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Exploring the handcrafted delight of Lumino City

Hearts and craft.

The aroma's the thing that hits you first. I don't know if I've ever noticed the odour of other development studios, but I guess they've all kind of smelt the same; office blocks where new carpet and stale coffee mix together, an occasional hint of warm plastic seeping through. State of Play's studio is different: it's sawdust and craft glue, the pleasantly acrid tang of freshly cut wood. The world it's crafting isn't locked up on hard drives, floating on computer screens. It's sitting in the corner, complete in miniature, begging to be touched.

That's because State of Play makes its worlds not out of polygons and shaders but from cardboard and wood, slotting them all together and recording them via camera for players to explore. They're real, tangible places you can poke around; imagine holding Hyrule in your hands, seeing its fields and towns laid out like a model village, or being able to run your fingers across the contours of Mario Bros' 1-1. It's a remarkable aesthetic, seen first in Lume and, later this year, to be fully expanded upon in Lumino City.

Lumino City's an adventure game in which you play a young girl in search of her grandfather, a quest that takes you to the furthest reaches of this papercraft metropolis. The puzzles are as light as the adventure, though they've often a tactile, analogue edge in keeping with the tangible world: reel to reel tapes must be threaded in order, light boxes blended to create new colours and, in one brilliant scene, a Kowloon City-inspired building block is tugged at and manipulated in order to open up an entirely new path.

It's that aesthetic that keeps everything tied together, and that informs every aspect of Lumino City. It's one that's become integral to State of Play, a developer set up by Luke Whittaker and Katherine Bidwell just over five years ago. The pair work out of a Peckham studio that looks out over a cobbled cul-de-sac, a space they share with stained glass window makers and carpenters and a world away from the industrial edge lands most developers call home. The atmosphere bleeds into the work - several people in the vicinity lend their talents and their tools to the making of Lumino City - and you sense that Whittaker, whose mother is an artist and whose father is a jewellery designer, has craft glue running through his veins.

"It's the quickest way to get our ideas down in a beautiful way," he says of State of Play's methods. "Not because the speed, but because it's more truthful in some way. If you put layers of technology in front of you all you're doing is hiding the artist, or hiding the medium, or it's more of a struggle to get that appear. We just loved the direct connection between brain, pencil.

"When you're making a painting, you don't plan every single brush stroke. You do a bit and see how it looks, and it ends up a bit of a conversation. But if you're stuck in front of Maya, perhaps, or just a screen, there's less to have a conversation with, and it disallows it to be a really interesting creative process. All the way through this process, even now when we're nearing the end, there are still things we don't know how they're going to turn out. It's still push and pull - and it makes us have more fun."

State of Play have been having fun for slightly longer than they anticipated. Lume, which came out early in 2011, was a proof of concept for the idea of an adventure game taking place within a real, crafted space, and it was successful enough for the developer to embark on a full game. After a brief period of pre-production, building up the main set by hand with the help of real-life architects, Whittaker used a professional studio to capture the city - and the filming was all carried out in the course of a single day.

The planning had to be meticulous, each camera movement scripted beforehand to service game design that was already in place. "This is why games are so interesting," says Whittaker. "It emphasised how you need to have a picture of the whole thing. A lot of games compartmentalise - we love Professor Layton, but it's story and then puzzle. That's been the massive challenge - what we've had to do when we're thinking of the path you can see before you."

The two years since that single day's shoot have been spent inserting the game into the space, the grand scale of the city augmented by interiors built and photographed within State of Play's own studio. It's been a more protracted, slightly troublesome experience than first anticipated, the pain of super-imposing an animated character over the still cities lengthening the development process.

"There are times, especially with the animation, where we're like this is a stupid way to make a game," says Whittaker. "There's definitely reasons people shouldn't do it."

"In other ways, it's the only way we know," counters Bidwell. "Because if someone sat me in front of a 3D programme and said, right, it'd take me far longer than if I can design a room that's like this and like this. When we have work experience people, they ask what are our tips, and it's play to your strengths. That's definitely one of our strengths, and we know we can do it well."

State of Play took a little time out from Lumino City with Kami, a smaller game for iOS with the same preoccupation with crafts, its puzzles built around the tactility of paper. "It was a breath of fresh air," says Whittaker, "and we really needed it."

Now State of Play is back full-time working on Lumino City, working its way around the game's own peculiar problems. There are some pretty unique ones, too - when figuring out how best to animate a water wheel, Whittaker discovered that the slow revolution of a microwave plate had the perfect tempo, so set about deconstructing one and repurposing its motor. Its these kinds of challenges that the studio thrives on.

"As a smaller company, doing it this way - it's the way we look at boundaries as an organisation," says developer Daniel Fountain. "Large companies push technological boundaries by chucking more polygons in their engine, whereas we can't really do that. We can push boundaries by doing things that have never really been done before."

There's a tinge of madness to State of Play's unique approach, but the result seems well worth it - Lumino City's an adventure game like no other. It's out this November on PC, with iOS following in 2015 and the possibility of console versions further down the line. And after that? Whittaker says with playful exasperation that the studio may well take a different tact. "When we've finished this we'll probably say we never want to do something like this again."

If you're at EGX today, take the chance to explore Lumino City for yourself - there's a little slice of it available on the show floor.

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Martin Robinson avatar

Martin Robinson


Martin worked at Eurogamer from 2011 to 2023. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.