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Road To The IGF: Monobanda's  Bohm

Road To The IGF: Monobanda's Bohm

February 2, 2011 | By Kris Graft

February 2, 2011 | By Kris Graft
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[As part of a series of "Road to the IGF" interviews with 2011 IGF finalists, Gamasutra speaks with the team at Monobanda about Bohm, a Nuovo Award-nominated "poetic experience" centered around a procedurally-generated tree.]

Described by its developer as a game "you want to play before you go to bed," Monobanda's Bohm ignores competitive themes and win/loss scenarios in order to evoke a more abstract, poetic experience.

With no clear goals or gameplay explanation in Bohm, players control the growth of a tree in real time while the virtual plant and accompanying music evolve according to the player's actions.

The game is up for a 2011 Independent Game Festival Nuovo Award, which recognizes more esoteric "art game" titles. Monobanda's young five-person team is made up of Sjoerd Wennekes, Mathijs Konings, Liselore Goedhart, Simon van der Linden and Niki Smit.

Here, The Netherlands-based team at Monobanda tells Gamasutra about the creation of Bohm, and how the game spawned from a lunchtime joke.

What background do you have making games?

All five of us at Monobanda graduated with a degree in Design for Virtual Theatre and Games at the Utrecht School of the Arts. This course trained us in looking at game design from different perspectives.

We were educated in things like traditional storytelling, theatre, play, performances, social interaction, etc. After our graduation we wanted to continue our findings and experiences and start our own creative company.

At Monobanda we make games that combine interactive, digital elements with the real world. Pervasive gaming, augmented reality, that kind of stuff. Bohm is currently our only game that does not feature a crossover to the real world. It's our first foray into "real" games (i.e. screen and joypad) and we liked the process a lot.

What development tools did you use?

We collaborated with Cannibal Game studios, based in Delft. They produced a custom-made engine for us, called the Cannibal Engine, which runs on a PC. They enabled us to work with this engine without having to delve into the code too deeply ourselves.

How long has your team been working on the game?

We have been working on and off on Bohm for roughly one-and-a-half years. However, this wasn't full time. It was our passion project on the side and we worked on it in between other projects.

How did you come up with the concept for Bohm?

The five of us we're joking around at lunch, talking about fun concepts for games. Someone suggested a game about reincarnation -- a game that puts you in a different animal every time you die. We talked about how interesting it would be to jump from animal to animal, finding out how to control it as you go along.

Then came the inevitable joke: "Wouldn't it be funny if you suddenly came back as a tree? So your jump button doesn't work anymore, you can't seem to move with the 3D stick and you slowly realize you're essentially stuck."

When that idea came up we just stopped, and thought about it. Making a game that appears to have no interaction, but then letting the player slowly discover that they can take control is actually a very interesting concept. Coupled with our long kept desire to make slow and dreamlike experiences, and our love for the often overlooked beauty in nature, it all just clicked together.

Within five minutes, a simple joke turned into a fully fledged concept we knew we just had to make.

Would you like to see more games that focus more on creation rather than win/loss scenarios?

It's nice to see so many different experiments happen. Not only in the indie games scene, but also with some of the big blockbusters like LittleBigPlanet.

I don't necessarily think more games should focus on creation, but I do think it's good to move away from competitive scenarios more often. Because when you think about it, competition is the tried and tested motivator to play. So if you take that away, designers are forced to come up with new, different ways to motivate and compel a player. And we are very excited and curious about what all those brilliant game-designers out there will come up with.

You say the game is meant to be a "poetic experience." What do you mean by that?

One of my biggest overall inspirations is the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. He made movies that were deliberately slow. Very slow. But he made them in a way that gave the audience space to drift off into their own associations.

Tarkovsky compared his way of filming to a Japanese poem, a haiku. The poem is divided into three minimal sentences, which describe a simple scene. But when you read the haiku, the most beautiful thing happens. Your own imagination kicks in, and you will associate and make it bigger than just those three sentences.

A poem reserves space between its sentences for imagination. Which is a very respectful way to treat your audience.

We wanted to adapt this way of thinking to game design. We tried, like a haiku, to condense the bare minimals into a working package, and create as much room as possible to drift away around that. Following this dogma, energy bars, blinking parts, tutorials and even title screens had to go. Who needs them?

So poetic, in this case, means trying to create a very open ended experience that aims to give its audience space.

What was the inspiration behind the game's art style?

The art style was an ongoing experiment and battle against frame rate drops. But we wanted to create a scene that felt soothing and zen-like. We were inspired by the look of Polaroid pictures, depth of field, macro views, saturated colors and the play of light. Other inspirations were artists like Hayao Miyazaki and Roger Dean and Japanese ukiyo-e artists Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

We all played Super Crate Box and Dinner Date, created by our fellow Dutch game designers. We also enjoyed playing Minecraft, Cave Story and Bit.Trip Runner.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Well, there's no denying it's booming. And of course that's a good and healthy reaction to the big, monolithic mainstream industry.

But I would like to see even more experimentation. I love a good retro style game, but there's so much more to discover in terms of gameplay than making another side-scrolling platformer with a twist (in spite of their brilliance!)

This is in no way critique, as I absolutely love all those games (e.g. looking forward to Fez!). I just wish entertainment wasn't always the main goal of a game. Surely there are other experiences out there to surprise us.

[Previous 2011 'Road To The IGF' interviews have covered Markus Persson's Minecraft, The Copenhagen Game Collective's B.U.T.T.O.N., Alexander Bruce's Hazard: The Journey of Life, Nicolai Troshinsky's Loop Raccord, Chris Hecker's Spy Party and Frictional Games' Amnesia.]


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