Down the rabbit hole with Amanita Design, the indie studio growing at its own pace
When Amanita Design founder Jakub Dvorský isn’t making games, you might find him tending to his plum trees. In the summer, he and his family escape to their cottage in the east of the Czech Republic, far away from the tourists and the noise, and Dvorský loses himself in his garden. As we sit and sip black tea in Amanita’s cosy, eight-desk studio in central Prague, his latest crop is patiently fermenting somewhere, ready to be made into plum brandy. “It’s great, homemade,” he says. “When you’re making it homemade from your own fruit, from trees you cared about, it’s a great feeling. If it’s rotten or something, you don’t put it there: you pick only the best plums. And then you can feel it when you drink it, that it’s there. It makes me happy.”
For Dvorský and his multi-award-winning studio, making games comes just as naturally. That’s not to say it comes easily. Amanita has built a reputation on creating fantastically detailed worlds through art and animation, which brings surreal settings and characters to charming life. From the finely mossed tree trunks and caverns of the Samorost series, to the hand-drawn steampunk city vistas of
Machinarium, or even the sheer amount of animations crammed into the cherry-fuelled slapstick of Chuchel, everything Amanita makes is painstakingly, beautifully done. Each game is a little ode to artistry.
Amanita’s worlds might look like wonders from the outside, but from an inside perspective, it’s all quite simple. Indeed,
trying to coax a studio of Czechs – famed for their rather direct manner – into dreamily philosophical explanations of why Amanita does things the way it does is no easy task. Amanita has its “own way”, Dvorský says: the studio simply has its vision for a game, no matter how odd it may seem, and it works patiently until it is done to a standard everyone is happy with, no matter how long it takes.
But there are mysteries to unpick: how a studio filled with traditional artists found itself making games at all, for instance. Or why they’re made to such an exceptionally high artistic standard, over more years than is probably sensible for an indie studio. And how, after 15 years of Amanita, the five games we’re shown during our visit (not all of which are ready to be announced) show the studio finally branching out from the pointand-click genre on which it made its name – to cardboard creations, and horror games, and even an open world. Was it finally time to freshen things up, we wonder? “No, no,” Dvorský says. “It’s kind of an organic thing, an organic development. It’s just coincidence.” Amanita, like the red -and-white spotted mushroom after which it is named, is a natural product of its environment, some cultivation, and perhaps a bit of chance. To Dvorský, asking why Amanita is the way it is is like asking why a mushroom grows. We get the feeling he’d prefer us just to eat the damn mushroom.
As the son of two artists – his father an illustrator of animals for scientific journals, his mother a film director – Dvorský grew up among fantasy worlds. He loved to read, write, play on his Atari, and also to draw. “Small little things, like castles, and maps, especially medieval maps – I loved it,” he
“I DIDN’T EVEN INTEND TO MAKE A GAME, ACTUALLY – I WANTED TO MAKE SOME INTERACTIVE PROJECT”
says. “I was influenced a lot by Tolkien’s books. I made a comic book of The Hobbit when I was about 12 or 13. It took me a year to make it. It was really detailed.” When he got his first PC, he began to experiment with animation, using a mouse to draw. Despite his parents’ skills, he was determined to learn on his own. “I’m that kind of person. Some people read manuals, some people prefer to go the trial-and-error way. It’s less efficient probably, slower, but it’s more satisfying, for me at least.”
He was 15 when he started making his own games, and released three of them alongside Tomáš Dvorák (now Amanita Design’s CFO) while studying in high school. “I was pretty disappointed by the whole industry because we were screwed by our publisher,” he says. “I realised that this is a dirty business, full of businessmen. I was really annoyed. Even the Czech press at that time was kind of terrible and corrupted. It was the ‘90s, a wild period, especially here in Eastern Europe.” He set his sights on a different goal, freelance graphic design, and enrolled in the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague to study animated film. It was here that he met animator Václav Blín, and later several others who would go on to become collaborators at his studio.
The course centred more on film than animation, but Dvorský was content, free to experiment with his own projects. Samorost was one of them. “It was a very experimental project. I didn’t even intend to make a game, actually – I wanted to make some interactive project, and I didn’t really know what I was doing.” At the time, he was experimenting with collage, venturing out to forests to snap pictures of moss, roots and mushrooms and constructing a little world with them, animating characters in Flash. “In the end, it happened that I had to admit to myself that it was a game.” It eventually became his diploma submission, and received a B from Dvorský’s highly traditional art school. Elsewhere, it was a different story.
Samorost accidentally launched Amanita Design as a game studio, and Dvorský’s career. He had originally come up with the
“I WAS ALWAYS GOING AGAINST THE HERD, IN A DIFFERENT DIRECTION THAN EVERYONE ELSE. IT’ S MORE FUN”
studio name as a brand for his professional creations as a freelance graphic designer, illustrator and animator. But the Internet was changing everything about the industry he thought he had abandoned. “Flash was very important, because I was able to build the game without a programmer. I think it helped to build the whole indie scene, because many people were able to just quickly prototype things and experiment. Even put it on the web, so many people could play. I put [ Samorost] on the web, and that was it – I didn’t need any publisher, which I really liked.” It scooped a Webby award and attracted a great number of admirers, and that was that. Dvorský was a game designer.
He and Blín continued making games together: commission pieces for companies such as Nike and the BBC. But Dvorský knew it was crucial to find the right structure and direction for his young studio. The idea was for it to operate almost like a record label, which would allow the team to work freely on their own side projects as well as mainline games. “I admired Bullfrog a lot, because they made very diverse games – Syndicate, and Dungeon Keeper, and Magic Carpet,” he says. “But all those games had something similar, or some atmosphere or feeling.”
Dvorský’s hiring strategy focused strongly on artists, rather than experienced game makers, and often on recommendations from friends. “With artists it’s easier this way, because we are this small country and everybody knows everybody, the community is quite small,” he says. “And I understand art, so it’s easier for me. It’s much more complicated with programmers, because I don’t do that.” It’s almost certainly the reason that the studio stuck to making games in Flash for so long, from the first Samorost all the way up until its most recent release, Chuchel. Amanita’s first full-length game, 2009’s
Machinarium, however, required a proper programmer. David Oliva responded to a job posting on Amanita’s forums. “We met, and I realised, ‘I know this guy from the bar!’ He lived in the same square as me, in Brno.” Not all hires have worked out, however, and it’s clear Dvorský is protective of Amanita, this bizarre little studio growing out of the cracks in the pavement of Prague. While his studio has gleefully produced games akin to audiovisual hallucinations, the rest of the Czech dev scene has grown into a very different form around it. SCS Software has seen success with its Truck Simulator series; likewise Bohemia Interactive with its military simulation games. “This realism, it’s common to a lot of Czech companies – not to us,” Dvorský laughs. “We are a total opposite. And maybe that’s also part of it – we’re like the opposition. I was always going against the herd, in a different direction than everyone else. It’s more fun.”
Over the years, Dvorský has adjusted to a leadership role, even if he doesn’t really think of himself as ‘the boss’. “I didn’t have any ambitions to do that, but it happened somehow, naturally,” he says. It took him a long time to realise that he needed help with the day-to-day running of the studio, and to
trust that other people would be up to the task: for a long time, he was personally handling all of Amanita’s PR. “I am a bit of a control freak,” he admits. “And I am also a perfectionist. But compared to my colleagues, it’s nothing – they are so much more.” He has plenty more colleagues nowadays, all perfecting their own projects under the Amanita Design label. Alongside a few of its own internally developed games, Amanita has selectively expanded, helping develop and market a couple of externally founded projects – Phonopolis, a gorgeous-looking mobile puzzler designed entirely in cardboard, and Creaks, an atmospheric horror puzzle-platformer with a twist.
But the glue that holds it all together is that Bullfrog-esque idea of a common purpose that unites everyone’s (now quite varied) work under one label. “I think it’s the art, and animation,” Dvorský says, when we ask him to define Amanita’s version of it. “We like to follow on this tradition of Czech animators and filmmakers. And handicraft – there’s a lot of handicraft in our games. Some kind of playfulness. And it means something. Wellthought out, with an artistic message to express.” A childhood spent playing adventure games such as Myst and The
Neverhood meant that Amanita’s output naturally tended in that direction from the very beginning. And there was something that specifically drew Dvorský to making games in the point-and-click adventure genre above all else, the one thing that inspired Samorost all those years ago at art school. “The worlds,” he says with a small smile. “The worlds.”
You have to be a little bit obsessive to make an Amanita game. You certainly wouldn’t guess immediately from the looks of its idyllic Prague headquarters. It’s a space that looks and feels more like a home than an office – it’s warm and cosy, with bicycles parked outside and shoes left at the door. A kettle is boiling in the kitchen. Two comfy sofas face one another right in the middle of the main workspace, an invitation to lounge. With its open-plan layout, fan-made Amanita character statues and the odd empty bottle of Pilsner adorning the desks, the air is light and casual.
Looking closer, however, there are clear signs of the kinds of people that Dvorský has carefully added to his studio in the past few years. The first thing we notice is all the cardboard. These painted scraps form part of Phonopolis, a mobile puzzle game whose sets are designed and constructed in cardboard. It has spilled out from beyond the loose confines of designer Oto Dostál’s makeshift ‘workshop’ on the left-hand side of the room, alongside plenty of PVA glue and pots of paintbrushes – their tiny bristles used by co-designer Petr Filipovic to paint models, often one microscopic dot of acrylic paint at a time.
Inspired by the bold aesthetics of Futurism and Russian conservatism, Phonopolis’ art
style blends physical and digital. Every single visual element of the game is designed on a computer, then flattened into 2D templates and printed onto cardboard. Backgrounds, characters and effects are then cut out, slotted and folded into 3D dioramas, and painted in bright acrylics. The edges of the models are distressed using sandpaper. “And scalpels – really rough!” Dostál says. “If you put these things back into the computer, you lose something. So it’s better to exaggerate, and then most of it will still be visible.” The idea is to evoke the kind of nostalgia one might feel when opening up an old box full of wooden toys: scuffed, well-loved, somehow warm and real. Then, the models are photographed and scanned back into a computer for post-processing.
It is intricate and painstaking work – we are handed a giant stack of crumpled paper and cardboard and are told that this comprises just two short levels – but the effect is magical. No wonder Dvorský felt that Phonopolis should be an Amanita game. Dostál felt it should be, too. “When it comes to games I really like, style-wise or atmosphere-wise, there is just Amanita Design in Czech Republic, basically,” Dostál laughs.
Phonopolis was conceived in the spare moments between his and his team’s freelance work on music videos and other projects, but after securing some funding from the Media European Fund, they were able to create their first real set of visuals. Then, they got in touch with Dvorský. “So it slowly became an Amanita game. They just decided to support us,” Dostál says.
There’s a spirit to Phonopolis that makes it feel like the right fit for Amanita: the handmade feel that the team strives to achieve and retain throughout the process is a huge factor. “When I was consulting with these guys, I always loved the way
Phonopolis looked,” Dvorský says. “Not only did the concept art look great, the world was interesting, and thoughtful. I felt there was a message. And I felt that it could be our game, easily. It was very close to us.” As one seamless whole, the teetering towers of sprite sheets, careful hand-detailing and postproduction trickery transform into something magical. A tiny house folds itself into new shapes and rooms – a kitchen, a workshop – at the swipe of a finger. The bobble-headed Architect marches down the street with megaphone in hand, as rows of marching ballerinas trot behind him. Above all, there’s this feeling of wonder, that we’re peeking into a place so characterful and so believable that it might be real.
It takes a lot of effort to make things look easy, we suppose, and that’s one of Amanita’s trademarks. “That’s true,” Dvorský says. “Some players don’t realise how much work we put into it. Especially games like Chuchel – it looks so simple and easily animated, but very few people realise that there are three hours of animation, maybe more. It’s like an animated feature film, or even two feature films together. Few people realise what it takes. But in our minds it’s fine: as long as it looks fresh, and light, and not too heavy or overelaborate. I like Chuchel because of the feeling that it was made easily.”
“CHUCHEL L OOKS SO SIMPLE, BUT IT’S LIKE AN ANIMATED FEATURE FILM, OR EVEN TWO FEATURE FILMS TOGETHER”
Part of Dvorský’s job as CEO is to protect and nurture this feeling. There have been tough times in the studio’s history – Dvorský recalls the point at which they were finishing up Samorost 3, at the end of a very long five years, as a particularly difficult period. Generally, however, Amanita is in the fortunate position of being able to grow slowly, doing its best work at a sensible pace. It’s currently cheap to live and work in the Czech Republic, which eases much of the burden, leaving the group free to develop the kinds of games that don’t necessarily need to top the charts to keep Amanita afloat. “We would need two or three times more [money] if we were in the UK, and that’s a big pressure,” Dvorský says. “We were really successful with our other games, so we are fine, and that’s why we can afford to spend as much time as we need.”
Horror puzzle-platformer Creaks has taken six years, and it shows, the game shot through with Amanita’s signature attention to detail. Shears hung on the wall of the rickety house laugh snippily, and teapot lids gently snap open and shut: get closer, and they suddenly stop. The ramshackle old house is more creepy than scary, punctuated with ladders that our character must climb and descend to avoid obstacles and enemies. Creaks is Amanita’s first move away from the point-andclick genre – we’re moving and hopping over platforms using the arrow keys – and also into a slightly more complex, consistent and traditional brand of puzzling, as we figure out how to use light to repel and reposition mechanical guard dogs and move past safely.
In fact, it’s all slightly ho-hum at first – atmospheric, with its audible shudderings, squeaks and, yes, creaks, but not quite as strange and new as we might expect. But we can see how it fits with the studio’s work ethic: plenty of it is organic, from the handdrawn backgrounds down to the mechanical paintings, which are done in acrylics, then photographed and digitised. “One of the backgrounds was 12 A4 sheets which I had to scan separately and then connect in the computer again,” lead designer Radim Jurda says. Since being picked up by Amanita, the workflow has been simplified somewhat, with Jurda creating custom brushes that give the effect of hand-sketching for later levels. “But a big part of the game is like this, I think the first two worlds are like this completely. I think sometimes we want to do it simple, but in the end it ends up like this!” He laughs. “I guess we are all perfectionists at Amanita, and somehow, it’s kind of natural for us.”
And then we see it: another all-important flash of Amanita. We’re made to turn on a light just as a guard dog walks underneath, and find ourselves doing a double take – and laughing – as the creature promptly morphs into a bedside cabinet. Here it is, that bit of whimsy we were missing. And it is so Amanita, this theme of the mind playing tricks, that we’re almost surprised that the studio hasn’t produced a horror game before now. “This idea with the imagination becoming real somehow, it was somehow for Jakub the moment to help him make up his mind to go for it,” Jurda says.
It’s an illuminating time in which to visit Amanita. After 15 years of building an identity, the studio is branching out, but always in a manner consistent with the core vision. It’s clear Dvorský does things at his own pace, but we can’t help but wonder why all this diversification is happening now. Does he feel he’s done everything he wanted to do with the point-and-click genre? “To some extent, yes,” he says. “I think it’s possible to evolve this genre even more, and maybe we’ll continue. But right now, I felt like I needed to try something different.” He mentions Amanita’s newest project, a game we have been shown a little of on someone’s phone. “It’s still in very early stages. But it’s open-world, not a linear structure like previous games. The whole interface is a bit different, even though it’s still an adventure game, sort of. I wanted to experiment.
“The interesting thing about this game is that we don’t have a proper prototype yet,” he continues. Indeed, the charmingly basic hub and individual interactive scenes (in which puzzles have multiple possible solutions) aren’t yet connected together as a working whole. “I really don’t know if it works or not at all. I still believe it will, but it’s totally possible it won’t, or that it won’t be fun.” And then there’s the shocking horror game being made by Jaromír Plachý, the artist behind
Chuchel. We’re allowed to play a brief demo, and leave feeling quite nauseous – but convinced of its Amanita family resemblance. If you thought Chuchel got weird in places, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Amanita’s broader growth into new genres such as horror, Dvorský tells us, is “an organic development. Creaks is made by a new team, so it’s their vision. So it’s just coincidence. And Jaromír’s game, I don’t know – he just evolved into this stage for some reason, nobody knows why. He looks fine, and happy. So again, it’s kind of a coincidence. But there was a certain darkness in all our previous games. So maybe it was just some kind of natural evolution, and who knows what will come next.”
More artists, inevitably – although not too
“I THINK IT’ S POSSIBLE TO EVOLVE POINT-AND-CLICK MORE. BUT RIGHT NOW, I FELT LIKE I NEEDED TO TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT”
many, so as to preserve Amanita’s culture. “But what I understand is that I probably won’t come up with some genius ideas in the future, because I’m not young anymore,” Dvorský laughs. “But I can help some young talented people maybe, and that’s what I’d like to do in future. But I hope we just will continue doing our own stuff, our own way, and I hope we will be still enjoying it, as we do now. That’s the most important thing, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.”
In the end, all of Amanita’s energy goes into creating something that can open a door to fantasy lands that only their artists could dream up; to create places that feel at once real and unreal. Perhaps that’s why Dvorský named his studio after Amanita muscaria, the red-and-white spotted toadstool that can induce powerful hallucinations, often associated with Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. “Mushrooms are kind of magical,” Dvorský says, smiling. Given the amount of references to mind-altering substances in his games, we have to ask: has he ever taken them? “Oh yeah,” he laughs. “Several times. It’s hard to put it into words, what it’s like.” We suggest that perhaps he puts it into games, instead. “There is definitely some kind of inspiration. Those experiences are life-changing, so everything is influenced by it a little bit, to some extent. But Jaromír’s games are much more trippy, and he’s never done it. It’s in his head. But the thing is that all the psychedelic stuff, fractals and colours, is not in those substances, definitely not. There’s nothing. It’s just a key which opens something in your mind. It’s already there.”
Many of Amanita’s games, such as Machinarium, are elevated by fiendishly creative music and sound design. Incredibly, both talented culprits share the same name – Tomáš Dvorák – although the composer goes by the alias Floex
Even Amanita’s unusual game titles are crafted with care. “The game is part of your life, and you’re making it for so long,” Dvorský says. “You always say this word, and you have to feel right about it”
Jakub Dvorský, founder and CEO of Amanita Design
Samorost3 was the first full-length game in the series. Its five-year development remains one of the most testing periods in Amanita’s history
“I think our games affect our side projects,” Dvorský says, “because all those side projects are solo projects, but we work on the games together”
This “panda” (above) is one of the less disturbing things we see in Jaromír Plachý’s unannounced horror game. Its hero seems to take inspiration from the one in his music video for Vespering (left), a song by Amanita house band Dva. “Our games are definitely influenced by the art of all of us,” Dvorský says. “It doesn’t really matter where you put it, this vision, if it’s puppets, film or a game. The vision is still there”
Václav Blín is one of Dvorský’s oldest friends: they started collaborating in 2004. He’s also one of the people behind Amanita’s first open world game
Each animation sprite is painted at least four times, differences between frames creating a stop-motion effect. “Not sitting in front of the computer all the time, actually making something physical with my hands, it’s a nice change of pace”, Dostál says. “You just put on headphones with music, and do dots”
Phonopolis is Amanita’s first tentative step into 3D. “We use forced perspective to make it half 2D, half 3D, to make it somehow flat,” Filipovic says, “so it looks like something between reality and a picture”
From top: designer and animator Petr Filipovic; designer and technical artist Oto Dostál
Phonopolis is a love story set in a conflicted society brainwashed by sound: many of its light puzzles will require a keen ear
Radim Jurda, lead designer and lead artist
The psychological phenomenon pareidolia was a source of inspiration for Creaks’ unsettling world – Jurda even considered it as a title
The story takes place over a single night, and sees our hero helping five bird-like characters to protect their world from a gigantic feline monster. Creaks is also the first ever Amanita game in which the protagonist can die
Creaks eschews the traditional Amanita hint system: instead, if you’re along the right lines with a puzzle solution, the music builds encouragingly