There have been a few dinosaur-themed adventure games over the years, but for the most part the giant prehistoric creatures have remained a great untapped resource. Azure Mountain sought to change that in 2020 with the release of their charming debut title Zniw Adventure, and now the indie Polish developer is back with a sequel on Kickstarter called Zid Journey, along with a playable demo on Steam and GOG. The crowdfunding is going remarkably well so far, but with time still left to reach stretch goals to improve and expand the game even more, I caught up with studio’s co-creators Karolina “Twarda” Twardosz and Łukasz “Crash” Mikołajczyk to find out what’s zniw new in the delightful dino-verse they’ve created.
Hi, Karolina and Łukasz. Welcome to the Adventure Game Hotspot. As a fellow dinosaur fan, I have to start with the most obvious and important question: Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus? (Brace yourself, because there’s more of these coming.)
Twarda: Tyrannosaurus is cool but I think ceratopsians had nicer appearances with all the horns and frills. So, it’ll be Triceratops for me! But if you ask me personally, I prefer Tarbosaurus over Tyrannosaurus.
Crash: My obvious choice when it comes to favourite dinosaur is always Parasaurolophus, but between these two I guess I’ll go with Trike as well!
Okay, Zid Journey, and Zniw Adventure before it. Please tell us … Wait, before moving on, I also have to ask: how do you pronounce “Zniw?”
Twarda: Here’s the trick! You pronounce her name as if you were saying “sniff” but with “Z” at the beginning: “Zniff.”
Glad to have that clarified. I was pronouncing it wrong all this time! So please tell us about the charming dino-verse – or “ZaZ-verse” – you’ve created.
Crash: I guess Twarda will explain it the best, since she created all the world and characters in the Zid and Zniw games … and beyond too!
Twarda: There’s definitely a lot to uncover here, since the first drafts of the “ZaZ-verse” were created … in the ’90s! Back then I got one of these “eureka!” moments you keep hearing about, and I started drawing comic books with the newly created duo of Zid and Zniw.
The comic ended up several volumes long, where the dinosaurs’ silly adventures would eventually tell a much bigger and deeper story. And that’s pretty much the base for Zniw Adventure – our first game!
The world portrayed in Zniw didn’t change much from the original vision – you still have sentient dinosaurs that can work together to create neat things. But more often they just prefer to argue with each other and be grumpy, haha. They all live in a rather wild world – despite being able to form simple cities, a “civilization” is an abstract concept here – most folks still prefer to live in the wilderness. The Unified Standard Dinosaur Language (USDL) helps to communicate between diverse dinosaur genera and it was pretty revolutionary when it was first introduced. That said, not every part of the world uses it, either by a choice, or by not having an opportunity to learn it.
Both Zniw and Zid live in the location where the language is used: Polisemia. It’s a region which I placed in Late Cretaceous Laramidia (an actual island continent that existed back then), which has some turbulent, but promising history. We aim to show much more of it in our games!
What is the story of Zid Journey about?
Twarda: In a nutshell, it’s about family and friendship bonds, and finding one’s courage and inner strength. Going into details, it’s a story of a young lost dinosaur who finds an even younger (freshly hatched!) and smaller lost dinosaur. And now both embark on a journey to find out about their origins. All of this in a humorous cartoony style, of course!
Crash: As compassion was the underlying theme of Zniw Adventure, you could say both sacrifice and courage are the themes in Zid Journey!
What kind of dinosaur is Zid, and what can you say about him?
Twarda: Zid is sort of an opposite of Zniw. Whereas Zniw is hot-headed, snarky, and spoiled by the city-life teenager, Zid is more calm, thoughtful, and empathetic. The duo’s character clash had a really good dynamic in the comic book, haha.
But anyway, Zid grew up mostly alone in the wilderness. Now he wonders about his own mysterious origins and the long-lost family. In the game we meet him as he finds an odd abandoned egg.
Just like Zniw, he’s an ornithopod that hasn’t been discovered yet. That part is pretty important, as it ties with the comic book’s ending… But I can’t spoil anything more right now!
Other than sharing the same prehistoric universe, what connection is there between the two games? Is familiarity with the first needed to enjoy the second?
Twarda: Zid Journey is the next instalment in our dino-verse. You can view it as a next step, another story, another window into this world. Since it is set in the same place and time as Zniw Adventure, the player will be able to meet some familiar dinosaur genera again, or visit places they heard about from the first part. That being said, you don’t need to play Zniw Adventure in order to understand Zid Journey. Even though you will have much more context with the prior knowledge from Zniw Adventure, both games were designed to be standalone experiences.
How does being a dinosaur impact the gameplay in a way that differs from a human protagonist?
Twarda: Thankfully, having a cartoony dino-world allows for much more creative freedom but there are a few things to take into account!
First of all, the dinosaurs have tails. That takes a big chunk of the sprite that gets in the way in the environment. Sometimes the screens or walkable areas have to be tweaked to account for that, just so the tail doesn’t suddenly peak in random places in the world. It may be trivial, but once you notice the ghost-tail then the experience and immersion is somewhat ruined.
Not having modern tools is also challenging – both for us game designers and for the players, haha.
In the case of the hatchling, its sense of smell is useful to find hints. And since the hatchling is a Daspletosaurus (a tyrannosaur-like dino), it uses its jaws to manipulate objects. Its arms are … well, a bit too small for that.
Crash: Going into more technical details regarding the first part (the tail thing) – amusingly, all of our characters have their centre pivot shifted slightly, due to the aforementioned large tail! Creating small and precise walkable areas with this kind of detail can be a challenge sometimes.
As for the second part – we try our best to avoid any Flintstones-esque “ancient-modern” tools as much as possible. Doing research about ancient and forgotten technology is both challenging and fun – and I gotta say Twarda did an amazing job researching various topics for both games, including creating paper, glassblowing, the ancient art of blacksmithery and creating pigments. The latter was used for the ochre puzzle in Zniw Adventure! It really adds to the overall immersion and makes the already lore-rich world even more believable.
Also the hatchling having to hold items in its jaw is a nice little throwback to the backpackless sections of Zniw Adventure!
Stegosaurus or Brontosaurus?
Twarda: Stegosaurus. The appearance wins again – it was a giant meat cube with big plates and spikes!
Crash: I think Twarda explained it the best – can’t beat a giant meat cube with spikes!
Despite the cartoony nature of the games, they are both clearly grounded in real paleontology. What kind of research did you do to prepare?
Twarda: In the case of Zniw Adventure, the research part was quite complex since the game started out as a small hobby-like project, which eventually evolved into a large commercial release (that evolution mandated some design changes). It involved a lot of reading and fact-checking between various papers and publications, and reaching those was sometimes difficult (Crash: you can see all the literature we’ve consulted in the ‘bibliography’ appendix of Zniw Adventure manual). An interesting bit of trivia is that Zniw Adventure featured a small group of Maastrichtian-age dinosaurs (e.g. Triceratops) among mostly Campanian-age dinosaurs. It’s a bittersweet compromise from the times before we decided to focus solely on the Campanian-age.
It’s much easier to do in Zid Journey, as the world/time frame is already set and we have the bulk of research from the previous game done. Each new dino (and non-dino) is still checked whether they fit the time and space, and how plausible they are to co-exist with the set of main characters, but the process is much more streamlined.
Getting actual facts in your game is not an easy feat, especially when the science marches on. I think the worst thing that can happen is when a major publication affects your game late in development. Such a situation occurred three times during Zniw Adventure’s development. The Troodon shenanigans (it’s a long story), and “hooved” hadrosaur hand leak were among them. The hoof leak actually happened just after I spent two weeks on animating closeups of a hadrosaur walk! It was too late to change it and if you watch Zniw Adventure’s intro closely, you will notice the outdated “fleshy mittens” there.
Fortunately, Zniw has a bonus unlockable Encyclopedia (renamed to Dinopedia in Zid) where the player can both read more about the game’s lore and learn some facts about the encountered prehistoric creatures. This was the perfect place to address the marching science. We put alternative artworks with “hooved” hadrosaurs there, along with an explanation regarding Troodon’s situation in the glossary.
As for the third groundbreaking publication … we knew about remains that ideally fit our game’s story, but sadly they still haven’t been described. For context, it’s pretty common in paleontology that collected fossils await a proper description, and it sometimes can take many years for this to happen! So, imagine my surprise when I found out that our big bad No-Name villain was just recently, and finally, named! And it’s a really cool name no less! If only I read about it before we released Zniw, sigh…
Crash: Amusingly, apart from the aforementioned alternative artwork of Lambeosaurus/Parasaurolophus, you can actually see the mentioned small errata in Troodon’s Dinopedia entry! That’s how rapidly the paleontology is progressing…
Does the carnivore/herbivore tension play a major role in either game? Cartoon worlds tend not to be as innately brutal as the real one.
Twarda: While there’s not much focus on carnivore/herbivore tension in Zniw Adventure, the game gave out some hints about that aspect. And some details can be considered realistically gruesome if the player pays attention and reads between the lines of the game’s lore. In Zid we decided to delve into that topic a bit more and to show the cultural dynamics in Polisemia. What I found particularly interesting is that the fans seem to be curious about it as well! So, I hope our new game will answer some of their questions!
Crash: While our games are a safe adventure for anyone regardless of their age, without any bad language, blood or gore, the world still retains some degree of realism – with more morbid topics being present here and there. Examples from Zniw Adventure include the remains of a deceased dinosaur in Undercave, or the chunk of meat in the big crocodile’s teeth… Some players overlooked the fact it means the crocodile actually ate someone not that long ago.
Did you do an equal amount of research into the other aspects of the world, like geology, botany, etc.? Jurassic Park taught us that these things matter to a dinosaur ecosystem too.
Twarda: That‘s true, and we try to include accurate paleoflora in our games, however stylized! In the case of botany, Tom Parker is a great help here (you may recognize him from the Saurian game). I often consult on the plants with him before including them in my work. As for geology, I mentioned both games take place on Laramidia. Back then North America was separated by an inland sea – Western Interior Seaway – splitting the continent in two, with Laramidia being the western part. The paddle boat you can see in the Zid Journey demo travels through that inland sea!
On a side note, did you know a day was 23.5 hours long back then? I actually designed an odd dino-calendar just to account for that!
Other than the different cast, what sorts of changes can we expect in Zid Journey from the first game?
Twarda: A lot of quality-of-life improvements, haha! Indeed, we changed a few things to make the gameplay smoother, like the one-click verb coin, faster walk speed, etc. The bag is larger now from the start – as the main character is much better prepared for the journey, after all. And it also doubles as a safe space for the little hatchling to hide too! But obviously the most important feature of all is that you can *pet* the hatchling too.
Crash: From a technical point of view, the game also received some pretty major improvements. We switched from 4:3 resolution to a 16:9 one, while also having smoother camera scroll. The data file handling was also rewritten, allowing for easy in-game text changes even when the game is running, as well as additional translations. There’s also a lot of smaller enhancements that were appreciated by players who tried out the demo version, like waypoint arrows on the cursor, additional idle animations and more default character actions.
Did you learn any lessons from Zniw Adventure that you’ve brought to the design of the sequel?
Twarda: Of course!
- Keep it simple.
- Have fun.
- Your friends are very valuable.
- Test a lot. Especially if you think the game was tested enough.
- Expect the unexpected.
In general, I think in the case of story-driven adventure games, game design is super complex. It has to tie both plot and gameplay elements, and the end result should make sense to the player as well as be satisfying. It takes a lot of skill to manage all the tiny details but part of the fun is figuring these things out!
Crash: One thing I really enjoyed about Zniw Adventure (and I’m very glad many players appreciated it after the release too) was the entirely different vibe the game had; quoting one player: “a unique sort of vibe that you don’t find anywhere else.” You could say it was a mix of both “quirky” and “charming.” We experimented a lot with various mechanics, so you can say we definitely had fun during development! And as players who tried out the Zid Journey demo might’ve already seen, we carried the same vibe into our next game as well, with examples including a backpackless beginning, or the unique hatchling gameplay segments. And there’s even more surprises waiting for you in the full version!
Pterosaur or plesiosaur? (I know neither is technically a dinosaur, but hey, they’re both Mesozoic.)
Twarda: Pterosaurs (they are better than dinosaurs :P).
Crash: This time I will counter-balance the answer and say plesiosaurs … mostly because they’re aquatic creatures, and I just love swimming!
You’ve said you were inspired by the genre classics. What games in particular really appealed to you, and perhaps influenced the design of your games?
Crash: While many players noticed some inspiration from Humongous Entertainment games (and they’re definitely right!), in reality both Zniw and Zid were hugely influenced by old Pink Panther point-and-click adventures – Hokus Pokus Pink in particular. It was the very first full-length adventure game I managed to beat on my own, without the need of any guide, and it really helped to shape my general idea of how a beginner-friendly adventure, with a neatly integrated encyclopedia component and accessible puzzle difficulty should look.
However, many other titles, beyond the realm of adventure games or even games in general, helped shape our games in their current form. Examples include the Saturday morning cartoons we used to watch; the Grandia series with its varied character portraits during conversations; and the lore and worldbuilding via dialogues, items and players’ actions of the Ultima series.
I guess you can say we cherry-picked all the details we liked the most from various pieces of media, not just adventure games, and adapted them to our own style in Zid and Zniw games!
Twarda: I can add that our main story line gameplay is inspired by LucasArts titles, with its much more forgiving nature. Our bonus gameplay elements were designed to fit tastes of Sierra fans – as an added challenge, with completely optional, but more obscure and unforgiving puzzles.
Crash: Fortunately, even if you miss some things on your initial playthrough, there’s always the New Game+ mode, where your encyclopedia and shiny pebble progress is carried over from the last playthrough!
Who exactly is Azure Mountain, and how did you come to be making games together?
Twarda: It was during the ancient DeviantArt era, ca. 2014, when one day I asked this Crash guy, “hey, I heard you are a programmer. Do you wanna make a game?” And that’s how it really started. We became partners, where I create pretty things, and his programming magic makes the pretty things work!
Crash: Yep, I remember that! I was actually doing some small demos and prototypes in Adventure Game Studio just several months earlier in 2013, so a point-and-click game was an obvious choice for me. We began prototyping our little dinosaur adventure around February of 2014. The rest is, as they say, history…
For the entire development cycle of Zniw Adventure, there were just the two of us. I handled programming, writing, some additional animations and sound design, while Twarda essentially drew and animated the entire game, but also wrote the Dinopedia and helped me with some additional writing. Denis Comtesse later joined as a composer, and some of our friends did some additional testing too.
Azure Mountain really became a thing around 2018, when I decided to form a sole proprietorship, as it would be easier to release the game on Steam that way. So essentially it was just the two of us. With Zid Journey, we decided to ask for some real help this time around, and formed a small team of very talented individuals, including AiyanaOsborne, an assistant animator. Denis also reprised his role of the main composer, and even more of our friends decided to help us out. And I gotta say their help is absolutely invaluable – it really speeds up the development process!
Your first game was self-financed, but for the sequel you’ve turned to Kickstarter and the response has been tremendous. Did you anticipate this kind of response to your crowdfunding appeal?
Crash: Indeed, the first game was essentially developed without any budget or publisher – any expenses were covered from our own private savings. That’s why we decided to secure a small budget this time around, and head over to Kickstarter for help.
It really exceeded our expectations – marketing a colourful game with cartoon dinosaurs can be a pretty daunting task, but we were super happy to see our community absolutely delivered, with the game being funded in less than eight hours, and currently sitting at more than 200% of our base goal. We’re super happy we achieved the stretch goal of having more language options in the game too!
You’ve released a demo for Zid Journey to give players a taste of what’s to come. What part of the game does it represent?
Twarda: It’s the entire beginning of Zid Journey, serving as an introduction to the world. It showcases most of the game’s features (and improvements over Zniw Adventure) in the form of a vertical slice. It features two animated cutscenes, a tutorial area, an example of a dialogue cutscene, some inventory-based world puzzles, part of the Dinopedia and Bonuses, as well as the hatchling gameplay segment.
When might we see the full version of the game released?
Twarda: We aim for a PC release in November 2024. Whether any console port happens … time will tell.
You call Zid Journey the second part in a “bigger story.” Is there a larger narrative arc that you’re building across games?
Twarda: Indeed! Since both Zniw Adventure and Zid Journey are both originating from a ’90s comic book, there’s definitely a lot to tell! The challenge is: how to do it in a game format, haha.
Are there more adventures planned for the ZaZ-verse?
I really appreciate you taking time out of a hectic crowdfunding campaign to answer my questions. All the best with your fundraising and the rest of the game’s production. Any final words for existing and potential fans of the ZaZ-verse?
Crash: Apart from the obvious huge thanks for such an overwhelming love and support for our work, a small piece of advice: don’t get lost in the forest while looking for any shiny pebbles! And always carry a backpack large enough to contain a lost dinosaur egg you might find one day!
Twarda: Thank you so much for reaching out! It was fun answering these questions! As for my final words – never buy a pink backpack from a suspicious Troodon salesdino…