The idea for a video game can strike just about anywhere, and for Swedish developer Kevin Andersson, the first stirrings of TaniNani emerged while he was sitting on a bus. “Ever since I started to learn how to program my own games, I’ve done these ‘weekend jams’ where the goal was always to learn something new,” Andersson tells us. “Occasionally, I’d try and make something very small with interesting mechanics. So one time when I was riding a bus for several hours – because back then me and my girlfriend worked in different cities – I tried to make the core mechanic of TaniNani. After three hours, I had the mechanic of moving the tiles around and making the characters walk on the walls. On the ride home, I made another mechanic that ended up in the final version. I’d say that after seven hours, I had the core loop of the game with mechanics that would cover three chapters in the game.”
Brought to life with charmingly minimal pixel art, TaniNani’s core loop involves manipulating the six chunks of a level to reunite two cute, pastel-coloured creatures. There’s also a secondary goal of collecting a single crystal on each stage – a process that rapidly becomes more difficult as the chunks of platforms give way to barriers that have to be disabled by grabbing keys, and other devious challenges that’ll probably leave you scratching your head for hours.
Like Lemmings and other classic puzzlers before it, TaniNani doesn’t give you direct control over the pair of critters roaming about on the screen – instead, you serve as a kind of caretaker, tasked with shepherding the creatures around the screen and ensuring they don’t plunge to a horrendous death. What keeps TaniNani feeling fresh is the pleasing way its level pieces can be separated and then clicked back together in different arrangements, and the cleanliness of the design – no matter how complex the puzzles become, each stage is only ever separated into six moveable pieces, so there’s always a sense that the solution to even the trickiest of puzzles is only just out of reach.
“There’s always something charming when a game presents a mechanic and then slowly introduces different rules for how you use that feature,” Andersson says. “A lot of the projects I was working on [before] were more complex and bigger in general, so a game like TaniNani was very appealing to finish after working on games like that for several years. It was a good amount of work for one person to finish. A game centred on one core mechanic was something I wanted to focus on.”
TaniNani also gives Andersson a chance to showcase his level design skills – something he’s been honing since childhood. “Before starting with my studies, I used to make levels in the Halo 3 editor, Forge, and play the levels with my friends,” Andersson tells us. “Gaming was always a big part of my life, so when the time came to decide what to study in upper secondary school, it wasn’t a difficult choice when I saw one with a focus on game development.”
Andersson’s ten-year history of designing levels, first at Gothenburg-based studio Zoink, and later at his own studio Elden Pixels, provided a solid grounding for the challenges represented by TaniNani. “Even though I’ve always designed levels, it’s always scary to try and get the levels in a good balance for the player,” he says. “Some players get the mechanic quite fast and don’t want to get bored, while others need more time to play around with it. I think it got to a good point, and there’s also the option to skip levels, because once you unlock a new chapter, you can try any of the twelve new levels if you get stuck. People seem to enjoy the option to come back to a level in a later session.”
When it came to pacing the game’s difficulty, Andersson followed the time-honoured process of establishing a new puzzle mechanic at the start of each chapter, giving the player a few stages to get used to it, and then gradually upping the challenge. “I want to make sure that the player understands the new mechanic and, in a way, make it unavoidable, to see how it works on the first three levels. These earlier levels should also have bigger geometrical shapes to make the level more readable. But once the player has understood the new mechanic, it’s fun to add some of the mechanics from previous chapters. I think it’s in this phase where the player feels the smartest because they’ve understood the mechanic and know how to combine it with the other ones while moving around the tiles. This is one of the feelings I want the player to get from time to time while playing TaniNani.”
TaniNani emerged on Steam and iOS in January 2020, and Andersson already has plans for the game’s future, including ideas for a level editor – “I have an idea that won’t require sharing levels that I think could work, but we’ll have to see if it appears in a future update to the game,” he says – and plans for a port to Android. “Many people have asked for an Android version, so that’s on my schedule – I don’t know when it will be released, though. I’ll see how the game is received by the players, but so far it’s been really wonderful. I’ve had some great comments from players around the world, and game developers I admire.”
One of our favourite aspects of Andersson’s game is how satisfying it feels to separate the pieces of each stage into their individual parts and slotting them back together in a different order. “It actually took a while before it felt good,” Andersson says of crafting that snappy puzzle-piece feel. “You could always see the potential, but at one point, I sat down and decided that I had to fix the feel of moving the pieces around. So I spent time on something that’s often called ‘juice’ – which more or less is adding camera shakes and minor animations to make everything look more fresh. This can be a rabbit hole that you can work on forever so you have to be careful because it can be addictive once you get started.”