Had a great time talking with Ben Newman from Only SP about Ode to a Moon, 0°N 0°W, and the various inspirations behind these projects. The following is an excerpt from the article:
Nobody makes games quite like Colorfiction. The one-man studio, who broke with its left-field effort 0°N 0°W, manages to blend experimental level design and hypnagogic aesthetics with an accessible, concise mission statement: to be a part of gaming’s creative merge with technology. Max Arocena, the brain behind Colorfiction, spent his formative years playing RPGs such as Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, so how did the young developer get involved in the wide-world of game development?
The answer, peculiarly, starts with architecture:
“I first dabbled with video game engines during my architectural thesis. I had this really big project and renders/drawings weren’t communicating the spatial sensation, so [I] decided to turn it into a small game. Cryengine had just become free to use for hobbyists and having played my good share of Crysis I thought ‘why not?’.”
The result of these years of artistic and architectural training was 0°N 0°W: a free-form, almost multimedia exploration of space and geometry. 0°N 0°W’s unique meditations become more understandable within this context. In many ways, Arocena saw video games as an avenue to combine his architectural studies and artistic leanings to a near-infinite canvas; in his words, video games allow him to “[craft] abstract landscapes that just couldn’t exist in the real world.” By matching his penchant for abstract art and architecture, Colorfiction’s output has an oddly uncanny, dreamlike feel.
Following this period of spatial experimentation, Arocena wanted to dip his toes into something a little more linear: Ode to a Moon. By melding his personal touch around a horror game in the traditional sense, Arocena seeks to find innovation in the cinematic:
“You know that feeling when you’re watching an amazing movie and you feel this deep emotional reaction in your chest when the story and music combine in a perfect amalgamation of sensations? Well I’m trying to provoke that. I’m going to craft a compelling tale that grips the player from the start and doesn’t let go until the title screen. I’m a huge fan of Cinema, from Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Godard, and Kubrick. So while my previous titles explored the relationship of art and architecture, the nuances of space and what is one’s role within it, in Ode to a Moon I want to take inspiration from cinema and explore how narrative shapes space and in turn affects the player as they transverse it.”
The politics and implications of space are central to horror, with gaming’s horror highpoints – Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil 2, Fatal Frame, etc. – utilising camera angles, claustrophobia, and the uncanny valley to invoke dread. For Colorficition to move to horror, then, is not a surprise; in certain ways, a sideward shift to the genre feels logical.
In terms of non-linearity, however, Ode to a Moon will not be continuing in 0°N 0°W’s meandering footsteps, but this is not necessarily a bad thing in Arocena’s eyes:
“0°N 0°W was a special case because I think the gameplay arises from that non-linearity: its unexpected nature and surprise factor is what drives the player to want to see more, and more. Interestingly enough at its earlier stages it was structured in a linear fashion of progressive open worlds but the more I played it and saw other people play it I thought ‘wait, why am I forcing a path when everybody should be free to take their own?’ In Ode to a Moon I want to experiment with an experiential concept that would only be possible if the journey is linear.”
An interesting timeline forms from arty experimenter to game designer, with the developer wanting to “explore a narrative grounded on reality for some time now.” His adoration for 0°N 0°W’s idiosyncrasies will be preserved or, rather, matured significantly in Ode to a Moon:
“[Ode to a Moon will include] some snippets of what made 0°N 0°W unique; i.e. the otherworldly dimensions of the unexpected. So, in Ode to a Moon, are moments of pure delirium where the protagonist loses touch with reality and that’s where the best of 0N0W shines through. Albeit with a very different emotional reaction in mind, whereas before I was aiming for a calming peaceful experience, now it’ll be a dreadfully anxious and horrific sensation. So, this continuous juxtaposition of the real and the abstract is what will define Ode to a Moon.”
The juxtaposition between lucidity and chaos is a hallmark of 0°N 0°W, yet Arocena’s other work, Sands of Voltark, had a linear concept, with the young developer looking back at titles such as Paratopic by Arbitrary Metric and Observer by Bloober Team, deeming them as “fantastic if not disturbing rides, very inspirational.” These games are relatively linear, yet do not hold back on maximalist visuals or concept. In a way, Ode to a Moon is setting up to the reserved cousin of 0°N 0°W, a look at the merits of minimalism than maximalism. In essence, “expect something along these lines with Ode to a Moon but with a heavy dash of 0°N 0°W‘s oneiric qualities.”
Speaking about Colorfiction’s games in these esoteric terms discounts how gloriously accessible they can be. Despite making these grand meta-statements on gaming, to play them is remarkably simple. This accessibility has been noticed by Arocena himself, who “strived to make 0°N 0°W as accessible as possible.” In terms of ease-of-access, Arocena sees it as a “process of elimination.”
“I started development implementing puzzles, things to activate, this and that and quickly realized I was just making another one of those games, which, full disclaimer, I love, but the essential emphasis of 0°N 0°W was ‘no barriers exploration’, so why limit discovery behind a complicated puzzle or activation process? So ever so slowly I culled the game of traditional elements until its current iteration, because a gaming convention in it of itself is a barrier to accessibility, it implies a prior knowledge of how a game works and therefore how you should act in a game. This brought some interesting discoveries such as the removal of invisible walls; we are so accustomed to encountering them in games and thinking ‘oh that’s not the right way’. So, I thought what if there is no wrong way?”
Speaking to Arocena gave OnlySP a feeling of a developer on the cusp of something. Each description, meditation on gaming, or speaking about anything in-industry at all is underpinned by a sense of excitement in the industry. Despite this, the developer returns to an experience outside of games that, in many ways, informs his ethos:
“I’ll never forget the first time I experienced Turrell’s ‘Danaë installation in Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory. You walk into a pitch dark room without knowing what you’ll find and you see a blue rectangle of light in the far end of the large room. The rectangle glows like a small patch of the sky, and you think ‘cool, that’s a clever use of a spotlight and a blue painting’. So, you get closer and closer to the rectangle to check out this ‘painting’. When you’re basically touching it with your nose, something flips in your brain and you realize it’s not a painting but a window into a large blue room! It might sound silly in text but experiencing that ‘Whoooaaaaa’ moment first hand was mind blowing, just the way it toyed with your perception of perspective and colour.”
What are games besides “toying with perception of perspective and colour”? What’s the difference between the art of, say, Diablo and the paintings in museums? How much untapped potential do games have; has the peak yet been reached?
All these questions are brought about when games get experimental, which Ode to a Moon is guaranteed to be brimming with.
Meditating on his craft, Arocena said it best:
“I think it’s only a matter of time, videogames are the media of the future and we’re still at the early stages of what this new medium can really be. We’re also in the midst of a creative revolution where technology is becoming more and more accessible and as a result the creative expressions of what this technology can do are growing exponentially. And I’m not referring solely to videogames, music for example is likewise at this amazing transformational moment. It’s a great time to be alive!”