A journey through life
The Australian and New Zealand video game scene is bursting with talent in all regards - we have studios making mobile smash hits, unique gameplay experiences, ambitious multiplayer games, narrative driven titles, the list goes on.
One particular standout in the narrative field is Melanie Taylor, and her studio Mellow Games. Melanie is an accreditive narrative/game designer who has given in-depth talks about the architecture of designing story-focused games and how developers can create emotional engagement through narrative and game design at multiple Game Connect Asia Pacific expos. On top of this, Melanie also gives back to the community through The Working Lunch initiative - a mentorship program for Australian and New Zealand game developers.
Mellow Games is currently working on their debut title Blueberry – a colorful, mysterious and tragic narrative platformer game about growing up, growing old and dealing with trauma. We recently sat down with Melanie to discuss Blueberry, Mellow Games, and their expereicnes navigation the Australian game dev landscape.
Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us to discuss Mellow Games’ upcoming title Blueberry. Being the studio's debut title, tell us a little about its history and team?
I founded Mellow Games in 2018 after moving from Hamburg, Germany to Brisbane. Back in Hamburg, I had been working with a team called Osmotic Studios, which I had co-founded together with two friends that I had studied with. We released our first game Orwell - Keeping an Eye on You in 2016. Orwell is an interface-based digital data spying game where the player takes on the role of a government agent who spies on a group of people, digging further and further into their private lives. For us as a tiny indie studio, it was a massive success and we got lots of positive reviews both from players and press. It lead us to release a follow-up called Orwell - Ignorance is Strength which focused on themes like the media echo chamber and fake news.
It’s fantastic Orwell was greeted with such positive acclaim after tackling the ever-present issues of Government overreach. What lessons did you learn while developing the award-winning series that helped in the process for Blueberry?
One of the biggest lessons I learned is how to work in a team and manage several contractors constantly giving them briefings, feedback and following up on their tasks. I also learned so many things around business development regarding pricing, Steam statistics, publisher contracts and all kinds of weird details about taxation while distributing worldwide software products etc. It sounds boring, but seriously - it is so helpful and I am very grateful that I was able to go through the full business cycle from being a group of friends who want to make games right up until contract negotiations when I left the team.
Obviously, I also learned a great deal about mechanics and UI design, especially since I was responsible for all of the visual parts of the game and I worked on the writing and design with our game designer. This knowledge became much deeper, but I had worked on narrative games before when I was studying, while the business aspects seemed a lot scarier for me before. All of this seems very managable to me nowadays. This is probably why I was not afraid to start my new studio all by myself literally on the other side of the world.
Those situations when your thrown into the deep end are often the experiences that force you to come out the other end stronger! After arriving in Brisbane and setting up Mellow Games how was the process starting a new studio from scratch - did you go at it solo for a while or was the plan to find some collaborative partners from the outset?
So I started out with Mellow Games as a solo developer, but my plan was from the start to find collaborators. Making games has always been a collaborative process to me and it is much easier to be able to split the tasks and rely on other people's expertise. I programmed the first prototype myself, but I am not a programmer, so it was quite rudimentary. So I started working with contractors shortly after this and we are now a team of four people, including me: Phoebe, our 2D animator, David, our programmer and Anders, our audio designer. I do all the creative direction and art, but I am still the only one working on the game full-time currently.
As well having spoken at the Games Connect Asia Pacific conventions for your narrative expertise, you’re also part of the brilliant Working Lunch initiative – an Australian mentorship program for new and underrepresented game developers. How have you found the experience of mentoring and generously giving back to the community?
I love it! Unfortunately, the Working Lunch has been pretty much on hold since the pandemic, but I have kept in touch with my mentee and am very thankful and proud of being part of this intiative. I feel like mentoring is a lot about being there for people when they need me and not only giving advice myself, but also finding people for them that can if there are things that I don't know. I still answer emails from people who are new to the games industry, since I explicitly encourage people to do this if they have questions or are struggling. Since I love making games and the games community so much, it is important to me to give back and help others.
Blueberry looks to offer an inviting mix of platforming and narrative driven gameplay, how did Mellow Games land on the idea of combining these two genres?
The original idea came from being able to play a person's life from birth to death. I wanted the player to choose a path through this person's life, changing some aspects of it as a result. The idea to give the player a narrative goal as well, which is to find out what caused Blueberry's trauma, occurred to me later. Since it seemed like a good analogy, I settled on a tower as the element inside Blueberry's life that the player has to climb in order to find the doors to her memories. This also meant that we could let players go back down the tower whenever they find a memory link leading back to an earlier memory. Blueberry is basically teleported back down to a certain door which leads to a memory that was already played and finds new areas or aspects of the scene that weren't there before. This is actually inspired by how memories really work: They are not like files that we can activate when we think of them. Instead, every time we tell a story or go through it in our head, it changes a little.
So the mini-games seemed great for the actual story-telling and dialogue, while the platforming seemed a good way to give the player a bit more freedom to explore the world inside Blueberry's mind and evoke player emotions through environments, objects or weather.
Very impressive thought-process behind the game’s mechanics. During early development did the game shift or changed from its original vision?
It has changed a lot, but mostly in the way that the platforming part ended up to be a tower that the player climbs from bottom to top, becoming older as they climb higher. Originally, the game was going to be a kind of multiverse-cube where the player could choose any direction (on the x, y or z axis). But of course it became clear pretty quickly that this would have been an enormous amount of content that the player would potentially never even see. So the game ended up becoming much more linear, though the outcomes of the mini-game scenes still influence the story further down the line.
Blueberry is however not just a platformer, but also features a heartfelt tale about life, growth and death – when planning the game did you have the narrative in mind first, or where they developed in synchronously?
The narrative and the themes definitely came first and from there I developed mechanics that would fit the story progression best. For instance, at one point in Blueberry's childhood, she develops a depression and after this, how depressed she is becomes a mechanic. We call it the "Blues Bar" - so the higher it gets, the worse her emotional state becomes. Additionally, the colors of her world turn more blue and if it gets to 100%, we basically have a story fail state which in most cases ends the scene and influences later scenes. Things that change the Blues Bar are for example hurtful words from Blueberry's mum that make it go up or food items such as fruit or juice boxes that make it go down a bit. Kind words can also reduce the Blues.
The Blues Bar seems like a very fitting mechanic for the emotive setting of the game. Without giving too much away, are there multiple endings in store for Blueberry?
Yes and no is the answer I guess. We are planning on having several storypaths, depending on how the player manages to influence the blues bar throughout the game. But ultimately, without having the exact same thing happening in the end for each path, the story is supposed to leave the player with a sense of hope and the feeling that, no matter how bad things get, it is possible to overcome these hardships. This is important to me, since the goal of the game is to show and acknowledge how serious and difficult trauma is, but also to end on a positive note and give people strength and hope.
Player’s will be able to pick from branching dialog choices as they navigate Blueberry’s interactions, how will this affect her relationships and the game’s story?
Choosing dialog can affect the outcomes of mini-games. Blueberry gets caught up in word fights for example, in which the opponent also has a Blues Bar and the goal is to make theirs go to 100% before your own is full. The loser of the word fight will eventually storm out. Depending on how she treats for example her mother (who is an important character in the game) in a fight like this, the relationship might become worse or better as the player progresses.
Tell us a little about the minigames in Blueberry?
Besides the word fights, we also have a lot of minigames without dialogue, especially in the childhood phase, where Blueberry can't speak yet. So these are the more physical and spacial minigames, where the player has to try and steal cookies from the top shelf in the kitchen or plays floor is lava in the bathroom. In each life phase, there is also a scene where the player gets a glimpse at her everyday life, such as drawing with a crayon in kindergarten as a child, taking a school test in the teen phase or working at an office job as an adult.
Being a small indie studio, how do you organise and plan a project like this, what must be considered?
Project management for games is always a rollercoaster. This is my second indie studio and I am still facing unexpected challenges continuously. Generally speaking, it is always better to have a plan, no matter how often you have to change it. So we work like every other studio with task management tools, sprints, milestones and budget sheets. But I am also used to having to constantly change them, reiterate and working towards the next goal that makes sense for our current situation. We have been looking for a publisher for Blueberry since last year, with no success so far. The feedback from playtesters and publishers has lead us to make many changes, but they have all improved the game a lot.
How does operating out of Brisbane fair for game development?
Brisbane is a very beautiful and welcoming city and I love being part of the indie developer community here. We have great little groups, such as my co-workers and friends at sqhub where my office is as, well as the Squiggly River Collective, which is a lovely diverse group of developers with inspiring ideas and experimental ways of thinking. So for me it has been a great experience, although it is definitely necessary for our local industry to get more funding and support. Unfortunately the largest indie studio Defiant Development shut down a few years ago and the game dev scene here is generally very small. It is also a bit scattered due to these small groups and it has been hard to find a unified voice. But I am very glad to be here and that I was able to start Mellow Games in Brisbane.
The Australian Government recently announced much welcomed support for the Aussie video game industry, will the Digital Economy Strategy help Mellow Games develop future titles?
We hope so! This is something that will probably benefit larger studios at first, since right now it is mainly about a tax offset for studios with large revenue as far as I understand. But we appreciate the work IGEA is doing for the industry here and this will hopefully make games in Australia thrive long-term.
You can watch Melanie's GCAP talks below: