor or engineer, but thankfully, they understood and have helped me achieve what I wanted since then.
They have lots of faith in me and what I do for a living. They get to see my work and know the number of hours and the passion I put into it, so they are very encouraging and prompt me to never give up.”
What Advice would you give your 17-Year-Old Self Now?
“What a difficult question! I think I’d love to go back in time and change some aspects of my life then; Like waiting so long to jump into this project. But undoubtedly, I would advise myself not to let people throw me back, especially colleagues. I feel there are people that often knock your work out of their own inability to be innovative. So they hound everybody else’s work throwing awful comments and discouraging critiques. Even though didn’t affect me then, they definitely didn’t help.”
I can definitely empathise with Alexis here. It doesn’t take much to discourage an artist. In fact, one of my favourite pieces from Zen Pencils is about that very topic.
Was Your Age Ever A Barrier When Creating MADiSON?
“Not really, and regardless of what I mentioned before about people being discouraging, I think that I’ve always devoted to achieving every little goal I set myself. Many times, when developing new features or mechanics for the game I ask myself, how am I supposed to do this? but eventually, with the right amount of dedication and care, I find a solution to the problems.”
Did Any Particular Work Inspire You When Coming Up With The Idea For MADiSON?
“Such an interesting question! I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to horror video games development since I was young. I remember being a kid googling “What kind of roles are there within video game companies?”. Although I did not find the answer then, nothing stopped me from dreaming that one day I would be part of one. During my last year at college, I was asked to create a professional video game within the year as part of the thesis. I did not hesitate a second, it was my opportunity for developing what I had been dreaming of.
A few months before showing the idea of the game for the very first time, I was already spending lots of time thinking, I wanted to create something that could stand out from so many others out there in the market. That is how I came out with the idea of the instant camera, which allows us to reveal the photos manually and not less important, to connect the world of the living with the world of the dead!
Another thing worth mentioning and actually, something that nobody knows till now, is the reason why I named the demon “MADiSON”. I have always been a big fan of American Horror Story since the first season back in 2011. On their third season, called “Coven”, they touched on witchcraft, which is essentially my favorite sub-genre (Spoiler: and something you will find on MADiSON too), and it is then when we met Madison Montgomery interpreted by Emma Roberts, a character I liked so much that I literally took her name as a way of appreciation for the amazing job done by the creators. However, it is not just that, there’s more than just admiration to that character put on the game name, and you will need to play the game to get to know what’s hidden there.
As I was saying earlier, I think the main source of inspiration appeared during my adolescence, after playing ‘Clock Tower’. I became a devoted fan of the genre and I soon started to create my own stories and drawings, to play and imagine all kind of things. Nowadays, I think the film director James Wan, who I really admire professionally, truly stands out and inspires me a lot with his work, seriously, he turns into gold every piece of work he does.”
What Did It Feel Like To Get A Positive Review From Hifuno Kouno?
“I had the chance to chat with him and I let him know how much I love his flagship saga and what it meant to me during my childhood and how it still does today. Knowing that one of the people that led me to this career has seen my work… Not just seen but had such a positive review makes me really excited and happy.”
What Do You Appreciate the Most About Horror?
“I believe what I like the most about horror is the feeling of defencelessness. I have never been into the type of horror where you have a Magnum in one hand and a missile launcher in the other one. I truly prefer to see what you can do to save your life from being murdered by a ghost with an ineffective knife. It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? So, we could say that that is what I delight in the most, the non-limitations that the paranormal beings have.”
What Do You Think Of The Resident Evil Series, Which Became More Action Oriented Over Time?
“No doubts I love the saga. I played almost every game that’s been out. I recall the changes started to be perceptible in Resident Evil 4 on, something I didn’t care much until the 6th delivery. That one really wasn’t the one for me. However, I reckon the work done on Resident Evil 7 is just wonderful, definitely one of my favourite games at the moment. I’m a big fan of feeling trapped in claustrophobic ambients and that was more than accomplished inside the Baker’s mansion. I hope the future releases keep on this “new” style they’ve given to RE7, and by the way, I’m so eager for the remake of Resident Evil 2! It should be out this year!”
What Do You Think Of Players Comparing MADiSON to P.T.?
“It’s a good one! We’ve seen a lot of people comparing MADiSON to the P.T. due to a supposed similarity.
The truth is that after the cancellation of the P.T., the public was left amazed at the genre. They are expecting a game that will fill that void. However, I notice that there are people stubbornly trying to keep devs off “that genre”, therefore preventing them to innovate. That is where I think this comes from. Every “next-gen” graphics game situated within a house is being considered a P.T. clone lately, when in fact, you really can’t expect a game with PS2 graphics in 2018.
Our intention was never to copy or imitate the teaser they released. As I previously mentioned, my obsession with horror games that pushed the player into a claustrophobic atmosphere originated when I was little kid. That is what I want the players to feel when they play MADiSON, that incredible feeling I love experiencing. So I believe I wouldn’t feel comfortable developing an open world horror game only to prevent this comparison with P.T., I want the game to keep as loyal to my original idea as possible.
It is also worth clarifying that comparing the work of only two people with the entire team at Konami is not discouraging at all.”
You Spend A Lot Of Time Enjoying Horror; Do You Try And Dissect What Makes It Scary?
“Absolutely! It is something I have been doing for a while now and it helps me a lot to identify what I enjoy or what catches my attention the most. In fact, I have a notebook where I write a lot of stuff (from what I think that stands out, either from a scene, characters, story, or simply quotes from each movie/series I watch). So after watching them, I take my time to analyse everything, it really helps me open my head to new ideas.”
Do You Think MADiSON Contains Elements Of Argentinian Culture?
“Yeah! of course I do! The game has some elements of my everyday life, for example, the type of door key that features in the demo is actually the key to my house!
Also, another quite interesting and Argentinian detail are the wall dishes. Every home of the elderly here in Argentina, have wall dishes, and that is actually so creepy! So I asked myself, why not?”
Can You Walk Us Through Your Creative Process?
“Since there are only two developers working on the game, there’s a lot of work. Being the producer/artist/game designer etc makes my days feel endless. So I believe in having small achievable goals that make the bigger ones easier to reach. From experience, I can assure you that it’s no good adding bits to the game as you go. You end up having a way longer overall process. What’s best for me is counting on a well thought out plan. This helps create an efficient workflow.
From experience, I can assure it’s no good adding bits to the game as they are done because you end up having a way longer overall process. What’s best for me is counting on a well-thought plan to create a more seamless workflow, making progress on defined blocks and not all at the same time. I like old school pen and paper kanban board we can easily see, it really helps me focus, close ideas and at the end have a whole picture of the current situation.”
How Do You Maintain A Steady Work Schedule?
“To organize and continue making progress what I do are weekly boards on Trello, where I add the goals of the day and week. We also use colours to categorize them depending on their state, whenever a task is finished, we paint it green. That really motivate and help us a lot to encourage ourselves and keep moving forward.”
What Was It Like To Attend Unity’s Developer’s Day Event?
“That was the second time we showed the game demo to the public, it was a sort of “2.0” version of the demo presented at the EVA2017 (a nationwide game-devs event) after the feedback received there and thanks to some weeks of work to make corrections. It was awesome, we didn’t expect to be included as one of the 6 games exhibiting, but we had the honour to show our demo among the other games presented and receive very positive comments not only from the public but the Unity staff too. We are very thankful and delighted to have participated in that event.”
What Was The Scariest Part Of Uploading MADiSON To Itch.io?
“Oh my god! I was really on edge that day! I kept saying to Maximiliano (friend and also MADiSON programmer) that the game was literally going to blow up. I thought it’d crash or not even open for that matter, I’m sure I looked damn freaked out. My hands were sweating like hell but we had to deliver by the 30th, that’s what we’d promised!
Luckily enough, the game didn’t explode in the player’s faces.”
What Makes MADiSON Stand Out From Other Indie Horror Games?
“Since early stages of the development, I wanted to find something that would make MADiSON a unique experience. Something that wouldn’t have been seen before, and I think our main mechanic achieves that successfully. We were able to create something different to what other games of this genre offer. While many have cameras to see what’s beyond the human eye, see through darkness or attack enemies, MADiSON, with the help of an instant camera, allows us to connect to a paranormal dimension, yet having to develop the films anyway!
When we launched the demo, we noticed that players loved shaking the films and right after getting what’s the mechanic about they smiled and wanted to keep on shooting!”
What Elements Do You Find Are The Best For Frightening Players?
“From my standpoint, and a bit of personal taste too, a key element and a really good one that no good horror game can’t miss is tension. This isn’t really about shooting the player with horrifying faces every two seconds. Moments of tension, let the player fright and feel edgy not only from the environment but the story and events, definitely shouldn’t be left to chance. Obviously, we must never forget about the importance of appropriate music and sound effects as key ingredients too.”
What Was The Most Difficult Hurdle In Creating MADiSON?
“One of the main obstacles, is I believe one of the main obstacles, that I still have actually, was the fight with my own self about trusting I’m doing the right thing. I quite often fear that all the effort and the time spent in this project will not bear fruit. Anyway, everyone who knows me a bit can assure you I totally love what I do. I love MADiSON, it’s like I live with the game, I wake up to work with it, occupies my mind throughout the day and I go to bed thinking about it too, each and every day.”
What Advice Would You Give Budding Developers?
“I would say don’t give up, keep on working and develop the ideas you have in mind. I know a lot of developers with incredible concepts that simply die due to lack of dedication and work, and I’m aware of the struggles with everyday responsibilities and life duties but there’s a lot of vacancies too. So, if you really love this world you should fight and work till you have your game out.”
What Is The Ideal Outcome For You In Relation To MADiSON?
“Before the answer, I want to show my immense gratitude and happiness for such appreciation got with the launch of the demo, more than 2 million total views on YouTube, more than 5.5 thousand downloads, I really couldn’t have dreamt about it, ever! And what can I say about the reviews and the more than positive feedback?
Back to the answer, I wish to be able to create a game worth playing by horror lovers like me, something that accomplishes what it promises and pleases the players, leaving them wanting more in the future! Technically speaking, I’d love the game to be all over the world and to be able to work on the sequel (which is already written).”
What Are Your Current Plans For MADiSON‘s Development?
“We are so proud to announce that the next step for MADiSON will be launching the game by the end of this year. After releasing the demo on itch.io, we got really positive reviews and the fanaticism and thrill around the game truly took us by surprise, so we changed our minds regarding some gameplay changes we would have been making in order to launch the sooner. We thought that the public deserved to get the best horrific experience we could come up with, regardless of the time and effort it takes and that leads to the idea of having the game out within this year, announcing a more accurate release date around July. It’s worth noting that in the event of delays in delivery we are planning to have an early access release so that followers and fans can start playing the soonest possible.
We would like to take the time to thank our supporters on Patreon, because even though we haven’t fulfilled our goal yet, the contribution of each patron helps us to get a little closer to the game release.”
Can You Give Us A Clue To Crack The Safe At The End Of MADiSON?
“We have players spending more than 20 minutes trying to figure out how to unlock the safe. Some even ventured to hypothesize based on the time on the clock or the numbers on different objects of the house. The way to crack that safe is undoubtedly more interesting than having the password written on a piece of paper, really. That’s all I can say for now!”
Is There Anyone You’d Like To Give A Shout Out?
“I’d like to thank each and every one who believed in me since MADiSON was just an idea in my head, my family, friends, the game followers and especially my friend and the game programmer Maximiliano Rasiun that has been with me unconditionally, and I big thanks to you Stephanie, for giving me the chance to tell the world a bit of my story.”