March 7, 2012 9:00 AM | John Polson
[The following interview was written by Frank Cifaldi and appeared on Gamasutra.]
Switzerland-based game designer Mario von Rickenbach has a rich background in illustration and animation, with a portfolio filled to the brim with his sketches and renderings.
It's hardly surprising, then, that his abstract and completely zany IGF submission Mirage has found its way into the Excellence In Visual Art category this year.
You play an underwater tophat that has coupled together with a human foot, and it now looking to explore its surreal surroundings. By grabbing other body parts along the way, the tophat can perceive the world differently.
As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, von Rickenbach discusses how he came up with the concept for Mirage, and how he settled on the game's unique art style.
What background do you have making games?
About one and a half years ago, I graduated from the University of the Arts in Zurich (ZHdK) where I studied game design, which was my first contact with making games. Since then, I try to work as much as possible on own independent game projects like Mirage, Krautscape or Rakete.
For paying my rent, I work at the ZHdK as a research associate, where, among other things, I'm teaching in the game design course. Additionally, I also do freelance work, mostly for mobile games.
My role changes in every project, sometimes I do visual design, sometimes game design or programming. If it is possible, I try to be involved in all the disciplines, because I think the main point of making games is to connect the pieces to create an great game experience.
What development tools did you use?
For Mirage I'm using the Unity Engine.
How long has your team been working on the game?
I started Mirage about two years ago as my final project at University, where I worked on it for three months. Then, after putting the project aside for more than one year, I slowly started to work on it again.
How did you come up with the game's concept?
At the beginning of the project, I didn't really want to create a game. Instead, I focused on creating an interactive creature by putting together body parts and sensory organs in various structures. Before Mirage, I once made a game prototype called "Oculus", where the main character consists of eyes only. I was surprised how well it worked with only very simple elements. For Mirage, I wanted to go in a similar direction with the goal to create a very much alive, but more complex creature. This was my starting point and everything else evolved out of it.
What was the inspiration behind the game's art style?
As I said, the goal was to create a very much alive creature. I wanted to split the body apart to have a modular, modifiable structure which I could use for gameplay. After some tinkering with placeholder 3D-models of the body parts, I was very unhappy that the creature behaved so static. Of course it would have been possible to just take some time and create nice animations, but I wasn't really motivated to do it, I wanted to do something... different.
This situation lead me to try an unconventional method to create the body parts: I filmed parts of my (real) body and cut it out (the video frames) to use it in the game as very smooth animations. This was done by using an improvised blue-screen technique - I basically painted my face with blue color, except the eyes, mouth and nose etc. to be able to cut it out in the video, and recorded some animation clips. Of course, I didn't really know if it would work, but I think it does. And it is perhaps the funniest animation-technique I used until now, doing grimaces with a face painted blue.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I haven't played many of them. Among the few ones I played, GIRP is my favorite for its hilariousness. I'm so bad at it, it's so stupid... and awesome! Thanks, Bennett Foddy.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
It's hard to describe "the indie scene", because there are so many different directions and game styles which can be connected to the scene. How exactly are GIRP and Dear Esther connected, except for being games? Maybe this diversity of ideas and concepts is the greatest strength of the scene, but it could lead to a separation of experimental indies and "major-indies" or something like that. Personally, I really like the step toward more elaborate games, but I also hope the small experimental games will remain on the other side.
Mirage's protagonist is...unique. How did it come together?
First, there was a tophat. I gave it some popcorn and left it alone for a night. Next morning, the tophat had a foot attached and swam around. After one week it had evolved a full-fledged body and it was happy.
If you had to choose, would you say Mirage's game design was driven by its art, or would you say that its art was driven by its game design?
At the beginning, there was the game idea to have a modular creature with different sensory organs to interact with the environment. Based on this concept, I started to develop the art and game design in parallel. In retrospect, I would say that the visual appearance was most of the time the more important thing when I had to decide whether I want to keep or throw away a feature.