Tempopo 1
Image: Cult Games

Developer Witch Beam isn't ready to rest on its laurels. After creating two wildly different games — the twin-stick shooter Assault Android Cactus and the BAFTA award-winning, heartfelt puzzler Unpacking — it's ready to move back to the outside and go with something even more relaxing.

We were tapping our foot the whole way through the trailer for the Brisbane-based studio's third title, Tempopo. Combining music with the outside world, the game sees Hana — a young magical girl living in the clouds — restoring her musical garden of flowers. All of her Tempopo creatures have magical abilities and are bursting with personality, but only Hana can tell them where to go and guide them along the right path.

The game looks beautiful, with an eclectic mix of music and an addictive gameplay loop. But with the puzzle genre so often focused on brain teasers that can sometimes get players a little stressed, Tempopo is looking to bring calm, harmony, and beauty to the genre.

We sat down with the game's director, Sanatana Mishra, to talk about those lovely little diorama stages, the importance of music and accessibility, and how to make a stress-free puzzle game about guiding little creatures.

Nintendo Life: What's the story behind the creation of Tempopo and the inspiration behind it, as it's very different from your previous works?

Sanatana Mishra, designer & director: Tempopo came about because I was visiting my friend Seiji [Tanaka], who's a great animator. The last game that he shipped was actually Journey. At the time he was helping his family run their dental equipment business in Japan, so he'd shifted out of the games industry to do that. And we got together and we're talking, "Oh it'd be great if we could work on a game together."

Treasure Tracker, I mean, that's just brilliant, right?

We had this idea of investigating evolutionary dead ends in game design. I was thinking about these classic puzzle games that I absolutely love — Lemmings and ChuChu Rocket! and The Incredible Machine. I can still play them because I'm old and I accept the limitations of these things, but you can't really introduce them as they are to a modern audience. We want to bring that joy to more players, and we do that by making things more relaxing, and more accessible. That's where puzzle games have, for me, really lost their way. When you pick them up, you often feel very judged and feel very intense when you're playing them.

Tempopo 5
Image: Cult Games

I've held playtests for Tempopo where people come to it and they almost don't want to sit down and try it because, "Oh, it's a puzzle game, I'm really bad at those, I feel stupid when I play them." Well, I want to make a game that makes you feel smart, that guides you to that "aha" moment and helps you feel calm and composed while you're playing.

ChuChu Rocket is such a great namedrop there.

It's a brilliant game, but it is one where you're intense when you play it or you show it to somebody who plays more modern games. ChuChu Rocket is very hard and inaccessible.

There are a few more modern puzzle games like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker or music games like Crypt of the NecroDancer and Cadence of Hyrule that we thought of seeing Tempopo for the first time. Did any of these come up during development?

I love all three of those games. I would say that Crypt of the Necrodancer and Cadence of Hyrule aren't really inspirations, but there are a lot of parallels in the way you use the beat of the music and timing to understand space.

It's the thing that I think Nintendo does really well in all their games; they know how to present information to you.

Treasure Tracker, I mean, that's just brilliant, right? When it was a minigame [in Super Mario 3D World], it was incredible. When they turned it into a full game, it was stupendous. When they did the update for Switch with more stuff, it was even better all over again. Tempopo is nothing like Captain Toad, but I've tried to learn from what Nintendo has done well. They know how to present information to you.

So in Toad Treasure Tracker, you see a level, you see a shape, and you see a design for a space, and you immediately understand where you can go, what you can do, and what the expectation is. That's really important for me with puzzles. In Tempopo, it's so much about figuring out the perfect harmony of the sequence. If you can use little 3D dioramas, you can get a lot of that same information across.

I would say Treasure Tracker is definitely an inspiration in how it presents information. No parallels in how the games play, unfortunately! If you want a Treasure Tracker sequel — I hope that game gets made — I think Nintendo would have to make it. I don't think there's any need for anybody else to tackle a Toad's Treasure Tracker clone.

Tempopo 2
Image: Cult Games

That's so crucial to making a game that is accessible beyond an older core audience. I've grown up with games, I'm almost 40 and I understand all the mechanics of games as they are, but when I play with my family, they need games that present information in an instantly understandable way. I try to obsessively learn from the way that [Nintendo] presents things because they're making games for everyone. That can't be said of a lot of even the most well-reviewed, beloved games in the world right now.

Following on from Unpacking, did you take any lessons from that and apply them to Tempopo?

Yeah, absolutely. Creative director Wren [Brier] brought a lot of different skills that I and Tim [Dawson, technical director] don't have. It's great to round out design and ethos on things, but mainly in how to approach accessibility and connecting with people in puzzle design.

There were a lot of elements in Unpacking where people don't feel intimidated or stupid playing that game. It is, at its core, a puzzle game. It's got no fail states, it's got no kind of punishment to it, but there are still puzzles to be solved.

People talk to us after that game and ask if we're going to be the wordless narrative studio; that's not really what interests us, to just take an element of a game that was super successful and put that in everything we do. But I do think the broadly accessible nature of Unpacking is something that I'll always look at and think, "Wow, that was so brilliant." I really admire Wren and Tim for managing that and building that out.

You managed to take what a lot of people consider to be a really stressful experience and make it this really accessible and engaging mechanic and also let the actions tell the story.

Yeah exactly. It's always a beautiful thing to see when people working through an experience and actually thinking about it. I think about it a lot with films where I'll watch something terrible on Netflix because I don't care and I don't have to think about it ever again, or I'll go to the cinema.

A little while back I went with my wife to watch a movie called Perfect Days and afterwards, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Every day for a week I was thinking about it and it's one of those things that was living in my brain. That's something I want everyone to have while playing this game.

For Tempopo, you've moved from the pixel art of Unpacking to 3D visuals. What is that transition like? Do you find that easy to work with, or did you experience any problems?

I've been making games for 15 years; that's the shortest amount of time out of any of the core Witch Beam team. Jeff [van Dyck, composer and sound designer] has been doing this for most of his adult life, and Tim is a fair few years longer as well. So we know how to make games in general. A lot of that time has been spent working on games that got cancelled or don't exist. So it's not like your gameography is 10,000 games long or anything. It's the nature of our industry.

It's always a beautiful thing to see when people working through an experience and actually thinking about it.

Specifically working in 3D, our first game, [Assault Android] Cactus, was a full 3D shoot 'em up, using the visuals in a bombastic way that worked pretty well for that game. There are always trade-offs between using three-dimensional perspective and cameras versus 2D in terms of accuracy of positioning. It comes down to what serves the game best.

For Unpacking, the charm and being able to map things perfectly as you do, works better in 2D with pixel art. And for Tempopo, we lean into 3D because it's all about spatial awareness. You can't have that kind of element of verticality, perspective, and moving the camera around otherwise.

Once you pick a perspective, it's got to be about maximising the advantages of that, especially as a small team. We've leaned into animation to try and get everything to feel in sync and moving joyfully. To some degree, it's a lot easier than doing that in 2D where you have to draw every single frame, so animation becomes this really expensive, complicated element of a 2D game.

Music and movement is clearly an important part of Tempopo. Why was music chosen as a focal point of the game?

There's a wonderful thing about having audio as a pillar of your game and it comes from the fact that we started this company with Jeff Van Dyke. And he's just a genius. By having Jeff as this full partner, it meant that from the very first concepts, we would be talking with him about how audio can be intricately involved in everything from the very first step.

We have really strong accessibility goals with our games.

With Tempopo, we're using harmony and music as this kind of underlying heartbeat that helps you with the puzzles and the 3D spatial element because you feel the timing of everything, even if you can't hear the music. Every object in the game is moving synchronously with each other. You end up with this sense of being able to look at something and say, "Okay, it's moving at this speed, this is the beat, I can feel it, and now I know that it's two turns away from this point, and how long those turns take..." You start to think in sync with the beat, and I think it's beautiful.

Even if you look at Unpacking, the audio soundscape and that game ended up being one of the most insane undertakings that an indie team has ever done, I would say. I forget how many tens of thousands of sounds it was in the end, but it's one of those things where we're very focused on making sure that the audio soundscape of our games is given the same care as everything else.

Right, and it ties into what you were saying about messaging and making it clear. Music is kind of the universal language, isn't it? Everybody understands rhythm — even if you don't have rhythm, everybody can follow a beat, generally.

We really lean into that consistent heartbeat that underpins everything across Tempopo through the different soundtracks, and the actions that the characters take occur on and off half beats or full beats. They synchronise perfectly and the flowers within the levels are singing and pushing towards that rhythm. It all plays back into itself in such a way that even if you're just watching the visual reactions, you can almost feel the timing, you know.

We have really strong accessibility goals with our games. Anytime we have an audio element, we make sure that there is a visual element that accompanies it with an equal level of weight. It's wildly unnecessary to build something where you're excluding a bunch of people. That's why this game is musical, but it is not a music rhythm game.

And though there isn't actually a visible three-dimensional grid, I think that this audio-visual sync helps you conceptualize a grid. The game can be beautiful and not have to be segmented up and look like a two-dimensional thing, but it can still have that sense of delineated space because of how everything syncs up.

Nature is another big part of this game. What do you think that relationship between music and nature is and how do you think that applies to Tempopo? Or does that come up in the game as one of the big themes?

For us, nature and gardens came about because we wanted to unify all the elements in the game. Once you have music and magic and characters and movement and collection and all these things, 'How do you actually bring this together?' We tried to think of real-world concepts that tie these disparate elements together.

Gardens are a perfect fit. They're wonderfully calming places full of big personalities that have to coexist together and support each other. They're feeding nitrogen into the soil that the other one uses. A garden is a very diverse place with different elements, but everything is working together. So we thought, 'Why not lean into this element of nature where we already have this place where people feel calm and relaxed?' Gardens are a place that people design and they want to make feel like their own, so we brought that into the game as well.

Even Mythbusters showed that the flowers respond to music and grow faster when music is playing, right? Like, why wouldn't plants want to jam out like the rest of us?

What a perfect answer! Getting into the gameplay, you've got a little command wheel that looks like a flower, with petals that allow you to put down different commands. Where did that idea come from and can you give us some examples of how it'll be used in-game?

These are what we're calling "instructions" for now, so you're placing them down to try and create a perfect plan. Every level is a rescue where you're trying to collect the flowers that have been lost and take them back to your garden. Then, as the player, you can design your little musical garden.

Like, why wouldn't plants want to jam out like the rest of us?

Essentially, Hana [the main character] is conducting the music and the Tempopo are following the beat. They're great at moving, but it's up to you to tell them what to do. We started coming up with different actions that would help with cooperative elements. I guess this is where I was inspired by some of those classic puzzle games like Lemming, where you're telling one to be like a blocker or build a bridge or do something like that and work together. It all comes back to the idea that this game's theme is harmony.

Tempopo 3
Image: Cult Games

Harmony and bringing people together through video games is such an important thing. That's something that you've done in Unpacking. There is a real sense of harmony when you get everything in the right place. Here it feels similar in a completely different way.

A huge part of that in Tempopo is where you can just press the play button, the handle will start conducting, the music will be going, and the characters will move around and do everything, and then you can press that button again and it just resets everything back. The way that people play and engage with the game is about this kind of approach — do they spend a long time looking at something and thinking it through, or do they just iterate and make little changes all the time and feel like I'm getting closer to this perfect movement of this concerto of elements working together?

That helps a lot with not wanting people to feel frustrated or scared of the game because I don't think there's much value in a puzzle game judging how you solve a puzzle. It doesn't feel like a very interesting thing to me.

It's not, you want to bring [players] in and make them feel like they're clever. It's not about how difficult it is. It's about how satisfying it is. You don't satisfy anybody by saying, "Oh no, you did that wrong." Not that there shouldn't be a wrong answer, but there shouldn't be a way to punish you if you do it wrong.

And that's been a really tricky thing to come from a game like Unpacking which has essentially no fail states, to a game like Tempopo, which has a more pure puzzle theme running through it. The really important bit for me with Tempopo is the emotional arc for the player. It's where we probably spent the most amount of time in development — using the music, the interface, all of the tools, to make you feel calm while you're playing. If you can calm people down while they're solving problems, they'll have a much higher sense of satisfaction.

That's why this game is musical, but it is not a music rhythm game.

I think the worst case for me is when I've played a puzzle game and I felt really tense about everything and then I finally solved the thing but I'm terrified of whatever is happening next. I want people playing this game to be sitting back and enjoying their time with it. We've had people in playtest sit there, press the button to play the music, and listen and sit back for five minutes while they watch everything hop around. It goes through the cycle of all the different musical tracks and everything and they're looking at the space and thinking, 'What should I do?'

So there's still an element of trial and error in some levels?

Absolutely. It's trial and error in a way where it's purposeful. We're calling it "planning and execution," the idea that you press the button, you've got your plan, you're watching it play out, and you're [thinking], "Is this the right plan?" In getting there, the game is trying to help you stay in the right mindset, and it's not judging you, it's not telling you that you've restarted 300 times.

Tempopo 4
Image: Cult Games

'Planning and execution' is a much better term — we're allowed to make mistakes. You just have to keep trying things and you'll get there eventually. Watching it play out and hearing that people will just sit there and listen to the music, go through the motions, and not feel under any pressure, is delightful. That's really important for the genre.

Yeah! And we're trying to build more accessible tools around the interface because that's a big part of trying to make a game that works for younger and older players. It's a puzzle game so we're going to have challenging puzzles in there for people to get stuck into but we're also trying to have a really easy curve to explain all the mechanics and extra accessibility options to allow those with less experience with puzzle games to solve things differently. [I'm] not sure I want to deep dive into the specifics of all those things yet just because we're still testing and implementing things. But there will be options there to make the game really work for younger players as well as more experienced puzzlers.

Tempopo is really a game about the emotional state that you are going to be in while you play

Tempopo is really a game about the emotional state that you are going to be in while you play it. And I think that's largely where I want to push it. We have self-described it internally as a very soft game; it has this softness about it that when you play it, you feel connected, not judged.

Soft and cosy is good, and it's got to have something that will keep us coming back to it, whether you've got experience with puzzle games or not.

Yeah, and we're really hoping that there's more to it than just solving the puzzles as well for where people will want to stick around because of the experience. There's this other element to it which is not just about solving puzzles. I think it's super important to give the player a chance to unwind and do something that's entirely within their control.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Thank you to Sanatana for speaking to us, very late at night. Tempopo is due to launch on Switch in 2024.