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Road to the IGF: Die Gute Fabrik’s Mutazione

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Mutazione sets us free to wander a town of creatures eking out a living in the aftermath of a disaster, finding meaning and community in the connections we make with its inhabitants.

Gamasutra spoke with Hannah Nicklin of Die Gute Fabrik, the game’s developers, to talk about the varied disciplines and studies that came together to bring new ideas to game development on the project, the challenges of making a city filled with unique stories to share in, and the importance of exploring community and togetherness in an increasingly fractured world.

My name’s Hannah Nicklin, Writer and Narrative Designer on Mutazione, and now Studio Lead at Die Gute Fabrik. We launched the game in September simultaneously on PS4, Apple Arcade, and PC, and soon we’ll have our first major content update.

At Die Gute Fabrik, we place a lot of value on people coming from backgrounds outside of games. We love working with game design, but we like to collaborate with people from other disciplines because we think it makes our work richer, fresher, and more likely to challenge orthodoxies about how games should look, feel and be.

Creative Director Nils Deneken’s background is illustration (we worked with animators from outside of games on Mutazione), and Alessandro Coronas’ compositional choices are influenced by film, pop, and nature as often as they are games.

I’m a playwright by training. I worked for a decade or so in theater, crossing over into interactive and playful art, (and sometimes games) before moving into games fully the past 5 years. I have a PhD in games-influenced art, and a great deal of my skills and approaches to writing for and designing games are influenced by experimental performance and theater. The act of structuring game stories is like dramaturgy in three dimensions, I love it.

Mutazione has been a slow burner of a project in some senses. While we’ve only been in full production mode for the past four years or so, the game has been on the mind of Creative Director Nils Deneken for over a decade. There are sketchbooks of drawings dating back to Nils’ university years.

When Nils talks about where the idea for the weird and wonderful world and its inhabitants came from, he often points to a very early concept image, a ‘group photo’ of the community. So many of those characters are exactly who you see in the game today. And what’s important about the image is that it’s a group photo – the game is about the community.

That’s what’s so interesting for me in writing for and designing the game. The richness of the world is a real gift, and the ensemble cast is so central to the storytelling.

There was also a musical concept and careful ethos at the heart of the game from very early on. Doug Wilson (co-owner at Die Gute fabrik) and Nils wanted to make a game that was careful with the time of the player – that rewarded meandering as a play style. It was from those aims that Doug, Nils, and Alessandro Coronas, the composer we worked with, came up with the idea of musical gardening.

Mutazione was built in Unity, with a lot of work in Adobe Illustrator and Animate. We built a lot of custom tools for designing and implementing writing, narrative design, and music in the game.

Some devices in stories are about cutting away the chaff so you can explore your main ideas and themes more clearly. It’s why so many teen heroes are orphans; you’ve got to remove their support networks so the peril has greater stakes. There’s no deus ex machina parent ready to solve everything.

In making Mutazione an isolated small-town, we reduced the amount of character and background design we needed to do, and open up big themes of community and what it means to be together which aren’t delivered like a lecture, but discovered through the player’s agency and exploration. It’s a thing they uncover by sifting through the smallness to try and read the bigger message.

For Nils the story was always about people living together in the context of nature. For me, stemming from the natural disaster that he imagined for the history of the world, it became about exploring how communities themselves can live together after disaster, resolve differences, and learn to live with past trauma.

The game has always been influenced in writing and plotting by the soap opera genre. Although there sometimes can be a negative reaction to that description (because it’s often associated with low quality or low concerns; not unrelated to the fact it’s also often considered a ‘feminine’ format) I think that ‘soap opera’ is a super useful means of thinking about ensemble cast storytelling, which feels broad as well as deep – a full world of characters with lives, loves, and long held grudges, each episode the tip of an iceberg. I think of things like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or The Archers (BBC Radio 4) in relation to this.

One of the really great things about writing for an ensemble cast and working with the soap opera genre is that there are rarely ‘true’ goodies and baddies. Instead, all of the characters are capable of both darkness and light. Personally, I think this is much closer to how we all live, how we deal with trauma and conflict, and how you can’t ever fully exorcise darkness. We have to do the difficult but necessary work together as communities to resolve it.

Doing this specifically in a game is really rewarding because you can allow the player to unpick all of the interconnections and snippets about the big picture from the everyday. Their agency becomes a tool for trying to understand the community through the people who make it up, which seems like a really valuable means of storytelling, and a useful exercise for our collective imaginations.

As I mentioned, the character design and basic beats for the plot were all set up before I came to the game, so in terms of writing, my main challenge was structuring the story and building narrative design transparency into the game design so that the story was so coherent and navigable that the meandering and exploration felt welcoming and entirely under the control of the player. I use this term ‘multiple middles’ a lot, to describe how the player choice in Mutazione is framed around exploring laterally (digging into the thickness of the world) instead of linearly (altering the ending).

To accompany Nils’ vivid character designs I’ve worked really hard to give each character a distinctive voice. This is where theater/playwriting background kicks in – a lot of that training is really relevant. I use cadence, expressions, lexicon, age, accents, all of these things to give each character a unique voice. I think it’s more typical for indie games to have characters with the same ‘game’ voice, a kind of witty internet-style manner of speaking. I wanted to set Mutazione aside from that. The writing is naturalistic, which I hope gives truth to the lie of the fantasy-tinted setting, and makes the emotional journeys feel compelling and real.

As well as character voices and narrative design, I was careful vary the characterization – to make some of the initial character beats a little more complex, while trying to also retain the delightful cartoonishness of certain moments and characters. I put them in situations that allowed them to grow, and always worked hard to make sure that none of them were defined by their difference, but full and surprising and contradictory.

I feel like this is a bit too much about my contributions now, though! I also had so many delightful animations to work with, and the insight of Nils and Doug to bounce off in design terms, and towards the end so many peers and friends played the game and gave me invaluable feedback that helped me tighten it up as deadlines approached.

The aim was always to make a story-driven adventure game where players would also be able to express themselves creatively. As Doug and Nils co-founded Die Gute Fabrik all those years ago, they formed the idea of musical gardening, bringing Alessandro Coronas on board to work out how it could function, and what it should feel like.

In the game, every plant has an ‘instrument’ assigned to it. When you plant a seed, you add that instrument to your overall composition. The plants feature a mix of synthesized audio and recordings of real instruments (e.g. guitars, strings). Different plant families play in different harmonic keys, so you’ll experience a variety of moods, textures, and emotions, from melancholic orchestral instruments in a minor key, to tranquil acoustic guitars in a major key.

You can engage with the gardens as much or as little as you like. Sometimes you might like to move on with the story, but you can always return to and adjust them, and if you want some background music while you take a break from the story in the game, just sit in ‘listen’ mode, and enjoy your unique ambient composition.

Gardening has taken many forms in the game over the years. It’s been much more complex, but then there’s been no room for the story, so in the end, the team made the decision to wrap the gardens into the story, and then soon after launch (we needed a little more time to perfect it) release a standalone ‘Garden Mode’ where there is way more freedom to experiment and play around, without needing to plant in a specific way for the story.

This is definitely a question for Nils rather than me. I’ve heard him talk about music as a key part of his creative process, though – he usually gets inspired by music before thinking about pictures. Mutazione itself was inspired by different kinds of music (often in the form of mix tapes exchanged between the team). Music allows Nils to see images and worlds form in his mind, which he then tries to bring to life in the form of concept art. From those initial mix tapes and concept art pieces, different places, characters, scenes, and story snippets emerged, and the world took form. He’s also clearly influenced by illustration and anime like Future Boy Conan.

There are two answers to this, really. Firstly, formally speaking, I think it’s really valuable and important if you want to create a full and realistic-feeling world. One of the tasks I was given when I joined the team was to make the universe feel real and alive, and in so doing give the player a world of characters with needs, concerns, and lives which could very easily not contain you. This was a part of that realistic world building. When we meet a character who is solely present to serve us, they immediately fade to the status of a tool. A universe full of living levers, rather than people, is not going to feel alive.

I also have a second answer: political necessity.

That we are connected is the biggest truth and challenge of our lifetimes. Now, more than ever, we can wield our connections far more dangerously through consumption, communication, amd our participation in cultures and nations. I think it’s time we start to tell stories about the world that explores that – that begin to work on the challenges that emerge when we ask how we live together. As an ensemble that paints the people we touch with our lives as more than just placed there to further our quest. To challenge the idea that it’s ever possible for just one person to change the world – or to ask what it is to be the person on whom it pivots.

So, I guess, if Mutazione is the best version of what we imagined we wanted to make, it is a place where you feel like you have the time and space to experience a real, full world of characters at a pace that is kind, but which doesn’t shy away from topics which are as tough, true, and human as anything you’re likely to experience in life yourself.

This is exactly the ‘multiple middles’ approach that I’m interested in – choice which isn’t about control or character, but instead about exploration.

I tried to make the story progression as clear as possible using tools like the journal, and giving characters habits and routines, but in constructing plots which progressed whether or not you had found the first or second conversation – that sometimes start on the third, or fifth – it hopefully gives the player a sense of a pre-existing and living story-world in which they aren’t the only protagonist.

This allows me to weave the story of the world (and the quite magical journey that they player goes on) throughout the everyday lives of the cast. I thread just enough of it through the main story to make everything make sense, but make it rewarding to explore the details and depths, which hopefully makes the other characters not just engaging in and of themselves, but part of the breadth of the storytelling. A story about a community, told by a exploring it.

I also wanted to echo the themes of the gameplay: to make getting to know the community feel like tending to a garden – uncovering seeds, planting them, and being surprised at what comes up. That’s why I set out to build narrative design that would allow the player to choose their own pace: to push at the central plot, or to meander, wander, and grow their story.

If you’re interested I wrote a much more technical exploration of the narrative design for Gamastra’s Deep Dive series, and obviously this has been largely written from my perspective as the writer and narrative designer, but many people’s hands and minds and hearts helped shape the game. Please do check out the credits when you get your hands on the game – it wouldn’t be an ounce of what it is without the community who helped build it.