This story is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #115. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. Every month, we profile the recipient of an Unreal Dev Grant. While Epic puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.
With all the various flavors of shoot-em-ups that dominate the market, it is easy to forget that videogames can offer a variety of experiences. Where else but videogames, after all, can you play a pair of neon dolphins on a haunting quest to restore balance to their oceans?
That is the basic idea behind Jupiter & Mars, an underwater adventure game built for both virtual reality and conventional play. Why is the relaxing exercise in undersea exploration haunting? Because it takes place in a post-humanity earth. The imbalances the two dolphins seek to correct at the behest of the ancient Elder whales were created by the legacy of our technology and its excesses, still disrupting the environment long after we’ve exited stage right.
Jupiter & Mars was developed by Tigertron, a Brooklyn-based company founded by James Mielke and Sam Kennedy. Mielke’s work in games includes Child of Eden, Lumines Electronic Symphony and the Pixeljunk series, and DNA from all of those games is apparent in Jupiter & Mars. Kennedy, meanwhile, previously worked in marketing, launching titles like Destiny and various Call of Duty games, bringing a whole other set of talents to the company. Together with a small, mostly remote team, and in collaboration with ocean-focused non-profits Sea Legacy and The Ocean Foundation, Tigertron developed Jupiter & Mars, which saw release, appropriately, on Earth Day of this year.
James Mielke was kind enough to chat with us about the games development.
Comparisons to Ecco the Dolphin are probably inevitable, so let’s get that out of the way up front. How did that game impact your work on Jupiter & Mars, and what other places did you look for inspiration?
James Mielke: Interestingly, Sam and I recently had a conversation with Ecco creator, Ed Annunziata, about this. That guy’s got great stories, especially to a major SEGA fan like myself. However, during that chat I confessed that I never really played Ecco in its heyday. One, I was a young adult trying to make ends meet, so I didn’t have a lot of disposable income in those days. I had a Genesis, but only had Sonic the Hedgehog (pack-in games are the best), Altered Beast and Toejam & Earl. I tried Ecco later, but never got very far as the game was pretty tough. So besides the common link of having dolphins in both of our games, there’s no real crossover or influence from Ecco in Jupiter & Mars. Like they say in the movies, any likenesses are purely coincidental, for better or worse.
What drew you to the idea of creating a game centered on a strong ecological message (even launching it on Earth Day)?
J. M.: Well, Tigertron as a company was founded to develop games inspired by the real world. If, knock on wood, we’re fortunate enough to make the games we want, they’ll all take place in this post-mankind future Earth we established in Jupiter & Mars. Future games will take place on the same planet, but viewed from different perspectives. So launching our first game on Earth Day 2019 was a bit of good fortune and available windows where we could get major promotion spots on the PSN store. Our game was actually meant to come out a year earlier, and who knows whether it would have aligned with Earth Day 2018, but as we finally got the game ready to ship it just so happened that our suggested release date was the day after Earth Day. So we asked Sony if we could release it a day early instead. I didn’t think they’d allow it, but much to our surprise they OK’ed it. I ended up being in Paris on the actual launch of the game, which is also kind of fitting, what with the Paris Accord and all that. It was pretty cool, all around.
Seeing the submerged Statue of Liberty is a powerful emotional beat (as well as a nice reference to another post-human sci-fi story). Can you talk a bit about the ways you chose to convey your ecological themes through the game’s environments?
J. M.:The best way to communicate the potential tragedies that await us, we felt, was to showcase familiar environments in unexpected settings. Since our game world takes place underwater, that made for a pretty obvious opportunity: To put familiar and iconic landmarks in a different context than what we’re used to seeing them in, just like Planet of the Apes, where you see the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. We wanted to have a similar effect on players. We don’t really beat anyone up with our messaging. There’s no text that says “this is bad” or “stop doing anything.” Instead we just place something you might find familiar in a setting you probably hadn’t considered before and let that imagery do the talking.
Jupiter & Mars was created in collaboration with Sea Legacy and The Ocean Foundation, two non-profits dedicated to conservation of our oceans. How did the collaboration come about and what shape did it take in terms of creating the game?
J. M.:The involvement of both of these organizations was great. It is an understatement to say that not everyone ‘gets’ videogames. A lot of groups assume all games are violent, or any other number of misconceptions about this favorite pastime for millions of people around the world. Tigertron set out to change that perspective, and show that games could be a medium for positivity, expanding beyond its basic function as pure entertainment. We felt there was an important opportunity that wasn’t being seized, in that an entertaining game experience could also be an ambassador for the art form into other areas outside the gaming stratosphere. We’ve appeared in environmental magazines with Sir David Attenborough on the cover. That’s pretty amazing, and we were very honored to be included in that magazine.
SeaLegacy and The Ocean Foundation appear as unlockable videos in Jupiter & Mars. We tried to keep it unobtrusive, but also quite accessible, and I think it’s important for people to see how progressive these groups are to participate in something like this. Maybe it’s not the most effective way to utilize these partnerships, but we’re still learning, and trying, and figuring out what’s best.
SeaLegacy went a step further and provided the voice of the narrator in the game, as provided by their co-founder Cristina Mittermeier. She has a wonderful storytelling style, a great speaking voice and the aura of experience in her delivery. She tells the tale of Jupiter and Mars in the same way a tribal elder might pass down a legend from one generation to another, and I think it’s very fitting to have her presence in the game. She was a pleasure to work with.
The game is visually surprising, with its striking neon ocean. How did you develop that aesthetic?
J. M.:If you’ve seen Child Of Edenor Lumines Electronic Symphony, you’ll probably be able to see that the DNA of those games continues on in Jupiter & Mars, because it’s an aesthetic that appeals to me. Before entering the games industry, I worked in nightclubs in New York City for ten years, DJing and bartending. Electronic music and those kinds of visuals are embedded in my psyche, so with our electronic soundtrack for the game and the futuristic, environmentally impacted nature of our game world, creating these neon visuals – especially in Jupiter’s echolocation effect – seemed like a natural fit. I think you’ll see more of this as we move forward into other aspects of this future Earth. I don’t want it to be obtrusive, or neon for neon’s sake. But you’ll see elements of this interpreted in different ways if I have anything to do with it. Photo realism isn’t very interesting to me, because if I wanted that, I’d just stick my head out the window.
Jupiter & Mars is available as both a regular game and in VR. Do you see either of those modes as the preferred experience? Were there challenges in developing for both?
J. M.:Well, we designed it for VR initially. I mean, that’s the way you really need to do it. You can’t just take a regular, non-VR game and make it work in VR. There’s too many considerations for VR that you can take for granted in ‘normal’ mode. Whereas, the flipside is that it’s much easier to take a VR game and have it work in ‘normal’ mode with very little effort.
But in developing it for VR, beginning in 2016, there wasn’t as many proven examples of what works and what doesn’t in VR, so we had to be careful in how we designed things. Acceleration, cutscene camera movement, navigation, etc., were just some of the challenges we had to overcome to ensure no one got motion sickness. Imagine if the first time you tried a VR game was with Jupiter & Mars, and it immediately made you sick? You’d never put on a VR headset again.
That said, I’d say 95% of the people we’ve seen play the game have had no issues with VR and I like to think that’s due to our efforts in creating a really natural control scheme for VR. I think playing both ways allows people to do whatever feels comfortable for them. I’m really glad that it’s playable in non-VR because we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from players who say that they love the game in VR, but that it’s great that they can take a break from the headset without having to stop the game. We’ll try to do this every time we make a game in VR.
What do you hope players take away from playing Jupiter & Mars?
J. M.:I hope they just have a wonderful time. This isn’t Dolphin May Cry, so there’s not a lot of hardcore action in the game. We’re not trying to make dolphins do things that feel unnatural, like collecting coins or solving some Indiana Jones-style puzzles. We’ve tried to create a relaxing, organic world where the problems you face feel intimidating to mammals of their size and intellect, but aren’t overwhelming either. If you walk away from Jupiter & Mars feeling like you’ve played something fresh and unique, that’s great. But if you walk away remembering our characters and story, that’s even better.
Why did you choose Unreal Engine 4? Are there any unexpected benefits or challenges working with it?
J. M.:From a programming perspective, and for what we wanted to achieve visually, it seemed like Unreal 4 was a better fit for us, especially in terms of framerate and rendering, all the programmers wanted to work with this engine. It didn’t even seem like a contest, really.
One of the game’s lead programmers, Stephen Anderson, said “[Unreal Engine 4 is] a powerful engine with a built-in support for VR, a solid history on the PS4 and a suite of production tools that allowed the dev team to easily iterate on design ideas and focus on the message that we were all aiming for, without sweating the small stuff.”
Did the Dev Grant allow you to do anything you otherwise would not have been able to?
J. M.:The Dev Grant was an unexpected blessing, but one we appreciated very much. The financial part certainly helped, but the more important acknowledgment was that Epic and Unreal saw value in what we were doing with Jupiter & Mars. I am guessing they saw value in how we were using Unreal 4 stylistically that was different than how most developers going for a hyper-realistic approach typically use the engine. And then there was the whole environmental facet that they also appreciated, which gave us a sense of validation as a company.
The actual quote we got from Dana Cowley at Epic, was this, “Tigertron have clearly poured their hearts into making a game that is not only beautiful and fun to play but one that takes it a step further with a stirring message. We’re proud to award an Unreal Dev Grant to the team for their inspiring work on Jupiter & Mars.”
That meant so much to us as a company that it’s difficult to overstate. We get a lot of comments from industry colleagues, who say things like “what you guys are doing is very important,” and these things are just as important to us. But when a company as influential as Epic/Unreal backs up that feedback with a grant, it feels very real.
* * *
Jupiter & Mars is out now on PS4 and PSVR