Interview: game designer Tomasz Ostafin

Pape & Tura

Gris, Unravel, Machinarium, Seasons After Fall… In recent years, I’ve been cherry-picking videogames a lot and they have several features in common: they have beautiful game-design and usually are simple platformers or point-and-click adventures. And I also appreciate when the game is accompanied with a beautiful soundtrack (see Soundtrack Monday for Machinarium, Gris, Seasons After Fall and Unravel).

All these features are present in a new game called Papetura from a Polish game designer and developer Tomasz Ostafin. Tomasz has been developing the game by himself for several years now (see official website and Steam page). What makes Papetura so original is obvious at the first glance: it’s made completely out of paper. Yes — every single level, all the characters, every corner of the game was built from a real paper models. Tomasz had to build it from paper first, then arrange all the lights, make photographs, post-process them in Photoshop and then transfer them to the game engine, where the whole world came to life thanks to animations.

I really like such original games, so I asked Tomasz for an interview. He will walk us through the whole process of creating Papetura, share his sources of inspiration, explain how studies of architecture helped him in the development, and how Amanita games (czech based developer studio) helped to start his game-designer career.

Papetura is a game made entirely of paper, which is very unique. Why did you choose paper in particular? Were there other materials you tried to use for the game?

Paper was part of my life since architecture studies, and use of paper in architectural models. I’ve tried to incorporate it as a world-building medium and turned out to be quite delightful material. Paper comes in many different forms and structures, from modern printing paper to hand-made fibre papers, so there are many kinds to experiment with. That variety was enough to explore, and I stick only with this one medium. Only exceptions are wires and glue, because I play a lot with LED lights to illuminate some crucial paper elements.

Your game looks stunning, it took hundreds or maybe even thousands of hours to create it. Would you take the same path if you started creating the game all over again, with all the experience you now have? Would you adjust the process so it takes less time?

It takes a while to make a paper model, but once I’m into modelling trance, it’s quite fun. The issue here is that I’m making the whole game, not only the graphical part, that’s why it takes so much more time. If I start a new game, I see myself rather in the graphical and design department only, avoiding programming and everything else, that would be a lot more fun.

It has been 6 years since the start of the development, and I learned a lot of stuff. Sometimes paper still surprises me, recently I’ve tried to dry-grind the paper, and it was only possible in a small coffee-grinder, and at the same time cocktail-mixer went smoking.

Let’s imagine one level in your game. Can you describe all the steps you have to make from start to the end until it’s finished? What part of the process is the easiest, the hardest and most time consuming?

That’s a o lot of stuff to describe, but I’ll try to condense it a lot. I’m dealing with a paper model as a graphical medium, so that implies that it will be impossible to change the design later on. It means that at the beginning, the game and puzzle design must be spot on. And of course they won’t be. Later I’m trying to make game-design adjustments that don’t require remodeling the scene.

It begins with designing the puzzles, story and game mechanics, from there I sketch out the whole game – and that takes a lot of time. I start with a prototype of the level, programming all the stuff, and checking the gameplay, but also level dimensions. After I take the measures of the level prototype, and I begin to make the paper model – choose paper, make molds, refine the design by trying different structures. Sometimes make a 3d model of the structure if it’s very procedural, then print out the design. Cutting and gluing takes most of the time, together with incorporating lights and making mistakes.

End of model life is a photo session when I take many many photos. Those images go into Photoshop, and then to Unity 3D. Let’s stop there, as at that point the game development goes the same as for all the games, boring stuff, programming, animating, testing, but I love to code shaders that look cool.

Papetura trailer

Crafting, photography, programming, animating… Did you know all the things needed in your creative process before the development started, or was it rather learning along the way?

It was a big learning curve as I had very small experience in programming and photography. At least I had some experience with crafting. Overall I didn’t start from zero.

Back to the paper. In one of your interviews, you said you had developed your own paper for the models. Is your paper better in terms of quality, does it look better?

It was a fun experiment. Making paper isn’t so hard, but it’s hard to make it good quality. Good news is that I don’t need good quality paper, I just need good looking, fancy paper that has interesting form, structure and translucency. It’s rough, irregular, far from perfect, and that kind of paper was very useful for some levels.

Do you scrap the models once you don’t need them, or do you keep them?

Once the model is completed it goes on the shelf, on the floor or on the bed, so my workshop is quite cluttered. I’m calling it a workshop, but I used to live in that room for years, so I basically lived with paper models all that time. I think it would be cool not to burn models right away but to take some smaller models to festivals, for the audience to see them.

Can you tell us something about the story of the game? Where do you get ideas and inspiration for it?

The story of the game is about little creatures Paper and Tura, they have to save their paper-world from a monster that wants to burn it. I won’t spoil too much, but the story is simple, and not too complex I hope. The story details changed along the way, as the game and me are connected on a very personal level. Life tragedies, suffering, but also hopeful and cheerful moments had a huge influence on the story.

If I saw this game for the first time without knowing you’re behind it, I would probably say something like „Oh, this new Amanita game looks awesome, can’t wait to play this one!“. Is this Czech based studio the one you look up to, the one that inspires you? Are there any other games or studios which inspired you to create your own game?

Yea, that’s a huge compliment! Machinarium was the biggest influence in terms of – “I can do it!”, because then I found out about Samorost, where Jakub Dvorský created it while he was a student at the Academy of Arts. It connected with me, and convinced me that I could try to make my dream come true. The dream was – make a game like Neverhood, made out of clay, stop-motion and surreal.

I’m listening to Machinarium soundtrack while I write down these questions. Tomáš „Floex“ Dvořák is one of my favourite musicians and he is creating music for your game, which is great. How did the cooperation with Tomáš look like? Did he *just* composed music without asking, or was it somewhat deeper cooperation, with his own input for the game?

I have no idea how this happened to this day, as this is so unbelievable and simple story.. I’ve reached out to Tomáš years ago to ask him to licence his Zorya album for Papetura, as I love that album very much. Some time later, we ended up teaming up, and that was the most unexpected and crazy day of my life. We are cooperating to this day, and the amount of soul that Tomas puts into the musical part of the game is immeasurable. He is not only a great musician but a very wise game-music designer.

Papetura: making of

Did you tell Tomáš what kind of music you would prefer for the game, or did you leave it completely up to him?

At the beginning I’ve told Tomáš what the game is about, and that’s it. I love to hear how only my videos and images of the game are inspiring the music, sometimes it’s surprising but always beautiful.

Any plans on releasing standalone soundtrack of the game? As a game music lover who owns all the soundtracks from Amanita studio on vinyl, I would love to see Papetura on vinyl as well.

I think that will be the case for Papetura for sure, the soundtrack and vinyl will be a great set.

Unfortunately, your Indiegogo campaign for the game wasn’t successful. Were you close to abandoning the game completely after the campaign ended?

Yea, let’s be honest, the game didn’t look good back then. Today Papetura looks at least good enough I think, but I won’t run another fundraising campaign. I was close to abandoning the project and it slowed down significantly. With no funding I just keep it as a side-job – and for any beginning game developer out there reading this – for god sake, do not make games without other stable money sources, it’s an easy way down to a dark place.

Tomasz Ostafin with one of his paper models
Tomasz Ostafin with one of his paper models

In the campaign, you’ve also mentioned Android and iOS versions of the game. Are they still in question? Does it depend on how well the PC version sells?

There will be Android and iOS versions of the game for sure. Also I’ll try to port it to Switch. I don’t expect millions of dollars selling Papetura, and I think making it available on other platforms will help.

Can you tell us some of your favourite games? What kind of games do you enjoy the most?

I’ve played many games, but mostly in my teenage years. From strategies like KKND, Dark Colony, through Quake, Heroes 3, Final Fantasy VII and FIFA 98. I loved Neverhood and Grim Fandango, but also Sim Tower, Croc and Disney’s Hercules. Today I enjoy Witcher 3, Alien Isolation and Samorost 3. So as you can see, I have no particular taste, just enjoying good games.

Many great games have been developed in Poland in the last 15 years, big ones too. Can you imagine working for one of the studios based in Poland, being part of some AAA title development team, but with less freedom and less creativity in your hands?

I really can’t tell, but once I’ve worked in an architectural office and after some time I just wanted to give up on life. So it is some clue that working without freedom is just not for me.. Today my job is to make architectural visualisations and it’s quite enjoyable, but not as game making. Being part of AAA is completely different path, and I sometimes wonder what my life would look like.

You’ve graduated from architecture. Would you like to stay in game development business if Papetura goes well, or is it architecture you want to do for a living? Or maybe a combination of both?

If Papetura goes well, then my path is settled. I would love to continue making games, or cooperating with others, or just become a rare paper-artist for games. I also make architectural visualizations as a main source of income, and I enjoy them as well. Unfortunately my architectural career won’t go far, I’ve abandoned it a long time ago.

How do you fight a creative block? What does work the best for you when you feel stuck?

I usually lie down on the floor and cuddle with despair, then procrastinate a little bit watching minecraft on youtube. The trick to creative block is to always have something else to do, not useless stuff as earlier, but when I’m stuck on the game-design part, then I try to move forward with graphics, animation, coding or marketing. There is always stuff to do. The ultimate unblocker is going on a trip to mountains or forest to calm my mind.

Release of Papetura is really close. Can you tell us when we can expect it?

The release of Papetura is set to February 2021, and it won’t be moved much more. I’m saying that because I’ve already have delayes due to health issues – yeah covid.. So March is also an option.

Meanwhile please add the game to your wishlist on Steam if you like to give Papetura a chance!

Many thanks to Tomasz who found time to answer all the questions. If you like the game, you can follow it on Facebook or Twitter, or add it to Wishlist on Steam. Support indie developers and buy the game if you like it.

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