V&A Dundee

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Plaything’s Progress: Part One

We’ve commissioned a new videogame as part of our upcoming exhibition to shed light on the development process and let the public see how a game comes together. Digital Producer Russell Dornan explores the first steps in bringing Plaything into the world.

Our appointed designers, filmmaker Will Anderson and game maker Niall Tessier-Lavigne, are well underway in bringing their game Plaything to life in their first project together. They’re currently working on the game collaboratively, either in person at Will’s Edinburgh studio or remotely while Niall is studying in Copenhagen. They keep in touch by text and Skype when they’re not in the same room, bouncing ideas off each other.

Their respective specialisms bring complementary skills together, but their common sensibilities and ethos mean they bring them to bear in a creatively fulfilling and productive way on this project. Speaking to them in the studio the other week, I felt a pinch of magic in the air.

Filmmaker Will Anderson (left) and game maker Niall Tessier-Lavigne (right) in Will’s Edinburgh studio.

They mesh together well, and imagination flows freely from both, blurring the lines between the perceived role of “creative” and “coder”. This is clear even after a short chat with them. “Things that I obsess over, like character performance, narrative and camera work, all seem to feed into Niall’s work.” said Will. “And we’re good at taking on each other’s ideas; there are things about games I wouldn’t even consider, and vice-versa, I’m sure.”

Niall agrees, “Will and I both come from an animation background...I think this gives us a common language. While we sometimes have very different instincts on what will translate well to Plaything's interactive elements, we talk about things in a very gestural and emotive way that helps us to not get bogged down in the technicalities.”

Initial sketches and ideas.

A joyous and intimate web-based game, Plaything blends hand-crafted animation and interactive generative art, allowing you to create a character in your browser, a beautifully hand-crafted creature that grows with you. The more time you spend with your ever-curious companion, the more you’ll notice changes in their behaviour and the deeper your bond will become. The player’s cursor is one of the mechanics facilitating this exchange. It takes different forms as play progresses: sometimes it’s a more traditional cursor, sometimes it might be an umbrella. And it’s up to you to help your creature (or not).

Look at them go!

Based on some of Will’s previous work, the creatures are made of simple shapes in a range of bright colours. “Plaything needs to grab your attention, so a very vibrant palette makes sense.” Will explains. “I really like it when screen colours are almost fluorescent. To avoid hurting players’ eyes I’d say what we’ve gone for is a ‘controlled fluorescent’.” Niall adds, “Originally the colour was even more saturated, but that ended up feeling too much like plastic toys; we were mindful of wanting them to come across a little less synthetic.”

Beyond simply being eye catching, the colour choice feeds into the experience in other ways. Niall says, “What's exciting is the potential for the expectations of that cheerful zesty palette to be subverted a little in how the personality of your Plaything comes across.”

Players begin the game as designers of sorts, selecting different shapes and hues from a kind of primordial soup drifting past them on screen. This fades away and the creature emerges, their visual design based on the player’s combination of choices, blinking and tentative.

Choose your shapes from the primordial soup

Speaking to the pair about the visuals for the game so far, it’s interesting that some accidental glitches have informed the styling and animation. It wasn’t until they saw the glitches and then fixed them that they realised the way it was before was even more endearing, and so changed it back. Some of the breaks are quite extreme and less useful, though make for entertaining viewing.

One of the glitchy creatures doing its best Eric Cartman impressions.

As a member of the team helping bring this project to life, I got to play the very first test run of a short segment at the start of the game. In that short playthrough, the creature feared my cursor when it first appeared. So much so, they rushed away from it and fell over, shaking with fear. A testament to great design, it’s a fleeting moment and, although they got up immediately afterwards and smiled, it’s startling how much guilt and responsibility I felt for this virtual creature I created only seconds before.

One of my very own Plaything creations

Empathy is the beating heart of what Will and Niall are trying to achieve. Offering a gentle counterpoint to violent or disturbing videogames, they’re making a thoughtful and surprisingly emotional wee game centred around kindness and self-discovery. Speaking to them reveals how important it is to create an experience for people that puts joy and gentleness first. Niall says, “if we can make something that even just one person can hold close to their heart, I’d be really happy.”

When it’s time for you to inevitably say farewell to your Plaything, they’ll fade away from you and leave behind a looping film, a memory of your moments together. This kind of digital eulogy can be shared with the world or kept private. Thanks to the creative work from Will and Niall, the nuanced character in even the early creature tests is incredibly effective and you can’t help but be drawn in and feel.

I dare you to be unaffected by the Playthings.

The challenge in a game like this is to make the emotional connection feel authentic. The designers have managed to do that through a disarming animation style and various emotional beats, thanks in large part to their own chemistry and gentleness. Plaything feels like an extension of the designers themselves; instead of wearing their heart on their sleeve, it’ll be online for everyone to play with.

We’re still in the early stages of developing the game and can’t wait to share further progress with you ahead of the game’s release in just a few months. With many of the emotional nuances established, and the broad arc of the story sketched out, Will and Niall are now able to develop the more playful and whimsical elements. After all, the game is called Plaything and is as much about fun and sweetness as it is about emotional connection and loss. Though I’m hopeful that the former moments will make the latter even more meaningful, leaving a lasting impression on players.

Russell is a Digital Producer at V&A Dundee.