Hey, young creatives – learn how to make video games – apply for the Playing Narratives program!
Serbian Games Association (SGA) is organizing the Playing Narratives program for the third time this year, and applications for the new cycle are already open. If you want to peek into the world of the gaming industry, and you are interested in narrative design, 2D and 3D art, animation or music and sound design, this is a great opportunity to gain a rare experience!
Due to the call for applications for the third cycle of the Playing Narratives program, here is an interview conducted by Tatjana Ristić, a participant in the first cycle of the program, with the last year’s winners. The Rag & Bone team consists of Manja Topalović (Narrative and Game Designer), Olga Janković (Music and Sound Designer), Vojislav Janković (Concept and 2D Artist) and Nikola Marković (Animator and Environment Artist).
TATJANA: What did you do before Playing Narratives?
MANJA: Mine is the most classic background for a narrative designer – comparative literature.
TATJANA: Oh, we are colleagues! Okay, you don’t have to tell me more, everything is clear.
MANJA (laughs): Yes, so I decided that I should come to Playing Narratives the first time I went to the employment bureau and realized that my degree title officially did not exist, so it was time to change it.
OLGA: I am a composer of contemporary classical music and currently a Ph.D. candidate in musical composition at FMA. Honestly, in the beginning I felt like an intruder at Playing Narratives because I don’t have time to play games. I took a step back every time someone would ask: “What are you playing?” I was recently introduced with music in video games and got excited about the possibilities of interactive music and how it can affect the player/listener. I accidentally stumbled upon Yboga studio and made music for them, that’s how it all started. Then I heard about Playing Narratives. Without expecting anything, I received a: “Good day, you are accepted.”
NIKOLA: I come from the world of 3D and just as I finished college, the application for Playing Narratives started, so my friend Kaća, who was a part of the first cycle, ordered me to apply. (He laughs.)
VOJISLAV: I’m a bit older than the others, I graduated in graphic design, but for years I’ve been working at a job that doesn’t interest me at all. Somehow things came together, I quit my job, saw the aplication for Playing Narratives and applied. The rest is history. By the way, I was rejected the first time, then, I guess, someone gave up, so I entered instead of them. Whoever it is, I thank them for this opportunity! (He laughs.)
TATJANA: Can you briefly introduce me to your game?
RAG & BONE: This game is a visual novel based on a dialogue system. In conversation with the characters they meet, the players discover different narrative levels. The story of the game takes place in a world ruled by robots. It is a segregated society and the players climb the social ladder, playing as a bodysnatcher, i.e. stealing other people’s bodies. This is how they learn about the social hierarchy and all its problems. The body of the person the players take over has its own will, so they and the body fight each other. The game rewards, that is, gives penalties depending on whether the players resist the body or listen to it. Through this process, the player learns about the private story of the body, its world and class. The essence of the game is in balancing progress and roleplay, or in other words, in weighing between what the players want to achieve and what they want to become.
TATJANA: How did the game development process go?
MANJA: The narrative designers pitched ideas of games, and then the teams were formed by participants voting for those ideas they liked the most. I like to play tabletop RPGs, so this is one of the worlds that I invented “on the side” with a friend, experimentally did the pitch, thinking it was just homework, and unfortunately people liked it. (Everyone laughs.) Then the whole team offered suggestions regarding further development of the idea, and discussed how to adapt the narrative to the possibilities of visual and musical design.
OLGA: The music we made for the game is an experimental combination of electronics and vocals, so it turned out to be closer to me than I expected. The challenge for me was the sound design, because I was a beginner in the field. It wasn’t until Playing Narratives that I discovered what it really means. It was very interesting and I would like to continue doing sound design. In terms of music, the only problem was how we were going to “show off” our sound at the presentation.
VOJISLAV: I liked the cyberpunk story, that’s why I chose Manja’s idea, but then everything changed completely. The characters were supposed to be people, but they turned out to be robots, to make things more interesting.
MANJA: Yes, the final story is my interpretation of Olga’s wishes. She thought the concept for the game was too plain, i.e. that the game would be mimetic, because it imitates reality too much. To make it unusual, we chose robots. They are not necessarily androids, even though they have human consciousness, as they do not visually resemble humans, and some do not even resemble the organic world in general. This placed greater emphasis on concept art and increased the level of creativity.
VOJISLAV: We agreed on what the robots should look like based on the rough concepts that I provided. Afterwards, I did a more detailed version of what we decided on. Since the characters are robots, they were created with a purpose (unlike humans) and, therefore, their design should have reflected that purpose, e.g. the role they play in society. What was an additional creative effort was that all citizens were a social flop because their services were no longer needed, so they were forced to adapt and find new social roles – and these narrative layers were shown in the concept art itself.
NIKOLA: I did the map of the first level. We combined cyberpunk and brutalism.
TATJANA: It’s interesting that in terms of environment you have a similar concept to Scars Above, a game by the Serbian studio Mad Head Games.
MANJA: Well, yes, they stole our concept. All good ideas were heard at Playing Narratives. Just kidding, there was no direct inspiration as far as narrative was concerned.
NIKOLA: In terms of design, especially UI design, we were inspired by Citizen Sleeper. The combination of brutalist architecture and the organic world was obviously Manja’s idea. Now these things are increasingly being combined in other games as well.
MANJA: Only we left out the associations to the organic world and the Eastern Bloc in the end, but the story basically started as Eastern Europe in a cyberpunk world. That is the reason why all the characters’ names were taken from the Slavic folklore. Because of the war, we decided to suppress this undertone, even though this whole world was created as a result of a war in which all people died. The topic was too evocative for what is happening today, so we decided to leave it out of the presentation.
VOJISLAV: The main antagonist is named Kašej from Cache, so Slavic folklore also had a technological twist. Eventually, his name was changed to Vitruvian, after Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, to make the meaning more universal. We had a lot of ideas, but a lot of them were not used, too. We did a lot of work and then summer came. With had no lectures, we were left to ourselves and everyone went in their own direction, so there was a standstill.
TATJANA: You didn’t have a control freak in your team to bug you over the summer. That was me in my team in the first cycle, I admit. So, what are you planning now, are you going to continue this project?
MANJA: It’ll have to wait for a moment when we all know better what we are doing. We have learned to present, but we need to master the tools that would help us realize the game.
TATJANA: What did you get from participating in Playing Narratives? (Everyone is silent.)
MANJA: Should I answer? I have a tendency to talk too much anyway.
TATJANA: I think it’s more that they tend to let you do all the talking. (Everyone laughs.)
MANJA: The international moment meant the most to me. I’ve teamed up with people from different countries and we’re working together on a game now, hoping to open an indie studio at some point.
VOJISLAV: It was nice that we visited the gaming companies in Novi Sad and the live lectures were great, but the acquaintances definitely meant the most to me. Before Playing Narratives, I knew roughly what concept art was, but through working on this project, I got more familiar with it.
NIKOLA: As a 3D artist, Ubisoft’s lectures helped me a lot. I found out what the bigger studios are paying attention to. In addition to the tools I started using, the process of making the final presentation was interesting to me, because I had not come that far before. But, of course, socializing and acquaintances were the most important.
OLGA: Now when I want to find out something regarding music in video games, I know exactly who to write to. And here you have it: Nikola is making MetaHumans for my operas. It was also useful to learn about the structure of gaming companies – who does what and who answers to whom.
TATJANA: What would you say to those who are hesitant to apply?
OLGA: Of course you should – you should grab every opportunity that comes your way!
VOJISLAV: Sign up, it was great!
MANJA (thinking how to put it): You will have the opportunity to meet important people who you will be able to ask for help in the future. For example, people from 3Lateral, Ubisoft and Mad Head Games gave us their emails, and some even offered to review our projects.
NIKOLA: I completely agree with Manja. If you don’t sign up, you’re missing out on the chance to meet super cool people with similar interests to you, who you can learn from and make friends with.
TATJANA: Well, you’ve heard them, and I’m happy to join the recommendation! The application for the new cycle of Playing Narratives started on March 17th, so it’s high time to get your portfolio ready!
Such a program would not be possible without the support of the RECONOMY project, as well as dedicated partners from the industry: 3Lateral / Epic Games, Ubisoft Belgrade and Two Desperados. In addition to them, the platform and festival A Maze / Berlin, as well as the Goethe Institute and the French Institute in Serbia participate in the project.
RECONOMY is a regional inclusive and green economic development program of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation together with the organization Help – Hilfe zir Selbsthilfe e.V. and other partners in the countries of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership.
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U galeriji Grafički kolektiv, u četvrtak 16. novembra u 19 h otvara se jedinstvena izložba berlinskog festivala A MAZE., sa deset “arthouse” video igara autora iz Holandije, Nemačke, Južne Afrike, Francuske, Danske, Kanade i SAD. Izložba je deo programa Playing Narratives, i biće otvorena do 25. novembra.
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