Hunger

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

The wooden chair creaks and scrapes nois­ily across the floor as a tiny, hooded girl drags it into po­si­tion. An omi­nously atonal arpeg­gio sounds from a swing­ing pi­ano as she steps ten­ta­tively across its keys. To see bet­ter in the near-to­tal dark­ness, she raises a lit match, only to be greeted by a groan­ing fig­ure loom­ing from the inky shad­ows be­hind her. Then she hud­dles be­neath a sink unit as wan­der­ing hands grope blindly around, ten im­pos­si­bly long fin­gers reach­ing ever closer.

Un­til re­cently, Tar­sier Stu­dios was best known for its work on the Lit­tleBigPlanet se­ries, pro­duc­ing down­load­able con­tent for the two PS3 games be­fore col­lab­o­rat­ing with Dou­ble Eleven to bring the se­ries to Vita. The night­mar­ish im­agery in the at­mo­spheric trailer for its orig­i­nal PS4 adventure, Hunger, proves that the de­vel­oper is ready to ex­plore a far darker brand of whimsy.

Co-funded by the Nordic Game and Cre­ative Europe pro­grammes, Hunger tells the story of Six, a nine-year-old who’s kid­napped and brought to an un­der­wa­ter world called The Maw, from which she is nat­u­rally anx­ious to es­cape. It’s drawn com­par­isons with JeanPierre Je­unet’s The City Of Lost Chil­dren, but se­nior nar­ra­tive designer Dave Mervik is keen to re­main orig­i­nal. “If you do feel you’re stray­ing too close to any­thing, you’ve got to check your­self and make sure you’re not just chan­nelling some­one else,” he tells us. “Th­ese things can eas­ily seep in via os­mo­sis, but that just makes us very self-crit­i­cal, so we see what we can do to make things feel dif­fer­ent.” That in­volves, at least in part, re­ject­ing genre la­bels. “It’s not a stealth game,” Mervik says. “We’ve been very care­ful not to call it that.” The de­scrip­tor that Tar­sier has set­tled

“Some of the best dreams you can have feel real, but there’s some­thing slightly off”

on is ‘hide and sneak’, which Mervik ad­mits might sound a lit­tle pedan­tic, though it’s born of a de­sire to not in­vite com­par­isons with the likes of Splin­ter Cell. “To us, stealth im­plies a main char­ac­ter that’s em­pow­ered in some way. You think of some­one who’s got the [up­per hand], and it’s about putting that into prac­tice. Whereas Six, in this sit­u­a­tion, is on the de­fen­sive. Ev­ery­thing’s much big­ger and stronger than you are, and so the em­pha­sis is much more on avoid­ing trou­ble.”

In­deed, the un­usual scale of The Maw and its in­hab­i­tants is cru­cial to Hunger’s sus­pense. Six seems par­tic­u­larly small for her age, and her vul­ner­a­bil­ity is fur­ther height­ened by her sur­round­ings. As she clam­bers up a stack of draw­ers and dan­gles pre­car­i­ously from a light fit­ting, we’re re­minded briefly of Chibi-Robo, of all things. The idea, ex­plains Mervik, is to ex­ag­ger­ate the feel­ing of be­ing small, to see the world from a child’s per­spec­tive. “The de­sign of the char­ac­ters alone is al­most like a kid de­scrib­ing them to some­one else – ‘Oh, he was huge, and he had re­ally long arms and a mas­sive head’ – where [they make] ev­ery­thing sound big­ger than it ac­tu­ally is.” And, as cre­ative lead Den­nis Tala­jic ex­plains, “the over­sized di­men­sions al­low us to make sim­ple things be­come fun ob­sta­cles, such as try­ing to fig­ure out how you reach the han­dle on a [regular-sized] door”.

It’s a grim, grimy set­ting, all dim lights and long shad­ows, though the de­vel­oper in­sists that the bleak­ness won’t be sti­fling. In fact, Hunger might even be suit­able for younger au­di­ences. Tala­jic de­scribes it as “taste­fully dis­gust­ing”, sug­gest­ing it will rely far more on sus­pense and at­mos­phere than it will on blood and gore.

Mervik agrees that op­pres­sive hor­ror set­tings even­tu­ally be­come bor­ing. “When you’re con­stantly wad­ing through murk­i­ness, you come to a point where you don’t feel it any more, where it be­comes nor­mal.” Hunger’s tone, then, will be more akin to the play­ful grotes­querie of Roald Dahl works than the un­for­giv­ing bru­tal­ity of, say, Play­dead’s Limbo. “We’ve found that th­ese two sides re­ally feed one an­other. When you’re en­joy­ing your­self, you’ve al­ways got that lin­ger­ing threat, the fear that it’s go­ing to end at some point. And vice versa, you re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate those mo­ments of safety.” Hav­ing built the orig­i­nal pro­to­type for Hunger in Unity, Tar­sier is now work­ing in Un­real En­gine 4, with Tala­jic diplo­mat­i­cally in­sist­ing there’s lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween th­ese two “ex­tremely designer- and artist­friendly” en­gines. It’s still too early to judge whether Tar­sier can find that sweet spot be­tween light and dark, but it’s ev­i­dent al­ready that a stu­dio thus far re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing the ideas of oth­ers to life is rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity to show what it can do with one of its own. “Some of the best dreams you have can feel very real, but there’s al­ways some­thing slightly off about them,” Mervik says. “That’s what we want to try to cap­ture: a place where any­thing can hap­pen.”

ABOVE Mervik wants you to know no more about The Maw than Six, am­pli­fy­ing your dis­com­fort and also en­cour­ag­ing you to seek out some an­swers. “We’re hop­ing you’ll want to lis­ten in on things and watch what peo­ple are up to. Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to have their own story, their own rea­son they’re at this place.”

BE­LOW LEFT The stu­dio is tak­ing great pains to get the scale of Hunger’s char­ac­ters right. “We’re be­ing care­ful not to take it too far, where it be­comes like David and Go­liath,” Mervik says. “We want to have it at the level where [the size dif­fer­ence] feels creepy.”

One chal­lenge is not to give too much away be­fore re­lease. “You tend to panic,” Mervik says. ”You want peo­ple to be in­ter­ested, so you tell them ev­ery­thing, but we found from the teaser that re­straint worked”

ABOVE Tar­sier is aim­ing for a three- to six-hour game, with plenty of space to ex­plore.

LEFT The ‘hide and sneak’ me­chan­ics have echoes of the Clock­Tower se­ries. “It’s about [evok­ing] that feel­ing of be­ing very much at a dis­ad­van­tage,” Mervik says

FROM TOP Den­nis Tala­jic, Hunger’s cre­ative lead; Dave Mervik, se­nior nar­ra­tive designer

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