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Vokabulantis has a unique personality. At first sight, it does not seem to be a video game, with hand-built puppets clambering up delectably intricate sets, limbs as slim and graceful as those in Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas. The worlds in Vokabulantis, on the other hand, are subtly different from those in classic stop-motion films — gritty and tactile, but static and matte. It’s difficult to bring into words how perfect it is.
Karla, a little girl with long braids dangling from the hood of her red raincoat, and Kurt, a boy with a poofy green jacket and wispy, flaxen fur, star in Vokabulantis, a stop-motion, co-op video game. They are both losing their lips. Flat skin spreads from cheek to cheek where their lips should be.
This was not always the case. Karla and Kurt are about to reveal their true romantic feelings for each other when they find themselves mouthless and stuck in Vokabulantis, a vast and ruined world. They are trapped in this moment and in this universe, unable to articulate themselves orally, until they can return language to Vokabulantis.
The game comes from Felix the Reaper studio Kong Orange and Danish stop-motion house Wired Fly Animations. It’s been in development since 2018, and it’s approaching the end of a Kickstarter campaign that’s raised well over its goal of €70,000.
Kong Orange founder and CEO Esben Kjr Ravn has been involved on the Vokabulantis Kickstarter website, posting updates and answering backers’ questions on a regular basis, and the campaign itself is jam-packed with details about the plot, mechanics, and puppet-making process. There is one detail, however, that Ravn omitted.
“The third and less public pillar of the production besides Wired Fly Animations and my game development studio, Kong Orange, is the poet and artist Morten Søndergaard,” Ravn said. “He has dealt with and worked artistically with these themes for years and years.”
Since the 1990s, Sndergaard has been a fixture on the Danish poetry and art scene, and one of his most well-known installations is called Ordapoteket, or WordPharmacy. It consists of ten prescription boxes labelled with various sections of speech — such as noun, preposition, or adjective — and guidelines for their prescribed uses. It’s a witty take on consumption and vocabulary, as well as an extremely powerful picture.
Vokabulantis is part visual poetry, part stop-motion film and part video game. Its strange, indescribable world is the result of a spontaneous collaboration among Søndergaard, Wired Fly and Kong Orange.
“Eventually Morten ran into Johan from Wired Fly Animations and they thought it would be a wonderful thing to make something that had more emotional impact in the traditional narrative sense, and set out to do a film,” Ravn said. “A love story between these two kids, going on an adventure in Vokabulantis. They luckily decided it should be a game at a point, because they wanted the immersion and ability to actually be inside the world…. Then they asked me to join the project. Woohoo, lucky me.”
Vokabulantis does not resemble other stop-motion designs for a reason. It is constructed by hand, much as typical stop-motion animations, with sets made of clay, paper, wire, and paint, except the scenes are then manipulated using photogrammetry. Developers photograph the objects in great detail and then import them into Unity. There, Kong Orange developers will scale the environment as required while also maintaining the flexibility to make minor modifications, which is essential when creating a platforming game.
Here’s how Ravn explains it:
“Normally you shoot a character on a green screen or in a set and then the animation is locked to those circumstances. We, on the other hand, can keep manipulating the sets and situating the characters in them as we want like any other platformer game would do. The difference, though, is that this is actually still stop-motion, we are not mimicking it in any way. Of course this also makes it different from traditional stop-motion, because we can scale our sets and therefore also build them at any scale we see fit. And therefore it doesn’t always look as consistently miniature-ish as a ‘real’ stop motion set would do.”
This explains the vague eeriness baked into Vokabulantis, as it straddles the worlds of traditional stop-motion and software-based animation.
“We are still working on the balance of where we want to lay the golden line in between the traditional approach and what we are doing,” Ravn said. “We are very aware that stop-motion film has created some very clear expectations in the audience or player of how this looks. We are to some extent totally messing with that, to be honest, and we need to find out if there’s limits to what people will accept.”
Clearly, many people are unconcerned about Kong Orange’s inventive use of photogrammetry. Vokabulantis is well on the way to achieving stretch goals until the end of its Kickstarter campaign on Friday, April 16th. According to Ravn, the game will be released in late 2024 and will be available on Steam at the very least.
The Vokabulantis team did not employ a public relations firm to handle its Kickstarter website, and they did not even have a marketing budget to begin the initiative. They simply posted a description of the title, a few GIFs, and an enthralling making-of video and went live. Vokabulantis, it seems, speaks for itself.
“Experiencing this many wonderful people joining the Kickstarter, and essentially Vokabulantis, has been above and beyond our wildest dreams,” Ravn said. “No words for it, really.”