Tales From The Devs #1 - The Pixel Hunt

The Pixel Hunt #1 | Starting a new project

Welcome to Tales From The Devs, an exclusive new format that takes you behind the scenes of video game creation. In this first article, we follow French studio The Pixel Hunt as it embarks on an ambitious new project.

Founded by Florent Maurin, The Pixel Hunt is a studio renowned for its captivating narrative games and unique immersive experiences. Since its inception, the studio has built a solid reputation for exploring social and political themes through its games, while offering engaging and thoughtful gaming experiences.

With their last title, The Wreck, the studio won the admiration of the video game community for its innovative approach and commitment to interactive storytelling. Building on this success, the studio is now embarking on a new challenge: the creation of a role-playing game that will deal with climate change, ecological resistance and what it means to be part of humanity.

The Wreck

In this series of articles, we’ll take you behind the scenes of the development process for this new game. You’ll discover the challenges, inspirations and creative moments that shape this unique adventure. We can’t say it often enough, but making a video game and seeing it through to the end takes incredible stamina, which is why we want to follow Florent Maurin and his team, to help you discover the origins of the project, but also to talk about his game design choices, his music, the search for a publisher, the conception of a prototype or demo – in short, everything that goes to make up the life of a video game production.

Editor’s note: as the name of the game is still a secret, we have agreed with The Pixel Hunt to call it Project Gaia.

How did The Pixel Hunt come into being, and what are its core values when it comes to video game development?

The Pixel Hunt was born out of a decade of experience as a journalist specializing in children’s magazines. During this period, which lasted until 2010, I had the opportunity to translate complex subjects into accessible content for children aged 9 to 13. This experience was much more than just a profession: it was a school of life, confronting me with the need to simplify abstract concepts, demystify often complex realities, and respond to boundless curiosity with clear explanations and appropriate words. It was a constant exercise in synthesis, deciphering and adaptation, which sharpened my sense of pedagogy and reinforced my ability to identify the essential elements of understanding.

On the strength of this experience, and driven by a growing passion for the educational and entertainment potential of video games, the vision of The Pixel Hunt was born. My ambition was clear: to create games that, while entertaining, would continue to play the essential role of mediating between complex subjects and the public, but this time with a wider reach than that of the children’s press. The idea was to tackle deep, sometimes arduous themes by presenting them in an interactive and engaging way, in the hope of making them more accessible and understandable to a diverse audience.

The start-up of The Pixel Hunt was built around a pragmatic approach, with an initial phase focused on providing services for customers. This activity enabled us to generate the income we needed to survive, while building our reputation and developing our technical skills. Our first projects were web games created for clients, often audiovisual companies looking for digital content to accompany their productions. This period was particularly formative, as it exposed us to a wide variety of subjects and audiences, while giving us the freedom to choose the projects we were most passionate about.

Burry me, my love
Burry me, my love

However, from the earliest days of The Pixel Hunt, we also nurtured the ambition to develop our own games, ones that would carry our creative vision and identity. This ambition came to fruition with our first commercial game, Bury me, my love, released in partnership with ARTE in 2017. This was a major turning point for us, symbolizing our transition from service to original creation. This transition was not without its challenges, but it was a crucial step in our journey, enabling us to realize our creative vision while continuing to leverage our skills in service delivery.

We firmly believe in staying true to our core values: commitment to accessibility, quality and social impact, while constantly exploring new ways to innovate and inspire our audiences.

Florent Maurin, although neither Syrian nor a refugee, felt the need to give voice to this poignant reality. In Enterre-moi, mon amour, a collaboration between The Pixel Hunt Studios, Figs and ARTE France, the player is plunged into the fate of Nour, a Syrian exiled in Germany.

However, aware that this story goes beyond his own experience, Maurin and his team have approached this humanitarian drama with the seriousness and sensitivity it deserves. Inspired by the real-life correspondence of Dana, a refugee whose WhatsApp exchanges with her family were published by Le Monde in 2015, Maurin has transformed this story into an interactive narrative, offering a poignant and authentic testimony. In the game, Dana becomes Nour, and her narrative focuses on her journey and communication with her husband, Madj, who has remained in Syria.

Interface de Enterre-moi, mon amour
UI of Bury me, my love

Enterre-moi, mon amour is presented as a text messaging simulation, where the player takes on the role of Madj, responding to Nour’s messages and making decisions that influence the course of the story. Through this immersive experience, players share the protagonists’ doubts, hopes and fears, creating a unique emotional connection with the story.

Reality-inspired games

How would you define the concept of “Reality-inspired” and how does it differ from traditional games?

The concept of Reality-inspired games is an evolving one, and may seem abstract to some, but to me, as a former journalist, it’s a cornerstone of our creative approach. In the world of game development, I believe it’s essential to have a clear editorial line, a vision that guides our choice of projects and the way we approach them.

From my point of view, Reality-inspired games represent this deep connection with the world around us. They draw their inspiration from real-life stories, experiences and challenges. Every game we create at The Pixel Hunt, while it may offer pure entertainment and traditional game mechanics, always has a grounding in reality. We don’t see ourselves as serious game developers (editor’s note: a serious game combines a serious, educational, informative or training purpose with the playfulness of a game. Source), but rather as full-fledged video game developers, integrating entertainment elements while conveying an authentic message, experience or emotion.

What distinguishes games from the Reality-inspired is that they have something to say, a story to tell, a message to convey about the world around us. This approach opens up a vast field of possibilities, as it allows us to explore a wide variety of themes and subjects, while offering players an immersive and captivating experience. I think they represent, for me, this fascinating intersection between the real world we live in and the virtual world of video games.

What are the advantages and challenges of creating games that reflect real-world issues?

First of all, it lends deep meaning to our creative process. As creators, it’s essential to ask the question why: why we do what we do, and what impact we wish to have on our field of action. For me, exploring this dimension of video games is a real passion, because I believe our world is full of fascinating stories that deserve to be told and heard. Creating real-life games allows us to contribute to this narrative and offer players an experience that goes beyond mere entertainment.

Another advantage is the opportunity to bring something unique and authentic to the video game industry. By exploring themes and subjects that are often neglected by traditional games, we have the opportunity to stand out from the crowd and offer gaming experiences that leave a lasting impression. Every contribution, no matter how modest, can be noticed and appreciated for its uniqueness.

The Wreck
The Wreck

However, creating real-world games is not without its challenges. Many gamers are primarily looking for a means of escape, a palliative to the difficulties of everyday life. They can sometimes be reluctant to play games that remind them of the sometimes difficult realities of the world around them. This reluctance can translate into moments of rejection of The Pixel Hunt games, despite their political or social interest.

As developers, we also face economic constraints. We are aware that our games are unlikely to be commercial blockbusters, but we must nevertheless ensure that they enable us to continue to create and innovate. Striking a balance between our creative vision and economic imperatives is therefore a constant challenge.

After us, there’s a slightly more vain dimension. It’s not just that we know we won’t please everyone, but rather that if our work is misrepresented, it may be misunderstood. We aspire to leave a mark on the world of video games, to bring something a little different, while remaining modest in our approach. We’re aware that we’re not the best game designers in the world, but we’re determined to contribute in our own way to the evolution of the medium. All video games are valid and worthwhile in their own way, and our hobby is to explore the relationship with reality through our creations.

Florent Maurin distinguishes Reality-inspired games from serious games in terms of their approach and purpose. For him, Reality-inspired games are interactive experiences rooted in reality, but which focus on narrative and emotional exploration rather than direct teaching or problem-solving. A serious game is a game with a primary purpose other than entertainment. A serious game is a blend of serious content and a video game scenario. A serious game combines a down-to-earth, educational, informative or training purpose with the playfulness of a game.

With this in mind, serious games often have clearly defined educational or informative objectives, while Reality-inspired games focus on creating immersive, realistic experiences that enable players to live authentic stories and make complex decisions. The aim is therefore to make the serious content to be conveyed attractive, through form, interaction, rules and, where appropriate, ludic objectives.

Graphique expliquant comment conceptualiser ce qu'est un serious game
Graphic explaining how to conceptualize a serious game (source)

Reality-inspired games, such as Enterre-moi, mon amour and The Wreck, seek to capture the nuances and emotions of real-life situations, offering players an empathetic and immersive experience. While serious games may focus on specific topics such as project management or team management, Reality-inspired games allow players to explore broader themes and issues related to the human condition, society and culture. To achieve these objectives, the quality of the imaginary world is essential, as it enables players to immerse themselves in the proposed universe.

Although the two approaches may seem similar at times, Reality-inspired games are distinguished by their commitment to authentic storytelling and their ability to elicit deep reflection and an emotional connection with the characters and situations presented. Serious games, on the other hand, exploit multimedia resources such as images, sound and video to playfully transpose complex issues with serious stakes, such as project management or corporate training.

Have you also worked with ARTE on certain projects?

In fact, my link with ARTE goes back to my previous collaborations with audiovisual production companies working for them. I’d already been involved in projects where ARTE was the final client, which helped me establish a certain familiarity with their interactivity team.

When I introduced them to Bury Me, My Love, they were already familiar with my work and our team at The Pixel Hunt. However, their initial reaction was not unanimous. They had reservations about the way the game would tackle sensitive subjects, fearing that we wouldn’t find the right distance and that the game would fall into voyeurism or heavy-handed seriousness.

To convince them, we developed a prototype, financed in part by the European Game Fund. This prototype, co-written with Pierre Corbiné, demonstrated our thoughtful approach and commitment to realism and documentary. Eventually, ARTE was convinced by our approach and decided to co-produce the game with us. However, at the time, ARTE had not yet launched its video game publishing arm. Although they had envisaged Bury me, my love as their first published game, they preferred to remain in co-production so as not to be pigeonholed as publishers of games focusing solely on serious or realistic subjects.

Can you tell us about the reception of The Wreck?

The transition after The Wreck was an important period of reflection for us at The Pixel Hunt. After the release of a game, it’s essential to take stock with ourselves and the team of our expectations and criteria for success. These criteria can vary from person to person. Some aim for a million sales, others for critical acclaim or an emotional connection with players.

For me, what mattered most was whether the game had touched players in a profound way, and whether they had found a personal resonance in the experience we had created. And in this respect, The Wreck lived up to our expectations. Receiving feedback from players expressing the emotional impact of the game was extremely gratifying.

The Wreck

However, the commercial results were disappointing. This put us in a difficult position to tackle the next project. We analyzed what could have been done better, particularly in terms of communication and marketing.

As for nominations and awards, they have a limited impact on sales, but can be useful in reinforcing our credibility with publishers and potential partners (editor’s note: The Wreck was nominated in the “Beyond Video Games”, “Best Mobile Video Game” and “Narrative Excellence” categories). At the end of the day, awards serve mainly as a calling card for small independent studios like ours, allowing us to open doors that would otherwise be closed. In the video game industry, where data and numbers are often king, awards can be a way of demonstrating the artistic and creative value of a project, even if they don’t necessarily guarantee commercial success.

Following the release of The Wreck, Florent Maurin shared his thoughts on the creation of independent games in a Reddit post. He expressed his frustration at the game’s sales figures, acknowledging that it had not been a great commercial success, despite selling a few thousand copies on various platforms.

He raised the difficulty of selling a game like The Wreck, which explores deep, thoughtful themes far removed from traditional entertainment patterns. Florent Maurin noted that gamers often tend to look for games to escape reality, which can make it difficult to market games tackling serious, cathartic subjects.

However, despite these challenges, Maurin shared five personal reasons why he continues to create independent games. He stressed the importance of expressing himself on subjects close to his heart, such as life and death, and affirmed his belief that video games are a powerful means of generating discussion and raising awareness of these issues.

In his advice to other developers, Maurin encourages them to keep a list of their personal, authentic reasons for creating games, so as to remember their true purpose when difficulties arise. This reflects Maurin’s deep commitment to the creation of meaningful games, and underlines the importance of independent developers staying true to their artistic vision despite the challenges faced in the marketplace.

Choice of Ecological Theme

What factors prompted the decision to tackle ecological issues in your next game, Project Gaia?

For my part, as a creator, my concerns as a European citizen and as a human being have influenced the subjects we explore. For example, with The Wreck, the idea of talking about parenthood emerged from my own experience as a young parent. The car accident at the heart of the game was inspired by a real-life event that had a significant emotional impact on me.

As for the current project on environmental issues, it’s a theme that obsesses me personally, as well as my partner. I feel it’s essential to tackle this subject in our next game, but not in a banal way or one that’s already been dealt with in other works. The aim is to find an original angle that makes a real contribution to the discussion on the environment. The creative process involves defining precisely what we’re going to talk about and how we’re going to do it. This requires in-depth exploration and constant reflection, which has been underway for almost six months during the pre-production phase. The aim is to create a game that is both engaging and informative about contemporary environmental issues.

This preparatory work is essential to enable us to deliver a play that lives up to our expectations and resonates with our audience. We want to avoid clichés and stereotypes, focusing instead on aspects of the environmental issue that are perhaps not as widely explored in other media.

For me, as a designer, it’s important that our game can provoke thought in players and get them to consider these issues in a new or different way.

How do you think video games can help raise public awareness of environmental issues?

Some works take a straightforward approach, highlighting clear and explicit ecological messages, while others opt for a more subtle metaphor, as in games such as Jusant (you can find our interview with Mathieu Beaudelin in our podcast, as well as our The Art Of devoted to the game).

In our current project, my aim is not necessarily to raise awareness in the traditional way. I’m not looking to create a serious game with an explicit didactic intention. For me, the essential thing is to ask questions, provoke thought and perhaps even encourage collective reflection.

My starting point is that an issue that concerns me personally may also be relevant to others. By integrating this issue into the story I tell, I hope to share my questions with the public and potentially initiate a dialogue on these subjects. The idea is not to be militant, but rather to offer a platform for discussion and reflection. If this can bring about a change, however small, in society in the long term, then that’s an interesting and desirable side-effect of my creative work.

This approach recalls the theories of Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is broken, on the power of online games to change the world. In video games, players can collaborate with strangers from all over the world to achieve a common goal. This aspect of interaction and collaboration can be very powerful in sparking collective thinking and perhaps even action in the real world.

Jane McGonigal aims to harness the important human resource that is gamers. She believes that the way people play games generates character traits that are highly desirable in the real world. In games, people are motivated and encouraged to collaborate and cooperate, whereas in the real world, we are often depressed, cynical or overwhelmed. These feelings don’t exist in video games. On the contrary, online video games, such as World of Warcraft, foster the emergence of four very useful character traits in players: blissful productivity, the desire to work hard to achieve one’s goals; social fabric, collaboration with others and teamwork; urgent optimism, the ability to act immediately to overcome an obstacle; and epic sense, the enthusiasm to acquire knowledge about a subject. These are all desirable problem-solving characteristics, and we should play more games to cultivate them in ourselves. Gamers have these qualities, we just need to figure out how to use them. If we can, we’ll have access to an unprecedented human resource, growing in number and intensity every year.

Can you introduce us to the key members of the team working on this new project, their respective roles and their specific contribution to the Project Gaia?

In our team for this new game, there was a certain continuity with The Wreck. Alexandre Grilletta, who was our art director, is back in that role on our next game. I also wanted to continue working with Colorswap Studios, our sound design team, but they decided to embark on a musical adventure. However, we’ve found a fantastic replacement in Clotilde, with whom I’m delighted to be working.

On the development side, Horace Ribout, our developer on The Wreck, was keen to continue, but he had other career aspirations. So I met Davide Barbieri, an Italian developer who had already worked on our console ports. He was enthusiastic about the idea of working on our new project, which really appealed to me. We also have Pauline Osmont, who worked on The Wreck‘s interface. Although she prefers to remain freelance, she was keen to contribute to our new prototype, and I’m delighted to be working with her again.

What I think is great is that, even though these people are not under contract with The Pixel Hunt, a large part of our previous team has decided to re-sign on our new game. It’s fantastic to work with such talented people, and I’m grateful to be able to continue this collaboration.

I’ve also noticed that more and more studios are operating in this way, with a small group of regular collaborators surrounding the main designer, but also calling in freelancers for specific assignments. This allows for flexibility and diversity, which can be very beneficial for the creativity and quality of projects.

Can you tell me about the game design decision to go for a role-playing game?

There’s a pragmatic aspect: the niche of role-playing games is broader than that of purely narrative games. The mechanics offer a replayability that traditional narrative games don’t necessarily provide. Today, gamers are looking for this replayability, especially given the diversity of games available on the market.

Moreover, this choice is in line with our purpose. We’re telling the story of a young woman who finds herself in a world she feels she must change, and she herself must become this force for change. The central question is how she will accomplish this mission. Role-playing mechanics provide a dynamic answer to this question. When creating a character, the player has to think about which personality would be best suited to accomplish the mission, which will influence the course of the story and the choices to be made.

Our aim is to offer a deep, immersive gaming experience, where each path taken by the player leads to different outcomes. In particular, we draw inspiration from games like Disco Elysium, which offer a rich and complex narrative experience, but where replayability lies in the player’s personality choices rather than in the evolution of the story itself.

Role-playing allows us to offer an interactive and engaging experience, where the player can truly shape the story according to his or her choices and vision of the character. This adds a dimension of depth and variety to the gaming experience, while enabling in-depth exploration of the themes and issues addressed in the game.

Some reviewers have compared Disco Elysium to an interactive book or a virtual adaptation of a paper role-playing game, but I find these comparisons a little simplistic. Although the game borrows elements from both formats, it offers an original experience rooted in the video game medium. Disco Elysium stands out for its impressive quantities of text, evoking immersion in a literary saga, and for its progression mechanics, reminiscent of traditional role-playing games.

Disco Elysium

Unlike a book, however, Disco Elysium is not linear. Over the course of a single game, players may explore only a fraction of the full game text, depending on the choices made for their main character and the decisions made during interactions. What’s more, the combination of different traits available offers players an almost unique experience each time they play, adding a depth of replayability. Each new game of Disco Elysium can reveal different facets of the story and characters, offering players the chance to explore alternative paths and discover new narrative elements every time.

How do the game’s artistic style and visual design help reinforce the themes and atmosphere of Project Gaia?

The game’s artistic style and visual design are essential to immerse players in the narrative and emotional experience we aim to deliver. By adopting an approach based on simple geometric shapes to create complex landscapes, we aim to capture the player’s imagination from the outset and provide a distinctive and memorable visual experience.

Concept art du Projet Gaia
Concept art of Project Gaia

As well as reinforcing the game’s overall aesthetic, this stylistic choice also helps to convey its themes and atmosphere in a subtle yet powerful way. The landscapes thus created reflect the journeys and challenges encountered by the characters, while allowing players to fully immerse themselves in the game’s universe. Artwork and visual design are not simply decorative elements, but essential narrative tools that enrich the gaming experience and reinforce the emotional impact of the story.

Editor’s note: One of the next articles will be devoted entirely to the artistic style and design of the game.

What are the immediate next steps in the development of Project Gaia?

Our main objective is to finalize a playable prototype. This step is crucial both to test our intuitions about the project and to present our vision to potential partners. The prototype will enable us to demonstrate the game’s aesthetic experience, its narrative potential and its appeal to players. It will also provide us with a solid basis for discussion with potential partners, showing them concretely what we have in mind and inviting them to participate in our project.

We are working diligently to have this playable prototype ready by May. Although not intended for the general public, it will be available for potential partners to evaluate our proposition. We also intend to present it at Gamescom, a major opportunity to meet publishers and investors from all over the world.

At the same time, we continue to seek support and funding for the development of the game. We are aware of the challenges associated with prototyping a narrative game, but we are determined to meet these challenges and successfully achieve our goals. In this pre-production phase, every member of the team is fully committed to realizing our vision. We move forward with confidence and determination, aware of what’s at stake, but equally enthusiastic about sharing our creation with the world.

We’ve been able to retrace The Pixel Hunt’s early projects and editorial line to give you a better overall understanding of their upcoming game. We hope you found this first issue interesting. We’re still experimenting a little with the shape of this format, so it’s bound to evolve according to the subjects covered.

We’ll be back soon for another article with The Pixel Hunt, this time dedicated to the editing and design of a prototype and demo.

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