At PSX last December, my game of the show was an indie title called Shape of the World by Hollow Tree Games. I had the good fortune of meeting the creator, Stu Maxwell, and he took a generous amount of time to discuss the game with me. The art style was immediately arresting, and I wanted to know more, both about the game, as well as his lineage in the industry.
Shape of the World, as described on the game’s website:
Shape of the World casts you as an outsider experiencing a surreal world that reacts to your presence. Journey through vibrant ecosystems that spring to life with psychedelic colors, splashing waterfalls, luminous monoliths, and graceful creatures.
A realm that leaves you free to progress at your own pace, without the incessant ticking of the clock. Find yourself pleasantly lost as you summit mountains, fly with whales, raise precipitous boardwalks, and slide swiftly to new and ever stranger environments.
I’m honored Maxwell took time out of his schedule to connect with me about his history (as well as his present) in the industry, and about Shape of the World, specifically.
RL: How did you come to game design? What other roles have you had in the industry?
SM: In high school I was a nerd who played a lot of Quake and made lots of levels for it. After high school, I completed a degree in Fine Art, and I found myself doing some fairly uninteresting graphic design work for awhile, but finally came to computer graphics since that was a thing I really enjoyed as a kid. So back to school, this time for computer animation, and at school I discovered Vancouver has a ton of video game companies. Oh, I thought, I could actually make Quake levels for a living (or the contemporary equivalent). Getting a job fresh out of school wasn’t hard, but the job I secured was for UI.
Eventually I would clamber over to an environment role, but I was quickly whisked away to VFX since that was what the studio needed. So within a few years I had studied the worlds of UI, environment art and VFX. At my next job I started scripting and making shaders, so I could really get around a game. At this point I met up with an old friend, John Warner, who was making his own game and I thought… He’s not any more magical than me, I could do this too. And thus what once seemed impossible seemed possible, and I started brainstorming and sketching.
RL: What was your inspiration for creating Shape of the World?
SM: When I started the game, I was doing a lot of biking through Stanley Park in Vancouver. There are endless trails through this old growth forest that’s oddly right at the edge of downtown. It’s very meditative at times, other times exciting, and I started noticing this feeling that I used to love as a kid: being pleasantly lost. I know I’m safe and I’ll find my way, but I don’t know where I am, so I just pick paths on the fly and go with the flow. Being lost…it can be really nice.
So I wanted to make an exploration game that’s like that experience. It’s about wandering and discovering, and not worrying about sticking to a path. I found I could add to the disorientation by spawning and destroying trees all around you, and plus it made a visual effect that felt great.
RL: What have been the high points (and low points) of creating your own game?
SM: Certainly starting a fresh project is super fun. Creating concept sketches and paintings, then prototypes. But eventually the plain and simple execution starts and it gets a lot more sweaty.
I also had a kid, so free time wore down to nothing. It’s been a challenge to keep working on this game no matter what happened in my personal life.
RL: How does your work on Shape of the World differ from your time working at a larger studio?
SM: It’s really night and day. I’ve worked on large projects with hundreds of contributors, in which an artist might work on a single asset full time for a week. On the art side, this is how photorealism is possible. By contrast, Shape of the World is the product of just a few people, with my hand responsible for nearly all the design, direction and engineering (though I’m getting help with porting). So this is really the product of one person’s design rather than a boardroom design with hundreds of contributors, and I think that makes the game very personal, direct in its message, and idiosyncratic.
RL: Has working on your own game changed how or what you appreciate in other games? What are some of your favorite games of all time? And why?
SM: As someone who has worked on both AAA and indie games, it’s hard to get immersed in games because I tend to see behind the curtain. I see the camera, the material techniques, the lighting decisions…it’s hard to get absorbed when there’s so much analysis to do. I tend to enjoy games that are so unusual and unpredictable that I can’t easily piece together an explanation for what’s in front of me. In the past decade, I’ve loved Pixeljunk Eden, then Flower, then Journey, but simultaneously Katamari, Grand Theft Auto, and Minecraft; each shockingly novel and full of surprises. They also have a strong sense of style.
RL: How do you come up with your color palettes? Do you name them?
SM: The color palette names aren’t too fancy. Here’s a few: shore_lavender, cove_warm_orange, swamp_wine, woodlands_brandy, rainforest_lime, caves_purple, mountain_gold. I’ve set up the materials so I can colorize the entire scene at once, like a coloring book. The player finds the colors changing around her as she progresses.
To create the palettes, I start combining different colors until they display an interesting energy together. They compliment each other by contrasting each other in hue or saturation. Deep magenta and pale gold, perhaps? Dark, faded purple with a sharp pink? Once I have two colors working together on the land, I add a third color on the tree leaves and water edges, then a fourth on the flowers and boardwalks. The less screen space the color takes up, the more unique it can be. Punch out the details with bright lime green or glowing orange!
RL: How did you come to work with your composer, Brent Silk?
SM: Brent and I met in high school when we discovered we had a common affinity for electronic music. We started sequencing music on our computers with ancient “tracker” software (the type of software typically used for 8- and 16-bit video games), but we tried to make quality-sounding techno and trip-hop. I went on to study visual arts while he continued creating music. Many years later, as Brent was establishing his career in video game sound design, it seemed really smart to pair up to create Shape of the World. The music that Brent crafted for this game is definitely among the best music he’s ever created, if not the best. I’m really happy with how it drives the player to explore.
RL: What is your most anticipated title of 2018 (aside from your own)?
SM: Donut County gets me the most excited. So simple, charming, and dripping with style. You control a growing hole in the ground, filling it up with progressively larger things. And other stuff I don’t understand. How do you come up with that? How does that even work? It’s another game with one person with a strong vision squarely at the center of it.
RL: What do you hope people take away from the experience of playing Shape of the World?
SM: I want people to go on a relaxing walk (and sometimes zoom and fly) that lets them forget about where they’re going. I want them to get pleasantly lost. Players should experience lots of little surprises as they oscillate between sticking to the path and wandering off into the woods. As I’ve been developing this game over the last 4 years, I’ve gained a child and adopted more responsibility at my day job, so more and more I’m looking for a game that can be truly relaxing. After a busy day, I don’t want to push my skills to the max, I want to put on my headphones and explore.
RL: Do you have a developer’s diary people can visit?
A huge thank you to Stu for his time and willingness to connect.
For more information on Shape of the World, please visit the game’s official website.
Shape of the World is set to release on PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2018.