Revving the Engine

Omno: In Search of Awe

This feature is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #124. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. While Epic puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.

Humanity has never been content with just one world to live in. Thousands of years of creativity have opened countless windows into smaller worlds that we observe, explore and escape into.

There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this. Our earliest cultures developed around finding – game, shelter, raw materials – and that urge to go get has never really left us, for better (the experiences gained through globe trotting vacations, say) or worse (the siphoning of resources through colonialism and military adventurism). It makes sense, given these impulses in our material lives that our inner lives would be characterized by a similar wanderlust.

While books and other mediums have been showing us other worlds for centuries, few can match the experience of movement and discovery conveyed through videogames. While many, perhaps the majority, of videogame worlds see their beauty wracked by strife, in recent years games like Proteus, No Man’s Sky and Journey have embraced a more peaceful sort of exploration in search of wonder. Joining their ranks later in 2020 is Omno.

Omno, an atmospheric adventure game of discovery through an world of ancient wonders, is the work of developer Jonas Manke, alias Studio Inky Fox. The game is full of puzzles and platforming challenges that take players across a number of environments, from frozen tundra to blasted deserts to lush woodlands, all teeming with life to observe and interact with.

“Shy rock-like crabs, helpful turtles,” says Manke. “Who knows? Maybe there’s even a friendly dinosaur to ride!”

Every region is populated with ruins and hidden secrets, accessed through the use of a magic staff. Manipulating these relics unlocks new ways to traverse the environment – dashing, gliding, flying. “I hope players will be able to dive into the world and experience some magical moments while simply exploring the surprises the game world has to offer,” says Manke.

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Omno represents a different sort of exploration for Manke: it is his first game development project. Before Omno, he spent ten years as an animator, mainly for film but occasionally for games like State of Decay. Through his games work, he was exposed to the Unreal Engine pipeline and started to fiddle with his own prototypes in his downtime. “I was able to prototype simple game mechanics and a couple months later I enjoyed expressing myself in many more ways than just doing animation,” he says. “That was an amazing creative freedom and it planted the seed of what would later become Omno.”

He shared the results with some devs via a Facebook group and he was bowled over by their response. “It made me think about my after work efforts in a different way. It was life changing actually,” he says.

Those first steps on a new journey eventually led to character. “Maybe it’s just my character animation background, but I focus on characters,” says Manke. “The character that I came up with back then just felt right to me. He transferred precisely what I wanted him to feel like and somehow everything evolved from there. I wanted him to appear curious and adventurous like a typical game hero, but with a vulnerable appearance, friendly and maybe a bit insecure. It might be more autobiographical than I would want to admit!”

The world of Omno sprang up around the character. Manke says that despite a sense of loneliness and melancholy that surrounded his creation, the character seemed to want to wander, to find adventure, to “be awed by the world around him,” Manke couldn’t refuse the little fellow’s wish.

While the game has been compared to Journey and the films of Studio Ghibli – something Manke discusses with a sense of awe – he mentions a particular painting by the 19th century Romantic Caspar David Friedrich that seems to sum up both Manke’s own inspirations, the themes of Omno and his own pursuit of game development. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) is perhaps one of Friedrich’s most famous works and depicts a man surveying a landscape from the vantage of a cliff. That landscape is a swirl of mist, crags and mystery. We can’t see the man’s face and have no idea what he makes of the scene, but the often imitated painting speaks richly of the imminence of adventure.

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The positive reaction the prototypes of Omno received on social media got Manke thinking that a crowfunding campaign might support the project. “Many busy days and a 300% funded Kickstarter campaign later,” he says, “I’m now working full time on Omno and plan to release it later this year!”

Despite the stress that accompanies a Kickstarter (“I can’t even tell you how many times I refreshed the campaign website to see if new pledges came in.”), the step was an important crucible for Omno. It pushed the game from a prototype and forged it into a business. More importantly, it gave the game an audience and made the game seem more real to Manke himself. “It was an immense motivational boost,” he says. “Just building a community, sharing the game, seeing it on the top of Reddit, featured on my favorite gaming sites and having the demo played by thousands of people and big YouTubers with millions of subscribers. I mean, I am giving interviews! How crazy is that?! Some would say I have fans. Unbelievable.”

As a solo developer, this sort of external validation is incredibly important. Though he is quick to point out that he does have partners – a composer for the music, Future Friends Games for marketing – the end product that is Omno is almost entirely shaped by his hands.

“Doing everything development wise on my own, from art to programming to game design, lets me realize my vision of the game without needing anyone’s approval or the need to compromise, which feels fantastic,” he says. “That being said, the biggest challenge for me is not being able to share smaller roadblocks – frustrations but also success stories – with a team. I think that is a side of solo development that is less discussed. On that note, a big shout out to my very patient wife who listens to my daily updates and thoughts around the game – a true blessing!”

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Despite the support of his wife and the company of his three kids, the road of solo development sounds like a difficult one for Manke. Without a team, he says it is harder to stay on track. He has to constantly reassure himself that the approach he is taking on a given problem makes sense. This makes feedback from fellow devs and the Omno community all the more important.

“I doubt that I would have been able to keep my motivation up without getting some feedback,” he says. “The huge response from Kickstarter was overwhelming, specifically all those streams of the demo I uploaded back then gave me so many valuable insights. So I try to remember that from time to time and when I have a bad day I turn on some of those clips and try to feel it again.”

When asked if he’d develop Omno with a team, knowing what he knows now about solo development, Manke is unsure. “It’s an insane roller coaster ride and sometimes I would love to share my thoughts and feelings with someone who works with me on this intensely as I do,” he says. “I’ve had my best and my worst days of my career within this. Doing this solo makes me proud one the one hand but it’s also intimidating, exhausting and a lot of pressure.

“Let me put it this way: For Omno it’s good as it is. But if I will have some budget for the next project, I will definitely try to find a few helping hands.”

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Manke is busy building two worlds, an imaginary one for people to play in and a real one that he’d like to inhabit as a game developer. But, given the chance (and a magic door), would he slip out of this world to explore the one in Omno?

“The world I’m trying to create in Omno is definitely a world that I would want to explore, because of the animals and the landscape, but the temples are abandoned; you wander through ruins and lost places that would make me feel pretty lonely, probably,” he says. “I’m not sure if that would be joyful for many people in the real world. But I feel as though that sense of solitude offers you an experience you barely have in your real life full of families, busy places and jobs. That is what I want to achieve with Omno, I think.”

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Follow Jonas on Twitter and Steam for regular updates on Omno’s development. Join the Discord for questions and discussion. For Jonas’ thoughts on his Kickstarter experience, check out his essay on Medium. Finally, look for Omno’s release later this year!

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