The Cat That Got The Milk is a frenetic top-down maze game created by Oliver Clarke, Helana Santos, Chris Randle, and Jon Mann where the player hastily navigates a cat across the screen from left to right avoiding walls and other obstacles. The player can move up and down but, when not doing so, is forced automatically to the right, toward the goal. Touching the walls will force the player to start the level over. Fun enough already, but the high concept behind The Cat That Got The Milk is that the levels are essentially classic abstract expressionist compositions made interactive. The bold graphic elements of modern art paintings become animated, sometimes reactive, level design:
I spoke with the game’s visual artist, animator, and level designer Oliver Clarke about creating game art out of appropriated modern art canon, and how it fit into the larger role of level design:
Uncommon Assembly: Tell me a little about your team. What are your backgrounds, how did you come together to work on this project?
Oliver Clarke: Our whole team has quite a diverse and broad range of backgrounds which I believe lends to our creativity as a team. Games are our passion and we came together as a group of individuals driven to bring our experiences together in a new and innovative way. All of us have experience in the games industry which we used to good effect in the development of the game. We’d been discussing working together for some time as we all wanted to try some ideas never realised before. Our first result is The Cat that Got the Milk.
Can you talk about how you came up with the concept for this game? Did you develop the game play first, or the idea to put the player in interactive versions of modern art?
I personally believe in developing the gameplay first. The mechanic for this game certainly came first. It was inspired by having played many of the one button games released over the last year or so. We wanted to create an addictive compelling experience that offered something new for players to discover and interpret in their own way. We wanted people to look at it and go “Wow, whats that!?” then play it and be absorbed by the music, sound and accessible gameplay.
The idea for referring to abstract art came from a fascination with art in general. Every time I go to a London art gallery I come out buzzing with ideas. I think the other guys feel the same way about code, sound and music. Its not so much that we create concepts as their driven out of us by enthusiasm and a strong desire to explore. In this game art literally became the arena for the gameplay because I had a desire to see these pictures moving in the way I felt they should.
So obviously this game borrows from various abstract expressionist artists like Piet Mondrian, Robert Motherwell, and Wassily Kandinsky. When building a level, what came first, the level design or the theme? Can you talk a little about your process for developing the theme for a particular level?
The level design process can be broken down and described in three stages, you should understand that we go back and forth along the stages incessantly. Ideas are grown, killed off and new ones grow in their place continually. The stages are as follows:
Stage 1 – Level layout design
Stage 2 – Shape of level
Stage 3 – Paint over
Stage 4 – Music
Stage 5 – SFX
First of all the level laid out in a way that should provide the right amount of challenge for the player in the right stage of the gameplay. This stage includes sketches, initial models and animation if required in the design. Once the level is playing well, after several play testing sessions with players, the shape of the level is considered. Finally the level is painted over. As above, these stages are played out and revisited many times before the final look of the game level takes shape. For example, the shape of the level, whether its jagged, curved or angular will have a direct effect on the colours used in the level and vice versa.
Interestingly, if we were to take the colour schemes and mix them up with the different shapes of the levels, the feel of the game would break. For example, jagged level designs work with certain colour schemes and not with others. This led to a colour script for the game which helped create a consistent mood for the game. The music and sound were born out of the visual designs and vice versa. It was a really fun organic and creative process to get to the final game.
Early overview of the levels blocked out in simplified forms.
What tools were used to create the art assets for this game?
For me, no tool beats having an idea, putting some focused reference together and letting the human brain cook it for a while. Then a pen and paper is a good way of roughing things out before taking ideas further. After pen and paper I like to use vector programs, 3D packages and Photoshop. Unity itself has some pretty good particle, animation and scrolling UV tools, we learned a lot of tricks in this game and we’ll certainly be leveling up what you’ll see in the game!
Can you talk briefly about setting up the animation for the game? Was this all scripted in Unity, or was any of it done in an external 3D application?
I used to be an animator for a living in the games industry so I already have a good understanding of the basics. It was simply a case of transferring what I already knew to Unity. Unity has a wonderful animation system which will be familiar to anyone that has used the curve editors in Maya or Max. There’s always a few quirks in these things however I found it really easy to take elements, apply key frames and ensure the eases in and out were correct.
So I understand that Unity isn’t specifically optimized for 2D. I’ve heard many developers voice frustrations about this. Did you find any trouble creating a 2d game this way?
In short. No. In long – I’ve worked with game engines for many years so not only am I fully versed in the quirks of game development, I’ve grown quite comfortable with them. I can appreciate that people new to game development may feel frustrated by the demanding criteria that game development requires however I can promise that game development technology is light years ahead of where it was ten years ago. Thanks to these developments is actually relatively easy to make a game. Not easy full stop. Just a lot easier than it used to be. We’ve known for sometime that the notable rate of increase in graphical quality is reaching a plateau. So as game makers we have to find new areas to innovate in.
Anything more about your process that you can share?
For me, The Cat that Got the Milk was about innovating in art, sound and music and, in terms of gameplay, creating complexity through simplicity. The innovation in art requires an understanding of core art principles. I don’t pretend to have that understanding however, having an inkling of the power of art enabled me to paint The Cat That Got the Milk in ways that appear refreshing and new. What I’m trying to say is, that by examining and understanding what great artists have achieved in the past, we have the potential to create experiences that will enrich players lives in a valid way.
What I aim to do now is learn from the past masters and learn how we can use understandings of colour theory, classical composition, lighting etc to create experiences that really punch out the players eyes.
Thanks to Oliver for taking the time to talk with me about The Cat That Got The Milk. You can download the game for free (for OSX and Windows) from the official The Cat That Got The Milk site. You can also keep up with Ollie’s future endeavors by following him on Twitter.