Week in Mobile: Exploring the layers of Tengami’s Japanese paper pop-up world

We use paper every day, but in the virtual worlds of games like Tearaway and Tengami, the new title from indie developer Nyamyam, ordinary paper transforms into something almost alive.

“It just seemed like pop-up and touch were made for each other,” Phil Tossell, the co-creator of Tengami, told GameZone.

Tengami is a beautiful Japanese papercraft game infused with the magic of a pop-up book. It’s out now on iOS, and Nyamyam is bringing it to Wii U, PC, and Mac later this year.

“Paper has a natural playfulness and tactility, and both of these aspects lend themselves to touch particularly well,” said Tossell. “With the rise of touch-based gaming on tablets, phones, and other portable devices, it’s probably the case of it being the right time for the expression of ideas built around paper as a medium.”

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So many platforms are embracing touch-based play — the PlayStation Vita’s front screen and back panel, the PlayStation 4 controller’s mini touchpad, the Wii U’s tablet-like GamePad.

That makes more forms of interaction possible: We’ve been able to experience sight and sound in games before, but touch is relatively new. And while we can’t reach out and touch the layers of paper in a game like Tengami to feel their shape or texture, manipulating them with our fingers enhances the sense of realness and intimacy we feel with these interactive worlds.

Touch also introduces new mechanics that work well with paper. We can tear, fold, cut, draw, and so on, said Tossell. We can only do these things with our bare hands.

“Paper’s also a material that has a warmth and intimacy,” he said. “It’s something we grow to love from the time we first pick up a crayon as a child, and so it’s embedded in everyone’s earliest memories. And yet we pay so little attention to it as we grow up and view it only for its utility. As a creator, it gives me the chance to delight players by showing them something they know well in a new and exciting light.”

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Tossell has fond memories of playing with pop-up books as a child; the decision to bring that design into Tengami was personal. “Playing with a tablet for the first time very much reminded me of the simple joy of interaction through touch and play.”

His admiration of Japanese papercraft parallels that love, so it was natural to merge them. “We wanted to show the beauty and craft that goes into making Japanese paper and expose people to a side of Japan that they don’t often see," said Tossell. "I suppose you could say the theme of the game is ‘craft,’ and both pop-up and Japanese paper craft exude these in abundance. And so we wanted to find a way of combining these two elements as if they were always meant to be together.”

Tengami’s depth lies not just in the papercraft or Japanese flair but also in its layers: the atmosphere, the music, the puzzles. The simple act of touching, uncovering, exploring.

It’s almost ironic that the game’s main character, a samurai, wouldn’t be tempted to slice through those fragile constructions with his sword. But unlike other games, the enjoyment here comes from creating, not destroying.

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“The hero of the game is really the pop-ups themselves, and the more we experimented with building a game around them, the more we realized that it had to be about the simple joy and wonder of exploring a pop-up book,” said Tossell.

“When I think back to playing with a pop-up book when I was a child, there’s an undeniable pleasure in just exploring the way in which the world moves and folds, discovering all the possibilities. And so we found that anything action-based detracted from this feeling.”

Seeing that world come to life is perhaps the greatest reward.