It’s become a PAX Aus tradition that I mildly embarrass myself at the Witch Beam booth. I tried and failed to put a potato peeler in the bathroom (don’t ask) in the Unpacking demo in 2019. Next, in 2022, I struggled to clear one of the final demo levels in their upcoming puzzle game Tempopo, even after lead designer Sanatana Mishra pointed the solution out to me. Literally pointed, and I still missed it. As it turned out, I needed to turn the camera to see a piece I missed.
Tempopo is a puzzle game in which you direct creatures that look like little flower buds to collect objects on the way to the exit of each level. The creatures move on their own, and it’s up to you to place limited objects and traps around the level to direct them where they need, lest they adorably beeline off a cliff. You can reset a level at any time to rethink your choices, then press play and see your mini adventure play out. It’s a cute premise, and there’s a lot of variety to the puzzles. But the most striking thing about Tempopo is the music; every step the creatures take is to a rhythm, and every object you place generates melodies that change depending on the choices you make. The game is still in development so there are unfortunately no publicly available videos yet, but it’s much more impressive to see and hear than read.
“Myself and Seiji (Tanaka) came up with the core concept,” said Mishra. “It started as a side project a couple of years ago, which we tinkered on in our spare time. After we shipped Unpacking, we decided, ‘well, now we have the resources and time, let’s start to ramp it up a bit.’ It was a part-time side project for a while, but now it’s a proper in-production game.”
Tempopo co-creator Seiji Tanaka is perhaps best known for working on 2012’s Journey, on which he was an animator. Rounding out the team are Unpacking technical director Tim Dawson and sound designer extraordinaire Jeff van Dyck, who had an obvious hand in Tempopo’s music-based elements. I asked Mishra if music was part of the initial concepts of the game.
“In the earliest stages, Seiji and I were like, ‘what game can we build and finish in two days?’ Everything evolved from there, and we completely scrapped whatever version of the game that was. Then we turned to Jeff and said ‘we’re making a puzzle game, how about we come up with some concepts together?’”
“We don’t have to ship in three months or go bankrupt, which is a situation I’ve been in.”
Mishra described how van Dyck’s influence turned their initial puzzle concepts into something more exciting. “I think it’s always better to work from moment zero on a concept together. It’s one of the reasons why Jeff is a founding member of Witch Beam and not someone we contract for individual projects, it makes a huge difference. Jeff loves interactive dynamic music systems. We realised we couldn’t make a rhythm game because they require you to interact on a rhythm. But then we thought, with no real-time gameplay element, what if the gameplay was synced to the rhythm instead?”
I was hesitant to bring up Unpacking, because it became successful in ways indie games rarely ever do, especially those produced in Australia, and it felt unfair to compare it to Tempopo. (Also I was worried Mishra had already been asked about it a zillion times that day.) But I was curious if Unpacking’s success influenced Tempopo in any way.
“It hasn’t influenced the design because it’s so different,” said Mishra. “But it has enabled a lot, because now we have resources and time. We don’t have to ship in three months or go bankrupt, which is a situation I’ve been in a couple of times in my life. We’re able to really think it through and take our time and make something great.”
What I played of Tempopo showed the potential of that great something. Its stop-and-restart mechanics allow for difficult puzzles to be solved with minimal stress, and the musical elements make you look forward to trials and errors.
Witch Beam are yet to announce which consoles Tempopo will appear on, as they’re still focusing on development. There is currently no projected release date for Tempopo either, though Mishra hopes it’ll come out sometime in 2023.