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 World, Edna & 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!