If you have not yet travelled to Tokyo and experienced the burgeoning metropolis, amidst the neon paradoxes and glass architecture are pockets of sobriety; manicured gardens and shrines. They serve as the antithesis to the accelerated pace of the city. These restorative Eden’s are to reflect and slow down, to ponder the relentless influx of sensorial information. Tengami feels like the iPad equivalent of these gardens, the repulsion against the attention deficit apps we hysterically swipe our fingers through.
Envisioned by Phil Tossell and Jennifer Schneidereit, their UK-based company Nyamyam was actualized on the virtues of quality and attention to detail, cultivated from time at the former Nintendo devotee; Rare.
For their first foray as independents they have positioned themselves as paper engineers armed with delicate precision. Tengami is a movable book inspired by Phil and Jennifer’s Japanese excursions, manifested through a shifting visual surface replete with pull-tabs and pop-outs. The fastidious qualities of Japanese paper (washi) are felt with every opened fold and provoke the same carefulness needed for the tangible form. Esteemed recently as an indiecade finalist and as part of the official selection of Sense of wonder night, Tengami’s liquid sandpaper aesthetics are captivating all who touch them.
What perhaps isnt evident in the game is the subtleties of the creator’s dispositions. There is a kindness to this work, fused with carefulness and restraint, Nyamyam want you to be affected by their sources of inspiration; to get inside of the Japanese folklore, the trees and the water, for you to feel what they have felt. If anything, Tengami is a reflection of Jennifer and Phil and their generosity towards their audience. I have had first hand experience with this through a private meeting at TGS and now with the amiable donation of exclusive concept art (which has not seen light outside of the company). Tengami is not about clamouring for the most in-app purchases or cashing in on a 5 minute hook. It is a gift for the user to be alone with themselves to contemplate their surroundings, Nyamyam’s greatest talent so far is to capture benevolence and give it to the world.
Phil was kind enough to discuss some of the intricacies of the development process:
Please introduce Nyamyam’s philosophy; what do you want to achieve in the industry and what do you think needs changing?
I think there’s two parts to answering this question: what we want Nyamyam to stand for as a company and what we want Nyamyam’s games to achieve.
Whenever I hear the word ‘industry’ applied to games I instinctively recoil. I think this is because the word ‘industry’ conjures up in my mind vivid images of William Blake’s dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Days when factory workers were coerced into working inhumanely long hours, all in the name of progress, when of course what they were really doing was making other people very wealthy. And in some respects from what I’ve experienced in my latter years of mainstream development it really feels like not all that much has changed. You may as well substitute ‘game studio’ for ‘mill’. And so in many respects, Nyamyam was born out of our response to this overbearing, stifling and exploitative environment. We wanted Nyamyam to be more of a creative collective than a traditional company, a place where like-minded people can come together around projects that excite them, but without necessarily supplying a long-term commitment. For example, perhaps someone finds Tengami exciting, but what we do after that they don’t. It makes no sense to me to tie people into companies. Parenthetically, I think the way modern companies are setup and run is anachronistic and an unfortunate hangover from the early days of industry, and I really think it needs to change, particularly in the creative space. But I think most of all we wanted a place where everyone is treated and rewarded equally according to the amount of work they contribute to the games.
In terms of what we do, Nyamyam has a simple ideal that we strive for. That ideal is to create beautifully crafted games that express our individuality as creators, whilst also touching people’s lives in a thought-provoking and considered way. These ideas of individuality and provoking thought are central to why I make games. The conventional view in much of modern game development is that people can be commoditized and made to fit in convenient boxes, mostly so that marketing and business people can decide how we make things that will make these groups of people part with their hard-earned cash. But I refuse to see people that way. I believe people are wonderfully intelligent, complex, emotional and utterly contradictory, and so any attempt to fit people in boxes always fails because people are so complex. It’s these inherently human qualities that we want to appeal to with the games we make. Tengami is essentially us saying: “here, these are influences that have profoundly impacted our lives, we find them amazing and wonderful, and we hope that you do too”.
As Tengami is a self-funded project how much creative freedom do you retain amidst the pressure of needing commercial success, was external backing ever a consideration?
Creative freedom was one of the primary reasons that we chose to start Nyamyam in the first place. It is my firm belief that you can’t have creative freedom without financial freedom and it’s naive to expect that you can. So we were adamant from the beginning that we were going to do this fully on our own terms and take the financial risks ourselves. I think that those people who desire creative freedom, but expect someone else to pay for it are being naive at best, and charlatans at worst. If you do not believe in your own vision enough to put at least some of your own money behind it then I would suggest that it might be better to do something else instead.
Of course, this creates an element of pressure, knowing the clock is ticking and the money is running down, but I think this also helps you maintain a focus on what you are really trying to achieve. It’s important to us only that we make enough money to continue doing what we want to do, beyond that money and financial success is of no concern.
The construction of Tengami originated by learning how to make Pop up structures. Are there ideas that you have or want to include that aren’t physically possible to reproduce in paper form?
Paper is a frustratingly hard material to model using computers. It has so many interesting properties; you can tear it, cut it, fold it and curl it, to name but a few. So in part choosing pop-up was a slightly pragmatic approach since pop-up books are typically constructed from very sturdy card that doesn’t fold or bend easily. This is out of necessity owing to the mechanical requirements in pop-up construction. In the initial ideas phase when we were considering paper more generally we did look at these other properties of paper, but decided that they were mostly incompatible with pop-up books.
There are times when we construct a pop-up where it wouldn’t be strictly possible with real paper. Mostly due to the fact that the real paper wouldn’t be sufficiently strong to pull up another part of the pop-up. We model the pop-ups using a purely analytical mathematical solution. There is no physical simulation involved which means that the computer has no concept of the forces necessary to make a pop-up open and whether these would actually work in reality. But we do try to keep the pop-ups as authentic as we possibly can so that you would be able to re-create them in real life if you wanted to.
Whilst studying paper mechanics did you just settle on transformations or have you incorporated volvelles and tunnel book techniques as well?
I hadn’t actually heard of volvelles until you mentioned them, so I had to go and look it up! Volvelles and tunnel book techniques are certainly possible within the framework of more traditional pop-up books, and I think we have plans to incorporate more rotational elements like volvelles later in the game.
Overall though, we wanted to go for a ‘pure’ approach to pop-up books. Pop-up books in their simplest form only support a few key elements and we chose to do this with Tengami as well. We felt that this was in keeping with the overall philosophy of minimalism that the game has.
Has there been experimentation with the destructive qualities of paper as a gameplay element; tearing or cutting for example?
Early on in development, before we had settled on a final direction, we considered all the various qualities that paper has, and this included cutting, tearing and burning. During the process of refinement we kept removing more and more concepts to make the game simpler and more focused, and we ended up with only three primary mechanics: movement, pop-ups and pull-strips. We felt that fully exploring these was more than sufficient to make a compelling game.
With Tengami, we very much adopt a reductionist design approach, with all of the design, the art and the music. Often when you’re making something, the most difficult part is cutting things out. You end up with so many great ideas and you really want to show them all to the player, but its folly to do this. It’s better to keep cutting and cutting until you are left with the absolute minimum possible to make the game out of. Then, if you need more you can add them back in, but it’s rarely the case that you do need more. It was also important to us that all aspects of the game lined up, that the art complements the gameplay and vice versa.
How important is narrative? Tengami would be effective as a contemplative experience without a story.
The term narrative is a remarkably complex one and replete with many different subtly varying meanings. Recently I’ve been reading a book “Narrative and Consciousness” that brings together many different ideas about the importance of narrative to our sense of self. And in reading that it’s greatly expanded my ideas around what narrative is and how powerful it can be. In essence narrative is simply a logical sequence of temporal events that have importance and meaning to us either as individuals or collectively. I think so far that most games have tried to co-opt the explicit narrative approach of films, where the player is regarded as a viewer rather than a participant in the unfolding drama. Whereas I think we should be taking a more experiential approach like music or dance. For example, conventional wisdom says that music doesn’t really have a narrative, but rather the narrative derives from the listener’s own interpretation. The listener creates the narrative, and this approach seems to me eminently more suitable to games. Games are played, they are experienced, and the narrative is derived by the player through that experience. My favourite game of recent times, Limbo, does this extremely well; there is no story to speak of, only the events that happen to you whilst playing the game. And yet in my mind I have a very strong narrative associated with the game through a combination of the images, music and things that I did whilst playing it. With Tengami we try to take this experiential approach to narrative. There is no explicit story, only impressions from which the player can construct their own narrative.
How will the touch mechanics be incorporated in the PC and Mac versions? Have you thought about exploring a Wii u version, the game pad and the TV screen could make some interesting possibilities?
When we began pulling together the ideas that would become Tengami, we had decided from the outset that we wanted to make a game for touch and specifically for the iPad. This decision is what led to incorporating pop-up in the first place.
For some while we were adamant that the game would only work on touch devices and that we wouldn’t consider releasing it on other platforms. But it became clear after a while that there were a considerable number of people who didn’t have an iPad who were excited about experiencing Tengami. As a creator I want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy what I am creating and so we decided to look into the feasibility of making a desktop version. I think that the final game will still be best played on a touch device because of the tactility that it provides.
The intention with the desktop versions is that the mouse will replace the finger. The mouse already has strong corresponding analogies for the actions used in Tengami, so it should be a fairly straightforward transition. For example double tap can be replaced with a click and swiping can be replaced by dragging. Of course we need to validate these assumptions by actually testing them in the game.
It’s interesting that you ask about a Wii U version. Only last week we had a conversation with Nintendo about the opportunities available for bringing Tengami to the Wii U. The Wii U would definitely be a good fit for what we’re doing, so although we’ve not given any extensive thought to it yet, we are definitely considering it.
Which design traits learned at Rare have been embellished at Nyamyam?
I think in many respects the design approach to Tengami is almost a counter reaction to the design approach that I saw at Rare. I very much like to reduce and simplify, whereas much of the design at Rare involved adding, often to the detriment of the final game. I considered much of the design at Rare to be too obvious, too much geared towards treating people as children rather than adults. This is not meant to be a criticism per se, since the games we were making were targeted at a younger audience. It’s just that these are not the kind of experiences that I want to make now.
What I did learn at Rare was how to make games, and more importantly how to make exceptionally high quality games. There was an extraordinary craftsmanship to the games that Rare made that very few games studios, even to this day, can replicate.
We discussed that you don’t really play that many video games anymore. Is that because they feel like work or more because of what the industry currently offers?
When you consider the short amount of time that we have available to us in life, I think it’s important that we make best use of the time given to us. This was really brought home to me a few years ago when my mum passed away suddenly from cancer. It made me think long and hard about what I should do with the time given to me. And so I feel that for me to want to dedicate the time to play a game, it has to be something exceptional, which will leave a lasting impression on me. There are so many other wonderful things to experience outside of games: art, architecture, literature, travel. So games have a tough set of competition for my attention. These days I get a lot of inspiration from art and architecture.