Giving ‘hand-drawn’ a brand new meaning.
Perhaps one of my favourite things about games journalism is seeing projects with a lot of promise blossom into beautiful and fully-realised creations over years of work. The Collage Atlas is one such creation. In 2016, I was attending EGX in Birmingham as press for the first time, and a very early build of developer John Evelyn’s hand-drawn exploration game was on show. It was relatively barebones, but something about it really excited me. Two and a half years on, that excitement is just as strong having seen how far it’s come at Rezzed 2019.
The Collage Atlas is entirely drawn in fineliner pen, with intricate detailing throughout every asset. It’s composed of a mixture of 2D sprites and simple 3D objects that intertwine seamlessly, all on a static background texture of sketch paper that makes me feel like I’ve dived headfirst into John’s illustrations. The style and attention to detail make a lot of sense when you discover the game began as a picture book. “I had self-published some picture book some years before, and I was going to make a second one. It wasn’t going to be a game, I thought I’d done my game bit,” Evelyn explains.
“But, I was going to make an app to accompany the book, and just had these scenes that you could stand in and not really interact with. The book was going to be about themes of agency and having a meaningful effect on the world around you. In one of the scenes I’d put a pinwheel flower, that when you gazed at it, it spun. All of a sudden I was like, okay, this is the best way of communicating the messages that I’m trying to get across, so all of a sudden it had to be a game. It can’t be a book, it has to be a game.”
The interaction you have with your environment in The Collage Atlas is relatively hands-off. It could be considered a ‘walking simulator’ of sorts, and while I’ve come to adore such games, I think describing it as that would be doing it a disservice. The Collage Atlas to me is all about soaking in the gentle beauty of the world around you. One section of the demo has me finding swirling, glowing orbs that all come together to repair one of a selection of paintings. Another has me do the same, but I’m whisked off my feet and soaring through patches of forest and ramping up in speed with every orb I collect.
The Collage Atlas has an interesting relationship with speed. The demo isn’t awfully long and you can move quite quickly through it, but I found myself holding back on the analog stick to gently glide past the environment at a snail’s pace. “I had thought about slowing down the pace and bringing it right back, but actually some people want to hurry between points and then moderate their speeds at other points,” John told me. Agency in The Collage Atlas is key; moving at my own pace makes me feel a deeper connection with the experience that I might not otherwise have felt.
John has been making games since the age of 11, finding his start with Klik and Play, a piece of drag-and-drop game making software “which loads of developers seem to have started with.” Later he found a home making flash games on Newgrounds, until putting down the controller and becoming a graphic designer. After serious illness landed him in hospital, he reassessed things. “I remember saying to my dad when he came to visit me, I was like, ‘I need to be making games.’ That was the thing that was still burning away in the back of my mind.”
It makes sense, then, that what we can see of The Collage Atlas so far allows you to go at your own pace. You have the control to go as slow or as fast as you’d like – but if you rush through it all, you may miss out on the chance to stop and smell the roses.
On the booth art and the ‘thanks for playing’ screen at the end of the demo was the promise of a winter 2019 release. I asked John about it and he laughed, saying, “Yes, it does say that! If it was just a question of getting the content complete, then we’d be good for that.” Ironically enough, it seems that the question of The Collage Atlas’ release date is actually out of his hands for the time being.
“But the big questions really are around the business side and the publishing side of things. And that’s very much like… it’s just going to happen to me rather than me steering it. That’s the only reason why that 2019 date might be slightly more elastic, but we are certainly talking months, not years.”
Astrid is a formidable foe that has studied the art of the keyboard for many years. Her primary subjects of interest include labour rights in the games industry, really weird and artsy indie games, and adding “but Communism” to the ends of game titles as a means of coming up with ideas for what to write about.