In the shady second-floor bedroom of a North Austin duplex, illustrations of rocky landscapes, skeletal creatures and swords of all sizes cover the walls. A bookshelf stacked with technical manuals, comic anthologies and figurines sits between two of the three desks in the room (the fourth is corner occupied by a sleeping gray dog). In this converted bedroom, local startup White Whale Games is working on a mobile app that brings the best of Nintendo-era aesthetics to a modern medium.
Their forthcoming debut, a game of epic quests and mythical fantasy called “God of Blades,” will be available soon on iOS devices. The White Whale team isn’t just hard at work on the game itself—they’ve also been busy creating the story of the world it takes place in, a misty, neon-drenched land inspired by classic sci-fi writing.
Co-founders Jason Rosenstock and George Royer officially started their North Austin home office in July, with Studio Director Jo Lammert coming on board in August.
Rosenstock, a digital artist and designer who studied art education at Tisch (and just wrapped up work on “Star Wars: The Old Republic” with BioWare), met Royer, formerly a lawyer and currently a PhD student at the University of Texas’ School of Information, thanks to sasquatch. One afternoon, while Rosenstock was animating on his laptop at Spiderhouse, Royer caught sight of an impressively detailed bigfoot and couldn’t help but express admiration. The rest is history.
Lammert, who has a background in film production and sound design, was a natural fit for the team, which settled on the name White Whale Games.
“We like Moby Dick,” explains Rosenstock (the novel is all about the search for an elusive—you guessed it—white whale). “But it’s also the idea of this thing that’s intangible, that you’re always chasing.”
For White Whale Games, that “thing” is best defined as “discovery.” Their debut game, “God of Blades,” is an epic, character-driven quest that incorporates a great deal of myth and legend—and that pushes the player to explore the real-life fantasy and sci-fi that inspired it.
“I actually did make a game, when I was a kid,” recalls Royer. “I programmed a game called ‘Guess the Dot,’ and it was the shittiest game of all time. The screen was divided up into a 1000 by 1000 grid that wasn’t labeled. A random dot would shot up and you had to guess the coordinates, and if you didn’t get it right, it would just go, ‘No.’”
White Whale’s designs are a bit more complex. “God of Blades” is simple, yet ambitious; using the same side-scrolling visuals as Nintendo before it, the game also has future plans to incorporate user-created content and other, top-secret tech tools.
This balance between the traditional and the futuristic characterizes White Whale’s entire aesthetic.
“Jason and I both come out of the sort of new school of game design, which is more design- and art-focused than programming,” explains Royer. “Basically, our mission was to take a familiar genre, strip it down completely and rebuild it. We’re trying to make thoughtful games that are using game as a communication medium to talk about a lot of other things.”
While most mobile games are more concerned with catching your attention just long enough to inspire an impulsive app store purchase, “God of Blades” promises a more thoughtful, immersive experience—without sacrificing the well-crafted visuals and engaging storyline that define any great game.
The designers at White Whale find a lot of inspiration in retro sci-fi and fantasy novels, the kind of vintage geekery that inspired a cult following in the 60s but has faded away.
"This game is going to lead some kid into a library, into the old fantasy section, and he’ll start reading crazy fantasy stuff from the 60s and really start thinking about making up their own fantasies and their own worlds, instead of playing World of Warcraft.”
“Every week or so we produce a fake book cover for our game—the books on which the game is based,” says Rosenstock. “In our world, they’re part of a lost series of books from the 30s to the 70s.”
“They were once popular but have disappeared,” adds Royer. “It’s a gateway for us to talk about that actual genre and the communities that were once flourishing around them that are sort of lost. This game is going to lead some kid into a library, into the old fantasy section, and he’ll start reading crazy fantasy stuff from the 60s and really start thinking about making up their own fantasies and their own worlds, instead of playing World of Warcraft.”
Similarly, they’re steering away from an overly-animated aesthetic. Illustrator Rosenstock builds each panoramic landscape from a simple series of colors, adding shadows and layers to naturally form the environment.
“It’s just formed enough you draw you in, then your imagination does the rest,” Royer says. “The levels are actually designed after moving panoramas from the 19th century, old Japanese scrolls that tell narratives over a wide space. The idea is that you see the story of the world that you’re moving through.”
The action, of course, doesn’t lack in detail. The game is named for the arsenal of swords available to players (all of which manifest from historic or mythological lore). And the game responds to your skill level, sending fiercer warriors as your swordplay gets better.
“We like it when games do strange things that we wouldn’t have expected, but it feels meaningful because it’s in response to actions I’ve taken or decisions I’ve made,” says Royer. “For example, in ‘God of Blades,’ if you do enough damage to the bad guys forces, they will send their champions to you. But no two players will have the same experiences there, because the champions randomly generated for you, so you have your own individual duels and games.”
“The stories are created with them, in a way,” adds Rosenstock.
What’s next for White Whale Games? Last week, they launched a Kickstarter to help fund the completion of “God of Blades.”
“The goal with this game is to make money that will help us create another game, and continue projects with White Whale Games,” Lammert says. “The Kickstarter will be a push to help us get to the finish line, to get it as polished as we feel ‘God of Blades’ deserves to be.”
Tying together mythology, history, fantasy and futurism, “God of Blades” is an iOS game that feels much larger.
When it comes down to it, explains Lammert: “We’re pretty much creating a universe for less than the price of a car.”
Learn more about White Whale Games: