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Blossom explores childhood memories with a pop-up book controller

Blossom is an exploration of childhood and labels through five life stages, all told through an interactive pop-up book controller.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 24, 2023

8 Min Read
a person looking at an intricate pop-up book controller and game about a young child
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The 2023 Game Developers Conference will once again feature Alt.Ctrl.GDC, an exhibition dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions in new, exciting, and clever ways. Ahead of GDC 2023, Game Developer will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.

Blossom is an exploration of childhood and being labeled through five life stages, all told through an interactive pop-up book controller.

Laura Meng, director for the pop-up book controller and game, spoke with Game Developer about what appealed to them about working with a pop-up book as a controller, the challenges of creating meaningful interactions within the book that would connect the player to the protagonist's life events, and the way the extra interactions within the book help the player really feel the game's world and story.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

My name is Laura Meng and I am the game director of Blossom.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

Blossom is a slice-of-life interactive novel that is navigated with a pop-up book controller. Each page of the book focuses on a different chapter of the main character's life (Aspen is this character's name). Players complete minigames within each chapter by twisting, pushing, unfolding (and more!) pieces inside the page to push the story forward and learn more about Aspen as she grows up.

a pop-up book with a colorful face

What's your background in making games?

I’m actually an MFA student at the University of Southern California in the Interactive Media and Games department, so I’ve spent the last two and a half years studying and designing games. Through my studies, I’ve had the opportunity to work on more experimental projects, all of which eventually led me to create Blossom!

What development tools did you use to build Blossom?

To develop Blossom, my team and I mainly used Uduino, a Unity Game Engine plugin, that allowed us to communicate between our Arduino hardware within the alt controller and our Unity game interface. We used Procreate and Adobe After Effects to create and animate the artwork in Blossom.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

For the physical fabrication of Blossom, I spent some time studying paper engineering and bookbinding techniques to create the actual pop-up book. The book consists of a lot of cardstock, chipboard, hot glue and double-sided tape. We also utilized other materials like felt and craft foam to create a diversity of texture[s] for players. Then, for the hardware portion, we have multiple Arduino boards that have been soldered to the various sensors that exist in the controller.

What inspired the creation of Blossom?

Blossom was inspired by the concept of being labeled as you grow up. Specifically, how we internalize and respond to these labels. Although a lot of the story behind Blossom is taken from my own childhood, I think a lot of people can relate to the experience of being told you are something that you know deep down you aren’t.

a colorful hand drawn scene of a character near a piano

What drew you to use a pop-up book as an interface? What was it about the book that appealed to you?

I’ve always had an affinity towards pop-up books. They were my favorite "toy" growing up and served as a safe space for me to be as imaginative as I wanted. Because Blossom is a semi-autobiographical piece about my own childhood, I immediately knew I wanted a pop-up book to be the focal point and vehicle through which I would tell the story of Blossom. The art of paper engineering also already allows for so much immersion and tactile play, so I was excited to see how I could incorporate a digital experience into the mix!

What do you feel draws us to pop-up books? As adults and as children?

Pop-up books are magic to me. They take a typically 2D experience of reading a book and turn them into 3D adventures where readers have a hand in changing the world they’ve stepped into. They also play on our desire for exploration and discovery where we wonder "What will happen if I pull this tab? What about this flap?" This intrinsic curiosity pushes us to turn the page and find out what world we will step into next.

This curiosity doesn’t fade when we’re adults! We’re always nostalgic for the simple wonders of our childhood and love to re-experience the things we loved as children. And I personally feel that the magical quality of pop-up books doesn’t fade away as we age. Instead, we are still captivated by the same paper illusions we experienced as children because what made the books so magical wasn’t "not knowing how it was possible," but rather the unexplainable excitement we felt by just turning a page.

What challenges did you face in typing a pop-up book's actions to gameplaycreating gameplay that could be tied to something possible of a pop-up book? What challenges did you face in compacting five chapters worth of interactions into the book?

To be honest, the challenges my team and I faced weren’t in creating gameplay that could be possible within a pop-up book, but rather designing the right physical interactions to enhance and strengthen the digital gameplay. There’s so much existing hardware and paper engineering techniques out there that we had a limitless pool of designs to pick from.

My focus turned to making sure each interaction we highlighted as a minigame would impact players in the way we needed it to so their overall understanding and experience of Aspen’s story made sense. I was constantly in a dilemma of "What does this interaction mean for Aspen and for the players?"

Figuring out how to compact five chapters worth of interactions was a part of that challenge. For each chapter, we wanted to highlight a different life event(s) and label that impacted Aspen, so defining what moment within each chapter would be interactable was a back-and-forth that took months of planning and playtesting.

hand on a paper piano controller and piano keys on screen

What thoughts went into the visual style of the game? Into the visual style of the book itself?

The visual style of both the game and the book take inspiration from classic children’s storybooks. My artist, Ariel Li, focused on blending simple linework and bold coloring to create a friendly art style. They also used some water coloring techniques to soften the overall composition.

I wanted the visual styles of the pop-up book and the digital game to be the same to create a linear relationship between the two mediums so as not to overwhelm players with too many differing elements.

What drew you to add some interactions with the book that don't connect with the gameplay on-screen? What do you feel these interactions added to the experience?

For me, my favorite moments of gameplay are when I’m left to my own devices and can choose where to explore. Although Blossom is very much a guided linear narrative, I still wanted to find moments where players could make their own discoveries within the book that weren’t deliberately prompted by the game.

These "micro-interactions" we designed give players more insight into Aspen, allowing them to become more involved in her story because they’re now personally discovering these details on their own. We acknowledge the fact that not every player will feel compelled to uncover these interactions. But this, in turn, makes the experience of Blossom unique to each player and their desire to discover more within each page.

How do you feel this unique control scheme connects us to the story in ways a regular controller could not? What effect does this pop-up book have on our connection with Aspen's story?

Pop-up books are an inherently user-driven medium. Without physically interacting with the book and its pages, the story can’t continue. In this way, the pop-up book control scheme of Blossom makes players a part of the story from the very beginning, from the moment they sit down and open the front cover.

Furthermore, each interaction we designed is narrative-focused and narrative-driven. This means they require players to perform story actions as if they were Aspen or a character helping Aspen in the book. So. rather than just plainly controlling the game mechanics, players are discovering and experiencing Aspen’s life with her. This deeper level of player involvement gives players the opportunity to understand the effect of different events and labels on Aspen’s emotional state, and possibly even experience them alongside her.

Has building a game around a unique controller taught you anything unexpected about game design?

The biggest thing I learned while developing Blossom was that a traditional game development timeline wouldn’t work for what I was making. I knew working with hardware and physical fabrication would make my workflow unique, but I don’t think I was aware of how much that would affect my development schedule until I started working on Blossom. There were many times where I felt I was making no progress at all, but I’ve learned to recognize the small accomplishments my team and I made day by day.

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