Airdorf is the developer of acclaimed 2D survival horror franchise, FAITH: Unholy Trinity. In this interview, we discuss the impact of games like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and P.T. on his game development journey, and Airdorf gives us his take on the… let’s say, expressive fanfictions the community have created since the game’s launch.
How long have you been making games?
I've been involved in games since I was 11 or 12. Ever since I played my first game at the age of six, I knew I wanted to be a part of the industry, so I started getting the necessary tools to develop and post games online.
Horror seems to be my wheelhouse, and I have a passion for emotional design and experiences. This approach allows you to create something unique.
I feel like I'm in a position where I'm doing what I love and that's good.
The story begins...
You mentioned that the first game you ever played was all it took to make you want to get into the industry - which game was it?
It was Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the original Game Boy.
I had played computer games with friends before, but this was the first one that was fully mine. I played it for a very, very long time. I don't think I beat it until I was like 12 years old. That was before walkthroughs and let's plays, so it was really hard for me to get hints and figure out how to beat the game.
I muscled through, but it took me a very long time. It’s one of the things I love about Link's Awakening - it feels like its own self-contained world where your decisions matter.
There's this part after beating the first dungeon where Link returns to the starting location village, and when you walk into it, everyone comes rushing up to you in a panic because someone got kidnapped, and you have to go save them. Panicky music is playing and everybody's really scared. That was a lot for me to handle as a six year old.
It was a cool experience that taught me games can be their own little worlds. You can get attached to the characters and the setting.
I've always tried to communicate that my games don’t take themselves too seriously. I’m trying to have fun, and to create a world that people can be engaged in.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for the Game Boy.
Is that mindset present in the FAITH series as well?
The FAITH series are horror games, but I don't think I could make a horror game that was a hundred percent serious and didn't have a moment of levity.
Five Nights at Freddy's 2 is sheer panic and terror from the start to finish. It doesn’t let up, you hardly get any breaks from the action. I don't think I could do something like that. I like to put little moments in the games that people could find funny.
If you've ever had a moment where something terrible or chaotic was happening, and you happen to notice a funny detail which comes back to you after things calm down - that’s the kind of detail I like to add to remind you that you're playing a game. They're supposed to be fun.
Fans often find little memorable moments in my games and post them on social media.
There's a lot of memes that come out of FAITH because of the art style. It's dangerously easy to make a FAITH meme.
What inspired FAITH’s artstyle?
I first got the idea for FAITH in late 2015. I didn't start working on it ‘til 2016. At the time I was really into P.T., the Silent Hills demo on the PlayStation Store.
I loved it. It's my favorite horror game ever. It has a reductionist approach to horror that I thought was really needed at the time. Of course, a ton of imitators came after it, and one of them was going to be FAITH.
I wanted FAITH to have the realistic style of P.T., but I wasn't much of a graphic programmer, and I didn't know how to use programs like Unreal. In the end, I went the opposite direction.
I really enjoy retro games. I'm a big fan of pixel art and 8-bit music. I used my passion for old technology to create a new horror experience. I knew I could make a game that would scare people despite having graphics that looked like they came from the 70’s or 80’s. And so I started working on FAITH.
It began as a copy of the hunting minigame in Oregon Trail, except there was a demon that would pop out of the side of the screen and come after you… and get a cross instead of a gun.
The iconic corridor from P.T
How much has FAITH changed from its original vision?
I didn't do the text to speech voices or the Rotoscope animation at first. It took me a while to figure out that I wanted to do that.
The original audio for Michael, the white demon that goes after you in the woods, was a slowed down Pokémon battle cry from Generation 2. I decided to do something else so that Nintendo wouldn't sue me. There was a text to speech software
A lot of people ask me every day how to recreate the voices in FAITH: first of all, it’s a trade secret, so I'm not gonna tell you; two, it's not that simple. I don't just use the voices, I do a lot of post-processing and tweaking.
Originally, the cutscenes were supposed to be still images, no rotoscope animation. I wondered what would be scarier - a still image or something more realistic and cinematic? The result of this was your first encounter with Amy.
Earlier, if you get killed by Michael, or if you try to pause the game when he’s on screen, you'll get a scary cutscene, which always gets a big reaction from players.
When people hear the text to speech program and see a Rotoscope cutscene, they automatically associate it with FAITH, which is really cool.
I tend to use very few colours, too. In Chapter 3, almost all the environments were based off of the colour palettes for the Apple II and Commodore 64.
How do you create rotoscope animation?
It's really simple. I have a little bit of acting experience, so I filmed myself performing various actions you see on screen. Chapter one is all me, which explains why Amy, a 17 year old girl, has really broad shoulders. After recording, I import the frames in Photoshop, downscale them, and then use video layers to trace over them at 15 frames per second.
It results in hundreds of drawings. Since I have some animation training, I hand animated the effects or things that I couldn't act on on my own. So for example, in the scene where the demon hand emerges out of the hole on Amy’s face, I first filmed myself acting as her reacting to it, and then I recorded my arm flailing around. Frame by frame, I would interpose the arm over the footage of the body, and then trace over.
It’s a tedious process. I did it all with my mouse for the first two chapters. By the third chapter, I was lucky enough to have a display tablet that I could draw on. My output got so much better and more efficient that way.
I don't think FAITH would be as recognisable as it is now if it didn’t have the text to speech and the rotoscope cutscenes. It would still be a scary game, but there's an iconography associated with it now. I'm very happy that it came to me, because it's made a huge difference.
Airdorf as Amy
Do you watch Let's Play videos of your games?
Yeah, I usually leave a comment after finishing. It’s free QA testing for me. I want to watch someone go in it blind because I've played these games to death just creating them, and so has my QA team.
Watching someone play FAITH for the first time gives me a lot of insight on what to do differently or things I could change, like accessibility features.
Do you have any favorites?
Jesse Cox and the Scary Game Squad have been such huge supporters of my work and me, so I really enjoy watching them. Markiplier playthroughs were amazing to watch. Markiplier is the first YouTuber I ever subscribed to. In fact, years of watching him play and react to indie horror games are a large part of the indie horror game acumen that I've developed.
I'm such a big fan of his that there are a lot of parts in FAITH that I designed specifically to scare him. It sounds a little sadistic and creepy, but I knew that if I could get a good reaction out of a big YouTuber, then more people would notice my game.
Markiplier, jacksepticeye, Gab Smolders, and Oney Plays, they all played FAITH and appeared to enjoy it. It was really cool to see these heroes of mine who entertained me throughout the years on YouTube pick up and play my game.
When I realised FAITH was getting noticed, I had the goal to get it played by those big YouTubers. It’s both surreal and really cool to see them have fun with it.
Markiplier enjoyed playing Faith a lot!
Have you worked on any other games, aside from FAITH?
After FAITH, I started getting commissions from movie companies to make little promotional tie-in games for their films. The first one was called The Wind. It's based off of a movie called the Wind by IFCFilms. The company reached out to me saying they’ve been looking for a developer who knows how to make horror games in the style of the Oregon Trail. Next was Extra Ordinary, a supernatural horror-comedy, and then Attack of the Murder Hornets which is a Paramount+ documentary. The most recent one was Hatching, which I did with IFC Midnight.
What were the inspirations behind FAITH?
I'm a huge fan of supernatural horror, anything involving ghosts, demons, and religious horror. I try to look into all religions for spiritual warfare type content.
For example, exorcisms in Islam are very different from the Christian pop culture stereotype, and Judaism has a lot of interesting traditions as well.
A lot of FAITH was inspired by films like Paranormal, Activity 3, my personal favorite out of that series, the Exorcist III, and the original Exorcist and the Rite starring Anthony Hopkins.
I tend to gravitate towards minimalist horror. For example, [REC], which is a Spanish found footage zombie film, has a really frightening ending in my opinion. It reduces all the chaos from the rest of the film into one really, really horrifying moment, and I wanted to give that kind of feeling to the players when they play FAITH.
Hereditary was also a big influence. I think that's one of the scariest films I've ever watched. The Conjuring, It Follows, the Blair Witch Project - films that have a lot of themes of isolationism, and the sense of paranoia created by not trusting others. I have an internal mental library of horror films to draw from.
I play a lot of horror games too. Fatal Frame 2 is one of my all-time favorites, as is the Resident Evil remake which I hope they never remake again because I think it's perfect. The soundtrack from Silent Hill games was used as inspiration for Chapter 3's music.
I believe in making games that the developer likes to play. There's people on the internet whose preferences align with mine, so if I make something that I'm passionate about, at least a few people will like it.
Other non-horror influences were of course Link’s Awakening. There's a few nods to Undertale, and I'm always inspired by titles from New Blood Interactive, like Dusk and ULTRAKILL. Those are all amazing games and I look up to their developers quite a bit.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, the inspiration behind FAITH
How did your work with New Blood Interactive start?
It seemed very strange to me that a publisher that's known for retro shooting games took on a project like FAITH, but the first thing that Dave Oshry, the CEO at New Blood, said to me when we first started talking about a publishing deal, was that he really liked FAITH, and that immediately put my mind at ease.
Publishing FAITH wasn’t just a financial decision for him. My game was something the New Blood team felt passionate about.
What were the most challenging moments of FAITH’s development?
I wasn’t much of a programmer when I started, even though GameMaker and GML Language are very easy to use and extremely well documented. Despite my best efforts, I'm still not much of a programmer.
Implementing the things I designed was rough sometimes. Setting up the AI for some of the final bosses in the game was a really complicated process, and took a lot of iterations.
I would say the single most tedious part of development was revamping the save and load system for the Unholy Trinity, so that it would work with Steam. Still, I'm glad I did it because it made testing a lot easier - it actually helped with load times. It was completely beyond me at the time, but I powered through it with a lot of help from New Blood’s QA team.
Shout out to Shaun Spalding for their awesome GameMaker tutorials, too!
Why did you pick GameMaker as your engine of choice?
I started using GameMaker in 2013 for an intro to Game Design class. We had to present a prototype of our game that we designed by the end of the semester. I heard GameMaker was easy to use and I knew that if I tried to do Unreal or Unity, I would get bogged down in the programming.
Using GameMaker was a huge learning process, but by the end of the semester I had a pretty cool little prototype. Over the years, I would go back to GameMaker and I keep making small prototypes.
I didn't know that FAITH would take seven years to complete. It was something I was working on in my spare time, so GameMaker was the perfect platform to prototype things. Editing objects and putting in the behavior code for objects feels very intuitive to me.
By the time I finished the first few chapters, I was asked if I had thought about porting FAITH to Unity. I said no, because porting to Unity would require me to unlearn everything and then learn a completely new engine.
I stuck with GameMaker and I'm glad I did. I'm really impressed with the export modules because we're gonna start working on a Switch port sometime this year, and things like Mac, PlayStation, and Xbox a little later.
What is the most difficult thing about being an indie game developer?
The hardest part was the month leading up to the release of faith in October 2022. Every night I was up late, in constant communication with Dave Oshry and New Blood’s QA team trying to get stuff to work.
I thought releasing the game on Steam would be a huge weight off my shoulders, but when you release a game, you get about 500 messages, bug and crash reports from users. In a way, I fell into a post-launch depression. It was difficult to go back and fix things players were complaining about.
A lot of them are very passionate followers, patient and understanding. Other ones? Not so much.
They'll report their bugs with a negative Steam review, which is terrible practice. Game devs have so many channels to report bugs for people to use, rather than hurting the rating of a game by reporting bugs through a review.
When FAITH dips below Overwhelmingly Positive, I get a little sinking feeling in my gut, because I'm a perfectionist. The folks at New Blood have been really good at coaching me through dealing with disgruntled fans and players, and being conscientious of the needs of the player while still retaining my original vision for the game, so I won't feel compromised as an artist.
Father John, the fan favorite
How do you feel about your community’s infatuation with father John?
I think it's flattering… and sometimes a little creepy.
I never considered myself to be a good storyteller. I roll my eyes at things like planning out character development. My philosophy is that such things should come naturally from the writing.
I’m happy that people seem to really like characters like John, Father Garcia, Amy, and Michael. Their design helps to create a lot of fan interpretation for better or worse.
Whatever you do, do not read the fanfiction for FAITH! I read FAITH fanfiction and some of y'all need Jesus.
All the fanart, headcanons and ship fanfics are really cool and I encourage fan works, as long as creators don't charge for them. Somebody emailed me the other day asking if they can remake the entire game in Roblox and charge money for it. I said no, but I admire their audacity for asking.
Do you have any favorite characters in FAITH?
I really liked Tiffany in Chapter 3. I thought she had an interesting story. Lisa has a lot of potential in any possible future FAITH games. And I really like Father Garcia. I liked crafting his character into what he is now - an old, disgruntled priest who's not afraid to use a shotgun when he needs to.
If John is a self insert for my spiritual struggles, then Gary is an insert for the dark side, being an evil person.
I'm attached to a lot of those characters, but I also enjoy seeing fans of FAITH make them their own and interpret them the way they want to. I'm glad I created a game that’s open to that kind of fan interpretation.
Father Garcia and his trusty shotgun
What do you do when you’re not developing games?
I teach game design, level design, and computer animation. I like spending time with my family. We have a quiet little neighborhood where we like to walk around and play.
When I'm not spending time with them, of course, I play my fair share of games.
Are the rumors of your possible cooperation with the TikTok influencer Molly Moon true?
There's gonna be a pretty interesting collaboration between me and her in the future and it's currently being discussed. Fans of her TikToks will really enjoy the project we're working on.