The stunning 'Lumino City' is a video game made of paper instead of polygons

'To me it was almost literally a dream coming true.'

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For the past three years, State of Play, a small studio in London, has been building a 10-foot-tall miniature city out of paper, cardboard, and lots of little lights. There are houses and gardens, and at the center there's an 8-foot-tall water wheel, powered by a custom set of motors and built using cardboard cut by lasers. It's a huge, intricate world, and starting next week it's one you'll be able to explore in a video game with the launch of Lumino City.

"I was enjoying the process so much at the beginning that I joked that I could work on this for three years," says creative director Luke Whittaker, who originally estimated it would take a little over a year to complete the game. "I had no idea it would actually come true."

Lumino City is actually the sequel to Lume, a short puzzle adventure released in 2011 that was similarly built using real-world materials. It tells the story of Lumi, a young girl who follows a series of clues to restore power to her grandfather's house. It was a short experience, one that was always intended to be part of a much bigger world. But the team started small both because they didn't have the resources, and because they weren't sure if they could actually pull it off. "But we had a hunch, and a small amount of spare time, and so we took the first part of the story we wanted to tell and turned that into Lume," Whittaker.

When it came to the sequel, building the city involved a somewhat unique team. In addition to Whittaker, who worked on animation, design, and even built some models, staff members included an architect, a director of photography, and a model maker; all told, six people worked on the game. Building the sets and characters was naturally very time-consuming, but the trickiest part was making it all work and feel natural in a video game world. Getting the animation and lighting just right so that the paper looked and moved the way you'd expect proved to be an arduous task, one that helped double the expected development time.

There are a number of games that use a similar papercraft aesthetic, such as Media Molecule's Tearaway on the PS Vita. But State of Play avoided that route for a few reasons. For one thing, using real paper made it much more feasible for a small team to create a realistic-looking world, as opposed to employing dozens of artists and developers to craft a virtual version. But it also added an extra, intangible feel to the overall experience. "There’s such a sense of warmth you can give to a story using real materials," Whittaker explains.

The resulting experience is a rarity, a video game that's literally handmade. The tiny details and charming animation lend Lumino City a distinct and wonderful personality; whether you're operating an old-school computer with a punchcard, or just watching lights twinkle in the distance, it all feels like a children's book come to life. And you'll be able to experience it very soon: the game launches on PC, Mac, and Linux on December 3rd. For Whittaker, he knew that the game was on the right track part way through development, when they finally finished building the huge waterwheel, the biggest object in the game.

"To others it probably just looks like a large bit of wood, spinning," he says. "But to me it was almost literally a dream coming true."

Behind the scenes