Playing with Clay

Blazing in at the IGF and leaving a clay-ridden trail of aliens, shotguns and grumpy farmers, Cletus Clay is shaping up to be one of the most interesting indie offerings around, not least because it uses a game world built entirely of plasticine models.

Dev.Mag caught up with the Cletus crew to ask a bit about what they do, how they do it and how they manage to get their hands on all that clay.

Cletus Clay

Q. Could we get a brief overview of the team, and how their experience/qualifications are contributing towards this project?

Anthony Flack. I’m the one responsible for the design, and for introducing the team to this whole clay-animating business. I created the first (unreleased) PC version of Cletus Clay on my own, doing all the coding and everything myself, but for this hugely revamped multi-platform version I’ve happily left the programming to the experts. I’m the lead artist and one of two clay modellers working on the game. I’m also the team’s stop-motion animator, so I take care of all the models in the game that have to move and animate. I’m also the main level designer and scripter. And I’m doing the music. So, plenty to keep me occupied. I guess all this is the result of me always being interested in art and animation and film and music and computers and technology; I like learning new skills and wanted to learn how to do all those things. And then it seemed like making video games was the obvious thing to do next because it was a mix of all these things I had studied.

Alex Amsel. Tuna is a small indie developer who have been around since 1996 working on all sorts of game projects. At various points everyone at Tuna is involved, but the main people other than Anthony there are Sarah (clay modelling), Ken, Mark, Pete and myself. The later four are all contributing to the programming but are also involved with level production, management, and the business side. Mark and I worked on Alien Hominid GBA a couple of years ago, another mammoth effort.

Q. What made you decide to use stop-motion claymation for this game?

AF. I started doing stop-motion animation when I was in film school, and, well, I guess I just kept on doing it. Frame-by-frame animation probably seems like a bit of an anachronism in a video game in 2009 (or any other media for that matter), but there’s something nice about seeing something that’s been animated by hand, I think.

Cletus Clay screenshot

Q. We know of only two games that already use this visual style: namely The Neverhood and Skullmonkeys. Why are clay games such a rare breed?

AF. It can be quite grueling work, to be honest. I feel like we have this niche pretty much to ourselves because not many others would really want it! There are much easier ways to make a video game. Also, I don’t imagine that there are too many video game creators with a background in stop-motion animation; it’s just that I happen to have an interest in both those things. I don’t think you’d do it unless you had a particular interest in this kind of animation.

Q. What are the significant differences between using this art style for games and using it for movies?

AF. It’s trickier doing video game animation with stop-motion because it’s not strictly linear – the animation loops and branches. So it can be fiddly getting everything to line up properly when you’re dealing with clay models. And the scenery is no better, because it’s hard to composite everything together in a way that looks convincing – it’s a photo-realistic effect you’re trying to replicate, after all. In a movie you can just build a big set and shoot away, but in a game every element has to be created individually.

Q. Could you give us a generic overview of a typical animation process? (Equipment needed, time taken, steps required)

AF. Most of the models in the game are made from solid plasticine, although the main characters (that have to endure the most animation) often have wire skeletons and some hard parts. A model can take anything between a few minutes and a few hours to make. After that it goes off to the animation table, which is just a blacked-out bench-top with a light on a stand and a camera on a tripod. I use the same Canon EOS D30 camera I’ve had for years – it was one of the first affordable digital SLR cameras on the market. I could really do with an upgrade now; it’s a bit low-res by modern standards but it still takes good pictures. It’s important to have full manual control and it’s nice to be able to choose your own lenses.

Character animation happens here, and is just a matter of posing the models and capturing the frames to the PC, which I can compare frame-by-frame and reshoot if necessary (no live feed off the D30! Another reason to upgrade). Then it’s over to Photoshop for cut-out, clean-up and frame alignment.

Cletus Clay

For scenery elements, we then take that image (or if necessary, a composite image of shots taken from several angles) and extrude that into a bass-relief 3d shape, which can then be added into the scene in our level editor. Extruding into 3d allows us to create proper parallax effects while scrolling, as well as allowing for some nifty real-time shadow casting, which really goes a long way towards creating a convincing composite scene, while still retaining the photographic look of the models.

Q. Does the use of clay tie in with the actual gameplay of Cletus Clay, or is it just a visual element?

AF. Referencing the “clay-ness” of the material is something I’ve never really done with any of my animation. In my mind, I suppose I don’t really think of the events as taking place in clay-land; rather that clay is just the medium I’m using to illustrate the story. I like to use naturalistic sound effects, too. So when a clay crate hits a clay rock-face, it doesn’t go splatch, it splinters and clatters like wood. I guess I feel that if I ever directly made reference to its clay nature then the material properties of every element in the game would be called into question, since everything is clay pretending to be something else.

Q. Aside from the visual style, what do you think players would find particularly strong about this game?

AF. I think the slapstick humour should go down quite well. The whole thing is just a big messy pie fight of over-the-top clay violence. I wanted to make a good, honest dumb video game that you could just sit down and play, you know? A game that taps into that part of the brain that makes people want to drive monster trucks over rows of parked cars.

Plus, there’s the two-player co-op play which we have put a lot of work into, and people really seemed to appreciate when we demoed the game at GDC. You can shoot each other in the back and steal points off each other; we’ve tried to encourage a sense of competition between the two players. You can play two player online, but I think that good old-fashioned local co-op is going to be the best way to play it.

AA. The two player mode is really good fun if you happen to be the type of person who likes to ‘accidentally’ hit your cousin, steal the gun, take their points, and run away laughing manically.

Q. What would you change if you had to start this project over?

AF. The game has quite a long development history, being a project that I originally started myself in my spare time. It has been completely reworked for this new version. So I have already started this project over once – if I had to do it again I think I would have to fake my own death and start a new life somewhere else.

But I would like my next game to be simpler – fewer elements, and less buttons required. Not because I want to be more mainstream or anything, but because I really like elegant, minimalist game design and I’d like to work on tightening my focus with regards to that. This game has a lot of different stuff in it and it’s probably more work for us than it needed to be.

Q. Would you recommend other developers attempting this style themselves?

AF. Well, only if they had an interest in stop-motion animation to begin with. It’s probably quite a peculiar set of skills I’ve developed over the years, somewhere in the region between clay animation and computer programming, to get to the point where I think we can get it looking pretty decent. I don’t know that many other developers would be sufficiently interested in the technique to go to all that trouble.

Actually, you’d be mad to. I’m not just saying that; Alex will back me up. It’s the preserve of mad people. But that’s what makes it special, right? We shouldn’t be doing it. It makes too much sense not to do it. So you’re not likely to ever see a lot of other games made in quite this way, I don’t think.

AA. I’d like to back Anthony up, doubled, with a more than a dash of vodka. People focus on the art side but the technical side is incredibly complex due to the approach we’re taking. Are we 2d, are we 3d? Well, we’re kind of both and that’s proved to be a fine line to tread in so many ways. Kids, don’t try this at home!

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]