This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Song of Bloom makes use of all of the features of a mobile device to create a personal story and a commentary on our culture. The gyroscope, volume buttons, and even the charge cable are all used to create a device-driven narrative, all while drawing upon our connection to our mobiles.
Gamasutra had a chat with Philipp Stollenmayer, developer of the Nuovo Award-nominated game, to talk about the narrative appeal of a phone's capabilities, the complexities of making a story that is both on and about the device, and the powerful connection we have with these gadgets that we trust with so many of our personal secrets.
I am Philipp Stollenmayer, and I am the designer, developer, and publisher of Song of Bloom.
I made my first game in my communication design studies. In my third or fourth semester I had a focus on interaction design, and while it’s intended to make teams of one designer plus one coder, we ran out of coders and I learned an easy language to be able to make a small game for iPhone. Three months later that game had been published. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t successful, but I got the German multimedia award for it, and that triggered me to dig deeper into mobile gaming. It’s fast, straightforward, and still not fully explored, and I wanted to be part of that gold-rush mood.
A long jazz improvisation
The development of the game has been an experimental journey, like a very long jazz improvisation. The first thing I did was record the upper right video in the movie scene. I just filmed a bit of the sea so I could offset the vacation against tax. When you listen closely, you can hear me swear about the person swimming and thereby ruining my video clip. Then, I used that material to start an experimental process. I began with developing a 3D from a 2D engine, and let my faults and triumphs inspire new gameplay mechanics. From there, I constantly modified the story, found new styles, created references, and weaved a game around that.
I use Corona, that’s it.
Playing with player expectations
In my communication and information design studies I learned a lot about user interface and how it builds upon expectations. So, I have some basic knowledge and interest in guiding a person through a mobile phone. I also learned some forms of epistemology, which are based on the idea that you get comfortable with something when you experience it often enough, eventually accepting it as truth. And I like to jiggle that construct a bit. What happens then is called "disappointment“, which is a bit unfortunate, but the surprising momentum is stronger.
Changing perspective with new interactions
Each scene has a new interaction, and while this interaction is mostly touch-based at the beginning, it gets weirder with time. This goes along with the development of the protagonist: it is the story of a person developing an eye for the big picture. That involves being able to see through everything. For example, when you see an image, you can either see the thing depicted in the image, or the image itself as an object. The vast majority of games rely on the former and ignores its context. The phone, however, is also a personal and loved object, and should be seen as part of the game here. It’s not a story told behind a screen -- rather, it IS the story.
A game just for the player
The story is very vague to let enough space for the player to fill the gaps with their interpretation. This way, the game seems personal and sometimes even intimate to some. This would work with only a fraction as well if it was more precise. It relies on intimate storytelling. To make that work, it is very close to the person playing it through the means of using their own name, the date, and specific device features. This way, the game works differently on every phone and lets the player think it’s only for them.
On the game's many different play and visual styles
I get bored easily, and can’t work on a single project for a long time. So, I created pieces of gameplay with a style corresponding to the respective atmosphere, and later in the process tried to find an excuse for that eclecticism. It goes along with the protagonist’s hallucinations, jumping from reference to reference, demanding lateral thinking, and in general depicting the overwhelming loudness, but also the beautiful pluralism of the world.
Toying with the fourth wall
I love playing with the fourth wall. Since iOS 7, the UI is more "honest" -- it doesn’t pretend to be a material it’s not, and communicating on the meta layer is as close to being honest as it gets. What Apple did is remove the glow and edge effects from an alert, saying "Why should the alert pretend to be glass when it’s, in fact, only pixels?" The next step would be to ask what a pixel is, and it is rather the metaphor of something tangible, while the pixel itself, as a technical system, is being ignored.
As a response to that, the game does also show an error-alert eventually, but this alert stays upright when you rotate the phone, so it’s being located in the real world. This leads to the realization that the simulated world on the phone is actually a safe space where nothing can really happen, expressed through the unexpected and rather pointless orientation of the alert in the real world around the phone (Maybe not exactly in these words, but you get the point).
The connections between player and phone
I wanted to make a game that is mobile first, and therefore had to think a lot about the device itself. What mobile devices lack in cinematography, they compensate through their usage: The owner identifies much more with their phone than their TV. You keep it close to yourself, the distance to the screen is small, the information shown on the device is often personal, and you entrust it with your secrets. In response to that, I created a story that uses these insights to amplify the essence of the device.