Media Molecule’s Rex Crowle on Tearaway Unfolded and the PlayStation 4

We recently had the chance to chat with Media Molecule’s Rex Crowle about all things Tearaway and Tearaway Unfolded. Rex is the Creative Director on Tearaway Unfolded and has spent nearly a decade at Media Molecule, witnessing and participating in the creation of LittleBigPlanet and LittleBigPlanet 2, and then going on to be the Lead Creator for Tearaway. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: What was the decision process behind bringing Tearaway over to PlayStation 4? When did this happen in relation to the game’s original release on PlayStation Vita?

Rex Crowle: It was kind of ongoing, I mean nothing started on it until we’d actually finished the Vita version, but when we were showing the game you know, on the big screen at E3 it was kind of unusual to see a handheld game up on the big screen. And we’d started to realise that because that it’s a very kind of bold, very crisp art style that it’d actually look pretty good on a bigger screen and it wasn’t just designed for a tiny handheld.

So it felt that the world and the game could work, but we had no idea whether it would actually work as a game and it was really just a big experiment to see if it would, so we didn’t have some kind of message to come down to Sony and say “we need to make a PS4 version!” It just felt that we wanted to explore it ourselves to see if it was possible and we all kind of enjoyed using the hardware and what potential there is, not so much in the processing power as that’s related to our engines and getting sort of the visual beauty that we’re looking for but it’s more about the actual physical hardware for us.

We’re all intrigued by the DualShock 4 and really, if we’d just tried to do a giant port no-one would have been into it and it would have been very hard to keep everyone focused on it and really feel some passion and energy about making a new version of Tearaway. But we were really focusing on interesting ways to develop and expand on the game and it really all kind of started to fall into place. As soon as we realised it was all about the controller and it was all about the fact that the world instead of being in your hands now was inside your TV and there would be this distance between you and the world. Once we got that metaphor and focused on that we could come up with different mechanics to support it.

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Q: What kind of challenges emerged from that transition over from the Vita? Are there any particular stories that you think are worth sharing in relation to that?

Rex Crowle: For me it’s been important to us to not think of Unfolded as being necessarily, you know, a definitive version but like a different version. There’s things about it that we’ve been able to do that we could never do on Vita and there’s things on the Vita that is special to that. There was no way in trying to bring over like, trying to push your fingers into the game by using the back-touch on the PS4 as it’s like “who’s fingers are those?” – cause you’re not actually pushing on anything.

A particular challenge for us was the camera, because it’d be very hard for you not to have a camera on the Vita, so you and everyone would have it. On PlayStation 4, now that’s not a given, so we weren’t really sure how we could still try and get those similar feelings and that kind of was a catalyst for us to work on the companion app [on iPhone & Android] so that even though you might not have a direct feed of yourself in the game, it would allow players who don’t have a camera to send in more of the world around them by taking photos and populate the texture in the world with them and bringing some more sort of personal customisation to the world using the app.

Q: Was there a particular goal set for Tearaway Unfolded on PlayStation 4 that differed to the goal originally set for Tearaway on Vita?

Rex Crowle: Oh well I’m not sure we ever think far enough ahead to set a goal really! I mean Tearaway on the Vita was a very organic project which changed a lot through its development. Although it was a world always made of out paper it, at some point, had been like a location-based RPG. So yeah there were all kinds of different versions of it.

Really with Unfolded we were able to be more focused on it. We knew what the game was, we had the game on Vita as almost like concept art to work from and the goal I guess really was to just fully realise all of the ideas that… well we didn’t manage to get everything from the original in that we wanted to so to bring some of those out more and then also to focus so much on the controller and getting the most out of the DualShock 4 as we don’t really feel that it’s fully utilised at the moment. The TouchPad tends to unfortunately just get used as like a replacement for the options button and it’s kind of a shame really, that’s a very big options button on the pad! So we just wanted to bring the hardware to life and give it personality.

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Q: While developing Tearaway on Vita, were there features that had to be cut that you’ve now implemented in Tearaway Unfolded? Or perhaps features and mechanics that were completely fresh that you’ve thrown in now?

Rex Crowle: It was pretty important to us that although our features can be kind of quite wild they also need to really make sense – you’re not just pressing a button to make something happen. For instance, with the original Vita version you’d place your fingers on the back-touch and your fingers tear into the world. We’re trying not to have something that’s very contrived, you know like you’re swiping on the back to throw a grenade or something and it’s like “I’m not sure if swiping on the back of a console is, you know, a representation of that behaviour.” So it makes direct sense that if I push on the back of the world I’m holding I’ll see my fingers push up into that world.

So we got rid of anything that just wouldn’t work on the new hardware as there wouldn’t be like a big metaphor between what you’re doing that would link to what’s happening in the game world, and that’s just the main example. With the DualShock 4, the relationship with it is very different now, as you’re going to be sitting on your couch and the world is going to be inside your TV and there’s going to be a distance between you and the world. So a lot of the gameplay ideas that we came up with were about that metaphor and about the fact that the world is a little further away from you, so we made something of the space and the distance between the two of you.

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So it’s mechanics where the characters can pick up objects in the world and then throw them at the TV and you catch them in the pad, you hear them inside the pad, and swipe on the pad to throw them back into the game world. It’s all about that connection between the pad you’re holding and the game world inside your TV.

Q: Tearaway was renowned for its excellent use of the Vita’s features, how did that translate over to the PlayStation 4 version? What kind of decision-making process went into substituting those features to make use of the DualShock 4 and PlayStation Camera?

Rex Crowle: Yeah so as I was saying, some just obviously weren’t going to work and we just had to remove them. There’s not a huge amount of features that have come over but one that was modified would be the drum skins in the game. So in the Vita version of Tearaway you can tap the back of the Vita and this bouncy, stretched paper would all bounce and bounce characters into the air. It’s a nice, satisfying thing to do because you’re not just bouncing yourself, you’re bouncing all of the other characters in the game and we didn’t really want to lose it. So having the big TouchPad button on the DualShock 4 allowed us to experiment with using that and it felt satisfying to just push it even though you were essentially doing the opposite to what was in the Vita version, and you’d be pushing down instead of tapping up. But it meant we also had to change the behavior of the drum skins, so as you hold down on the TouchPad the drum skin is actually depressing and is squashed down with a bit of tension on it, and when you let go it pings the character into the air.

So that was one that we kept but the output is the same yet the input is quite different. It’s kind of subtle, but all of these things we’ll argue about forever and you know we have quite a lot of healthy debate on the team about ways to bring some of these features to life and how they should react to you.

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Q: How have you and the team expanded on Tearaway from a story/narrative perspective? There was a bit of confusion around the time of the original reveal over whether Unfolded was just a port or something quite different!

Rex Crowle: Well I think there’s bound to be confusion as it isn’t really a thing that happens often. There’s definitely a trend now with HD remakes and we can all enjoy the convenience of, you know… we just get lazy or we have limited space and all of those games for me, like even on the PS3, I’m quite happy to get them again on PS4 because my PS3 is somewhere else!

So yeah, we have tried to take this slightly strange path of doing something that’s halfway between a remake and a sequel. Mainly because, well, it wouldn’t work to just port it over anyway because the gameplay would’ve needed to change and we’re kind of excited game-makers and we can’t resist just going the extra mile or hundred miles to just rebuild the world as we’re going and fix some of the things that we weren’t quite happy with.

Kenny Young and Myself, Kenny’s a Composer and Head of Audio, we were working on the story together and we were able to put some more twists and turns in and there are characters that narrate the game who we were able to bring out a lot more because of all the deadlines with like getting actors in for recordings and stuff and we weren’t able to flesh them out in the first game. So we’ve been able to make a lot more of them as characters and bring out some more humour in the world and we collaborated as well this time with a writer that I’ve known from a long time back, Mark Hill, who’s worked on Fable and he’s been able to bring out some more of the folklore and the backstories of the other characters in the game.

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Q: Personally, what’s your favourite thing about Tearaway on PlayStation 4 that couldn’t have been achieved on the Vita?

Rex Crowle: It’s a funny feature but I do really like the animated gif mode and being able to share stuff out of the game. It’s a really nice one because the way the game moves is so unique and it’s maybe because I have a background in animation, but I enjoy just being able to capture those tiny snapshots of the game and see them looping forever.

In terms of something more gameplay-related, it’s just generally more atmosphere in the game, because it has quite a bold art style like the brightly coloured paper and such, we’ve been able to this time round really work on the lighting and make sure that not only is it bright and colourful, but there’s also very nuanced lighting in there as well. So essentially what Mark Zarb-Adami, our engine coder, is trying to do is remove all digital artefacts in the game so you just see a world made out of paper that responds exactly as you’d expect it to. So basically just a general, peaceful world essentially!

Q: On the other side of the spectrum, for players who are new to Tearaway – if you had one thing to pick out from the game for them to look forward to, what would it be?

Rex Crowle: I think essentially it’s not one thing but it’s more I guess that they’d be probably surprised about what’s in the game. Sometimes there’s a little bit of a misconception that, you know, it’s this cute game where cute things happen and that it’s very child-focused but I think they’d probably be surprised with all of the different elements that are in the game and the twists and turns. And the fact that a lot of players who played the Vita version had a far more emotional experience than they were expecting and it was kind of a big deal to them and I was really, really pleased that we were able to pull that off.

So I think probably the emotional element of the game may be the biggest surprise for them.

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Q: Finally, what’s been the most exciting thing about working on Tearaway Unfolded on the PlayStation 4?

Rex Crowle: It’s just really being able to fully develop the game and have kind of a second chance at it. To be able to bring out more beauty, add in more characters, add in more gameplay and you know add in all of these things that we’d love to have done with the original game if we had two extra years and luckily someone gave us two extra years, so yeah we’ve been able to do that!

Tearaway Unfolded is out now exclusively on PlayStation 4. We’ll have a review up later this week.

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