In 2003, Massive Black was just a small group of young art school graduates with big dreams. Today, the company's a successful digital art house and while eight years later, its founders are older and wiser, they haven't lost a bit of their ambition. After producing concept art, 3D assets, and animations for titles like BioShock, Dragon Age, and InFamous, Massive Black is ready to dive headfirst into interactive entertainment with the release of its first videogame, a surreal puzzler called Mothhead. At its annual artists' workshop, Massive Black President and CEO Chris Hatala and Senior Art Director Justin “Coro” Kaufman gave us an early look at the game…
Mothhead has its origins in the work of fine art sculptor and Hollywood concept designer, Peter Konig. Konig's character maquettes - particularly those of the spectral, vaguely insectile Mothhead - inspired Massive Black to create related artworks. Only recently, however, through the team's new alliance with Unity Technologies, did their dreams of bringing Mothhead to life become a reality.
Using Unity Technologies' artist-friendly game engine, Unity 3D, Massive Black did in three months what they'd been unable to do in the previous five years: get the Mothhead character up and running. This isn't as easy as it sounds, since Mothhead's not exactly what you'd think of when you think “videogame hero.” Gnarled, spindly and wraith-like, he comes equipped with spaghetti arms, a disturbingly pointy “penis bone” and a moth for a head. Somehow though, there's a kind of pathetic fragility to him that brings to mind characters like Tim Burton's Stain Boy or Abe from the Oddworld game series.
Set in a tropical environment under and around an over-scaled suburban home, Mothhead is the setting for micro-cosmic adventures both magical and unsettling. From the demo shown by Hatala and Kaufman at the conference, the game is non-violent and puzzle-centric, with an emphasis on discovery and exploration. At the demo's start, Hatala took control of a brown moth which he took flapping through a lush green garden. Demonstrating how dangerous even a beautiful place can be, he committed mothicide a few times by flying into several deadly hazards. After flying past a sentient grayish lump called Big Man, he then approached a crouching figure. Joining the moth to the huddled form, he became the titular Mothhead.
Walking us through some insect-centric puzzles, he explained that “the moth is the brains and the body is the brawn” and that in the spirit of games like Ico, the two are meant to work together. This mechanic was clearly seen when the moth flew across a gap, shooed a crowd of pesky ladybugs off a valve, turned the valve and filled the gap with water. After raising a wooden platform, Mothhead's body was then able to cross the gap. In another instance of mind-body cooperation, the body was air-lifted to the top of a table by a cooperative band of bees thanks to the moth gifting them some tasty honey. These and other mothy doings were brought to a poetic conclusion when the main moth freed another moth by breaking its imprisoning jar and then flew off into the sunset with it.
This short but interesting gameplay snippet unquestionably demonstrated Massive Black's masterful art chops but also raised a lot of questions. Who or what is Mothhead? What does he want? Where does he come from and where is he going? Hatala hinted that the finished game will answer these questions but as of now, the game's narrative remains undefined. That said, considering the demo was produced in three months, it did an impressive job of conveying the team's strong artistic vision.
Expect more details on Massive Black’s Motthead as the studio prepares for a PC and Mac demo scheduled to release early next year. In the meantime, look out for GamesRadar’s interview with Massive Black’s Chris Hatala to find out more about the studio’s transition from making game art to making games.