When the platform game Cuphead came out last year, it immediately became a real hit in the indie scene of the industry. The game attracted attention not only for its unconventional art and addictive gameplay, but also for the fact that all of this art and animation has been hand-crafted by artists over the years.
Developers’ love of working with their hands especially manifested itself in the 90s in the form of games such as ClayFighter, Claymates, Primal Rage, Reikai Doshi, The Dark Eye, or The Neverhood mentioned below. Game designers used plasticine, clay and more to create characters and levels.
It would seem that in the modern world there is no place for such an approach, however, some developers, on the contrary, regularly prove that certain results can be achieved only by creating a game manually.
The Neverhood (1996)
For all the time in the industry, there have been many games made of clay and plasticine, as a rule, in the point-and-click genre, but The Neverhood quest is considered the main spiritual successor of each of them.
“Remember the best stop-motion cartoons like Wallace and Gromit, Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. It’s hard to put into words, but somehow they feel more magical than other cartoons or CG animation,” said Mike Dietz, one of the authors of The Neverhood.
Of course, the main difficulty in such development is the very fact that each character, level, etc. must be made by hand, not to mention the fact that you have to obey the laws of physics.
“When you work with CGI in the traditional way, you can do whatever your heart desires. In the real world, you have to obey the limits.”
As a result, the charismatic protagonist Kleimen, who finds himself in ridiculous situations, was liked by both critics and players, but this did not affect the profit. The Neverhood has become one of those games that quickly gains a large fan base and cult status, but does not get a sequel due to low sales.
Interestingly, in 2013, the two original authors of The Neverhood founded Pencil Test Studios and launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, thanks to which they received the necessary amount to develop the game Armikrog, in many ways similar to The Neverhood. The rights to the latter belong to Electronic Arts, so in Armikrog players get to know completely different characters.
Dream Machine (2010)
Originally Dream Machine by Cockroach Inc. was a classic point-and-click browser game, but a huge number of award nominations from influential gaming publications convinced developers Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring to bring the game to Steam in the form of several chapters. True, game designers underestimated the fact that there are only two of them.
This is partly why development took much longer than originally planned. When creating the game, the designers used all sorts of materials, from clay and cardboard to condoms and animal bones.
In the end, after the release on Steam in 2012, which included the first two chapters, it took them another five years to release the next four. Initially, the developers planned to create only four chapters, but when creating the fourth, they realized that more space was needed for all the ideas.
The player takes on the role of Victor Neff, who has moved into a new apartment with his wife. He later finds a mechanism that allows him to travel through other people’s dreams and subconscious minds. The developers understood that classic quest gameplay beats at the heart of the game, and tried to make the puzzles challenging, but not exhausting.
“I hardly remember my life before creating The Dream Machine,” Zaring said. — During the development, I managed to move four times, and raise two children. When it was all over, I felt an interesting mix of relief and nostalgia.”
The Swapper (2013)
Another clay game was The Swapper, which two students from Finland, Otto Hantula and Olli Harjola, developed in their spare time.
The project was so liked by the Indie Fund organization, which supports aspiring indie developers, that the newly minted Facepalm Games studio immediately received the necessary funding.
The Swapper is a sci-fi platformer filled with puzzles instead of enemies. The main gameplay mechanic was the ability of the protagonist to clone himself several times in order to complete one or another part of the level.
“I felt that hand-drawn graphics, whether they are stylishly abstract or cartoony, would not create the atmosphere I needed,” Harjola said, “But simply photographs of real objects, as in the same Dream Machine, will not work because they cast realistic shadows which may not be used everywhere.
Harjola stumbled upon a technique for constructing normal maps based on real objects. The game designer tried the technique on an ordinary stone and immediately fell in love with it.
“So I was able to create levels in 3D that didn’t look like a set of standard 3D objects. In addition, creating models manually takes less time than modeling them in a 3D editor.”
Having received recognition after the release of two parts of Little Big Planet, which took about five years to develop, Media Molecule studio thought about the next step. Just at this time, the PlayStation Vita fell into their hands.
“At Tearaway we expressed all our love for the Vita. As soon as we received the first prototypes of the console, we began to think of different ways to use all of its arsenal and especially its rear touchpad. This is what sets Vita apart from everything else, ”said Rex Crawl, one of the founders of Media Molecule.
The developers came up with the idea that the player’s fingers touching the back panel burst into the game world. Then the studio began to wonder what exactly could “tear” fingers and decided that it would be great to create a setting entirely out of paper.
201 thousand sheets of colored paper later came Tearaway, an arcade game in which the player helps a paper postman deliver messages to different parts of the world. The game became a real hit and was soon released on other platforms.
Lumino City (2014)
Having successfully tested their idea of a paper and cardboard quest with the small game Lume as an example, the State of Games studio decided to build a whole three meters high cardboard city, which became the basis of Lumino City.
It took the developers three years to get everything right. In order to remain an independent studio and not seek help from investors, two employees of State of Games devoted one day a week to the development of the KAMI puzzle game for iOS. The proceeds from KAMI’s sales allowed State of Games to complete Lumino City without outside interference.
The developers invited architect Katrina Stewart to the team, who helped them shape the vision of the game to the end and suggested certain techniques for creating models, such as laser cutting.
“It was easier for me to build objects and then animate them than to learn a 3D engine like Unity and then build a 3D world trying to get the look I wanted. Instead, I decided to use the skills I already have and take them to the next level by setting myself very difficult challenges. As a result, we realized that we would not have received the same picture by going the traditional way, ”said illustrator and animator of the studio, Luke Whittaker.
If Lume has been nominated for several prestigious awards for its visuals, Lumino City seems to have taken most of them.
Cuphead doesn’t have clay-built or molded models, but it’s not for nothing that the game has received countless awards for art and animation. The fact is that the brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauers, who have been fond of cartoons from the 30s from Fleischer Studios and Disney since childhood, realized that in order to get such animation, absolutely everything must be drawn by hand, and Photoshop should be used only for filling with color.
Aspiring developers tried the project back in 2000, but quickly realized that the technology didn’t allow them to create the game of their dreams yet. After the Super Meat Boy hit the industry in 2008, the brothers regained interest in the idea, and began to devote more and more free time to it, involving wives, friends, and then third-party freelancers in the development. Soon the resulting team became known as Studio MDHR.
“In fact, at first we did everything digitally, but we couldn’t get the right picture that sat in our heads. We thought – why not do everything the same way as the animators of those years did, ”said Chad Moldenhauer.
The team drew all 24 frames per second, but found no difference between hand-painted and digitally filled.
“We decided to save years of work and a lot of money by choosing to scan the resulting drawings.”
And yet the chosen method of work forced to redo everything anew if the animator made at least one mistake. The main character of Cuphead, by the way, was originally just a blob, then a fly, then a fork, and only after that he became a charming mug.
“At first, we didn’t plan to create a game of this magnitude. They thought there would be eight bosses, a screen like in Megaman, no secondary characters and an open world. However, over the course of development, our fan base has grown so much that we decided to take a chance and create a project that we would not regret in our old age.”
For quite a long time, the German studio Slow Bros. is developing an adventure game called Harold Halibut with a focus on story and exploration of a world built from everything imaginable, but primarily clay.
Harold, the protagonist of the game, grew up on the spaceship Fedora 1, which landed on an unknown “underwater planet” decades ago with the goal of finding a new home for humans. Harold doubles as a janitor and assistant to the ship’s chief scientist, working to find a way to get the ship running again and back to Earth.
The game is made in the point-and-click genre, but the developers promise free movement of the character, non-traditional inventory and dialogues that function as a tool for progressing through the story. Overall, Slow Bros. believes that their game is closer in genre to Telltale Games projects than to classic quests.
The game has been developed with varying intensity for more than five years, but the release date is still unknown. During the development period, the team has grown from three to ten people, and includes carpenters, programmers, scriptwriters, designers, sound engineers, 3D modelers, etc.
The developers tried to raise money on Kickstarter, but to no avail. However, thanks to their attempt, the game received so much attention that new opportunities for financing the project appeared, so the team does not even think about abandoning Harold Halibut.
“Everything in the game, with the exception of the lights, is made from real materials and then turned into 3D objects. There is something about working with your hands that no computer can replace. We wanted to recreate the atmosphere of traditional stop-motion films, but also find an opportunity to use the endless possibilities that the digital world provides, ”said Ole Tillman, screenwriter and art director of the studio.
Best of all, these titles coexist in the ranks of a fairly limited number of genres, many of which are going through hard times. True, there are some exceptions.
What is only the CardLife sandbox, which appeared in Early Access on Steam quite recently. In this survival game, everything that the player will use must be cut out of 3D cardboard. Thus, the developers promise to give players a unique adventure every time. To what extent expectations converge with reality remains to be seen.
In general, whatever the developers’ experiments, the main thing is that they do not stop.