Where is UnderGarden; an interview with Antonio Santamaria, Head of Engineering at Vitamin-G Studios
Amid the first person shooters, the platformers, and the action/adventure games on the PS3, so few games stand out as being unique. The UnderGarden is an upcoming exploration and puzzle game by Vitamin G Studios that breaks free from the stereotypes and offers and adventure that is truly different.
We spoke with Antonia Santamaria, the Head of Engineering on The UnderGarden, and he revealed some interesting tidbits about their upcoming title, which is due out later this year on the PSN.
[PS3 Attitude] First off, what exactly are you taking control of, and why does he/she/it want to pollinate the flowers and plants so much?
[Antonio Santamaria] You play a character we’ve come to call Ludwig. He (or is it she?) is pollinating the flowers to bring colour and music to the UnderGarden world. His motivation? Maybe he just wants to make things come alive and look and sound pretty, or maybe there is some greater purpose that gets revealed by the end (still leaving much to the imagination). As for the other musicians that you meet along the way, we never really say how they got there, but they do eventually want to find their way back out to the main hub that connects all the levels together.
Honestly, we avoided defining a specific story and premise on purpose, as we wanted to leave as much to the player’s imagination as possible. To some you are underwater, to others you are in some alternate space that may or may not have ties to psychedelia, or religion, or any number of other things. It’s was all intentionally left up to the players’ interpretation, although we kind of hint at something by the end.
[PS3 Attitude] Exploration is a big component of the game. Can you describe some of the puzzles we’ll encounter in The UnderGarden?
[Antonio Santamaria] The puzzles all tend to revolve around using the fruits you grow to manipulate elements in the world. So, for example, some of the earliest plants grow fruit that is heavy and sinks to the bottom, while other plants have fruit that floats upwards. By pulling the fruit around the world, you can drop them on rocks that will push upwards or downwards, which in turn might open up an area somewhere else. Each area is themed around a different type of fruit: some is electrically charged, some can be used to blow apart obstacles, etc. We think it’s fun to figure out how to use them, although it’s all pretty light-hearted: none of the puzzles are intended to leave the player completely stumped or frustrated.
[PS3 Attitude] What, if any, are the differences between the PSN and Xbox LIVE version of the game?
[Antonio Santamaria] The PSN version features two new levels, one of which makes use of a new type of fruit that only makes the briefest of appearances in the rest of the levels. Of course, it also supports Trophies and Scoreboards as PSN players have come to expect.
[PS3 Attitude] No doubt people will be comparing the game with thatgamecompany’s Flower, the main feature of both being to pollinate the world around you. What were your inspirations for The UnderGarden?
[Antonio Santamaria] The main inspiration behind the game centered around a few basic ideas. First of all, we wanted to try and make an experience that could relax a player, something that could be very fluid and free of tension. In that area, Flower certainly provided some inspiration, as we think both it and The UnderGarden play at a completely different pace from most games.
The second idea was to have the game focus on creating, rather than destroying. Here, we took inspiration from nature itself, with the idea that you grow flowers and add colour and life to a world somewhat devoid of it, as often occurs in the natural world over time.
Finally, we are also interested in games that use music in innovative ways, where the player themselves can control how the audio plays out. There are a few games that have tried something like this in one way or another: Auditorium, Music Catch, perhaps a few others. We were fans of these, but also wanted to add some more traditional gameplay elements into the mix, hence the addition of soft physics based puzzles to The UnderGarden world.
On the art side there were a few other sources of inspiration, including works from artists such as Erik Satie and Claude Monet, where pieces often stood in direct contrast to the environment at the time. Of course, nature provided many examples, and ultimately imagination probably played the biggest role.
[PS3 Attitude] There are no time constraints, and you can’t die. Basically you can’t fail. Why did the team decide to go this route when developing the game?
[Antonio Santamaria] We were aiming for a very “Zen”-like feel to the game, so it was important to us to ensure that gameplay remained a relaxing experience, while we still kept the player engaged. In a game like this, the focus is really on the environment and your interaction with it, and not so much about whether you succeed or fail. If we were to have the player fail then restart a level, and have to re-do all of their work, we felt it would only add frustration, thus taking them away from the mood and feel we were trying to immerse them in. Having something like a fixed number of lives was possibly even worse: it just seemed like an outdated concept in a world without quarters, where re-trying is as easy as hitting the pause menu.
There are many games where challenging the player with extremely difficult puzzles, and having them re-do levels if they fail, works: indeed we’re big fans of many of them. But ultimately, we wanted to also give players a way to just float around for as long as they wanted, so they can spend their time just growing flowers, and watching and hearing the effects of everything they touch if they so desired. During tests, we noticed some players would lose track of time completely and do this for ages, something we did not want to discourage.
[PS3 Attitude] How would you describe the music of The UnderGarden? The tone appears very relaxing at times.
[Antonio Santamaria] The ambient music and sounds are designed to be relaxing, but at the same time very dynamic: the player can add or remove layers as they wish, altering not only what they see but also what they hear. Our audio director would describe the music as designed to be “fun, mysterious and inviting”. It is a combination of various instruments: piano, synths, along with other symphonic elements, with perhaps a more ambient, almost new-age feel. Because it is multi-layered, the player can add to the soundscape by gathering the various musicians they encounter along the way. So by flying near, or pulling along some musicians, they might add layers of percussion, bass, flutes or guitars to the various other melodies in the world. The player has some control over how it all comes together by what they do, and they can alter the music even more by pulling the musicians through the flora, which re-blooms the plants and also changes how the music plays.
[PS3 Attitude] Many of today’s big games are either sequels, remakes, or re-boots of a franchise. How important is putting something out there that is new and fresh?
[Antonio Santamaria] There is obviously an appetite for some of the sequels, and they are of course a safer bet for many publishers. But it’s always important to try something new, as without some kind of experimentation the industry itself will stagnate and eventually people will lose interest altogether. Having a new IP with some fresh ideas, or even just some old ideas put together in a new way, can not only keep things fresh, but might also lead to new innovations or gameplay mechanics down the road; indeed some of the gameplay standards we now take for granted came about this way.
More importantly, despite the popularity of video games, there is a whole world out there that is not being served by yet another version of Madden, or another first-person shooter. We think this is an opportunity for games like The UnderGarden. We hope it will appeal to some of the “core” gamers looking for a change of pace, and also be a way to get some non-traditional gamers to enjoy playing as well. We’re pretty sure many of the people who spent alot of time playing Flow, or Flower might agree.
The problem of course is that trying to do something new or different involves more risk: sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t appeal to more than a small niche. This is why some publishers steer far away from new IP. Thankfully both Atari and Sony have been open to trying new ideas, and hopefully games like this will prove that there are indeed many people who are looking for something a bit different.
[PS3 Attitude] The PlayStation Network has a rich history of being selective and a particular strength in promoting arty, thought provoking or ‘quirky’ games, such as Flower, Flow or PixelJunk Eden. How do you feel The UnderGarden will perform on the PSN versus the Xbox LIVE version, with the XBL having more of an ‘anything goes’ approach to game distribution?
[Antonio Santamaria] We of course hope it will be well received! PSN is already home to some games such as those mentioned, which have tried to push the boundaries of what many would traditionally call a game. I think one of the things Sony has succeeded in doing is exposing their audience to different types of experiences to some degree. They seem to have gotten behind some titles, and said “here is something different”. Of course, there are some titles like this on XBLA as well, and the Xbox has been great at having a wide variety of titles on their service, but Sony’s approach has been perhaps a bit more deliberate in flaunting these as a differentiator for their system. Both approaches work in different ways, and since our goal was to make our game available to as much of an audience as we could, we made sure it was available to fans of both.
[PS3 Attitude] Many people have already been asking for Move support. Any chance of it being added, either before the game’s released or with an update afterward?
[Antonio Santamaria] We have seen some of the feedback so far, and are certainly paying attention to it. This is definitely something we will be considering for the future as a possibility.
[PS3 Attitude] What plans do Vitamin G Studios have after The UnderGarden? I know there are quite a few projects in development on your website. Anything for the PS3?
[Antonio Santamaria] We haven’t made specific announcements yet, but there are a couple titles in development that we hope to bring to both platforms. The UnderGarden was our first in-house PS3 title, and with it we have developed what we think is a pretty good set of libraries and tools that target the PS3. Going forward we will certainly be wanting to include the PS3 in as many titles as we can.