Distraction Machine is a new game from the post-apocalyptic-Montreal world of Z’Isle

We spoke with Z’Isle/Distraction Machine creator Lateef Martin about building a music-composition visual novel game inspired by his own invention, the lethelium bike harp.

Distraction Machine evolved from the Z’Isle universe into a music-composition visual novel game.

In this single-player 2D game, you are the Distractor: a warrior bard and pied piper of the undead, tasked with sustaining the spirit of the community in the Quartier through the power of music. You discover the game’s narrative through Chronicle Mode, filling the musical requests of NPCs and saving the world. The Conductor Mode, meanwhile, lets you experiment with the custom, in-game music sequencer and original instruments.

It’s like they put a steampunk Roland TR-808 drum machine and sequencer in Darkest Dungeon — that’s the Distraction Machine

But what is the Z’Isle universe? Set in a destroyed version of Montreal, Island City is besieged by the undead and the game follows a company of scavenger humans surviving off their wits, creativity and musical inclinations. The in-game environment is dark and dreary yet establishes a unique “cyclepunk” aesthetic — think steampunk-meets-cyberpunk infused with cycling culture. 

The kernel for the Distraction Machine stems from creator Lateef Martin’s invention of the lethelium bike harp. By replacing the spokes of a bicycle wheel with strings, and hitting them with a mallet, the instrument arrives at a koto-like sound — metallic, resonant and mysterious.

Distraction Machine
Distraction Machine

Miscellaneum Studios was founded by Martin as a transmedia studio in 2013 with the launch of the Z’Isle comic book series. “As a multidisciplinary artist evolving my practice through music, comics, cosplay, fabrication, voiceover and dancing, I’ve been fortunate enough to work and party with some incredible people from all walks of life,” Martin reflects on being based in the city. “Montreal is a world-class hub for video games. Low-ish rent, tax credits, grants and a tight-knit indie game community have helped us so much.”

The classic game-dev obstacle of securing project funding wasn’t the only roadblock. During the game’s development, Martin was diagnosed with ADHD. “As a business owner, I wear a lot of hats, a few of which are outside my wheelhouse, which has made things especially challenging.“ The diagnosis brought some clarity, though, as Martin admits to stepping up and learning “lots of hard lessons,” including how to be a better collaborator, leader and artist.

With issue #7 of the Z’Isle comic book series on its way, Martin has another game he’d like to make. “There’s a story I’d like to tell that happens between Z’Isle and its prequel, Distraction Machine, which takes place during a seven-year war against the undead.” With the entire universe centred around the power of music, Distraction Machine serves as a meaningful reminder to players that no matter how dark things might seem, there is always hope to be found in music and art. 

What else is on the horizon? “Making lethelium bike harps! We’ve sold a few already and would like to get more out there. On top of that, getting back on stage.” Martin will be performing A Cyclefunk Journey at MUTEK this year using Distraction Machine’s unique music sequencer in the performance, alongside custom cyclepunk instruments. ■

Distraction Machine launches on June 9 and is available on Steam.

Game Jam is a monthly column about the video game community in Montreal. Are you a Montreal studio releasing a game soon? Please contact me here.

This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.