I recently played through an awesome 2D point and click horror adventure game called Tormentum: Dark Sorrow and, to cut a long story short, I really enjoyed it. Successfully funded through Indiegogo in August 2014 and launched on Steam in March 2015, OhNoo Studio’s game is a dark and surreal journey through a nightmarish land, complete with disturbing demons, forlorn figures and bioorganic backgrounds. Curious as to what exactly inspired all this grotesque horror and melancholy, I reached out to Piotr Ruszkowski, Tormentum‘s artist and co-designer, to ask him a few questions about his career, the creation of OhNoo and Tormentum, and what monstrous muses lay behind his haunting but beautiful creations.
How did you first get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?
Well, all of OhNoo’s crew previously met at an educational company and our job was to create educational software including games. The games were rather simplistic and aimed only for local distribution, but they were the means for us to learn to work together as a team. This helped us a lot later on when we tried to do our own little project for tablets. This wasn’t a game in the true sense of the word, but rather just an app, but it was a small step to larger ideas for the next projects like Tormentum. So I like to say that we have come a long way in our evolution. During that process, we have been inspired by many successful independent developers out there like Amanita Design and their Machniarium and Botanicula games. They proved to us that it’s possible to make something beautiful using limited resources. We knew at that time that we wanted to make an adventure game because we weren’t able to do anything else gameplay wise, so we focused on making story driven games.
How did you meet Łukasz and Grzegorz, and how did OhNoo come together as a development studio? Also, where did the name come from?
I’ve known Łukasz for many years, we’ve been friends since highschool. We went to different universities but we met again in the same job in the educational company. Grzegorz joined the office to work as a programmer later on, and we all worked in the same room for five years. When the company started a reduction process and fired many workers, we decided to stay together and make our own projects. The name ‘OhNoo’ was the result of a joke we shared during an annual event integration of the past company. We liked the simplicity of that name and decided for it to be the official name of our team.
What was the initial inspiration behind Tormentum, and what made you decide to make a 2D point & click adventure game specifically?
I was creating the Tormentum world almost two years before the actual development of the game took place. Back then, I wanted to make a dark collection of works for my personal portfolio (I had only 15 works at the time) but then I realized that it would be much cooler to have a whole game in such a style. So it was a starting point for us to clarify more details about what genre it should be or how to build an interface etc. The point and click genre was perfect for images to be exposed. Of course I had to prepare them for the parallax effect which needed foregrounds to be cut out from backgrounds etc. but the motion effect was totally worth the effort. The end result was 75 game backgrounds and hundreds of zoom-in screens.
You’ve listed the painters H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński as main influences on the game’s visual style. What is it about their surrealistic art that appeals to you as a creator and artist, and why do you think it still resonates strongly with people today?
In my opinion Beksiński and Geiger were focused on showing fear, death and suffering in their paintings. That is what I wanted to share with the audience as well in Tormentum, so I was strongly inspired by these artists. The aspect of metaphysic is somehow present in Beksiński’s works which also strongly resonates with me. I think that people appreciate their art for similar qualities.
The game’s world draws from an eclectic visual mix of sci-fi, high fantasy, steampunk and body horror – genres that traditionally don’t always fit well together, yet somehow you’ve successfully managed it with Tormentum; the game has this unique feel and identity to it as a result. How did you go about incorporating all these various styles and blending them together so cohesively
First of all the world of Tormentum is very dreamlike, so I could go crazy and put whatever I wanted in there. Of course I had to stick to a decayed sense of style, in order to kept it coherent. I was guided by my personal rule that the player must be entertained and not be bored, so I was thinking about how to surprise the gamer to keep her/him motivated and rewarded once she/he finds new locations. So I focused on creating stuff that was both cool and interesting for myself, but also hoping that it would also be interesting for the players as well.
In the process of designing the levels and backdrops, did you have to make any compromises from your original artistic vision? For example, did you have to simplify any areas to make levels easier for a player to navigate, or make areas more complicated to better serve a tricky puzzle design?
Of course! It’s a natural part of the designing process. Sometimes we would have a puzzle ready first and then I’d have to create a background for it, other times it would vice versa. Sometimes I had to add something to support a riddle, but I must say that we didn’t do any drastic changes or throw away any of prepared graphics simply because we cannot afford to. I remember some stages that needed tweaking a lot to serve as a cool puzzle chamber such as the weight puzzle with the guard in the background or the mine level with wagons. There were a ton of changes.
Did the game’s dark story come about as a result of the art style, or did it evolve separately to the visuals?
The world and the whole setup came first and the story was thought out later on. When we were designing the game we had some core ideas for the story, but the finer details had to be hammered out later on. I was loosely inspired by movies like What Dreams May Come and others – especially those about underworlds. At one point we had a dedicated writer who was responsible for the script but he was just not reliable and didn’t deliver his work on time so Łukasz and I had to take care of the story and dialogue ourselves. It was a tough task because we aren’t trained writers.
Tormentum reminded me of Silent Hill 2 in the sense that the various creatures and characters you encounter are all visibly suffering and pitiful in their own way. What challenges did you face in designing the creatures and characters in such a way as to get the player to sympathise with them rather than feel revolted?
I didn’t particularly wonder about how the players would receive the characters in the game when I was creating them – it was too early for that. Rather I was focused more on making something interesting, and that was the most important factor for me at that point. Later on, I sat down with Łukasz and thought about how to shape an interesting character with their dialogue. Sometimes it cast a whole new light on them. I think we did a good job with some characters – like the Rat for example. He was the most developed personality from the entire cast of our characters in my opinion, because he was quite an important NPC in the story.
Having read that you’re a fan of From Software’s Demon’s Souls, I was quite nervous when first playing Tormentum as to whether clicking on the various creatures would cause a death or fail state. While I’m glad the game doesn’t punish the player’s curiosity in this way, was there ever any talk of including a similar cruel but fair trial and death mechanic in the game?
No. The From Software inspiration in Tormentum comes only from a visual aspect of their games. We thought about raising the difficulty of the puzzles during the development process, but in the end we didn’t want to frustrate the players; I wanted to make more of a streamlined and smooth adventure game with awesome 2D graphics. The punishing methods in Dark Souls are great, but in adventure games it could be a pain in the ass! We were looking more at modern adventure games in the Telltale Games’ style for gameplay inspirations.
Personally, I thought you struck a great balance between accessibility and difficulty with the design of Tormentum‘s puzzles. Was this a challenging thing to achieve or did it just come about naturally as part of the design process?
Early in the development stage we had several harder puzzles in the game, but we discovered that they were just frustrating and weren’t fun. We didn’t want to create stupidly hard ones that needed external assistance. We always questioned ourselves – is it fun? Is it enjoyable? If we found a puzzle to be too difficult then we put some helpful hints in, because we wanted players to be able to finish the game without having to break off to check YouTube walkthroughs etc. As for the item puzzles, we always kept in mind the idea to stay as logical as possible. We tried to avoid the usual adventure game tropes of MacGyver-like item mixing and strange illogical item usage. I hope we did it quite well. The main goal in creating this game was to make a sweet and short game that everyone could finish and enjoy.
I thought the game’s user interface was very considerate to the player in a way that a lot of puzzle games just aren’t. Did the idea to include a virtual notebook for the player come about from your own experiences of playing adventure games?
User Interfaces should be as easy and minimalistic as possible. Notice our game’s inventory placement and its functionality. We have seen many modern adventure games with huge inventories just pop up in the centre of the screen when you click on them. In my opinion, it’s just a terrible design choice because when it happens, I don’t have any room to see where I can match my items on the backgrounds. That is why we chose to move the player’s inventory to the right and make all the items you are holding visible without interrupting the game backgrounds. As for the notebook, we discovered that some of the puzzles might need a pen and paper to solve, so we didn’t want to force people to physically make diagrams on paper in front their computers.
The music in Tormentum complimented the melancholic atmosphere and dark visuals incredibly well. I know you’ve already released the game’s artbook, but do you have any intention of releasing the soundtrack?
Unfortunately no, because all the tracks are licensed. Łukasz did a fantastic job of selecting all the tracks to match the atmosphere of each of the locations, and it wasn’t an easy task to do! So yeah I’m afraid we don’t have rights to release a soundtrack.
Your IndieGoGo campaign for Tormentum was a big success – were you pleasantly surprised by the positive response to the game right off the bat?
Yes we didn’t expect anything frankly speaking. It was just a test for us in such crowdfunding methods. The response was positive and very motivational, but I have to mention that the biggest feedback we got was after we released the demo of the game because not everyone treated us too seriously based on just a few images and GIFs.
Is the crowdfunding process something that you’d want to try again with future projects?
Of course! I can hint that very soon we will be back with another project but this time on Kickstarter. It will be a drastic change from Tormentum, so stay tuned. For us, the crowdfunding approach is a great opportunity from a marketing standpoint to let people know about our projects before their release. It is a very important thing in today’s world where it’s hard to be noticed.
Finally, what’s next for OhNoo? Can you talk a bit about Tsioque, Snot & Muff and Sky Islands?
Tsioque is a point and click game with cartoony graphics so it’s quite a drastic departure from Tormentum. The main feature of this game is the handmade animation. If you appreciate such craft you will enjoy this game. We were inspired by old classic games like Dragon’s Lair or Heart of Darkness in aspects of their animation and design. We hope it will be an enjoyable point and click game! As for Snot & Muff I can only say it’s cooking away right now. It’s not so much a game but rather a simple storybook as Amelia and Terror of the Night was. It’s just a side project for us. The rest of the projects are secret for now until we’re ready to announce them.