If you could trace the birth of the modern world to any one place and time, surely it would be Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. The uniquely cosmopolitan and liberal atmosphere at the crossroads of Europe gave rise to movements in the arts and sciences that still shape modern life, with cultural figures like Freud, Wittgenstein, Loos, Mahler and Klimt leading the way. The unique milieu was not to last, but the era’s inspiration endures. The writings of Stefan Zweig, for example, the period’s most famous chronicler and memoirist, have returned to the bestseller lists in our own time and have even inspired a Hollywood film.
The Lion’s Song, a sepia-toned point-and-click adventure from Viennese development studio Mi’pu’mi Games, plays like a love letter to this era, following the intertwined lives and creative ambitions of characters Wilma, a painter; Franz, a composer; and Emma, a mathematician. It’s one of the most emotionally affecting and original experiences on Hatch, and is a great example of just how expressive pixel art can be. I spoke to Stefan Srb, the game’s creative director, and Gregor Eigner, the studio’s CEO, to find out how they brought the Wiener Moderne to a medium its originators never knew – video games. First question – how did the company get started and where does the name come from?
Gregor: Mi’pu’mi was founded nine years ago – we will have our 10th anniversary next year which is a great achievement for us. Me and my co-founder (Tobias Sicheritz) came from Rockstar Games in Vienna. We were working on Max Payne 2 and other games at this point in time. Mi’pu’mi has made its name working on a lot of different titles, such as the Hitman series with IO Interactive. We’ve also been working with Ubisoft on Anno: Build an Empire, which is on mobile. The name is Japanese and means “making steps forward” – making baby steps, but always trying to learn something and getting from one point to the next.
Is The Lion’s Song the company’s first game as the sole developer and publisher?
Gregor: It’s the first game that is all ours, yes. It’s very exciting for us. It was a process taking a couple of years. We have our own monthly event where we bounce ideas around, where we prototype as a team. Stefan approached me one day because he had been working on something that had come out of a Ludum Dare game jam, which was called The Lion’s Song. And he showed it to me because it scored number 1 in mood and graphics at the game jam. We discussed it and we thought what could we do with it.
And so we came up with an idea where we could publish it as Mi’pu’mi, and make it episodic, because it was story-driven adventure. We had the idea to have an intertwining story of different characters which would then come together in a grand finale. We learned a lot, because The Lion’s Song was the first time that we made a full development cycle completely in house, from preproduction to the production to the marketing and distribution on a lot of different platforms. Which is very cool for us.
The personalities in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century are the stuff of lore: Freud, Mahler, Klimt — and Egon Schiele, who bears some resemblance to the character Franz. Was Schiele a big inspiration?
Stefan: Yes, Schiele was an inspiration for Franz, the protagonist of the second episode. But we kind of looked at his biography, at his life and his close connection to Klimt. And this was something we wanted to portray also in The Lion’s Song. So he was a huge inspiration. We took some of that and fed it into a new character that eventually became Franz. But he also has elements of other people in his characters.
Any other historical or real figures who influenced the game?
Stefan: We have a few cameos, like Klimt and Wittgenstein. So what we did is we looked at a lot of biographies of artists and scientists at the time and took elements we thought were interesting to form these new characters. I think the most “original” one if you will, is Wilma, because she was made under time pressure for the game jam version of the game. In terms of real life persons, I guess since I wrote it I think there’s a lot of myself in Wilma. Not so much the other characters, but each one of them has their own inspirations.
The game’s story is very much concerned with creative ambition, and how it can be thwarted or realised. What kinds of life experiences did the team bring to the game’s story and themes?
Stefan: For a lot of us on the team, it’s very autobiographical in the sense that in our day-to-day business, we are creating art, creating games. It’s this creative process, and all the struggles that our protagonists go through are struggles we know very well.
So in that sense it’s definitely autobiographical. Also I think a few questions that our protagonists ask themselves are or are being challenged with are questions we ourselves have to deal with at some point in our lives on the team.
The thing about this era is that there was this great firmament of cultural and scientific accomplishment, but it was not to last, 1914 was around the corner. Is this one reason for the game’s shaded, melancholic atmosphere?
I think it really depends on the perspective. Obviously some people aware of the history see it as a very melancholic thing. Almost all of them do after they play the last episode – spoiler warning! I can see that kind of melancholy. It’s also something that I haven’t seen many games capture that well and it somehow speaks also to Austrian identity. Especially the Viennese, we tend to be very morbid about things [laughs].
The Lion’s Song strikes me as part of a larger revival of interest in the culture of this period that has been underway for a few years now, such as with the return of Stefan Zweig to the bestseller lists. Do you think there is something about this era that is resonating with our own time?
Stefan: Yes absolutely, I think so. You have Europe now where different national interests dominate and people’s worldviews become smaller and smaller. We are facing a Europe with all these national interests, and we’re missing the bigger picture. Everyone just looks up to their border and not over the border. They tend to lose a global view or a European view in favor of a national view. And it was this same outlook that led up to the First World War. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but…
It’s extraordinary what we’re living through right now.
It is extraordinary and I think it was extraordinary back then as well. And I think one of the major reasons why Stefan Zweig is becoming more popular now is that in 2014 we had the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, and this year we have the anniversary of the end of the war. Zweig called himself a European, and the Vienna Zweig describes at the time in The World of Yesterday comes across as a sort of utopia. You have all these scientific and artistic achievements and advancements. And at the time the German language was about to become the world language. And then everything just ended. I suppose people are still looking for answers, or they see the parallels in what’s happening today to a hundred years back. Or maybe decay is just inevitable. That’s me, the morbid Viennese speaking.
The fourth episode of The Lion’s Song draws everything together and brings a sense of closure, but the world remains very deep. Could you imagine making if not a sequel, another game set in the era?
Stefan: Definitely. I even mentioned to Gregor a few months ago. I don’t think I’m done with Wiener Moderne. I don’t know whether it’s necessarily The Lion’s Song, but there’s so much more culture there that can be explored, that can be referenced and commented upon. So I don’t think it was the last game. And who knows, there might be even something more in store for The Lion’s Song. But for now, we’re just glad it’s on Hatch.
We are too! Episodic narrative adventure games seem like a good fit with a new era of ongoing, subscription based gaming services like Hatch. Do you think we might be on the cusp of a new wave of story-driven experiences like The Lion’s Song?
Gregor: I think the subscription model is an interesting way to bring games like this to market, because especially if you, the consumer, are looking for a variety of games, you want to see new stories, you want to see new content that needs to be produced. And for us as a developer, we want to tell stories rooted in Austria, because this is our home base and this is a place we know and which others don’t. A service like Hatch is a good platform to show what we’re capable of.
Is the studio working on anything else?
Gregor: We’re working on a new game, a new original IP. It will also be narrative. Storytelling is very important for us, but it will be different from The Lion’s Song. But also having an interesting angle on history.
I’ve saved the biggest question for last. In 15 seconds or less, tell our readers why they should play The Lion’s Song. Go!
Gregor: The Lion’s Song is very emotional as a game. It is deep and it has a very interesting character development if you take part in all of the episodes.
Stefan: You should play The Lion’s Song if you’re into deep stories, into deep characters and seeing how people 100 years back dealt with the same questions that people are dealing with today.