Sanatan Suryavanshi’s career as an art director for TV and film was going well, but he couldn’t shake this one idea that he knew was beyond the scope of either medium. He wanted to explore darker, more mature themes in an interactive format. So while working on the 2017 Oscar-nominated animated film The Breadwinner, Suryavanshi and game development studio 4L linked up to start creating what would become Fracter, a thriller mobile game that dives into themes of light and darkness as an abstract puzzle.
There was just one problem: Suryavanshi knew absolutely nothing about the mobile gaming space.
“I think you need to be a little scared in order to do good work,” Suryavanshi says. “I had to learn really fast that I couldn’t think like a feature-film guy. I couldn’t think like an animation guy.” Suryavanshi cut his teeth as an art director six years ago, apprenticing for Hans Bacher, the legendary production designer behind Disney classics including The Lion King, Mulan, Hercules, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Suryavanshi mostly stayed on the family-friendly route of animation when he joined the Toronto-based animation group Guru Studio in 2012, working on film and TV shows like The Breadwinner and True and the Rainbow Kingdom.
The Breadwinner, which tells the story of a young girl who takes on the persona of a boy to take care of her family after her father is imprisoned by the Taliban, deals with heavier subject matter than many animated films. But Suryavanshi was also interested in having a “dialogue rather than a monologue” with an audience through the interactivity of a game.
Frank Falcone, head of 4L Games, came up with the initial concept for Fracter and tapped Suryavanshi’s artistic and cinematic sensibilities to help bring it to life. Suryavanshi started early sketches for Fracter, formerly known as Once Upon a Time, in 2016, with the original game taking place in a haunted house with illustrative and intricate animation. “But when I started working with programmers, it became very apparent, very quickly, that there was no way they were pulling that off on a device you had to hold in your hand.”
So he had to boil down his idea into what was essential. And that became a stark, black-and-white landscape that relies just as much on sound design as it does visuals.
“What I found underneath it all when I distilled it was this very, very simple idea—which for a long time, has stayed with me—which was duality,” Suryavanshi says.
Fracter starts out with the main character being split into an array of light and dark versions of itself. The goal is to collect all the light elements and avoid the dark, which are represented as nightmarish creatures. The game launched in the Apple Store this past July and became the top puzzle game in Canada and the U.K. It has also been featured on Apple’s roundups for “New Games We Love” and “Awesome Indie Games.”
What Suryavanshi found gratifying is how abstract the game became when he stripped it down. During beta testing, some saw the game as collecting pieces of a broken heart, while others viewed as a rumination of loss and grief.
“The kind of stories I like the most are the ones where they give me enough to tell me what it is they’re talking about,” Suryavanshi says. “They give me enough to suggest some things about it, but they leave enough room for me to make up my own mind about how I feel about them—less literal with a little more breathing room.”
And it’s those stories that Suryavanshi feels aren’t supported by the current landscape of mainstream film animation. While Suryavanshi hasn’t necessarily turned his back on film animation completely, he’s finding an expansive sense of creative freedom in gaming that he wants to develop more.
“In the traditional animation space, what the most amazing studios are doing craft-wise is at a high level, but in terms of the themes they’re exploring, at least in North America, it’s not necessarily as diverse,” he says. “For games, it’s a blue-sky stage compared to where films are at.”