A couple of weeks ago Maschinen-Mensch released Curious Expedition 2 on Steam Early Access, meaning players could have a test run of the still-in-development game, providing feedback to help identify and fix bugs and to be a part of shaping the eventual full release. It's been an enormous relief to see the overall reaction so far has been positive, with a lot of useful feedback from players that I think will only make the game even better as development continues.
Now the game is out in public, I think I can show some of the work I've been doing with the team at Maschinen-Mensch (though see their Twitter feed for much more). It will also interest, I'm sure, a lot of my Rainbow Orchid and Julius Chancer readers, in fact any fans of ligne-claire comic art and adventure stories.
The original Curious Expedition (still available and still supported) is a 'roguelike' expedition simulation set in the late nineteenth century. You have a team of explorers, you have resources, you have a map and lands to explore, and you have goals to attain. Curious Expedition 2 is much the same in principle, but with many improvements in game-play, story, character development and scope.
The biggest outward difference is the graphics. Whereas CE1 is a pixel art game, CE2 is going for a ligne-claire style (think Tintin, Blake and Mortimer, Tardi, Joost Swarte, maybe even a little Moebius), giving it a European bande-dessinée feel. This has also opened up the options for graphic detail, including facial expressions and gestures for the characters, and a whole new arena for animation and interaction.
Maschinen-Mensch started out as two people, Johannes Kristmann and Riad Djemili, and they pretty much created CE1 on their own (Johannes did all the amazing pixel art, which still informs the feel of the sequel). Due to the game's success and support from their new publisher, the Swedish Thunderful Games, they've been able to expand their full-time team to eight people, as well as a coterie of freelancers - including myself. (You can meet the team and see an introduction to the game on this video here).
Although I may be doing a large chunk of the actual drawing for CE2, what you see on the screen is the result of a close and overlapping collaboration between many minds. Johannes is the Art Director - and while I do have some creative input at the concept stage, I'm very much channeling Johannes's strong vision for the game and working closely under his guidance. You could say he's the brain and I'm the hands. Many of the special effects and the wonderful atmosphere applied to the in-game scenes are the work of technical artist (and horse expert) Laura Brosi, and the fantastic (and often funny) character animations are created by animator Katarina Czikorova. But the whole team make contributions in every area, with the end result drawing from every quarter of the production. It's no good just seeing a screenshot of CE2 - the game is the character, interaction, movement, music, feeling and story that all come together to result in the overall experience.
The core of the game is the narrative you create as you play. Characters will form traits and attachments; empathy and cultural respect is encouraged and rewarded. The dice-based combat system is great fun, and there's even a 'saving roll' aspect which especially appeals to me as an old Tunnels and Trolls player. On one of the missions you can even go in search of the rainbow orchid.
Coming from a largely publication-based world, as I do, the learning curve and challenges I've faced on this job have been enormous, but very rewarding. There's a whole host of technical limitations and parameters to take into account, but also, of course, things you can do that you just can't on paper. To see a character I've drawn, with its separate arms, legs and head, come alive after Katarina has been at work on it has seemed like magic at times (and I won't even get into the sorcery of the programming side). Other challenges have included the scale - drawing scenes for 4K (and above) resolutions - and the integration of various changeable elements: 2D characters, scenery and locations in a world with perspective.
While the map is mostly the work of Johannes, I have contributed hand-drawn visuals to that area too, as well as some dice icons and the inventory items - so there's been a wonderful variety of art tasks that have kept me busy over the many months I've been involved. I've had nothing to do with the lovely fin-de-siècle influenced interface, the work of Johannes and Sandrine Dubois.
There has been a little negative reaction to the new art style, of course, and - besides just the normal difference in people's personal tastes - this largely comes from a few fans of CE1 who are very attached to Johannes's pixel art, which is understandable! Of course CE1 is not going anywhere and is still available - but there seems little point in re-making the same game, and it's hoped that the new art style may appeal to a new and wider audience, to whom pixel art may seem less accessible, catering more to a core of retro-gamers. I've seen some comments about the 'vector art' of CE2 - I'll clear that up: it's not vector art. Really, it's still pixel art ... just a lot more of them!
Curious Expedition (no connection with The Lost Expedition card game, by the way) is an enormously ambitious venture, and I've seen some of the blood, sweat, tears and dedication that the whole team have devoted to make it a reality - the work that's gone into it already is mind-boggling. There's still more to do, but you can now give the game a test drive and see it's paid off. I feel incredibly honoured to have a part to play in this project, not to mention the great experience of working alongside Johannes and the rest of the Maschinen-Mensch team. The finished product is going to be awesome.
You can buy Curious Expedition 2 (Early Access) on Steam here.