Dutch Students Produce Prehistoric Puzzler

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Oskar Moleman is the team lead at Grotman Games. I spoke to him briefly about his inspirations and hopes for his upcoming game.

Oskar Moleman and his team of fellow students at the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht are working on a new puzzle game that puts the player in the role of a robot sent back in time to investigate the development of language in the Stone Age.

The game, Tribal and Error, has the player recording the sounds that cavemen make and interpreting the situations and actions that they find themselves in. You then combine the information that you have gathered to solve puzzles and help the primitive people with their problems. It bills itself as “a game about language without language.”

Oskar is the team lead and creative director of Grotman Games, which means he performs a number of tasks in the development of the game, and is closely involved in almost every part of its creation. He works with animation, music, design, and art. It’s a busy job with a lot of variety but it’s one that he really enjoys. “One day I’m emailing news to the press, others I’m animating a Mammoth.”

Moleman believes that they have “something great with the idea of Tribal & Error, so we want to make a game that does justice to this idea.”

The concept behind Tribal and Error is one that hasn’t been seen before in gaming. Most traditional puzzle games give the players all of the parts of a problem and letting them find the solution themselves. Tribal and Error adds an extra step by making finding the actual pieces of the puzzle part of the puzzle. It’s a novel approach to puzzle game design.

Tribal and Error is in a good position to be a success. While the mainstream industry is caught in a cycle of repetition and generic products, the independent gaming scene is thriving with new, fresh and diverse ideas. Grotman Games fits right in with the rest over the independent scene with their different approach to puzzle design. Their focus on language development hasn’t been seen before in the major gaming space, at least in any major capacity, so at least it promises to stand out due to its creativity.

The game has been in development since May of last year, as part of Grotman Games’ university education. It has been a wild ride since then, as the game has been shown at two different conventions, had a successful campaign to be put on the digital storefront Steam, and has even had a consultation with a historical linguist in order to improve the historical accuracy of the language design.

The conventions were a particular highlight for Oskar. He fondly recalled a story about his goal of language without language coming to life, when a deaf person played Tribal and Error. “Someone who was deaf and spoke with sign language was also perfectly able to understand the game, further underlining the complete lack of language barrier in Tribal & Error.”

Tribal and Error is fundamentally about the history of language. The whole game’s design is centered around learning and applying signals, expressions, and context in order to find new ways of approaching situations and finding solutions to basic problems like starting fires or making simple tools. Having no linguistic experience, the team wanted to have a real expert opinion to improve the historical accuracy, so they showed the game to Daan van Loon, a historical linguist. He helped them to make the small pictures in the text bubbles that appear from the cavemen much more accurate.

This change made the game quite different, visually speaking. It became less obvious and required more thought than just following the pictures. Before, the symbols were simple pictograms that gave a basic idea, but the change turned them into elaborate and obtuse symbols that are significantly harder to understand, forcing the player to focus more on the context and environment. Moleman recalled another story about one player who managed to, in his words, reverse engineer the system. He said that “We changed the language icons to something more abstract so that people would be less inclined to use the icons as a means to decipher the language, to instead focus on looking at the cavemen animations.”

Language barriers can always cause problems with any piece of media, be it movies, books, or games. But Moleman is determined to make sure his game can be played by anyone. The instructions are simple enough to understand, and the universal nature of using pictures over text means that anyone who speaks any language should, in theory, be able to pick it up and play it without much trouble. And Moleman, in his dedication to making sure his game can truly be enjoyed by everyone, wants to spread Tribal and Error into countries that don’t predominantly speak English. In fact, he has submitted it to an independent game festival in Brazil, to see how the people there respond to it.

The future is looking bright for Oskar and Tribal and Error. As of November of last year, the game received enough attention and approval from the Steam community to be allowed a spot on the digital storefront when the game is completed. Ultimately what Moleman wants from Tribal and Error is enough success to be able to continue making games. In his words: “we want to release Tribal & Error during our last student year so that if Tribal Error is a success then we build on that success to launch our career in the industry with our studio Grotman, and keep making great and crazy games.”

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