Thanks to Dreams, wannabe video game developers are wannabes no more. Media Molecule’s game creation system for PlayStation has captured the imaginations of the next generation of designers, programmers and artists. The system’s “Dream Shaping” mode allows players to build fully-realized games, incorporating the same mechanics, assets and designs that can be found in any mainstream release. “Dream Surfing” allows said games to be played by other “dreamers” online. Creators find inspiration from various outlets, including other games, films and television shows; with some borrowing more liberally than others. Elca Gaming, aka Colin Gluth, is one such creator.
Since May 2019, Gluth has been developing a video game adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender in Dreams, called the Aang Project. The original anime-inspired series follows Aang, the titular Avatar, who must master the bending of all four elements to defeat the evil Fire Nation. It remains one of the most popular animated shows of all time and a live-action adaptation is coming to Netflix next year. Originally working with the game’s beta version, Gluth has recreated the story, characters and world of Avatar using all the tools of the final Dreams release.
Despite having no history in game development, Gluth has now amassed quite the following while documenting the process on his YouTube channel. Currently, he has around 210,000 subscribers on the platform and a montage of his early work on the project has over three million views. In the past year, a pre-alpha version of the game has been played around 120,000 times in Dreams. An Avatar fan himself, Gluth is nevertheless surprised by the response to his ambitious endeavor.
‘‘It’s been pretty incredible and overwhelming. I never thought it would get that much attention,’’ he says. ‘‘I was always a big fan of the show. I rewatched it when it was released on Netflix. When Dreams dropped, I hadn’t a clue what to do. Basically, I thought of Avatar and how there hadn’t been a good game recently, so I started on creating one of my own.’’
From Aang’s early escapades at the Southern Water Tribe to his dramatic confrontation with Fire Lord Ozai, the Aang Project will religiously follow the plot of all three seasons. A classic third-person action game, players will control Avatar Aang throughout the main story. Momo, Aang’s furry companion, will also be a playable character in mini-games and parts of the campaign. Mirroring the show’s reference to seasons as “Books,” Gluth plans to release three Books as part of the Aang Project. Whether through his character replicas or recreations of classic locations, Gluth’s goal is to create as authentic an Avatar experience as possible.
‘‘We oriented ourselves with the animated series,’’ he says. ‘‘Of course, we won’t recreate every single episode. Currently for Book One, we have 15 levels planned, with each level having sub levels. For example, the Southern Water Tribe is the first level. It has five or six sub levels as the introduction to parts of the game, like penguin sledding. There should be around 30 to 40 levels in the whole game, when we are eventually done.’’
The game’s popularity has even attracted the attention of voice actors from Avatar: The Last Airbender eager to reprise their roles, including Grey DeLisle who plays the villainous firebender Azula. ‘‘It’s actually pretty funny, Azula (DeLisle) contacted me,’’ says Gluth. ‘‘That was pretty surprising. She was very excited about the project. I originally contacted every voice actor from the main cast, and Michaela Murphy [who plays fan-favorite earthbender Toph] was the only one that answered me. I write to her regularly. She’s very kind.’’
The Aang Project is a collaborative effort. ‘‘Currently, there are three people actively working on the game,’’ says Gluth. ‘‘A sculptor who makes the characters and some assets, our animator who animates the models and me. I do the level design.’’
While excited at the prospect of designing more fantastical locations from the show, like the Southern Air Temple, Gluth is aware of the practical limitations posed by Dreams. ‘‘You can’t create big open world games,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s why our game is a semi-open world with level transitions. You are also limited to a set amount of global variables in which you can save stuff, like health and progression. But, we shouldn’t run into this issue at all because we are splitting the game in three parts.’’
However, one of the many positives of creating in Dreams is the input from fans. ‘‘Since we streamed the game, I constantly get feedback and ideas that we implement into the game,’’ says Gluth. ‘‘We have included some of the stuff that people suggested in the comment section, such as parts of the penguin sledding mini-game.’’
Some fans are collaborating on the game in even more significant ways. CJ Music is a music producer who specializes in orchestral tracks with an EDM influence. Despite being a massive fan of Avatar and active online promoting his work, he only accidentally came across Gluth’s Aang Project.
‘‘I was with my brother at the time watching YouTube videos,’’ says CJ. ‘‘As he scrolled down the home page, I caught a glimpse at one of Elca’s videos. We didn’t watch the video at the time. Later, out of curiosity, I decided to check out his game. After seeing Elca’s work, I was blown away. I contacted him on Twitter and asked about possibly making music for the game. He explained that people could share their music on his Discord server for the soundtrack.’’
Similar to Gluth’s take on the Avatar lore, CJ interprets the original score from the show for the purposes of the gaming experience. ‘‘I begin the process for producing the game’s music by trying to find the right melodies and chords. Then I simply go from there,’’ he says. ‘‘I try to recreate the sounds from the show to give it that Last Airbender feel.”
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An Uncertain Future
Of course, the Aang Project raises some legal concerns. As it is made in Dreams, Gluth will not be making a profit when it is released. However, he is borrowing the character and story likeness from Avatar. If the owners took action, it wouldn’t be the first time — back in March, Nintendo forced Sony to remove a Mario character model that featured in a Dreams creation. Considering Gluth has spent over 400 hours creating his game, he is hoping similar action will not be taken by the Avatar creators.
Ryan Morrison, a U.S. based lawyer famously known as the Video Game Attorney, who specializes in law of interest to video game fans, believes the Aang Project would be considered to be infringing on Avatar’s IP. ‘‘Without a shadow of a doubt, 100%, the owner of Avatar could take down this game and go after them for potential damages,’’ he tells me.
‘‘The only way they could avoid legal trouble is by getting permission. Normally people are very protective over their IP, especially such a successful IP. They don’t want other people making the game, they want to make their own.’’
Morrison believes Dreams is not complicating copyright law in video games, but it is making it easier to create infringing games. ‘‘If you go on Dreams, about every game is infringing. But just because many people get away with having games on there, doesn’t mean that you will,’’ he says. ‘‘So with that in mind, they have to be very careful with where this goes and what they do with it if they don’t have any permission.’’
Gluth has reached out to the creators of Avatar for their consent. ‘‘I haven’t heard from them yet,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m guessing we are fine as they haven’t contacted us and it’s pretty obvious we’re doing this as of now. The official Avatar: The Last Airbender YouTube channel said in one comment under a video that they’re excited about it. I don’t know if this echoes the creators’ thoughts, but that’s all we got.’’
Despite this issue, Gluth and his team are continuing to push the boundaries of what Dreams can accomplish. With a potential Book 1 release date towards the end of next year, hopefully Avatar fans will get the video game adaptation they have been longing for.