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Unfolding story: The making of Tearaway

Unfolding story: The making of Tearaway

Papercraft's earliest recording is an ancient Egyptian map made from papyrus. With the introduction of wood-pulp paper across China, the art later evolved into the intricate designs we see today.

Its influence on Media Molecule's Tearaway is overt, but the game has more in common with papercraft than just aesthetics.

In much the same manner, Tearaway has also been party to a fair amount of evolution. While the game started life as a dungeon-crawler, the development process saw it shift and change to the ingenious adventure that eventually hit the shelves last November.

Chasin' paper

That sense of symmetry with papercraft is not lost on the game's lead creator Rex Crowle.

"It went from a dungeon-crawler, to open-world-RPG, to an adventure game," says Crowle. "Each time we honed in more [on] what was interesting and what we wanted rid of."

When settled on genre, the scraps of an idea were glued together, pieces were cut off and discarded, and the vision of a paper world colliding with the real one was born.

"We were excited about making our first handheld game, and on new hardware covered in sensors and inputs," admits Crowle. "I wanted to use the rear touchpad to make the player's fingers push up into a game world, as it wasn't possible on any other hardware.

"That was a fun gimmick looking for a world to give it purpose. It wasn't until we hit upon the idea of making it a paper world it started to come together.

"The paper gave reason as to why you're able to tear through the world, [also] providing a tactile landscape for using the front-touch. A game should be recognisable from a single screenshot and this helped achieve a different look, and a different feel."

Rex Crowle

Originally the rear touchpad was to be used more frequently, with the player poking through at will. To allow this, the camera was fixed - likely a remnant of the game's dungeon crawling days.

"Initially, the game was viewed from a top-down, isometric perspective, so you could use the rear touch-panel any time," explains Crowle. "As we developed the world further, Men Lu, an artist on the team, made a good point that it didn't feel like an adventure if you couldn't see the horizon.

"We took the decision to switch to a full 3D environment - a step outside our comfort zone, but one I'm really glad we took."

Creating the world in 3D also led to the team wanting to create structures that can be duplicated in real life. Each character or bit of scenery in Tearaway uses as little smoke and mirrors as possible.

Most were conceptualised with real paper - especially in the early stages of development, when creating the game's bespoke engine.

Waste paper

It's not hard to imagine that Media Molecule's offices must have looked like that of a mad artist: scrunched-up paper, discarded ideas and prototypes augmenting the bustle of a busy workplace.

"Because 3D software's designed to allow anything, it doesn't have any constraints on how you construct something, and constraints are often what forms a distinctive style," says Crowle.

"Designing characters in 3DS Max meant they didn't look papery - they weren't created in the same methods. Instead of cutting and folding pieces of paper, we'd be selecting vectors and extruding.

"By returning to the cutting-mat, Tearaway's engine creator, Mark Zarb-Adami, and technical artist Stefan Kamoda, [could] look at how we constructed things; where the limitations were, the ways we had to strengthen shapes with reinforcement, and how we added tabs to glue it together.

"From there, they were able to create an engine that allowed us to build the 3D world just as we would if all we had was paper and scissors. Except this world would come alive as the player moved through it."

In motion, Tearaway really does come alive: paper flowers blossom, cut-out grass sways in the wind and rolled-up paper waves roll out and dash against scrunched rocks.

Making the game visually interesting with what are essentially flat textures was achieved by focusing on the minutiae.

"The key is boldness and details," says Crowle. "Coloured construction-paper has little texture, and can't be cut into very small pieces. So anything made from that material has to be bold, but it's all the details that matter: the tiny shadows under the paper where it hasn't been glued down, the torn edges, the tabs that hold it together.

"It's how these things subtly move and flex in the breeze, the ripples of movement through the collaged grass strips, and the way papery confetti drifts through the scenes and settles on the ground.

"The way for us to get the look was to build an engine that not only simulated paper, but provided us with the process of building things in paper: by cutting up flat sheets, cutting out holes and folding into more 3D forms, with the same limited colour palettes that you'd have to pick from in [a real] art-shop."

Crafty

Everything was made with the same ethos, Crowle continues: "Even the UI was prototyped in paper by our Graphic Designer, Tom Kiss - the icons made using the same tools as the game."

This desire to stay visually consistent meant not only did the studio have to follow the precedent set by Sackboy's design, but Media Molecule also had to make a paper hero visually appealing.

"We had some versions of the character that were boxy," says Crowle. "They'd been designed to be genderless, but they were hard to identify with.

"We went through a process of redesigning, thinking about how to make them feel papery and different, how to make them work well even when you're staring at the back of their head, and how to give them a purpose visible in their design.

"When we started to redesign the character I was keen we based it on something obviously made of paper, not just a regular hero remade in paper. After jamming together on concepts, an envelope appeared. An envelope is instantly intriguing, especially sealed - it begs the question: what's inside?"

Speaking of the intentions of a genderless protagonist, one of the first decisions the player is asked to make is not whether they're a boy or girl, but rather whether they'd like to be known as a boy or girl in play.

It's a level of cultural awareness that passes many a studio by.

"That comes down to us being a diverse group," says Crowle. "Richard, one of the main artists on the project, is a drag-queen and sometimes arrives as his statuesque alter-ego, Kitty Powers. Siobhan - Media Molecule's Studio Director - is fantastic at calling out stereotypes that creep in during frantic development, or in promotion.

"It goes to prove the industry needs more diversity, so games can properly connect with the world."

It's not just a diverse team, either. Although it fluctuated throughout development (which took just under three years), the team was compact, housing only twenty members by the tail end. With the other half of Media Molecule working on an unannounced project, it meant the Tearaway team could sometimes 'borrow' talent.

Carbon Paper

Working at Media Molecule has other advantages, such as the experience many garnered from previously working on a franchise like Little Big Planet.

"We learned about the power of charming our audience, keeping them smiling while they play, with art, audio and the flow of the game," Crowle tells us. "We also learned how much players enjoy customising.

"There's elements of Labyrinth, Where the Wild Things Are and Time Bandits. There's the strange folklore and rituals I grew up with, the personalities of the Tearaway team - animator Lluis is exactly like a Wendigo when his computer crashes. There's some Stanley Kubrick in there, too."

The game, although unique, wears its influences on its sleeve and the team is willing to speak openly about them. There's honesty at Media Molecule.

After playing Little Big Planet, although the two games don't have much in common, players can often see the invisible pulleys and logic gates moving behind the scenes. Most studios try to disguise the illusion, but Media Molecule approaches design with a different ethic.

"We want honesty in our games, in everything from the style of construction - so players can see how it's all put together - to the story behind it, which is very happy to tell you that this a videogame, and not trying to be a movie," says Crowle.

"By not hiding some of the workings it gives a level of detail that's more interesting to players - they can learn how it's been put together, and hopefully start making their own games."

It's not just talk. Media Molecule has been known to invite Little Big Planet community members for game jams and community events. It's a studio with a passion for videogames, sharing and creation.

Like glue

Even in Tearaway there's areas where the player can customise their experience; from making a crown for a squirrel, to designing the snowflakes that fall in a particular level - even the player's face is present throughout much of the adventure, appearing in the sun on the horizon that almost never existed.

For this to work, Media Molecule had to trust its players - especially when the game has a screenshot functionality - to keep sharing content clean.

"If you designed for moderation you'd never end up with anything magical or interesting," says Crowle. "It's better to aim high, and make sure the right systems are in place to make sure players see the best content."

With the front-facing camera giving the game a portal to the real world, anything could be placed in a screenshot, but Media Molecule's games attract a friendly community. For most, the ability to star as the 'sun' from the Teletubbies will be enough.

However, even the sun - that ever-present gateway to the real world - underwent conceptual changes.

"We knew there'd be a hole torn in the sky of the world, with it being the goal to get to that hole and climb out," says Crowle. "A hole in the sky didn't look important, but putting the hole in the sun framed it perfectly and made it obvious to head towards.

"Initially, we tried using the rear-camera to show what was through that hole. Unfortunately, that was showing a video feed of your crotch. Flipping it around made it more appealing, and players would start pulling faces when the Messenger stared at them. Obviously, as soon as we saw the sun with our faces in, we remembered Teletubbies. It kind of just happened.

"I actually visited the set of Teletubbies once, when working for a TV company. It was a strange place. Maybe it affected me more than I thought."

As well as the cameras and the touchpad, the game uses all of the Vita's functionalities in unique and interesting ways. This was something Media Molecule set out to do from the outset.

"It was important to us to make sure the interactions made sense, they're all doing exactly what you'd expect to happen as you hold the Vita. Because Tearaway is a world inside your Vita," says Crowle. "So, slapping the back of the Vita makes everything jump in the air, as you expect.

"Once everything made sense, we could concentrate on building a fantasy world and story that used those features as part of its central lore."

That's not to say the team created a tech demo. Each of the machine's bells and whistles were prototyped in the game, carefully scrutinised and either implemented or put in the trash along with the countless discarded scraps of paper.

Papers, please

"It's hard to know what to keep, and figuring out which are things worth taking a gamble on and which will be a dead-end," says Crowle.

"It took a long time for the rear-touch fingers to look and feel good, and it was a real worry for a while, but it paid off - thanks to dedication from tech director, Dave Smith.

"Another area we experimented with was the GPS feature in the Vita, to add location-based features, but that became a blind alley as we realised which bits of the game were working, and which were holding us back.

"[The Vita] is powerful and versatile - I was constantly surprised how much power the programmers were able to get out of it. And, having the combination of fancy inputs - cameras, touchscreens, etc. - with dual sticks and buttons, means you can really make a proper game with snappy traditional controls along with as many features as you want to throw in.

"Mostly it's working out what to focus on, so the player doesn't lose grip and drop the Vita while trying to use all the features you're throwing at them."

Media Molecule did a good job of easing the player into using all the various Vita inputs throughout the game, gradually increasing in complexity until eventually the player is simultaneously tilting, sliding, poking and manoeuvring their Messenger.

It's not just an increase in control options as the player grows in power like a origami deity. The Messenger also starts out with a limited skill-set, unable to even jump, leaving the player feeling both powerful and helpless.

The player and the Messenger's grow stronger in tandem with their bond. Media Molecule glued this growth to the narrative.

"An important part of Tearaway is the relationship between the player and the Messenger. One of them inside the game, and one outside," says Crowle.

"I wanted to try and get the feeling this Messenger is being guided through the game by you, but they still have feelings about what you're making them do. They need to be convinced that you're a good person and won't make them just jump off the first cliff you find.

"There's a link between the things you can do, as the human holding the Vita, and the things the Messenger can do. The difference being that you are more powerful because you're much bigger than this world, and the Messenger is less powerful but less clumsy. As the game progresses, various powers transfer between the two of you.

"At the beginning you can shake the world to make everything jump, and the Messenger learns to trust you so they'll jump without the whole world being shaken."

Media Molecule also wanted to give the game an emergent feel. This was achieved by adding different NPCs who interact with their surroundings and behave with an element of unpredictability.

"Although our paper engine allows for all kinds of pop-up-book transformations, the world would be sterile without the other creatures," Crowle explains.

"Omar, Matt and Nathan, Gameplay Programmers on the team, added different creatures to give randomness to scenes - those kind of emergent situations that happen when a Squirrel decides to start throwing gophers at Wendigos.

"It's still just about my favourite thing to play throw and catch with a bunch of squirrels."

The sound of tearing

It's not all mechanics and visuals. Media Molecule's obsessive attention to detail also extends to the sound design - equally important when casting the illusion of a living world. Media Molecule's head of audio, Kenny Young, was the main person responsible for the end result.

"We actually started out looking at licensed stuff because it felt like that was part of Media Molecule's identity," says Young.

"But we couldn't find anything that fitted, and the stuff I was writing and exploring became more fitting over time – eventually, original music became the way forward, allowing us to craft a musical experience tailored to the game.

"Rex [Crowle] had made folk culture a strong influence and was keen to have that reflected in the score – I have a strong folky background as a fiddle player of traditional Scottish and Appalachian music, so was able to draw on that and add some authenticity to the soundtrack.

"I was interested in finding a multi-instrumentalist, possibly someone who even made their own instruments, because Rex was keen on the score having an intimate handmade sound rather than being epic and orchestral – Brian D'Oliveira was a great fit," adds Young.

"So, Brian and I started working together – he hadn't written or played any Anglo-Celtic folk music before, so I gave him a lot of help [initially]. But he picked that up quickly, and before long we were riffing on each others' ideas."

It wasn't just the music that needed to fit the strange themes of the game, however.

"The trickiest thing was getting the world to sound papery without sounding boring," says Young. "Too much paper and it's just a noisy mess, too little paper and you're not backing up the illusion. Getting that balance right took a long time.

"I worked on the project from its inception, which is unusual, but that's what allowed a sophisticated sound aesthetic to emerge and I'm grateful to Siobhan [Reddy, Media Molecule's director] for that opportunity.

"It was cool to have various audio-centric gameplay features in the game like the record-scratching and the use of the microphone – often these kind of ideas fall by the wayside or get implemented in a hurry without any finesse."

Another thing Young considered when approaching the sound design was the presence of silence. To allow the sound design to have maximum impact, pacing is just as important as it is for gameplay - silence is golden.

"The game world had to sound good when there's no music. Sound isn't often picked up on by people – we generally consider it a compliment to get no compliments. But there have been a lot of positive comments about the sound in Tearaway which makes us feel all warm and tingly inside."

With critical acclaim across all aspects of the game's development, it's entirely natural to wonder what's next.

Whatever project is whirring behind those sealed paper doors, it's sure to retain the studio's signature staples; player inclusivity, user generated content and sharp mechanics.

If you want to know ahead of time, pop your finger through that thin membrane and take a peek into a wondrous new universe.

Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.

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