These are all photos I took at the exhibition – if you want to see the larger version just click on them.
“All our games so far have had some element of handmade-ness to them but Lumino City has gone to the nth degree.”
Katherine Bidwell, co-director of studio State of Play, is taking me round the GameCity exhibition of their Lumino City game models. If you’re not familiar with Lumino City you could be forgiven for thinking all of this card and wiring is entirely a marketing concept, bringing a digital creation into our physical world. Actually it’s the polar opposite. Lumino City was created as a sprawling fantastical architectural model in real life before being painstakingly converted into a digital gamespace.
“We’ve had people say ‘what engine did you use to get that lighting effect?’ and it’s like, well, we had a lamp…” laughs Bidwell. “With [predecessor] Lume we took that in a suitcase to Tokyo Game Show and people thought it was a marketing prop – nope, it’s our game!”
The game isn’t out until later in November but Bidwell is guiding me round the exhibition, explaining more about the models on display and the challenges involved in their creation. “We’re not natural 3D programmers,” she says. “So it was a natural thing to try and make games in a different way.”
Lumino City is a point and click puzzle adventure which tells the story of Lumi, a little girl seeking her kidnapped grandad. It’s the sequel to State of Play’s previous game, Lume – a similar but smaller scale endeavour.
“We launched Lume to make sure we were able to sell this game and it was something people wanted – that we could even physically do it. It’s not giving [Lume] enough credit but it was kind of a proof of concept for this bigger city we always wanted to make,” says Bidwell.
Early on, the team brought in architect Catrina Stewart to collaborate on the designs of the city. That might sound odd given architecture tends to be associated with functional bricks and mortar creations – why not an interior designer? But there’s a lot of experimental and narrative architecture out there, especially in the realms of final year architecture projects. A personal favourite was Thomas Hillier’s The Migration of Mel and Judith which was part of the RA Summer Exhibition in 2010.
“She was great,” says Bidwell. “We weren’t focusing so much on game design, it was more about creating spaces that were interesting and different and would give the user a different way to explore an environment.
“Lumino City isn’t complete magical make-believe. Sure, there’s a house which is also a camera but we wanted to dip into reality. Things are familiar but not quite. It’s not a fantasy world but it’s not a world we 100% know.”
Looking round the exhibition you see lots of different reference points – London Underground design and typography, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, governmental research buildings from the ’40s and ’50s. There’s a tiny run-down ticket office with a little ticket booth, timetables and posters for Lumino City’s version of the Circle Line. It’s reference points are obvious, but what’s not obvious is the family connection to the source material.
Bidwell’s co-director is Luke Whittaker. His grandfather was an architect who worked designing interiors for London Underground stations like Osterly and Arnos Grove in the 1930s. There are other family and friend connections too – Bidwell’s father is a farmer so little sacks of potatoes have his name emblazoned on them. Whittaker’s dad is a jewellery maker and so he made the diner for them. A papercraft artist friend created the intricate bunting and washing. “It’s definitely been a labour of love,” is how Bidwell puts it.
But with all those different influences and different sections of the city, it would be easy to lose a sense of visual unity. “That’s one of the big things we’ve been aware of and we’ve been trying to keep control of,” agrees Bidwell. “A lot of it is in the lighting. The models are all different and we wanted people to feel like they’re seeing something new and fresh every time they got to a different scene. [We kept a sense of unity] through making sure the lighting was similar across different scenes and the grading on the film after we shot it. There are also some [recurring objects] which become a bit of a signature of the game. The leaves and plants, for example – they’re in Lume too.”
Once the footage was shot little effects could be added in post production which rounded out the scenes, making them seem more lived-in. The station room has had dust added, for example. Lumi and her fellow characters also needed to be animated and added.
“The biggest challenge was making the video work with the animation so it didn’t look jarring,” says Bidwell. “These guys [she indicates some of the little characters added during the animation stage] have little shadows in the right places which sets them in the scenes – Lumi looks like she’s really standing behind something. Then there’s the reflection of the crane in the glass dome – that wasn’t there. It’s been really time consuming but all those little details really help. The characters look like we could have filmed them as well.”
With most games their legacy is often ultimately a selection of digital files on desktops, design documents and stuffed notepads. With Lumino City there’s an actual tiny city set on the side of some tiny mountains which support a giant rotating wheel hosting a tiny red boat.
“We’re a travelling circus now!” laughs Bidwell. “These have been in boxes for two years in our studio so to be able to have it here and showcase it and get people’s reactions has been brilliant. We’re hoping to do more exhibitions next year. It’s nice because showcasing computer games can be all screen-based. It’s been great people can see games being made differently.”
Lumino City will be released in November 2014