An Evocative Steamboat: AV Intern Blog #1

The first week at DVNC has passed, and we’re under way! This week I’ve worked on level designs for Monochrome, including a Steamboat and a Party House. I learned about DVNC’s level design pipeline. I did a lot of learning with GDC talks, Gamasutra articles, and other materials. Also I dove into some independent research about the steamboat. I learned about building and operating a steamboat while immersing myself in the 1920s.


In addition, I went ahead and watched Walt Disney’s 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie. Often cited as Mickey Mouse’s debut, this important artifact of animation history launched Walt Disney’s career. As the story goes, what started with one man and his cartoon mouse has since turned into a multi-billion, continent-spanning, monopolistic empire of entertainment. This cartoon and it’s place in our cultural consciousness makes it one of the most important touchstones for looking at 1920s animation in the modern day.

A steamboat is romantic and nostalgic, a fixture of a bygone era where the Mississippi was the backbone of America. It evokes images of warm Louisiana nights, elaborate dresses, Tom Sawyer’s adventures, and good-natured Southern charm. This image is powerful and erases the thousands of black slaves which labored aboard these steamboats in dangerous conditions to haul people and cargo up the river. So when Mickey whistles a famous minstrel tune, we have to look beyond just what the steamboat evokes.


Nostalgia is a unique and fickle thing. We have nostalgia for the rubber hose animation of the 1920s because we’re immersed in a culture inspired by it since birth. Whether through a direct lineage via a cultural canon which deifies the original Mickey Mouse, or through the slapstick dream logic of Naked Gun and Monty Python, we subconsciously understand these connections. After decades, these cartoons have become foundational to the American experience.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what draws the viewer in: a respect for the craftsmanship required to hand animate these sequences, a longing for the purity of analog creation, the contrast between overladen modern works and the simplicity of the 20s’ “Itchy & Scratchy”-esque plots, or the importance prescribed to these cartoons by their monolithic corporate ancestors.

So why make a game in this style today? Well, I don’t really know. I’ve only just got on the project, and I’m still wrapping my head around what it all could mean. There’s an opportunity to dissect the impenetrable myth of the magnanimous Walt Disney and his merry band of animators. Monochrome could let you peek behind the curtains of the world which gave us these cartoons. It could give the characters we are delighted by the chance to reflect upon the conditions that birthed them. It can properly contextualize our world. There’s power in imagery as evocative as this, and we have to wield it well.

Feel free to read my previous blog post here.

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