Rhapsody of Swing celebrates the rhythms and history of jazz. It’s set in a magic realist version of 1940s New Orleans where music is power. Historical figures like the iconic poet Langston Hughes inspired many of its characters, as did people from developer Cuaotemo Marquez’s life.
“The story is really family-focused,” said Marquez in a phone call with GamesBeat. “It’s Willie Mae going after her brother and dealing with her overworked parents and things like that. In fact, Willie Mae is actually modeled after my great-grandmother, whose name was Willie Mae.”
The protagonist Willie Mae is on a quest to save her brother — and the city — from the villainous Madame Moreau, who’s taken music away from the people. She wields her trumpet as a weapon, and as she brawls her way through town, her attacks add their own musical notes to the soundtrack.
The game is still in its early stages, but Marquez has been working on it since they were an undergraduate student. They’ve always had a fascination with subcultures, and though they don’t have any personal ties to New Orleans, its rich culture around jazz appealed to them.
“It was this counterculture element that was very — it was for the lower classes, for people of color,” said Marquez. “It was looked down upon at the time. I kind of found a home in that.”
Marquez and their three teammates plan on submitting the PC game for consideration at this year’s IndieCade Festival.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Who are you, and how did you get into game development?
Cuaotemo Marquez: I got my undergrad in film, in electronic art, back in 2015. I floated around. I was already working at the time, so I was really just getting my degree to have it. I figured I didn’t really like film. It wasn’t telling the stories I was interested in. I’d been writing for a long time, and I finally decided to—there was an event that was happening, and I decided it was finally time for a change. I looked into going to [the University of Southern California], and now I’m here.
GamesBeat: What’s Rhapsody of Swing? Is it your first game, or have you developed others before?
Marquez: This is the first game I’ve developed. Back in undergrad, I took a class with a professor totally by chance, and I ended up writing this game design document. I submitted it for my application to the USC MFA program. One day I decided I really wanted to make it. I ended up talking to some of my other classmates, and this became the biggest thing I’ve ever made, the first game I’ve ever made. It’s a little overwhelming sometimes.
GamesBeat: How many other people are you working with on the project? Or is it mainly yourself?
Marquez: There’s three other people. I’m kind of acting as the game director, creative director, but we have a producer, Katie Jones, and a lead designer, Nehemiah Westmoreland, and then we have a lead programmer, Crystal Chan. It’s just the four of us, basically.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about the story and gameplay?
Marquez: It’s a rhythm combat game. It’s mostly dependent on improvisation from the player. It all goes along with one jazz track. It follows the story of this young girl named Willie Mae, who’s in a 1940s New Orleans where music is magic. With her trumpet she can throw projectiles and manipulate enemies. But the city’s been taken over by a dictator named Madame Moreau. She’s made music a commodity, essentially. And so because of that, musicians are oppressed. Willie Mae’s older brother ends up being kidnapped by Madame Moreau and her lieutenants, and so the player is following Willie Mae on this adventure to save her brother and free New Orleans’ musicians.
GamesBeat: What drew you to the idea of using jazz and playing music and themes like that in a game?
Marquez: For me, I’ve always been really interested in subcultures and countercultures. At the time, in the 1920s through the 50s, jazz was the American punk. It was this counterculture element that was very — it was for the lower classes, for people of color. It was looked down upon at the time. I kind of found a home in that. And so jazz and punk to me were synonymous.
So the story, for me, relates a lot to my relationship with power and corrupt power, especially political power. And also my relationship with my family. The story is really family-focused. It’s Willie Mae going after her brother and dealing with her overworked parents and things like that. In fact, Willie Mae is actually modeled after my great-grandmother, whose name was Willie Mae.
GamesBeat: Are there a lot of autobiographical elements like that in it? Or is it thematically related to things you’ve experienced in your life?
Marquez: Definitely thematically. I’m the same kind of kid like Willie Mae. She’s also based on my younger sister Nia. She’s this super precocious young talented kid who finds herself in a situation where she has to push herself. I think I had to be in that position when I was younger, for a couple of different reasons. I definitely wanted to put my sister in that kind of situation. I’m kind of writing it for her, in a way.
GamesBeat: Do you have personal ties to New Orleans, or did you use the city because of its connections to jazz?
Marquez: I don’t have any family from New Orleans specifically, but I do have family in the South. The history of New Orleans is just so rich. In fact, most of our characters are based on historical figures. Even Willie Mae, she’s based on a couple of people in my life. But Willie Mae is, and so is our kind of Navi character, who’s based on Langston Hughes. Her brother Elliott, who’s been kidnapped, is based loosely on Emmett Till. They’re all kind of inspired by these incredible jazz icons that were especially prominent at the time in New Orleans and in the South.
GamesBeat: Was it a deliberate decision to create a kind of mythological environment for historical figures? It sounds like there’s a kind of magic realism in there, using music and rhythm to fight. How did you approach creating that world while incorporating real figures and real history?
Marquez: I think it happened pretty organically. I can’t say it was completely deliberate. But I do really value agency in all of my stories. I think one of the most admittedly well-used ways to give your players agency is through ability. For me, music really is magic, and so I wanted to follow through with that and give Willie Mae the most ability she could have. We kind of ended up with magical realism.
GamesBeat: Was it difficult composing the music for this? I feel like, for some games, music isn’t necessarily the focus. How did you approach composing the soundtrack?
Marquez: When we first started making the game, we got two composers on the team. We worked really closely with them to figure out the technical way we were going to approach the music, the emotional way we were going to approach the music, really just try to dig deep and find all the little bits and pieces that we couldn’t see. Because only one of us is really musically trained, and that’s Crystal, our programmer. But we really wanted some perspective from outside of games. They were an incredible help.
We ended up really diving into wise programming and trying to figure out ways to make—because the challenge, really, is making the music interactive. Making it resilient. Because players are ultimately these beautiful chaos machines. The challenge is making it still sound like jazz, but making the player feel like they’re making it, like they’re playing jazz.
GamesBeat: Is there a sort of background track, and then whatever the player is doing adds to that, the improvisation element? How does that work?
Marquez: Exactly. We have a bed track that’s basically just drums, bass, and sometimes piano, depending on what area you’re in. And then on top of that, Willie Mae always plays the trumpet, so we have the trumpet tracks on top that add to the bed track. And then depending on what enemies are present, there are other instruments.
GamesBeat: How did you approach dissonance? I know in jazz there’s some dissonance, some syncopation. Was it a challenge to make it sound good? How did you think about that?
Marquez: Honestly, it’s still a challenge. We’re still trying to find folks that can help bridge that gap between the technical part, because we know we can build it, but we don’t necessarily know how we can make it feel good. We had those composers first consulting with us in the beginning, but we’re at a stage now where we need someone in for the long haul.
GamesBeat: It sounds like the game was a sort of personal project, back when you were an undergraduate. It has these autobiographical elements. And then you brought in these three other team members and it looks like you’re looking for more. How has it evolved over the years?
Marquez: When it first began, it was—I’m trained as a writer, a world-builder. It began as just a world bible about all the details of what people could do. Pages on pages of people’s backstories and biographies, making it super about the characters. It began as a really basic RPG with simple fighting mechanics. But as it evolved and we brought in people like Nehemiah to the team, who is super into Metroidvania gameplay and fighting games, it kind of became something more—I think it became something more interesting, in that we started to challenge what we could do with a musical fighting game.
We started to try to push the boundaries of what people could do in the game. I think the story evolved around that. We started having characters that felt more organic. Their powers and abilities felt more of the time and of the characters. We even ended up changing the time period. Originally it was in the 1920s and 1930s, but because we wanted to give certain characters more agency or different abilities, making them a bit more dynamic and interesting for the player, we ended up moving it forward about 20 years, putting it in the 1940s instead.
GamesBeat: Were there any major challenges in developing the game? Was it trying to get those Metroidvania elements to fit into the story, or having to shift around the timeline?
Marquez: I think we’ve each faced different challenges. For me specifically, my biggest challenge as a writer is learning to let go of certain story elements for the sake of the game. As much as I would like to dive deep into the world and show people what parts are the most close to my part, that doesn’t necessarily serve the benefit of the game as a whole. My biggest challenge is dialing back on some of that stuff. Another big challenge for me is just learning to lead. This is the biggest team I’ve ever managed. It’s only getting bigger. We’re trying to find another composer, trying to find another programmer. I’m also going to grad school and doing the adult thing. So it gets a little hairy.
GamesBeat: How long has this been in development now?
Marquez: This will be—let’s see. I believe now this is about the end of its first year, a few months away from its first year. I’ve been developing the game document for about—I want to say three or four years. But of course there were always dead times when I had lots of work, or when I was first applying to school, stuff like that.
GamesBeat: You’re getting your MFA in game design. How is that affecting the development process? Do you ever learn new concepts in class and then you want to incorporate that into the game?
Marquez: Totally. We actually just had a class that was super challenging for all of us. We all had a really hard time. But at the end of it we ended up with these production tools that we didn’t really know about before, that we’ve started to incorporate. We’ve been able to really dive deep into building a very sturdy road map that we’ve been following since then.
As far as game design elements, I think each of us—it’s hard, because we do want to make sure the game gets made without moving too much around, but there’s always a moment where you learn about a concept in class, or you’re reading about it in a journal, or some kind of advert, or playing another kind of game, and we end up wanting to incorporate those elements. It’s challenging, because we’ll get really excited about it, but we do have to dial it back to make sure we can still make the game.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that your producer is into Metroidvania games. For you personally, are there any games you’ve played that inspired you, or certain elements in Rhapsody of Swing?
Marquez: The original game design document referenced Guacamelee a lot as far as its combat and its level design. We’ve definitely gotten a long way away from platforming, but since then, I’ve actually seen a lot of games being developed right now that inspire us still. We’ve been looking a lot at Wandersong. That game looks really cool, super fun and colorful. It has a really fun musical element that I think we’re all looking at closely. There’s another game by Annapurna, [The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti]—it’s heavily inspired by psychedelic rock.
GamesBeat: Have you noticed a change in the way that games approach music? Or any sort of shift in the way people approach games in general? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Marquez: I think it really depends on the developer. I find that a lot of triple-As are really brushing story under the rug, or not developing it at all. As a writer that kind of hurts. But I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening in the indie sphere. There are some really cool stories that I’ve been playing lately, that have become really close to my heart. Stuff like Oxenfree or Night in the Woods. Things that really dive deep into character and narrative.
As far as music, though—I don’t know. I feel like visual entertainment, in my experience, has always pushed sound into post-production. I think it does a game a real disservice. The first thing that ever reaches directly into our hearts is sound and music. Because it’s a musical game, we focus on that a lot, but I think a lot of games miss an opportunity by not getting the composer in the room at the beginning. I understand that there are—it’s a challenge to get that many people in a room and get them all talking and get them to share their ideas evenly. But there’s something that I think they’re missing out on.
GamesBeat: Could you talk about what it’s like being part of the USC community and what you think the benefit of an MFA program is, versus going it alone as an indie developer? Of course it depends on people’s financial situations and things like that, but in your experience, what do you think is valuable about the experience and what it’s been like for you?
Marquez: I was super nervous coming into an MFA. My experience in undergrad wasn’t great, especially toward the end. I ended up, a lot of the time, being the only person of color in the room, or the only trans person in the room. It was really discouraging. I was really nervous coming to USC, which has such a big name and so much prestige. But I actually found a really strong community here.
There are so many people who are super encouraging of my work, and whose work I’ve fallen in love with. Not only from the MFA students, but from the undergrads. There’s just so much talent and authenticity, I think, in what people are making their games about. I don’t have to look very far to find inspiration all around me. Making it with students is such a boon, because like I said, this is the biggest thing I’ve ever made. Making it with other folks who’ve never made something this big, it’s so validating to find folks who are in it to learn with you. We’re going to make mistakes all the time. We’ve never done this before. Being able to pick each other up and brush ourselves off and keep going is so powerful.
GamesBeat: Obviously diversity is a huge issue in the game industry. Do you feel like the program at USC is more diverse? Do you think we’ll start seeing a bit of a change in the landscape because of the people coming out of that program?
Marquez: Totally, yeah. I think that the communities of color and the communities of women and non-cis men are so strong. Every industry event I’ve ever been to, I feel like we’re helping each out and encouraging each other and lifting up each other’s voices. Even in conferences, when someone’s speaking, it’s so empowering to have someone there who has your back when someone tries to cut you off, or tries to talk over you. I think that community and that sense of belonging is really pulling people into the industry, bringing people in and having them make more games. Here at USC, I’ve definitely found a community of folks who are super encouraging of my work, and who I go out of my way to encourage.
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s new weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.