Making ‘MirrorMoon EP,’ The Acid Trip Through Uncharted Galaxies

October 10, 2013 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Nicolò Tedeschi and Pietro Riva from Italian indie studio Santa Ragione about MirrorMoon EP, a dreamy PC game in which players navigate alien planets using reflective moons for guidance.

Sometimes it’s good enough for a game to simply be stunningly beautiful. But MirrorMoon EP, from Italian developer Santa Ragione, is that and more.

Simplified to its core, MirrorMoon is a game about exploration. You play by yourself but collaborate indirectly with other cosmic pioneers, navigating sea foam and fuchsia galaxies until the names of their many planets are chiseled deep into celestial maps. Then new galaxies are created and you start again.

Your spaceship has a cockpit made of metal and air, nestling you snugly in the vast emptiness of starry space. Down on planets’ surfaces you hunt for answers, using moons—not the stars—for guidance. MirrorMoon artist Nicolò Tedeschi tells ANIMAL:

The original idea was: what if we have two cameras, and in one you see the world from a first-person perspective, and on another camera you see the world from up above? You have two views of the world at the same time, from two different perspectives, and you have to merge information from one camera to the other camera in order to solve puzzles. But if it was going to work like that it would have been like having a map on the side, like many other games. So we decided to blend these two cameras into a single camera and make the second perspective, the one from above, part of the game itself. And so the ‘mirror moon’ was born.

The game always begins the same way: in your minimalist spaceship you pan and spin a three-dimensional map in search of unexplored planets. When you find one you throw a switch to engage navigation and kick your feet up to enjoy the eerie, still sensation of space flight. At first you’ll have no idea how to do any of this; the game’s controls and mechanics are purposely obfuscated behind colorful but inscrutable toggles and displays. The game’s producer, Pietro Riva, thinks that’s part of the fun.

The main design challenge there was to balance it to capture players right before they rage-quit the game out of frustration, and showing them that they were doing it right, making progress and discovering things, but making them feel like everything they understand is because they understood it themselves—it’s not being introduced by the game. Because that’s the mechanic of the game; that’s the core gameplay. If you added tutorials to MirrorMoon there would be no game there.

Things aren’t made much more clear down on terra firma, where hanging in the sky are those reflective moons for which the game was named. They serve as ambiguous, unreliable maps. On some planets, a gun-like tool lets you move the moons and create eclipses, revealing hidden edifices. On others, the moons rotate or move by themselves, creating different challenges. But traditional, video gamey puzzles are scarce; more often the challenge is simply getting your bearings on these spherical, changeable landscapes.

The first player to explore a planet gets to name it, creating entire virtual star systems with names like “EGGROL” and “WUMPH” and “BATCAT” (or, in my case, “RICKY,” after my dog). Tedeschi says:

The most obvious thing would have been to make a puzzle game out of it, but we really didn’t feel like working on that, and we really felt that the main thing was exploration. We wanted to look at the very idea of exploration and understanding things you’ve never seen before from different angles. Space…was the right setting for this kind of subject. It’s empowering in a certain way.

When we saw so many players in the same galaxy naming stars, everything felt more real and more alive. And that was kind of unique, even for us, although we were building it to make that very thing.

Despite all that delicious idiosyncrasy, MirrorMoon‘s most striking feature is its trippy, dreamy, pastel aesthetic. Planets are populated by half-buried heads and lone, ethereal chairs, flowing tides of light-built spires, and incorporeal buildings that you can walk right through. Seven different composers spawned its unearthly score.

French illustrator Jean “Moebius” Giraud and American architect Lebbeus Woods influenced the art and tone, Tedeschi says. Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1968 sci-fi novel His Master’s Voice, about a disparate group of characters working to find meaning in an alien message, played a part as well. But much of the game’s form was also born of function, Riva says.

You clip through buildings, so they had to feel like something you could actually walk through, and that also influenced the feeling of these ghost buildings that are not really there. But they’re potentially there! And that itself influenced how Nicolò modeled them. That worked well with the idea of discovery, and the idea of your own interpretation, and the idea of: are these things really here? Am I imagining these? Are they representing something else? Are they actual buildings or a representation of buildings?

The planets in the game are procedurally generated, which means they’re created mostly at random, with some curation from Tedeschi, Riva, and Santa Ragione’s third musketeer, programmer Paolo Tajé. There’s a potentially endless supply of new horizons to explore, but that doesn’t mean there’s no end goal in MirrorMoon. It’s just that most players will probably never find it—or even know it exists. Riva says:

There is a main goal to the game that’s hidden, that requires collaboration to solve, but it’s one of those cases where the journey is more important than the end. There is something out there, but we don’t want to say [what it is]. Some players have figured it out, and we’ve found that when they do, they tend not to share it with other players. Because it becomes, I imagine, such a personal thing. We made sure that it felt like that, and it felt like they’re arriving somewhere where no one has arrived before.

MirrorMoon EP is available now through Steam or MirrorMoongame.com for Windows, Mac and Linux, and for Ouya.