Interview: Massimo Guarini on Murasaki Baby

I’m going to be putting up a bunch of this year’s developer interviews this week. This one is an interview with Massimo Guarani of Ovosonico, I converted into an article for It’s about the disturbing Vita game, Murasaki Baby.

I’m a sucker for a good story – what’s the tale in Murasaki Baby? And the tale behind it?
The tale in Murasaki Baby is as simple as the premise of a little baby lost in a surreal and grotesque universe, and desperately searching for her mommy. I like to tell stories through gameplay, images and direct emotions, not necessarily through words.

That is why you really have to play the game to live the experience and naturally unfold the story and its meaning. Murasaki Baby has been designed around the concept of silent storytelling. The player himself will be able to fill the gaps and understand who, what and why without having to resort to a scripted, spoon-fed cut-scenes, dialogues or texts. In fact, the game doesn’t even feature a single text character and has no user interface at all. For me the key to success has always been to keep the systems simple and to rely on players’ imagination. And imagination is what makes us human.

Modelling a child in a game is tough – especially given the violence associated with most modern games. Is it possible to avoid violence in a game intended for popular, rather than critical, consumption or is it just too strong an emotive tool?
This is like asking if it’s possible to avoid love stories in movies. Yes, it’s possible indeed, although love stories undoubtedly sell. The problem is, while in movies we have all sort of genres and subjects being touched and dealt with in different ways for different audiences, games are still pretty much conceived and enjoyed within a very narrow set of options.

It reminds me very much of Hollywood in the fifties. I think we are now starting that slow process of legitimisation of video games, where independent creators are playing a key role in dealing with different subjects and trying different art styles and vocabularies. It just takes time, but I am sure we will get there eventually. After all history repeats: just think about what Spielberg/Lucas did in the seventies turning down the majors and going “independent”.

Your art style is impressive in the way that it looks not just hand-drawn, but also hand-animated. How did you pull it off?
Animations are the most powerful tool we have to define Baby’s personality. A great amount of time and effort was spent in trying to get the style right, and eventually we came up with the conclusion that we needed to deliver quick, responsive, snappy animations in order to bring Baby to life.

This approach is naturally inspired by the style and dynamics of Japanese animation, and in particular we carefully observed and studied the character of Mei in Miyazaki’s “My Neighbour Totoro”. Mei is still probably the greatest example of hand-drawn animation of a child in the history of animation.

Why the Japanese-esque name?
The word “Murasaki” in Japanese means “purple”. You could translate the game title into “The Purple Girl”. I just wanted to communicate this simple notion in a form that just sounded beautiful and unique. I reckon that, having lived in Japan for a long time, it might just sound natural for me to mix Japanese and English words, however I purposely chose to keep the word “Purple” in Japanese because it just sounds great and weird at the same time.

How do you layer complexity into the game, whilst increasing the difficulty fairly?
Complexity is achieved through the evolving relationship between the player and the Baby within the game universe. Baby’s character and initiative changes over the course of the journey depending on how the player interacts with her and what kind of situations she will be facing. While puzzle elements will also become more challenging and organically complex, I think the emotional bond and emotional response of both Baby and the player is what will eventually define complexity.

Was the game conceived with the Vita in mind? Do you see it working on other platforms? Will people’s screens get very worn out in just one spot? 😉
I never conceive games with a specific platform in mind. Actually, when I explore new ideas and possibilities, I don’t want to be constrained to any specific technology. I am all about the content first, and then once I am really convinced about an idea, choosing the right platform for it becomes a natural consequence.

As a concept, Murasaki Baby was simply destined to be a PS Vita exclusive. The organic use of the front and back touch, of the gyroscope and even of the analogue sticks, made it the perfect game for a console that pretty much needed something fresh, new and unique. After all I strongly believe that technology is a tool we must use to express ourselves, and not the starting point and/or the final goal. PS Vita was simply the best tool we had in our hands to make Murasaki Baby come to life.

The only other pure escort games I can think of is ICO. Where else did you draw inspiration from?
I normally draw inspiration from my everyday life. I am a very contemplative person and I like to observe things and people. One day I was traveling on a train and I saw this little girl holding a balloon in her hand. Her mother was holding her other hand. The image was just incredibly beautiful, and I immediately translated this emotion into a very high level game system where you would hold the hand of a child through a touchscreen. For me, inspiration comes from raw emotion and their personal interpretation. I normally don’t look at other games to find inspiration, as I know I would end up repeating the same things someone else did.

Another huge source of inspiration for me is music. Music is pure emotion and can trigger in me very clear visions. I could never come up with a new concept without having clear in my mind its soundtrack style. Most often than not, and that’s the case even with Murasaki Baby, music is what helps me visualising the game universe in my mind.

Where did your studio name, Ovosonico, come from?
As a name, Ovosonico comes from a nightmare I had some time ago, where I found myself in front of a giant white egg screaming loud with the voice of a Theremin. I woke up in sweat, but I thought that image was really cool. As a studio, Ovosonico comes from our fierce desire to say something new and personal, as opposed to the mainstream industry’s tendency to flatten everything to the lowest common denominator.

Where are you based?
Our studio is located in a eighteenth-century villa situated by the shores of lake Varese, in Northern Italy, about fifty kilometres north of Milan.

In one article you said that you don’t want to be like David Cage – but in another that you would like to see people understand what he’s talking about rather than just abuse him – what do you mean by that? What is it that’s interesting that he’s saying?
I have much respect for David, and I do share his opinions regarding the expansion of our medium. We had the chance to have a chat at Gamescom and, regardless of whether or not someone liked Heavy Rain’s approach to gameplay, I really support his efforts and vision because I’ve felt it really comes from genuine motivation. This is also my very personal mindset, and that’s why I don’t want to be considered as his disciple, but rather as another guy who shares the same motivation.

You’ve also stated that you want developers to move out of their teenage stage, their circle of games, and to break up the private club. Do you feel the industry is totally closed-minded? What is it about this stagnancy of creators and creations that annoys you?
The industry has been indeed incredibly closed-minded until this new “golden age” where we’re seeing mainstream AAA creators going indie and dealing with innovative content and new subjects. I believe this should not come as a surprise. After all, until now our industry was mainly a teenage-male driven business, talking and catering to teenage-males technology nerds whose culture started with Star Wars and ended with Lords of the Rings. I’ve been one of those too, so I know what I am talking about. Thing is, we normally grow up, get older and more mature, and as such, our tastes and necessities change. I have personally nothing against 40 years old guys being chronically stuck in their teenage mind-set, however I am really annoyed by the stagnancy of an entertainment medium that cannot be anymore appealing to people who now have different interests. I am not saying we should quit zombie games or Lord of the Rings altogether, I am just saying we should have other valid options too.

Movies can do that, why can’t I have different games dealing with different subjects? This should be an interesting challenge, not an heresy, especially considering how powerful can be our medium. I am breaking up the private club here, but I do understand this is the very first time we’re witnessing a generational change not just in the audience, but within the games industry itself. This is the first time in the history of video games that we have 50 years old creators and 45 years old players sharing the same entertainment space with a new generation of 20 years old players.

Do you think it’s brave to predict the future of this rapidly-changing industry?
There’s nothing brave in predicting the future. We should just work hard and follow our ideals and dreams. That’s how you build the future. And that’s a lot braver and riskier than just predicting it.

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