There’s nothing quite like stop motion animation. We might be able to create near-real worlds with CGI and realize impossible fantasies with traditional 2D techniques, but only stop motion allows us to bring real objects to life. From Aardmann’s beloved Wallace and Grommit shorts to modern classics like Paranorman, the technique transforms intricate dioramas into tangible worlds. It might be time consuming and expensive, but in skilled hands the end result is always worth it. Unfortunately, that expense is largely too much for game developers to handle, and as a result you can count the number of stop motion games in the world on two hands.
Fortunately, it seems like more developers are adopting the technique, and the results are spectacular. The Vita’s defining platformer, Tearaway, affected the style, and made use of the technique for certain animations, but as a 3D game it was largely CGI fakery. In The Dream Machine, on the other hand, it’s all real. Cockroach Inc.’s episodic point and click adventure – a project six years in the making – wrapped up just last year, and it’s one of the most distinctly enchanting experiences you can play on steam. It’s not alone though; in the coming years we’ll be able to play several brand new stop motion games across a broad range of genres.
Of course, point and click adventures are a natural fit for stop motion animation – that’s something animators Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield figured out years ago. Back in the 90s they were employed by Dreamworks, where they worked on the groundbreaking adventure game The Neverhood and its platformer sequel Skull Monkeys. Now they’ve formed Pencil Test Studios to work on Armikrog, a spiritual successor to The Neverhood that promises to bring everything that made that game great into high definition. I had the pleasure of playing Armikrog and it’s everything fans could have hoped for and more. Their stretchy, expressive brand of claymation has only gotten better with time, and their morbid sense of humour is as funny today as it was two decades ago.
Armikrog comes alive like few other games, with a world made of real clay and paper mache and wool. The game world is packed with the kind of details you only see when every level is literally hand-built by the designers. They also know how to make adventure games – after all, they made one of the all-time best – and though their world is built out of craft supplies, it rests on a foundation of great puzzle design. I’ve only seen a few of the brainteasers Armikrog has on offer, but they’re a real mental workout. Adventure gamers are waiting for this game with baited breath, and the anticipation is well-justified.
And Pencil Test isn’t the only studio working on high definition stop motion games, either. Diorama games, newly formed by animation veterans Eric Urban, Kelly Mazurowski, and Kyle Arneson, builds its games from wood and felt and clay with a remarkably quick turnaround time. Not only that, but using a novel normal mapping technique they can apply dynamic lighting to their 2D characters and backgrounds, which makes their worlds feel impressively cohesive and believable. They tell me they have plans to work on an adventure game of their own, but we won’t have to wait long to play around with their creations. HungerBeast, a delightful endless runner that looks like something out of an Aardmann production, will be hitting mobile app stores this summer. It’s a good time to be an animation geek.