Fotonica is a fast-paced, first-person, rail running game developed by Italian game design studio Santa Ragione, made up of Pietro Righi Riva and Nicolò Tedeschi. Its visual style is a psychedelic throwback to vector arcade classics like Tempest and cult console favorites like REZ and Space Giraffe:
The game has been called a collision between Tron and Mirror’s Edge, a minimalist and abstracted visit to the old days of vector arcade games and seminal 3d rendering. I spoke with the Santa Ragione team, who also run the LUNARCADE collective, about building the sensational world of Fotonica:
Can you give me just a little background on your team?
Nicolò: We are two but we’re open to any kind of collaboration, as usually happens in small teams; we can’t know everything I guess! I personally have a background in art and Pietro has a background in interaction design. We know each other from quite some time now, more or less 8 years, but we started working on games just two years ago. We shared a passion in gaming, and we talked quite a lot about games and games mechanics in general, so after a while, we started to think about design our own. Santa Ragione was founded a year ago, when we realized we had the opportunity to produce our board game “Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space“. We thought that formalizing into a real studio would have helped us remain motivated.
As I mentioned before, we’re open to collaborations, ether because we need it and because we like it. Michael Manning, Nicolò Sala and Guido Zoppi did a wonderful job on the soundtrack and illustrations for Fotonica, as well as our good friends Mario Porpora and Luca Francesco Rossi did a great job on EFTAIOS. Santa Ragione is two people and is all the people that share this passion with us, at the same time.
What was the inspiration for the visual style of this game?
Nicolò: Well, to name a few we could go from Neuromancer to VibRibbon from Anuszkiewicz’s “Temple of the Radiant Yellow” to REZ. Lets just say we took inspiration from many places, “we like ugly 3D graphics of the ’90s” we said once, and that’s the real core inspiration I guess. Stuff like GERMS for PS1 make us cry tears of joy!
Screenshot from Rez Temple of the Radiant Yellow
by Richard Anuszkiewicz
What tools were used to create the art of Fotonica?
Pietro: Pen and paper! After that it’s a lot of work and improvisation in Blender and C4D for the 3D assets. The game itself was made in Unity3D, an extremely powerful engine/editor that every indie developer should try. There are no textures or 2D elements in Fotonica, aside from the fonts and the beautiful Fotonica face and medals made by Guido Zoppi.
Can you speak, in technical terms, about how the vector-style rendering was achieved?
Pietro: As you suggested it not vector rendering, It’s a full-screen post-processing effect that looks at each polygon’s normal and draws a border of variable thickness where polys intersect. Without going into too much detail, the shader just draws white lines on the surface of polygons, simulating a tessellation, according to the current camera angle. The actual geometry is much simpler than it looks in wireframe mode…
Scaffolding art asset in Cinema 4D Similar asset in-game
At what point in the development process did you arrive at the current visual style?
Pietro: well the first prototype for the game was made for the “A Game By Its Cover” contest on TIGsource. In the contest we had to make a game inspired by a fake game cover designed for the Famicase Exhibition. As you see it’s white lines on a black background:
Fake game cartridge designed for the Famicase Exhibition.
We fine-tuned the post processing shaders all throughout the development but you can say that we finalized it in time for our public alpha release back in January. The gold mode was introduced in November 2010. when we were still designing the main mechanics of the game. It was a surprise for Nicolò, I secretly implemented it and told him: “play this latest build…“
The levels seem to have slightly different themes (landscapes, scaffolding, emerging blocks). Are there any themes you experimented with that did not make it into the final release?
Nicolò: Good question, there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the final release. It’s not easy to model in a classic flat 3D environment and to keep in mind what will be really visible with the vector shader on. Sometimes stuff works just fine, but most of the time you get strange results; some models are almost invisible, others are good but their shape don’t develop any sense of speed, and so on. In the first level we had train cabins for example, you could run into them and on top of them, but it wasn’t an easy model to adapt to the multi path level. Another theme I worked on for some time was an industrial level, mainly inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher photography, it’s completely disappeared now. On the other end, other stuff I thought would have looked shitty, totally worked; even some modeling errors turned out to work with the shader, so I started to play with them. Turns out that there’s no right way to do things, but just a functional one.
Nicolò and Pietro, thanks for talking with me about the game.