Steven Universe’s creator’s influences run from Zelda to Bubsy 3D

Grumpyface Studios/Cartoon Network

Rebecca Sugar thinks a lot about video games.

That’s not a surprise about many of the people featured on Polygon, but the creator of Steven Universe still plays or engages with games all the time. Her tastes skew to the indie, obscure side, with a lot of Nintendo classics thrown in for good measure. But all of her favorites feel a bit like her hit Cartoon Network show, now in its fifth season: charming, unique titles that play with concepts like empathy.

Now Steven Universe is getting its own second video game — Save the Light — and it’s a title that feels completely true to the show. Polygon sat down with Sugar to hear about not just this game, which she’s heavily creatively involved in, but also her other gaming inspirations.

So what do you think of Steven Universe: Save the Light right now?

Sugar: I got to play a demo of it a few months ago, but this is my first time playing it in this state. I'm just so psyched.

It feels like, from what I've played, loyal to the ideas of the show and things fans to dive into.

Sugar: I love that Connie gets to fight with that sword a lot, and we don't get to show it that often in the show, but you know it's happening all the time. It's like, "Yes! It's finally a chance to see her fight with that sword!"

Do you feel like the game is a good chance to flesh out characters fans don't get to see as much in the show and that you've always wanted to give opportunities to?

Sugar: Absolutely. I think it's crucial, honestly. Steven and the Gems are always having off-screen adventures, and I think being able to play those adventures is even more fun than seeing them all in show form.

I want to talk about your background in video games. I know they influence the show a lot, but I would love to hear about when they really started to inspire you.

Sugar: The show is based off my relationship with my brother [Steven], and playing video games together was a massive part of our childhood. Aesthetically, the show is really inspired by Yoshi's island, which is one of my favorite games ever. The color palettes, and the early stuff we looked at. Ocarina of Time … me and Steven just poured over Ocarina of Time. Some of my earliest fan art was Ocarina of Time. We loved that game. We played a lot of Nintendo 64.

We were a Nintendo household. Ian Jones-Quartey, who ran the show with me for the early seasons, he played it all, but he was more of a Sega household, so he's introduced me to all of that in my adult life.

Steven Universe’s creator’s influences run from Zelda to Bubsy 3D
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island had a unique, storybook-like look to it.
Nintendo

When you're making transmedia properties, and you have amazing and passionate fans like Steven Universe, how do you make sure these games bring them what they expect?

Sugar: For me, right off the bat, I wanted to make sure the games were different, that they felt like the show even though they weren't like the show, was more important to me to feel like the show. It was always going to be different. It was going to be a different format and was going to have a different feeling, so we really zeroed in on that feeling, and like, how do we make it simpler and sweeter, and feel like those games we grew up playing together.

One of the things we really looked at early on when we were trying to figure out the style of Attack the Light [the 2015 mobile game predecessor to Save the Light], we looked really closely at concept art for old Super Nintendo and Nintendo games, because we wanted the characters to be that simple and that iconic, but we wanted to execute them as we would now. There were early thoughts of going in a pixel art direction, but I thought that the nature of the show, the feeling of the show to me is all about the dreams we had as kids and the media we had as kids, but we how saw it and how we felt about it. Being able to revisit now, but not going back in time. Reinterpreting that now and living that dream in the present.

You've spoken a lot about how cartoons can impact kids too, and that's a very core idea to Steven Universe. Do you feel like video games do that too? Is that just as important?

Sugar: Yeah, and, oh my gosh, so much, and I think in a different way because you are participating. In terms of the way you forge relationships around the cartoons you like and the things you're a fan of, and the things you're drawing fan art for, but with a game, it's different. It's an interactive experience, not just for you and the game, but for you and the people you're with in the game. I think the show is like me and Steven hanging out and playing games together, or hanging out and watching anime together. The game aspect of that is huge, because we were talking to each other, we were working on things together, we were figuring out puzzles, we were cheering each other on. There's a whole level to that that exists when it comes to games.

Do you have any specific favorite memories?

Sugar: Yes! There's a thing that's always present in the show. There was a summer when I came back from college and I had had a TV in my dorm. I brought it back to my parents house but there was nowhere for it to go, so we just set it on the floor. Then Steven went and hooked up our old Super Nintendo to it, and we just ended up sitting on the floor all summer playing A Link to the Past on this TV that was sitting on the floor. It was one of those things that was so lazy, and we didn't even move it! We didn't even put it on a table. It was just like, "We have to do this right now! We have to just play games and hang out, right here, right now! Who cares?"

And I just remember sitting on the floor, playing Link to the Past, and there was a huge thunderstorm that shorted out … the power went out and we lost everything. But the loft, with the TV on the floor in front of Steven's bed, is a very specific reference to that summer, and the feeling of just hanging out and playing games together during a thunderstorm.

Steven Universe’s creator’s influences run from Zelda to Bubsy 3D
Steven is often seen playing video games on the floor in the cartoon — a clear homage to Sugar’s childhood.
Cartoon Network

Did you ever as a kid play licensed games? I remember as a kid, you don't necessarily have total charge of your game purchase decisions, so your parents buy them based on the moves and TV shows you liked. Were there any of those games that you liked, or saw pitfalls in?

Sugar: I used to play Star Wars: Rebel Assault, or Rebel Assault 2. My dad had it, so I'd watch him play it a lot. All the Star Wars games, also Shadows of the Empire … I thought it was so scary! I was obsessed with IG-88 [a droid in Shadows of the Empire]. The whole fight scared me so much. That one I loved, and what I loved about it was Dash Rendar had a new story — well, new to games. I was unfamiliar with it. It felt like I was really living in this world, and there was so much of it that it was outside the movies and yet still a part of it. I think that feeling of it being different, and yet still a part of something and it's making it bigger and it doesn't even feel the same, it has a new feeling that informs the feeling of the thing before it.

You're getting cues from the thing you love, but you're also on new adventures and you don't know what's going to happen.

Sugar: Yeah, that felt grittier and scarier in a way to me as a kid. I remember being stuck in that room with that Chicken Walker [an AT-ST] and not knowing what to do or how to fight it. I was pretty little.

I think, with the Steven game, [there’s] the feeling of the show, the feeling of coming home, and the feeling of supporting each other. And so, I wanted that to be enhanced by the game in terms of the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it sounds. And just the mechanics of the gameplay, being able to love and support each other helps you win, period. That's just everything about the show in a way that can only be explained about the game.

I can't believe you gamified compliments. I planned to ask how you bring in supporting each other and community things so important to the show and make them binary game things, and it's in there.

Sugar: That was a dream. It was a big dream. Why not, right? There's a reality to that. You help each other just by building each other up.

How involved are you in Steven Universe: Save the Light?

Sugar: I would come to [Save the Light developer Grumpyface Studios] with dreams, especially early on. The thing I was so excited about was, in terms of any game, is that you can make choices. I had a lot of fantasies about all the different kinds of choices you could make, like being able to choose your team, was huge. I really wanted to make everyone react to being chosen. When you choose Greg [Steven’s dad], he's like, "Really?" He can't believe you'd pick him. There's a way all the characters would feel about being chosen to be on your team in an RPG that we can now express. It's really appropriate. I came at [Grumpyface], and it was very collaborative.

I don't want to spoil the ending either, but that's a part of it too.

“You win by understanding and supporting each other. How do you turn that into a game?”

Games really are getting better about including emotional responsesand making it feel natural. It almost feels like you're being tricked into talking about feelings, but it feels more natural.

Sugar: Games will teach you lots of things. There are plenty of games that teach you that if you shoot someone with a gun, they'll die. Or maybe they won't. But I was really inspired the first time I played Journey. Having the ability to chirp at each other was just brilliant. And then controlling the ability to speak and have weakness relate to your inability to communicate. That's so powerful. You can only do it in that format.

Do you play a lot of games now? Are there games that you think about a lot now when writing?

Sugar: I try to play or watch people play a lot of games because they're so inspiring. One of my favorite games in the last couple of years … oh my gosh, there have been so many! Her Story: Fascinating. I love Bubsy 3D. You play as Bubsy, and you visit the James Turrell exhibit at the LACMA, and you look at art. And to me, it's incredible and my favorite thing ever, because it's using this ridiculous pop culture nostalgia to force someone to experience art.

I really like Night in the Woods. Inside was so cool. Gosh. And Breath of the Wild, I've just been playing all the time. I need to get on with the story. I love that you can exist in that world. It's so nice.

Do you know Facade? That was really inspiring to me. You play it online. This couple invites you over, and then you walk in on them arguing, and you have to navigate their awful relationship. And you're talking to them. You can hit on subjects that they'll open up about, and you'll just see how broken their marriage is. That stuff was exciting to me, and it got me thinking about … The Steven game is very different from Facade, but I'm excited about how you can evolve relationships through a game differently than in a narrative than when you can't make choices.

I feel like with the show, winning relates to understanding. Gaining a better understanding of a person. I think that is true in the game, too. You win by understanding and supporting each other. How do you turn that into a game?

What if people haven't seen the show, or have only seen a bit? Would they still enjoy Save the Light?

Sugar: It can work on its own. The game builds specifically off Attack the Light, and the story of Attack the Light is recapped right at the top, so you already know what happened. So it's very self-contained. I think both games together … I would recommend popping back to the first one, but you can absolutely play the second by itself, and you can absolutely play the game without seeing the show, but you might not understand who the people in the town are, or why you like them, necessarily. But sometimes that's fun too.

I played Skullmonkeys before The Neverhood. Do you know those? They’re beautiful claymation games. I played it with my friend, and there was this character, Willie Trombone, who we just liked because he was really funny. But he's a major character in the first game.

I've been thinking so much about this idea of "thingness.” It's when you look and something and you know that that's a thing. There's something going on with this and you don't know what it is, but it just has a "thingness." Willie Trombone had a lot of that.

So, playing the game, and you haven't seen the show, I'd be very interested to know how it feels to meet all these characters who have a lot of thingness, even if you don't know who they are.

Steven Universe’s creator’s influences run from Zelda to Bubsy 3D
A screenshot from The Neverhood.
The Neverhood, Inc./DreamWorks Interactive

Will there be any original music?

Sugar: There's an original song from the team at Grumpyface. There's an original score. I was actually just playing a game with my composers since they are also here, and they were really excited to see how the show score has been reinterpreted. Different elements are being used at different times. Some songs are being reinterpreted with different rhythms of another. It's very thoughtful.

Why was it important to bring the game to consoles?

Sugar: I think I just found out at one point. We talked about doing a sequel to Attack the Light, and I had a billion really ambitious dreams for it, and then later, I found out, we're going to do it for consoles. I thought, "Oh, thank goodness. Now we can do everything we wanted."

What was everything you wanted? Just to make more?

Sugar: Yeah, just more. More detailed, and they were really championing being able to move around the world, which I was so excited about. There was a pitch I had for the first game that I was really excited about that we couldn't do because the game was much simpler. I thought it would be cool if when they give you the prism, they say, “Whatever you do, don't take this in the light.” You're just left holding it, and you move it to the light, and it activates and becomes a horrible weapon. You have to make that decision. I was really excited about this thought that, when the game asked you to take this to Garnet, not to take it into the light, if you had two options in front of you. And I was like, "Let's have it that if you take it to Garnet, you win the game 100 percent, and the credits roll." It'd be like five seconds long. If you actually play the game, you'd have to work really hard to get to 100 percent, but you could do it in five seconds if you just do the right thing.

Things like that we didn't get to fit; it was a simple game. There's just so many more choices you can make in Save the Light, and that's what games can allow you to do. They can allow you to make those choices.

Were there points where the team said they couldn't fit all the big ideas in because of the scope of the game?

Sugar: All my dreams for this one came true. We just had so much more space and time to work with because of it being a console game.

Can you share with me another dream that isn't a spoiler?

Sugar: Fusions. You can fuse in the game. Choosing your team and being able to fuse, and to do team-up attacks. Those were big dreams.

Steven Universe’s creator’s influences run from Zelda to Bubsy 3D
Stevonnie is one of many fusions players can create in Save the Light.
Grumpyface Studios/Cartoon Network

What do you think cartoons can learn from video games?

Sugar: Modern cartoons are already pulling so much from video games because we grew up on them. I think the exciting thing now is that modern cartoons can be informed by modern video games. I think a lot of the cartoons now are informed by the video games we grew up on, but new, independent games are so exciting and so interesting, and new animation can be just as exciting and just as interesting.

When you think about all the different things you can do in a medium and how independent games are taking advantage of that in these incredible ways — animation is not a genre; it's a medium, and we can do anything with it. The fact that people are able to do that with games is really inspiring to me. It makes me want to realize the potential of the medium of animation, instead of sticking to the language of it as a genre.

Oh, can you tell me more about that?

Sugar: With Steven, one of the things that's the most important for us is we get to use a lot of cartoon language, but we get to expand on it and subvert it. There are ways you expect a cartoon to be, similar to there are ways you expect a game to be. One of the things that I think is exciting about the Steven game, and a lot of games that are coming out now, is you expect to beat a game with violence. You expect to win with force. There are more and more stories, and more and more games, where that's not the solution, and I think it's an interesting puzzle, and it's so exciting to see. Even now, it's counterintuitive because you've become so accustomed to puzzle-solving and fighting, but in this game, a compliment has a lot of power. That's just really exciting to me, and not just when we get a chance to do it, but every time I see it.

“You expect character stories to be simple”

There's so many little choices we make every day that have power, but we don't think of these as things as having power, because we think of power as relating to violence and dominance. But there's power in a compliment. There's power in a connection. It's just a different type of power, and it's bigger than any single person, which I think is super fascinating. And it's super conducive to games where you can actually connect with people over playing them as you play them.

Animation is different, but there are things you expect animation to do, and things you expect animation to look like. You expect a cartoon to be funny in a certain way. You expect an action cartoon to be violent in a certain way. You expect character stories to be simple in a certain way. A lot of that is because people think of animation as a genre. You think there is a way that an animated movie is, that it's always gonna be.

The last 10 years for animation have been so amazing for that reason. You could like Steven Universe and Archer, which are both animated shows, but which are both good for very different reasons.

Sugar: There's so many things you can do, and I feel like, in that way that you can create a new game that plays on your expectations for it to act like a game you recognize, you can do the same thing with cartoons. For me, it's like, what is a children's cartoon like? What do you expect it to be? That's really the basis for Steven.

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