Hunger: Scaling the unknown in Tarsier’s beautiful, twisted fantasy

The wooden chair creaks and scrapes noisily across the floor as a tiny, hooded girl drags it into position. An ominously atonal arpeggio sounds from a swinging piano as she steps tentatively across its keys. To see better in the near-total darkness, she raises a lit match, only to be greeted by a groaning figure looming from the inky shadows behind her. Then she huddles beneath a sink unit as wandering hands grope blindly around, ten impossibly long fingers reaching ever closer.

Until recently, Tarsier Studios was best known for its work on the LittleBigPlanet series, producing downloadable content for the two PS3 games before collaborating with Double Eleven to bring the series to Vita. The nightmarish imagery in the atmospheric trailer for its original PS4 adventure, Hunger, proves that the developer is ready to explore a far darker brand of whimsy.

Co-funded by the Nordic Game and Creative Europe programmes, Hunger tells the story of Six, a nine-year-old who’s kidnapped and brought to an underwater world called The Maw, from which she is naturally anxious to escape. It’s drawn comparisons with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City Of Lost Children, but senior narrative designer Dave Mervik is keen to remain original. “If you do feel you’re straying too close to anything, you’ve got to check yourself and make sure you’re not just channelling someone else,” he tells us. “These things can easily seep in via osmosis, but that just makes us very self-critical, so we see what we can do to make things feel different.”

That involves, at least in part, rejecting genre labels. “It’s not a stealth game,” Mervik says. “We’ve been very careful not to call it that.” The descriptor that Tarsier has settled on is ‘hide and sneak’, which Mervik admits might sound a little pedantic, though it’s born of a desire to not invite comparisons with the likes of Splinter Cell. “To us, stealth implies a main character that’s empowered in some way. You think of someone who’s got the [upper hand], and it’s about putting that into practice. Whereas Six, in this situation, is on the defensive. Everything’s much bigger and stronger than you are, and so the emphasis is much more on avoiding trouble.”

Indeed, the unusual scale of The Maw and its inhabitants is crucial to Hunger’s suspense. Six seems particularly small for her age, and her vulnerability is further heightened by her surroundings. As she clambers up a stack of drawers and dangles precariously from a light fitting, we’re reminded briefly of Chibi-Robo, of all things. The idea, explains Mervik, is to exaggerate the feeling of being small, to see the world from a child’s perspective. “The design of the characters alone is almost like a kid describing them to someone else ‘Oh, he was huge, and he had really long arms and a massive head’ where [they make] everything sound bigger than it actually is.” And, as creative lead Dennis Talajic explains, “the oversized dimensions allow us to make simple things become fun obstacles, such as trying to figure out how you reach the handle on a [regular-sized] door”.

It’s a grim, grimy setting, all dim lights and long shadows, though the developer insists that the bleakness won’t be stifling. In fact,  Hunger might even be suitable for younger audiences. Talajic describes it as “tastefully disgusting”, suggesting it will rely far more on suspense and atmosphere than it will on blood and gore.
“Some of the best dreams you can have feel real, but there’s something slightly off”
Mervik agrees that oppressive horror settings eventually become boring. “When you’re constantly wading through murkiness, you come to a point where you don’t feel it any more, where it becomes normal.” Hunger’s tone, then, will be more akin to the playful grotesquerie of Roald Dahl works than the unforgiving brutality of, say, Playdead’s Limbo. “We’ve found that these two sides really feed one another. When you’re enjoying yourself, you’ve always got that lingering threat, the fear that it’s going to end at some point. And vice versa, you really appreciate those moments of safety.”

Having built the original prototype for Hunger  in Unity, Tarsier is now working in Unreal Engine 4, with Talajic diplomatically insisting there’s little difference between these two “extremely designer and artist friendly” engines. It’s still too early to judge whether Tarsier can find that sweet spot between light and dark, but it’s evident already that a studio thus far responsible for bringing the ideas of others to life is relishing the opportunity to show what it can do with one of its own. “Some of the best dreams you have can feel very real, but there’s always something slightly off about them,” Mervik says. “That’s what we want to try to capture: a place where anything can happen.”

Full plate
Hunger has been around in some form for a little more than a year, with a small team experimenting within the bounds of a basic prototype in Unity. Development began in earnest last autumn, though, and such was the complexity of the process to obtain funding that the team quickly had to solidify its ideas, producing a 20-page high-concept document to support its application. “It was really useful,” Mervik says. “It forced us to keep whittling things down, to define what the game was and why it was so special. You have a feeling in your gut about this stuff, but telling people about it is a different [matter].”

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