What's the process for building a game out of cardboard? In this unusual postmortem, State of Play creative director Luke Whittaker lays bare the paper and glue creative process behind acclaimed indie game Lume.
Lume is a puzzle adventure game with a world entirely handcrafted from paper and cardboard. It launched on Steam for Mac and PC in Summer 2011 and has since been released on iOS, Linux, Android, and the Kindle Fire and Nook. It was a finalist for the Excellence in Visual Arts award at IGF 2012 and won the Develop Indie Showcase Award in 2012.
In the game you play a character named Lume, who explores her Granddad's house trying to figure out how to restore the failed power system in various ingenious ways. The house itself is a model set about a meter long, which we built out of paper, cardboard and integrated miniature model lighting. We equipped a small studio with lighting and then filmed it by hand in HD. Later, this footage formed the environment of the game with the interactive character integrated and enabled the player to explore every part of the house.
We're an indie games company with a background in animation and Flash games. We've always been fans of a handmade aesthetic, a passion that began years ago through a simple appreciation of the emotional aspect of painting and drawing. It's turned out to be a fascinating area to explore in the world of interactivity.
The drive towards more technologically graphic solutions has actually meant that many games distance you from the world through their artifice. Even those striving for photorealism end up with a slight plastic sheen that keeps the player at arm's length. Not being so tech-focused, we were interested in seeing how we could engage players by drawing them into a world they could almost touch and one that's similar to the world we know.
LittleBigPlanet made the handmade aesthetic work beautifully on the PlayStation 3, but we weren't aiming to create something infinitely adaptable to the player's design. As such, we were freed of those technical challenges.
Our team wanted to create a world in which players could immerse themselves (like a good book) and included a narrative they could explore at their own pace and puzzles they could solve in any order; all while maintaining the tempting possibility of discovery. We wanted it to feel like you're being read a story; one where you're safe in the knowledge that someone is in control. But at the same time, it should feel like you're the first to hear it.
The desire was to make a beautiful puzzle adventure game where we could explore an interesting narrative, and bring together the best of all the games we love and work in a style and method that excited us. We didn't know quite what the style would be at first and experimented with various hand-drawn and Flash-animated examples. We'd recently made the game Headspin: Storybook (Flash and iOS), an interactive pop-up puzzle book that was designed to look like it was made from paper. Coming off this game, the thought struck us that perhaps we didn't have to fake it. Perhaps we could make something real; make it move and also make it interactive.
We did a number of visual tests (see Figure 1) to see if we could achieve what we had in mind. Once they worked out, we had an interactive character settled nicely into a moving background and realized we had to go with this idea.
Figure 1: Design test
What Went Right
1. Ideas Stage
One of the goals of our production was to make sure we were enjoying the creative process as much as possible and creating the best experience we could. We wanted this project to be ambitious, idea-led, and something we'd love to see get made. To this end, we made sure we allowed sufficient time for conceptualizing and experimenting early on (see Figures 2 and 3), exploring ideas as they occurred and concentrating on things that intrigued us.
Thoughts on how we were going to distribute the game or even how big the game would be were far from our minds at this point. This approach ensured that if we did commit to making the game, we were committing to something that we cared about. It was something I'm very pleased with, in that we didn't compromise the vision at an early stage based on other factors that could've clouded our vision.
Figure 2: Early proof-of-concept tests
Figure 3: House and character concept designs
The style is a major component of Lume. It was very important that we didn't see it as something that was pasted onto a mechanic, but something that was an integral piece of the game. Being a small team, where I was programming the wireframe (see Figure 4) while building models for the game at the same time, made the process of keeping the style integral a lot easier.
Figure 4: Wireframing in Flash
I knew, for example, where I could position objects and puzzles in my wireframe in a way that would make sense as a model. The vision I had of the completed model in my head meant I could work out the flow of the level design without needing to communicate with the various teams. I think it helped to create a style and a level of design that was both coherent and visually appealing.
It was also important that it looked like nothing else we'd seen before; it had to be a world you wanted to explore. Atmosphere and mood contribute hugely to the success of the world design. By making it out of paper and cardboard and lighting the model just as we wanted, we could shape this by hand on set. We were able to imbue a sense of warmth in the scene by warming the color of the lighting and drew attention to certain elements on screen by picking them out with lights hidden behind the windows.
Our lighting cameraman, Tom, came equipped with all sorts of gadgets and tricks to light the model, from tiny clip-on LED lights that could be attached to mirrors that bounced light around and gobos that added dappled effects.
The filming was all done by hand using a DSLR (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: Tom filming the model
We had considered stop motion as an option, but it would have been too smooth. By Allowing Tom to do it freehand reinforced the handmade feel of the game. It's the wobble and what you could call "mistakes" that give it personality. But at the same time, Tom is a proper professional and also works for the BBC natural history unit. As we were filming he kept saying, "Sorry, that's got wobble in it again, I'll have another go," while I was saying "No, that's great! Let's keep it." I did have a go with the camera myself too, and it just increased my admiration for his work even more. I barely managed to keep the model in the frame.
This footage was integral to the style of the game. It was important we weren't just taking stills of a model but also moving through it (see Figure 6). That's where the real feeling of exploration was. For lack of a better word, it's the indefinable "something" that Lume offers. I'm pleased we discovered something here and it felt like we tapped into a rich seam.
Figure 6: Moving through the world