The Insight: Inside Mushroom 11!

In a rare release day meeting with The Circle, the Mushroom 11 developers talked candidly about the ups and downs of gamemaking during a long, four-year gestation period.

by Harold Goldberg

Here's the original idea for Mushroom 11, created at a Global Game Jam four years ago.

Here’s the original idea for Mushroom 11, created at a Global Game Jam four years ago.

Jazz from a turntable lilted, the old school highs and lows of an alto saxophone amplified through analog means. Nearby, at an oak table at Eastwood on the Lower East Side, Itay Keren and Julia Keren-Detar, the makers of the long-awaited indie game Mushroom 11, sat drinking pints. Itay took a healthy swig from his wheat beer. It was the release day for their physics-based, post-apocalyptic sidescroller in which you play, well, a mushroom.

Itay was going through various emotions. Would the game be a hit? Shouldn’t more people have bought the game on day one? Should the small team have spent more time polishing the game? A game is never quite done, but you have to release it sometime, don’t you? Isn’t it one of the most beautiful games you’ve seen? We got some great reviews. But what about the naysayers? Is it too difficult toward the end? It’s supposed to be challenging, right? What about the indie scene? Is this the indie game apocalypse as Rami Ismail recently indicated during a talk?

All of these things were on Itay’s mind. For those moments when he thought aloud, he was EveryArtist. His thought process was a deep insight into the hopes and fears of any creative spirit in games, books, movies or music, anyone who had just released into the wild something that took four long years to gestate. It was an old school-style team, too, in the sense that just a few people worked on it – basically around the same amount of folks as some of the old Atari games.

In fact, old school games were an inspiration for Itay. While Mushroom 11 has drawn critical comparisons to Portal and World of Goo, he remembers that as a kid he was attracted to Shinobi, the classic Sega ninja fighting game made for arcades, because it was so difficult to win. “You had to keep going and going to finish it.” He sat forward to make his point. “There were no games saves. And the adrenaline rush you got at the end, that feeling of accomplishment. There was nothing in the world like that feeling. That’s what we wanted to bring to Mushroom 11.”

This was going turning out to be an unusual meeting. I had never before spent any length of time with gamemakers on the debut of a their piece of popular art. Over the years, I’d attended console game release events where 10 minutes with an oft tipsy member of the team was the most I could hope for. While a writer can get a few nuggets of quotable information, you can’t get that deep into conversation with 600 seconds. Here, Itay and Julia spent over 90 minutes talking to the New York Videogame Critics Circle members who were in attendance.

Itay and Julia, the husband and wife team who are the prime movers within Untame Games, were married just before work on the game commenced. Mushroom 11 began to take shape at one of New York University’s Global Game Jams. “Itay had 48 hours to come up with a game design. He had it in 10 hours,” said Julia.

“It wasn’t that polished,” said Itay. “But it was proof of concept.”

“It was all based on mushroom research,” said Julia. “My father, who’s a PhD research chemist, kept sending us scientific studies about mushrooms.”

The Mushroom 11 concept, as it began to be fleshed out, drew the attention of Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) and the Indie Fund, which helped to fund Untame’s baby. That didn’t mean money didn’t come from the team’s bank accounts.  It did. Making the game was a drain on their resources, financially and mentally. Yet they did know how to better balance their work hours from lessons learned on their previous release, Rope Rescue. During that time, “I would come back after working all day in production at my other job,” said Julia. “Then, I would get home and start work on this.” As she and Itay spoke, I got the sense that Mushroom 11 is more important to the pair than Rope Rescue was, essentially, a more favored child.

It’s their baby. And the baby, if they did things right, would ultimately be smarter and more elegant. “We wanted to prove we can work in this industry as gamemakers,” said Itay, who went on to talk of the beauty of the art within Mushroom 11. With great enthusiasm, he talked about the clues to the story that artist Simon Kono placed on the crumbling walls and billboard signs. There is no usual narrative in the form of dialog, linear or branching. It’s minimalist, a puzzle present in the background should you care to indulge. “Simon kept raising the for his own work. He kept making the artwork better and better. He’d work on one background and then, he’d go to another background to make that one better.” The beauty of the artwork can be stunning. You stop when you have moment during which your blob is stable. You gaze out upon the vast urban landscape. At times, you’re bound by the beauty, a beauty that’s enhanced by haunting, sometimes industrial electronic music from The Future Sound of London.

Later, as the game neared its release date, Julia worked on public relations and marketing, tasks that were not exactly in her wheelhouse. “I’d read that one of the YouTubers wanted five figures to talk about a game. I mean, we’re an indie game. We don’t have that kind of money.” Another requested a free game code when “they had, like, one subscriber.”

But the end result is close to brilliant. Sure, Mushroom 11 can indeed be difficult to finish. (“We’re uploading a major fix,” to address that, said Itay later.) Yet the triumph that you’ll feel when you do complete it, when you do find out what happens in the end – well, that’s the kind of extraordinary elation you don’t get every day when you play a game. In other words, it’s well worth the effort. Mushroom 11 is intriguing, wondrous and, above all, something that feels very new.

Harold Goldberg, the Circle’s founder, has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Playboy magazine.

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