What elicits hunger? Some will probably say hormones, for the scientifically "correct" answer. Or is it something deeper, like a tummy unexpectedly rumbling in a quiet room? Or is it driven by pure scent, like walking past a bakery and getting a whiff of freshly baked goods? Is it just taste, even?
In artist and game developer Tj Hughes' new project Nour, which launched on Kickstarter this week, Hughes wants to investigate another way we feel hungry through exploring how to digitally make food look as good as it tastes. Exploring hunger through sight. Hunger through pure art. Hunger through play.
For Hughes, who operates under the moniker Terrifying Jellyfish, the path to putting an experimental game about food on Kickstarter was almost accidental. It all actually started with silly 3D art gifs of food, gifs that looked unrealistic but somehow delicious. As the experiments got surprisingly retweeted and liked thousands of times, soon Hughes was receiving messages about how hungry the art made them because of how well it captured the milky and delectable essences of milk tea with boba and ramen, respectively. Hughes was later asked to present the art at an event, it was here that Hughes decided that maybe it was time to make an unexpected sort of game. Not just gifs or stills for Twitter fodder, but something that was as enjoyable to play with as it was to look at.
"The first thing that came to mind [when starting this project] was anime food, because anime food is the most delicious looking stuff ever. I thought that was a whole genre of art in itself, I would go online and there's whole blogs dedicated to just like screenshots and gifs of anime food," said Hughes. "It's such a thing that people love and that I love personally. I started following these blogs and getting inspiration from them. I wanted to capture the essence of that, but in 3D, because the thing that's so delicious about anime food is they use all the right colors, all the right effects. It just reminds [you] of a taste through color."
Nour is a casually interactive game. Using either a keyboard or the preferred method of a Midi Fighter 3D, players push random buttons and keys to watch the disorienting depictions of food bounce and splish and splash and fall across the screen. Watching it in action is a wild sort of sight, operating as something that's wholly accessible for anyone (whether they play games regularly or not, are old or young, etcetera).
It wasn't always planned to be so simplistic though. At one time, Hughes considered a more structured approach for the mechanics of the game, tossing around ideas like putting together meals or trying not to set food on fire. Instead, Hughes found in testing these ideas that they distracted from the game's deeper core conceit: to play with your food and have fun doing it, unburdened by the typical constraints of game rules.
Hughes likens the gotta-press-'em-all experience with buttons and keyboards to playing with action figures as a kid. "When you're given an action figure, you don't ask, 'Okay, well what am I supposed to do with this?' You just play with it. You come up with your own game almost," said Hughes. "So I found out people would do that too [watching them play Nour]. They would come up with their own little mini objectives, like they were trying to get the lantern in the ramen. They were trying to get the chopsticks in the bowl. They were trying to get a hoverboard in the meat grinder in one scene. There's just a bunch of tiny different things that you can do, and if you let the player free to discover those things, I think they will get a lot more enjoyment out of it than if you set up false goals or objectives and mechanics and stuff like that."
At various events, Nour's been usually on display with a Midi Fighter 3D, a tool typically used by musicians for sampling purposes. It's a Midi sampler with a gamified twist: it's specifically designed to feel like an arcade controller, buttons especially. "It's for music producers who really love video games, so they can get back to their Street Fighter roots and press arcade buttons to control their music," said Hughes. "So it's interesting that this controller that's designed for music to emulate game controls is now back in a game, so it comes full circle in that sense. This is just a loop."
The Midi Fighter 3D was first popularized by musician Shawn Wasabi, who inspired Hughes to want to dabble with music and Midis in the first place. Wasabi's videos show a large square-shaped Midi Fighter, which Wasabi uses to construct entire songs using only quick blips of samples—activated with just the tap of a finger. "The controller also has an accelerometer in it so you can tilt it, so I hooked that up as well and it just worked so well as this unconventional controller for this unconventional game," said Hughes. "It just all lined up so perfectly."
Some of the food that Hughes currently has lined up for the project includes milk tea with boba, ramen, popcorn, toast, ice cream, bento boxes, pizza, and more. Yet the game won't just be resigned to human food, Hughes wants to explore gamifying dog food as well. Specifically, a bunch of tiny dogs running to dog bowls, where the player spills food into their bowls and watches the pups gobble it up. Everything in Nour hinges on the cuteness and the pristine and pastel aesthetic of the food, so why not venture into the land of the cutest creatures of all, puppies?
Hughes has seen success by social media metrics with his art retweeted in the hundreds to thousands. By putting Nour on Kickstarter, Hughes wants to see if this type of experimental game can have life breathed into it realistically by potential players, as other experimental projects have seen success in the past on the crowdfunding platform. In order for Nour to venture beyond niche independent events and grow in size, Hughes wants to see if the demand is there in the first place.
"It's interesting how just the response of other people has made this game. The game kind of made itself in that sense," said Hughes. Nour wouldn't have been made interactive if no one asked for it to be shown off at event. If no one on social media shared Hughes' pre-Nour 3D art, a concept might not even have blown up to this capacity. Nour was born purely of people's desire for it. Hughes just hopes he can deliver. "[In Nour, players] just get to play with their food and mess with things and not have any repercussions. They won't have to clean it up, their mom won't yell at them. I just want to make sure that people have fun like they're a kid again with this game."
Nour is crowdfunding on Kickstarter now, and wraps up on October 18th.