Calculating Sounds And Shapes

We sit down with Terry Cavanaugh, the creator of Super Hexagon.

By: Jason Johnson

Filed Under: Indie Industry Interview


Since ditching his bank job for one at his home computer, Terry Cavanagh has injected the indie scene with a consistent dosage of excellent games. I’d call his style noncommittal. His games are all over the map. They are often experimental (At A Distance), sometimes challenging (Super Hexagon), and always engaging (VVVVVV).

I would describe Terry as noncommittal too. The 28-year-old developer from Cambridge, England has a lilting Irish accent and chooses his words carefully. He wouldn’t talk to me at all about his flatmate, the hermetic developer Stephen Lavelle (increpare). On the subject of being interviewed, he was quick to point out, “I’m not used to this sort of thing by any means.” And I could tell that he wasn’t always comfortable verbalizing about his games.

Which is understandable. One, how do you articulate a hexagon? Two, sitting at a computer and programming all night is largely a nonverbal thing. It is very possible that the complete process of creating Super Hexagon involved absolutely zero gab. I was not really surprised that Terry didn’t drop mad ludic knowledge on me when I talked to him last Thursday.

According to Terry, playing Super Hexagon took up a lot of the development time, and I know that you cannot say a single word while playing this game. If you take your focus off the tiny reticle long enough to formulate a thought, any thought — much less speak it — chances are you will crash and die instantly. The only utterance to escape my lips the entire time I played it was “Oh shit!” after running head-on into the spiraling wall of a hexagon.

There is no denying that Super Hexagon is a gripping game, a dizzying game, a fair and equitable game, but it is also a game that is really hard to talk about — at least for Terry and me. I got the feeling that Terry’s creative energies belong to a part of his mind that can only be reached through the language of computer code. I just knew I should have conducted the interview over ChatChat, his cat sim/chat room/game.

We talked over speakerphone instead.

Super Hexagon has been pretty successful.

Certainly by my standard anyway.

How long did you spend on it?

I worked on it for about four or five months. I’d say at least half of that was playing the game. About three months in, it became about making small tweaks. It was a very enjoyable project to work on, and I can’t say that I’ve come to resent Hexagon in any way.

Super Hexagon looks fairly simple, but it sounds very refined.

I like to think so. I tried some wilder ideas and none of them made it. In the first mode, the hexagon shrinks to a pentagon and then to a square. I was trying to do that in reverse — to build up from a point to a hexagon — to evolve into a shape. Even when experiments don’t work, it teaches you a lot about what the game should be. . . I feel like I’m rambling.

You are pretty good at the game. I believe you were the best person in the world at one point.

I probably still am. I just haven’t been able to update the scoreboards this week. Also, people have started to hack the game. That person with a thousand seconds is clearly a hacker.

Super Hexagon is visually exciting. How do you approach the art in your games?

I usually look for some very low-class style that I can. . . explore. I’m way more concerned with my games looking interesting than good, ya know? I like working with colors that clash and a lot of visual noise. My games go in different directions. But I think you can see that they come from the same place. Maybe that only makes sense to me, though. I’m sorry. . . Sorry.

You run a blog that posts a ton of free indie games. What games have impressed you lately, and why?

Someone who comes to mind right away is thecatamites. His most famous game is Space Funeral. I like how the game feels alien and welcoming at the same time. It’s a story about everything we’ve broken and things not being in their correct form — but that’s a stupid oversimplification.

Anything else?

One of my favorites from last year was Sense of Connectedness [by Michael Brough]. It’s a really beautiful game about trying to understand a complex system.

I was wondering about your game ChatChat, where the cats talk to each other. Is there anything more to do?

I’m sorry. It is what it is.

Why cats?

I like cats. I had a cat growing up. I was quite attached to it. Yeah. I don’t have a cat now, though. I’m living in a foreign country. It wouldn’t be responsible.

Filed Under: Indie Industry Interview

About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.

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