Making ‘Sunburn,’ A Whimsical Game About Dying Among Friends

August 21, 2014 | 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 Toni Pizza, Diego Garcia and Aaron Freedman about Sunburn, an adorable game about a crew of astronauts determined to die in a blaze of togetherness.

Ray Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidoscope” was first published in October 1949 in a pulp science fiction magazine called Thrilling Wonder Stories. It describes the conversation among several astronauts as they hurtle through space following the destruction of their “rocket,” in Bradbury’s parlance. This story has inspired countless works of fiction, including comic books, plays and films, and we can now add video games to that list, thanks to three recently graduated game developers who’ve devoted their summer to creating the iOS game Sunburn.


Diego Garcia read “Kaleidoscope” and pitched the initial idea for the game in a class at NYU’s Game Center. Players would carefully position a space ship so that when it exploded, its inhabitants were sucked into the gravity of surrounding celestial bodies and killed. “So nobody would be drifting alone, doomed,” Garcia told ANIMAL. It was a sort of retort to the short story, in which the doomed astronauts are forced to confront death alone: “They were parting to go their separate ways, and nothing could bring them back,” the story reads.


Garcia’s classmates Toni Pizza and Aaron Freedman joined the project, which evolved over the course of a semester into a game that begins similarly to its source material, but quickly diverges into something surreal and whimsical. A space ship is destroyed, but its crew doesn’t scatter. They die not alone, but together. Controlling the captain, players navigate through the gravity fields of slowly rotating planets to round up their crew mates and plunge deliberately into the sun.


Faced with two choices, would you rather suffocate over several hours of aimless drifting, or be obliterated in a hundredth of a second by the heat of a star? The latter is the more peaceful fate, the developers argue. These wayward astronauts are eager to have done with it, and their floating ghosts thank you after you’ve lead their charge toward oblivion. They’d rather die together than alone, a simple motive that was born out of the necessity to communicate the game’s goal to players. What other explanation could there be for why you have to gather them up, tie them together and dive into the sun? The mechanics came first, and the story followed.


“It was really hard to explain why you would want everyone to die together. It’s still hard to explain,” Garcia said. “The only way for them to say things that would support that goal was to reframe the narrative into sort of a pact.”


Sunburn might be judged too morbid if it weren’t so adorable. The pixelated graphics and bubblegum palette betray nothing of the game’s macabre message. Unlike the poor souls of Bradbury’s story, who agonize and deliberate over their impending deaths, Sunburn’s characters are eager to meet their maker. With names like Lt. Leonard Lemons, Stanley Smothers, and Moosetracks—a space suit-wearing dog—they trade banter and sing Pixies lyrics as they wait for their captain to sweep them along. One astronaut updates his blog from what looks like a smartphone, and no one suggests using it to call for a rescue.

“The juxtaposition just became funnier and funnier to us, so we kept going down that route,” Garcia explained.

After a semester of work on Sunburn (it was actually called “Kaleidoscope” at that point) the game had around 18 levels. “It felt OK,” Pizza said. “For a school project it felt really great. We were happy with it.” They showed it off at events around the city, including a science festival filled with seven- to twelve-year-old kids who couldn’t get enough of it. One little girl declared it “the best game ever” as she leapt into the sun. And although they got more than one “nervous chuckle” from parents, Sunburn tends to make more sense when Garcia compares it to the Toy Story 3 scene in which the characters grasp one another’s hands—fruitlessly, but with great emotional impact—as they inch closer to an incinerator.


But Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang don’t die in that scene, and there’s a big fat asterisk in Sunburn’s story as well: that no matter how many times these travelers burn to a crisp, they’re always alive again on the next level. The reality is that the small dev team can’t design and animate hundreds of unique characters, but while the game is still in development they’re considering a narrative explanation as well. “In the intro you notice that the captain is pulled into a wormhole at the end,” Garcia said. “We’re sort of toying now with how much we want to play that up and have it be like this weird, multidimensional thing that happens…what do we really need to set in stone to have the game work, and what can we sort of play around with and just have fun with and not take too seriously?”


When they graduated in the spring the NYU Game Center had just launched its incubator program, which provides temporary space, resources and monetary stipends for student developers with good ideas. The team felt the pressure when Sunburn was chosen as one of the incubator’s first projects. “You’re provided an opportunity, and you want it to be worth it,” Freedman said. But they all have student debt, and they’re also relieved to not be scrabbling for work.


They have weeks still to add coats of polish to Sunburn, but one of their biggest fears is that Apple may not approve a game about synchronized suicide for sale in the App Store. Nevertheless they’re determined to keep things the way they are. “When we started working on this project full time this summer, that was the one thing,” Pizza said. “We wanted everybody to die together in the sun. We didn’t want to change that.”

“We like the existentialism of the story and wanted to sort of keep it dark,” Garcia added. “That’s when everyone smiles: the first time the astronauts jump into the sun and thank you for it. It felt silly to move away from that.”


Garcia, Pizza and Freedman, who will reveal the name of their fledgling game development company as soon as the paperwork to form it goes through, hope to release Sunburn for iOS this fall. Learn more at playsunburn.com.