Video games always offer exciting experiences, yet there are few that literally provide something we’ve never seen before. Yes, in some cases a few games do surface which put us in instant awe mode, though most of the time we merely see variations of what has already appeared; sometimes in a new form that’s hardly captivating.
However, sometimes a magical gem does appear such as Journey, a game which almost transcends the standard conventions of gaming and provides gameplay that while simple is nonetheless backed with an amazing amount of intrigue and personal interpretation that can be conveyed by the player. A title which is similarly being bolstered by its gorgeous art and aspirations to do something different is The Golem, the new action-adventure game from Moonbot Studios.
An Academy Award winning team for their animated short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”, The Golem is the latest video game project from Moonbot Studios which once again combines the keen narrative and artistic skills the studio is renowned for. Inspired by Jewish folklore, the core essence of The Golem may sound familiar as it inspired countless tales over the years which featured the creations of humanity somewhat going amok.
Moonbot Studios’ Project Leads Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre spared some time from their schedule to discuss with Shogun Gamer about what the development team is striving for with The Golem and what we can expect from the project.
Ian Fisher: Moonbot Studios is rather unique in the world of development since the studio first didn’t originate making video games. So can you tell us a bit about the history of Moonbot and how the studio decided to eventually move into lending their talents in games development?
Adam Volker: Lampton Enochs, William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg founded the studio in 2009. All three of our partners have had a long history in film. William Joyce has published about fifty illustrated children's books and I started working with him a few years ago on his books. When the studio was founded, we didn't want to just make movies, games or books; but, anything we could be expressive with.
In 2012, we were fortunate enough to win an academy award for our first short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, we then took that story to the app market, and then turned it into a children’s book as well. We've also done two other game projects; the Numberlys and we're wrapping up a collaboration with PlayStation, Diggs Nightcrawler. We love games and feel like there are experiences that only games will allow us to create, so we’re diving in.
Ian: Right now the latest project the studio is focusing on is The Golem, a new action-adventure game set in 16th century Prague. Compared to the past projects of the Moonbot, The Golem is rather unique in both its presentation and approach to gameplay. With that said, what’s the origin of The Golem and why did Moonbot decide to pursue the project now?
Adam: The Golem has an instant appeal. I think that just seeing some of William Joyce's early drawings bring exciting gameplay moments to mind. Moonbot has been wanting to get into the interactive development game for a while. With our first few steps, we tried to not bite off more than we could chew.
We started by making apps that were more experimental in approach to the marriage of gameplay and story. Those projects were purposefully smaller than the games we are making now. With our first foray into console games, we are collaborating with Playstation on Diggs Nightcrawler. As a result, we were fortunate to try a new type of player interaction with Wonderbook. The Golem is the next step in that evolution for Moonbot.
Ian: We really haven’t seen too many games in the past which take place in beautiful cities such as Prague let alone those that are set within the 16th century. What sort of things are the Moonbot team doing to not only provide a breathtaking world for gamers to enjoy, but also to present something that they can perhaps relate to?
Bohdon Sayre: The world we’ll be creating will be culmination of a lot of things. In our game, Prague will be based on history but we’ll add and mix our own magic to provide intrigue where and when we want it. The city and its beauty should help give the player an experience that will easily entrance them.
Ian: The concept art for The Golem is simply amazing in every possible way as it captures the essence of that period yet still has a fresh perspective to it. In terms of the actual game itself, what sort of visual tone is the team striving for? Can we expect a game that is highly stylized in how the models and lighting is created or will the game have a hyper real aesthetic to everything?
Adam: The game will be a stylized reality, within a totally fleshed out 3D world. The space that the player will explore will have detail, but it will be designed in service of the story. Something that games don’t currently do well is visual priority. There are always too many things competing for your attention.
We are going to try to design the visuals of the game to help guide the player through the experience. I think that games that strive to be hyperreal can be visually boring and to hold to that too tightly will take away some of the whimsy and fantasy we want the Golem to have. The art team will be making decisions that relate to the core of the story and we try to design things to be part of the whole experience.
Ian: The Golem is a huge departure for Moonbot since it’s taking a more action oriented approach to its gameplay without forsaking the narrative. Can you discuss what sort of things the team is doing to make The Golem a compelling gameplay experience? And how would you compare the core essence of the gameplay, is it akin to an action-adventure title such as Shadow of the Colossus, or is it attempting to create a totally new feeling once gamers begin the journey?
Bohdon: One of the core elements of the Golem is marrying the narrative with the gameplay. We don’t want to take control away from the player just to show them a cinematic or something because we don’t feel that’s the best way to tell them the story. In an action game like this, witnessing events within the game should feel natural and unforced. We’ll work hard to make sure the player doesn’t miss the important story beats; but for more curious adventurers, there will also be many more details to the narrative to find.
We find it hard to reference other games when we explain how that narrative may unfold within the gameplay. The story will always provide meaning to the kinds of things you’ll be doing as the Golem, from simple tasks like chasing a bird to catching boulders that would destroy the city. SOTC is a great example of mood and the grand scale. The gameplay we’re designing, however, will be different in many ways from SOTC or even other similar games.
Ian: How will the city of Prague factor into the gameplay of The Golem? Aside from the central mechanic of trying to protect the city, will there be a sandbox style element to what gamers can do and how large the actual city is in terms of overall size and how dense it is?
Bohdon: The city will play a very large role in the game and the player should become familiar with it as they progress. Its design should help enforce game mechanics, based on your progress through story and physically through the world. There will be a degree of sandboxing, but not to the most extreme examples that we’ve seen in games before. The experience the player has is what’s most important, and that experience should mirror the Golem’s in a very poetic way. The Golem may be involved in something specific at times and free at others and as such the player will be, too.
Ian: One thing I find extremely interesting about The Golem is how the controls/control system is being approached. Given the stature of the Golem there’s bound to be a different feel whilst players control him, but the development team is striving to do some interesting things such as changing up perspectives during gameplay along with introducing new elements as the experience continues. So can you shed some more light on how Moonbot is approaching the controls of the Golem, not only in respect to the gameplay but how such a thing can convey subtleties and personality traits of the character?
Bohdon: The controls are a really large design highlight of this game. We want to enforce the fully-connected experience the player should have as the Golem via the controls in ways we haven’t seen before. When the game starts even the most veteran players may not know how to control him yet, just as the Golem doesn’t know who or what he is yet, let alone how to control himself. The player and the Golem will learn together including the basics like how to accurately control his right arm to more fluent activities like running swiftly which involves the whole body.
We understand that there’s a lot of complexity that can come out of something like that, but we’ll still keep the controls simple where they would be better as simple. One of the main points is that the player will be fluent when the Golem would be fluent. The Golem may be frustrated at times, perhaps if he’s chained down or something else, and as such the player may be frustrated, too. We feel like the emotional range that games have evoked in players so far is very small, not nearly as wide as the range you would find in film. Experimenting with the controls is one way we plan on broadening that spectrum, getting people involved so that they will feel things that even film would not be able to express.
A video detailing the controls of The Golem
Ian: Games have evolved over the years, but a lot of them sadly don’t focus entirely on the narrative or do a good job at it. With Moonbot having the background creating books and animated projects, what sort of elements are being put into the narrative of The Golem? It was mentioned that the game will have a traditional linear narrative, but beyond that will the game have a lot of depth to it, both in terms of the lore and presence of cut scenes, or will it have a more open-ended feel to how things are presented?
Adam: We want to tell this story in a way that can’t be told in any other medium. Each medium does different things better than the others and we want to respect the choice of taking this story into video games. The narrative will be linear and we will have specific emotional beats that we will want the player to be part of. The key will be to find the middle ground where the player feels like they can influence the story, but will also be on the journey we are crafting. I think that open world games are great for exploration; however, because they can be any experience you can't control the pacing or the emotional highs and lows that are a pivotal part of storytelling.
Ian: What was it like for the team at Moonbot to go from creating a narrative within one particular medium, such as film and books, and then subsequently expanding upon that in recent projects such as The Golem and Diggs Nightcrawler? Has it been liberating to a degree to create a tale that doesn’t need to be wrapped up in a specific amount of time in addition to pushing the expectations that are present in games when it comes to how stories are told?
Adam: Actually, the timing and player driven part of game storytelling is a blessing and curse at the same time. If a protagonist in a movie does something you don't want them to, but it serves the story, then the film resolves that for you. If you are playing that moment, and then decide you don't want to do that action, how do we convince you that it's what needs to happen? I think the reward players feel when the game world reacts to them and when they have puzzled something out, is going to take interactive storytelling to new plateaus.
Ian: As an indie studio, is it difficult to try and leverage your artistic sensibilities and not go into a totally commercial route, either to keep things going financially or simply to appeal to a new audience? So far Moonbot has done a tremendous job at presenting wonderful worlds and visuals, but have there ever been worries that the creations of the studio would be too niche and fail to capture the audience that they deserve?
Adam: It's always a conflict between purely artistic goals and the struggles of a start up business. However, I think that push and pull is a natural part of the process. We like to take on projects that help us learn new things and engage and challenge our artists. I think that if a story has truth in it, and it is told right, will have a wide appeal.
Ian: I wouldn’t be doing my job as a journalist and as a gamer if I didn’t ask this: what, if anything, can you tell us about Diggs Nightcrawler? Obviously you may be tightly lipped about the project as per the demands of Sony, but for all the gamers excited about the project such as I, what teases can you give us about the project and when could we perhaps see it revealed in greater detail?
Adam: Lots of folks are working really hard to wrap the game up so we can get it out later this year. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of specifics I can discuss. We are also working on a bunch of promotional material to be releasing in the coming months. I hope players really take away a sense that they were part of the story and really get into all the features of the game. The Moonbot team has had a blast playing the game over and over. I'm really proud of what the animation and art teams have put together for Diggs; and for that, I think it's well worth playing.
The debut trailer for Diggs Nightcrawler
Ian: Moonbot Studios has shown their versatility at creating unique worlds for various platforms as opposed to presenting creations that feel as if they were created on an assembly line. So what sort of design approach does the team take when it embarks on a new project, whether it’s for the world of cinema, mobile platforms, or a game console that utilizes a specific peripheral?
Bohdon: One of the things that's very important to Moonbot is that the story and medium compliment each other. Designing for so many varying experiences means we are always evaluating whether the design uses the medium as best it can. To us, using different devices or platforms to provide an experience is about understanding what's really important about each story and what would be the best aspect of that story to tell through that medium.
Ian: We’ve seen a lot of game studios go to Kickstarter to receive funding with some of them being successful while others have sadly failed to gain an audience. Due to the size of The Golem and what the team is striving for, what plans are in place if the game sadly doesn’t meet the funding goal? Will development on The Golem be pushed aside temporary, or will the studio seek funding from other outlets, perhaps signing a deal with a core publisher partner?
Bohdon: We love this game and we are very determined to make it. We really want Kickstarter to be successful, because it means a lot when it comes to the freedom of how we design. If funding is not successful, we'll find a way to make the game because we believe that it is something everyone will really enjoy and getting that experience to people is why we are here.
Ian: Since The Golem marks a new turn for Moonbot as a studio, what sort of things can we expect down the road? Will the studio still explore telling new tales within the mediums of films, books, and gaming, and if so what sort of narrative tones and genres would you like to explore the most?
Bohdon: Moonbot is still so young, and there are so many more experiences that we're dying to create. We are always exploring stories that cover all kinds of emotions, and we'll continue to put out new narratives across a wide range of genres. We're brainstorming on newer things like interactive theatrical productions, but will continue to make the experiences we love such as apps, books, and films.
From the concept to how Moonbot Studios is tackling the art and narrative, The Golem is unlike anything else we’ve seen before. A perfect example of how certain games can evolve the medium of interactive entertainment, Moonbot is going into exciting new territory as a studio and I hope that at some point we’re all lucky enough to play The Golem.
If you wish to lend your support to Moonbot and The Golem, then head over to the Kickstarter page to make a pledge. Also, if you want to stay up to date with the latest happenings of Moonbot, which thankfully will include the awesome looking Diggs Nightcrawler, then check out the official site and Twitter page for the studio.