FOTONICA: A Wireframe Frontier

I remember the first time I saw Elite. The wireframe, black and white graphics evoking the loneliness of space, while the staggering size of the game’s world lent to the sense of freedom and terror. Those early experiences and thoughts mean that the stripped-back look of Elite and other games retains a certain level of nostalgia. Which is what drew me to FOTONICA, a first-person runner released in 2012 by Santa Ragione.

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In FOTONICA, a wireframe avatar makes its way through a series of largely monochrome tunnels, which are decorated with spirals and jagged shapes that revolve as you hurtle down them. The gameplay is as simple as any other runner: you hold one button to move, let go of it to jump, and hold it in midair to dive back towards ground at speed. The tunnels contain chasms you must leap over and there are opportunities to make it on to parallel platforms of different heights. Think of Mirror’s Edge in gameplay and visual terms, only much, much simpler.

The main draw of FOTONICA to me is the art style. The exoskeletal hands moving furiously, the charge towards a vanishing line in a fever dream of black and white Spirographs. It reminded me of an exhibition I saw of Agnes Denes (particularly this work), a Hungarian-born abstract artist who has used geometric patterns to symbolise the journey of life and the world around us. FOTONICA works for me because it wields nostalgia and reflects on players’ own tunnels and fleeting journeys. It is not an intellectual game but one whose appearance teases at deeper meaning and makes playing it more interesting. It is worth noting that Santa Ragione also made MirrorMoon EP, a game set in space that focused on the wonder of exploration (allowing players to name their discoveries), so perhaps this is not surprising. FOTONICA’s aesthetic is completed with soothing electronic melodies that can sound a little like listening to chiptune with your head dunked in bath water.

FOTONICA is not a particularly long game. I spent about an hour playing through the main five levels (there is an endless level, and a two player split-screen mode) and felt compelled to move on, just to see what graphics would be thrown at me and to hear the next song (there is one for each level). It is a game that I have played to completion, but find myself wandering back to now and again just to play another level, or see how far I get in endless mode.

I asked the developers, Pietro Righi Riva and Nicolò Tedeschi, some questions about their influences in making the game, in both its art and design:

The player charging towards the finish line
The player charging towards the finish line

Ready Up: What were your influences in designing the art style of FOTONICA? It reminds me a lot of an artist, Agnes Denes, but I would be fascinated to hear about any other games, artists, films or literature that influenced the style of the game.

Santa Ragione: You could describe FOTONICA visually as a mix of a Vectrex game and a Hard Edge painting. We like geometrical abstraction in general and that is visible in many games we made since 2010. Also there’s admittedly a bit of nostalgia towards low poly games from the 1990s.

I never heard of Agnes Denes unfortunately, but I can see how it reminds you of the game! I can’t say we had a single, main source of inspiration, but we definitely had many references both in older video games and in art, movies and books. I can’t think of FOTONICA without thinking a bit of Escape from New York, or Neuromancer, or even Bridget Riley, to some extent.

RU: Where did the idea of doing a “runner” game come from? Did you set out to make a relatively simple game?

SR: Yes, we definitely wanted to make something simple, both because we had never made a game before and because we wanted to be really focused on the sensory experience of speed. The original prototype for FOTONICA started as a game jam entry. We were participating in the TIGSource [The Independent Gaming Source] competition “A Game by its Cover”, where we had to make a game based on a fake game cover from My Famicase (an exhibition of imaginary NES covers made each year by different graphic designers). After a few days’ hours, we had a prototype of a basic first person runner and a short flat level called “Tales of Unspoken World”, the name of the fake cartridge cover we picked.

Since the TIGSource community seemed to like the concept, we decided to keep working on it, polishing it and creating new content. We actually simplified the game further, as the original prototype was not one button, but used a more traditional FPS control scheme. [You can play the original prototype here.]

RU: Is there any philosophy in the game, or is it more just about looking great? Some runners have been criticised for “not being games” or for micro-transactions, did you set out to make something different to other runners?

The philosophy of the game is distilling the exhilarating sense of running and speed, without worrying about anything else

SR: To be honest “runners” were not that big of a thing four years ago, and Canabalt had just been released as a flash game about one year before we started working on FOTONICA for the first time. FOTONICA naturally evolved into a one button game. We wanted to see if we could design something simple yet challenging and fun relying exclusively on one button, from menu navigation to gameplay. We also decided to invert conventional jumping controls (from “press to jump” to “release to jump” in FOTONICA) and to introduce diving/landing, so players could modify jump arcs while falling. The philosophy of the game is distilling the exhilarating sense of running and speed, without worrying about anything else. That’s also the reason why the game is in first person and has to look great!

RU: Both FOTONICA and MirrorMoon EP seem to feature a sense of mystery, are there any main themes that you like to take on as a company in all your games?

SR: Definitely, it’s part of our DNA and mystery is, to us, one of the defining characteristic of great games. Since we are such a small team and it is crucial for us to develop a personal style, and we try to make every game feel like a “Santa Ragione game”. That said, MirrorMoon EP and FOTONICA are profoundly different in gameplay and themes, where FOTONICA is fast and exhilarating, MirrorMoon EP is contemplative and enigmatic. They both require the player to find their own meaning and narrative, that’s for sure! The next games we’ll work on will probably be more grounded in reality and the personal, because that’s something we haven’t tried yet. It will be interesting to see if we can keep a style cohesive with our other games. On our website there is a wider selection of games and prototypes and you will see that, even visually, we have tried different things from the low-poly, geometric style found in our first two commercial games. Thank you for your interview!

I have recorded some footage of me playing a little FOTONICA to illustrate the gameplay below. For more information, go to http://www.santaragione.com

[youtube]http://youtu.be/BNje1GHhb_U[/youtube]


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One response to “FOTONICA: A Wireframe Frontier”

  1. Ciro Continisio avatar
    Ciro Continisio

    Santa Ragione don’t lie!

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