As with most games shown at E3 a couple of weeks ago, it’s too soon to say if Concrete Genie will be what its demo hints that it can be. But it’s clear that it’ll be an easy game to root for.
There’s the good:
It’s a magical-looking game featuring a boy named Ash who can paint trees, stars, friendly monsters and more on the walls of buildings in the seaside town of Denska (an anagram for Sendak, as in the great children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak). The more Ash explores, the more things he can draw, and the more ways his drawings can interact with each other and with him. Sometimes a monster wants to give him a high five. Other times it wants him to draw it some apples to eat. Drawing in the world and seeing scenes come to life in the demo feels great.
There’s the too-soon-to-say:
As amazing as it looks to see the creatures Ash draws come to virtual life and lope across the vertical surfaces of the town, it’s not clear how fun it’ll be to move through each level, painting each surface while being chased by the game’s main bad guys, a group of bullies who are out to ruin Ash’s artwork. Ash can climb onto rooftops to avoid the bullies or make a sound to distract them. Parkour and stealth systems are hard to get right, and both the stealth and the climbing were a little clunky in the demo.
And then there’s this:
To the extent it matters, the game has a cool story behind it. It doesn’t come from a huge Sony development team. It’s coming from a small Sony-backed outfit called Pixelopus, which consists of about 16 people, according to Dominic Robilliard, the game’s creative director whose pre-Sony job was directing the ill-fated Star Wars 1313. Pixelopus’ team mostly consists of recent game design graduates, whose skills, Robilliard said as he watched me play the game’s demo, consistently blow him away.
The game’s concept comes from the team’s visual effects artist, Ashwin Kumar, who conceived it during a brainstorming session about what Pixelopus would make as their second project following their launch game Entwined. “He did this single piece of artwork that showed a kid that was being pushed around and standing up to the bullies by painting these huge characters on the wall,” Robilliard said. “So much of that has survived to this point.”
The game’s marvelous animation, which features 2D graffiti characters walking around on the surfaces of a 3D game world and which has few antecedents other than Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, is the product of identical twin animators, Becky and Lucie Roberts.
The cats in the game—and there are many wandering around Denska—are all based on the many cats owned by the studio’s developers, said Robilliard.
The point of the game is to say something about bullying, not through wallpapered messaging or simple good intentions as some so-called serious games do, but through gameplay. You are, it’s clear from the demo, capable of adding some creative flourish to the drawings that Ash creates. You can draw a monster with a vertically-oriented body or a horizontal one and then see it grow legs and animate accordingly. You can put grass up high and stars down low. You can draw from an expanding palette, adding creative flourishes that make it all the more impactful when the bullies come to mess up the art. “It’s not just Ash’s artwork, it’s your artwork and you get to understand what that would feel like.” You see them undermine your creativity. “You get to understand that in a way only a game could make you feel.”
Concrete Genie wasn’t one of the four mega-games Sony featured at its lengthy E3 press conference. It’s not set up to be a system-seller like Spider-Man or the next The Last Of Us. It’s a quieter project, three and a half years in the making by some veterans and some kids. It started as a sketch. It’ll need a lot of polish. It’s got some magic to it and maybe an effective messenger. It’s expected to be out this year, though release date and format are to be determined. Robilliard teased that there’s a twist, but we won’t likely know it for a while. What’s not a twist is that Sony has another low-key project for PS4 fans to follow, coming from the artsier side of PlayStation.