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Severed Limbs and Slam-Dunked Toddlers: An Interview With The Creator of "Happy Wheels"

If you are squeamish or of a nervous disposition, or maybe you don’t like seeing pixelated bodies mutilated in the name of gaming, you probably shouldn’t play this video game or watch the video above. But if you love the sight of fake blood, guts, and broken limbs, happy viewing.

Happy Wheels is a video game from indie developer Jim Bonacci whose online home is a site called Total Jerkface—and not for nothing. In this twisted video game you take the form of a hobo in a wheelchair, a fat lady in a mobility scooter, a guy on a Segway, or an irresponsible cyclist father with his kid; sometimes the game will demand that you slam dunk that kid into a basketball net, or run it over, while other times you’ll be charting the mobility scooter through internal organs and gastric acid. But whatever happens, you can guarantee there’ll be lots of blood, decapitations, and flying limbs in your quest to complete a level. The trailer features all of these, so make sure you watch it surrounded by callous, cold-hearted monsters. And no one who’s easily offended.

The Creators Project: How did you come up with the idea for Happy Wheels?
Jim Bonacci
: I was inspired by a lot of side-scrolling, ragdoll physics-type games when that sort of thing was still very new in the Flash community. Many were pretty tame or boring, so I figured I should attempt to make my own. With the characters I’ve designed, I wanted to have some less obvious choices. I thought it would be pretty funny to immediately disappoint the player with a selection of characters that would most likely be seen as completely inadequate.

I suppose a large part of Happy Wheels is the violence. It always bothered me when, in similar titles, you’d fall off your vehicle and harmlessly bounce around. In other cases, you would have the same canned animation over and over. I’m not sure if it was a lack of detail or concern on the part of the developer, but the consequences of your in-game actions were often improperly illustrated. For me, half of the fun of playing a game that imitates life (sort of), is making mistakes and seeing the end result. I feel let down when I do something in a video game, and what I’m expecting to happen doesn’t. I was very conscious of this while developing Happy Wheels. Seeing as how you spend a large amount of time dying, I figured I might as well try to depict that aspect of the game with as much detail as the rest. If you don’t see humour in the game, maybe that won’t be so enjoyable for you.

What is the appeal of making indie games?
The appeal to me was just the goal of being able to spend my day doing something I actually care about and enjoy. I’m only just now starting to make money off of my own stuff, so it hasn’t really hit me yet that I may have accomplished that goal. I spent years working on and off in advertising just so I could afford to live while completing the game. The game’s success will determine if I have to go back or not. As far as making indie games as opposed to bigger budget games, I suppose the appeal has a lot to do with freedom in development. I’m currently the only person working on Happy Wheels, so obviously I’m responsible for all decisions made. As much as I’d like some help, it’s nice that the only thing altering my vision of how the game should be is my own capacity for work. Corners get cut when I end up taking too long, which is always. I’ve never worked for a larger gaming company, but I’m sure the original idea for Happy Wheels would have been met with some large alterations. There aren’t too many fathers running over their children in mainstream titles.

Indie gaming’s getting bigger and bigger. Will it ever rival the mainstream?
Well, I guess if it’s rivaling mainstream, then it has become mainstream… so, no. That level of success would take a whole lot of money and promotion, something an independent developer wouldn’t have access to.

Do you think video games can be art?
Yes.

What criteria make a video game a work of art?
As long as there is some level of creativity involved in the development process, any game could be considered artwork. Even if it’s a bloated, commercial piece of garbage, or simply a text-based game, there is still interactivity between the game and the audience that was created by someone with some purpose in mind. That being said, there’s a lot of bad and/or unoriginal art out there.

How would you justify Happy Wheels as a work of art?
I would like to consider myself more of an artist than a programmer. I used to do a lot of pencil drawing, and it was always a very long, anal process for me. When I moved to the development of Flash games, I was still spending a ton of time drawing out visuals. The main difference was that I was putting in hundreds of hours of programming in order to add interactivity. If anything, the addition of interactivity allowed me to become a lot more creative in my subject matter. Happy Wheels is promoted as a video game, but I don’t feel that should lessen its value as artwork when nothing has been subtracted from my artistic process. I’m sure plenty of people think it’s mindless violence, and that’s totally OK. It is to some degree, but there’s a lot of thought and effort behind it.

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