The Inverse Interview

French Aristocrats and Tony Hawk Pro Skater

How a small team made the most inventive platformer of the year.

Penny's Big Breakaway
Evening Star Studio

Thinking of a yo-yo likely conjures a picture of the ‘90s, a time when seemingly every fifth-grader alive became obsessed with learning tricks to impress their friends. While it’s easy to associate the stringed toy with that era, the historic gadget also had its place among 18th-century French aristocrats (Napoleon used one, too). It was this drastically different inspiration that influenced the development of Penny's Big Breakaway, the most inventive platformer of the year.

For years, even before the studio’s founding in 2018, the team at Evening Star Studio toyed with the idea of using a yo-yo in a video game. This seed of an idea popped up once again as the team was putting together ideas for its next game following their smash-hit Sonic Mania.

“While we were brainstorming, the yo-yo idea just popped up again, and people on our team started riffing back and forth. I think a lot of people saw the potential: You could do a lot of things with this, if you use it as the main crux of the game concept,” game director Hunter Bridges tells Inverse, “Once we started looking it up, we started finding all these like hilarious illustrations of French aristocracy from like the 18th century playing with yo-yos. That actually informed some of the world and character design.”

Evening Star drew a ton of inspiration from the history of yo-yos with French aristocracy, and the team referenced this specific picture.

Museum of Yo-Yo History

In Penny’s Big Breakaway, you play as Penny, a street performer living in colorful Vanillatown. Penny uses her yo-yo skills to audition for a spot in Emperor Eddie's court, but things go awry after she discovers a Cosmic String that turns her yo-yo into a ravenously hungry sentient being. The platforming in Penny is all about building and gaining momentum, using the character’s unique yo-yo skills to move through levels as quickly as possible.

But while the yo-yo (and its 18th-century popularity among French nobility) inspired much of the game’s charming quirkiness, it also also gave Evening Star Studio a surprising amount of freedom to try out new ideas.

“It's not like one of us was a pro yo-yoer in college, and now it's our dream to make a yo-yo game,” Bridges says, “We thought this was an interesting artifact and thought it had a lot of potential and a lot of depth to it, especially from the surrounding history and culture. What ways have people played with yo-yos in the past? How has this evolved, and how can we kind of incorporate that into the game concept?”

“I don't like using bottomless pits.”

From the start, Bridges and the rest of the team knew they wanted to make a 3D game and wanted a “common thread” with their past work, resulting in a momentum-based platformer. But as it turns out, making the jump from Sonic Mania’s two dimensions to Penny’s three can be difficult. For design director Brad Flick that even resulted in a basic question to start: “Does my approach to making levels translate to three dimensions?” The game speaks for itself, but only after Flick was able to rethink a lot of core game design elements.

“For example, in 2D, I don't like using bottomless pits. I don't find a need for them when I can make several other interesting scenarios,” Flick tells Inverse. “But with 3D, the ‘void’ is unavoidable. The bottomless pit is the enemy in the game.

Enemy design also requires a drastic shift in perspective.

“You look at Mario and the Goomba,” he says. “The perfect enemy in 2D, but in 3D you can just walk around them.”

Penny’s Big Breakaway emulates the big three-dimensional jump platformers as a whole went through in the ‘90s.


That problem with the bottomless pit led to a “hyper-focus” on Penny’s relationship with the ground, which then tied into the game’s overall emphasis on momentum. The core of the whole system comes down to how much time Penny spends in the air. The more momentum you build on the ground, the longer amount of airtime you’re able to achieve.

There’s another key inspiration that allowed Evening Star to take this idea even further: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and skateboarding in general.

“As you become more experienced as a skateboarder, you gain the ability to look at the environment and see the tricks that you can do. You can start seeing the path that you're going to take when you skate a course,” Bridges says, “We wanted to build that same sense in the player with Penny. We don't necessarily want to create a game where you feel like you have to memorize every corner in order to optimize your run through a level, we more wanted to give the player an opportunity to get a lay of the land and then chart your own course. See the whole thing at a glance and be able to figure that out.”

Being able to see the entire level sprawl out in front of you was the core difference in transitioning to 3D, and Evening Star quickly learned that Penny should play into that idea. Of course, the yo-yo itself and the tricks Penny can do are a vital part of building and maintaining that momentum.

Mischievous Penguins chase you in Penny, and according to Bridges, the little guys took a lot of trial and error to get right. In the future Bridges wants to experiment more with “nonviolent” gameplay and enemies.

Evening Star Studio

Early on in development, the team toyed around with more unique ideas on how to use the yo-yo, particularly in ways that Penny would separate herself from the object. This included using the yo-yo as a tightrope between two locations, or charging up for an extra long throw. Flick says the team realized, however, that many of these options were simply too slow, and worked against the game’s core idea of speed. Because of that, they decided that Penny would always have the yo-yo in her hand for everything, and while the string itself would be animated to make things feel dynamic, it wouldn’t interact with the environment.

Interestingly, though, a big factor in how the yo-yo was implemented came down to a single move, with how Penny uses the yo-yo to swing in mid-air.

“If you think about it, when you jump in the air, and then you want to do the swing, if the yo-yo string is longer than your jump height, then as soon as you swing, you're just going to hit the ground again,” Flick remarks, “So we had to have a string length that was shorter than your default jump height. There's a very subtle difference where if you throw the yo-yo on the ground, it goes slightly further, because we had to trim the air throw a little bit just to tune the swing.”

These kinds of small lessons compounded to make Penny what it is today, and it’s abundantly clear that this has been a learning process for everyone at Evening Star. That journey doesn’t just apply to the developers, though, as it’s equally important for the players that pick up Penny, a platformer quite different from anything else out there.

“For me, a lot of the learnings from a game design perspective have come out of how we made active choices to challenge people's preconceived notions, or challenge people's expectations of the genre,” Bridges says, “We did that with the fixed camera, and with deprioritizing combat. We learned that if you're going to challenge players' expectations in that way, then you kind of have to work double in order to educate the player and justify why their expectations are being challenged.”

If Evening Star ever makes another game with a yo-yo, Bridges and Flick say it’d be a puzzle game.

Penny's Big Breakaway

In Bridges' mind, the studio could have done a better job of explaining elements of the game, but it was a tough balance to find. That’s one of many lessons the team has taken to heart and hopes to implement moving forward. In terms of learning lessons, though, that might be a key part of what makes Penny’s Big Breakaway feel so unique.

While I mentioned at the start that Evening Star wasn’t directly trying to evoke the ‘90s with Penny, Bridges does think there might be something more to that association.

“We're trying to be different.”

“There's an element of jumping from our previous work into this, where we kind of have taken the transition from 2D to 3D in a way that parallels what a lot of developers were doing in the mid-90’s. Rediscovering and walking those trails ourselves, instead of just starting in the modern era with everything that people are equipped with now” Bridges tells Inverse, “Which I think results in it sort of echoing some of that era.”

There’s also a hope that Penny can be one of many games heralding a shift in the genre at large, with a growing groundswell of indie developers bringing unique ideas to 3D platformers. The chance to bring a fresh idea to the 3D platformer was tantalizing for the team at Evening Star, especially when the genre is largely dominated by Nintendo these days.

Penny’s world and aesthetic of Penny was also inspired by the German “Bauhaus” style.

Penny's Big Breakaway

The team at Evening Star knows that Penny might not appeal to everyone, but trying to do something new and different was the most important factor. And if that inspires someone else down the road? All the better. Video games constantly need to level up.

“The important thing is that people continue to try new things, because if you're just trying to emulate what's come before, or you're just trying to be like Mario, for example, then people can just go play Mario, right?” Bridges says. “We're trying to be different in the space.”

Penny’s Big Breakaway is available on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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