As Tokyo 42 comes to PlayStation 4, we speak to SMAC Games’ Maciek Strychalski and Sean Wight about art, architecture, and communication.
Thumbsticks: The first thing that leaps out with Tokyo 42 is its striking art and architecture; can you talk a little bit about the way that the game took shape – Did the pseudo-isometric perspective and architecture come into play very early on?
Maciek Strychalski: Yes, we settled on a look and feel very early on. When we started on the game we were testing using isometric pixel art. It very quickly became apparent that A) it wasn’t going to work with our vertical gameplay and B) was going to take a very long time to produce.
Feasibility was always a big question for us as we knew it was only going to be the two of us working on the game. At the same time we wanted to make something that reached toward being sprawling. The idea was to get a look that was somewhere between Monument Valley and eBoy (a cool version of Where’s Wally), balancing the crazy busyness of one with the legibility and elegance of the other.
So we tested using 3D and an orthographic camera. Very quickly we found a stark and strong look that leaned toward the graphic. Relying on simple floor textures and Unity’s in-built global illumination baker, we could produce environments without having to recycle too many objects. We had this idea that we wanted each space to be its own thing, unlike many games that copy-paste to simulate scale. Whilst we stuck with this, I think it was a mistake because it ended up being way harder than we imagined.
Anyway, after a small amount of play testing we found that the orthographic (isometric) camera was far too confusing for people as they couldn’t read depth quickly enough for our gameplay. So we switched to a normal camera that was pulled like a kilometre back with a tight FOV. This allowed a bit of parallax as you played and allowed the Depth of Field effect, both of these giving the player a bit more information to use as they traversed our world.
How much importance do you place on architecture in games, and what do you think it can communicate to players?
Tokyo 42 is a streamlined game in that we don’t have many avenues for expressing this imagined future Tokyo. This is mostly as a result of our team size and therefore game scope. We have our main characters and the plotline and some touch points with civilians, but a large proportion of the lore making is done through the architecture. It expresses the varying ideals of the people in this world, from the conservative Punks who try to hold on to the ‘old’ neon stylings of 21st century central Tokyo through to the ‘progressive’ nudist Commandos who live in a modern naturalist enclave.
The fact that the game takes place on rooftops far above the ground raises the question of ‘what happened below’, another hidden lore element. The architecture, indirectly, is our way of telling a background story without having to build features (which we couldn’t afford really). So for us, it’s super important.
Generally speaking I would say that the importance of architecture varies from game to game. But, for the most part it is the foundation of building whatever fantasy the game might be about. Our human perceptual grounding is in built spaces so we look to them to find a sense of scale, place, history and meaning. In games it multiplies the fantasy, i.e. transports and immerses us.
Do you have particular games in your mind that resonate for their architecture? And why?
Off the bat I would say that the Assassin’s Creed series has consistently blown me away in its ability to take me back in time to wonderful cities and timeframes. I mean, if you strip out the assassin bit, these games are marvellous ways to explore history which I would recommend to anyone. In a similar way, Grand Theft Auto V allows us to play in a world we know and be totally immersed in its suburban normality.
Sean says that Midgar in Final Fantasy VII really worked for him with how the dark and heavy pipes drew you toward the middle of the city and evoked this awesome steam-punk meets sci-fi feel. I loved the dark threat of the retro-futuristic spaces in Alien: Isolation.
An architectural aspect of gaming which I have recently become interested in is the idea of games as homes. We spend a lot of time in certain games and we spend a lot of time in specific spaces if we play multiplayer. Personally I love spending time in the Mediterranean towns of Altis, a map in Arma 3. The warm white-washed walls of the terraced towns allow me an escape from cloudy London, especially in the winter months. Other people will have things to say about Counterstrike and Overwatch maps where each wall, each shadowy corner will have some sort of meaning.
The idea of anonymity in Tokyo 42 is interesting; did you want to make efforts to slow the game’s multiplayer tempo?
Yep. The multiplayer in Tokyo 42 is a two phase loop. You spawn into an arena with other players and random AI civilians. You look and move like one, so you can blend in. Your opponents will be doing the same. So time will be spent sneaking around and trying to pick up ammo and weapons without being spotted. Once, someone is spotted, a fight breaks out where it comes down to your skill and reflexes to resolve the combat. Once someone dies, they spawn again and are hidden and the loop begins again. It’s basically Spy Party which devolves into a real-time Worms.
We really wanted to make an arena game where crowd stealth combined with skill, with quiet periods which explode into action. This way the game gives you some space to think and breathe before diving into the combat. I, personally, have a problem with multiplayer games which are constant, balls-to-the-wall, action. I get exhausted and overly tense and often end up not enjoying myself. So Tokyo 42 solves some of those issues whilst presenting some interesting tactical and sneaky opportunities.
There are tinges and homages to Ghost in the Shell and Akira here; what do you think makes cyberpunk as a style compelling?
Well, the relationship between us and machines is one that I don’t fully grasp. I don’t know the ramifications, positive or negative. But the relationship is surely there and it has far ranging impacts. Cyberpunk openly embraces this question, its fears, romances and aesthetics. It’s always given me a way into something which fascinates me.
I don’t really know why all the cables, LED lights, and bionics are so beautiful, but I’ve always been drawn to them. Maybe it makes me feel like a part of a future which isn’t totally Apple-ified, clinical and devoid of expression, that there’s going to still be mess and mistakes.