Interview: Unleaving Is A Hand-Drawn Journey Of Exploration And The Emotions

featured image
Unleaving - via orangutan matter

If you are into hand-drawn, beautiful platformer games, then trying Unleaving is a must. It crafts a perfect narrative-driven story of a child on its way to explore the world. Each level and puzzle in this game is hand-painted, so there is always something unique around the corner. 

Apart from the attention to detail, Unleaving also offers a decent challenge to observe the surroundings and solve unique puzzles. To expand more on this, we interviewed Sura and Saif, the creative minds behind the artistic experience of Unleaving from orangutan matter

Unleaving – via orangutan matter
Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your work on Unleaving?

orangutan matter: Hello! We’re Sura and Saif, a husband and wife, creators, and game developers behind Unleaving, alongside collaborators like social activist artist Diala Brisly. It has been a labor of love. Sura, as an artist and producer, has painted thousands of paintings, while Saif has penned countless lines of code.

Our shared passion for art, storytelling, and gaming led us to co-found orangutan matter, a Toronto-based indie game studio. Here, we’ve assembled a diverse team united by our commitment to artistic expression and innovation.

At orangutan matter, we believe video games can be a cultural medium to express the depths of human emotions and vulnerabilities. Our creative process revolves around organic narrative development, allowing a variety of perspectives to shape our work rather than imposing rigid controls.

We’re dedicated to crafting immersive experiences that resonate with players on a profound level, exploring the boundaries of storytelling in gaming.

Unleaving brings unique details to the table with every frame hand-painted. How did you create a world with all aspects working together to offer an amazing gameplay experience to players?

orangutan matter: Thank you, I’m glad you found Unleaving’s gameplay amazing. Creating a world where every frame is hand-painted was both simple and complicated. Simple in terms of having passion and commitment to bring a vision to life, yet complicated in terms of translating that vision into a painted reality.

It was a long process of learning and letting go of what didn’t work. For instance, we scanned over 22,000 trails of paintings to achieve this, with 70% dedicated to research and refinement and only 30% to production. Collaborating with the right people was key as well.

So it was crucial to get players involved early on, we had great playtesters. We worked with Able Gamers early on just so we had more awareness of how we could make the paintings as accessible as we could.

Unleaving - via orangutan matter
Unleaving – via orangutan matter

While most of the narrative is inspired by the poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, what was your inspiration behind the design of the world?

orangutan matter: The name came about in later development, believe it or not. Both of us, being from Iraq, had experienced alienation after war and displacement, as did our circle of family and friends. The idea was that we wanted to explore deeper questions about life, and moments of uncertainty, through the perspective of a child.

Eventually, as we continued to learn and develop the game, we stumbled upon a poem that focused on a child named Margaret. This poem delves into the transient nature of life and mortality, themes that are intrinsic to the messages of our story as well. That’s how we eventually settled on the name “Unleaving.” It employs a child’s curious perspective to explore these deeper, adult themes.

The game’s design drew inspiration from numerous sources and curiosities, including our travels, learning experiences, moments of sunset, falling leaves, or encounters like the bridge in Knaresborough in northern England which is in the game, and the red horse named “Dalahäst“… etc We also drew a lot of inspiration from artists like Van Gogh, and Canadian artist like Emily Carr.

Does the art style affect the difficulty of the puzzles?

orangutan matter: This is a very good question. One of the challenging aspects was making traditional physically painted elements adhere to strict design principles. Therefore for example the ground was composed of hundreds of pieces to bring it to life.

However, art did not control the difficulty. Level design dictated art style most of the time; we didn’t opt for a point-and-click approach, and it was quite challenging to transform it into a puzzle platformer, considering the layers involved.

We received great support from experienced Level Designers like Francois Messier and mentorship from industry pioneers like Osama Dorias, who helped us bring this vision to life. Simultaneously, we had a fine art consultant, Asmaa Al-Issa, who ensured consistency in the art style and ensured every frame looked like a painting with its puzzle elements.

Unleaving - via orangutan matter
Unleaving – via orangutan matter

One of the aspects that most noticed is that the game utilizes minimal sound. How does this contribute to making the gameplay more alive while sticking to being artistic?

orangutan matter: The minimal use of sound in the game serves to create a dynamic atmosphere, alternating between moments of silence and impactful soundscapes. This balance enhances the emotional journey we aimed to convey. Silence is utilized to emphasize certain moments, while music is strategically introduced to evoke specific feelings.

The primary focus was on creating a visual painting with the art, and sometimes the music had to be restrained to avoid overwhelming the artistic experience. After sifting through numerous tracks, we found Alicia’s Enstorm track “Bardo Becoming,” which eventually became the sound of Mother Nature.

Does the player's choice reflect the experience in the Unleaving?

orangutan matter: The experience of the Unleaving is subjective and depends on the player. As creators, we aimed for the game to evoke a feeling similar to visiting an art gallery, where each painting offers a title and invites the viewer to interpret its meaning, with the added timing element in puzzles inviting them to try.

In Unleaving, the game experience is open-ended, allowing players to decide how to engage with it. They can cultivate mindfulness through art. Ultimately, the experience is personal, and it’s up to the players to fully immerse themselves in it.

Unleaving - via orangutan matter
Unleaving – via orangutan matter

How long has the game been under development and how many developers have worked on the Unleaving?

orangutan matter: Unleaving was developed by a core team of two full-time developers Sura and Saif, along with seven collaborators who contributed at various stages of the project.

The game “Unleaving” was in development for three years. Before that, it was in the prototype stage. The development process involved a level of obsession, we have to admit that it wasn’t always the healthiest approach.

Saif sometimes isolated himself in a dark room early on to focus on writing the story. I experienced deep mood swings while trying to capture different story chapters.

During the storm segment of the game, I hit rock bottom emotionally, feeling deeply connected to the colors and emotions portrayed in the game, to the extent that it blurred with their real life. Despite the challenges, this approach was a conscious choice, one that many creators make to fully embody the feelings they want to convey in their work.

Unleaving - via orangutan matter
Unleaving – via orangutan matter

Can you elaborate on the concept of 'story-driven puzzles'? How did you manage to fit these puzzles into the artistic nature of the game?

orangutan matter: Certainly! Our game’s concept of “story-driven puzzles” is rooted in the idea that emotions drive everything. As Paul Cezanne said, “A work of art that does not begin in emotion is not art.” We designed puzzles that are deeply connected to the narrative and emotional journey of the player.

Each puzzle evokes specific emotions and contributes to the storytelling experience. To fit these puzzles into the artistic nature of the game, we prioritized emotions as the starting point. Emotions dictated the design of every level, guiding our exploration of colors, metaphors, and symbols.

We then selected mechanics that aligned with the themes and emotions of the game. Most puzzles share a common element: timing, reflecting the theme of trials in life.

What was the inspiration behind the Dog enemy chasing the character?

orangutan matter: The black dog in Francisco Goya’s paintings. Saif came across a book of Francisco Goya’s paintings at his cousin’s place. Goya’s artworks are renowned for their depth and emotion.

dog chasing character in game
Unleaving – via orangutan matter

Anything else you would like to share with the readers?

orangutan matter: Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” “With Unleaving, players can treat their experience as their journey. Like children expressing themselves freely, players are encouraged not only to solve puzzles but to look further into the questions that each challenge poses and interpret the experience in their unique way.

We want to inspire introspection and curiosity, inviting players to embrace the boundless freedom of expression reminiscent of childhood, exploring wider perspectives, inhabited from judgment—a childlike spirit transcending status, age, beliefs.” – Sura

Unleaving is a hand-drawn, 2D puzzle platformer video game, developed and published by Orangutan Matter, and released on March 27, 2024, on PC.

Was this helpful? 🕹️

Good job! Please give your positive feedback 😏

How could we improve this post? Please Help us. 💡