I'm a sucker for cute animals. When this year's Kinda Funny Games Showcase featured Tamarin, I took a break from my furious typing to say, "Aww." Tamarin is a 3D action-adventure platformer cut from the same cloth as Banjo-Kazooie and Jet Force Gemini starring an adorable tamarin as the protagonist.
I had the chance to talk to Omar Sawi, creative director at Chameleon Games, the team behind Tamarin. Naturally, I had to ask if in early development there was a list of potential cute animal protagonists (there was) and why the humble tamarin was chosen. Along with being adorable and underappreciated, tamarins can move quickly and are suited to exploring 3D environments. With that burning question answered, the discussion shifted to the story behind Tamarin's five-year development and the game's core message and influences (while still smiling over how cute tamarins are).
In Tamarin, you play as an agile tamarin who has lost everything. The forest around him was burnt down, his family is gone, and his home is in ruins at the hands of evil ants. The story follows this little guy's struggle for survival as he tries to save his family and friends. His adventure takes him through beautiful environments of Nordic forests, mountains, and fjords. With the help of shining fireflies, the tamarin can access underground tunnels and utilize weapons to battle the evil insects.
The development behind Tamarin was an uphill battle for the indie studio. Creating a full 3D action-adventure on a slim budget proved difficult, but Sawi and the team were determined and their unified passion kept them going. Ten years of savings plus help from friends and family supported Tamarin over its five-year development cycle, and game industry veterans were on staff to help make the game all it could be. The trailer shown at the KFG Showcase had a Rareware nostalgia to it, and with good reason.
"The characters and music of Tamarin were created by veterans who were the key people on...Rare games in the past such as Donkey Kong Country/64 and Banjo-Kazooie," said Sawi.
Rare games were a primary media influence in Tamarin's creation. The trailer's music especially struck me as it sounded like a flashback to my childhood days spent playing the N64. Sure enough, the Tamarin soundtrack was composed by David Wise, most famous for his work on the Donkey Kong series and his recent work on Yooka-Laylee. Sawi was drawn to Wise's style of using music as a pacing structure throughout games, with each track harnessing distinct emotions depending on the environment. The Tamarin overworld where players explore fjords and the picturesque Nordic atmosphere has a very different tune from the pounding, club-like beats in the underground ant lairs.
While the games of old played a key part in what Tamarin became, Sawi didn't want to fall into the so-called "collectathon" trap. In Tamarin, there are birds to free and fireflies to catch. Rather than making it feel mindless or overbearing, Sawi aimed to balance this mechanic within the game.
"We wanted to change [the collectathon] and create this new concept of a ‘living collectible,'" explained Sawi. "This means that things you collect actually have a behavior and a reason to interact with you in a more sophisticated way. The birds in the game aren’t just collectibles, but they will actually WANT to be collected...On the other hand, fireflies are mysterious creatures with special powers, they will often not want to be voluntarily caught. Then there will be a chase where the fast leaps of the tamarin can come in handy!"
Interacting with the world and exploring the game's 3D environments is what most excites Sawi. He hopes players will feel a sense of discovery as they explore the wondrous setting. The Nordic scenery played a key role in developing Tamarin's outdoor environments. A couple of people who worked on Tamarin, including Sawi, come from Norway. The environments of the Nordic countryside lent themselves well to being rendered into a game.
"Due to the very Northern location, there are a lot of beautiful natural phenomena that people from other parts of the world haven’t experienced," Sawi said. "That includes the strong, beautiful colors, the extremely long sunsets and shadows in the summer, the freshness and clarity of the air, the distinct seasons, and special species of plants that have adapted to live in those harsh conditions; It may have been windy so the flowers become very cute and petite or the trees may grow sparsely and develop bent tree trunks near the mountaintops. The environmental structures are also interesting, with a former ice age having formed fjords and high mountains which are plateaued at the top. It’s something not much featured in games, and due to my upbringing there, it was easier to reference that and hopefully create a new gameplay setting."
With so much emphasis on a peaceful environment being destroyed, one may question if there's a greater commentary behind the plotline. Sawi confirms that there absolutely is. The ants in the game are highly intelligent and work in groups, but keep growing in number. Unsatisfied with what they have, they invade other habitats and drive out others on their path of destruction. The parallel to what humans are doing to the Earth is clear. Tamarin aims to show players just how many beautiful places and animals are in our world and encourages reflection on what a tragedy it would be to lose them to environmental destruction.
This core environmental message is what's most important to Sawi. A meaningful exploration of the world and creatures within it are at the core of Tamarin's creation, and that's something we can all aspire to experience.
"We all want to be something special, to be somewhere special. To dream and have special moments," said Sawi. "Tamarin represents that idea."
Tamarin will be available this autumn on Steam.
Update, Aug. 9, 2019: Previously, this article stated that Tamarin would launch in the summer. The developers have since pushed the release window to autumn.