Developer Interview with Simon Mesnard

Let me introduce you to Simon, the creator of the Black Cube series, and his thoughts about his games, game development and games in general.

1. Hey! Tell us a bit about you:

Hello! I am Simon Mesnard, I'm 40 and I live in a small village of France near Dijon. I am the person behind Simon Says: Watch! Play!, a micro-entreprise that creates indie video games and 3D visuals since 2009. I work on my own or at distance with other creators/friends that I have met along the years. I am mainly known for my sci-fi adventure games called The Black Cube series, which include such games such as ASA: A Space Adventure, Catyph: The Kunci Experiment, Myha: Return to the Lost Island and Boïnihi – The K'i Codex.

Before I started making indie games, I was working on realistic 3D visuals for advertizing websites for a French communication agency, and next to it in my free time I also made several experimental animated films available here.

2. What were you favorite game or games when growing up?

I went through many different stages with video games, and quite a lot of games have made a deep impression on me. When I was a kid, a friend of mine introduced me to Adventures of Lolo, a nice puzzle game with some very intricate situations. Do you know it?

Then if we continue with the games that really made an impression on me, I don't remember exactly in which order I played them, but there was Grim Fandango, Final Fantasy VII and various other J-RPG games from the PS1 era. I played in a couple of years to a number of those games that had lowpoly characters moving on prerendered 3D environments, and I loved it. This is an era that I really liked a lot, and that I tried to reproduce in several of my games with a similar retro style.

Then, I was in high school when one of my friends showed me a beautiful picture of a 3D flower in a video games magazine. That flower was captured from a game called Exile. I had never heard of it, so he lend me a 5-disc version of the game before Exile, which was called Riven. I installed it for the first time on my computer and... Wow! I think that few people today can imagine the shock I had. It's true that now AAA games are very spectacular, but I think it's nothing like what one could feel around 1998 in such a realistic and unique world such as the one of the Myst series... Quickly, the awe left place to another feeling: the pleasure of solving the challenging puzzles while taking notes on paper.


Above: Riven

More recently the games that made a deep impression on me are Detroit: Become Human, Life is Strange and Tell me Why, mostly narrative adventure games. But I think it's also because I get older and I need more relaxed ways of playing games.

3. When did you start making games?

I am mostly a self-taught 3ds Max user. I started learning the 3ds Max software around the age of 16 maybe. At that time I didn't really had in mind to create video games and was more interested in movies. I wanted to create my own animated film inspired by Shrek or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

I remember that I had also discovered the RPG Maker game engine, and eventually I tried to make my first game with it. However, as you probably know, RPG Maker only allows to create 2D pixel J-RPGs, but I wanted to create something as visually impressive as Final Fantasy VII. So on the contrary of many users of RPG Maker, I decided to create prerendered 3D backgrounds in 3ds Max and import them in RPG Maker, and the pixelated characters were moving around in these 3D environments.

Then I completely forgot about making games and followed my studies. It was complicated to find a cursus that would allow me to work in the 3D industry at that time, so I was quite busy with my student life. It's only in 2011 after the success of the short film 2011: A Space Adventure on Vimeo, that I decided to create my first game ASA. I had the necessary skills to create the 3D world, I chose an easy to use game engine - Adventure Maker.

4. What made you start developing games?

During a few years I was very much into writing novels. I started writing a sci-fi mythology about mysterious black cubes. It became the background for creating ASA and the whole Black Cube series. I can't share this book because it isn't finished and is written in French, but I love telling stories, it's an important part of my games, and I always enjoyed much more playing to video games with rich stories, rather than discovering a new gameplay.

Then, making a game like Riven was allowing me to walk in the direction of film making because of the peculiar setting/atmosphere in these games, and the addition of many videos to contribute to the immersion. The world of adventure games was quite a niche when I started, and I was aware that no major Myst-like adventure had been released since a very long time. It seemed that I had a chance to shine, so I took the opportunity and worked very hard on it.

5. You previously mentioned the Black Cube series games. What are your characters based on in those games?

There aren't really characters in the Black Cube series. The player is usually represented by astronauts with their spacesuit that hides their identity. The purpose is to allow everyone to identify to them more easily, whatever your age, origin or gender is.

6. How would you describe the style of the games?

I originally used to describe ASA as a "Myst in space" with a cinematographic style. I think that today, knowing more about the world of adventure compared to when I started in 2011, I find that it's better if I avoid the direct comparison with Myst because my games have their own style, and many fans of Myst told me that my creations definetely aren't Myst-like games.

Now the Black Cube series is 10 year old, and my definition has changed. All of the games are different, they are not all created in 2D or prerendered 3D.

Globally I now prefer to talk of the Black Cube series as 1st person sci-fi adventure with logical puzzles and exploration. I don't want to stay stuck in a specific art style, and I don't think that prerendered 3D should remain a signature of the series just because I like it. However I want to continue to include a rich story and expand the mythology in the future.


Above: ASA

7. Did you experience any challenges in the development of them?

Yes! The biggest challenges are all related to working at home on my own, as an indie dev with no publisher, for a niche market. To be honest, none of the games sold well despite the good reviews in the press and the warm welcome from the fans of the genre.

In addition, it's difficult to work on a series! I often insist on the fact that every new game can be played separately, without knowing the previously released episodes, but most of the players that didn't play ASA hesitated to play Catyph or Myha.

There's also the question of knowing the existence of the other games! I have made a website that tries to summarize and list everything about the existing games, but when you get the games directly from another store, it's not always obvious that there are other games. It happened more than once that someone wrote me to say that they enjoyed playing Myha or Boïnihi, and they were surprised when I told them that there are several other existing games in the same series.

Many times I was about to give up the series, and maybe even give up being an indie developer. It's very difficult to make a living. It's only thanks to a very sold fan base (many of which have become friends) that I can continue.

8. What are you most proud of about your games/what do you like most about the games?

What I am the most proud about my games is that I have been able to create them despite working in very complicated condition, and never giving up.

One thing that I like a lot with my games is that I can be in touch with many different players from around the world. When they didn't like my games, I'm a little sad, but when they enjoyed every second, and write a long and detailed review, it's so exciting! I have had long discussions with some of these players, and it was really interesting and rewarding.

9. Is there anything you think could have been better?

Oh yes, so many things could have been better. Not only the conditions in which I am working, but also the games themselves. ASA for example, was created with a big lack of experience and has a lot of space for improvement, despite the existence of the Remastered Edition. I would like to work on a full 3D remake someday, so who knows?

I can only continue to work hard and try to improve my projects and fix the past issues, hoping that one of the games will be more attractive.

10. Have you and your way of working evolved over time?

When I created ASA, I made prerendered 3D images and videos that I imported in Adventure Maker, a great but old-school engine that doesn't allow full HD resolutions. Then for Catyph I migrated to Visionaire Studio, a more modern engine. Then I experienced the creation of my first game in full 3D, Myha, and it was really something different! We can say that a major evolution is simply related to the technique and engines that I use, and everytime I have to learn new things.

Another thing that changed in my way of working, is the energy to put into my project. When I created ASA, I was only 30 and had faith in my own skills and abilities to please an audience. Today at 40, I work with a very different state of mind. I am more serene and I am more tired too, and so globally my way of working day after day is less frantic. I wouldn't be able to do the long days and nights of work that I used to.

Globally, I think that when I started making games, I was doing it like a studio or company, with daily working hours and schedules, while today I approach it more like an artist with a more philosophical view regarding my life and the creation of new games. I now really work depending on my ideas and inspiration.

11. Are you planning on making more games? What will your next game be about in that case?

Since 2020 and the very low sales of Boïnihi, the Black Cube series has been paused and I have not really had the chance to work on a new game.

I am currently working with my brother on a beautifully hand-drawn 2D platformer game, and we hope that such an action game has the potential to reach more players than my previous adventure games. But this is just a parenthesis in my career.

Since a few months I am running the Black Cube Jam, a small challenge where creators and fans are invited to create their own short games inspired by the series, in order to celebrate together the 10 years of existence of the games (ASA was released in 2013!). There are a few prizes to win, and still 2 months to create a demo/prototype/interactive experience.

At this occasion that I have announced Hexpatria, the next Black Cube game. It will be made in Unity engine, will have a different style of puzzles compared to the previous games, and will tell a part of the story of Philip Forté that has been kept silent so far, just after he discovered the existence of the Cubes and the Ark in 2011.

If you like sci-fi adventure games, please wait for Hexpatria and keep an eye on it! Thank you!

12. Why did you choose to add your games on FireFlower Games, and what is your experience with us?

I find that the ideal indie store would have to be DRM-free, have a community of passionate players who do really enjoy adventure games. It would accept most games, would make it quite easy to add them to the store. It would accept the whole Black Cubes series, making it clear for customers that there are several episodes. And there would be a real person behind the store that I can contact in order to ask questions, or that contacts me if there is a need to work on a sale or special event.

It seems to me that FireFlower is somehow replying to most of these needs, so I was happy to have the opportunity to submit my games there.

Thank you for the opportunity of replying to this interview, and thanks for reading it!

Also a big thank you to you Simon, for taking the time to answer these questions.

If you're interested in trying the Black Cube series game, you can find them here.