Arise: A Simple Story is something of an unconventional game. Following its release in December last year, Piccolo Studio’s first title was met with a warm critical reception, with reviews praising the game’s focus on emotional storytelling and inventive mechanics.
Indeed, while Arise’s pleasantly minimalist art style is typical of indie games of this ilk, the game’s emotional journey really resonated with players. The game is told from the perspective of a recently-deceased old man looking back on his life, with a significant effort on the part of Piccolo Studio to encourage the player to empathise with Arise’s nameless lead.
These efforts went so far as to hinder the player’s movements: although the game is mechanically a platformer, the old man is sluggish in his jumps, and slow to get back to his feet, forcing players to feel the pains of an elderly man as they go through his journey.
This emphasis on narrative to (some might argue) the expense of gameplay is far from the only thing that is unusual about Arise, however. Piccolo Studio was founded by three first-time developers, who as they entered their 40s took a drastic career change from advertising into game development.
To understand a little about what prompted established figures in the Spanish advertising world to suddenly enter game development in their middle age, MCV/DEVELOP sat down with two of Piccolo’s three co-founders, Alexis Corominas and Jordi Ministral.
“So the three of us have been working together for 20 years now,” Corominas begins. “And we met at a worldwide advertising agency in which we were developing interactive experiences for the web, for multimedia and all that. We were already blending creativity with technology.”
“This was about eight years ago,” Ministral cuts in, “when online advertising was way more creative than it is now. One of the things that forced us to leave advertising was that it is not that creative or peaceful anymore, it’s more tactical and all about the numbers and the marketing.”
“We had our own production company” Corominas adds. “We were making money, we were winning awards. But two things happened at the same time. On one hand, we were reaching 40 and we were starting to look back – like a mid-life crisis. Because we have, you know, the same amount of time ahead of us as we have behind us.
“Plus as Jordi said, this came with the mid-life crisis of advertising in Spain. Advertising started from something very creative to something very data driven, very cold. And it wasn’t fulfilling. Even though we were making money, and had a working company, we weren’t happy. We were just working, and we want to be passionate about what we do.
“So just like that, we decided to create a video game company because we had always been big gamers Jordi and I, even when we were kids, we were programming our own games like 30 or 40 years ago. So there was a little discussion about what we’re going to do next, and because we love video games, we decided to do that.”
“Of course, everybody around us said that we were crazy. Because we’re dismantling a working company, to start in an industry which is very risky, and very difficult when you start to raise funds for your first game. Especially if your first game is a narrative-driven emotional game with a lot of artistic values. I mean, you have to work very, very hard to convince people to put money up for that, but we were lucky and got to create Piccolo. So that’s that’s how we ended up making video games.”
“We were just working, and we want to be passionate about what we do”
The move isn’t quite as insane as it first sounds. While obviously the three had no real experience in actual game development, they found that there are a surprising amount of transferable skills between the two industries.
“Of course, we were experienced in running a company, working with technology and artistic values, on identifying how to tell a story – all the things we brought into Arise. On the other hand, we wanted to have a fresh approach, because many times during development, we said ‘okay, normally in every game, they will do that – but that’s not what we want to do.’
“All the people that we recruited into Piccolo have developed video games, because we wanted people with a lot of experience. It was a process of blending their experience with our own inexperience – that needed to be there because we wanted to do things that are not the way they are done. We weren’t using the usual production processes and measurements of production that all companies do. We stuck with the way we produced advertising to produce a game. From both a narrative and a production perspective, we were just doing a really long advertising project.”
This notion of treating game development as an advertising project confuses us at first, so Ministral steps in to explain.
“When we talk to other developers they always describe their game from a mechanic first and then build up to the ideas. Like, I’m doing a first person shooter, or I’m doing a platformer. We started with the idea, with the concept we wanted to try and meet – we want this idea, this message, this emotion to convey to the user and then we say okay, which is the tool which I have available in video games to transmit that?
“So whenever we chose to make a platforming section, or a section that is more action oriented, or more contemplative, there’s always a reason that goes back to the high level of the game of what we want you to feel at that particular point. It’s applied to every decision we made in development and production. I think this is something that is very advertising because it’s always idea first, and then execution later. And this is what I think we bring from advertising that is that is quite different. We start with the idea and then we choose a mechanic that best reflects that.”
Of course, being a total newcomer to game development isn’t without its problems, so the three placed full trust in the expert team they had assembled for Arise.
“I think one good thing is that we were so aware that we didn’t have any experience with video games,” says Ministral. “We didn’t pretend to – what we did was find the best. I mean, [we] basically Googled ‘who are the best professionals in video games in Spain?’ and tried to pick them up one by one and build a company with those guys. Making sure that they can provide the experience that we don’t have.
“We trusted them in the processes. We were very much the keepers of the higher level of vision of the game, because we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do. And we knew that some of the things that we wanted to do that were not conventional. And since we were the ones from outside, we had to keep that unconventional approach to what we wanted to do, but when it came to execution, we trusted the team totally, since we didn’t have any previous experience.”
Of course, given this dramatic career shift as the trio entered their forties, it certainly invites the (somewhat uncharitable) remark that it’s not just the Spanish advertising industry undergoing a mid-life crisis. Thankfully, it’s a reading that isn’t lost on Corominas or Ministral, so they don’t seem too offended. In fact, it provided the inspiration for the game itself.
“Yeah I mean, we were at that moment in our lives where we were looking back,” says Corominas. “So we started to talk about the possibility of the main character being an old man. Then we decided to have a dead old man as the main character because a dead old man has no future at all – he’s forced to look back.
“We started to see that when you look back at things, memories have an extra layer of melancholy. It’s not the same to have your first kiss, as to remember your first kiss when you’re an old man. So once we had the idea of the dead old man, recollecting and reliving different key moments of his life, then the next thing was to link it with love and the idea of a love story told through time.
“One of the things we had as a reference at this point was the Pixar movie Up – the story of the couple is told in two minutes. We wanted to recreate that, but stretch it to five or six hours with the old man being dead and recalling his lifetime with his loved one. And because of all the talk about time and memories, we came up with the idea of playing with time, which is what drives the game in terms of pure game mechanics. So our first idea that we had was a huge field of sunflowers orienting to the sun and you go from morning to evening.
“We started to find different time lapses and different environments that connected emotionally with the story that we were telling. There’s a reason why there are sunflowers and bees and cheerful spiderwebs in a level called Joy, because it’s like the world seen through the eyes of a child. It’s a very universal concept that everyone can relate to. It’s about joy, solace, love, romance, falling in love or getting pregnant, and all these kind of things that everyone can understand.”
“[We] basically Googled ‘who are the best professionals in video games in Spain?”
We’re not sure we can get behind the connection between a sensation of joy and the horrors of spider webs – but we take his point. But it’s this core focus on emotional storytelling that informed Arise’s title.
“We’re not trying to determine philosophical questions,” Corominas continues. “We’re talking about very basic raw emotions. We decided to call it A Simple Story which we feel suits the game. Life is simple – I mean, I know it’s very complicated. But at the very end, when you face the important moments that will define your life, like falling in love or losing someone, then it’s very simple. It’s all down to feelings, to emotions, and we wanted to translate that into the game.”
The game’s emotional core has certainly proved popular among players. Corominas proudly talks about watching Twitch streamers cry as they stream the end of the game, plus Arise currently boasts a respectable 80% on Metacritic – a positive sign for a studio’s first title.
Still, Arise hasn’t been wholly protected from criticism. Some players found the platforming mechanics frustrating. As mentioned before, while the sluggish movements certainly make the player empathise with the elderly protagonist, it’s a jarring change for gamers used to more traditional platformers. We understand the narrative purpose for it, but it certainly must have felt like a risk during development.
“We knew it was a risky decision,” agrees Corominas. “But we knew what we were losing in pure gameplay, we were gaining in adding to the empathy that we wanted to have with the old man. It was a risk, but we still think it was a good decision.
“We think we made some brave decisions like having an old man as the main character, having a character without eyes, that had to express everything with body language. Having a game without words, only using music and the body language of a man. These were, in our opinion, the bravest decisions that we made from the high level and we are very happy with how they turned out, and how people connect with them.”
Corominas and Ministral confirmed that they’re working on their next title already, but they’re refusing to give anything away: “It’s like when you’re baking a cake for a long time,” says Corominas. “You want that cake to be a surprise for someone you care for. That’s how we think of the next game. We have this artisanal idea, we are closed in our studio, working at night, and then when everything is done, we show it to people.”