June 22, 2024

From Canabalt To Tunic – Finji’s Independent Approach To Publishing And Creating Games

In 2009, a video game called Canabalt was published on the iOS App Store. It had a simple premise: Your character flees through a crumbling urban landscape, making great leaps across rooftops at the touch of your phone screen. It met great success and charted in what was then only a burgeoning mobile game ecosystem. Canabalt popularized the infinite runner genre and would ultimately put its designer, Adam Saltsman, on the map.

Now working under the name of Finji as its creative director, Adam’s rise as a designer as well as his partner’s, Bekah Saltsman, as both a publisher and CEO, has been stunning to watch, especially considering the simplicity of that first big hit. Whether you’re playing the bass guitar as Mae Borowski in Night In The Woods, organizing patchwork-colored boxes in Wilmot’s Warehouse, or floating listlessly through space in Capsule, Finji continues to offer memorable, beautiful experiences from trailblazing game designers unlike any other.

But for Adam and Bekah, in those early days of entering the indie game industry, everything always led back to that original, impossible question: How do you even make a video game?

Overland

Bridging The Gap

For as long as Adam can remember, he wanted to be a video game artist. Fascinated with the vibrant colors and rich SunSoft sound chips of original NES cartridges, the video games of his childhood quickly took over his imagination. He designed his own levels for Super Mario Bros. on sheets of grid paper. He ordered floppy disks with the Wolfenstein level editor built-in. He experimented with the Doom level editor, then eventually the Quake editor. However, despite being a part of this growing generation of designers with a dream to create console games that felt like some of their childhood favorites, it was never clear how exactly you get from hobbyist to career.

“That gap, in the early 1990’s in rural Michigan, is a very wide gap,” Adam says.

Upon graduating from the University of Michigan alongside Bekah, the Saltsmans made the move out to where the ever-growing indie scene was just beginning to flourish: Austin, Texas. An environment with excellent studios and cheap rent seemed the perfect place for Adam to cut his teeth and enter the industry. Unfortunately, getting your foot in the door at major developers of the time was much more complicated than anticipated, so he looked to other routes. In 2006, Adam transitioned into tech contractor work to dedicate sufficient time toward launching his and Bekah’s new studio, Last Chance Media. Beginning with only a few days each month, the two created simple, arcade-feeling Flash and iOS games that promoted simple game mechanics and aesthetic sensibilities that fit into Adam’s love for pixel art and incredible game soundtracks. Around this time, Adam’s first major titles begin appearing: Canabalt, Gravity Hook, and Fathom. Adam’s platformer, Fathom, had an especially intriguing finale that took some of his fans at the time by surprise – a boss fight you could not win.

Canabalt

“You die, and you have this bizarre exploration experience,” Adam says. “You find this door at the bottom of the ocean, it opens up, and you sink down into it.”

Until that point, the Saltsmans’ stories in games always seemed to present something both unexpected and unnerving: a sinking robot, a crumbling city, a suffocating space mission. The games were always fun and engaging, but they had something larger to say. Each new project from Adam and Bekah were then examples of both creativity in design and were challenging the idea of what a game could even look like. That philosophy would eventually spur the change of Last Chance Media into their latest team-up and best-known collaboration: Finji.

Finji Begins

Having scraped and saved for nearly 10 years, the Saltsmans were finally ready to unveil their development studio, Finji, on March 3, 2014, along with its first major internal project: Overland. It marked an exceptionally creative endeavor for Adam and Bekah, leaving behind action platforming in favor of eerie, strategic grid-based movement. Any given level is presented from a bird’s eye view, showing various interactable elements for your character and hiding others within obscuring shadows.

“The diorama, at a glance, should look like a little apocalyptic story,” Adam said. “That was the rule for the level design: there should clearly be your characters, menacing forces and an escape route.”

Night In The Woods

However, before they could reach that final product, the Saltsmans put out a very candid, transparent request on their blog, seeking animators and audio engineers who weren’t looking to create something that sounded or looked like anything else on the market. Rather than base qualifications simply on prior experience or padded portfolios, they ensured interested artists were considered through paid, practical demos and tests that proved their intuition and problem-solving skills rather than simply their past work.

Adam and Bekah have always been keenly aware of the toxicity in some of the gaming industry’s highest-stake work environments, particularly regarding “crunch time” before release. That attitude bleeds not only into their game development but also into their relationships with creators as studio publishers themselves. In fact, before they agreed to publish Tunic with creator Andrew Shouldice, they mentored him on the project for years prior. This way, Finji could view Shouldice’s work on the game not only from a marketability, quality-assurance, or localization perspective (which was crucial) but also as fellow creative partners.

I Was A Teenage Exocolonist

“Our relationship didn’t start with a publishing negotiation; it started with them taking time to give a stranger some feedback and advice,” Shouldice said. “It’s that willingness to help that I think makes them such an important part of the game development community.”

Another of Finji’s published games, Wilmot’s Warehouse, first appeared as a part of Humble Monthly on Steam, but creator Richard Hogg knew that in order to improve the game’s performance and expand its audience, he would need a proper publisher. While Hogg had worked with various publishing groups before, it seemed that Finji was especially capable of providing a friendly, cooperative relationship in which everyone involved could have input on the game’s design. Much like an indie record label that emerges from veteran bands supporting younger artists, Finji’s own history in creating games sets it apart from other publishers.

“Finji is exactly like this, and, just like with those labels, there is an integrity and a camaraderie that naturally comes out of it,” Hogg said.

Ten years after those initial Overland blog posts, Finji is still looking for projects unlike anything else and continues to make space for game developers and creators who wouldn’t usually be in the room. In Adam’s experience, he’s found that indie developers often fit into two modes: People who want to make games just like their favorites or people who want to make games that correct the flaws in those same titles and invent something new. More often, however, a Finji game fits in neither category. There would be no Chicory: A Colorful Tale without Link’s Awakening. No Canabalt without Mirror’s Edge. No Night In The Woods without one of Adam’s own personal favorites: Kentucky Route Zero.

“You are giving the player an experience they otherwise would not have had,” Bekah said. “They are able to experience games in a way that they’ve never experienced games before. That idea is fed through Night In The Woods.”

Wilmot’s Warehouse

Seven years since Night In The Woods’ initial release, the game continues to leave as much of an impact as it did when fans first played it. Its casual platforming roots meant for an especially approachable gaming experience, and Scott Benson’s wholly unique art direction helped the game transcend its medium and find itself in myriad forms; fan art, tattoo designs, cosplays, and more.

“There were thousands upon thousands of responses on social media, from people who discovered it last week to people who discovered it seven years ago, talking about how that game not only changed what games were for them but also changed them as a person,” Bekah said.

Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of Finji, beyond their award-winning games, is its logo: a ferret wearing a crown. Designed by Richard Hogg (creator of Finji’s published title, Wilmot’s Warehouse), the design embodies two very important parts of the founders Adam and Bekah Saltsmans’ lives.

The crown is representative of their eldest son, Kingsley, while the ferret mascot is a sly reference to Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on PBS, which featured a mob of pet ferrets in one episode. The scene showing their escape is a favorite of Adam’s.

As for “Finji,” the studio’s name serves as a loving homage to the childhood nickname for their youngest son, Finnegan.

Combining elements of the Saltsmans’ humor, inventiveness, and nostalgia were paramount in Hogg’s logo design.

The sheer approachability and ease of access toward Finji games like Night In The Woods remains one of the studio’s hallmark factors and one the Saltsmans pride themselves on. “No Fail” mode was included in Tunic so combat-averse players can still enjoy the adventure. In the BAFTA award-winning Chicory: A Colorful Tale, you have a fast-paced, engaging action-adventure that still relies on a touching story about creativity and passion. In these same seminal titles, Finji brings together creative teams and designers who lend their original voices to the blossoming indie game industry.

“Chicory is a great example because you have somebody who maybe hasn’t art directed a game that size before, and so it looks super special,” Adam said. “And you have very subversive gameplay. You don’t hurt anybody in Chicory.”

Tunic

These past 10 years, Finji has shown that person-first, supportive video game publishing and development can lead to higher quality experiences, never sacrificing camaraderie for crunch. The unifying factor between their games, then, is the incredible attention to detail each of their gathered teams present toward story, setting and character.

“You can tell these all go together, even though none of them look the same,” Bekah said. “They have this hyper-dedication to place, where the place is an extra character in the game that has motivations that act out upon the player.”

Nowhere will this be truer than in Finji’s upcoming 2025 title.

Spiritual Successor

Overlapping with the marketing and releases of both Tunic and I Was A Teenage Exocolonist (from Sarah Northway, marking the first woman-led release with Finji) development began for Finji’s newest title, Usual June, in February 2021. The fundamental design was going to be very different from its past published releases, like Tunic. Usual June would be a more bespoke and considered experience, less so an open-world for the player to freely explore. It’s also the first development project from Finji since Overland’s release in 2019. But while Overland and Usual June are both stories about the end of the world, the latter marks another major genre departure for the Saltsmans and Finji: a 3D action-adventure.

“An initial inspiration was Secret Of Mana, which is Bekah’s favorite game,” Adam said. “It has real-time battles with dodging and charge attacks. We thought, let’s take the guts of that.”

Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Usual June is a paranormal story, fundamentally a mystery story, but not with a normal, formulaic detective structure. The playable character, June, has the supernatural ability to speak with ghosts, which when combined with the “weird-looking, glowing stuff” (as Adam puts it) briefly shown in the trailer, you’re left with the notes of impossibility lying at the root of Usual June’s mystery. The worldbuilding for Finji and their narrative collaborator, Sweet Baby Inc., then became a sort of experiment: How would a normal-enough town of people react to sudden changes of supernatural phenomena? What are the consequences of learning about the paranormal beneath the surface?

“In Usual June, you will mostly see what June sees and mostly understand what June understands, which is not going to be everything,” Adam said. “There will be things that you don’t fix, there will be some things that don’t get explained or are too hard to explain. I hope that’s one of the things that people love about it, that there’s space to inhabit and think about it.”

Usual June

One way players will be able to inhabit the mystery of June’s town, Fen Harbor, more fully is through its inclusive storytelling within the detective-mystery as a whole. Rather than rely on checklists for June to mark down as the mystery comes to a close, Adam and Bekah lean further into the common tropes of some of their favorite sci-fi and supernatural mysteries, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I Am Not Okay With This, and even, for Adam especially, the Godzilla films.

To demonstrate this, Adam began to act out a noir-like scene where a hard-hitting journalist might be visiting a mysterious character who knows more about the mystery than they’re letting on. He proceeded to fish around and pick up miscellaneous objects from nearby shelves in order to seem aloof as he continued to question his suspect.

“Outside of Phoenix Wright, I’ve never seen a game work like that,” Adam said. “The story areas weren’t a 3D space where you can wander around and look at weird stuff on the shelf while you banter with a character.”

Adam and Bekah Saltsman

With much more to learn about Usual June before its release sometime next year, the Saltsmans and their team at Finji look forward to teasing further secrets. How does a missing kid case fit into June’s life? Where is this alternate world full of neon-colored caves and crystalline monsters? And what’s the connection between June’s powers and Teddy, her friendly ghost companion?

All of that remains to be answered… Or will it be?

“It’s not going to be a game where all the things get explained,” Adam said. “A lot of the joy for us is going to live in leaving places for people to have fun in the fog.

This article originally appeared in Issue 365 of Game Informer.

In 2009, a video game called Canabalt was published on the iOS App Store. It had a simple premise: Your character flees through a crumbling urban landscape, making great leaps across rooftops at the touch of your phone screen. It met great success and charted in what was then only a burgeoning mobile game ecosystem. Canabalt popularized the infinite runner genre and would ultimately put its designer, Adam Saltsman, on the map.

Now working under the name of Finji as its creative director, Adam’s rise as a designer as well as his partner’s, Bekah Saltsman, as both a publisher and CEO, has been stunning to watch, especially considering the simplicity of that first big hit. Whether you’re playing the bass guitar as Mae Borowski in Night In The Woods, organizing patchwork-colored boxes in Wilmot’s Warehouse, or floating listlessly through space in Capsule, Finji continues to offer memorable, beautiful experiences from trailblazing game designers unlike any other.

But for Adam and Bekah, in those early days of entering the indie game industry, everything always led back to that original, impossible question: How do you even make a video game?

Overland

Bridging The Gap

For as long as Adam can remember, he wanted to be a video game artist. Fascinated with the vibrant colors and rich SunSoft sound chips of original NES cartridges, the video games of his childhood quickly took over his imagination. He designed his own levels for Super Mario Bros. on sheets of grid paper. He ordered floppy disks with the Wolfenstein level editor built-in. He experimented with the Doom level editor, then eventually the Quake editor. However, despite being a part of this growing generation of designers with a dream to create console games that felt like some of their childhood favorites, it was never clear how exactly you get from hobbyist to career.

“That gap, in the early 1990’s in rural Michigan, is a very wide gap,” Adam says.

Upon graduating from the University of Michigan alongside Bekah, the Saltsmans made the move out to where the ever-growing indie scene was just beginning to flourish: Austin, Texas. An environment with excellent studios and cheap rent seemed the perfect place for Adam to cut his teeth and enter the industry. Unfortunately, getting your foot in the door at major developers of the time was much more complicated than anticipated, so he looked to other routes. In 2006, Adam transitioned into tech contractor work to dedicate sufficient time toward launching his and Bekah’s new studio, Last Chance Media. Beginning with only a few days each month, the two created simple, arcade-feeling Flash and iOS games that promoted simple game mechanics and aesthetic sensibilities that fit into Adam’s love for pixel art and incredible game soundtracks. Around this time, Adam’s first major titles begin appearing: Canabalt, Gravity Hook, and Fathom. Adam’s platformer, Fathom, had an especially intriguing finale that took some of his fans at the time by surprise – a boss fight you could not win.

Canabalt

“You die, and you have this bizarre exploration experience,” Adam says. “You find this door at the bottom of the ocean, it opens up, and you sink down into it.”

Until that point, the Saltsmans’ stories in games always seemed to present something both unexpected and unnerving: a sinking robot, a crumbling city, a suffocating space mission. The games were always fun and engaging, but they had something larger to say. Each new project from Adam and Bekah were then examples of both creativity in design and were challenging the idea of what a game could even look like. That philosophy would eventually spur the change of Last Chance Media into their latest team-up and best-known collaboration: Finji.

Finji Begins

Having scraped and saved for nearly 10 years, the Saltsmans were finally ready to unveil their development studio, Finji, on March 3, 2014, along with its first major internal project: Overland. It marked an exceptionally creative endeavor for Adam and Bekah, leaving behind action platforming in favor of eerie, strategic grid-based movement. Any given level is presented from a bird’s eye view, showing various interactable elements for your character and hiding others within obscuring shadows.

“The diorama, at a glance, should look like a little apocalyptic story,” Adam said. “That was the rule for the level design: there should clearly be your characters, menacing forces and an escape route.”

Night In The Woods

However, before they could reach that final product, the Saltsmans put out a very candid, transparent request on their blog, seeking animators and audio engineers who weren’t looking to create something that sounded or looked like anything else on the market. Rather than base qualifications simply on prior experience or padded portfolios, they ensured interested artists were considered through paid, practical demos and tests that proved their intuition and problem-solving skills rather than simply their past work.

Adam and Bekah have always been keenly aware of the toxicity in some of the gaming industry’s highest-stake work environments, particularly regarding “crunch time” before release. That attitude bleeds not only into their game development but also into their relationships with creators as studio publishers themselves. In fact, before they agreed to publish Tunic with creator Andrew Shouldice, they mentored him on the project for years prior. This way, Finji could view Shouldice’s work on the game not only from a marketability, quality-assurance, or localization perspective (which was crucial) but also as fellow creative partners.

I Was A Teenage Exocolonist

“Our relationship didn’t start with a publishing negotiation; it started with them taking time to give a stranger some feedback and advice,” Shouldice said. “It’s that willingness to help that I think makes them such an important part of the game development community.”

Another of Finji’s published games, Wilmot’s Warehouse, first appeared as a part of Humble Monthly on Steam, but creator Richard Hogg knew that in order to improve the game’s performance and expand its audience, he would need a proper publisher. While Hogg had worked with various publishing groups before, it seemed that Finji was especially capable of providing a friendly, cooperative relationship in which everyone involved could have input on the game’s design. Much like an indie record label that emerges from veteran bands supporting younger artists, Finji’s own history in creating games sets it apart from other publishers.

“Finji is exactly like this, and, just like with those labels, there is an integrity and a camaraderie that naturally comes out of it,” Hogg said.

Ten years after those initial Overland blog posts, Finji is still looking for projects unlike anything else and continues to make space for game developers and creators who wouldn’t usually be in the room. In Adam’s experience, he’s found that indie developers often fit into two modes: People who want to make games just like their favorites or people who want to make games that correct the flaws in those same titles and invent something new. More often, however, a Finji game fits in neither category. There would be no Chicory: A Colorful Tale without Link’s Awakening. No Canabalt without Mirror’s Edge. No Night In The Woods without one of Adam’s own personal favorites: Kentucky Route Zero.

“You are giving the player an experience they otherwise would not have had,” Bekah said. “They are able to experience games in a way that they’ve never experienced games before. That idea is fed through Night In The Woods.”

Wilmot’s Warehouse

Seven years since Night In The Woods’ initial release, the game continues to leave as much of an impact as it did when fans first played it. Its casual platforming roots meant for an especially approachable gaming experience, and Scott Benson’s wholly unique art direction helped the game transcend its medium and find itself in myriad forms; fan art, tattoo designs, cosplays, and more.

“There were thousands upon thousands of responses on social media, from people who discovered it last week to people who discovered it seven years ago, talking about how that game not only changed what games were for them but also changed them as a person,” Bekah said.

Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of Finji, beyond their award-winning games, is its logo: a ferret wearing a crown. Designed by Richard Hogg (creator of Finji’s published title, Wilmot’s Warehouse), the design embodies two very important parts of the founders Adam and Bekah Saltsmans’ lives.

The crown is representative of their eldest son, Kingsley, while the ferret mascot is a sly reference to Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on PBS, which featured a mob of pet ferrets in one episode. The scene showing their escape is a favorite of Adam’s.

As for “Finji,” the studio’s name serves as a loving homage to the childhood nickname for their youngest son, Finnegan.

Combining elements of the Saltsmans’ humor, inventiveness, and nostalgia were paramount in Hogg’s logo design.
The sheer approachability and ease of access toward Finji games like Night In The Woods remains one of the studio’s hallmark factors and one the Saltsmans pride themselves on. “No Fail” mode was included in Tunic so combat-averse players can still enjoy the adventure. In the BAFTA award-winning Chicory: A Colorful Tale, you have a fast-paced, engaging action-adventure that still relies on a touching story about creativity and passion. In these same seminal titles, Finji brings together creative teams and designers who lend their original voices to the blossoming indie game industry.

“Chicory is a great example because you have somebody who maybe hasn’t art directed a game that size before, and so it looks super special,” Adam said. “And you have very subversive gameplay. You don’t hurt anybody in Chicory.”

Tunic

These past 10 years, Finji has shown that person-first, supportive video game publishing and development can lead to higher quality experiences, never sacrificing camaraderie for crunch. The unifying factor between their games, then, is the incredible attention to detail each of their gathered teams present toward story, setting and character.

“You can tell these all go together, even though none of them look the same,” Bekah said. “They have this hyper-dedication to place, where the place is an extra character in the game that has motivations that act out upon the player.”

Nowhere will this be truer than in Finji’s upcoming 2025 title.

Spiritual Successor

Overlapping with the marketing and releases of both Tunic and I Was A Teenage Exocolonist (from Sarah Northway, marking the first woman-led release with Finji) development began for Finji’s newest title, Usual June, in February 2021. The fundamental design was going to be very different from its past published releases, like Tunic. Usual June would be a more bespoke and considered experience, less so an open-world for the player to freely explore. It’s also the first development project from Finji since Overland’s release in 2019. But while Overland and Usual June are both stories about the end of the world, the latter marks another major genre departure for the Saltsmans and Finji: a 3D action-adventure.

“An initial inspiration was Secret Of Mana, which is Bekah’s favorite game,” Adam said. “It has real-time battles with dodging and charge attacks. We thought, let’s take the guts of that.”

Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Usual June is a paranormal story, fundamentally a mystery story, but not with a normal, formulaic detective structure. The playable character, June, has the supernatural ability to speak with ghosts, which when combined with the “weird-looking, glowing stuff” (as Adam puts it) briefly shown in the trailer, you’re left with the notes of impossibility lying at the root of Usual June’s mystery. The worldbuilding for Finji and their narrative collaborator, Sweet Baby Inc., then became a sort of experiment: How would a normal-enough town of people react to sudden changes of supernatural phenomena? What are the consequences of learning about the paranormal beneath the surface?

“In Usual June, you will mostly see what June sees and mostly understand what June understands, which is not going to be everything,” Adam said. “There will be things that you don’t fix, there will be some things that don’t get explained or are too hard to explain. I hope that’s one of the things that people love about it, that there’s space to inhabit and think about it.”

Usual June

One way players will be able to inhabit the mystery of June’s town, Fen Harbor, more fully is through its inclusive storytelling within the detective-mystery as a whole. Rather than rely on checklists for June to mark down as the mystery comes to a close, Adam and Bekah lean further into the common tropes of some of their favorite sci-fi and supernatural mysteries, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I Am Not Okay With This, and even, for Adam especially, the Godzilla films.

To demonstrate this, Adam began to act out a noir-like scene where a hard-hitting journalist might be visiting a mysterious character who knows more about the mystery than they’re letting on. He proceeded to fish around and pick up miscellaneous objects from nearby shelves in order to seem aloof as he continued to question his suspect.

“Outside of Phoenix Wright, I’ve never seen a game work like that,” Adam said. “The story areas weren’t a 3D space where you can wander around and look at weird stuff on the shelf while you banter with a character.”

Adam and Bekah Saltsman

With much more to learn about Usual June before its release sometime next year, the Saltsmans and their team at Finji look forward to teasing further secrets. How does a missing kid case fit into June’s life? Where is this alternate world full of neon-colored caves and crystalline monsters? And what’s the connection between June’s powers and Teddy, her friendly ghost companion?

All of that remains to be answered… Or will it be?

“It’s not going to be a game where all the things get explained,” Adam said. “A lot of the joy for us is going to live in leaving places for people to have fun in the fog.

This article originally appeared in Issue 365 of Game Informer.Read MoreGame Informer

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