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 : 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.
Are there any challenges specific to creating an art style for a god game as opposed to something like an RPG?
Well you have to use the style and themes that detach the player from the 'world' but keep him or her engaged with the experience. An RPG puts you in the world you're a participant in but with a god-game you're more of a voyeur, affecting events on a grand scale but in a detached way. This is why I'm considering the player as the architect, controller, creator rather than the warrior, wizard or whatever.
In GODUS the longer a building or settlement exists, the more it builds up - what other techniques are you using to keep the landscape vital and engaging?
Ha ha, yeah I never expected that one to be pulled out as something significant. The thought was a small one; build on a tiny space and you build tall, on a bigger footprint you build out. I was looking for ways for settlements to develop in an interesting fashion without having to make the world look like a carpark. I was think of how makeshift dwellings organically develop into complex structures like the favelas in Brazil.
Other than that it's early days on how the world will develop. We have lots of ideas but we’ll apply them in response to gameplay requirements and obvious lackings rather than force them all in at the start.
What level of detail can we expect to see on the inhabitants of the GODUS world - are there individuals and races or are they more just symbols of human presence?
For me they’re almost like ants in an ant hill. Their character really comes out (to the god) through their meta behaviour, how they flock, worship, expand, die and so on. I don't feel that they should have individual personalities. Perhaps if we go in close, in a first person view, it’d be nice to pick out individuals and tell their story. That'd be a nice contrast between god and follower although the work involved is significant.
Your LinkedIn profile has you describing your current role as Dictator of Art - how much of the GODUS artwork is your personal vision and how much input do the rest of the team have?
Yes, well I chose that title deliberately. Certainly the other artists are very talented, contribute a great deal and have already helped define much of the look but I’m very keen to retain ownership and can be a bit of a grumpy old man when required.
I would say the 'vision' so far has been 90 percent mine but the realisation is 100 percent down to teamwork. I absolutely love working with other artists and we discuss pretty much everything but in the end it's my call. Having said that I’m pretty sure they all see me as completely charming, a brother, a benevolent uncle, a confidant, a witty raconteur and an absolute dream to work with.
Which other games do you admire in terms of their art style?
Things like Limbo and Journey were very refreshing and, of course, Little Big Planet and Tearaway from Media Molecule, those guys are great. Wildfire Worlds from James Boty is looking like great fun too and we're both referencing similar things at the moment which is interesting.
These are all admirable and I love them but I do prefer to seek inspiration from outside the industry. I'd love to do something referencing the world of particle physics, scientific imaging, electron microscopy and the nano world. But that's another story!
What keeps you coming back to work with Peter?
Like a lot of the world, it seems I find Peter both infuriating and inspiring in equal measure. However while many people infuriate me there are very few who inspire, I guess that's why we're still working together. Certainly there could be easier and more straightforward working relationships but then, what's the point in that?
I signed up for 22cans to be on the front line not in reserve. Peter is always at the front line going 'Come on guys, don't sit down there in the mud, let's go over the top. I've got this great plan, it'll be awesome…' and often it is.
Thanks to Paul for his time.