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Spiral Circus Talks Inspiration, Artistry, and Aquatic Horror in Silt

Spiral Circus, developers of Silt, share their inspirations behind the game and a look at their creative process



Interview with Spiral Circus, creators of Silt

Silt is the kind of video game that immediately sparks the imagination. A darkly beautiful, eerily surreal 2D puzzle adventure, Silt is a standout in a vast sea of indie games. Goomba Stomp caught up with art director Tom Mead and Dom Clarke, the co-founders of Spiral Circus, to discuss the influences behind the scenes and to celebrate the release of the studio’s first game.

(Please note that edits were made for both brevity and clarity within the following interview.)

Someone has to feed the babies. GIF: Spiral Circus

Goomba Stomp: One of the unique things about making a video game is that a lot of factors must be considered simultaneously throughout development, from technical aspects to story to art direction. Silt is the first game from Spiral Circus. What were some challenges of taking the game from concept to release?

Tom Mead: Just like any game, there was a multitude of different challenges. Neither of us had made a game before, so we basically had to start from scratch! I had come from a Fine Art background mainly (years prior I had studied 2D animation production) and Dom, my co-
founder, had been a research scientist for a laboratory in Bristol where he studied the behaviour of bees. Both of us had a passion to make games, though, so the first main hurdle was to work out how to transpose my art style into a game. This was the main challenge throughout, to really work out how to create a pipeline that was not hindering anyone’s process.

For myself, another aspect was working with a team. I had previously been working alone for many years and then suddenly I was an art director, so there was a communication learning curve there for me to get my ideas across as clearly as I could! I couldn’t really have been more lucky though with the core four-person team, they were very tolerant of an artist’s mindset and I was very fortunate that our directorial styles led to everyone really being able to express themselves in their own way. There were plenty more challenges, but if I listed them all we would be here all day, so the book will be coming out soon.

GS: It is easy to imagine the story of Silt being told through a book or short film, like Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick or Tim Burton’s Vincent. What made video games the medium of choice for Spiral Circus?

TM: I must admit I had never heard of Van Allsburg’s book but now I am an instant fan, I can see why you mentioned that though. As for Vincent I am (as you might have guessed) a huge early Tim Burton fan–his work was the main spark in my drawing as a kid and The Melancholy tale of Oyster boy is still my favourite book. I have always been a huge gothic literature and surrealist fan but for me in my early career I always wanted more. I would have art shows and put things on walls and then feel disheartened by the repetitiveness of the end result. The goal for me was always to have my characters and the worlds I draw for them animated, and the wonderful world of games was an obvious fit. I also say that after briefly working in animation and being totally shunned by the industry as I ‘didn’t fit in,’ and yet games seemed to embrace my work and our company style immediately. 

It was actually an accelerator called Stugan that really got us into games: an accelerator program where if you got in you ended up living in beautiful cabins in the forests in Sweden for two months for free with a bunch of other game devs, all with the sole purpose of creating a demo. It was started by some of the amazing devs from KING and ROVIO fame and was a truly magical experience. We went there feeling like imposters and came out feeling like game devs. Once we came home we pitched at an industry event in London, got funded, and we were off with video games being the no-brainer of the direction of the project. 

Image: Spiral Circus

GS: The art of Silt is immediately eye-catching. What was it like to adapt Mr. Mead’s distinct style for the movement and mechanics necessary to make Silt come to life?

Dom Clarke: Our goal with Silt was not so much to adapt Tom’s style for games, but to adapt the way we made the game to fit Tom’s style. We wanted every frame of the game to look like one of Tom’s paintings. This meant investing a lot of time into our art pipeline so that Tom could draw in the way he was used to, and to have as much control as possible over composition, lighting, camera movement, etc., right from inside his drawing tools. Really, my job was to try to smooth off as many of the technological barriers as possible so that Tom was free to be creative. Sometimes the game design would put constraints on things, like where walls had to be located in a level, for example. But in those situations, we would always try to make those constraints be as relaxed as possible while preserving the gameplay idea, and letting Tom’s visual instincts take charge for the rest of it.

GS: On the topic of art direction: were there any particular favorite areas or creatures to design?

TM: To be totally honest, I enjoyed everything as this has literally been a dream job where I have picked what I have wanted to design, more or less! If I had to pick a favourite area, though, I would say the interior of the machine. For me, that was a moment to really show the lore of the game and go to town with some of my more ‘usual’ anthropomorphic character designs. And creature-wise, it had to be the Goliaths–I am obsessed with creature designing and it was so much fun working out what the creatures were going to be and why, the favourite of mine being the crab Goliath. He was actually the first I drew and is a strange bio mech fusion of Howl’s Moving Castle, a trash compactor, and a spider crab! It was incredibly fun to go to town with the details on him, although I am sure our poor animator Anton didn’t thank me for the complexity of that one!

The crab in question. Image: Spiral Circus

GS: There is a fascinating tension between the industrial design aesthetics of the infernal machine at the heart of Silt and the otherworldly, alien sea life at the bottom of the ocean. Was there much concept art left on the cutting room floor, or did everything make it into the final release?

TM: There was a huge amount, but that is the nature of concept art. I went very cosmic horror with some ideas that simply weren’t possible for a team as small as ours. So they are all now in a folder waiting for Silt 2!

The way I communicate ideas is through pictures, so I feel like a lot of ideas were left purely because they were more of a prompt in a certain direction rather than a feasible concept to move forward with. One in particular that will probably arrive one day in a future game was a world-sized grub attached to the ceiling like in Aliens. I absolutely loved designing that, but for obvious reasons, it got cut!

GS: As someone who loves short stories, fables, and parables, Silt is (for this writer, at least) the ideal length for a video game. How did you balance creating an experience that had fun and interesting mechanics with making something that players would want to finish and maybe even replay? 

TM: Sounds boring, but the length of the game had to be decided at the very start in our pitch deck. We knew that we didn’t have many people and that it was going to be a small game, so all the ideas had to be crafted around that. What we didn’t want, and I think myself and every other artist on the planet is capable of, is the idea ballooning out of control into a massive epic that never got finished, so it was very good to have those deadlines of what was possible from the start.

Image: Spiral Circus

GS: Any major inspirations for Silt during development? Games you were playing during your off time, shows you were watching, books you were reading?

TM: I only started playing games again in 2018–before then I hadn’t played anything since Shadowman on the N64, so I would say all my influences up to that point were very old school (Ecco the Dolphin, Silent Hill, and Hugo’s House of Horrors even!) Once I started playing newer games, Limbo became a stable go to in terms of atmosphere (up until that point I had never seen anything like it) and then Little Nightmares came along and blew my mind. I don’t think they influenced me directly, Limbo especially (although everyone thinks otherwise, our game was already very black and white) but Little Nightmares was influential in terms of character scale and scope for certain. Also during that time I learnt about this other game I had never heard of called Dark Souls (if you have heard of it); this again influenced me, but purely through the grandioseness of the creature designs, and how epic it all was. As for shows, Twin Peaks and anything from Lynch has always been a massive influence on us both and China Miéville and Alan Campbell would be my top tier ‘dystopian madness’ novels to be inspired by. 

I have always surrounded myself with art and books and skulls and twigs so at this point it’s hard to know where the direct influences come from sometimes as well. I try and surround myself with a fortress of visual nuggets so I never run dry of new ideas!

GS: I am terrified of the deep ocean. Some of the creature designs and narrow caves in Silt felt terrifying and claustrophobic, even though I played this game from the comfort of my couch. Did you find yourselves getting creeped out during the making of Silt? Or were you able to keep objective distance?

TM: I would say objective distance, as I was just drawing what I draw. Although it was based loosely around my fears of the deep undersea open spaces, it didn’t affect me during the process. What did very much affect me, though, was the research: searching for thalassophobia images for a start gave me goosebumps and some of the deep sea creatures I had to research were definitely nigh on terrifying. There was a moment when I wanted to research cave divers also, and that was certainly something I disliked looking at; being trapped underwater in a cave is literally my worst nightmare.

GS: What’s next for Spiral Circus? Are there any projects or platforms that would be particularly exciting to develop for?

TM: I am back in unofficial pre-production mode sketching and dreaming big, painting and writing ideas for a potential next project, so that’s very exciting to think about. We have no clear vision of what it will be yet, but it will certainly not be colourful or cute! 

We hope to grow as a company, forming bigger and even stranger ideas and hopefully expanding the team. We both have a desire to make filmic games with surrealism and cosmic horror at its core, so it’s going to be exciting to see where that takes us in the future, and on any platform that’s willing to help us on the next journey.

Silt is available on all major platforms, and you can check out Goomba Stomp’s review here. A sincere thank you to Tom Mead, Dom Clarke, and the rest of Spiral Circus for the insightful responses and thoughtful consideration.

Cameron Daxon is a video game evangelist and enthusiastic reader. He lives in Los Angeles, California and once nearly collided with Shigeru Miyamoto during E3. His favorite game is Bloodborne, but only when he’s not revisiting Super Mario World. He’s also in the writer’s room for YouTube personality The Completionist and other places on the internet.