Indie Spotlight is a weekly article series at Gaming Nexus that explore the origin and development of unique and innovative games designed and produced by teams of independent developers. Each article includes a developer interview that focuses on examining the concept and design processes involved with each project. Indie Spotlight strives to showcase new and upcoming games that range from a variety of genres and development studios across the world.
What began as a student project and concept, Unmechanical from Talawa Games has evolvedinto a full-fledged commercial release with a team of highly-skilled and dedicated game designers behind its charming and inventive gameplay mechanics and visual style. From the main character of a small, hovering robot to underground environments drenched in gears and pipes, there are many aspects of Unmechanical that set its identity apart from the crowded genre of side-scrolling puzzle and adventure games. It's the attention to details of the robot awkwardly clunking against the level's surfaces or extremely intricate puzzles that combine for a memorable experience that isn't quite like any other game. Each environment and puzzle continually embody an independent spirit of adventurous and risky game design and creation.
The developers at Talawa Games include a variety of expertise and skills that are perfectly showcased in the gameplay and visual style of their first game release of Unmechanical. Talawa Games developer Marko Permanto has contributed numerous talents and roles to the project ranging from programming and sound design to quality assurance and team management. Marko was gracious enough to provide an in-depth look behind the scenes at the development of one of this year's most promising independent game releases.
Interview with Marko Permanto Could you introduce yourself and talk about your various roles with the development of Unmechanical?
My name is Marko Permanto. I’m the kind of game developer who used to try and do all parts of development simply because all of it is just too fun. I kind of fell deeper down the programming-hole simply out of necessity. At first, it was just because no one wanted to code my crazy ideas, but lately I’ve also been pretty good at it so it makes most sense for me to spend the majority of my time doing that. Unmechanical sticks out for me in a sense as it’s not very demanding on the programming-side of things; it’s more design and content oriented. It’s been a nice and natural way for me to go back a bit and do stuff the way I used to, poke and prod a bit all over the place.
Formally speaking I’ve been the team manager, solo programmer (until near the end when I got some excellent help from Markus Arvidsson at Teotl Studios) and one of the designers on the project, as well as being responsible for keeping the big picture together. I also did a good deal of level art, implemented the majority of story events, some sounds, visual effects, and quality assurance.
What are the origin stories behind Talawa Games and Unmechanical, and how did you become involved with the studio and project?
Unmechanical started as a student project at a school in Stockholm called Futuregames, where I was one of the five in the original team. We had great successes with the game already at that time, winning the in-school competition as well as catching Epic Games’ attention at the Swedish Game Awards where we got a special award from them. It felt pretty obvious to us we needed to do our best to make this project into something more serious and ambitious. The game was its own entity, and development progressed independently from another ambitious idea brewing among some in the class, concerning starting a new game development studio.
While there were a number of different motivations for starting one’s own studio rather than joining an existing one, it kind of boils down to us wanting to have a bit more important roles than you get as a junior at any place. I was one of the nine students part of founding this company. As the idea about starting Talawa Games (totally not called that at the time) started to become a reality, we as the Unmechanical team quickly realized it makes most sense to release the game through this new startup as we knew everyone involved, and we got a lot of help with quality assurance, the business and the marketing side of things. Not everyone in the Unmechanical team is part of Talawa, but we’re all good friends and all of us benefit a lot from this arrangement.
With Unmechanical's beginning as a student project, how did the rest of the team form and the project itself evolve into a full-fledged game?
After SGA (Swedish Game Awards), we quickly expanded with four more people. Two of them had shown personal interest, while two were specifically asked to join, which they were delighted to do. We needed a large team simply because most of us had other obligations as well. We had about a month where everyone worked fulltime on the project; rest of the time has been very sporadic and handled through varying means of communication. Because of this we might have had a bit more back-and-forth iterations of some parts in the game than other projects, as communication has been our most lacking department despite our best efforts (design documents, mail-groups, spreadsheets, bug and feature lists, SMS-groups, meetings at restaurants, and what have you).
During this month of joint development, we also had our teacher Sjoerd “Hourences” De Jong from our school starting to help us out with creating content. He had already pointed out he wanted to help us get in touch with the likes of Valve for Steam distribution through his company, so Teotl Studios only got more involved at that point, becoming part of actual development. That was quite weird at first, getting to tell my teacher I wanted something more red or bigger/smaller or whatever.
Can you provide some insight about the game development community and culture of Sweden and how it has been beneficial in the creation of Unmechanical?
Sweden is known for some pretty big indie personalities and successful indie projects, so it clearly is a place to thrive in as an independent game developer. Why this is the case is hard for me to say. From what I can tell it’s mostly a case of original wacky ideas and the guts to try them out. There’s obviously also very successful mainstream titles coming from Sweden as well, and our education system allows for a lot of freedom and opportunities, which in the case of Unmechanical is probably the main reason why we managed to make this project into something bigger than just a student project. Our school Futuregames has been very supportive, allowing us to revisit Unmechanical for many assignments.
In regards to the collaboration between Talawa Games and Teotl Studios, how are they assisting with the development of the project?
Teotl Studios have been very helpful in every possible aspect, as they have extensive Unreal-engine experience and are experienced game developers in general. They’ve aided us with everything from design, content creation, and programming to management, business, and marketing, and teaching us how to handle things along the way. It’s been a very fruitful learning experience and a smooth collaboration overall. We hope to keep working with them in future projects as well!
How did you approach creating the puzzles for Unmechanical? Were there any particular processes or routines you followed when designing them?
Our game mechanics allow for a wide range of possibilities, which is an upside seeing as we can do almost anything we can think of, but a downside in the sense that our limitations aren’t very inspiring. Limitations are, as any game designer should recognize, very positive when attempting to be creative, so we did set up certain imaginary limits in order to help us stay focused, some which we also broke later on in development for various reasons. Generally our process was: try to think of anything that seems cool, or hard, or evil, present the idea to all designers and try to break it. In some cases, we even did some initial playtesting on some poor souls using just pen and paper.
After this, we implement a first draft in the game, do more testing on various people, and just polish and change the puzzle around until it feels really tight. One puzzle which wasn’t great and wasn’t awful either used to be in the game for almost a year, until it was finally concluded to bring the quality down too much in contrast to the rest, so it got replaced very close to the end of the project with something much more enjoyable.
With an ever-growing range of innovative side-scroller and puzzle games, what sets Unmechanical apart from the crowd in terms of narrative and gameplay?
It’s an incredibly tough market, as for example Braid did set new standards for how awesome you can be with gameplay in side-scrollers and at least for me Gish also did before that. The amount of equally innovative games in the same space is very humbling indeed. With Unmechanical you’ll enjoy the wide range of different kinds of puzzles, and the love that went into each one.
We also have a mysterious, non-intrusive narrative going on, which tells you as much of a story as you’re willing to interpret. We don’t rely on any particular new gimmicks, just pure polish on all aspects of the game. There is one thing though which would seem very minor if spelled out here, but it did catch SGA judges' attentions so it must mean something. It remains for the player(s) to find out about.
Your biography for Unmechanical mentions you designed various sound effects; what were some of your favorite sounds created for the game?
I guess it would have to be the voices, as I performed and recorded the voices for the game, those obviously feel a bit special to me. Otherwise I really enjoyed tweaking the sounds concerning some of the bigger events in the game, which were originally created by Jesper Engström, I just added an extra touch here and there.
In relation to the game's sound effects, could you tell us about the game's soundtrack and if it will be released separately for purchase?
Yes it will! August 15 on Spotify, iTunes and more. The way the soundtrack came to be is quite a story. In 2011 during a videogames expo in Stockholm called GameX, we got the chance to show Unmechanical thanks to the awesome Paradox Interactive who had arranged a small booth for us. Before the show had even opened, a super-talented individual by the name of Jonas Kjellberg had browsed the GameX webpage and seen Unmechanical there. By the minor amount of info he could find about the game online at that time, he was convinced that he wanted to be part of making this game. He contacted us, introduced himself as an electronic music composer currently studying at Musikhögskolan in Stockholm, sent us some music clips he had made and found fitting for the game and said he was the guy we had been waiting for.
We really liked his stuff, but kept discussing within the team as we actually already had the musician spot filled. A couple of days later he played the tiny demo we had at GameX, telling us it exceeded his expectations and that he really wanted to meet. This felt so flattering we couldn’t refuse meeting up. Today we’re flattered to have had such a talent on board. Be sure to check his website out for more details concerning the soundtrack release!
The visual styles of Unmechanical's protagonist robot and the world are quite striking, what were some sources of inspiration for their design?
There are no main sources of inspiration; it’s really just something that began as a random set of ideas getting concretized over time. The initial, most to the core game design we had was that it was going to be a helicopter flying in caves, pushing buttons, an idea meant to limit ourselves heavily to something manageable during the four week time-constraint imposed on us by our school. Soon enough we got the idea that we could make the helicopter into a character, with headlights for eyes and like a wide notch for mouth, to bring more personality into the game. Sofia Jakobsson was in charge of art direction and character design for the game, so she designed the look of the helicopter-robot based on these ideas thrown around at one of our earliest meetings at school.
The origins of the visuals for the world are harder to pinpoint down; it grew very organically, everyone just adding tons of ideas on top of each other, inspired by whatever personal tastes anyone involved had. The original look of the game had a lot of 2D planes creating a parallax effect in the background, an idea that also came from the virtual limitations set up by the school. After freeing ourselves from these limitations we experimented even more, after a while our combination of ideas became the basis for the game’s story, of which there were none at the start. After having the world and the story so clear to us, it was much easier to design and create elements in the world with this in mind. We’ve gotten comments about similarities, particularly in visual style with many games, which is just so awesome to us, as they’re all really cool games to be compared with! It’s quite flattering.
With the game's release fast approaching, are there any plans for downloadable content or for releases on additional platforms, such as consoles and tablets?
iOS version of the game will be released just a few weeks after the PC version. We’re looking into more platforms, some where we’ve just started discussions, others where we’re experiencing technical hurdles so we don’t want to mention those yet in case they never get resolved. We have tons of ideas for DLC, but time is a constraint at the moment, we hope we’ll be able to do more of less mechanical things very soon!
Is there anything we missed that you would like to mention about Unmechanical?
Just as the visual style grew very organically, so did the design and the story. While there are ideas at the core which have stayed throughout the entire development, they are so barebones they mean nothing without the details, the implementation, and the endless iterations of new ideas, in the end starting to cut things and puzzle parts together into a coherent whole. This slightly chaotic approach is a process I very much enjoyed, which is something I think anyone with a reasonably sized team should try at some point. I hope you enjoy playing Unmechanical as much as we enjoyed making it!
Unmechanical is similar to other independent games in which the development process and history is just as interesting the projects themselves. From a student project to a commercial game release on numerous digital platforms, the developers at Talawa Games have to be commended for releasing a game with such a bold and unique concept. It's obvious from the interview with Marko that the development team was committed to delivering a well-polished and original game with their first release. Fans of side-scrolling puzzle and adventure games shouldn't hesitate to discover the challenges and mysteries that await in the charming world of Unmechanical.
We'd like to thank Marko for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Jasper for coordinating the interview.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been writing for Gaming Nexus since 2011 and focus primarily on PC games and hardware. I'm a strong advocate of independent developers and am always seeking the next genre-breaking and unique game releases. My favorite game genres are strategy, role-playing, and simulation, or any games that feature open worlds and survival elements.