Be water, my friend.#
Wander through the mellow, mysterious locales that Anthony Cristiano (known in-game as HalfUp) has made in Dreams, and you may notice a theme. In one game, as a cheeky potted plant, you paddle your tiny feet through geometric pools. In another, a glimmering tide wears away at the edges of a world that’s already in danger of dissolving. “I’ve always had some weird obsession with water,” Cristiano tells us. “I don’t know what it is.”
Still, in conversation with the young artist and game developer, we begin to form a theory. This is a creator, after all, who clearly feels compelled to go with the flow. His life’s motto, noted in his Twitter bio, reflects that. “I’ve always kind of just been winging it,” he says.
Cristiano spent much of his childhood by the ocean in Melbourne, the cool southern sea never far from view, even when he began to attend school. How did it go for him? “High school’s high school,” he laughs. “It’s always gonna be a mess. I was all over the place.” His broad choice of subjects for his finals is telling: philosophy, art, and health and human development. “And then a woodwork class,” he grins.
Daydreaming - and drawing - came naturally to him. He remembers often having doodles, drawn on both sides of green paper he’d liberated from the art room, confiscated by his science teachers. There were some characters, some portraiture - but usually, he liked to sketch small worlds. “Specifically,” Cristiano says, “levels that I'd make in LittleBigPlanet.” His brother had had a friend over to stay the night, and he'd brought a copy of the game. “We played through the whole thing - and then he left, and I never saw it again!”
Once his brother showed him the trailer for LittleBigPlanet 2, it became a must-play - and he figured out that you could create your own levels. He cut his game-creating teeth on making Bomb Survival and Shark Survival challenges, before settling in for some more “serious” efforts (LBP3 vets may remember popular HalfUp levels such as The Jam Gardens).
Dreams’ early access release in 2019 would find Cristiano studying at university, a couple of years after he’d graduated school. He’d been largely exploring more traditional art and painting, but the course introduced him to digital programs such as Illustrator and Photoshop. “So Dreams kind of coincided with the digital stuff, because I was really into 3D too. And obviously Dreams is great because it’s so accessible - you can just, like-” He abandons words, instead miming Move controllers quickly placing objects in a scene.
It was the prospect of being able to easily work in 3D in Dreams that most excited Cristiano. “I’d tried booting up Blender, and Cinema 4D, and it was just a struggle. In Dreams, I can lay out a whole world, and it’s easy. That was the biggest thing, for me.” He’s even been using it to prototype university projects - most notably, an audio visualiser made to display bushfire data. We wonder what his teachers thought about him using this PlayStation software for his presentation. “I didn’t really give them a choice!” he laughs. “It’s really useful for just knocking something up - and I must say, it frustrates me so much that I could put it together in an hour, and then had to do the actual project and did essentially the same thing, but it took me six weeks!”
The freehand vibe of Dreams’ creation tools lend themselves well to Cristiano’s preferred style. “I tend to lean towards blocky, basic shapes - like, that flat style that’s a bit trendy at the moment,” he tells us. From cartoon rocks with careful cel-shaded edges, to sentient ferns arranged against salmon-pink backdrops, all the way up to bigger creations such as the “Gardens” series, Cristiano’s works share this distinct visual style. He cites motion designer and illustrator Ben Marriott as a particular inspiration, alongside the colourful character drawings of Cleonique Hilsaca and Moonmxtr - as well as Kelog Sloops’ high-contrast, painstakingly painted scenes.
Interestingly, even though Dreams happily supports all manner of gameplay-free paintings, elements and scenes, Cristiano’s body of work in-game shows him being swept into the eddies of game design once more. “The Watergardens started off as just a little piece of art,” he tells us. “I was like, ‘Ah, it’d be cool if you ran around on it...’ And then it became, ‘Oh - make it a whole game!’” he says, laughing. The third-person platformer took Cristiano close to a year to perfect, but upon release in January 2020, it captured widespread attention, with even mainstream sites like Gamereactor and Vice covering the game.
The visual touchstones are clear: Monument Valley is the one that immediately springs to mind - “I love the surrealism” - but Cristiano also cites Little Nightmares as a big inspiration, in addition to the audio stylings of Disasterpeace in Fez. Additionally, his fascination with Hyper Light Drifter’s lake area, with its neon-blue water and acid-green plants, had a huge influence on The Watergardens. “I like the lore as well,” he adds. “I like that it doesn’t tell you what’s happened or what’s going on, but it’s kind of there and you can think about it yourself.”
Indeed, it’s a preference that carried over into The Watergardens’ more sophisticated sequel, The Snowgardens (and that saw it nominated for an Impy for, among many other categories, Best Narrative). But even in this case, Cristiano was simply going with the flow. “It’s vague in my head as well,” he admits. “When I was making the The Watergardens, I was like, ‘I’ll put a giant portal in, and these purple glowing cubes, that’ll look cool.’ I remember the comments that were coming in: ‘What happens after the portal, where does it go?!’” He laughs. “And I was like, ‘I have no idea!’”
The Snowgardens - set in a world that is disintegrating, glitching into altered states - was Cristiano’s chance to discover more about the story he had somehow set in motion. “I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go through the portal, because I want to know what happens’. I didn’t know myself. And then I kind of built it from there.” Thus, the portal became the in-world solution to spacetime travel, the use of which would allow its inhabitants to mine more of the purplish energy source - but also gradually destabilise reality. “They keep using and abusing the power,” Cristiano says. “It’s not shown very clearly, but it’s there for me, and I like the idea that maybe people can see the little parts and and piece together their own theories of what the hell’s going on.”
Then there’s The Snowgardens’ most brilliant mechanic, the bow-teleporter. “I don’t think I’m ever gonna top it,” he grins. The initial intention was for a method of combat with projectiles, before the idea of a movement ability came to him. “Originally, it was like a grapple hook, where you’d shoot it and you’d slowly move towards it.” But he ended up running into a fair few issues in its implementation, one of them being designing fun puzzles using the ability - he had moving obstacles that you’d have to pass by shooting the grapple hook with perfect timing, so that the blocker would be gone by the time you’d floated across the gap. “It just didn’t feel that interesting, the gameplay.”
And then he had a thought: why not cut out the middleman of moving the player character between spots, and just have them end up at their destination instantly? It was the idea that magically brought everything together, allowing for snappier platforming, some devious puzzle design, and even fitting in aesthetically with the strange technomancy of The Snowgardens’ setting.
Snatching a canny victory from the jaws of defeat is a tale as old as time for many, we note - although Cristiano is still hesitant to call himself an indie game developer. “Even when I finished it, I was like, ‘I made this thing’ - I wouldn’t call it a game. And then it got an Mm Pick, and people were liking, and I was like, ‘Hang on, screw it - I made a game! It’s got a start, it’s got an end. You run around and jump on stuff. There are more vague games than that, and they call them games.”
He pauses. “I wouldn’t say I felt like a developer, though. I never set out, like, 'I'm going to make a game'. When I’m doing it, I’m always doing it for myself - I’m doing it for fun. Putting the blocks down, then I'll jump in and run around. If I'm happy with it, that's cool.” We counter his point with the observation that we know plenty of indie developers who feel a similar way - it's just that sometimes, that casual project ends up capturing other peoples' hearts too. “I think when people are doing it for fun, doing it for themselves, they make their best work,” he nods.
So what’s Cristiano’s next pet project? We’ve spotted a glimpse of something on his Twitter feed, something rather different for the water-obsessed artist: crumbling ruins rising up from arid desert, bursts of green cacti. “I finished The Snowgardens, and was like, ‘That’s enough. I’m not doing another one, I want to do something different. And then I was like...” There is a long pause, as he tries not to laugh. “Just one more.”
As widely suspected, it is indeed called the Sandgardens; Cristiano estimates that he is only about “0.5 per cent” of the way along the development timeline, but he show us some beautiful hand-painted concept art. We’re told The Snowgardens was originally going to be The Sandgardens, until Cristiano realised he was struggling to think of a useful, non-liquid way of keeping the player contained in a level. Is he nervous about going back to that challenge? “I am absolutely terrified,” he says, with amusing sincerity, before smiling again: “But it’ll be interesting to work out how to stop the player from just sending it...” The plan with this third instalment, ultimately, is to tie the trilogy together by wrapping up the narrative. “And then probably finish it and turn around and be like, ‘Just one more!’”
He’s got a couple of other projects up his sleeve, too. He’s hesitant to give away too many details - again, we point out to him, a classic game dev characteristic - but he’s “for sure” interested in making a fully-fledged, perhaps Pikmin-esque adventure for his adorable character Potkid. Beyond that? Cristiano is keeping his options open. He’s keen to explore opportunities in graphic design, and is currently putting hours into branding and motion graphics. Not that the idea of a future in game dev isn’t always in the back of his head - no more so when he sees encouraging comments on the pages of his Dreams creations - or videos on social media of children laughing themselves silly over Potkid’s antics. “That just made me feel good, and warm, and fuzzy” he smiles. “Like, I could so do that for a job!”
As ever, though, for Cristiano it’s about sailing on downriver, doing what comes naturally without expectation. We’ve seen a comment or two from people outside the coMmunity around Cristiano’s stunning work in Dreams - people often wondering why someone might spend close to a year making a fully-fledged indie game that, as of right now, can’t be monetised or distributed on other platforms. His response? “For me, at least, it’s fun. It’s the same as me sitting down and painting for fun, the same as someone who goes out and plays footy for fun. I’m not there to make money off it. I mean, I put the [Ko-Fi] link at the end because I was like, maybe someone will... Best Macca’s I’ve had in my life!” he laughs. “But yeah, that’s it. I’m doing it because it’s enjoyable, putting in some time. It’s something to be happy about.”
Visit _HalfUp’s creator page_ to see his full body of work in Dreams.
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.