Sometimes it's easy to convince yourself that games are built from nothing more than gore, gunmetal and concrete, so it's always pleasant to be reminded that they can be conjured from other things too. Media Molecule's output has always been cut from a different cloth - the felt, cardboard and cotton of LittleBigPlanet going hand in hand with the series' DIY ethos.
Tearaway, the Vita game that's being built by a team of 15 within the Guildford studio, has another kind of textile wrapped around its bounding heart. This is a world made exclusively with paper, that's populated entirely by paper animals and that's explored by Iota, a papercraft character with an envelope for a head that contains a secret message for the player.
Tearaway's a game built for the Vita in the same way that LittleBigPlanet was a game built around the new connected world that consoles such as the PlayStation 3 introduced. There's nothing as lofty as the Game 3.0 conceit, and nor does it share the motto of 'Play, Create, Share'. Instead it's a thoughtful and characterful exploration of all that the Vita can do.
"It's doing something that you can't do on an iPhone or iPad or any other touch device," enthuses Rex Crowle, who together with Media Molecule co-founder David Smith leads the project. In Tearaway the front touch can be used to jab at the world, its paper edges creasing and folding in tune with your interactions while - most thrillingly - the rear touch allows you to poke through into the game, your fingers visibly tearing through the world.
"As soon as I got my hands on the Vita, I just wanted to see my fingers in the game. We built the world around that, using the paper material because that was just so tactile," says Crowle. "We had a game jam session to expand that out, to push your fingers into this game world - what's the story? It became this concept of you being this godly being holding this world, and then everyone on the team went wild with these experiments with everything the Vita can do."
Those experiments extend beyond the two touch screens of the Vita, with augmented reality elements combining with use of tilt and the Vita's rear camera. Beneath that mesh of input methods, though, is a traditional adventure that's blended with elements of the god game. There'll be a rich world to explore, and dungeon-esque 'pinch points' that throw various puzzles in the player's way.
It's hard to go into too much detail because right now there isn't really any. Though it's been in production for a year, much of Tearaway's still in flux, the only code playable outside of the studio a small section that allows the player to tear through the screen using the rear touch pad. As a proof of concept it works - there's a satisfying crinkle to the paper that makes simply interacting with it supremely satisfying.
"It's key that it reacts like paper," says Rex. "It's kind of easy to slap a paper texture on everything, but it's whether you get the response from Iota stepping on the edges of paper sheets and it squashing nicely, or tearing the edges of paper sheets or some of the more dramatic effects."
Paper defines Tearaway, and often in some surprising ways. Fellow adventurer Okami toyed with a parchment aesthetic, but Media Molecule has built it into the very fabric of the game. "In a very classic Media Molecule way, none of the assets are built in Max or Maya or any other extremely useful 3D program," explains Alex Evans. "Instead, they actually cut in the editor we've made a giant 2D piece of paper, and they literally fold the meshes one by one by one."
"Being a geeky tech person, that saved us from the low-poly look. There's a surprising amount of polygons in there to give it a bend and a curve, everything's beveled with a little bit of texture with the grain of the paper."
Tearaway's simple sugar paper world is deceptive, then, and beneath those flat panels of colour there's a surprising amount of detail. "We've been able to use a little bit of the memory and the GPU of the Vita to not go for a retro look," Evans continues. "It's a realistic paper look. One of the team built the entire opening level in paper, and we took a photograph. The photographers were looking at it and saying it looks like the screenshot but they've got the glint wrong on the curve. It's quite an accurate rendition."
There's an obsession with papercraft that Tearaway wants to share with its players, and the idea of its delicately folded world bleeding into the player's own takes on a surprising twist. At certain points in Iota's adventure it's possible to obtain trophies, which in turn unlock PDFs of papercraft templates that can be printed off and constructed. Everything in Tearaway's world can be made with paper, and Media Molecule's kind enough to provide a guide should you want to pursue that.
"I can't escape from it now," Crowle cheerily protests. "Apart from the figurative mountains of paper, my desk is surrounded by literal mountains of paper. There are little trees and stuff hanging everywhere. We will just end up stuck in this paper world."
After its arresting Gamescom reveal, plenty of people are eager to get caught up in that paper world themselves, though for now there's no release date beyond a desire to get it out at some point next year. There's likely much that will change and be added to Tearaway before then, too, thanks to the quick-fire inventiveness that's defined Media Molecule to date.
It's an inventiveness that could have derailed the banner moment in Sony's conference - only days before Rex and Alex took to the stage, Iota's design was still being tweaked while a final name hadn't even been decided upon. So what were the other possibilities?
"Neckstab was one of them," Evans jokes, before Crowle joins in. "Yeah, the character was originally going to be called Chad Muscleface. But you know, it's slightly more whimsical."
Whimsical it most certainly is, but again Media Molecule appears to have crafted a world of disarming charm that gently masks a heart of innovation and experimentation - and proven that it's quite incredible what you can achieve with a blank piece of paper.