Transmission is the first game by Pasadena-based studio Paper Unicorn Games. The goal is simple: You wake up on a mysterious planet with no memory of how you got there. Players will uncover the planet’s secrets as they search for a way home. The game’s aesthetic is very reminiscent of classic sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Blade Runner. The style is bolstered by a stunning, completely hand-painted art style and exploration-based gameplay. The studio is currently running a Kickstarter campaign where it is looking for $84,000 in funding.
CGMagazine sat down with Nathaniel West, the art and creative director at Paper Unicorn Games, to talk about the ambitious title.
Nathaniel West: We were officially founded at the start of this year. Before that, it was a bit more informal. Chris Page (the lead programmer) and I have been a two-man crew working on and off together for the past year or so. We have a number of freelancers doing animations, modeling, music, etc. that pop in from time to time as needed.
CGM: What has the development process been like?
W: It's been very fluid and dynamic. I'm a concept artist by trade, so the art and design side is natural. But the gaming side has been a huge learning curve. Thankfully, Chris has worked on some big projects, ranging from military projects to XCOM and other games. He's very well versed in development and is a great asset to have in that he is a designer and creative mind as well. Initially, I had the idea for the game, but once Chris came onboard the game has begun to tell us what it wants to be. It's very organic and we are enjoying the process of exploring how all of the components in the game fit together.
W: Game development is very hard in general. It takes a long time to balance things, and the biggest struggle has been juggling so many components with such a small team. It means you have to wear many hats, and each day you might be doing 4 or 5 different types of jobs.
CGM: What inspired the decision to go with a hand-painted art style?
W: It really came naturally for me, since I do concept art for a living. I really wanted an excuse to paint environments in order to set a tone through art. I don't see much of that done in games, but when I do see it, I'm always really inspired by that handcrafted quality.
CGM: You guys mentioned in your Kickstarter that some of your influences include classic sci-fi movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. Was there anything that you guys were suddenly inspired by mid-development, or was it all laid out from the start?
W: I ended up watching Ex Machina midway through, and I think that movie was brilliant in terms of tone and story. It definitely reinforced the tone and vibe we're shooting for. Beyond that, we're always inspired by photography and artwork that we come across. What's nice about design projects is that your personal life creeps into them so random things that impact you can make it into a project. The project ends up being a collage of all of these influences that are important to you during that time. Ideas branch off into new ideas, and so forth, so the project ends up evolving and changing until the very end. It tends to be an adventure in itself!
W: For me, a lot of the technical aspects had to be learned from the beginning. Now that we're midway through, a lot of our issues are balancing the game mechanics. We have to try things to see what elements fit together and which don't work. Currently, we're doing a lot of assessment on how our mechanics reinforce the tone of the story, and editing out things that may be cool but end up detracting from the main theme. Sometimes less truly is more powerful. I imagine that even the most hardened veteran learns something new on each project they work on because no two are ever alike and they always have unique problems to solve.
CGM: Jeremiah Pena’s score really helps convey the feeling of isolation you guys are going for with the game. Was he someone you guys always looked at to create the sound?
W: I heard Jeremiah's music, and asked him to write the trailer score for us. In one shot, he nailed it. I really felt something special and knew that he should continue on as the game's composer. He's got a very filmic sense to his music and a vast knowledge of musical references that have been really key to where this soundtrack is heading.
CGM: How has your experience with feature films prepared you for Transmission? [West has previously worked on films like Interstellar and Inception.] What were the differences in challenges between making a feature film and making a video game?
W: There are a lot of similarities in terms of the design process between films and games. You begin with gathering photo references; start sketching out ideas, and then rough in some concepts. Then those end up evolving into more refined ideas. Where it starts to differ is in the output. The environments you create, for example, impact the pacing of the game and therefore the player's feelings towards it. There is more weight on spatial design in games because a player can walk around an environment completely, rather than just witness it from one specific angle that is chosen in a film.
Paper Unicorn hopes to complete Transmission by late 2017. More information on the game can be seen on their Kickstarter page.