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Designing the intricate toy-like worlds of PS4 puzzle game Gnog

During the development of Gnog, an upcoming 3D puzzle game, artist and creative lead Samuel Boucher couldn’t stop sketching ideas. The stages in Gnog are inspired by real-world objects, especially toys, but each also hides a tiny world inside, sort of like ‘90s fads like Polly Pocket or Mighty Max. Boucher had lots of ideas, so much so that a wall at developer Ko-Op’s Montreal studio was plastered with drawings of everything from pencil sharpeners to spaceships. Only a handful actually made it into the final product, but there was one idea that was destined for the game from the very beginning. “Everyone on the team wanted to do a synth,” explains Boucher. “It was one of the levels that we were sure we were going to have.”

The synth level — dubbed PURP-L — is a great example of the whimsical nature of Gnog’s levels. Each is based in part on a real-world object or place, meaning Boucher has plenty of places to pull inspiration from. They start as one of his sketches, before he creates a digital mock-up to play with color and mood. If the idea has potential, the team creates an interactive prototype, before potentially fleshing it out into a full level. “We continue working on it if it feels good for everyone on the team,” Boucher says. “The ideas that stuck with us were the ideas that were really open to a lot of interactivity.”

Gnog

An early level based on a pencil sharpener, for instance, proved too limited. Boucher really liked the interaction of using the sharpener, but couldn’t come up with other ideas for what players could do in the level. There also wasn’t an interesting story to go along with it. “It didn’t inspire us,” he says, “so we just cut that level.” A synthesizer, on the other hand, provided opportunity for both interaction and storytelling. The copious buttons and switches meant that there were lots of things for players to poke at and play with. In fact, there were a few too many — the synthesizer in Gnog is necessarily much simpler than its real-world inspiration. While players can play with a sequencer and modulate sounds, they can’t actually produce and record a song. “We had to trim it down to what was essential,” says Boucher.

Like all of the final levels in the game, PURP-L also features a narrative element. There’s a tiny character inside of the synth who is feeling uninspired, lacking the creative motivation to write a new song. That’s where you come in. As you flip switches and turn knobs, the character’s musical spark starts to return. The storytelling element is relatively simple, but it proved to be a very important part of the game for Boucher. Gnog started out purely as a series of interactive toys, but that changed midway through development. “The goal was to have a gallery of objects, and you can explore each one,” Boucher says. “At the beginning we were like, ‘Let’s just make toys.’ But there was no goal or final reward or anything. It was like ‘This is cool… but what’s next?’ We had that feeling for years.” Adding the stories, along with a goal and structure, solved this problem.

Gnog

The levels featured in the game vary quite a bit. In addition to a synth, there’s a stage based on a submarine, another with a spaceship theme, and one set in a seemingly simple bedroom. What they all share in common is density; each is inundated with buttons, switches, knobs, and other potential interactions that give Gnog a tactile feel, much like physical toys. To build on this feeling the developers have also taken a more hands-off approach when it comes to explaining things. Instead of an explicit tutorial or on-screen instructions, the goal is to guide players through a series of environmental cues, with things like color and animation letting you know what you can interact with and subtly suggesting what to do next. “Having straightforward text tutorials often feels like you’re performing something for the developer’s sake,” explains programmer Nick Rudzicz. “Coming from this place of being inspired by toys, we really wanted to people to explore on their own.”

Gnog is launching later this year, coming to PlayStation 4 (with support for PSVR) on May 2nd, and later to both Steam and iOS. But whether you’re playing in virtual reality or on your phone, the goal was the same: to present players with a box of virtual toys to play with, each with its own little story. “I wanted to make vignettes in very different worlds,” he says. “It’s sort of like a tour bus.”