Back in 2019 we heard from Chameleon Games and their plans for release of Tamarin on Xbox, PlayStation and PC. It was one we had huge interest in, mostly as a bunch of ex-RARE talent were getting involved. In the two years since, this delightful looking adventure has released on both PlayStation and PC, but until now Xbox players have been left wanting. But now it releases on Microsoft’s systems, and it was that renewed Xbox interest which allowed us to go to the founder of Chameleon Games – Omar Sawi – in order to find out more about the game.
Thanks for agreeing to run this interview. First off, can you tell us a little bit about your role at Chameleon Games and your specific role in the development of Tamarin.
I’m the Founder of Chameleon Games, and the Creative Director of Tamarin. I came up with the concept for the game, funded it with all my life savings, and got a bunch of people together to produce it.
Can you also tell us a little bit about the history of Chameleon Games?
I started the company because I felt there are many fantastic games to be made in the world, there are many undiscovered flavors. And I was particularly interested in nature and wildlife. Therefore we have a chameleon as our logo, it symbolizes nature. It symbolizes fun, which is why we usually play games. Change and color, because our vision is to paint the world of games with more beautiful colors, and to surprise you with special moments.
So, sell it to us… why should Xbox One gamers be interested in Tamarin?
Tamarin is a game with a great concept and vision, it takes you to beautiful locations such as forests, fjords and mountains. You get to play as a very cute and interesting animal, a tamarin. It has gameplay like a 3D-platformer, but you also get to experience a second kind of gameplay, shooting enemies that hide around dynamically in the environment. They know how to dance, and they’re going to kill your birdie friends unless you save them quickly. It’s an experimental indie game with classic gameplay, and has an environmental message with meaning behind it.
We understand Chameleon Games is made up of a few ex-Rare developers. How much of that experience has come into play in the development of Tamarin?
When so many Ex-Rare developers contributed at the start of the project, the project was taken further in the direction of games they had made before. While games like Banjo Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong Country were always key inspirations, my original idea for the game, in particular for the animals, was closer to what animals look like in nature, you could say less cartoony. But because the persons responsible for most of the famous characters at Rare were responsible for designing Tamarin’s characters, they suggested stylizing them to make them more memorable. I listened to that and went for the more stylized direction. So to summarize, you could say the audiovisual style being mainly designed by them has put a clear mark on the game.
Speaking of ex-Rare, we also understand the game’s soundtrack will feature the music of David Wise. What has it been like working with David to compose the score for Tamarin?
David Wise is a nice person, and I respect him a lot. With this project I approached some established artists and tried to have them change a bit what they were used to doing. In hindsight, I feel like a child chasing a dream. I wanted to be experimental and try new things. A lot of that was out of their comfort zone, or crazy ambitious and it was out of my budget to develop it properly. Not everything worked out, but I still tried.
One of those new things was to have David Wise make a catchy dance track, rather than his more usual style. I wanted the weapon-holding insects to dance inside a factory of blinking lights in sync to the music. I painstakingly choreographed it, feeling every instrument turn into a movement of power and aggression, and sent the video clips to an animator. We modified the animation system so the visuals and music sync together. So this was outside the tried and tested, but David still delivered a soundtrack that works for those levels. He is versatile enough that we have some beautiful music that is a bit towards the style of the Donkey Kong Country games, and also something new, which is catchy, more dangerous and energetic.
When you play the game, have a look at the silhouette shadows in the windows of “Insekt Factory” (yes, we had to spell it with a ‘k’). You’ll see insects with military dance moves banging it to David Wise music, I bet you won’t see that in any other game.
Tamarin looks to be quite different from typical 3D platformers. Where some have gone on to recapture the magic of old (ala Yooka-Laylee), is the intent with Tamarin to create something new or to recapture the old magic? Or both?
Yes, it’s not about making another Banjo Kazooie specifically. First of all, we didn’t have the budget to do that justice, and secondly, we didn’t have an aspiration to be a clone of anything else. Although, Tamarin being our first project, borrows quite a lot of game mechanics ideas from other games, we wanted at the very least to experiment with putting it together in a unique way. That’s why the game alternates back and forth between a 3D-platformer and a 3rd person shooter. There’s a charm to some of the old N64 era 3D games, for example they’re neither linear, nor open world, they’re playground size. So there were many retro design elements we missed that were brought back.
Tamarin tries to pay homage to some classic games, while being its own unique indie experience.
When the game was first revealed Game Informer called it a spiritual successor to N64’s Jet Force Gemini. Was this intentional? And if not, do you still agree with the comparison to Rare’s 1999 cult classic?
We never intended the game to be a spiritual successor to Jet Force Gemini. Keep in mind, JFG was a big-budget AAA production, and Tamarin is a smaller indie production. At the same time, there are similarities in the shooter sections of Tamarin to JFG, and I hoped people who remember or like JFG, would enjoy that.
Specifically, the enemies are not scripted, but dynamically find hiding spots based on the environment and your own position. They pop out and go back into hiding, with an atypical AI that I think is a lot of fun and creates emergent gameplay. A person who worked on designing similar mechanics in the N64 classic was involved in this, and another person from that team too. So in that sense and through our inspiration from it, some of JFG’s spirit carries on. People who like JFG should definitely give it a go.
There are also hostage situations, where the birds come to you to be saved, but are simultaneously hunted down by killer ants, and you have to be quick to handle the situation. It’s not stealth gameplay, you just go in with all you’ve got, take the bad guys down, and take the good ones with you. There are weapons that work like keys to open up the environment. And it’s full of exploration similar to Metroid, where you rediscover things when you come back and the world is interconnected in unexpected ways.
All those things, we tried to bring into the design.
Tamarin looks like a 3D platformer with shooting action, and in the X019 gameplay trailer we saw a few segments that were on-rails, which required quick-time button presses. How would you best describe the overall design of the game?
I would describe the design as a bit retro and experimental. The safe thing to do in games is to take a formula that works and stick with it. To take a genre, find a market, and deliver exactly for that.
Instead, we tried a lot of things while developing Tamarin; all sorts of ways to shoot, all sorts of ways to jump, all sorts of ways to target and lock onto things. You could say we were experimenting with 3D gameplay mechanics and not wanting to stick to standards or conventions necessarily.
One of the ambitions I have, is to one day be able to fully capture the agility of tamarins or other energetic animals in a video game. That is a quite complex kind of interaction that needs a higher budget to research and develop. And I think the traditional Mario-type jump mechanic doesn’t capture it. For Tamarin, we tried to develop high quality Mario-type movement mechanics, and I think we did that well. But we also developed something called the context-sensitive jump as a pathway towards doing more innovative and complex interaction in the future. It allows you to find special spots to jump to, and the animation stretches to take you there.
It takes us a few steps towards being able to feel the very energetic leaps of a tamarin in a game, but there’s still a way to go to get to the true vision of that. I think it is important that consumers and reviewers appreciate companies who dare to take experimental approaches, even though some things can be rough around the edges, especially for an indie studio’s first project.
Hopefully, we can then see more innovative ideas, 3D gameplay mechanics and game structures come to life.
The game’s premise seems to carry an environmental message, was this intentional and do you think video games can contribute to the contemporary conversation on environmental issues?
Yes, I think many people don’t realize how magnificent nature is. All of the spectacular things that are alive on this planet. But also that humans keep increasing in number, building and overtaking the world in a way that causes more and more beautiful living things to struggle or go extinct.
This is also part of the story of the game. I think games as an art form has a lot of room for growth, in terms of touching people’s emotions, to make them reflect or think about something more deeply. Although Tamarin is more about being a game that’s fun to play, than to be too heavy handed with its environmental message, I do sincerely wish more people pay attention to what the game is trying to say through its story. For example, notice the memoirs and poems the tamarin collects, and the background for the insect invasion, as told by the hedgehog. If you’re sensitive, you should be able to see an analogy to the situation on Earth.
Tell us a little about the primate protagonist, how was the design eventually finalised and was the game’s premise always meant to be monkey versus bugs?
Creating the tamarin was a long journey that involved a large amount of concept designs, model revisions, and at least three artists, who worked on characters such as Diddy Kong and Banjo Kazooie. There was also technical development on the fur. I set out hoping he could be the next memorable star character, so I took this task very seriously. Because I thought, we need to make an attractive and cute star for people to fall in love with.
In terms of the premise, yes, the bad guys for the game were always meant to be insects. Because I wanted an animal antagonist that people are suspicious or afraid of. Donkey Kong had reptiles, and I thought insects were another good candidate with a lot of opportunities for artistic expression.
Ex-Rare nostalgia aside, what does Tamarin offer to gamers who haven’t necessarily been acquainted with Rare’s old catalogue?
This was primarily a game for people who want a game that’s more colorful, to explore some beautiful natural locations to wonderful music. To play as a new interesting animal. Maybe they like games like 3D Mario but want to try a different character. Who want to explore mid-size open areas and find secrets in them, without walking endlessly in a huge open world. And yet they still want some action, and get their hearts racing a bit here and there. Who just want a different experience, that’s not a huge endless game, but a fun little experience.
That’s what we indie games are for, something that doesn’t cost that much, and lets you try something unique and a bit out of the ordinary.
And finally, if there is one thing (a little secret perhaps) about Tamarin that all gamers need to know, what is it?
The factory ambient music is composed by Graeme Norgate, who made music for games like GoldenEye 007, TimeSplitters and Killer Instinct. The track is inspired by some of the music in Blade Runner. Graeme was originally going to just do ambiences, but this one turned out to be almost musical. See if you can spot this music in between the David Wise soundtrack. This shows that this game has a lot of influences and you shouldn’t go in expecting something too specific, just enjoy it and be surprised!
Huge thanks go out to Omar for giving us a little time in the build up to launch of Tamarin.
We’ll be sure to follow this piece with full review of how Tamarin plays on Xbox. If you wish to pick the game up for yourself, the Xbox Store will do the usual. £24.99 seems like a decent price to pay for such a well rounded experience.