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Satirizing the Cold War in Irony Curtain — An Interview With Artifex Mundi



Irony Curtain game art background

Several games have attempted to recreate the inspired feel of classic point-and-click adventure games, and many have failed. Independent studio Artifex Mundi has made its own attempt with Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka with Love.

Inspired by the works of LucasArts (The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango) and Daedalic Entertainment (The Whispered WorldEdna & Harvey), Irony Curtain is a satirical point-and-click that throws players in the middle of an espionage tale set in the middle of the Cold War. OnlySP’s Amy Campbell recently reviewed Irony Curtain, describing it as “a highly polished game, if exceptionally frustrating at times, that delivers an enjoyable experience.”

OnlySP had the opportunity to speak to lead game designer Piotr Sułek about the inspirations behind the game.

OnlySP: What motivated you to make a game set in the Cold War era?

Sułek: Honestly, the setting is quite perfect for a quirky, humor loaded point and click adventure. The absurdity of those times, especially in the former communist states lends itself extremely well to be overly caricatured and made fun off.

Nowadays the younger generation knows statewide communism from pop-culture: tv shows, movies, and comic books. It’s mostly presented as a bizarre land of terror. Or backwards countries with proud and boisterous leaders who promised bright futures but could not provide the basics for their people once the system began to falter. So we took this view, mixed in our own recollections and created the what you see now.

OnlySP: Tell us a little bit about Evan, the main character. Who is he and what makes him an interesting character for gamers to go on this adventure with?

Sułek: Evan is a bit of an accidental spy. He’s naive and happy-go-lucky—and between the two of us, not a very good journalist. Think of him as the point and click version of Austin and Emmet from Spies Like Us or Mr. Bean’s Johnny English—minus the official spy training. He’s a pawn in a bigger political intrigue between the East and the West and we can assure you there’s a really good reason he’s pulled into this espionage stand-off which is revealed later in the game – but we can’t say anything more without spoiling the plot.

Irony Curtain gameplay screenshot 3

OnlySP: Writing comedy in a video game isn’t easy. It’s one thing when the humor is confined to cutscenes, but quite another when it has to occur during gameplay and dialogue. What’s your approach to humor like with Irony Curtain?

Sułek: Under the communist state, humor (or essentially ridicule of the system) was considered a subtle weapon. It helped you keep some form of sanity in the situation but also allowed resistance to slowly blossom. For a long time you couldn’t mock or challenge the state openly so telling jokes and laughing was a way to take away the regime’s power. So a lot of the humour in the game is taken from the actual jokes and stories we recall or that were told to us by our families who endured those times longer.

Our humor is still in many parts of the game absurd and over the top to match the [point-and-click] genre, but much of it is still situational and directly stemming from the realities that the previous generations had to live through. That said it’s definitely more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill slapstick/situational comedy. Essentially we realize some of the jokes may be funny only to someone who has knowledge on the realities of a communist country, most of the fun is universal and we hope that we’ll make you not only laugh but also learn from our experiences.

OnlySP: What are the classics or touchstones of the genre you looked to while developing Irony Curtain, and how did they influence its design?

Sułek: The recipe for a good adventure game has not changed: it has to have a great, gripping story that keeps you invested from the first scene until the last location or cutscene; a protagonist (or protagonists) that you’ll love or love to hate but can nevertheless somehow relate to and of course the believable, consistent game world that you’ll explore for hours. How to achieve that is an entirely different question. In classic point and click games, funny and witty dialogues were always at the heart of the experience, but given how much visual narration has evolved, we now have more ways to tell our story – we can use more than just words. It’s all about what kind of adventure game you want to make.

Irony Curtain gameplay screenshot 4

OnlySP: In what ways is Irony Curtain different from those classics, and how does it intend to set itself apart from its contemporaries?

Sułek: Irony Curtain takes what’s best from the classic point and click adventure games—intriguing story, witty dialogues, hand-painted locations, combining objects to push the story forward, and lots of mini-games that help understand the absurdities of a communist regime. But we’ve wanted to make kind of modern-classic-point-and-click where you don’t have to do pixel hunting, struggle with an unintuitive user interface or “moon-logic” as it’s now in the genre that we remember just too well from classic games. Many of our puzzles can actually solved in multiple ways and there is a rooted reason to the solution that makes sense for the situation.

And of course, Irony Curtain is one of the first modern adventure games that tries to handle the relatively serious topic of Cold War communism in a funny, satirical way. We like to think about Irony Curtain as a ‘Deponia meets Papers, Please’ kind of game, that make you laugh but also make you learn from our experiences with communism.

Irony Curtain gameplay screenshot 1

OnlySP: Notably, you completely revamped the art style of Irony Curtain during development. Could you expand on the reasons for doing so, and give us an idea of the scale of this undertaking?

Sułek: The early version of Irony Curtain (a prototype which back then was called simply ‘Matryoshka‘) was shown some time ago at various Polish game conventions and in all honesty, looked really cool and artistic. But we quickly learned that it doesn’t necessarily mean it plays well. With that much detail, vibrant colors, and backgrounds everything fought for your attention and it felt like the god awful pixel hunting curse all over again.

There were also other, more technical reasons – we changed the way we animate characters (from cutout animation to traditional stop-motion animation), which lead to the different art style.
Right now Evan and other characters from the game are animated in a traditional stop-motion way that requires simpler textures on the models. And simpler textures mean simpler art style everywhere in order to keep the project consistent. We wanted the art to tell a part of the story – when Evan first arrives at the Leader’s Heart Hotel, he’s overwhelmed by its monumentality and splendor. We wanted the locations to reflect that, so we’ve decided to add a lot of empty space and make the characters look really small in comparison to the buildings.

Irony Curtain development team

The development team at Artifex Mundi.

OnlySP: Adventure games have experienced a bit of a rebirth this generation, particularly with the advent of crowdfunding. Why do you think this is, and what does the genre need to do to stay relevant?

Sułek: There is a resurgence, but it’s still a difficult genre altogether because just how many other games are competing for our attention as players. But I think it’s for two core reasons for the revival. One, that big successes from the likes of Telltale (RIP) or Quantic Dream reignited the idea that adventure games can be fun and can be something different, pushing the boundaries of what we all know as an adventure (or even point and click) game. Games like the Uncharted series or the recent God of War or Red Dead 2 also showed that the action-adventure genres work amazingly well when there are strong stories built into them.

Irony Curtain gameplay screenshot 6

And two, and this is more for point and click, we see people still miss classic, funny, and a little bit off type of games like Monkey Island. This nostalgia is very much alive in us, too – so we wanted to create a game that would evoke those feelings and excitement without repeating the same mistakes (pixel hunting, dream logic, etc). And that is the main thing about staying relevant in my opinion. Learn from those mistakes and not repeating them.

OnlySP: Artifex Mundi was founded a little over a decade ago with a crew of just 10 people. Since then you’ve grown by a factor of more than 10 to 140 people. What are your plans as we head into the next generation of consoles?

Sułek: We’re a studio quite well known for Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games (HOPAs) but we are pushing to diversify from that. We have a lot of talented and creative people who are eager to try new things here. In the end we can’t just keep doing the same thing if we want to keep that creativity and drive.

So first and foremost. we want to develop and publish good games, that’s for sure. Something that a more diverse group of players will enjoy but also games that our team will enjoy making. We’ve got multiple projects up our sleeves right now in various states of development. All unique to what Artifex normally does and all unique to each other really in terms of genre. But unfortunately it’s too early to discuss the details of any of those yet.

Irony Curtain gameplay screenshot 7

OnlySP: Are there really 1,951 cleverly sneaked-in easter eggs in the game?

Sułek: Just like in the days of communism, what was boisterously promised sometimes fell short of reality. You’ll have to check this out for yourself by how much but there are a LOT of them! Promise!

OnlySP: Do you have anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

Sułek: Thanks for taking the time to read this and for supporting OnlySP! We’re avid fans of the site as they continue to champion the games we ourselves love to play and make. And we cordially invite everyone to visit Matryoshka!

Irony Curtain is now available on PC via Steam and Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One versions are expected later this year.

For all the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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E3 2019

How Final Fantasy XV’s Lead Game Designer is Making a Rhythm Game — An Interview With No Straight Roads Developer Metronomik



No Straight Roads game art 5

Wan Hazmer’s journey is an interesting one. Having worked at Square Enix on games such as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV, Hazmer left the studio in 2017 to start his own development studio, Metronomik. The studio’s first game, No Straight Roads, is a music-based action-adventure game where players must fight the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) empire as an independent rock band.

OnlySP had the opportunity to speak with Hazmer about the game’s inspiration, gameplay, and art design.

OnlySP: What inspired you to make No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I am a big rhythm gamer. I used to be really good since Beatmania 1 so that’s more than 15 years of experience playing rhythm games. I used to go to the arcades every week and spend like $50 just to play music games. (Laughs) Whenever I invited my friends to play rhythm games with me, they always said “I’ll just watch you play.” It baffles me because everyone loves music; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love music. I think the problem is the way [music] participates in gameplay. Music is only used in two ways in games: soundtrack or rhythm games. I think everyone has rhythm sense. If I were to give you a guitar, and you didn’t know how to play the guitar, of course you’d admit you’d have no rhythm sense.

I feel like, when you listen to a song maybe five times, then you’ll know when the chorus is supposed to come even before it comes. I want everyone to use that musical instinct to play the game and that’s why we have the enemies follow the music. The input, the participation that you have in the game isn’t a pure action game. Other inspirations also include other rhythm games. Rhythm games’ stories are something I like as well, like Space Channel 5, Guitaroo Man and even games that put a lot of emphasis on music. I think you noticed that the outer stars remind me of Jet Set Radio. The word ‘radio’ is in Jet Set Radio despite it not being a rhythm game. [Jet Set Radio] was such an influence and I still have the soundtrack.

No Straight Roads game art 2

OnlySP: How would you say your experience on other games contributed to No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: Back when I was working on Final Fantasy XV, one of the biggest things about the game was that we had to make sure that Final Fantasy becomes relevant again. [Part of that] falls into how you travel in the world so we thought “What is one of the most current way of travelling romantically?” and we thought “road trip” and it’s the core experience in Final Fantasy XV. We spent a lot of cost and effort into making sure that that core UX does its job. We had to photograph an AI, Prompto, and that was actually very difficult to pull off. Can you imagine an AI taking a photograph of you? He’s a very bad photographer at first, but he gets better and better. The user experience is an emotional connection to the game.

I also wanted to make sure that [No Straight Roads] has a UX that everyone can adhere to and that’s something that is very relevant. With relevance, we talk about rock vs EDM. It’s a classic tale of “my taste is better than yours.” And another is “your music can change the world” is our big core UX. We have the transformation of the props into weapons. We also have three channels of music: backing, melody, and rhythm. We multiply that by that by three genres of music rock, EDM, and a boss specific genre [for the demo, it was disco]. Depending on the situation, depending on the story, depending on how you perform, we actually switch one of the channels to EDM, one channel to bass, and one channel to rock. There’s a lot of music going on in the game and we only do it if we know that it is going to sell something for the UX. That’s something I got from my Final Fantasy XV experience.

OnlySP: How was it like creating the music and implementing it in the game?

Hazmer: I am very lucky to have four composers who are very talented. One of them is Falk [Au Yeong]; he’s the music director. He actually used to work with me on Final Fantasy XV where he was a mixing engineer for the music. When you travel to Hammerhead, for example, a gas station in Final Fantasy XV, when you enter a diner the music starts changing a bit. We were discussing dynamic music for a long time. We also have James Landino who is working on the EDM tracks—he [worked on] Cytus [2], Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy as well. We have Pejman [Roozbeh] who is more of a funk/disco kind of guy, and Andy [Tunstall] who worked on rock.

What I love about working with these four composers is that they know the technicalities involved with implementing music in games. What we do is we come up with the concept for the boss first. We have a DJ who thinks he’s the center of the universe and he’s going to spin some planets. After that, we pass it to the musicians. They compose really great music and they pass it back to us and they understand that there are three channels and the programming involved. There are a lot of times when you make a video game, you outsource the music in the last minute. I really wanted the musicians to be involved from very early on so they are actually involved in the game design process as well.

OnlySP: In the demo, I noticed I got to play as two characters. Are there only going to be those two characters?

Hazmer: Yes. The concept seems like there could fit another person here. (Laughs) You can only control two characters, but there’ll be a bunch of bosses. You can actually play couch co-op as well, so one person can be Mayday and the other Zuke.

OnlySP: About how long would you say the game would be?

Hazmer: 10–15 hours. When you defeat a boss, although there are some RPG elements in it (like giving buffs to your weapons), but I don’t want to go with the New Game Plus route, so I’m [following] more of a Sonic or racing game [style] where once you complete a particular level, you can actually challenge the level again in a different difficulty. So there will be difficulties where you’ll have to parry almost everything in order to survive. For example, when you’re playing the game you only hear rock when you’re almost defeating a boss, you can play an entire boss fight in rock.

No Straight Roads gameplay screenshot 1

OnlySP: How did you go about selecting the genres of music for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: First of all, we came up with interesting bosses in the game. My co-founder, Daim [Dziauddin], he’s really big into storytelling and he always wonders why people play music. We didn’t want this game to be a game about a bunch of bosses, who are awesome and big and that’s about it. Every single one of these artists has a reason to play music. From there, we see what kind of genre fits them very well. For example, we came up with a DJ who is egocentric and he thinks that he’s the center of the universe and, bam, the sub theme is space. From there, we figured we can do some disco and some Flash Gordon kind of things, and that’s how the genres came about.

OnlySP: Are there any plans to add in some post launch content?

Hazmer: Definitely. This is still all in talks, so it is not confirmed at all. I would love to collaborate with other games or different artists so that we can get their branding into the game [such as a being a boss in the game]. That’s one of the dreams for this game. Once we finish the game, I really want to collaborate, organically, with many different musicians.

OnlySP: Of the genres of music that are not in the game, what would you say would be the first one you’d want to put in post launch?

Hazmer: Oh wow. That’s quite difficult. I kind of like jazz in a way so jazz would be nice. Jazz and EDM would be really cool. (Laughs) I really like jazz, so I think a jazz boss would be really cool.

No Straight Roads game art 3

OnlySP: What influenced the art style for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I made a lot of realistic games and wanted to run away from realism. We thought that the characters in the game [don’t] have to be a human skin color. So we were looking at a lot of American cartoons like Steven Universe. The other thing is the funky art style of games that don’t take themselves too seriously like Tim Schafer games like Psychonauts. Sometimes ugliness is beautiful and beauty is ugly. In terms of the poses for the characters, we love ourselves some Jojo. (Laughs) Poses for us are very very important.

For all the latest from No Straight Roads and more from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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