In the last part we met Dave Mervik, narrative designer at Tarsier Studios, who’re working on Hunger, an “adventure-suspense” set in a world of childhood nightmares. Hunger follows Six, a young girl, as she finds herself in the grimy and unsettling world of the Maw.
“What we’ve called it in the past is, ‘a kid stuck in a labyrinth full of monsters’. That was supposed to be a conceptual summary, but I think that some people have taken that very literally,” says Mervik.
“You’re not empowered, you’re just a kid, with everything that entails,” he continues. “You don’t have a special gun, you’re not amazing at parkour. It’s a world that wasn’t built for you. It’s someone else’s world and that person is bigger and stronger than you, and they’re not always very nice.”
Owing to their longstanding relationship with Media Molecule franchises Little Big Planet and Tearaway, as well as previous projects including Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic, Tarsier have a reputation for building stories that register on the happier end of the spectrum. But Hunger returns to the dark roots sown by their promising, but ultimately ill-fated, first project City of Metronome.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s always interested a whole lot of people here,” Mervik explains. “It kind of comes from a boredom with the same-old same-old. That’s not everyone, for sure, that wouldn’t be fair to say. But I think the very popular stuff, and the stuff that you get more of now, is the same troubled tough-guy, who’s wise-cracking and blah blahh blahh. It feels like there’s lots of cut-scenes and you’re living through someone else’s Hollywood fantasy.
“Whereas loads of us, usually out on smoke breaks, reminisce about Heart of Darkness, Flashback, Another World, all these things where you felt like you were left alone, where you were exploring and you were actually doing the stuff on-screen. That’s where the germ of Hunger came from.”
Tarsier have drawn from a variety of sources to build-up Hunger’s visual style and lore, but are wholly committed to keeping it a creative and fresh experience, taking inspiration from the works they love, without being derivative.
“We’ve heard Limbo a lot,” Mervick says. “And I think in the teaser you don’t see that it’s full 3-D, so I guess that’s part of it. It’s full 3-D movement, so even though it’s nothing like Luigi’s Mansion, that’s kind of a reference in terms of the camera.”
“When you want to do any kind of game, you look at the people who’ve got something to say, who’ve done something really well in an area that you want to achieve something in,” he adds.
“If you’ve got that in your mind, then it comes out naturally. We’ve never sat down and said, ‘let’s make something that feels like Spirited Away’, but of course there’re people here who really appreciate [Studio] Ghibli and Myazaki. What you have to do is try and steer away from it if it’s starting to channel a bit too much.
“David Lynch is another one, who I think has got great control of tone. One of the things that we want to do is get that balance between playful, child-like exploration and something that’s really quite unnerving and disturbing at times. I’ve been watching Twin Peaks recently, and he just goes from pure comedy to abject terror in one cut. It’s amazing.”
Shades of Tarsier’s previous projects are visible in Hunger, with past lessons obviously influencing its look and the feel of its mechanics.
“With a lot of these 2.5D games it feels really weird that there’s all this space behind you, but you can only ever walk in one plane, so we wanted to get away from that straight away,” explains Mervik.
“Little Big Planet went further in that you can shift between layers. Super Mario 3D World took it that bit further where you can have free movement in the space that you’ve got. If it’s a game about exploration, you need to give players the freedom to explore.”
“We’re calling it a “doll-house perspective,” Mervik says. “For a lot of reasons. Our art department wanted to capture that feeling of something that’s very present, physical and real, but also has a slight distance. For the camera specifically, you’re looking through the window of a doll-house. Your eyes can move, but the source point stays the same, you can look around with the right-stick, but can’t actually move where the camera’s situated.”
In a lot of its promotional material, Hunger’s given as a “working title”. But while it might be a nightmare to Google, the name has such significance that it might just end up sticking.
“It was kind of a problem when the teaser came out,” says Mervik. “If you search for ‘hunger game’ there’re lots more worthy subjects that come up before our game. The reason it was picked in the first place is that it has a lot of meaning in what we’re trying to achieve with the game. If we change it, it has to be for something better.
“The idea is that this is a place where the characters you meet, we don’t call them enemies, they’re not there to just hate you or anything, they just have a single drive that they’re obsessed with. If you get in the way of that thing, that’s where the conflict comes in, there’s a threat. That works as a player as well. Six wants to escape, and if you want to complete the game, then you have to remove that barrier. We wanted to play with that idea with all the characters, so it doesn’t feel so light and dark, so binary.
“The hunger thing came from asking, ‘what’s the most basic compulsion that you can never really sate’? That’s hunger. You can fulfil it for a time, but it comes back again and it can be more insistent, it just gnaws away at you constantly.
“We want this to be a game that people can interpret in different ways, so everything has to have something behind it. It can’t just be a cool sounding name, everything has to have a thought behind it.”
This idea of different interpretations is important to Hunger, which features a mysterious plot that’s left largely ambiguous, and a cast of characters that the player will have to size up themselves.
“We’re not going to give [Six] this big cool backstory and opening cut-scene so you know everything about her, and she just wise-cracks her way to the end and you’ve won,” Mervik explains. “We want it to be like, you start off and you don’t know where you are, because she doesn’t know where she is. So you should only ever know as much as the character, and you should only ever see what she sees. We’re not going to be cutting away, and doing all these things you can do in cinema. In games, we want the player to feel present, and not distracted by being this omniscient detached player.”
“She’s trapped in a place filled with people that you just don’t want to be around,” he continues. “I think the main thing is going to be seeing what you see of these characters and of this world and trying to figure out why they’re there or how they became the way they are, and trying to figure out why you’re there as well. There’s going to be hints, there’s going to be clues. I know I’m being a bit evasive here, but it’s the most important part that players have this experience, rather than us building it up and telling them everything.”
Hunger takes place in the Maw, a dark and strange world caked in grime. Concept art shows the Maw’s peak rising out of a body of water, with the rest stretching into the dark below, like an iceberg.
“That’s come from the art department really, the art director’s a real horror fiend,” Mervik says. “And even though this isn’t a horror, those kind of things you can’t help coming out. If anything, with the restraint of not wanting to make this full-on horror, the setting really works.
“I just want a place where I can put all the things I hate. That was one tiny little element of what the lore could become, all the worst of people goes there, and then that evolved into something else altogether.
“For me, I always think that the best horror is about losing control. The systems and the routines that you’re conditioned to validate, trust and believe in real life, when they’re taken away, that’s terrifying. It’s when things don’t make sense, when things don’t work as they should, or people that you’ve come to trust aren’t the same anymore. I’m not scared of fire demons or zombies. It’s got to be something deeper. Taking some of your core beliefs and flipping it around on you, that’s the real horror.”
“I’m a sucker for jumps,” he adds. “When the cat jumps out from behind the wardrobe it gets me every time. But that’s not horror.”
Hunger blends a variety of elements to create an experience that borrows from many different genres, mixing puzzle-solving, adventure-style exploration and platforming.
“The core of the gameplay revolves around the simple, consistent controls,” explains Mervik. “You’re going to be learning how Six controls very early on, and it’s about finding out what those techniques can then do later on.
“Grabbing is very important because of these ‘tactile controls’ we’re aiming for. We want things to feel very analogue.
“It’s going to be a balance between very classic puzzle solving and exploration, giving the player room to breathe in an environment and think, ‘what can I do in here?’ We don’t want it to just feel like a backdrop.”
When the time comes, you’re going to need to avoid some of the Maw’s more dangerous inhabitants, and Hunger injects child-like charm into this mechanic as well.
“We’ve tried to avoid the idea of it being a stealth game, so we’ve called it ‘hide-and-seek’. Just so we get away from that idea of an empowered character with night-vision goggles,” Mervik says.
“There’s going to be a balance,” he continues. “We’re not setting out to build a puzzle game or a stealth ‘hide-and-seek’ game. Where it feels right to either, we’ll do that.
“There’s not going to be a rigid level structure, but it’s not going to be free-form. There is a path, but it’s a wiggly one. You might get very close to where you need to get to, but you’re sent back down again. On the way, they’re going to be places where you can diverge from the main path and explore, not feeling like you’re constantly being pushed forward.”
Tarsier have yet to announce any plans for Hunger’s release, and are still deciding exactly what platforms they’ll end up on. But with the export opinions available to them working in Unreal 4, they’re keeping their options open.