Daniel Benmergui’s could have been a straightforward underdog success story. In 2009, at 30 years old, he quit his job to become an independent video game designer. Just two years later, he won one of the industry’s most prestigious awards with what he called his “million-dollar dream project” — Storyteller.
He became an instant celebrity. Magazines called him a “rock star,” even a “genius.” He sat at the table with his idols and updates on Storyteller were eagerly anticipated by fans.
But something went wrong.
“I am 40 years old and I live with my mother,” he said by way of introduction on the stage of Fuckup Nights Buenos Aires, an event all about failed businesses. It was July 2020 and Storyteller had been dead for six years.
But Benmergui was not there to tell a sad story – he was making his comeback.
Storyteller was released in March 2023 for PC and Nintendo Switch, published by Annapurna Interactive, an American video game publisher which is a division of Annapurna Pictures (the production company behind films like Her, American Hustle, and Zero Dark Thirty)
The final version of Storyteller gives the player different characters, settings, and a title for their narrative arc. The goal is to place the first two correctly in comic book-like panels to create a narrative that fits the title. Dragons, kings, detectives, lovers, and even Edgar Allan Poe make an appearance. The game has a 15-year-long rocky story of its own — or maybe an even longer one.
“You know those books that come with illustrations? When I was a kid, I knew the stories by heart because [my parents] had read them to me infinite times,” Benmergui, now 42, told the Herald. “I looked at the pictures and I thought ‘I would love to intervene’. To tell the protagonist ‘Beware!’ or to look into the villain’s cabinet. I always loved the idea of exploring small universes. That is how Storyteller was born”
– How did your relationship with video games start?
– From a very young age. I was raised in Río Cuarto, Córdoba, and there is not much to do, nor much of a landscape. I was recently there, and I thought that living in a place like that makes you look inside yourself. I was lucky enough to have been born into a family that could buy electronic stuff. One time, my grandfather showed up with an Atari 2600: a very, very old game console. And, of course, it blew my mind. I was five years old and I thought wow, this is a world of possibilities.
– And as an adult?
– I started making video games at 30 years old. Before, I had worked in a video game studio, but I didn’t make games — I led the programmers. I worked on computer security, I briefly had a small studio where we made multiplayer games for Spanish phone companies. After that, I was a technical leader at Gameloft’s studio in Buenos Aires. And then I quit to become an independent video game designer.
Storyteller was the first big video game he set out to design all by himself, “without the interference of any studio or publisher.” The idea behind the game seemed revolutionary, but simple enough for him to make without any help.
He wasn’t the only one who was excited about the project. Benmergui was a beginner in the industry when an early prototype of the game was awarded the Independent Games Festival’s Innovation Award in 2011. It was then that he became a legend in the international video game community.
“I had an ego the size of Jupiter,” Benmergui recalled. “They were calling me a ‘genius designer.’ You can imagine how that ended”
Both perfectionism and lack of experience conspired against him. He got an American patron to finance the project, but soon ran out of money and went back to live in his mother’s place. His own identity became entangled with the video game.
“This version of the game is shit, I am shit, I am a fraud,” he would say to himself.
“I was very insecure, as I hadn’t had time to develop my game designer muscle,” Benmergui told the Herald. “And I was making a game unlike any other. When I encountered a problem, I didn’t have any references.”
In 2014, he abandoned the project altogether. Then, he started to design “simpler, less ambitious games” to gain experience. By 2020, he felt confident enough to give Storyteller another whirl.
“A lot of those 15 years was me taking detours to learn other things. There is a lot of work – I would say half of it — that I had to throw away because I replaced it with something else,” Benmergui told the Herald.
“When I was making the game, I didn’t accept my limits,” Benmergui said. “One of my limits is that I can’t work by myself. I was made for working with people. So I abandoned the idea that my game had to be one-hundred percent mine.”
– Who else was on your team after you accepted that?
– The core team consists of three people. Jeremías Davini made the art of the game. I always say he is kind of like a modern-day Da Vinci – he is an illustrator, programmer, animator, and musician. Then, [Federico] Zypce is a musician and playwright who I knew because I was a fan of his. I invited him to make the soundtrack of the game.
“We made a game carefully designed for people that don’t play games. But we don’t tell the player what to do — it doesn’t have a tutorial. You have to find out on your own. People are playing it with their friends, children, and couples…it’s a game to play in a team.”
With each attempt, even when they are not the solution to the puzzle, the story plays out differently before the eyes of the player. In Storyteller, being wrong is half of the fun.