This is the latest in the series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.
The most baffling thing about my favourite game in recent yonks, MirrorMoon EP, is that its creators haven’t played Mercenary. Or Driller, Captain Blood, or any other those great computer games it so resembles. That the likeness is accidental is one thing, that it finds meaning in the game’s title and events another. On a strange planet in an unknown universe in what never seems less than a dream, your eyes keep returning to the MirrorMoon, a distant, identical world. Activating a series of strange relics and beacons, you build a bridge between the moons and start to walk across. As you approach the halfway mark, perhaps to meet a MirrorYou, the ‘dream’ is engulfed in light and back to your cockpit you go. Well, someone’s cockpit.
When I stare up at the MirrorMoon, I see all of those distant worlds: Mercenary, Damocles, Dark Side, Encounter... All the games that, when I was little, showed me the frontier. Barren, of course, because the games could draw little else, but populated over time by everything thereafter. That landscape, to me, is gaming and all it’s become. Call it melodramatic, but when I walk towards the middle of that bridge of light, I imagine the me-child coming the other way.
MirrorMoon has sold about 8,000 copies, which I try to assure creators Pietro Righi Riva and Nicolò Tedeschi may at least have been the right 8,000 copies, sold to people who didn’t just buy it, but got it. Part of me wants them to sell more while another, selfish part of me wishes it had sold even less, as if only appearing to those on its certain frequency. It’s a rare game indeed that makes the player themselves feel special.
Now 28, Righi Riva grew up at a time when consoles were the in thing for Italian kids. Too young to have discovered firsthand the aforementioned games, he wouldn't know these minimalist masterpieces until just the other week, some time after paying creepily accurate tribute to them with MirrorMoon.
Pietro Righi Riva: "The day we sent out our press release for the beta, someone said, 'Oh, this sounds a lot like Mercenary.' We'd never heard of it. I don't know how it happened. We looked at it and were like, 'Woah, this is very close.' The way [Novagen] imagined their open gameplay is really very similar.
"The interesting thing is that games that felt lonely and mysterious and hard to understand at the time were maybe the majority, because it was so hard to make a game that would explain itself. Nobody knew how to play games, there were no conventions. And there wasn't really a space where you could have tutorials, or ways for the player to understand what they're doing. You couldn't collect data or do things on-the-fly, so I think a game like Mercenary really understood this and built upon it. It's as if technology took that away, that mystery."
Nicolò Tedeschi: "30 years ago mysteries were technology-enforced. Today you have to go back and willingly insert mysteries because the technology allows you to do so many things that, most of the time, you just put everything in there. That leaves no space for the player to put in something of their own."
Righi Riva: "We were blown away by Captain Blood, and when you look at Total Eclipse, which I've just now discovered through you, it's extremely appealing to me. I immediately feel that sense of: I don't know what I'm doing, this looks real mysterious."
Face Of Darkness
MirrorMoon's lonely puzzle planets are discovered through a cockpit so minimalistic that you're basically just floating in space. Designed to evoke the scratchy analogue boot-up sequence of the Nostromo in Alien, it feels as much like the controls of John Carpenter's Dark Star - same screenwriter, go figure - or the wholly enigmatic Captain Blood.
Righi Riva: "When you make a game like this, you have to decide who the player is, who the character is - if there is a character. Because you might still be a character even if the game is firstperson. You can have this conversation about Half-Life 2 and how the character is silent so you can identify with it, but I think that adding a cockpit, adding an interface to the game, adds this layer of: there is no one else operating this thing but me, the player. I'm not the pilot of this spaceship, I woke up in it and no one's telling me what to do. If I was the captain of this spaceship then I'd know how to operate it, so if I can’t then I know it's actually me. I think Captain Blood goes for the same feeling, that alienating feeling that makes the world feel alien because there's no character in there who can relate to it - the relationship is direct.
"Do you know what the ‘dial-up’ button in our cockpit does? It’s a network handshake with our servers, and it refreshes the names in the galaxy. So it does what it sounds like. It's part of this analogue metaphor where everything does what it looks like it would do. Loading the floppy disk loads the level. It works towards a sense of accessibility to the interface. We play both roles: we don't tell you anything about what happens in there, but we try to make everything do what it looks like it does. And that's really the trick, the design concept of the game: to make you feel that nothing is explained. But there are hints that point you in the right direction so you don't get completely lost and rage-quit."
Tedeschi: "Dark Star is a movie I've seen many times. I wouldn't point to a single movie or reference because this fascination with objects and interface goes deep into my past. It's just a crazy fascination, from Acme devices in Road Runner to science-fiction; I go crazy when I see mechanical things that make weird shit happen. So we tried to build something around that. At the same time we had these feelings, which is something I discussed many times with Pietro, about how cool it is to operate an old broken radio and pretend that it's doing something, but really it's just broken. The feedback of this physical thing, it's so rewarding - just the feedback - that you want to believe something is happening somewhere else. So one of the things we tried to build inside the MirrorMoon interface was to make it physically consistent: this is a physical object. A big help came from our friend Michael Manning who made the audio design for the interface. He actually recorded live sounds from real physical objects, and that gave a very important layer to it."
Righi Riva: "Another reference is Explorers [Joe Dante movie in which geeky little River Phoenix and not-so-geeky little Ethan Hawke build a spaceship, Thunder Road, using dreamt up blueprints and a load of old junk] - it was always in the back of my mind. That idea of being naked in space is really compelling, and it has to do with stargazing as well. That feeling of looking up and trying to perceive, for a second, the distance of space. To me it makes my head dizzy and it's scary in itself. So we wanted to bring that feeling in, and you can't have that if you’re in this Star Trek sci-fi spaceship with gravity that looks very comfortable. How do we have a spaceship that also feels like floating in space, with the danger and the loneliness and the emptiness?
"The way we designed the interface was not functional, as you can probably imagine, but simply because it felt good flipping the switches. And then we were like, 'Well, what is this switch for? Maybe it turns on the monitor.' And we tried that and it felt good, and that's the way we designed it. Of course we had gameplay implications we needed to have tied to it, but honestly, I think the update-the-names-of-the-galaxies button was made randomly. The thing on the left that lets you quit to the menu, I think it took Nicolò a good couple of days to work that one out."
Allow me to pull from my ass the statistic that, on average, 50 per cent of a firstperson shooter is the sky. Watching developers with loads of money and no RAM try to fill it with foul and ungainly textures has been a hobby of mine for almost a decade, as has staring for long hours into the microwave in the hope my eyeballs dribble out. How refreshing, then, to find a game in which at least 80 per cent is a sky that features almost nothing. That MirrorMoon only lets you look left and right, fixing your eyes upward, seems obvious in hindsight.
Righi Riva: "The obvious reason is that we needed the mouse for controlling the moon. But the reality of it is that it's a tool for us to tell the players instantly, with the first step they make, that this is not a traditional game. This is not an FPS. And also: this is kind of old-school; this is before-Marathon. It's also super disorientating. Of course it helps keep a consistent cinematography to the game where we know where the player's looking at all times. So we know how to work the horizon - because the whole thing about MirrorMoon is that you can't see what's over the horizon, so we need to know at any second what the player might or might not see."
Tedeschi: "There are very good design reasons, mainly because the horizon for us is like a very important key point in the puzzle structures of the game. It's kind of difficult already as it is, and if you could mess around with the view, it would become extremely difficult to alter any kind of puzzles in the MirrorMoon environment. We had to take out of the game this ability to look up and down. And also it helped us question things that we take for granted, like why do firstperson adventures or shooters behave like that? It's a good exercise."
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
Desolate, disorientating, alien, tedious: all of these can describe all of the games we’ve talked about. But maddening? That seems unique to MirrorMoon, and says more about us than it does about the game. Getting lost in space exploration games was just one-track wonderment in games of old, while the question of discomfort just didn’t come into it. Players of frantic instadeath arcade games didn’t want to be comfortable, which is why they seldom read the manuals for sometimes deliberately impenetrable games; when the game worlds were so light on content, the games themselves became the puzzles. No wonder we ended up with the likes of Captain Blood and KULT. Read enough comments about MirrorMoon, though, and you’ll find people overwhelmed by these same exact qualities to the point where it scares them off. This, in case it needs saying, is a good thing.
Righi Riva: "You brought up Silent Running before, and it’s that maddening feeling of space. Looking at sci-fi, half of the people who've been to space went insane. Sometimes it's a plot device; sometimes it's a philosophical question about how people are social animals, and the perception of time, space and belonging somewhere. That’s the feeling we went for. There is no comfort in space. It's not inviting for life and it's not easy to reach. I can understand how feeling lost on this planet with no points of reference is a negative feeling. But games have the right, after all these years, to explore those feelings again.
"I don't know if you've read Eden by Stanislaw Lem. That's a very interesting book about understanding and exploration, and in a way I'd say it's very connected to MirrorMoon, and to the very idea of exploring something not because you want to go back, to save yourself, but just for the sake of understanding. Because you're put in this situation, and you can either kill yourself or try to make sense out of it - and you decide the latter, to be human, to reduce it to your understanding.
"We made sure that the passage from day to night felt very radical, much like the passage of day to night in a desert would feel. The moon is sort of the protagonist of your adventures on the planets, which is why sometimes there is no moon. 'What happens now?' It was exciting for us to play with those very limited numbers of pieces because it meant we could really explore what it felt like changing one thing, taking it away from the player. What if you don't have it any more? What if there's a planet where you move the moon [the sun is eclipsed by default] and the sky is still very dark because the star's not very powerful?
"Games happen, for a big part, in the minds of players. But the minds of players are different at all times, and you have to adapt to that. If someone has played lots of GTA and The Elder Scrolls, they expect things to happen and things not to happen based on their previous experiences. So when you make a new game you have to address this on some level. Maybe the medium has only just reached the maturity that allows for all kinds of experiences without worrying about that too much."
If MirrorMoon wasn’t inspired by any of the games it should have been, what game did inspire it? The answer is Noctis IV, the originally DOS-based space sim/explorer which, coincidentally, is another of that rare breed: the Italian indie game. Conceived in 1996, Noctis is something of a torchbearer for a genre that’s gone in and out of fashion, today’s champion being the relatively gamey Kerbal Space Program. I’m more partial Vladimir Romanyuk’s Space Engine - because graphics - and Santa Ragione know it well.
Righi Riva: "Noctis is just about exploring space. We played it and found it was capturing some of these aspects of exploration and the mysteries of space, and we really wanted someone to make more of it. It's an extremely obtuse game, so in a way MirrorMoon is like Candy Crush Saga compared to it. But we could tell there was a pleasure in not understanding how to operate this spaceship. It's very similar to the experience of playing your first flight simulator on computer: it would take me an hour and a half to start the thing, and there's a beauty in that.
"I want to play Space Engine on Oculus Rift. Watching [Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie] Gravity two days ago, there's a lot of floating in space, as you can imagine. And that feeling of finding something out there and wanting to share it with people is what drove the multiplayer aspect of our game. Something's hidden in the galaxy, right, and you need to share pictures and things with other players. I think that partially worked with the Steam Community, but I don't know if we managed to do it so that everything feels different, unique and special, while keeping a very minimalist style to it. Because that's the really tricky part of it.
"We don't have mountains because we can't have mountains; we don't have caves. Some of the planets in MirrorMoon have the solution right in front of you when you land, and that's an anti-climax. It's like the empty planets in Space Engine. But the fact that it's a solution tells different things to players. They don't see how it’s making everything else feel special, they see how it's making this particular planet lame. But if you think of being out in space, the majority of stuff out there is extremely lame. I don't think we solved that problem or chose the right direction with it; if you want players to find something unique and special in a game, what do they find all the other times?"