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Traditionally, the character of the grim reaper is one that instills a sense of fear, not comedy. However, in the hands of a startup game company called “Moon Moon Moon,” the grim reaper becomes a subject of lovable hilarity via their new game “The Worst Grim Reaper.”

“The Worst Grim Reaper,” which is still in production, follows the misadventures of Sebastian and his lantern sidekick, Lux. Filled with funny dialogue, morbidly amusing missions, and various settings, the game is essentially an interactive cartoon.

“The Worst Grim Reaper” is the brainchild of musician Mark Lohmann who created a band in 2014 named “Moon Moon Moon” before turning his attention to game design and creating a company named after his music project.

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In 2017, Mark created a game demo titled “Dynamic Lights” and posted it on YouTube. Due to its popularity, a programmer named Martín Isla and a composer named Mark Benis got in touch, and together they started a game studio. “Dynamic Lights” served as the foundation of “The Worst Grim Reaper” which they hope to release by 2019.

Composer, conductor, and orchestrator Mark Benis is especially excited about the project which was successfully debuted at Play NYC on August 11 and 12, 2018. A graduate of Brown University, Mark has interned for NYU's summer film/video game/TV scoring workshops. He enjoys volunteering at Playcrafting to give back to the community he loves.

Mark granted an exclusive interview on August 21, 2018, where he discussed “The Worst Grim Reaper” and more.

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Music, video games, and characters

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into making music and how did that lead you to Video Games?

Mark Benis (MB): I can summarize my answer to both of those questions with a single word: Pokémon. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are of me playing Pokémon Red on my clunky yellow Game Boy Color, tapping and humming away to those contagious tunes that Junichi Masuda wrote. I played violin all through grade school, but it wasn’t until college that I rediscovered Pokémon music and tried to learn how to write in that catchy, 8-bit style. That experience of combining my two biggest passions – music and video games – was what put me on a path to becoming a video game composer.

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After writing for some games and even going to grad school for film/multimedia scoring at NYU, “composer” was the only role I imagined that I would have in video games, but it seems life had other plans. I’ve always been interested in programming, writing stories, creating pixel art… game development just so happened to bring together everything I love.

MM: How did you stumble upon Moon Moon Moon and what most appealed to you about the company?

MB: I stumbled upon Moon Moon Moon completely by chance. Back in the summer of 2017, I found Mark Lohmann’s Reddit post sharing a demo he made in Unity that showcased a dynamic, 2D lighting system.

I was immediately drawn to the pixel art style, and I saw so much potential for the game regarding music and story. At this point, my mindset was still strictly as a composer so I posted a comment offering to help with only the music without having the slightest idea just how much more I would end up doing! Ironically, I’ve done very little work on the game’s music so far compared to the story, dialogue, animation, UI, etc. I couldn’t be happier with what Mark, Martin, and I have created at Moon Moon Moon. I consider us friends first, developers second; we just get along very well on both a personal and creative level.

MM: “The Worst Grim Reaper” is such a funny and offbeat game—who thinks up the plot and hilarious dialogue?

MB: Thanks, I’m glad you share our sense of humor! Our story and writing process is highly collaborative with Mark L. and I constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. He was the one who first came up with the idea of a Grim Reaper who is bad at his job, and from there I felt so inspired that the story and characters took on a life of their own. From our demo, the game may seem a bit silly at first – and it definitely is – but I think people will be surprised by the direction we take and the themes that we hit later in the story.

I’m very much interested in creating a dynamic narrative that responds to player decisions, so the dialogue is one of my main responsibilities on the team. But that said, none of the dialogue I wrote would have been remotely possible were it not for the conversation/animation system that Martin put together.

It allows us to easily create branching dialogue and match our characters’ expressions exactly to the subtlety of their words. Our two main characters have hundreds of different expression combinations literally because of the modular way we handle their assets (eyes, mouth, etc.), so I have the freedom and control to write almost anything I can imagine.

MM: Can you tell us a bit about the characters, plot, and gameplay?

MB: Our game revolves around a lazy Grim Reaper named Sebastian and his strict lantern companion named Lux whose 9-5 job is to collect the souls of the people scheduled to die on their list of names. The game began with Sebastian having slept in and missed the first three scheduled pickups on his “route,” and sparks start to fly when the aloofness of Sebastian and the straight-laced attitude of Lux butt heads.

When Sebastian finally makes it to his last name of the day, he makes the most egregious mistake a Grim Reaper can make: he accidentally saves his victim. This sets off a chain of events with disastrous implications, marking Sebastian as truly the worst Grim Reaper of all time.

I would describe “The Worst Grim Reaper” as a narrative-adventure-puzzle game with 2D side-scrolling and pixel art parallax. We draw things from multiple genres, like a basic inventory system from adventure games (no combining items though!), some light platforming, and logic puzzles that use the environment.

This is all in the context of our main goal: immersion. Everything you do fits into the world we have created, and we are actively pushing against the notion of “gamifying” everything just for the sake of it. For example, we won’t have a biking mini-game where you have to avoid obstacles on the road when you’re traveling between locations. And yes, Sebastian does ride a bike. He can’t afford a car.

Play NYC, gaming projects, and the future

MM: You just attended Play NYC so what was that experience like?

MB: Fantastic! This was only the second time we showed “The Worst Grim Reaper” and the first time that we really felt that the demo was a close representation of what is to come. In our first expo build, Sebastian’s face was completely hidden by his hood and Lux wasn’t even a character! We’ve made huge strides in development, and it was wonderful to hear all the positive feedback from players. We have a very clear picture of what we need to fix and improve, and we’re already planning our schedule for the next expo!

I want to give a huge shout out to the team behind Playcrafting: Dan Butchko, Dave Monteagudo, James Sisti and all the volunteers among so many others. The developers, games, and booths are the more visible side of an event like this, but those people are the real stars of the expo and the ones who make such an incredible event like PlayNYC possible. I can’t wait to see how they top it for next year!

MM: What other gaming projects have you created and are you working on anything right now?

MB: Besides the odd board games I programmed in computer science courses and some old-fashioned Warcraft III map modeling back in the day I haven’t actually done much of any game development! And I say that proudly because I feel lucky to have discovered something I love doing so much when I’m young enough to actively pursue it. Many people end up being too far along other career paths or in charge of too many other responsibilities to be able to invest time and money into a livelihood in games. I’ve got a really cool project coming up that I can’t speak about quite yet but I can say that I’m surprised and humbled to even be a part of it!

MM: What are your biggest hopes for the future of the company and “The Worst Grim Reaper”?

MB: I’ll be honest my biggest hopes are quite humble; since the three of us are separated by three continents (Mark L. in the Netherlands, Martin in Argentina and me in New York), I would just like to be able to work in the same room together one day. It’s so easy to take something as simple as that for granted, and this project has taught me to appreciate the smaller things. The idea of no longer having a six-hour time difference and meeting Martin and Mark face-to-face for the first time gets me unbelievably giddy, and I can’t wait to see what we can achieve when we get to that point.

We have “The Worst Grim Reaper” planned as an episodic series, so what we’re developing today only constitutes the first chapter of a larger story. We have big plans on the horizon, and we’d like to get there in a way that lines up with our own beliefs as a company and as individuals. It’s important to us to make games accessible to people of all sorts of backgrounds and those from marginalized communities, so we are offering our first episode of the game for free upon release with an optional fan pack of the soundtrack and behind-the-scenes content that fans can buy if they are able to support us. The video game industry is slowly but surely becoming a more diverse medium, and it is everyone’s responsibility – even small studios like us – to set an example for the kind of representation we want in games.