Animated Exchange: Moonbot Explain The Golem

Award-receiving, super-talented animation studio Moonbot* are venturing into the realm of games. On the PC they’re doing it with an enigmatic and beautiful third-person action take on the classic story of The Golem, aka The Golem of Prague. Moonbot’s intention is to raise the money via Kickstarter – a tricky approach for a team that is not established in the gaming world – but what we’ve seen of their designs are predictably breath-taking. It would sad if this one failed. I decided it was time to have a talk with Moonbot and find out exactly what they are up to.

Read on for their thoughts on why games shouldn’t have cinematics, why The Golem is the perfect subject matter for a game, and the frustration inherent in trying to do something new.

I spoke to Bohdon Sayre, Sara Hebert, and Adam Volker.

RPS: So I saw the Kickstarter and was immediately taken with the idea – the source material is really intriguing… but first can we can we catch up with who guys are, because I don’t think the name will be all that familiar to gamers?

Volker: Well we’re a relatively new studio, actually, having started in 2009. We did a short film that we won an Academy award for, called The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which won best animated short. We’ve done some app projects for a few clients – Polyphonic Spree for example – and we’re working on Diggs Nightcrawler for the Sony Wonderbook.

Sayre: There are three important guys that the company originates with, William Joyce, Brandon Oldenberg, and Lampton Enochs, those are the partners and owners of the company. Joyce was a pretty famous children’s book author, but got into animation pretty early on (Robots, Rise Of The Guardians) he worked with Pixar, Dreamworks and so on. Anyway these guys wanted to start a company that was free of some of the studio politics you get, get down to the really creative stuff, and do different, medium-agnostic things. And a large slice of the company did come from film, and a number of us went to Ringling College of Art & Design in Florida, which is popular for a few things but particularly film. We found that we were half way through a short-film and we said “we should do more than this”. We said “videogames are awesome, they are the future!” Adam and I are avid gamers, and so it made sense for us to get in there and get into the games industry. We just want to bring new ideas to games, and we’re hoping to do that with The Golem.

RPS: The Golem is a fascinating idea for a game, not least because I think it is one of those defining stories that has sort of faded into the background. Everyone knows some modern version of the story, but not everyone is familiar with the earlier mythos.

Volker: People have only generally seen the second or third iterations of these stories. There were a couple of movies from a long time ago…

Hebert: 1930s, I think.

Sayre: And they were really weird! Really weird!

Volker: The idea was in Bill’s (Joyce) mind for some time, before I was even working here. The IP had been on the plate for a long time. But then some of the new guys were in a brainstorming session, and this came up: it made total sense. It was perfect for a game. The core thing that we talked about was making sure the player is accurately represented as to what the golem is feeling. When you see a giant monster you tend to expect it to go around and smash everything, but what we like is the idea of the player being very controlled and precise. The original idea had you befriending a small creature, like a butterfly, and it was about you not hurting things, even though they are tiny and delicate.

Sayre: So when you see the golem you expect him to be this big violent instrument of destruction, and that is one of the purposes he has, but he also has the soul of an infant, the wonder a child has for the world is there. You have giant body but the things you want to do don’t mesh with that. This is the journey we want the player to take with the golem.

RPS: How is that going to work? Seems like there’s inevitably going to be a component from your background in film?

Sayre: When people hear us talk about telling a story with a game they tend to ask whether there will be cinematics, and we feel that you can’t jam certain media like cinema into other media. So we are aiming to not have any cinematics at all. We want everything that happens to the player in terms of story to be told to the player directly through the game. So play is third-person, but we’re still deciding whether the camera should follow the player, or whether you should have no control over it. What you do as the golem varies depending on the point the story is at. So at one point you will be protecting a kid from an oncoming army, and at another point you will be hunting down spies in a city, playing more of a cat and mouse game. You have to learn to become accurate and skilled with your body, as a machine.

RPS: Why make the game in Unity?

Volker: It’s fast. We like to run tight projects, and get stuff in there quickly, and Unity allows us to do that. I think people will look at this project and say “hey, that’s actually something we’d expect done in UDK or something”, because it’s naturally lending itself to visuals. But making sure everything is as fun as possible is more important than the visual, and Unity has a strong pipeline for getting things done quickly.

RPS: Unity can tricky with a lot of people though – how many people are working on The Golem?

Volker: The Moonbot team itself is pretty large, like forty-something people. But right now we have six engineers, and we tend to use a subset of the company depending on what the project is. So it would be at least half of the company working on the full game once we start knocking it out.

RPS: Will the game happen if your Kickstarter fails?

Sayre: It will happen.

Volker: We’re pretty adamant about making it happen. If Kickstarter isn’t the way, then, well, it will certainly be a lot more stressful to figure out a way to get it made, but we will get there.

Sayre: Kickstarter is a chance for us to do it independently, but if we can’t we’ll have to reach out to others to get it rolling. We will get it rolling.

RPS: Do you think being an animation studio, rather than a game studio at heart, presents you with particular problems?

Sayre: Absolutely. Even as we’ve gone through the project with Sony there have been a number of things that have surprised us. But we’ve reached a stage where we want to keep that going, we’re ready to make a full move into that space.

Volker: We’re keen to highlight that we’re a media-agnostic company, and that’s great, but I think that also presents some challenges. In the animation world people are already familiar with Moonbot, for example, but in the gaming world they are not. We still have ground to break there, and we have to prove ourselves to gamers. We’ve done that in animation, Bill has done that in books, we need to do that in games.

RPS: The way things work in other media sort of push you in a particular direction, which isn’t always true with games. The technology means there are different constraints.

Volker: Absolutely, I mean, we’ve been working with real-time rendering for a while now doing small-scale stuff and working up to larger scale stuff, but it’s different. We’re not 100% fresh either, we have people who have worked on games.

Sayre: Work-method oriented stuff tends to be a lot different. The things you can change in film at different points are very different to things you can change in games at different points. At what point you need to lock in different things have been the biggest surprises. The visual barriers aren’t really there. If you have a smart art team you can hit anything you want, and I think the graphics race is sort of over. We need to just make smart artistic choices. I’m not worried about that, so much as how different it is to work within different frameworks for the medium. Getting the most out of that has been a challenge.

Volker: Something we’ve found that has been good is that the teams we’ve set up, technical, animation, art, have never been hired specifically for one thing. We’re a generalist company, where everyone has to be good at different things. The team picked up everything related to game development really quickly, and these were guys who had never made normal maps, who had never had to deal with low-poly objects that look like high-poly objects, but they picked it up because they weren’t over-specialised, maybe? That’s been exciting to see.

RPS: How have you found the issue of engaging with gamers? They can be a demanding audience…

Sayre: It’s a different industry, sure, and we really respect that. People aren’t going to put money down without a reason.

Volker: Yes, it’s been challenging our working method and forcing us to change how we do things. That’s always healthy for a company to have to go to, I think.

RPS: What sort of feedback have you had for what you’ve proposed?

Volker: Reactions are really positive, but I think we tend to lose the average gamer when we talk about the philosophy of what we’re doing.

Sayre: And we are talking about philosophy more than specifics, admittedly, but that’s partly because we’re trying to be experimental and explore what can be done with this concept, rather than just laying it out. We want to figure out the best way to marry story, gameplay, and mechanics. We want to change this stuff along the way.

RPS: Kickstarter is odd like that… it should be about innovation and experimentation, but it’s become about people knowing want to know exactly what they are getting?

Hebert: I wasn’t going to say anything, but it’s been really interesting for me because what I primarily do marketing, and it feels really strange to be unveiling the project as we go along, and to be beholden to what people want to see or do. And I have to admit that a lot of the games that we looked at on Kickstarter as models for our own project felt either like games that might have gotten made anyway, or were established as a concept, rather than looking for seed funding to get their concept off the ground. That’s very different from how we’ve had to approach it. We need the money to get this interesting project off the ground, so that we can involve other backers as investors in a larger project.

RPS: The drift in game Kickstarters towards nostalgia is… disappointing.

Volker: Disappointing is the word! See games that are reskins of older games doing so well feels…

Sayre: Tragic.

Volker: Well, I feel too often like saying “that game already exists!” Where are the new games?

Sayre: Because we’re in a creative industry, everyone makes things in a different way. You can make a game in an infinite number of ways, and some of those don’t sit well with the way people want to spend money on Kickstarter.

Volker: It’s frustrating to see “Halo With Pirates” or whatever, because people get that and back it. But if it’s a new idea, like Golem, well, you can’t make that easy reference. There are mood references and things we could make –

Hebert: People ask if it is like Shadow Of The Collossus, and on some level you could make that reference-

Volker: Yeah, mood. But not gameplay references, specifically.

RPS: Games are problematic in that sense, because although they have distinct forms that people are familiar with, the mixture of media and systems in a game can’t be understood easily until it, or something like it, is played by the individual.

Volker: Right.

RPS: Do you think that will necessitate playable prototypes on Kickstarter in the future?

Volker: Yes. I think that is happening already. But, you know, we are Kickstarting to make that game in the first place.

RPS: Yes. It’s an interesting predicament. I hope Kickstarter matures into a place where people can take risks on innovation. But perhaps it won’t. We shall see. Either way, good luck with The Golem. We’ll see more of it soon, I hope. Thanks for your time.

*I type Moonbot as “Moonboy” every single time.


  1. MOKKA says:

    Interesting to see that Kickstarter is somehow becoming more and more similar to traditional Publisher funding.

    • Arathain says:

      Well, yes and no. There’s the possibility of a lot more interaction with your audience if you Kickstart than a larger publisher would really be comfortable with, and the remakes tend to be of older games or now diminished or defunct genres, rather than recreating indie versions of current AAA titles.

      Still, when you see a convergence between what gamers are funding and what publishers are funding it suggests that publishers are doing a pretty decent job of giving the consumer what they want.

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        A broken watch is right twice a day. But a watch that is broken so that it runs at double speed is right four times a day. And a watch that works perfectly, but is set to the wrong time, is never right.

        I was going somewhere with that, but I got carried away with the metaphor.

        • LionsPhil says:

          A watch that runs infinitely fast, such that it simultaneously displays every possible time, is always right.

          • GameCat says:

            If that watch speed is going toward +infinity, it becomes righter and righter with any second.

            Damn, these are inspirational comments.

          • Hanban says:

            So what you guys are saying is … if I speak infinitely fast I’ll win an argument against my mom?

          • Gap Gen says:

            Well, if all else fails, the shock wave created by infinitely compressed sound waves will kill her. And everyone else on the planet. So try not to do that.

          • Rawrian says:

            That’s called Quantum Arguing, Hanban!

          • Gap Gen says:

            Note: things moving very fast / in a strong gravitational field is relativity. Quantum mechanics deals with things with a typically very low momentum (e.g. a particle has a wavelength inversely proportional to its momentum).

            Unless you’re applying movie physics, in which case quantum means anything you want it to. For example, I’m off to quantum a quantum quantum of quanta for my quantum lunch. Quantum you later!

        • Gap Gen says:

          A watch that pumps out hallucinogens to make you believe it is always correct iAAAAAH SPIDERS SPIDERS

        • MOKKA says:

          I feel honoured that my comment spawned something as insane as this.

  2. SuperNashwanPower says:

    Awww. Cute monster.
    Monster: GWAAARGHHH
    Me: *hugs monster foot*

    • trout says:

      the golem is rather cute – the style reminds me of ashley wood doing his popbot stuff – maybe a bit less grim tho!

  3. Wurstwaffel says:

    So it’s a “cinematic” third person game. I’m guessing some sort of brawler with some magic thrown in?

    I absolutely hate it when developers don’t tell me what genre the thing even is, how the player interacts with the game; arguably the most important thing.

    Reading the interview it seems they don’t even know any gameplay specifics yet. Weird way to design a game if you ask me.

    • Acorino says:

      The Kickstarter page actually states the genre the game shall fall into: Action RPG. Whatever that entails…

    • Reapy says:

      Yeah I was sort of waiting waiting waiting for how the game will be played. Maybe they are already making their key mistake, thinking the theme and concept art is enough to make someone want to fork over money for the game.

      Maybe out in the movie/animation world golem’s are an underused theme, but in gaming they go right along with rats in the sewer, so nothing really interesting there at all. How is the game going to play??

  4. Mirrored says:

    Some good stuff here. Games with a giant protagonist always remind me of Doshin the Giant for Gamecube, for whatever reason.

  5. emertonom says:

    I am reminded of Iron Giant, though that was more from the boy’s point of view. I’m also surprised that Judaism didn’t come up, since it’s a tradition whose stories have been largely ignored by games and films (compared with, say, Christianity, Greek mythology, etc.). I hope it turns out to be a good game, though. As they said, they were talking largely about philosophy, and that makes me as a gamer nervous.

  6. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Will this finally let me relive my desire to be “Rook” from Demigod again?

  7. Archipelagos says:

    This is as good a time as any to advise people to go read Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, it’s an incredible book. Tough slog but worth it.

  8. Rikard Peterson says:

    Interesting! Not enough to make me back it right away, but as you get the game for only $15, I’m putting it on my watch list.

  9. Runs With Foxes says:

    The drift in game Kickstarters towards nostalgia is… disappointing.

    I thought Kickstarter was about funding projects that wouldn’t be funded by traditional means. If there are Kickstarter projects for games similar to those that people loved but publishers are ignoring, why is that disappointing? Nostalgic projects are popular because people immediately understand what they are funding. Compare to this game, about which we know very little.

    Why are you assuming The Golem is something new and exciting? They haven’t given many details on how it plays (sounds like they don’t really know themselves). They call it an ‘action RPG’, without explaining what that means to them, and there are tons of action RPGs, including many that are funded by publishers. So what’s innovative about this game? Its story? Its linear and cinematic style? Sounds a bit hypocritical.

    • MarcP says:

      It’s fairly annoying to see newcomers to the genre pop in and immediately declare video games are superficial, and they, and only them, will save us for the abyss of mediocrity we are stuck in, while in reality they are the ones who lack the experience to understand the profoundness in many games.

      I picked up Giana Twisters: Twisted Dreams the other day, which was funded thanks to Kickstarter. This is the textbook example of a disappointing project, according to this interview: it’s a remake of a spoof of one of the most popular games ever, and as such it surely can’t do anything new or innovative to the genre.

      Yet one only needs to play the demo to realise how wrong the above claim would be. While there are no entirely new mechanics to this game, the particular way these old tricks are implemented and the particular way they are combined together makes for an original experience. Are Checkers pointless because Chess exist? Is any board game doomed to be derivative rather than innovative, seeing as there’s been board games before? To answer “yes” to these questions is nothing but a tremendous lack of imagination. You don’t need to burn everything down to be creative. The ability to recognize specific pieces for what they are, what role do they play, how can they be arranged together to make a distinctive and compelling experience is a much better show of inventiveness and originality.

      Indeed, not a word of gameplay in this interview. What is a game but gameplay? There is only one purpose in discussing the philosophy of your game, and that purpose is to sell the game. If there is any substance to your game, it doesn’t need you to convince people of that. Anyone can have opinions and ideas, what’s important is execution, not intent.

      The subtext isn’t hard to spot, either – hanging on to the outdated notion storytelling has to respect certain norms set by previous genres and has to be expository even in a medium defined by interactivity. This is a much worse kind of nostalgia than anything you will find on Kickstarter. Video games can be so much more than a mindless rehashing of themes that only seem new because they were first introduced so long ago they’ve been forgotten since. Video games have the potential to deliver an intimate experience to every single player, as many different stories as there are people playing the game. There is a place for games choosing to stick to one very defined story told in one very specific way, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend these games enforcing limits in a medium with so many possibilities are advancing the genre.

      • Consumatopia says:

        Video games have the potential to deliver an intimate experience to every single player, as many different stories as there are people playing the game.

        True, but let’s be clear: it’s still just potential–video games don’t do that yet. You’re right that the field won’t be transformed by newcomers throwing everything away, but it can’t be by building more of the same either. It’s like inventing a new scientific theory–the new theory is conceived by people who fully understand the old theory and its limitations. Einstein doesn’t just declare Newtonian physics to be mediocre and start all over again, he took the existing system and extended it in way previously unimagined.

        In a way, it’s the emptiness of today’s games that’s their most significant feature–that our worlds are never quite as meaningful when we bring them to life as they were in our dreams is very significant–there is something big we don’t understand, about ourselves, our desires, our cognition, our reality. It’s probably too big to be found by level designers or screenplay writers.

      • Acorino says:

        It’s fairly annoying to see newcomers to the genre pop in and immediately declare video games are superficial, and they, and only them, will save us for the abyss of mediocrity we are stuck in[…]

        It’s a good thing they didn’t say that then.

      • Cunning Linguist says:

        Ah, Giana Sisters . The archetypal example of retro nostalgia … Another game few will bother to finish because it doggedly sticks to “old-school” game design . Not everything about “old-school” game design is good and has to be re-visited. Some things are best left to die. Specifically, the really hard boss at the end of a really hard level without a checkpoint before the boss . And the difficulty here is not challenging – it’s just cheap. The things randomly flying around at high speed while you’re on flying platforms, is one example…
        The thing is , there are original platformer reboots from the big boys, namely DK Country Returns and Rayman Origins that are actually well designed and are hard without being cheap.

        The indie scene is oversaturated with fatally hip pixelated/2d retro wannabes. I don’t want to be a negative cynical jerk and I don’t buy AAA games, I’m just bored.

        Konjak makes some great stuff. The Iconoclasts !

    • Tams80 says:

      There’s room for both.

      Remakes are probably more likely to get funded, as there already fans out there and people know what they are investing in. ‘New’ games are less likely to get funded, as people aren’t familiar with the concept and often they have little to show in terms of gameplay.

  10. F3ck says:

    Just so long as it’s Richard Lewis as the Golem…”this is the voice I’ve got?

  11. colossalstrikepackage says:

    Love the concept, like what I see of the guys. It could be awesome to have a game designed by writers and CGI experts. I really enjoyed Walking Dead, and despite pretty crummy ‘game play’ its writing stole my heart.

  12. Gap Gen says:

    I have golem guilt from Minecraft at the moment, given that I’ve just fuelled an industrial revolution on our server by building a machine that breeds and then massacres golems in their hundreds.

  13. Zenicetus says:

    Interesting concept for a game, I hope they can pull it off!

    I remember having fun with the original Dragon Age game where you briefly went into the alternate dream-world thingy and played as a Golem. That was fun. If they can get the feel of playing something large, powerful, and not-that-fast right, then it could work well.

    Of course the scale of this thing is a lot larger than the DA golems, so that brings in other issues of play balance. If it’s a Godzilla thing that can smash all resistance, then it won’t be that much fun, so they’ll have to find vulnerabilities. It will be a challenge for a studio that has only done the 3D graphics work in the past, to get that kind of game balance right.

  14. AngoraFish says:

    I still have no idea what they’re aiming for here.

    I’m happy to support experimental games, but we need some actual basis to assess whether they’re likely to piss my pledge money down the toilet.

    Surely it’s a pretty basic part of project planning to have a sketch outline of where one is going and how much it’s likely to cost? Presumably they have one, so why aren’t they promoting it? For all I know they simply pulled a random dollar figure out of the air.

    I’m willing to give a bit of credit to developers with runs on the board, such as Double Fine, but these guys don’t exactly have a strong background in game development. They need something in their pitch that might assist me to appreciate that they actually have a clue about what’s involved in developing a game.

  15. Klingsor says:

    I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to think about it. On the one hand the didn’t really give any information on the actual gameplay. Albeit the golem context sounds very interesting I wouldn’t back it right now unless they offer much more specific information on the game plays.

    Secondly their comment on nostalgia sounds a bit offending to me. Many of us backed KS projects because they appealed to nostalgia. That doesn’t necessarliy mean that there is no innovation possible. Look at AAA projects: there wasn’t so much innovation in the past couple of years but rather CoD 348. But going back to the roots might be a way to explore new options of innovating games. Generally dismissing nostalgia just sounds odd.

    • solidsquid says:

      It does seem a little ironic that they’re talking about people only paying for remakes when essentially their idea is doing a remake of the Golem of Prague story but as a game (there might be more to it than that, but it doesn’t sound like they’ve communicated much of it)

  16. solidsquid says:

    Ok, story idea sounds like it could be interesting, but here’s what I don’t get. They’re complaining that they’re expected to have a working prototype or already have something built before they show it, but what people really want is to know how the game play will work. Considering this is an animation studio, why haven’t they just knocked up a storyboard/animatic showing controls and the corresponding actions from the golem (dual sticks left, arms swing left, etc). It’d take one animator a couple of hours and they’d be able to demonstrate how the game will function

    It comes across less as they haven’t had time/funding to build a demo and more like they just haven’t worked out how it’s going to work, focusing entirely on the story and visuals. I realise this might be what they specialise in, but you can’t put minimal thought into game play for a game and expect it to turn out well just based on visuals. As it is, the only control system I can think of that resembles what they’ve hinted at in their videos is Qwop, not exactly going to encourage investment

    • Acorino says:

      It’s especially true since they have to prove their worth as a video game company first. Didn’t stop me from pledging though.

  17. Zeewolf says:

    The people who fund Kickstarter-projects is not ONE GROUP. It’s a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of different motivations.

    So stop complaining that people are funding things they know. Everyone are funding what they want to fund, and it’s not their responsibility to make sure that things they aren’t interested in gets funded.

  18. jrodman says:

    I still have zero idea how this could possibly feel to play.

    This is like asking for seed capital for a movie and not being willing to talk about whether it’s a drama, documentary, or some avant garde creation.

    • Acorino says:

      I’m overcome with a feeling of deja vu here. During the voting period of Double Fine’s public Amnesia Fortnight the pitch for Black Lake was similarly criticized for a lack of gameplay specifics. The pitch was by an artist who had no former experience in designing gameplay. In the end Black Lake turned out to be the best prototype of them all.
      Golem is a risky bet nonetheless, I agree. I was easy to convince I guess, the promise of such an unusual scenario coupled with gorgeous graphics was enough for me. :)

      • AngoraFish says:

        Black Lake was always sold as a whimsical exploration game, and was always going to be developed by 20% of the staff working at Double Fine. It doesn’t particularly matter if it’s point and click or WASD, or whatever, exploration and whimsy are the point. The Black Lake pitch was more than enough for it to be selected out of a couple of dozen other pitches. The Golem, on the other hand, could be anything from Darksiders to something like Black Lake, by a team that doesn’t seem to have ever made an actual game.

  19. Kamos says:

    Those games getting “remakes” in Kickstarter are crowd funded attempts to bring back games that do not immediatelly default to market-accepted tropes (a.k.a. games made with a checklist of features provided by a publisher to maximize sales). Making a game around “old” design ideas isn’t making a “reskin”, it is making a brand new game and bringing innovation to a so-called “dead genre” (only “dead” because it became niche in a time when digital distribution wasn’t as powerful as it now is). The only thing tragic here is moonbot’s failure to understand that.

    Actually, I now expect Moonbot to create a new genre in gaming.

  20. Xzi says:

    “Unity can tricky”

    Developing can hard, regardless of the engine, IMO. Same goes for editing.