Digital Wool: The Handmade Art of iOS Game Voyager

By Wesley Fenlon

Indie game creator Ken Amarit describes the process of turning physical art crafted from wool into the digital pieces of his charming iPhone game.

For five months in 2012, Ken Amarit made a video game called Voyager. He programmed it himself and released it on the iTunes app store on September 4th, but before that he crafted it, literally making the game's components by hand, photographing them, and digitizing them into whimsical sprites. Amarit's Voyager eschewed the traditional visual elements of video games--3D polygons, 2D pixels, vector art drawn on a digital tablet--for graphics derived from wool.

Voyager's backgrounds, its rocket ship spiraling ever skyward, its airplanes and birds and meteors and other obstacles, came from a process called needle felting. "Doing [needle felting] I was able to shape and create things with [wool] using my imagination, and then from that I was able to move forward into the stop motion animation," Amarit told me, a couple weeks after he gave a talk at World Maker Faire about creating Voyager.

Video games are a rarity at Maker Faire, an event dedicated to building and "hacking" in the hands-on, messing-with-wires-and-circuitry sense. Voyager, though is an unusually physical game. Amarit's woolen art makes the game feel more real, even as you're flying through an atmosphere mysteriously populated by elephants and squid.

The result is a game that's interesting because of its art and not its gameplay. But the needle felted characters are only part of the story: the key to Voyager's charm lies in Amarit's combination of felting, photographing and Photoshopping, techniques which he could have just as easily put to work creating a stop motion film.

The Art of Voyager

Amarit's talk at World Maker Faire, titled "From Farm to iPhone," briefly covered the process of turning a bit of wool into an element in a video game. As we talked, he went into more depth.

"After you clean and card wool--which is aligning fibers so that it's easier to spin--at that point if you spun it on an actual wheel, in the traditional sense, you would have yarn that you could use for any number of things, from crocheting to knitting to pretty much anything you can think of. But at this point ... my process [is] taking it and then needle felting, which is where you poke at it with a special needle with barbs that basically felt the wool. It's kind of a reaction the same way that water would make wool felt, but using the barbs instead. ... At that point it's completely divergent from any traditional use of wool."

Amarit has experience with stop motion animation and actually considered a needle felted animation project before settling on Voyager. "[Stop motion animation] is making inanimate objects seem real through frame-by-frame animation," he said. "Using wool, for me, gave a specific feel I was trying to achieve."

Each character, or thing, in Voyager is a three-dimensional object that Amarit felted by poking and prodding the wool over and over until it compacted and took shape. The resulting pieces were a bit like stuffed animals, but formed with wool instead of cotton. At that point, they could have easily been placed on a set and animated in stop motion. Retaining their 3D look in Voyager wasn't as simple. The game is 2D--how do you convey a sense of three dimensionality on a 2D plane?

"I guess this is where it's different from a drawing, which is like a 2D perspective thing," Amarit explained. "It's kind of like a photography trick in a way. I captured, through the photos, the objects and animated them in a way that would make them seem very three dimensional. Even though I knew that the final product was just a 2D image that I Photoshopped. ... It's more stop motion animation tricks than it is computer programming tricks. Although it is a combination too, of manipulating the objects in the code, but it was mostly capturing the images in a way to kind of enhance the three dimensionality of the objects. Just to try to get it to pop and make it seem more real than it actually is. Exaggerating that as well--not only making them look 3D, but in almost a cartoony way exaggerating it, and maybe it doesn't ultimately feel cartoony, but compared to normal motion it is."

Play Voyager and it's easy to see what Amarit's alluding to. When an airplane crosses the screen, it moves left-to-right or right-to-left like any 2D sprite--but as it crosses, it waggles its wings in an exaggerated salute. "Cartoony" describes the tilt perfectly, but making both sides of the plane visible also conveys the sense that it's a stuffed toy rather than a flat digital object.

Amarit's film experience prepared him for an important part of the creative process: Properly setting up a green screen and perfecting the lighting for each shot. Photoshop primarily served as a tool for cropping and color correcting.

Out of the three months Voyager was in development, Amarit estimated about 80 percent of his time went into coding. Creating each needle felted character took at most three to four hours, and photographing them took only 10 or 20 minutes each.

Building up a game around the needle felted art took time, but there wasn't a hard distinction between the analog and digital stages of the creation process. Coding, too, played a part in shaping Voyager's personality.

Delving Into Code

Amarit knew from the start he wanted to use needle felted art for a project. When he finally hit on the idea for Voyager, he knew it was simple enough to develop by himself. He built a prototype in three days. Making a real game took took slightly longer.

"I guess if I had known what was required when I went into it, I might have just made a movie instead," he said, laughing. "Going from [prototype] to finished product was much much more difficult than I imagined," he said. "There were so many things I didn't think about that I had to account for. Most importantly speed and memory management and all these things that are not fun to deal with. But at the same time it was also a fun challenge to work through....I'm totally excited about interaction now and making games and trying to come up with different ways to do it."

"If something comes down the screen and is tumbling at you...I'll rotate the object in the game to make it look like it's spinning. That's something that you can do sparingly because it kind of looks not organic if you overdo it...but it's mostly simple rotations and also flipping stuff along different axes to get the right direction or make things feel a certain way."

Three months of full-time coding--"really every waking moment I had," Amarit said--and another two months of part-time work brought Voyager to life in Objective C. The learning experience of programming Voyager left Amarit eager to make another game. "I have this notebook full of ideas of games to do and varying in complexity," he said. "Some are simple casual games, some get more intense. I would love to do an action/RPG if that was possible, but that's like signing away two years of my life."

Considering how time-intensive programming Voyager was, Amarit also expressed an interest in focusing more on the crafting end of the development project, either making art for other designers, or needle felting for something interactive that's not a game at all.

Needle Felting for the Future

At the mention of Little Big Planet, a game known for its charming art style and open-ended toolbox of parts that can be cobbled together to create imaginative platforming levels, Amarit's voice lit up. The game seemed like a natural extension of his interest in needle felting--namely, conveying the texture of felted objects in a digital environment while also encouraging the creativity tied to crafting.

"I guess SoundShapes is another game like that," he said. "I love that idea. One thing I found at MakerFaire actually was that I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, how well kids responded to both the game and the activity of needle felting. And how interesting they found it. Everyone thought there was some kind of interactivity between the wool objects and the iPad, where it was just a game and the wool stuff was separate. I definitely like the idea of having a more complete whole between the style and the art and also the objective of the gameplay."

Needle felting offers a unique look that's rare in video games--Kirby's Epic Yarn smartly tied its crafted look to its gameplay, but notable examples are hard to come by. Amarit said he mostly found himself in the role of a programmer, rather than designer or artist, when attending events like hackathons. But he's open to the idea of focusing on art, possibly designing a stable of needle felted creatures for another designer's game.

Amarit has trouble fully explaining his ambitions for needle felting projects outside of the world of video games. The key, though, lies in his perception of the creative process used for Voyager: That needle-felted objects could be taken at any step and used for a different purpose. After being turned into digital sprites, they could become digital objects gamers could play with in an open-ended sandbox like Little Big Planet. Or they could be used in an animation. Or they could be photographed but never digitized.

Or the physical objects themselves could be used in games or craft projects "You could stop before you even got to the computer and, say, throw an Arduino in it and program that to make the object move [with] a servo, for example," he offers. "For MakerFaire it would be fun to do something that was both crafty and using needle felting which I love to do, or combining it in a technological way outside a computer."