How a request to promote an album turned into a web-based interactive experience that started a game development studio, we speak to Soft Earth about creating Peter Talisman
At Kepler we see games as an integral part of the fabric of culture in the same way we see fashion, film, art and music. We’re curious about these fields and how games have influenced their processes and ideas, and we know that the people who make games are inspired by other fields in return. This is the first example of our new editorial direction, where we share stories about creativity that have influenced, or are influenced by, games. This first iteration is a conversation with nascent studio Soft Earth and Kepler’s creative director, Simon Sweeney.
Soft Earth consists of Ben West, Joseph Pleass and Callum Copley. A game development studio that coalesced around the creation of petertalisman.quest, a web-based interactive experience made to promote the release of experimental folk electronic album Lord of the Harvest from musical duo Peter Talisman (Slugabed and Samuel Organ). I’ve known Ben for years, we spent some time studying in Kingston together over a decade ago, then we ran a company called BONG together. In my unbiased opinion petertalisman.quest is a groundbreaking step in a new direction for web-based games. Something that I knew everyone here at Kepler would love and would want to share with the world, so a short while ago I sat down with Soft Earth and we discussed how the game came into being, the state of web games in general and what’s next for their burgeoning game studio.
Simon Sweeney:Why a game?
Ben West:I mean, you know this, really. Even though we’re both web developers. We’re interested in games, and we like to talk about games a lot. Joe’s Master’s project was actually a game.
Joseph Pleass:Euthanasia Cruise Ship.
SS:Oh I remember this, Animal Crossing about dying.
JP:Yeah, that’s a good pitch.
BW:I’ve done a couple of very small experiments in Unity. There was Crufts, but that didn’t get very far. But one about controlling the ground, a football game where you’re the ball and Francis Bourgeois Simulator. And I mean, me and you Simon, we also tried to do websites that were, to some extent, game-like, but we never really pulled anything off as much as we would have liked. But the desire was always there.
Some of Ben’s early experiments:
JP:To double down on that, I think a conversation we both have a lot, and all of us have, is, “What is the point of websites?”. They’re sort of these interactive things that are meant to hold attention and hold information.
SS:Yes I agree. We all feel similarly I think, the idea that you are presenting content but also layering on this other aspect, of interaction or animation or something else that speaks to the content, amplifies it. That can maybe only be done when the internet is the medium.
JP:They are also game-like, inherently by being interactive. So actually, finally making a game was a logical conclusion for us.
BW:To get back to how the project started, Slugabed (½ of Peter Talisman) rang up and said, “Can you make a microsite for my album I’m doing with Sam (½ of Peter Talisman), called Lord of the Harvest?” This weird electronic folk album they had just finished. They had even done some loose world building for it, a little Peter Talisman manifesto document with some interesting tonal work.
SS:When you say world building, what was actually generated? You said tonal work, but were characters talking at that stage?
JP:They were harvesting sound from a different dimension. Characters weren’t talking, no, but there was a scene set. And the album itself set a tone immediately.
BW:It’s a good album, first of all. It has a bit of worldyness around it that made it appealing. We actually like to disagree about our memory of this, but I reckon I said to Slugabed on that call, “No, I refuse to make you a microsite quickly. I will make you a video game and undergo a very long and taxing process.”
The first thought was that it should be an idle game. The game will contain an album, which is 45 minutes long. To make a game that you play for 45 whole minutes is a lot of work. So an idle game that inherently involves waiting, and just letting the music play out without doing anything is beneficial. Obviously, there’s also a lot of farming and harvesting ideas, and language in the album and in the manifesto. That seemed like a pretty obvious fit. Farming idle game it is.
JP:Also, idle games are so connected to web browser games as well.
BW:Yes, true. We wanted it to be accessible and not taxing, or overly gamer-y, or difficult.
Peter Talisman - Lord of the Harvest Manifesto
SS:I guess as soon as you’re involving WASD, it minimises reach. Universal Paperclips for example was something we spoke about a lot when it came out. One of those things that can take on this extra life of its own, especially for people working in another tab, passively engaging. I feel like some of the appeal of Peter Talisman is that you can come back to it while listening to the album passively, and see progress.
BW:In practice, I think people don’t play it like that, but that was part of the idea, that you would stick it in a background tab, the music would continue and progress would be happening, and you’d come back later and then take a couple actions, and then step out again. In practice, most people actually do keep it in front and play it until finish, which is nice, not what we expected.
SS:I think progression, exploration and discovery all build up in layers, and how finely tuned it all is in tandem probably makes it less idle than you intended. Let’s talk about process, after that initial call, how did you begin?
BW:There was a month or two after that call, of things just bubbling away. And then the first thing that was built was the cornfield, as just a cool graphical thing. The initial thought was that it would be cool to just make bloody loads of corn. So I made that, and it looked nice, and we thought, “Hey, that’s nice.”
SS:And did the corn at that early stage, have the wind rustling through it? It sets such a tone for the whole piece.
BW:That came out fully formed, pretty much straight away. Obviously an idle game having graphics is unusual, I think we must have thought early on that we were going to try that.
SS:It immediately made me think that maybe the core concept started with a visualizer for the album. That the undulating corn was a visual representation of the music playing. The idea of the corn-as-waveform in the bottom left, was that something that came out of this kind of thinking?
JP:That was one of the first things I thought of. And then it evolved beyond there, we took it out and put it back in again at the end.
BW:After we had finished the cornfield, it was like, wow, you really want to put some little men in that corn there. You want to pick all that corn and put it in a little house. And then, it all fell out quite quickly. The basic idea of you starting somewhere and clearing a path through the corn to get somewhere else.
JP:It did go through a lot of iterations though. Originally, we thought you were going to be Peter Talisman himself and move around.
BW:Are you the God camera, or are you a guy? Because that alters things obviously. How you need to clear a path, but you’re not embodied as anything that needs a path. You could be a guy running around but that came back to control methods and lack of accessibility to non-gamers, so we threw that out.
Cut the Corn: Images from development
SS:And the progression syncing with the album, the idea that you reached one of the standing stones and that would unlocking the next track, was that another natural progression?
BW:Yes that’s actually the key. That the music is out in the field, and you need to get to it. Without that it would be purely an idle game running in the background, harvest and watch the number go up. But we had made this corn field, this visual representation that doesn’t have any sort of real gameplay meaning. Adding the music via the standing stones gave it real gameplay meaning.
JP:So many decisions were made just from that initial field of corn and that it could only be so big for graphical reasons.
BW:We spent a lot of time thinking that it was going to need more depth. Different methods of finding each song, ideas around some of the field not being corn, but brambles, and you need to cut that instead. Multiple currencies were being talked about. In the end we decided that either it never needed it, or we didn’t have time to make it work properly. We had berries as a secondary currency that was much rarer, and it was terrible.
“The main thing we learned, and another thing probably obvious to proper game developers, was to be careful about being an expert at your own game. Trying to put yourself in the shoes of someone who hasn’t made the whole thing from scratch.” — BEN WEST
SS:Your approach to aesthetics in the past has sometimes seemed to have been an almost accidental byproduct of how you’re building something. Was this the case here? Or were there multiple passes, looking at UI and art direction in general?
BW:No there wasn’t time to do that. The corn looks almost identical to the first iteration. That was resolved early on. We got the little men drawn by our friend, he did them full color, initially, because we asked him to, because I sort of hadn’t thought about it much. I made some basic assumptions about how little men in a game would be in color, some little men with clothes on. But then, I found that put it over the edge into a sort of expected, more regular video game look. So unfortunately for him, I just filled them in solid, and then had the colors change based on the environment. It’s hard to find style that doesn’t just look like a game.