12.2.2016

Harvesting the Fields of Absurdity in Maize

By Brian Rowe

As a first-person adventure from Finish Line Games, Maize breaks from that unspoken tradition to revel in absurdity and poke fun at convention as players solve strange puzzles, interact with a cast of colorful characters (that includes sentient corn) and explore a mysterious facility beneath an abandoned farm.

We talked to Maize Co-Director Daniel Posner about the inspiration behind Maize, why they chose Unreal Engine 4, and the challenges of creating comedy in video games.

What in the world spurred you to make a game involving sentient corn?

DP: A reasonable amount of alcohol was involved. No one was driving. Everyone, please drink responsibly.

It started out as a procedural maze game set in a cornfield. In order to justify the cornstalks shifting around and generating new mazes, they were sentient, and their purpose was to mess with the player. The story, characters, absurdity, and scope evolved from there. 

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Comedy is still rather uncommon outside of point-and-click adventures. How do you think creating humor in a video game differs from other mediums?

DP: In film, TV, or live comedy, you can completely control the timing for the comedic beats. In a game like Maize, players can take as long as they want to explore and solve the underlying mysteries, shortening and lengthening the space between those beats. On one hand, we wanted to ensure some consistency in players' experiences, but on the other hand, we also didn't want to force them into a set pace. 

Another major challenge with video games is integrating comedy into the game mechanics themselves. 

This was something we were very conscious of during development, and incorporated a puzzle mechanics system that is in line with the comedic tone of the story itself.

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There's also a noticeably dark undercurrent. Was this a conscious decision or a natural evolution of the game's concept? 

DP: While the creepiness and mystery evoked by the cornfield initially led us toward a horror game, comedy kept playing an increasing role. Originally, we wanted the tone to be dark and horrific with the intent of Rickrolling the player partway through. But, not only is it difficult keeping horror-comedy compelling, if players were expecting one kind of game and got another, we would have some unhappy customers.

Maize evolved to be an absurd comedy, but the darkness never completely went away thanks to the realism and mystery of the setting. The contrast between the suspense and the release of comedy ended up working so well that we decided to carry that tone throughout the game. 

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Besides talking corn and farm fields, what other sorts of characters and locations can players expect to encounter?

DP: Beneath the farm lies an abandoned research facility which was operated by two scientists in the '80s, and their experiments were either successes or miserable failures depending on how you look at it. One of those experiments is your sidekick, Vladdy; a grumpy, Russian, robotic bear that will begrudgingly help you, often accompanied by a stream of insults. He is rather charming.

The rest of the cast and setting we will need to keep a mystery so we don’t ruin the fun.

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What was most important to you when creating the atmosphere of Maize, and how did this impact your approach to level design?

DP: Maize is set in a relatively open and large environment, so one big challenge was determining how much freedom players would have to roam. While some fans of the genre prefer a more wide-open experience with as little direction as possible, it can also be off-putting to a lot of players if they start to feel lost, so we wanted to find a middle-ground. 

First off, we divided the story into nine chapters, which helps to distinguish areas and keep a sense of progression while still allowing players a good amount of freedom to explore. We feel like this approach helps appeal to both ends of the spectrum; those players that just want to have fun with the story, and those that want the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the world. 

For the latter, we wanted to create an immersive world which has a rich and plausible history (however ridiculous). So, we created elements in the environment that aren't critical for gameplay, but enhance the overall story. Whether it is something apparent like the custom paintings on the walls, or something more subtle like the solar panels atop the farmhouse, each item says something about what may have happened or something personal about the prior inhabitants, and helps to build an atmosphere unique to Maize.

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Why did you end up choosing Unreal Engine 4 on this project?

DP: Thanks to horror movies, I think most people feel a bit unnerved by the prospect of being stuck in the middle of a cornfield. We wanted to evoke some of those feelings while bringing the world of Maize to life, so a high level of visual fidelity was an absolute must.

We rapidly prototyped a small section of Maize in Unreal Engine 4 with the player able to walk through the cornfield. It was made in less than two weeks, but the results impressed us enough that we never looked back.

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Were there any features of Unreal Engine 4 that proved to be especially useful during development, and how did you make use of them?

DP: There were a number of UE4 features that figured prominently throughout Maize's development. The first thing that comes to mind is Matinee. We have over 45 minutes of cinematics that are integral to the story. All of those cinematics were created using Matinee, which handled our workflow from Maya with ease. Of course, the new Sequencer tool significantly builds upon everything that Matinee offered and we look forward to exploring what's possible with it.

On top of that, the UE4 lighting system gave us incredible control over static and dynamic scenes, allowing for excellent visual fidelity while still maintaining optimal performance. 

Blueprint proved to be the perfect tool to empower our artists and designers in developing features without requiring programming skills. We actually ended up with a 50/50 split between C++ and Blueprint for gameplay logic. For programmers, the integrated Hot Reload method for testing changes quickly was incredibly useful and saved us a lot of time during development.

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Canada seems to be in the midst of an indie development boom. Being in Toronto, one of the hubs of this trend, why do you think this is happening?

DP: Toronto is the largest city in Canada and home to many universities, colleges, and established game developers and publishers that are attracting a lot of talent. There is also a lot of support from Ontario and Canada funding programs that has really helped open the door for smaller indies to begin development, and they’re very open to supporting unique and interesting ideas. 

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Where can people go to learn more about Maize?

DP: Maize is available now. You can find it at Steam and Humble Store, and you can also follow us via Twitter and Facebook.

 

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