Remember Undergarden, the colourful, organic puzzling exploration game that recently launched on PC and XBLA and is now heading to the PSN? It’s a difficult game to forget, once you’ve seen its ethereal visuals and heard its engrossing musical score. We’ve been playing it on the Xbox 360 and in anticipation of its PSN release we’ve had the chance to fire a few questions at Antonio Santamaria, Head of Engineering at Vitamin-G.
The first thing that jumps out to our readers may be the striking visuals we’ve seen in screen shots and trailers. What were the team’s main inspirations while working on this visual style?
For the visual style, we wanted to emphasize the idea of adding color and life to the an otherwise dark environment. More generally, we wanted to underscore the idea of creating, instead of destroying. In nature, this is essentially what happens all of the time as plant life takes hold in areas previously devoid of it, say in volcanic areas for example. So nature itself provided much of the inspiration for the plant life, although everything was skewed to fit perhaps a more exotic or abstract theme.
The lighting, colors and effects are perhaps influenced in some way by a few different art styles as well: from psychedelia in the 60’s to impressionism in modern art, although these influences are really light at best. We wanted to make everything feel very organic, so for the most part the biggest influences really are from nature: exotic plants and flora, mixed with a healthy amount of imagination.
What about character design? Those little guys look like characters from a kid’s TV show, was there a deliberate attempt to subvert that aesthetic by matching them with the alien landscapes and the slower-paced, more considered puzzling aspects?
This one is a bit hard to answer. We were aiming for an abstract type of experience, so the main character was purposely made to straddle the line between something cutesy and child-like, yet a little “out-there” as well, for lack of a better term. This was quite tricky: he is soft but not fluffy, has defined limbs, and yet his skin ripples almost like he is quite gelatinous… he’s quite hard to explain. We think that if an environment like The UnderGarden really existed, one that was familiar in some ways, but a little strange in others, he’s the kind of guy that might fit right in. One thing we were quite certain of though was that we didn’t want the character to dictate where you were or what you were doing exactly, so having him have fins or gills for example, would imply the game takes place underwater, something we wanted to leave to the imagination. We also left all the characters androgynous. I suppose what they do and how they do it is their own business!
The overall feel of the game play in The Undergarden is pretty unique, especially among puzzlers. Were there any other games that you were inspired by or drew influence from?
Flower is the immediate comparison that a lot of people make, for obvious reasons, although The UnderGarden plays quite differently. I’d say for overall pace, and to some degree feel, both Flower and Flow are similar to what we were aiming for. We also wanted to include some puzzle aspects, and for these there are a few games such as Little Big Planet which made physics a big part of the experience. There is one area where we diverged from some physics-based or puzzle games however. Sometimes these games require a lot of collecting and backtracking to get through an area.
We wanted to focus on the exploration, so we tried to make sure our puzzles would be satisfying, but not frustrating, and ideally nothing would impede your progress for very long. This is why we call them “soft puzzles”: they are there to add a bit of a challenge, but they generally won’t hold the player back too much. There are some trickier areas where navigating the puzzle might lead to a bonus flower or crystal, but these are optional.
The music plays an important role in setting the scene and building with the gameplay. How did the musical direction come about and were there any other styles that you guys experimented with?
A number of people on the team are musicians, and we’ve always felt that music plays an important role in how players experience a game. The music is all designed to emphasize the relaxing, often calming visuals and pace of the game. As such, it definitely has an ambient new-age feel to it all, with many of the sounds based around piano’s, synths, and other symphonic elements. We are fortunate in that our audio director is quite talented at a variety of instruments, and he pulled in a little bit of everything to achievement the sound he was looking for.
One important aspect of the music is that it is dynamic. The background tracks are layered, so the player can add to the soundscape by floating near, or pulling around the other musicians they find along the way. Some of these musicians add guitar elements, flute, bass and percussion to the mix, again all designed to have a soft, ambient feel. The sound effects are also very melodic, and all are intended to emphasize how you are not only adding color to the world (by growing flora), but also adding music. Sticking to an ambient style seemed to work for us, and we felt different styles were probably not going to be as effective in delivering the feel we were after. We chose instead to make the players active participants in the mix, and allow them to control it themselves.
The puzzles, at least in the early stages, are not devilishly difficult but still seem strangely satisfying. Can you tell us a little bit about what goes in to designing puzzles that feel rewarding but don’t lock out players who perhaps aren’t as comfortable with puzzlers?
We wanted The UnderGarden to have a little more to it than simply growing flowers, and so we added in the puzzle elements to add little satisfying rewards for the player as they progressed. These are often just a small obstacle in your way, and can be looked at as more of a way to add some variety to the game rather than a core element of the experience. We never intended it to be a hard-core puzzler, so some of the staples you might find in a puzzle-based platformer for example, such as precision jumps, or lots and lots of collecting, are intentionally absent.
The game was designed for both people who wanted a change of pace, and for those who had less interest in core-games altogether, so this dictated a few things. One of the first was that the puzzles needed to make sense. For example it is clear that fruit that falls to the ground has weight, and so this in turn can be used to push down on a switch.
The puzzles also almost always have a very tactile feel to them: things push down, push up, click into place, turn, etc. and these are all accompanied by similar sounds to add to the overall “feel” – we think this helps make them more satisfying overall. Because we didn’t want to lock out players who were less comfortable, we kept some of the trickier or time-sensitive areas as optional. These are there for the completionists, as they often lead to some collectables, but they can usually be skipped altogether by someone who just wants to decorate the world or enjoy the visuals and audio.
You seem to have been keen to point out that this is a casual experience. That word alone will raise alarm bells with much of our audience so why haven’t you been more vocal about the very obvious gameplay aspects of peril and reward that are present?
It is interesting how some gamers might see “casual” as something bad. The thing with describing a game as “casual” is that it should describe appeal, not gameplay, and in fact “casual games” encompass many different genres, from puzzlers to platformers and more. There has been perhaps an emphasis on the relaxing gameplay, pace and musical and visual style, because we think these combine into an experience that really stands out. But you are probably correct in pointing out that by focusing on this, we’ve inadvertently downplayed the fact that we have “traditional” gameplay elements in there as well, which is hopefully something people will notice.
I suppose we can see how The UnderGarden might get the “casual” label added to it by some people, though. The thing we would like to emphasize about The UnderGarden is that it is not specifically a “casual game” or a puzzler or a music game; it is just a bit different. There are some familiar gameplay elements that have also been used in platformers, and others in some physics-based puzzlers, and others in music or what some call “Zen” games. But we do hope it has casual appeal in the truest sense, in that we hope appeals to a wide audience of both gamers and non-core gamers alike.
The Undergarden has been out for a while on the Xbox Live Arcade and on PC but it’s taken a little extra time to get it onto the PlayStation Network. Is there any particular reason for that?
The Undergarden is our first in-house PS3 title, and as such there was some time spent up front getting our tech ready to make sure it took advantage of all the PS3 platform had to offer. We made a commitment early on to not simply make a quick port of a 360 title, and so we actually wrote new systems to work with the different threads, etc. on the PS3. This took a bit of time, although once the main code was in place, we were able to catch up to the 360 build pretty quickly. In the end, both titles were developed mostly concurrently, although adding the two additional levels on the PS3 added a bit to the schedule in the end.
What’s next for the studio, any plans for additional content, a sequel or will you be moving on to something completely different?
We have a couple unannounced titles in the works, which we will be looking at delivering on the PS3 and 360 in the future. We are also interested in seeing if there is some request for Move support for the PS3 version, perhaps as an update later on. Of course, like any project, there are things we wanted to add to The Undergarden that we were unable to, and hopefully we will have the opportunity to do so in a future sequel to the title down the road.
TheSixthAxis would like to thank everyone at Vitamin-G and Atari for making this interview possible and especially Antonio Santamaria for taking the time to answer all of our questions in such a comprehensive way.