Everything changed when Microsoft turned up. We sort of all know that. Before september 2002, Rare was one of the bastions of Britsoft, a veteran developer that had transcended the western industry to become a key facet in the Nintendo armoury. Afterwards, it began a slow transformation into a sort of middleware company, cranking out avatars and Kinect foibles. We don’t need to go into this here – Simon Parkin covered it beautifully in his Who Killed Rare article for Eurogamer. Have a read, then come back.
Phil Tossell was at the studio for 14 years. He started out as a coder at the tail end of Diddy Kong Racing, but within couple of years was a lead programmer overseeing a project named Dinosaur Planet, which would later become Star Fox Adventures. After that, he worked on Xbox 360 launch title Kameo, before spending, “a few years in the wilderness” as he calls it, working on various prototypes that never saw the light of day. And then came Kinect Sports. At the end of that project, he decided it was time to go. So in August 2010, he joined up with fellow Rare staffer, Jennifer Schneidereit, and formed their own studio Nyamyam a month later. The following year they were joined by another Rare-escapee, the artist Ryo Agarie, who worked on Perfect Dark Zero, before becoming art director on the Xbox avatars project. He now contributes remotely from Okinawa.
Since the beginning of 2011 the trio have been working on Tengami, a cryptic adventure set in an ancient Japan of myth and fairy tale. Using the iPad touchscreen, players interact with a series of elaborately constructed scenes by stroking the display, as though turning the pages of a book. Designed to resemble pop-up mechanics, new scenes and buildings literally unfold. Controlling the lead character is a matter of tapping on the screen where you want him to go – and from these building blocks the team is creating something haunting and atmospheric, with a similar emphasis on experience, art and emotion as thatgamecompany’s Journey. “There IS a story to the game,” says Schneidereit. “But the goal is to figure out the story – that is part of the mystery. What you see at the beginning is a cherry tree in full bloom, but as you go through the pages you see that the tree is slowly dying away. One of your tasks is to renew it, but why you do that and what it means – we want people to play the game to figure that out…”
There have been other interesting iOS projects, which have sought to capture the haptic and visual experience of pop-up books – Ustwo’s Nursery Rhymes, for example. But what drew Nyamam to the concept? “When I was a kid, I used to really like pop-up books, and I’m always fascinated by how things work,” says Tossell. “And then, we all love Japan, we all have a connection with the country – our artist is Japanese, Jennifer has worked there, and I’ve been there a dozen times over the last ten years. I’ve gradually fallen in love with the traditional side of Japan, the arts and crafts. It’s just the aesthetic, it’s very minimalistic, and it’s very hard to reproduce. We thought, let’s put them together and see what we get”.
The game environments, then, are all designed to look as though they’re actually crafted from pop-up pages. “The textures we use are real washi papers,” says Tossell. “In different areas of Japan they make different papers and use different stylings and techniques. I’ve got this big book that explains how they make these papers and it’s really fascinating. The history of the craft… I’m really keen on the background of things. I find it fascinating”.
And amazingly, every building in the game is constructed around the real dynamics of traditional papercraft. “Everything you see in the game is an authentic pop-up,” says Schneidereit. “It folds and unfolds in the correct way – everything you see you can rebuild with paper, scissor and glue. We’re thinking of providing some schematic sheets so people could rebuild the most iconic scenes in the game”.
This has proved a major technical undertaking. “We had to write a completely new kind of system,” says Tossell. “We didn’t even know how pop-ups work. We contacted a guy named Duncan Birmingham who works at the University of Bristol and who wrote a book on pop-up that influenced us a lot – it explained to us exactly how to do it. Then we had to work out the maths and build this toolset that let us construct theses things. It took us far longer than I expected – most of the first year was spent experimenting and figuring out how this stuff works”.
This is the scary thing. Tengami is an elaborate labour of love, a truly idiosyncratic project – it is an adventure, sure, but for a long time not much happens; you’re simply controlling your mysterious character through these austere and beautifully minimal scenes of Japanese rural life. It is not Angry Birds. So why leave a surely well-paid job with a high profile developer to make it? “It’s something I’d been thinking about for a number of years,” says Tossell. “I always wanted, at some point in my career, to do my own thing, to have more freedom. I felt like I’d grown as much as I could at Rare – I’d moved away from direct involvement, my role on Kinect was more about overseeing and I didn’t enjoy that as much. But I was also a little disheartened by the direction that things were going in overall – the way we moved away from traditional games to lighter, more family-friendly titles. I liked making Kinect Sports, it was a really challenge and Kinect is a really difficult piece of hardware to get your head around. But it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go”.
Schneidereit, who spent four years working in Japan for an indie developer before joining Rare has a similar motivation. “I’m always looking for a new challenge,” she explains. “Japan was a big challenge in terms of language and culture, and then I went to Rare becauseI wanted to work with Kinect. But when I found out the next title would be another sports game I said, I’ve already done that, I want a new challenge, I want to grow as a game developer. I also wanted the opportunity to work on a game that has my voice, or at least a stronger version of my voice than Kinect Sports, which has 150 people working on it. Everything you see in this game is really distinctive”.
The Rare years have certainly paid off though – especially in terms of contacts. The game’s wilting, resonant soundtrack is by Dave Wise, the famed musician who provided the audio for the Donkey Kong Country games. “He’s been a friend for many years,” says Tossell. “He’s fantastic; we basically gave him a few references – the Last Samurai, for example – and we told him we wanted a fusion of Western and Japanese, because pure traditional Japanese music can be very hard on the western ear. So he went away and the first tune he came back with was great. He found some software that could synthesise the shamisen and various other traditional instruments, but then it was crashing his computer because it was too CPU intensive, so he switched to using samples. But he has really caught the essence of the music”.
So far, Tengami has been completely self-funded, through the personal savings of the three staff. “We didn’t want a publisher because we believed that whoever holds the purse strings ultimately has creative control,” says Tossell. “We didn’t want anyone having influence over what we do”. But at the same time, there is something in the game that still recalls the ethic at Rare – at least the Rare we remember from the N64 era. Phil is happy to acknowledge the influence the studio has had on his life and work. “Rare was always known for how polished the games were – that’s what I took away,” he says. “One of my pet areas was character control and animation. I worked on it from a programming perspective, spending crazy amounts of time adding little touches of character animation on top of what the artists did – it just brought everything to life in a way that you don’t see in many other games. We used to spend far too long on it, but it was a Rare trait.” There is a pause before he adds, quite simply, but firmly, “Don’t ever overlook any detail…”
Tengami will be released on iPad later this year, with PC and Mac versions to follow. You can follow development progress at the studio’s Twitter feed, @nyamyamgames