One of the more memorable gaming experiences of the last decade for me was American McGee’s Alice. A large part of that is because of the game’s unique art style, which shows off an elaborately colorful depiction of Wonderland. The game carried with it a dark, yet whimsical storybook atmosphere that has allured fans for the past ten years. It is as much a successful piece of art as it is a good game, which is a difficult task to achieve.
This is the goal that Infiinite Ammo (Aquaria, Paper Moon) has set for itself , as they begin development on their new game, Marian. The game (fully titled Marian and the Fantastic World of Dreams) tells the story of the title character, Marian, who lives out her existence as a marionette doll. She decides to remove her strings and venture out into the world on a journey of self-discovery, only to find that her world is filled with bizarre creatures and mysterious environments. Like the aforementioned Alice, Marian blends together the world of games with a vibrant world of storybook art.
Marian has undergone many changes since its initial announcement back in 2009, the biggest being the decision to take it from a 3D-rendered title and turn it into a 2D platformer. The constant between both versions has been the storybook art style created by artist Asher Dumonchelle.
As Infinite Ammo continues on the path of game development, studio head Alec Holowka took the time to talk about Marian, the game’s ongoing development, and its talented artist.
IGC: Marian is about a marionette doll that rips off her strings and sets out to create her own destiny. What inspired the creation of this game?
Alec Holowka: The initial idea of making a game starring a puppet came from my brother, Ian Holowka. He saw the project as a pretty straightforward action side-scrolling game. My take on the idea was a little different. I was going through a crappy breakup at the time and I felt like the relationship I was leaving had been full of manipulation and misunderstanding on both sides. Those feelings inspired me to explore the idea of a marionette who is fighting against another person’s will, as well as her own emotional impulses.
IGC: The art style for Marian gives the game a storybook feel. What led to the decision on this game’s art direction?
AH: A lot of people have worked on Marian over the last few years. This was partly a result of my inability to properly vet collaborators before jumping into bed with them; not everyone who says they want to work on a big indie game project really understand what they’re getting into.
The game’s development has seen its ups and downs, but the storybook style has stood out more and more as the way to go. I love children’s storybooks, and I think a lot of my inspiration comes from blurry memories of reading them ages ago. The themes of the game line up nicely with that style. The opportunity to explore a darker take on storybooks is also exciting.
IGC: How did the collaboration with Asher Dumonchelle come about? How much more can you tell us about his artwork, as far as how he approaches it and how much time it takes him to create his game art?
AH: Asher has been great to work with so far. There was a period in the project when things were a bit crazy and we were dealing with some pretty stupid situations. The two of us survived it together, and I think we bonded over it. Now that it’s just the two of us working on the game, things are very smooth and relaxed. We’re getting much more done because we’re both willing to work hard to see this game become a reality.
Asher hadn’t worked on game art before Marian, so it’s been a learning experience, to some degree… but I think that’s what excites me about our collaboration. I have one idea of how things should look in my head, and I can describe it and create my own crappy sketches, but ultimately Asher will make it his own thing. That’s the real thrill of a collaboration: being pleasantly surprised on a regular basis by someone who brings their unique perspective into the mix.
We’ve both gone through big personal changes over the course of the game’s development.
My approach to collaboration has changed. I used to be a bit too shy around the people I worked with, afraid of offending and probably sacrificing some control over the project as a result. Nowadays I’m willing to be a bit of a “blunt dick” if I have to, to ensure things are going the right way. I have very little patience left for working with people who aren’t 100% into the project.
Asher, on the other hand, has gone through a gender change; until recently, he was known as “Ashley Dumonchelle”.
I think we’re both people who want to explore who we are through our art. The cool thing about all these personal changes is that they have provided, and continue to provide, inspiration for the game. The world and story have been influenced by our shifting perspective over a long period of time, adding to the richness and the reality of that universe. I think it also makes the themes of the game resonate that much more.
IGC: In addition to the art style, what do you feel helps Marian stand out from similar games of this genre?
AH: To be honest, I’m not sure what genre Marian is yet. I think about it more as a real world that I want to explore than a strictly categorized game. I think this approach is what will help the game stand out: the attention to detail, the ability to just get lost in the world you’re exploring, as opposed to being pushed towards the next objective all the time.
The game’s design is kind of a response to Aquaria. I’m continuing to build on some ideas from that game and moving away from others, as a reflection of how my perspective has changed since working on it.
I’d like Marian to have some echoes of Myst, in that people of any age can jump in and explore this magical and immersive world. Myst is one of the only games I’ve managed to get my Mom to play, for example.
IGC: Not too long ago, you made the decision to go from a 3D-rendered world and go in a 2D direction. What led to that decision and how difficult was the transition from 3D to 2D?
AH: That decision was based on a number of factors. Here are some of the major ones:
We didn’t have enough money. At one point we were talking to Indie Fund and a few major publishers in search of dollars. Ultimately, however, I think it would have been wrong to subject this game to the influence either group, even though it could have meant a larger budget. Instead of making something unique, we would have been pounded by design committees into creating a bland “product.” I have a particular approach to games of this nature that requires a lot of time, consideration, pulling out my own hair and restarting from scratch. I don’t think either of those groups has an understanding of or appreciation for games made in this way.
Making the game on a lower budget paradoxically gives us the freedom to make whatever type of game we want. Hopefully people will want to play it…. but even if they don’t, at least we will have made something we can be proud of, and we will have made it on our own terms instead of playing the marionette for a publisher.
Having a lower budget didn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of 3D, but going down that path would have involved cutting out a lot of the areas and visual ideas that we think make the game compelling.
Ultimately, I think 2D is a better fit for this game. 2D is timeless. With 3D art, you’re always going to be falling behind the curve, unless you have an art style that doesn’t depend on the latest and greatest technology (e.g. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker). I don’t think we ever hit upon the ideal 3D style.
Having built and played both versions, I can say that the game “feels” better in 2D. It’s hard to describe, but playing it is a more fulfilling experience than the 3D version ever was. There’s a bit of an empty/lifeless feel to the 3D version that doesn’t at all suit the project or the feelings we are trying to convey.
On a related note, I’m working on a new side project with a guy who does really amazing 3D art and it is working out extremely well so far. I think the success of that project is a combination of his artistic ability and my understanding of just how crazy this stuff can get if we don’t put creative limits on it right off the bat.
IGC: Marian has also worked as a way for you to test out the Monocle Engine that you’ve created alongside Matt Thorson. How much easier has the Monocle Engine made the development process?
AH: The Monocle Engine has been a wonderful project to work on. Within a week of beginning the engine, we had a working engine with which we could build simple games, and many people have contributed to it since. Josh Whelchel and Tom Rab have also provided a lot of useful code. One of the best things about Monocle is being able to work with really intelligent and extremely generous people.
I think the most rewarding and inspiring lesson I’ve learned from working on the Monocle Engine so far is that it’s not too hard to build a game engine anymore; there are lots of people around who are willing and able to help out, and that feels lovely.
So far I’ve been prototyping Marian both in Monocle and Unity. I’m not sure, at this point, which engine I’m going to use to release the game.
The advantage of Monocle Engine is that I can control every element of the game, down to the nuts and bolts. I can build completely original editors to simplify level editing. The downside is that I have to create those systems from scratch, which takes a lot of time. Sometimes I’ll get stuck on an annoying lower-level bug for longer than I’d like to.
Unity offers the option to customize the editor. While that’s not as flexible as building your own editing tools, it still allows a lot of freedom. Unity also has the advantage of being a faster means of rapidly prototyping new gameplay. Because it is so fast to throw things together, though, sometimes code tends to get pretty rough, relative to coding in a more “hardcore” language like C++ where every decision you make needs to be carefully considered. I think because of this, my Unity projects tend to get messy sometimes.
My approach to programming in Unity has changed after building Monocle. I’m applying more old-school methods to Unity, and it seems to be helping me keep things structured and under control.
IGC: Is there anything else you can tell readers about Marian that they may not have known prior to this interview? Any surprises they can expect?
AH: Similar to Aquaria, we’re planning lots of surprises for Marian. I’d like to pack the game full of unique and interesting experiences that flow together to create a meaningful whole. There are tons of elements in it that we haven’t mentioned to the public at all. So much of the joy in working on this game will be found in the reactions of players experiencing it for the first time. I’m hoping Marian will be able to inspire surprising reactions from my 15 year old cousins and my 50+ year old parents
IGC: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring developers, based on some of the challenges you’ve experienced during this game’s development?
AH: It’s hard to offer objective advice, but I’ll give it a shot.
First, figure out what you’re good at, and what you want to explore. If it’s unique, awesome. If it’s like something else, that’s okay too; if you follow your instincts first, it’ll probably end up being different enough to be interesting.
You then have to learn how to separate the valuable criticism from the people who are just dicks. Clearly defining your goals can help. If someone doesn’t agree with your goals, then their criticism of your project might not be that meaningful.
I’m never going to suggest what TYPE of game you “should” be making. I think the wider variety of games being made, the better. The game I’m most looking forward to is one I wouldn’t have ever imagined.
IGC: Is there a target release date for Marian?
AH: When it’s done! It has to be really, really good — or else we won’t release it.
IGC: Thank you, Alec Holowka, for talking to us about Marian!
While Marian doesn’t have a set release date, Infinite Ammo remains diligent in keeping fans informed about the game’s progress. The Infinite Ammo blog contains a weekly Marian Mondays feature that offers updates and other fun facts about Marian.
Indie Games Channel will continue to follow the progress of Infinite Ammo and Marian and the Fantastic World of Dreams.
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