Tearaway didn’t begin with a piece of paper, as you might suspect, but with a strange slate-like device surrounded by a terrifying tangle of wires. As a Sony-owned studio, Media Molecule was among the first to get an opportunity to play around with this early Vita prototype. Yet despite its unfriendly appearance, this slab sparked the imagination of Rex Crowle, the studio’s prolific artist.
“It was going to be this very touchable console, but at that point you were nervous to touch it,” he says. Even so, it inspired Crowle, and he was soon encouraged by the studio’s bosses – including David Smith, one of its two technical directors – to make something for the curious new hardware. “We’d started off making LittleBigPlanet as a small team,” says Smith, “and we wanted to find a way to give other people with [Media Molecule] that same kind of experience. So we created [something like] a company within a company.”
With most of the studio consumed with creating downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet 2, Crowle assembled a small group from the few free staff to begin prototyping. Concept artist Men Lu, programmers Paul Holden and Nathan Ruck, and producer Michelle Ducker were the other members of this five-strong team, which was given its own room. Crowle, hoping to capture a playful feel, called it The Secret Treehouse. “I covered it all up and made it quite mysterious,” he says. “We’d all sit there with a huge amount of Lego and lots of other bits and pieces to play around with.”
The team’s brief was to make a handheld title that embraced Vita’s portability, although Crowle was particularly keen to take advantage of as many of its features as possible. One in particular stood out. “The rear touch panel is unlike anything on any other [electronic] device there’s ever been,” enthuses Tearaway’s head of audio, Kenneth Young. “That was what inspired Rex. A lot of launch Vita titles were using it, but it didn’t feel like it was necessary [in those games]. It was just there. For us, it was always about integrating it into the experience – we didn’t want it to feel bolted on, or that we’d had to do this because Sony made us.”
Vita’s most untapped feature was about to dominate the initial stages of development. One early experiment would inform the rest of the creative process as the team began to unpick Crowle’s concept of a game that connected its own world with the real one. “We were thinking about what we could do with [rear touch] that’s stupid and silly, and whether that could generate some ideas,” says Crowle. “At first, we had these primary-coloured sausages onscreen as you touched the back, and we tried to get a feel for what that was like, and to figure out a world that could give it a context.”
In Crowle’s words, “a huge amount of missteps” followed, with the team’s experiments taking it down several blind alleys. Vita’s GPS functionality led to the idea of location-based elements (“so the game content would differ depending on where you were playing it”), but it soon became obvious that the procedural techniques required for this idea were at odds with the studio’s desire to build a beautiful 3D world to explore, and studio director Siobhan Reddy suggested it was hardly playing to the strengths of Media Molecule’s artists.
So, for a while, Tearaway became an isometric roleplaying game, featuring a central character that was guided by the player moving their finger on the rear panel. “It was top-down, and really crude, but we created lots of little dungeons,” says Ducker. “We pulled in some of the other guys to play around with it, and sat around watching them play it. And we were convinced that the finger [in the game world] was the way forward.”
Watching the struggles of those testers quickly revealed that the control scheme wasn’t quite intuitive enough. “Some wanted to kill the finger!” says Young. “But there was just enough about it that did work.”
After six months, the team expanded, and Ducker organised a series of game jams to encourage everyone to experiment. One programmer used Vita’s face-tracking libraries so that the game could analyse the player’s facial expressions. “There was a section where you needed a beard in order to play it,” laughs Crowle. “I’m not sure how far you could take that, though. Maybe you’d have to get busy with the felt tips.” Smith, meanwhile, developed additional functionality for the in-game camera. “You’d get XP for taking photos of things,” he says. “Like trying to get a photo of a gopher with a squirrel, or a gopher on a squirrel.”
“Making that sort of thing just energised us into thinking what was possible,” Crowle says, “and just going all out, even if we had to cut back on some of the wilder elements.”
There was a lot of fat to trim, however. Too many ideas had emerged from the jams, and some of them had been developed far beyond crude prototype stage. “The team hadn’t manage to prove out some of those ideas,” says Smith, “so some of these things were just ideas. We wanted to strike a balance where we were pushing the envelope enough to make something new, but also something that’s good, and not a total indie experimental thing that no one gets.”
Streamlining the game was necessary. Crowle and Smith had to be ruthless, even with their own ideas. “I wanted to use the [camera] flash to stun enemies,” says Smith, “so it had this gameplay functionality. But then the game became too much about the camera and not enough about your interaction with the world.”
The cuts were particularly painful for some. “There were lots of features people worked really hard on that we had to chop,” Ducker admits. “It’s not until you get that Borg hive mind thing going on, where everyone’s on the same page, that as a team you’re able to evaluate a feature and say that it’s a really good idea, but not a good fit for the game you’re making,” says Young. “And that’s really hard. When you’ve got someone who spends a month on a feature, they’ve got to be really strong to say, ‘No, you’re right’. People get invested and they argue.”
“The [internal] reviews were really brutal in that sense,” admits Ducker. “There were awkward silences – it was really fraught at points. We simply had too many ideas.”
It was the papercraft motif that helped to bring everything together. The idea had been mooted from the early prototypes, tying into Crowle’s aim to build a world that would yield to the player’s touch in both subtle and dramatic ways. The biggest hurdle was not technical, but artistic. This world needed to look like paper but, more importantly, it also needed to behave like paper. “We started with some concept art, converted it into 3D meshes and ended up with that kind of low-poly look,” says Crowle, “which is kind of fashionable, but it looked more like low-poly models with texturing than paper.”
With little more than a placeholder engine, the team started to build physical models of objects from real paper, while Crowle invited a pop-up book expert into the studio to discuss how they work. “That instantly excited the level designers, because they saw how these mechanisms could be combined,” he says. “Part of the problem was that we were ignoring how paper moves,” Smith explains. “Everything needs to behave like paper… perhaps magical paper that’s somehow come to life, but everything has to [be based on] real paper. So you wouldn’t have floating platforms any more, but instead you’d have these concertinas that would expand.”
Energised by this new line of thinking, development finally began to gather momentum. It’s graphics programmer Mark Zarb-Adami that’s credited with the biggest breakthrough, though. Along with technical artist Stefan Kamoda, he worked to translate the qualities of paper – including its physical properties, and even how a person might add tabs to bolster individual constructions – into the game. “Mark wrote this amazing engine to build stuff out of virtual paper,” says Ducker. “So that if you folded the paper [models], it would fold like real paper.”
“You’d hear him screaming from the other end of the studio: ’We’ve got bending!’” says Young.
With the engine established, Media Molecule could work on getting the animation right, which in turn made Young’s job easier, since he was now able to make these moving parts sound like paper. “I had early complaints that it didn’t sound ‘papery’. It sounds obvious when you say it, but the sound of paper is the sound of paper moving. There’s no excuse for sound if nothing is moving!”
Finding the right kind of paper was the head of audio’s next job. “My go-to was sandwich bags,” he explains. “A4 is too thick; it makes this kind of brittle sound. Newspapers are too thin, too tissuey, too noisy. Sandwich bags are just the right paper to get the best of both worlds.”
With paper acting as one form of connective tissue between the game and the real world, the desire to involve the player in the narrative and forge a link there grew stronger. So it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the story only began to take shape when Crowle and Young worked out the ending, drawing everything back from the destination. “We didn’t really have something to aim for,” Crowle concedes. “I knew that we wanted the messenger to make their delivery, but it wasn’t obvious where that would be. We needed to have this clear visual goal.”
Thus the hole in the sun was born, casting the player in a more prominent role as the game’s deuteragonist. Crowle was initially concerned that it might be too divisive, but he was adamant that it was key to the success of the game’s story. “It creates this connection between you and the game world, where you can actually see yourself and [Iota] looking into each other’s eyes. And then it’s all on you as to how involved you want to get. It’s kind of like reading a kids’ book to a kid – you could read it straight up, or you could start putting the voices and add all the extra personality to it.”
Tearaway’s E3 debut let Media Molecule know it was on the right track. “It was amazing to see the faces players were pulling as they played on the pods,” says Crowle. “As soon as people start smiling, they’re engaging more with the world. [They’re] not just pressing buttons, but physically involved in it.”
As new ideas continued to flourish, other elements were stripped away. The focus shifted towards the narrative and onto the journey itself, and the final remnants of Tearway’s roleplaying roots were phased out. “We cut back the UI, because it’s almost literally a physical obstacle between you and the character,” Smith says. “If there are lots of numbers on the screen to show you how well you’re doing, rather than looking at the character and seeing how they’re responding to things, it changes what you’re caring about.”
“I felt that the game was at its best when you were simply travelling through it and having new things revealed to you,” Crowle says. “Suddenly having to do a lot of fetch quests was what really killed it from being an RPG. It didn’t really feel like an adventure, more like a series of errands. You didn’t feel like a messenger, but a postman.”
However, Tearaway’s unhurried pacing is hardly a mirror to the environment in which it was developed. While Ducker says it was “two-and-a-half to three years from when the light bulb first appeared over Rex’s head” to when the game shipped, it wasn’t until the last six months that it began to truly take shape. Indeed, the final voiceover script was hastily redrafted in the two days immediately before actors Richard Ridings (The Green Man) and Lorna Brown (The Fortune Teller) arrived to record their lines.
Over that frantic 48 hours of rewriting, Crowle and Young worked out that the game’s stories and themes were analogous to their own process. “At one point, The Green Man says something like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, just wing it!’ says Young. “And that’s just like game development! We were up against it, time-wise, but bizarrely I think that also ends up in a more honest experience. We haven’t had that long to think about it where it becomes almost too slick.”
Tearaway is a game that feels handcrafted in every sense. It’s assembled with clear care and love, yet also a creative spontaneity that results in a few imperfections, adding to a feel that’s honest, human and real. “I think it’s very much a reflection of the way we make games,” Young says. “Somehow, through the chaotic way we come up with ideas, the scrappiness and the charm outweighs the fact that you will have
these rough edges. It buys us forgiveness and it buys us honesty as well. Other developers might make games that are slicker, but they don’t have the personality we’ve got. We’ve got faith in the process, or at least faith in our ability to do our jobs. And at the end of it all, we know something good’s going to come out of it.”