Mekensleep talks Soul Bubbles, how it was inspired by Ico, Okami and Katamari Damacy

Also: Why the game was made specifically for DS and proved 'amazingly more difficult' than anticipated

Mekensleep talks Soul Bubbles, how it was inspired by Ico, Okami and Katamari Damacy
| Soul Bubbles

We love our DS more than our own mothers. And we can say that safe in the knowledge she never reads a single thing we have to say on the subject of video games and is unlikely to ever do so. But as a top-selling console and one with mainstream appeal, Nintendo handheld's release schedule does tend to be a bit heavy on animal-petting sims and brain-training titles.

So when a developer comes along promising to deliver a very unique experience on our DS – something new crafted from original ideas and the sweat and tears of a small team – we're bound to sit up and notice.

Soul Bubbles is a game that's been three years in the making by small French studio Mekensleep and one that's recently been signed up by publisher Eidos. Due out this year, the bubble-floating puzzler promises quirkiness, simplicity and bags of passion.

You can read our hands-on opinion of the game here.

We spoke to Mekensleep's founder and creative director, Olivier Lejade, about the game and what will hopefully make it stand out from the crowd when released.

Pocket Gamer: As your first DS game, why did you decide on this concept? Was it the idea of one person or a result of different people within the studio putting forward their thoughts?

Olivier Lejade: At Mekensleep, we use a collaborative and iterative development process. We started Soul Bubbles from a simple tech prototype done by Omar Cornut, our lead programmer, with bubbles that you could blow around on a blank screen. From there we went into three years of successive iterations until we ended up with Soul Bubbles as it is today. Everyone in the team is allowed and encouraged to contribute. As the game's creative director, I have the final say in what goes or doesn't go in the game but I try to keep it as objective as possible. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.

Can you describe how the game plays and the thinking behind the decision making with regards to what ended up in it?

Wow, that's a huge question! So many different gameplay mechanics and so many decisions went into making Soul Bubbles that it would be very hard to list them all in an interview. I think the most important thing is we wanted to surprise the players with something unusual and fun. Everything else followed.

Were you inspired by any other games, past or present, while making Soul Bubbles?

Well, at some level, we were of course inspired by all the games we loved. The sense of empathy you got from Ico, the strong visuals of Okami, the quirkiness and sheer joy of playing Katamari Damacy, the intuitiveness and simplicity of old 2D games… We had these and many more in the back of our mind while we were working. Our hope was to create something really unique and personal that would stand out just like these games did.

Do you think Soul Bubbles could be made for other formats such as PSP or mobile? Would it work without the DS touchscreen, for instance?

Soul Bubbles definitely works best with a touchscreen since we designed it that way. And there's a strong possibility that touchscreen technology is going to become very commonplace…

Was the technology of DS a deciding factor, then – did you specifically want to make a game that used the handheld's unique features?

Yes, we created Soul Bubbles from the ground up to be a DS game and take advantage of the hardware as much as possible.

Was there anything you couldn't do on DS that you would have liked to or maybe could have on a different console?

The DS is a great console but I would really have loved it if the top screen was touch sensitive! Maybe in the DS2?

What sort of gamer have you aimed the game at? Was there pressure to make the game a little easier for the DS's generally younger, more casual type of gamer?

There was no external pressure to make the game easier. We just wanted it to be playable by a very broad range of people. We wanted our non gamer friends to be able to enjoy Soul Bubbles just as much as our core gamer friends. So we used level and game design to help us: we kept the main path to the exit relatively easy without any blocking puzzles and we pushed all the difficulty to the edges.

Soul Bubbles is as hard as you want it to be. If you stay on the main track, it's a benign experience that can be very relaxing at times. But if you venture out too far, in search of the hidden calabashes, I guarantee you'll have your fair share of challenge. My hat goes off to anyone who finds them all without cheating!

The game's control system seems quite unique in the way you can move your character around the bubble to blow it. Did you experiment with different control methods during development?

Yes, we tried many different controls during development. The one that we stuck with and fine-tuned is the one that worked best with most players. At one point we tried to make blowing 'screen relative' which worked better for some people but ended up breaking immersion for most players because it gave the feeling that the spirit guide was outside the gameworld.

Was it a conscious decision to almost make the player aware they must protect these souls and feel a bit guilty for losing them?

Absolutely. Since nothing bad can happen to the spirit guide (he cannot be harmed), we needed some other way to keep the player invested in the world.

That's where the spirits came in. But then we also wanted to introduce some kind of co-dependency: the spirits need you to bring them safely to the gateway, but you also need them to light the way and repel the darkness. And sometimes they even help you by changing shape and giving you hints…

On a more general note, is it a concern for you that because of the volume of DS titles being released, your game could get lost among them all?

Yes, it is a major concern. There are so many games released that it is very, very hard to make ourselves noticed in all the noise. Our only hope is that informed players will try Soul Bubbles out and enjoy it enough to help us spread the word and get the ball rolling. Fingers crossed!

What would you say is the game's unique selling point, which should stand it out among the other games on DS?

It's a soothing, benevolent game and it was made with tonnes of passion – which is rare on any platform, unfortunately.

I think it has a true style, both in its gameplay and its visuals. It also has an incredible level of attention to detail. But of course, you will think I am biased so please go and try it for yourself: if you play it to the end without finding anything that touches your gamer's soul, send me your cartridge and I will personally exchange it for any game of your choice.

Finally, has being a small studio helped with the creation of Soul Bubbles or has it been hard work to complete?

I prefer small teams as it is easier to keep communication flowing and make sure everyone is moving in the same direction. This is important because in a small team each individual has a huge impact. It's also easier to react and take decisions.

On the other side, the pressure is intense: there are so many things to do and so few resources and everyone feels so strongly about things that it creates tremendous tension at times. Making Soul Bubbles was amazingly more difficult than I anticipated.

Our thanks to Olivier for his time. If you're not itching to try out Soul Bubbles now, you're clearly either our mum or have some sort of bubble-related phobia that could possibly be traced back to your schooldays. And, for the record, we're pretty sure the offer to personally exchange the cartridge for a game of your choice offer was for us and not the entire gaming community so don't go trying to fleece Olivier once you've completed it. Tsk.
Kath Brice
Kath Brice
Kath gave up a job working with animals five years ago to join the world of video game journalism, which now sees her running our DS section. With so many male work colleagues, many have asked if she notices any difference.