The Friday Game: Scarygirl

The Friday Game: Scarygirl

Few free web games look anything like Scarygirl, the lavishly illustrated platforming adventure from Australian illustrator Nathan Jurevicius and Passion Pictures Australia. But then, few free web games have such a torturous path to fruition, either, with the quirky property starting life as a tiny editorial cartoon, before blossoming into a quietly industrious indie merchandising empire taking in comic strips, vinyl toys, graphic novels, and a proposed feature film.

Despite such cross-platform appeal, Scarygirl’s latest incarnation is something of a homecoming. The story of a dour young pirate with a hook for a hand and an octopus for a mentor, its creator initially saw his heroine as an ideal vehicle for a game. “The original idea was that Scarygirl was homeless,” says Jurevicius, “and the first game concept was about influencing people to like her: she’d put on weird puppet shows with garbage and things like that, and she had an approval rating as she went through life.”

That project never materialised, however, and it was the best part of a decade before Scarygirl finally made it into playable form, by which point the idea had evolved from an experimental mini-game into something larger and more traditional. “We really didn’t want to create a hardcore gamer’s game this time, but more a gentle introduction to her universe,” says Jurevicius. “But even then, the idea expanded beyond what we thought it would be.”

Developed by Jurevicius and the small Australian outfit Touch My Pixel, Scarygirl is an elaborate platformer covering a bizarre range of environments and characters. It’s a world where tentacles flap behind every rock, and even the mountains wear trilbies, and while the tone remains coherent, the details are always changing, finding space for a bubblegum utopia filled with airships and skyways, a Christmas card forest of curlicued trees nested with staring birds, and a festering realm of polluted lakes. Lithe visual flourishes spruce up loading screens, save points, and pop-up instructions, while the soundtrack is a nimble, ever-shifting, xylophone ramble.

Primarily financed by Film Victoria’s Digital Media Fund, Jurevicius suggests that his game’s a marketing tool in the loosest sense: true to the license’s broad approach, it’s made to raise awareness of the characters and storyline, with the most obvious hooks being a link to the Scarygirl store and an offer to join a mailing list when you initially create a save file. As a free title, then, Scarygirl’s a uniquely generous proposition, with simple controls, an intricate structure, and a riot of unlockables, completion meters, and hidden areas filling out a lengthy campaign. If there’s a criticism, then, it’s that the game itself can’t always match the creative elegance of the visuals, with level design that tends to be robust rather than inspired, and a gentle over-use of genre stalwarts like collection quests.

“Looking back, I do wish I’d been braver,” admits Jurevicius. “It’s one of those weird times when after you complete something, you think, “I could have done so much more”. We were all new to such an extensive project, though: a year and a half ago, I probably wasn’t thinking as adventurously as I would be now. And equally, we didn’t want to be too out there with the gameplay. I wanted traditional, linear storytelling stuff, and traditional platforming came with that.”

Despite that, and despite having to learn to squash his delicate drawings into the tiny payload most web games have to live within, Jurevicius is pleased with his character’s latest manifestation, suggesting it could even work as a potential calling card for a subsequent console or handheld release. And, even if isn’t perfect, Scarygirl is far more than simply a beautiful distraction, or a free game with surprisingly high production values. The product of a truly modern cross-platform approach, in which the property can’t be tied down to a single defining medium, Touch My Pixel’s work also stands as one of the purest examples yet of a growing convergence between the worlds of videogames and contemporary design, a convergence which is already giving games the opportunity to draw inspiration from a different range of references.

“I think that combination of games and modern designers is inevitable really,” muses Jurevicius. “Our preoccupations – toys, cartoons, character-based illustration – are a good fit even if our backgrounds aren’t the same. And a lot of us have been asked to be involved in gaming projects before: artists like Jon Burgerman did levels for Wipeout Pure, and we’ve all been asked to collaborate on various things over the years. I guess it’s a shared design sensibility, really.” He laughs, and then adds, “I can’t think of any other reason people would want someone like us.”