In 2014, when game designer Gabe Cuzzillo was still a student in New York, he was going through something of a rough patch. “I was in film school at the time, and I was feeling pretty bad about where my life was going,” he says. That’s when he discovered the 1980 jazz tune “You’ve Got to Have Freedom” by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. There was something about the long, winding track that had a strong impact on Cuzzillo. “It really spoke to me on a deep level,” he says, “and it felt like it woke me up.” At the same time, he was working on a prototype for a top-down action game. As it turned out, the wild, improvisational style of jazz was a great fit for a game about an ape escaping from a lab.
That game would go on to become Ape Out, which is out now on PC and the Nintendo Switch. In a lot of ways, Ape Out seems like a typical arcade-style action game. You control the titular ape, making your way through various buildings filled with gun-wielding guards. You only really have two ways to defend yourself: smash and grab. It turns into a messy, unpredictable violent dance; bodies go flying, smashing into bloody bits, which you can then use as weapons. Just as importantly, the music emulates the action on-screen, ramping up in intensity as the violence ratchets up. Tossing a guard against a wall results in a satisfying cymbal crash. It’s an orchestra of destruction.
Cuzzillo has been working on the game for around five years. It started out as a small project while he was a student, and eventually, he joined the game incubator program at NYU where he met composer Matt Boch who helped craft Ape Out’s sound. (Early versions of the game featured drum solos ripped from YouTube videos.) Later, Bennett Foddy, best known for the maddening Qwop, joined as well, helping to craft the Saul Bass-inspired art style.
“It’s about forcing you to improvise.”
One of the reasons the game was in development for so long was that it took Cuzzillo a while to figure out the right structure. By 2016, he says he had a solid eight levels, but that wasn’t enough for an entire game. The problem, he says, was that the intensity started to wear off after a certain number of levels. “It very quickly became clear that so much of the aesthetic of the game was about escalation, and ramping up what feels good, and constantly introducing new audiovisual things to the player,” he explains. “That feeling of escalation and escape got lost after the first sequence. It felt like we had already gotten to the maximum intensity and there was no room left to have any dynamic range.”
The solution was albums. Ape Out is divided into multiple albums, which serve the role of a typical video game world, each with a distinct vibe. That allows the action to cool off for a bit, giving you a moment of relative calm before it gets intense once again. “As soon as I made that decision, things started to click, and the game made a lot more sense to me,” Cuzzillo says. Another major aspect of Ape Out is procedural generation. The rooms you’re breaking out of are slightly different each time you play, so you can’t just memorize an escape route. This, too, ties into the jazz theme. “In most games, procedural generation is there to add replayability and add very divergent outcomes,” says Cuzzillo. “In this game, it’s about forcing you to improvise.”
That also means that Ape Out is a very hard video game. You can’t rely on knowing the layout of a building or the route of the guards. Just like an ape breaking out of a lab, you have to take each moment as it comes, making decisions in the moment. The result can be challenging; it took me hours just to get through the game’s first few levels. For Cuzzillo, the difficulty level was something he says he struggled with. He wanted the game to be hard — it’s not easy for an unarmed ape to go up against dozens of gun-toting guards, after all — but not unapproachable. “I tuned the game to the point where it felt interesting to me,” he says.
“There’s something about a game that doesn’t have difficulty settings.”
He also chose against having multiple difficulty options so that everyone who played had the same experience. “Ultimately, there’s something about a game that doesn’t have difficulty settings,” Cuzzillo explains. “There’s a canonical experience that you’re supposed to have, that’s tuned really finely, and it just feels so much more confident. It moves it away from being software towards feeling like you’re engaging with a piece of art.”
The result is a game that, despite containing many elements of arcade classics, ultimately feels new and different. Ape Out is wild and freeform, loud and intense — not unlike the song that helped inspire it. “It became an emotional touchstone for everything that went into the game,” Cuzzillo says of Pharoah Sanders’ song. “Whenever I added anything, I would gutcheck it against the feeling of listening to this song.”
Ape Out is available now on PC and the Nintendo Switch.