Interview: Vitamin G’s Antonio Santamaria (The UnderGarden PS3)

You can play The UnderGarden on XBLA and Steam right now, but the Playstation Network version is still forthcoming. The folks at Atari and Vitamin G say we’re “extremely close” the game’s release on that platform, but they’ve yet to disclose exactly when it’ll be out.

In the meantime, we had a chat with Antonio Santamaria, the Isaac Clarke (“Head of Engineering”) of Vitamin G about the game, because it’s a pretty weird and unique title about an alien-looking dude who floats around underground gardens solving puzzles and watering plants and listening to live music.

Read this and then meditate on it:

The press release that announced The UnderGarden to the world back in September called the game a ” ‘Zen’ Casual Gaming Experience.” What does that mean, exactly?

The “Zen” label is one of those terms that is perhaps subject to some interpretation. “Zen” is often associated with activities that are calming, or lacking in stimulation. For us, we think a “Zen game” is one that provides lots of stimulation, but in different ways from a typical game. Where many games are about twitch action, and tension, The UnderGarden aims for a more relaxing overall flow as you explore. We focus on the visuals, and the sounds, and the overall “feel” of what the player is doing, and aim to have the player lose themselves in the whole experience to some degree, without worrying about time constraints or failure. There are some other games that have tried this, although for The UnderGarden, we’ve also added in some puzzle solving and collection elements into the mix as well.

In your minds, what is a “casual” game?

In our minds calling a game “Casual” describes its appeal, and not its gameplay. Casual games come in many different genres, so it’s unfortunate that having a “casual” label can sometimes have a negative connotation to some people. To us, if a game has “casual” appeal, then this means it is not only something non-traditional gamers might enjoy, but can also still appeal to the core gamer. Perhaps one of the things that does stand out is that casual games often require a different time commitment than many more traditional titles. A lot of us can’t devote several hours in one sitting to a game, and often the best casual titles can be played in smaller sessions. That said, there are people who spend more time playing Peggle than most do playing a shooter, so we’re not sure they can be called
“casual” gamers either!

We know what The UnderGarden is about, but what is it “about?”

Not to take the easy way out, but we really did intend to leave this to the imagination! Ok, so you have a little character creating life where there wasn’t any, and spreading beautiful music and melodic tones as he/she/it floats past…. and he seems to be swimming, but maybe he isn’t? By the end of the game we hint at something, but steer far away from imposing any pre-defined explanation as to what exactly was going on and why you are there. We’ve heard a few of explanations from players though, all wildly different. We think it is more fun this way.

Pitch us on UnderGarden — why should PSN players download your game?

The UnderGarden really is a change of pace from the norm. It does aim to provide a “synesthetic” experience, but it is very much a game at its roots. There are places to explore, things to collect, soft puzzles to solve, and outfits to customize your little guy if you so desire. But the part people really seem to like is that you can completely play at your own pace: you can’t die and you can’t fail. You can try to get through the levels quickly, and maybe earn a Trophy or two. Or you can try and bloom all the flowers (and maybe earn another Trophy or two). Or simply turn off the lights, pour yourself a drink, and just hang around floating through the flora, listening to the sounds and watching everything change colors and come to life…it’s up to you. We also offer up co-op play, which is designed so that the second player assists the first, and can never get stuck or left behind. It’s a great way to get your non-gamer significant other to pick up the controller. And then there’s the music: it is dynamic, and changes depending on where you are, what you do, and who you’ve decided to pick up and pull through the flowers with you. We think it is a lot of fun, and unlike a lot of games can actually help you unwind, instead of filling you with tension. Besides, isn’t taking another head-shot starting
to get a little old?

So UnderGarden is moving to PSN — what was your reception like on XBLA? Was it like what you expected, and what about the game do you think resonated, or didn’t resonate, with players?

We haven’t seen official numbers, but the feedback we’ve received has certainly been pretty good. Things that seemed to resonate have been the co-op play, the lack of failure and death, and especially the entire experience of just growing and regrowing flowers and listening to all the sounds. We’ve had a number of people tell us that they weren’t really completing the levels, but instead just floating around blooming and reblooming everything with different combinations of musicians. So that aspect of the game seems to have worked, as have the unlockable costumes and hats that people seem to like. We were honestly not sure what to expect in terms of reception on the 360. Having been released the same time as a rather well-known shooter, we were pretty sure we would have to fight for some attention of course.

That said, even though there are lots of great titles on XBLA, we knew we had something different. So the question wasn’t so much whether we could stand out in a sea of XBLA titles, but rather if there were enough people on XBLA who wanted to play something other than a shooter. The majority of the 360 audience seems to be core-gamers, so that’s a question still up for debate.

I have a decently beefy game collection, and as I looked over all the retail titles on my shelf just now it hit me that almost all of the Xbox 360 and PS3 games (aside from sports games, Katamari games and, I guess, LittleBigPlanet) are very violent. Nonviolent games are the exception on those consoles, although XBLA and PSN have provided some nonviolent options.

Being that violent games are the mainstay on these consoles, what led you to make a nonviolent title(s)? (I notice you’ve got more in the works)

We have focused on non-violent games before, and in fact have often steered away from violence altogether on many occasions (ok, Raze’s Hell on the Xbox was a pretty big exception there). For The Undergarden, we were aiming at a very different pace, one that would appeal not only to us, but to people in our families. These often include non-core gamers, and for them the violence can often be an instant turn off. But beyond that, one of the problems is exactly as you pointed out: the majority of games do seem to use violence as one of the key drivers of the title.

Sure, it’s fun to take that head-shot once in awhile, but all the time? In every game? We think there’s room for more games that are also just fun, or light-hearted, or reward you for creating something instead of destroying it. There’s even room for games that simply look and sound great. So we weren’t out to make any kind of statement on the social well-being of our youth or anything; we just wanted to try something new for a change of pace. I suppose the sad thing is that games like these have become the exception, rather than the rule.

Do you see nonviolent games taking up a larger share of the hardcore market (not talking about Kinect or Move here) in the near future?

The core games will always be there, but we certainly hope it does. Some of the recent first-person shooters have done phenomenally well, but these have also been very big budget productions. I’m not sure how many companies can invest the tens of millions needed to make another shooter to even compete with the likes of the Call of Dutys or Killzones of the world, or even if there’s room for many more. That leaves alot of smaller developers to explore different types of games, and many of these will be non-violent in nature. Perhaps as more of these hit the market, and more gamers perhaps start looking for something a little different, we’ll see non-violent games rise in popularity. And let’s not discount the effects of Kinect or Move: many of the people buying this won’t be interested in the violent games, so there will also be opportunities there that will hopefully spread to the hardcore market.

From a marketing standpoint, is it tough to make a nonviolent game? Did you worry that UnderGarden would get overlooked because of that?

It was a tough sell, although we’re not sure the non-violence was the only worry. The game is also an original IP, and it is based to some extent on a non-traditional idea of what constitutes a game. There are not alot of publishers willing to take risks on something that is not a sequel or a license, much less something that also plays at a completely different pace. Thankfully, Atari believed in the game and did all they could to get behind us. Aside from being overlooked in a sea of shooters, we also worried about the game being classified as an indie “experiment”, with an interesting mechanic but not much else. This is a trap many indie games sometimes fall into, but we worked hard to ensure we added enough gameplay to avoid that.

You guys have made something of a “weird indie game” — one of those games that defies explanation. What are the inherent challenges in sitting down to make something that’s hard for people to understand, or that isn’t very much like most other games on the market?

One of the challenges is that people often want to label the game, and a title like this is harder to pin down. We’ve been called “casual”, which immediately brings to mind games like Bejeweled. A “Platformer,” a ”Puzzler,” even simply being called “Indie” has its own connotations. Moreover, during development it is crucial that the entire team be on-board. That took some doing, and it was only once we had made several prototypes that the game theme and ideas started to sink in. Once everyone became comfortable with flow of the game, we started to get used to the idea that you could not only play at your own pace, but also alter the way the game looked and even change the soundtrack, and development became much smoother. It was still tricky at times, but smoother.

Of course, getting the game “out there” presented its own challenges for the same reasons. It isn’t strictly a puzzle game or platformer, and though it has flowers, it doesn’t play anything like thatgamecompany’s Flower (an excellent title in its own right). This has sometimes made it difficult for us to get our message across. We would like to say “yes, there are platform elements”, and “puzzle elements”, and it has a bit of an art-vibe to it all, and yes it also features dynamic music that the player can participate in, but that doesn’t really fit in a label.

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