An Aussie's interest in historically accurate sword fighting has seen him quit his job to star in a brutal melee game of his own creation. Melbourne man Michael Vansleve, 30, has long held an interest in historical European martial arts, and he was enjoying the combat and camaraderie at a local battle-game group called Swordcraft when inspiration struck. "I started thinking 'this would make a pretty good game, actually!' he says. "That ended up growing in my mind the more I was doing the hobby."
So began his idea of bringing historically accurate sword fighting into a pixel-laden side-scrolling world. Vansleve wasn't starting out blind; he had learned to code using Tim Sweeney's game creation system ZZT, and spent his high school years constructing Quake mods. However, he pivoted to multimedia study at university, and was now toiling away creating logos and ads as a graphic designer.
Rather than quit his job immediately, Vansleve squirrelled money away and grafted through a game pre-production phase until he had the ideas and means to ease away from full-time work. The game was to be a medieval sword fighting adventure – one that featured challenging skill-based combat inspired by historical swordsmanship.
Its world would be sinister but not unfamiliar, and between bouts of responsive sword fighting that combined historical fencing techniques with "a touch of Errol Flynn swashbuckling", it would explore the darker side of medieval fantasy.
Vansleve noted the way sword fighters chained moves together, and paid careful attention to what was actually effective in the heat of medieval battle. For example, when facing armoured enemies that blades were useless against, combatants often turned their swords around and held them by the blade like a big club. The practice was known as 'half-swording', and the aim was to knock an opponent out with your pommel. Naturally, such a manoeuvre is possible in the game, and recommended against armoured enemies.
A year later in January 2015, Vansleve finally eased down to two days of graphic design work a week and dedicated the rest of his waking hours to Bannerman. "When I got to the end of that phase I was like 'bugger it, I'm gonna take the leap – give it a proper bash'," he says. "I saved up and took a punt, basically."
A big fan of Flashback and Another World, he knew early on he wanted Bannerman to use rotoscoping. "They were my favourite games, I've always loved the animation they used," Vansleve says. When it came time to find a model to be rotoscoped, he kept costs down by casting himself, and used his tiny apartment lounge as a stage.
"I set cameras up in the biggest spot I've got in the apartment here, dressed up in something that's roughly what I want the character to looks like – right length of clothing and all that – and then went through a big list of animation," he explains. "All the characters in the game are me."
After filming himself doing the requisite moves, he'd transfer the video files to his PC, size them down to 64 pixels by 64 pixels, and then sit down to begin the arduous task of tracing each animation by hand. Using that process, each character took two days or so to complete. "I was getting really sick of doing it to be honest… it is a pretty time-consuming process," Vansleve admits.
He didn't completely emulate his favourite games, though. "My animations cancel out a lot quicker that things like Flashback did, where it takes about four minutes to stop running. And there's no danger of you running into a pit," he adds. However, in combat, animations do play out, so as in games like Dark Souls, wild swings commit you to a course of action, and any subsequent retribution.
Vansleve confesses that creating the game alone at his house was isolating. "It's great in some ways, because you can do whatever you want in the order you wanna do it, but it's hard in some ways in terms of.. I find it hard to distance myself from work," he says. "Work is always something I'm doing. It's hard to make myself go 'today is a day off' – you end up going back and working anyway!" It didn't help that all his computer gear was set up in the lounge. "I'm always sitting there looking at work, even when it's my day off."
That was perhaps what inspired him to document the game's development process from beginning to end in a YouTube series called 'Just Make Game'. "Right from the beginning a lot of people do a dev blog but it ends up being a bunch of text that no-one ends up reading," says Vansleve. "I do have decent knowledge of filming and editing videos, so I thought I might as well use my skills to make it a bit more engaging for people. And it's done not too bad actually! It's generated a bit of interest which is nice. It's hard to get someone to notice your little 2D indie game."
On Friday, more than two and a half years after he first began, Vansleve finally released Bannerman onto Steam. He then spent a pair of sleep-deprived days keeping an eye on the game's Steam forums, just in case he needed to deploy a hasty patch. "It has calmed down a lot now though and I'm feeling really great about the whole thing!" he says. "I must admit It's a huge relief to finally get it to launch. Getting it ready to go and taking it to launch has been a wild ride."
◆ Bannerman is out now on Steam.