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Josh chats with Stuart Ryall, of developer Mojo Bones, to discuss how Impact Winter’s unsettling environments came into being, and why.

Playing Impact Winter, I was reminded of Debi Newberry’s advice to Martin Q. Blank when he was stuck in neutral: she told him he needed Shakabuku. “A swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever,” was the way she described it. It’s a Buddhist term meaning “break and subdue”; it refers to the moment in which prior attachments are rejected, and one aligns with Buddhist belief. I prefer Debi’s definition.

In games, I’ve had my digital reality altered a handful of times and it’s often architecture that does it. These games will changed the way I think about digital spaces. Fumito Ueda’s uncanny structures made me feel small and terrified, awestruck and quiet. I’ve wallowed in places that can’t exist in our world – irritants like gravity and structural integrity stop us seeing the Finch house or the leaning, kettle-black spires of Yarnham in reality. Who can forget the spiritual kick to the head of seeing the looming, vaulted horizon of Installation 04 for the first time?

Impact Winter is different. I have spent some hours walking at a most peculiar height, fathoming upon the tops of buildings sprouting up through the snow from the old world below. It’s an image that’s easy to make sense of, but as a mechanic it stops being abstract. It’s the ground on which we walk, the debris we must dig through; it smothers old structures, turning them into new ornaments on a surreal snowscape.

The tools of the game designer spill over the edges of the draftsman’s page, or the bricklayer’s mortar. The snow in Impact Winter is its architecture, and like any architecture, it serves at least two purposes: function, and form. The function is clear but what of the form? Now I come back to Shakabuku.

Impact Winter helicopter

I spoke to Stuart Ryall, the lead designer of Impact Winter and co-founder of developer Mojo Bones, about the way this feeling is crafted. “One of the ideas/images that appealed to us in the early days of working on the concept was the visual impact of seeing large structures (a 747 tail-fin for example) sticking out of the ground/snow and how that felt somewhat eerie, giving a strong sense of scale.”

This idea of using certain visual cues as shorthand to give us a sense of where we are, of the contours of this new world, is one that goes further than simply helping to orient us as players. It toys with our psychogeography – the tangled fibres that our minds weave around our surroundings; put simply, the way environments make us feel.

“There’s also something interesting about seeing our world in a very different state,” Ryall says. “Automatically it becomes relatable when you see the Statue of Liberty half-buried under a sheet of ice. It makes the experience somehow more real.” It’s an intriguing way of tethering us to images we innately understand and using them to frame something new – to say nothing of the way this re-purposing of objects makes us feel.

In his book, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg talks about the American metropolis as it appeared in Film Noir in the 1940s. He describes the architecture of these cities – Los Angeles in particular – being caught in a shift. This between-state yields visual talismans, symbolising what Dimendberg describes as, “The psychic hazards of dwelling in an urban space whose historical mutation yields real spatial gaps and temporal voids between the modern as ‘yet-to-come’ and the urban past as ‘yet-to-be-destroyed’.”

These spatial gaps and temporal voids form a lens through which environments can be seen in new light. Ryall talks about the influence that Fallout 3 had on Impact Winter, saying, “Fallout is inspiring because of the way it takes the places/things we know and twists them with a ‘50s aesthetic. Fallout 3 was especially strong in this area. Exploring Washington’s political buildings and museums – through different eyes – was something special.”

These ‘different eyes’ come about for two reasons: the ‘50s aesthetic and the ravages of radiation that rake its world. They become a way to re-frame Fallout 3 in the same way that the snow in Impact Winter forms a cold new world atop the old one. For me this half-formed, half-frozen waste gave way to eerie exploration and the feeling of isolated intrigue. Every structure gave way to a subterranean world – the remnants of society before the impact of the game’s title.

Impact Winter doorway

For me, one of Impact Winter’s most intriguing ideas is what my brain does to fill in these spatial gaps, to make the jump through the temporal void between the old world and the new. Ryall says, “Players making their own stories is also a strong vehicle. You see something buried and part of you wants to know (or deducts) what has happened.”

For me, the strength of Impact Winter’s world is in its re-purposing. While the Halo, Shadow of the Colossus, and Bloodborne all created incredible new worlds, Impact Winter ekes out something fresh by icing over the desiccated shell of something familiar. Unlike Fallout 3’s wasteland, which decays a familiar landscape and lacquers it with the veneer of ’50s Americana, the world that Mojo Bones has made is distinct in its half-states; it finds focus in the blurring of landscapes.

Part of this is born of practicality, as Ryall explains: “Realistically, there are only a finite amount of overall settings available (space, forest, desert, city etc.), so it’s how we use these places – and infuse them with personality/purpose – that becomes important.”

Fittingly, Ryall then makes the comparison to Ridley Scott’s transformed Los Angeles – a city that teeters on the polluted brink of the ‘yet-to-be-destroyed’. “Blade Runner is a great example of taking a very generic setting (city) but making it feel different to anything we’d seen before through architecture, lighting, weather and music (becoming inspirational in its own way).”

I think, for me, that’s the nature of Impact Winter‘s Shakabuku. Whereas Bungie, FromSoftware, and Team Ico showed me the wonder of brave new worlds, Mojo Bones altered the way I thought about old ones.

About Stuart Ryall:

Stuart began his career as a game designer in 2001, working to design levels for the GBA title Medal of Honor Infiltrator. In the ensuing years, he took his passion for video games and technology to the toy industry, working as a lead designer on several high-profile interactive products for clients that included Lucasfilm, Pixar and Nickelodeon. After creating the critically acclaimed iOS game To-Fu – and its sequel – Stuart became co-founder of independent studio Mojo Bones.

From the archive: Features we love given new life. This piece, part interview with Stuart Ryall, part discussion of Impact Winter’s unsettling nature, was first published on February 6, 2018.

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