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10 Questions With Johan Aronson: Creator of 'Tonari no Totoro' Fan Game

Johan Aronson is a super-talented animator, Pixel artist, and game designer, who recently released a retro-styled game tribute to Hayao Miyazaki's beloved My Neighbour Totoro. The game is a pitch perfect combination of old-school gaming aesthetics and Miyazaki's classic, that was produced in collaboration with musician and fellow-artist Christina Antoinette Neofotistou.  Johan very kindly agreed to answer our questions about this wonderful project.

AFA: First as a bit of background.. how did you get in to making games/animation/art?
Johan Aronson:. The first time I came in contact with making games, or art for games, was actually for a school project when I was 11 years old. It was a competition that had been going on for some years called "ThinkQuest", some might have heard of it. Where groups of students with the help of a supervisor created games, mostly games that involved some type of learning. To begin with, we didn't know this and quite quickly began to make a game about an alien, which later became a game where you learned about dinosaurs. Apart from playing games from an early age, I think that's when I discovered I could actually bring my childish, enormous game ideas to life.

How did you come to decide on producing Pixel Art specifically? Was this always a style that resonated with you personally?
When we participated in that school competition it was back in 2001, meaning The Gameboy and such were still what we mostly played. later on, in 2002 a friend of mine showed me a forum called Pixelation, where he was quite involved. We had both been drawing a lot and we were both interested in games so it came somewhat naturally that we went deeper into something that looked like the games we played and it felt within reach. It was frustrating at first, but I kept pixel art as a hobby that I came back to and my friend and I talked about it, practiced and discussed the different basic techniques of it every day.

How did the idea of producing a Totoro game first come about?

I love Studio Ghibli and I've always been afraid of touching it because I feel like I'm tainting it. I've always "held" Ghibli very carefully, even putting on a DVD or a Blu-ray is like a ritual for me. Sounds insane, but the animations have such a magic around them that I feel afraid if I handle it carelessly, it will break. The idea for the Fan game was, like always, just art to begin with. I wanted to mess around with some more simple pixel art than what I was currently doing. So I went to draw some foliage, which reminded me of the inside of Totoro's tree, so I went and googled it and began to try and study some of it. Then as I came to Totoro himself, it just felt like fun to do the sleeping animation and the idea for the game just popped in my head whilst doing it.

How did you decide on what part of the film or what elements to base the game on? Did you ever consider any other scenarios?

I guess it would have depended on what I started drawing, luckily it was something I could easily make a game out of. If I gave it a hard think there are probably a massive amount of amazing little mini game ideas hiding inside Studio Ghibli's movies. But at the same time, I always prefer creating something original so it's not something I actively look for, other than maybe for inspiration for art.

Was the game always going to have an 8-bit aesthetic or were any other art styles considered early in the project?

Since the game is basically just an idea that came to mind after starting sketching in pixel art, no, not really!

Were you influenced by any particular classic games?

When you make a small arcade-like game with pixel art and chiptunes it's hard to put a finger on a classic game/s in particular that inspires you anymore. Since it's what I do now and actively work with as a medium, I can't really claim inspiration from anything classic anymore, meaning I can't really say; "Everything I do is inspired by the early era of gaming when Pixel art was the only option". Pixel art and pixel art games are so much more nowadays than just nostalgic love letters to a past era. It has evolved and it's a medium that I happily see standing on its own legs. So I'd say it's not really inspired by anything else than the movie! Then the simple mechanics and the mediums used will obviously for a lot of people remind them of classic games.

Was mini Totoro always the player controlled character, or did you consider anyone else- such as Mei or even Totoro himself?

Mini Totoro was always the "Player". Since Mei is hysterically curious in "it", even in the movie it makes her almost evil chasing "it", disturbing his daily acorn picking. You know like how a child can't really always handle animals and they may pat them too hard or tug their tails, they do it because they are curious and they don't really understand. I liked that idea of mini Totoro being afraid of her childish clumsiness and it creates a good tension for a simple gameplay.

You worked with  Christina Antoinette Neofotistou on the game.. how did she come to be involved with project?

When I was almost done with the game it was only lacking music. I have little to no experience in making music digitally and I know I would never create something I would actually be satisfied with putting into the game. So, I called out on twitter if anyone would be interested in helping out with that part. Christina contacted me and she really wanted to help out, so she came up with the idea of putting a title screen in there as well, I think to go well with the music and that! She did an amazing job and I couldn't be happier to have had the luck to get her stuff in there!

Would you like to produce games based on other Ghibli films? Which ones other than Totoro do you think could make a good one?

If Ghibli asked me to make a pixel art game based on one of their movies or an original,-which is obviously highly unlikely- I would obviously say YES! I'd say any of them would make a good game! Pompoko has a lot of nice fun stuff that could be a great base for an arcade game.

Finally, do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into producing games themselves?

This is always a hard one because I want to just say, if you want to make games, just start doing it and don't worry about it. But then so many people who gets these questions have hundreds of different answers, answering all the aspects of game development. I guess the most helpful advice I think I can give someone would be to start extremely small and use a tool you feel comfortable with!

Download the game here or check out Johan's website here, or follow him on twitter.  You can find Christina's site here.