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.