Unless you’ve been living under a Megapenguin-sized rock, you'll have no doubt noticed that a brand-new Media Molecule game has launched in Dreams. A Long Climb Ago is the latest Mm Original release, and to celebrate this chivalrous climbing simulator, we sat down with the dev team that brought this clambering creation to life.
The aforementioned team behind ALCA includes level designer Joseph Juson, senior artist Dan Goddard, artist Sinéad Oram, animator Mike Pang, and sound designer Lisa Devon. You might be thinking you’ve seen this motley crew before, and you’d be absolutely right; they joined us on stream(opens in new tab) to introduce the game, and dive a little deeper into what it actually is. But we were lucky to have the opportunity to dive even deeper, to find out where the ideas for the game came from, and how it developed over time.
Juson was the one who initially came up with the game concept. “It was right back at the very start of January last year ,” they tell us. “We came back from the Christmas break, and I was still learning the Dreams tools at the time. We had the idea that we were gonna make a small arcade game experience, and see what it evolved into.”
Peter Field asked a group of Molecules to pitch ideas for an arcade-style game, and so Juson made a presentation of ten different concepts. “Honestly, those ideas were all over the place,” they tell us, “but one of them was Block & Roll, which was basically what A Long Climb Ago evolved from. The pitch was very simple: Tetris meets a side-scrolling platformer like Mario. At that point it was just a really basic prototype, and the character I made was a little ball-shaped character, because I thought the pun of Block & Roll was funny.”
In its earliest incarnations, Block & Roll was not just a passion project for Juson, but also a way for them to polish their skills in Dreams, as they were still experimenting with what was possible with the Create tools. “I was basically working on that as tools practice for a couple of months, but there was a lot of feedback and iteration on the design from various people at Mm. We didn't think it would really go anywhere though - it was just clear that there was good potential in the mechanic. The concept felt quite fresh, but also immediately understandable.”
“When it got to the point where Molecules were pitching their smaller games, I think it really helped that we had a prototype that I'd already made 20-odd levels for, even though it was very basic. I think because the idea had already been proven, it was a bit of a safe bet and it was pretty fun.” And it wasn’t long before this simple prototype became something bigger, as Pang, Oram, and Goddard were added to the team. But where did that Tetris meets Mario concept first come from?
“It was really just my own personal design philosophies,” Juson says. “Firstly, I just like kind of mashing concepts together, and secondly I like using both sticks of the controller for different functions.” The very first prototype of the game didn’t use the time freezing mechanic - you would control the character with the right stick and control the blocks using the left stick, Juson tells us. “So essentially you were doing it all at once and it was absolutely chaotic. It was just way too much. But even though the first concept wasn’t perfect, the idea of placing blocks to scale the level was really simple, but kept grabbing me. So it made all the sense in the world to continue refining the concept and working on it in Dreams”.
Starting the Ascent#
Once the initial concept of the game was sorted, it became a process of developing its style, tone, and approach. Goddard recalls the challenges the team faced coming up with an art style in such a short space of time: “I think initially because we had a rough narrative at the beginning, and because the timeline was quite limited, we just wanted to produce some quick wins. So we used a lot of bright colours and simple shapes for the early designs. I think as an art team we really love 1950s Disney concept art and that fitted really nicely, so we riffed off that world and it was almost a love letter to that.”
Oram agrees, adding that, “I think Paco [Rocha] initially suggested the Mary Blair style when we were pitching the games, and he threw out this idea: like, what if it was inspired by classic Disney concept art? In artist communities, it's really famous work. But it's not very mainstream, so it hasn’t really been used in games much. Which is weird, but it was such a great suggestion.”
For Juson, this was the moment when the game really came alive. “Paco had been watching me play, so he reached out because he'd had some ideas about the initial prototype. I’d been working on it for like, three or four months at that point, and was in need of fresh ideas. He suggested what the theme could be and pointed out that the blocks falling felt reminiscent of parts of a castle that are falling. Then he sent me an image he mocked up for level 1-1 that just reignited my excitement for that idea completely, because it tied it all together so nicely. The art style worked thematically and it's a really exciting approach”.
Goddard similarly immediately jumped to Mary Blair's classic works. “At the time, I didn't even know that conversation was happening with Paco,” he says. “I just saw the image that he did for the original concept, and Mary Blair was so important that I think we all just locked onto that immediately and injected that influence. We did our own thing with some of the colours and the 2D style - and when Mike came and enhanced it with the animation effects, it just all came together perfectly”.
Pang jumped at the chance to explore techniques from the golden age of animation. “I came on board to design characters originally, and that had a few passes where it wasn't quite hitting the sharp silhouettes of Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle’s art. That was what made us decide to revisit the style, and triggered the idea of our effects animations being inspired by that Sword in the Stone era.” As a result, the team decided to animate all the effects in 2D - "which was quite a painful process,” Pang laughs, “but I think the end result is really unique. That blend of 3D characters with 2D art is tricky, and because the game is a platformer and quite precision-based, we still have to have the characters running at 30 frames per second, compared to the 2D effect that were animated on 2s [where, for each second of animation, there are 12 new drawings or frames].”
You might think that two artists with their own distinct styles working on the same project would be a challenge - but for Oram, working with Goddard was a relatively seamless process. “I feel like we got on really well on this,” she says. “We’re both fans of the style anyway, and so we both got the vision really quickly. It was quite funny, because I think both mine and Dan’s art is normally a little bit darker, and a little bit gothic. But we immediately ran with this art style, and it was a great challenge”.
Making the Climb#
One of the most important aspects of A Long Climb Ago for the team was the narrative approach, featuring LGBT+ characters front and centre. Juson explains: “We were jamming on story ideas, and basically getting very excited about a gay knight story.” The idea of two lovers in this castle trying to make their way back to each other really inspired the team.
“We have this platform with Dreams to explore underrepresented stories that might not get made in big budget triple-A spaces, and that always excites me,” they continue. “But we also didn't want it to be the crux of the story, and wanted to avoid the cliches and tropes of gay and lesbian love stories in media in general. There was a really good discussion we had where we settled on a critical feature for each of us that we really cared about. And one of those pillars was that lesbian love story”.
For Oram, it was also an opportunity to put a new spin on a classic tale of romance. “I always thought it was a nice reference to the mythology of King Arthur and that kind of fantasy. It's a very courtly love story, I suppose, and that's what really sold me on it. The fantasy genre is huge, and I feel like the Lord of the Rings style fantasy has been explored, the D&D and World of Warcraft fantasies have been explored. This was a new take on fantasy, based on the courtly love of Arthurian legend. I thought that was a nice thing to bring back into it. That's what sold me on the two ladies being in love.”
Another thing that helped to flesh out the game was the distinctive musical style. “I remember hearing the first track," Juson says. “Lisa did one track that was very stereotypically medieval. And we were like, oh, this is really cool. Then she turned around and said, ‘Nah, I'm gonna just go completely wild with it’. And she did make it wild, but it just fits so well”.
Goddard also remembers Devon’s desire to push the music into strange new territories: “There was as a conversation where she was like, I really wanna get weirder with this. And you know, the whole way through the project, we thought: the more we exaggerate things, the more interesting this is going to be. So yeah, get weird, dude”.
Oram agrees that the music was something that helped make the game feel even more unique. “I think that was a way of making everything feel contemporary as well. It was both medieval-themed and it’s also '50s themed. So we were taking medieval fantasy music and colours and then bumping them up to 11, so it all felt fresh and cool again”.
In Devon’s own words, “My vision for the game soundtrack shifted a few times throughout the process. Originally I went for a more predictably medieval palette, sticking with analogue instruments and more classic harmonies.” But she found that it didn’t do the vivid art style and modern love story justice. “Joseph is an incredibly talented singer and guitarist themselves,” Devon says. “I’m always inspired by their work, so I asked if I could sample some of their music as building blocks for the soundtrack. These samples proved invaluable; they inspired me to be more experimental stylistically and combine acoustic and electronic elements.” Devon and the team also decided that the voice should be a focal point in the music, chopped up into smaller pieces and used as an instrument.
How important was it that the soundtrack match the aesthetic of the game, we wonder? “I don’t ever really think about matching music to a game style, at least not consciously,” Devon tells us. “I try to understand what the action needs, and what would enhance the player experience without distracting from it. In this way, I find it really fun to create surprising mismatches between expectations we might have - in this case, a straightforward medieval soundtrack - and reality. I want game music to be as rich and unique as the music we listen to every day, and I’m so happy that game composers are continuously stretching these boundaries”.
Reaching the Summit#
Having reached the summit of ALCA’s development, the team are finally able to reflect on the game they created. At this point, Juson is just pleased that they still like the game: “I'm glad we got to the launch and I still find it fun. I really enjoy both playing it and watching people playing it. It feels like every time I watch someone play it, they play it in a way that I hadn't expected or seen before - I think the levels allow for that emergent and creative gameplay. And I think as we were making it, we did feel like you so rarely get the opportunity in a small team to just make a thing. And it’s cool that Mm gave us a lot of autonomy and creativity and the respect to be like, yeah, go and make the thing, this thing that you care about. I think that was part of what made it feel special to work together. Because we all felt really lucky to be able to do this”.
“For me, I think it's a bit more than just the project,” Goddard says. “It was the fact that we'd never worked closely together before, really. And then we were put on this project and we were all very passionate about the ideas that came out of it. So it was a love letter to classic Disney art and everything, but the magic of gelling as a team and being passionate about what we made all the way through the project really proves the team had dynamism together. Even though we had a short amount of time, we made something truly unique and it really was a passion project. I think that really shows and you can feel it when you're playing”.
Oram was just incredibly proud of the artwork she produced for the game. “Sometimes I feel like it's almost like an optical illusion. People see it and say it looks too deep, but it's actually pretty much just the 3D. It seems like magic, but it's literally just chucking down a load of blocks and painting over them. I really wanted to nail the illustrative look and set a bar for what the rest of the art was gonna be like”.
“I feel like only Dreams could make an image like that without having to use multiple programs,” Oram continues. “It's such a unique thing that only Dreams can do, where you can paint over stuff immediately. It's very much like a celebration of Dreams in one picture.” Pang agrees with Oram’s approach: “Yeah, I suppose it's the combination of the art style, and the actual game mechanic which is something quite fresh in my opinion.”
Making a game is a challenging climb, but through working collaboratively with others, it’s always possible to reach the summit. A Long Climb Ago is out now in Dreams - if you haven't given it a go yet, check it out below.
(Requires that you own Dreams)
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