Subverting the idyllic is an approach that just works. Taking something gorgeous, serene, and inno-cent, and making it into something that’s plainly unsettling always manages to trigger a part of the brain – that which hopes for, even expects, safety.
Piz Mundaun, a mountain in Switzerland, is the general setting of Mundaun. In real life, it’s in the re-gion of a small Swiss municipality, the sort of place not many live, some have holiday homes in, and others visit in season for skiing and other snow-based frolics. It is, in every sense of the word, idyllic.
In the game version of Mundaun, it’s a mysterious and eminently creepy world of sepia-tinted, hand-drawn landscapes and characters. It is, in every sense of the word(s), the idyllic subverted.
“My family has a tiny holiday flat in the alpine valley where the real Mundaun mountain is,” ex-plains Michel Ziegler, creator of the game. “I’ve been spending time there since I was born, winter, spring, summer, and fall. The open nature and steep landscapes were perfect for exploration and dreaming up little scenarios set in that world. After finishing my studies in illustration with the little game prototype called The Colony, I settled very quickly on Mundaun as the subject for my next project.”
While the expansiveness of Mundaun was unintended – something that likely comes as a happy by-product of having worked on the game for around six years – Ziegler never intended the game to be an outright horror, instead taking a different aim: “My primary goal isn’t necessarily to scare people, but to create an unsettling atmosphere. A place where beauty and dark undertones con-trast each other,” he says.
Gauging how unsettling something is isn’t easy, so the process has involved getting people to play the game and listening to them talk about the experience afterwards. But one big factor that makes Mundaun unsettling is definitely its visual style, from its monochrome tint, through to the ever-so-slightly off people of the region, and the general hand-drawn aesthetic – it all combines to make something with an immediate impact.
And those hand-drawn looks? Yep, it’s all literally drawn by hand. “I create the 3D model on the computer as usual and UV unwrap it, as you do,” says Ziegler. “But then instead of working digital-ly, I print out the UV maps and trace their broad outlines on a light table, onto a fresh sheet of pa-per.
Starting from that, I then pencil the actual texture. The traced outline slowly vanishes as the draw-ing takes shape.” The drawings were then scanned back in and the texture applied to the 3D mod-el. “Seeing the drawing for the first time wrapped around the 3D model is my favourite part,” Zieg-ler continues. “You never quite know how it will look as you pencil, as you work ‘disconnected’.”
Similarly, the monochrome look is one Ziegler arrived at thanks to how it helps wrap Mundaun up in a more enigmatic skin. “I love the aesthetic of old monochrome photographs,” he says. “There’s something mysterious about it. Being too young to have experienced black and white photography as the norm, it feels very removed for me – like its own world or universe. Which is exactly the space where Mundaun is set. Somewhere in the past, but also in its own reality.”
It’s been a long time coming, but Mundaun is looking set for its release in the spring of 2021. A time-consuming process, it hasn’t been an entirely simple project for Ziegler – his first full game, the need to work with a team distributed internationally, and all the management aspects hitting alongside the desire to just make a game has been slow going.
“[It’s been challenging] keeping track of all the things big and small,” he says. “Creating a label for a local brewery to have on a restaurant sign in the game is a detail I care a lot about. But then I also have to make the level designs work, have the story integrated well into the world, and vice versa. Finalising dialogue so it can be localised and voice-acted. Thinking about those big picture depend-encies. And then going back to tweak the distance a creature can cause fear. I like to be able to de-cide every little thing, but sometimes it’s overwhelming.”
That said, you don’t continue a project for over half a decade if it’s nothing but overwhelming, and Ziegler finds it easy to zone in on the simplest part of it: the game’s look. “[The simplest thing is] drawing the actual textures,” he explains. “The process is very forgiving. Because the drawings are somewhat painterly and sometimes abstract, they seldom have to be very accurate in regards to spatial placement of features. Which suits me just fine.“
After an extended development, a lot of drawing, and even more work besides, Ziegler is getting himself ready for a world where Mundaun is finally out there in finished form. So what is he look-ing forward to most, come the spring?
“I hope that audiences will dig it and be transported to the alpine universe of Mundaun as they spend some time in it,” he says. “One of my driving motivations over the years was to create something unique and fresh. If I can achieve that I will be very happy. After the game is out, I will go on a vacation – to a place other than Mundaun. And then think about what game to make next.”
Genre: Hand-pencilled horror
Developer: Hidden Fields
Publisher: MWM Interactive
Release:__ Spring 2021