This interview has been edited and condensed.
An atmospheric adventure called Growbot takes shape under the watchful eye of Lisa at Wabisabi Games. Classic point-and-click gameplay twines around puzzles like a clever vine. It’s all part of Lisa’s vision of integrating a diverse, dreamy score with biopunk illustrations and a picture book feel.
>> How did Growbot start? What inspired you to create it?
Originally, I started Growbot as a game pitch called Zen Bot. It was a game about exploring alternative states of consciousness, and the methods by which we induce them through meditation, shamanic drumming, and chemical substances, such as peyote and psilocybin. It was to be based on scientific research and I pitched it to the Wellcome Trust. My application was unsuccessful, but I still wanted to continue with the game. It changed hugely in the months that followed, becoming narrative and fantasy-driven, and [finally] turning into Growbot.
>> How has your vision for Growbot changed over the course of development?
The constraints of my knowledge have shaped development. Growbot is the first game I've made in Unity, and as I've learned more about what's possible within the software, that's led me to be more ambitious with the design of puzzles, the composition of scenes, and so on. For example, the early areas of the game all fit within a single screen, whereas later areas sprawl out and offer the player choice of which direction they want to move in. This ends up working OK because the early sections gently introduce people to the game, but it was also a function of introducing myself to the development tools.
I've also been working on it part-time over a longer period, and that's allowed ideas to gestate and become more involved in a way that they wouldn't have done if I had been forced to meet tighter deadlines. I think the narrative is richer as a result, with character backstories and the ecosystem of the space station fitting together more intricately for the extra thought.
>> You play as a robot, take care of plants, and struggle against an infestation of crystals. That's a more complex web of life than I'm used to seeing. How do you blend the mechanical aspects of a space station with nature, and then make players feel the crystals don't belong?
I wanted the space station to feel alive, and for everything within it to have a function. I like bio-punk, in which biology and technology are entangled. In Growbot, the mechanical has been directly constructed out of nature - pipes are plant roots, flowers are an energy source, and so on. Within this world, many of the creatures are instrumental in the interactions between machinery, or have machine-like purposes themselves. For example, Star Belly is a stellarator, a type of fusion reactor.
The crystals belong to the world, but they can be perceived of as a virus, multiplying and wreaking havoc as they spread. The cause behind the crystals in the game is more sinister and Nara must resolve this whilst adapting to the ongoing impact of the crystals.
>> What can you tell us about our own little Growbot, as a character?
The player controls a Growbot called Nara. She's new to the station, and I wanted her to be relatable and infused with a quiet confidence. I feel like there is a pressure to be bold and loud, and there's still often a focus on making game characters interesting by making them spiky or over-the-top. In one sense, I wanted Nara to be more ordinary, while still achieving things she didn't know she could.
>> What's your favorite place in this fantastic ecosystem we explore?
Hm, that’s a hard one. I try to create visually stimulating environments which contrast from each other, so that the player never gets bored with one type of environment or colour palette. Right now, I'm most excited about the areas that I haven't created yet. I've started sketching ideas for engineering, which is the part of the station the player visits last. It's set among the root systems of the station — both in the sense of containing the most important items of machinery and literal plant roots. I look forward especially to creating and designing the buffer stream — an area set inside the digital space where characters go when they've entered a transporter.
>> What are the transporters? How do you represent digital space and splice it into the station's biopunk theme?
So far, I've been trying to imagine how the effects of being inside a buffer stream might reflect onto mechanics. The station is fueled by a giant power flower, with its roots running like cables throughout the station. I was visualizing the teleporters as being formed out of flower buds, but I hadn't considered that the biopunk nature of the station could spill into the buffer stream design. Thank you for the inspiration! :)
>> How would you describe the art style of Growbot? Would a comparison to Hayao Miyazaki be out of place?
That would be very flattering! :) I love Miyazaki’s worlds and it would be awesome if I could capture some of the enchantment that he does.
I think 'picture book' is the clearest term to describe the work. It's detailed and child-friendly. I've worked in the picture book industry previously and that experience has naturally seeped into the game's creation.
>> What makes a good picture book?
Ah, that's super hard. I'm going to go with: its ability to make you feel like you've discovered hidden treasure. That's how I feel when I find a picture book I love. I'm pretty sure that's what I see on the face of my eighteen month old son when we look at his favourite book, The Island (Brian Wildsmith). It's a couple of words per page and the illustrations are great. It's about a leopard, goat, and monkey on a raft out at sea. They dock with an island which begins to sink before rising, revealing itself to, in fact, be a hippo.
>> What can we expect from Growbot's music and sound effects? How did you select your composer, Jessica Fichot?
Jessica’s music hit the perfect emotional chord for me as soon as I heard it. She has a strong ability for both gameplay and cinematic music, and the tracks she's created so far elevate both cutscenes and general play. It's subtle when it needs to be, melodic when it needs to be, and as detailed and dreamy as I'm trying to make the artwork.
I grew up in the 80s watching cartoons like Ulysses 31, Cities of Gold and the Moomins. I love the sound effects in these shows and wanted to try and recreate some of the strange electronic pops, pings and shoops in Growbot.
>> I see text in some of Growbot'spuzzle screens, but no dialogue so far. Star Belly's speech isn't wordy, either. Will this change, or are you going for an experience that minimizes language? What role should language, or the absence thereof, play in Growbot?
There are a number of conversations, but I was careful to keep these clear and concise. When I was younger, I would want to use three adjectives to describe something because I was scared of not communicating my idea, whereas I've learned over time that it's better to find the one right word for what you're trying to say [EN: So much this]. I also never used to think about the reader, and that they will bring their own mind and imagination to the text. I love Tove Jansson's writing in the Moomins books. It’s powerful in part because it's simple. She allows you to use your imagination, where too much information breaks flow.
>> How long is Growbot? Are we meant to finish our journey in one sitting?
I anticipate it will be about four hours long, give or take a little time depending on the play style of the player. I want to create a game experience where the goal isn't to rush to the end but to linger in the world and explore the details. That’s what I love doing when I read and create children’s books.
>> What kind of experience do you want players to have with Growbot, and how do you assemble all the parts of Growbot into that experience?
I want it to be simple, relaxing, and a little unsettled. I don’t want to dictate the player's experience too much. I hope the game is thoughtful. I suppose I want adults to experience some childlike magic, but it's hard to put the game together towards that overall goal. A lot more of my time is thinking about the moment to moment experience: does a particular puzzle make sense? Is the UI intuitive or annoying? Is it fun? It's less about assembling the parts towards a singular experience and more about simply trying to make each part as good as I can, and trusting that the whole will take care of itself.
>> What do you mean by "a little unsettled?"
I want the game-world to feel meaningful. If it's one tone throughout, then it feels as though the player's reaction can only fall within a limited emotional range. They'll stop seeking answers because the world will feel flat. I'm aiming for the type of unsettled feeling you find in the Moomins, wherein the sense of threat drives the characters to explore and grow (their understanding of their world). I hope the unsettled elements within the game encourage the player to dive deeper into the narrative and, in the process, find more meaning.