Now that the PlayStation 5 release and its launch line-up of games are done with and out of the way, it's time to see what the indie scene has planned for Sony's new console. Situated in amongst other titles slated for March is Mundaun, the debut game from creator Michel Ziegler that represents the first proper horror experience on PS5. Also coming to PlayStation 4, with a free upgrade available for those who purchase the game on the last-gen system, it promises to be an unnerving one for those who fear bumps in the dark. To learn more about the work that has gone into Mundaun, we caught up with Michel to explore the seven-year development process.
Push Square: For those who missed the announcements, could you introduce Mundaun? What sort of game is it and how will it play?
Michel Ziegler: I like to call it a lovingly hand-pencilled horror tale. The player steps into the shoes of protagonist Curdin, as he travels to Mundaun, a forlorn valley in the Alps. He begins the journey after receiving the news of his grandfather’s death in a barn fire. It won’t take long for the realization to sink in that there is something more sinister to the story. Mundaun is a game with many facets to it. At the centre of it all is a unique alpine world, in which the players will be able to roam around in. The narrative will take them even further up the mysterious mountain as they come across scattered inhabitants who speak Rumantsch, a rare language only spoken in a small part of the Swiss Alps.
Curdin also has to fend for himself against a variety of creatures. In classic survival horror fashion, it is up to the player to either pursue a strategy of avoidance or try to engage with them directly. I think what differentiates Mundaun from other recent horror games is the player’s agency in this. It’s not a scripted chase-sequence or insta-death kind of horror game, which I am very proud of.
What immediately jumps out to us following pre-release trailers and footage is the game's art style. Could you explain the inspirations behind it and how you put it together during development?
The art is an important and integral part of the experience. Mundaun is a first-person 3D game, but all the textures are hand-pencilled with graphite. The resulting tone of this aesthetic is a beautiful but sombre one, which fits the game, its world, and story perfectly in every way. I’ve looked through many books and archives for photographs of the region, its people, and daily life around the mid-last century. The way they are staged, the deep shadows, and sepia tones are a window into a past world that seems very distant and strange to me. This mixture of nostalgia and mystery is what I wanted Mundaun to feel like. I hand-drew everything because this is the way I like to work best and it’s very useful to bring together all kinds of source material in a consistent way.
After 3D modelling an object or character and UV unwrapping them into a 2D representation for the texturing, I print that UV map out. I trace the outlines on a light table and pencil in the texture before scanning it back in and putting it on the 3D model. Sometimes I do multiple passes, especially for things that need a certain degree of precision like faces. Other textures are almost abstract, and I can be free when drawing them.
As a one-man team making its first full-length game, how has the experience been? Do you believe you've thrived without having others alongside you or would you have preferred to toss ideas back and forth between somebody else?
I think it is a bit of both. To me, it makes sense to brood for a good while over an idea so it can take shape. At the very start, I wasn’t sure what Mundaun was going to be. I just had an atmosphere, some characters and a sense of the world all building in my mind. Being alone at that point allowed me to be free with trying things out, without the need for any coordination with a team. Just taking a pencil and starting to draw with minimum direction.
Additionally, I didn’t know any people in games, let alone know anybody well enough to think it would be a good fit to work together on a project that is very close and dear to me personally. On the other hand, it was massively useful to get feedback from beta testers, my publisher, and some additional people who came on board for the final stretch. It does take a load off mentally to know that not every little thing has to fall to me.
What sort of horror game will Mundaun be? Is it based on jump scares or spooking the player using a certain atmosphere? Or maybe something entirely different?
It’s very much about atmosphere and being in the world of Mundaun and how that feels. You are travelling alone for long stretches and it can get oppressive as you try to ascend it and the mountain looks down on you, this little human, indifferently. I think there is maybe one moment in the game that could be described as a jump scare. Mundaun cannot be neatly put into existing categories of horror games. I didn’t set out with the goal to scare or spook players. I wanted to give players a dark tale with a world that is rich and unexpected to live in, but with moments of beauty. I think that when people get the chance to play the game, they will struggle to say, “ah yes, this is like horror game X or Y” and for me, that is what motivates me to make this type of game.
Could you explain how the fear system works in tandem with those scares?
Being close to hostile creatures will cause the fear in Curdin to rise, which in turn will gradually make it harder for him to move and get away from their draw. There are multiple factors on how much fear is caused: proximity, the number of creatures, is Curdin looking directly at them, and the fear resistance stat. That stat is one of a few that can be improved by searching the open levels of Mundaun for the right items. Finding and cooking coffee will improve the fear resistance of Curdin, for example.
As a game that takes place in the Swiss Alps, what is it about the Grisons region you love so much?
The ruggedness of it. It feels old. Its old barns and houses aren’t all polished up, at least not in the region around Mundaun, where I have been visiting since a small child. I love the Rumantsch language even though I can’t speak it. I loved the freedom of roaming the slopes as a child, exploring the abandoned barns, climbing up overgrown rivers. It felt enormously big for a small child. A whole world to make up stories. It smells and sounds differently up there. I think that sense of nostalgia is what inspired me to create a game inspired by it.
Why should Push Square readers be excited to play Mundaun?
It’s something fresh. I feel like I started with a clean slate for this and I think that still shows in the finished game. Mundaun is a pretty ambitious title, it isn’t afraid to do different things. Players haven’t been to this mountain range, met the horned Schneeschrat on a foggy day, sleighed its slopes or swam its cold mirror-like lakes at night. I’m very happy to release a game that is unique in pretty much every way and I hope people will take the journey to Mundaun and discover its hidden secrets.
Mundaun releases for both PS5 and PS4 on 16th March 2021. We would like to thank Michel Ziegler for taking the time to answer our questions and Charlotte Kenny for making the interview possible. Are you interested in checking the game out next month? Share your thoughts in the comments below.