GODUS interview: 22cans' Dictator of Art on designing worlds and working with Molyneux
Interview by Philippa Warr
When GODUS, the god game Kickstarter project from Peter Molyneux's 22cans studio, launched in November its promise to reinvent the genre made headlines. But behind Molyneux's characteristically bombastic rhetoric we caught sight of a curiously beautiful game world - part playground, part architecture model and entirely the responsibility of Paul McLaughlin. I caught up with the 22cans self-styled "Dictator of Art" to talk GODUS, 50 metre-high walls of wet death, and the gaming holy trinity.
GODUS has the modest aspiration of completely reinventing the god game genre -- how do you even start with a concept like that?
Even high concept games that seem initially daunting can be broken down to more manageable challenges. You then need an overarching meta style to bind all these elements together.
So how did you come up with GODUS' meta art style?
Forming the art style comes from forming an overview of the experience we're trying to create as quickly as possible, figuring out who our audience is, knowing what's possible technically, being aware of the skills of your team and trying not to panic while you wait for the picture to form.
I sometimes feel my initial responses are 'inspired' but it's generally a deception. They’re usually pretty reactionary and ill-considered but I know myself well enough that if I sleep on the problem, let the various components settle and do enough scribbles that a picture will form. Generally it’s the second or third attempt at solving the problem that shows most promise. It's never a complete solution but it's generally an acceptable beginning.
What were the key inspirations for the project?
The original Populous game and similar titles I worked on since were certainly reference points; if only as a datum to move on from.
Lots of things feed into [the project]: satellite imagery, tilt-shift photography, disaster footage, environmental documentaries, flocking behaviour, the paintings of Lowry, Bosch and John Martin, miniature/model worlds -- I'm a child of the Airfix and model railway generation and spent my youth creating miniature escapes. The child inside still loves tiny, detailed things.
It put me in mind of topographical maps and architectural models - god games in their own peculiar way...
Absolutely, I'm so glad you noticed. Architectural models are the key inspiration for the environment. Maps are something I love and am fascinated by too. Once you understand the visual language, they allow us to create worlds in our minds. Extraordinary really.
With GODUS I'm developing the idea of god -- you play a god in the game -- being a combination architect and petulant child playing with the world. From the 'god view' the world will seem like a model, right down to visual effects that are in scale but to the inhabitants of the world everything should seem much more 'real' and relevant. So the god sees a tidal wave behave almost like water sploshing about in a fish tank but to his or her followers it's a genuine 50 metre high wall of wet death.
As an artist does it feel like you're playing your own god game in building this one?
Creating anything is incredibly rewarding and powerful, arguably mystical. I'm sure that the significance we place on human creativity, its ability to take form outside us, and indeed to outlive us, is one of the things that inspired the notion of gods in the first place. In this particular case we're talking about something that requires a group effort, a multidisciplinary team of people, none of whom could create GODUS on their own. We represent the holy trinity of creation; artists, designers and engineers!
Peter Molyneux has referenced Populous a lot, saying he wants to revisit "the glory of the old days in today's format" - were you tempted by an isometric world view or to riff on 8-bit graphic styles as part of that?
Revisit the glory but not rehash the same content. I have been -- and still am -- considering an isometric view of the world but not in a slavish way. We need an elevated view of the world and there was a nice symmetry with Populous to consider. So far it looks great (I think) but if the user experience is poor or it doesn’t support the gameplay effectively then I'm happy to move on.
There are a lot of 8-bit styled experiences out there now, including a very stylish Populous revision called Reprisal Universe. However while it's of the moment I think it’s fast becoming a bit of a cliché and having lived through it the first time around I don't have any personal ambition to revisit it. What it tells me though is that there is a great fondness for the titles of the late 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps it's a reaction against the sanitary, big budget nature of AAA console titles. I find that encouraging and refreshing.