I first came across Santa Ragione in 2010, when the small studio released first-person running game Tales of Unspoken World. The title formed the basis for the wonderful Fotonica, one of the most intriguing indie releases of 2011.
Even then, it was obvious that the Milan-based company was meant to great things. Then at the start of 2012, the team took part in the Global Game Jam, and MirrorMoon was born -- a first-person exploration puzzler that has now been nominated for the Nuovo award at the IGF.
Santa Ragione's Pietro Righi Riva and Nicolo Tedeschi worked alongside fellow Italian indie Paolo Taje of Bloody Monkey on the game, and the trio is now planning to expand on the concept off the back of its popularity.
As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Riva discusses where the idea for MirrorMoon came from, and why game jams are so important to indie studios.
Paolo Taje made a cool arena-shooter called Naac and a game design tool called LAYERS. Aside from that, between the three of us, we've probably worked on twenty or so small prototypes (many of them currently unreleased).
We have basically no experience in the traditional game industry and we often question what we do, possibly because we feel a little alienated in a world we don't always understand. We've always played games, but at Santa Ragione we lack any programming background. We are, technically speaking, a designer and an artist. I think the stuff we studied at university has been very helpful in finding a style and a design practice. But, like many, our experience was built working on game after game.
What development tools are you using to develop MirrorMoon?
MirrorMoon is made in Unity3D and all the assets in Blender. Of the three of us working on MirrorMoon, only Paolo has some professional programming skills, but using an engine like Unity enables all of us to work on the game.
How long have you worked on the game?
The game was almost entirely crafted during the two days of the Global Game Jam 2012 in Genova. We put an extra eight hours into it after that, mainly to solve game breaking bugs and misleading splash screens ("better enjoyed with joypad" became "vaguely compatible with joypad").
After that, the game was, to our surprise, selected for last year's Experimental Gameplay Sessions at GDC2012. So we designed a brand new, unreleased level to see where the game could go and to have something new to show on stage (it was not part of the IGF submission).
How did you come up with the concept?
We started with the GGJ theme, the Ouroboros -- the snake biting its tale. The first idea was to build something that was based on a recursive system and at the same time on the idea of endlessness. A sphere is a closed system, a system that, lacking any other kind of visual reference, becomes infinite if you see it from a bi-dimensional perspective.
This generated the initial game concept of being on a sphere with a first person perspective, such that the camera is so near to the horizon that you almost feel like you are walking on a plane. We first wanted to superimpose two representations of this system, one where it shows that you are walking in a circle and one where you have the illusion of progressing indefinitely.
We asked ourselves, "what if these two representations coexisted in the same physical space?" instead of, say, using two different cameras or GUI elements like maps. We ended up designing the recursive system of the moon and the beacon pointer to create landmarks.
Can you explain exactly how the game works, and what you're supposed to do, for anyone who is intrigued yet confused by the various videos and screenshots.
It would be really easy to spoil the game with too much explanation, since part of the enjoyment is how little is explicitly revealed to the player. MirrorMoon is a game about getting lost in an empty space, and finding your way without knowing where you are going or what your objectives are. It's about space perception and a tribute to space exploration: fictional space, cosmic space as well as physical space.
All you see around you is flat red ground, but you'll soon realize this desert world is hiding some strange structures and tools. In order to navigate the planet, players have to understand the relationship between the red satellite and the main planet, and how tools and buildings interact.
What do you think it is about MirrorMoon that has captured the attention of the IGF judges, such that they believed it was worthy of the Nuovo award?
This nomination was honestly very unexpected. We hope that the reason why they chose it is that, although it's a little confusing, it presents a consistent, unusual experience. It's an attempt at experimental narrative in games, where the unsettling feelings of displacement and inadequacy are conveyed through interaction.
We wanted to talk about science fiction, and to create something that makes you experience space and lets you play around with perception in a way that is different from how books or movies approach it.
The game first came about as a result of the Global Game Jam. How important are game jams to your team and, in general, to the indie community?
Jams are extremely important: they are a very inspiring and humbling form of collaboration, where you get to work with people from whom you can learn a lot, or surprise yourself with your own contributions you didn't think you were capable of. Plus, we find the time limit really forces us to solve problems in unusual ways.
We believe jams are essential to indie communities, because they offer deadlines and the pressure needed to actually complete a project. For us, they are an excellent tool to try out new ideas and work with new people. We organize jams as part of our Lunarcade collective. We even do board game jams, which are tons of fun because you can start literally playing with your game ideas straight away.
What are the next steps in the development of the game? What is your vision of the final product?
Well, we worked some more on MirrorMoon and it turned out to be a really hard game to expand, because it's more similar to an adventure game like Myst than, say, Portal. Now we are thinking about developing MirrorMoon into a bigger release and working on different solutions.
One idea is to have many different scenarios where each one works in its own peculiar way. As mentioned, the problem with this kind of game is that the interesting part is solving the mystery of how the system works. In order to expand the game, we'd have to create several interesting puzzles that work in entirely different ways.
In terms of vision, we imagine a consistent world and a coherent aesthetic (that we have been developing, see also Street Song): we imagine different chapters with a common flavor and look that slowly come together as the game progresses.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?
Let's start with this year masterpiece: Cart Life. Back in June we tweeted that it deserved to be at IGF and we were right! Forgive the effusive praise, but Cart Life really pushes the medium forward like few games before, in terms of narrative and meaningful interaction.
As I mentioned before, we organize these Lunarcade exhibitions where we show selections of particularly expressive games. Because of that, we are constantly hunting for new games and we end up playing the majority of this year's finalists. Stanley Parable is absolutely worth checking out, as is the beautiful Kentucky Route Zero.
Dys4ia is one of the most important games of this year, and maybe the first truly autobiographical game. Little Inferno is a gem, extremely polished and perfectly captures the perverse pleasure of burning things with similarly perverse plot and graphics.
If there are still readers of indiegames.com that haven't played FTL: go get it now! We would also recommend LiquidSketch: we haven't seen anything this impressive in the genre since Crayon Physics in 2009.
All in all, this year's list of finalists is full of great games. There is a nice variety of titles with different scopes. We loved Thirty Flight of Loving, we played a lot of Super Hexagon on iPhone, Incredipede on PC, and we were extremely impressed with the narrative quality of Bientot l'ete (which debuted publicly at Lunarcade Sydney in August 2012). Hotline Miami is also a very solid and polished game. Ah, don't forget to try Spaceteam!
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
Just by looking at the previous answer, you can see that the indie scene is in great shape! Lots of talented people and lots of tremendous output. The diversity and maturity is visibly increasing, finally.
It is still hard to make a living out of it, to find a balance between creative autonomy and profitable products. (It hasn't been easy for us in these last three years). Think about new platforms like Kickstarter or Greenlight and the potential they have to steer the direction of a game based on the participation of the fan community: it's great but scary at the same time.
We think "inclusion" has to be the main topic of discussion in the scene and in the industry as a whole: new, different (diverse?) people must join the creative process, and with them we will be able to reach new audiences, and to free ourselves from the traditional stylistic elements that keep us trapped in the "games for gamers" limbo.