A conversation with the Mary Rose Cook, the indie developer with no patience for indie games

Empty Black is Mary Rose Cook’s second game, and it’s a good’n. You play as a little white square in a big black world (this is me resisting a Steve Martin/The Jerk joke). You progress by jumping, throwing, shooting, and slashing – it must be said that for a tiny white square you are massively violent – through levels of such austere simplicity that they seem to exist purely as symbols. We talked to Cook, a 31-year-old programmer from London, about her love of Call of Duty, her philosophy of videogame shooting, and her impatience with indie games.

How did you start making games?

Sort of by accident, really. I was living in Berlin two years ago and I’d always wanted to make my own platformer but never got around to it. I just started working on a game in Javascript that could run in the browser without plugins. Quite quickly it became known as Pistol Slut.

Pistol Slut?

I was trying to combine sex and violence. Friends said the name was the best thing about it, so I kept the name.

So I threw in a lot of things that I thought were fun, like parallax scrolling, and enemies that cooperate with each other, and suppressing fire that makes enemies keep their heads down. The game was a grab bag of stuff I thought was fun.

I finished it and realized I’d had a lot of fun making it. It was the first programming project in my life that felt like a mode of artistic expression. Things from my real life crept into Pistol Slut. Bits of graffiti I saw, places I went to, bits of Gerrman. I finished Pistol Slut and before I knew what I was doing I started working on another game.

What is your relationship with games?

My brother had a Nintendo 64 when we were growing up so we played a lot of Goldeneye. A couple of my friends had SNES so I played Street Fighter 2. To be honest, I didn’t play games that much for a long time. When I did it was a vice that I practiced in secret. I was ashamed of it, really. All of my friends were not geeks. I thought it was slightly shameful.

Then over the last two or three years I’ve started to feel okay about playing games.

My taste in games is the most thuggish, brutal taste that you can imagine. I love Max Payne 3 and Call of Duty and Halo and I can’t stand most indie games.


It’s completely unfair, I don’t know. I just like stupid games where you just blow people’s heads off.

Come on.

Okay, okay. I’ll start playing an indie game and then I’ll play it for 15 minutes and feel absolutely no compunction to return to it at all, but I’ll sit down in front of Uncharted 3 – I completed that in a weekend. I find most of the intelligent, cogent games that actually have something to say very dull.

But Empty Black is an indie game, with an indie aesthetic.

I make games I want to play. And I’m not capable of making a 3D game or a big blockbuster. The things that I like boil down to shooting and a sort of indefinable deft quality. I tried to achieve these qualities in Empty Black. I spent weeks trying to get the jumping right, even though you’re only using arrow keys. I think if I came across Empty Black written by someone else, I would like it, but that’s because I’ve tailored it to my particular taste: shooting. It’s just the shooting I really enjoy.

The minimalism is purely because I can’t draw. My strategy for visual things is to take as much away as possible so I can’t make an aesthetic fuck-up. Hopefully it leaves something that’s not horrendous.

As for the indie aesthetic,  again, I think its purely based on the fact that I don’t know how to draw. I’d like to make a Nathan – whatever the hell his name is [ed: Drake]– but I don’t have the machinery.

One of my coworkers noticed that some of the mechanics in Empty Black feel like 2D versions of or nods to big market games. Like the stabbing and sneaking feels very much like Assassin’s Creed.

Oh, that’s brilliant! Many of the mechanics in the game are my version of thuggish, visceral blockbuster games. The stabbing, for sure. The blood spurts. The shooting is heavily influenced by the original Far Cry. I figured out why the shooting in that game felt so visceral. I boiled it down to four elements – your gun has to make a sound, there has to be some sort of visual impact of the bullet hitting the thing it hits, the hit object has to react to it in the way it moves and the bullet hitting the thing has to make a sound. I tried to put all of those things into Empty Black

What do you hope gamers get from the game?

Four things.

I hope they finish it. I made it really short on purpose because so many games are really long. I think the developer is trying to be nice to player but it’s actually cruel because a half-finished experience is unfulfilling.

I tried to introduce a new fun mechanic into every level I hope no one will ever thing I have to slog through this level.

I recently read House of Leaves, which is about a house that has an endless basement in it. It’s not scary because there’s stuff in there but because there is nothing in there. When the novelist describes this endless, cavernous hell, he describes almost nothing. I wanted to try to evoke that in the game. My idea was that it would feel nonsensical because it was so divorced from reality.

Oh, and I hope that they have fun, obviously.