pen_int1.pngI have already mentioned I was deeply impressed by the platforming antics of Penarium and couldn't help but approach Thomas Noppers and attempt to find out more. Happily, the lead artist and animator of the game's cruel and stunning circus was happy to confess, admit and answer things.

Would you care to introduce yourself to the audience?

I am Thomas Noppers, Game designer and artist. I was lead artist and animator on Penarium. A game made by the folks at Self Made Miracle.

How would you describe Penarium?

In Penarium you play a kid who's trapped in a circus and forced to platform amid an endless array of death machines.
The official tagline is 'sadistic circus extravaganza' but I always called it a circus survival platformer. Being the artist I'd like to note that it's set in a spooky version of an early 1900's circus.

pen_int2.pngAnd why did you actually create it? Were you aiming to create a new generation of madly skilled platforming gamers?

The last game we made together was a RTS game. Playing it was all about efficiency and calculations. Rick (the game's designer) and Ruben (the developer) felt like making a game that was all about instant decision making and gut feeling. They made a lot of prototypes and this one showed its appeal even in an early state. Then they brought me on board with the premise that I could decorate a spooky circus. I could not resist.

Is there some sort of comment on our brutal, voyeuristic ways tucked away under the game's surrealism, frantic pace and charming tents?

The game's lesson is that life is hard. The main's character had a rough childhood and is then trapped in a circus where he performs acrobatics until he's tainted for life. Really. There's no lesson here. It's all just a test.

And please, do tell me: where you influenced by Manic Miner?

I'm sorry, but that's the first time I heard of that title! From a designer standpoint the game is inspired by early arcade games where you could jump in one side of the screen and come out at the other side. Visually I took cues from a show called Carnivale. The character (Willy) is inspired by a friend of mine who, for a while, worked at the carnival fair until he got hit in the face by a carnival ride. His name is Wilco, but his friends call him Willy.

pen_int3.pngHow did you create Penarium? Did you start off with a core idea and a small prototype?

The team had a prototype running very early on because at its core the game is simple. The idea was to create an instantly enjoyable and understandable game where you played on intuition and split-decision making. A polar opposite of our previous game. When I got on the team I could start making assets.

Actually, could you please provide us with a brief and not incredibly brutal making of the game's art?

First I made a mood board of the colours I wanted to dominate the game. Then I made some sprites of the main character and I made the first level. Then the deathtraps. Then we threw it all away and made it again but better. Then we animated it all and then we made some more levels. The game's setting is very dear to me, so I loved working on it.

Are you happy with how the game turned out? Is it everything you expected it to be? What about the popular and press reaction to it?

We didn't get as much coverage as I'd hoped, but most of the reviews were very positive. There were some that didn't like the game. They all had fair criticism. One however said the game had no identity. That pissed me off for a good five minutes. Apart from all of that, I am extremely proud of what we've put on the planet. More proud than I expected to be. I've been playing games all my life. Spent hours as a kid in game stores gazing at games I couldn't buy. To after thirty years finally have a game out for others feels like the completion of a cycle. It's a relief because I was starting to wonder if I was ever gonna pull it off.

Now, care for a short comment on the aesthetics of the game? Its art direction perhaps?

After its release I played the game again from start to finish. There were a couple of weeks between the game's completion and its actual release so I had a pair of fresh eyes. There are many things I would've done differently but it doesn't matter. The game is what it is and I find comfort in that finality.

How do you approach illustrating a game?

I just don't think about everything that needs to be done to make a game and I start at the beginning. I don't know what the beginning is, but I just start drawing stuff I think will help. It won't be used in the end product but it gets me in the mood. And then there's my sketchbook.

What are your tools of choice?

The single most important tool for any project I do, wether it's art or game design, is my sketchbook. It's small so I can carry it with me around the house. I make small doodles and notes in them. Most of the notes are questions, rarely do I come up with an answer. I'd say I doodle not to find a solution but more to plant a seed in my head for the solution to grow later on. Could be under the shower or before sleeping but it'll be because I doodled and scribbled. It speeds up the process. As for computer programs; I'll use whatever the project wants me to use. For Penarium we used Photoshop for the art and animations and Flash for the cutscenes and the main menu. I really wanna start doing some 3D though.

Care to share any tips for artists interested in working on video games?

This is a hard one. I made Penarium with friends I met at Game Design school. That was my way in. Other than that I do some projects with people on Twitter and I know other artists who get to know collaborators and gigs on the internet. I think it's possible to get freelance art gigs without leaving your bedroom but your art level has to be pretty decent. I learned a lot about pipelines and how games work during game jams. It's definitely not a sure road to 'making money with art". I don even make enough money with art myself, but continually sharing art on the internet and interacting with people will get you noticed.

What can we expect in the future? Extra content for Penarium, a physical re-creation of its circus perhaps? Maybe even other, new games?

I'd love to make a Penarium 2 but that future is shrouded in mystery. I can't say what coolness Self Made Miracle is cooking. I myself am currently working on Demolitron. a giant robot city crushing game.