Interview: Artist Jacob Fennell on Game Design, Inspiration and the Challenge of Creating ‘Productive Reductions’

Jacob Fennell, an installation artist and teacher, designed this amazingly adorable game.

Interdisciplinary artist Jacob Fennell is the brains behind Muddy Paws, an addictive new iPhone game that has an extremely high happiness quotient. Think puppies! Kittens wearing parachutes! And rainbows!

The object is to catch falling furry friends in a little basket before they drop into the mud. Muddy Paws is available for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad through the iTunes App Store, or see the game Web site here.

As an artist, Jacob uses technology to create interactive projects that mine the relationship between audience and art. One might say he uses technology as his medium the same way other artists use clay or canvas or charcoal. Among other things, Jacob explores the connections between imagery and vision, animation and emotion, and how proximity affects a viewer’s experience.

He’s also a prolific web designer. Jacob helped me achieve some necessary updates on my writing Web site this fall, and I’m so pleased to feature him in the second edition of Seven Questions.

1. Jake, tell us about Muddy Paws. How did you think of something so gosh darn adorable? Did living in the Pacific Northwest play into your decision to code a game featuring rain and mud?

Yes, I have no doubt the weather has seeped into my subconscious. Muddy Paws relates to one of the first idioms I understood as a child, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

Muddy Paws represents my first step into iPhone programming, and I wanted to create something that I would be happy to showcase. Muddy Paws fit many of my design goals: it must be simple to understand and play, it must be widely appealing, and it must utilize features of the device that are unique to the platform.

I decided on a twist of internet meme culture regarding cats, and challenged myself to push the concept of cute. What could be cuter than puppies and kittens raining from the sky? Catching them in a basket! What if you miss, don’t they get hurt? No, they just get muddy! Does it get any cuter than that?  I’ll outfit the kittens with parachutes! I had a lot of fun making this game.

2. You are known for masterminding interactive projects where someone approaching your art is drawn into a personal engagement with it, or, in some cases, with you, the artist. How does designing a video game explore that relationship between creator and—in this case—consumer?

I am interested in the engaging experience that games provide. On the surface, it may appear that some games provide a simulation of an experience; for instance, a car racing game is a simulation of racing in a car. But it is not just a simulation, it is also a unique experience unto itself. Games may offer a compelling story in which people occupy–think Dungeons and Dragons. They can be alternate worlds that the players live in for a moment. In my art, I seek to create unique experiences. In both interactive installation art design, and in game design, I construct certain conditions and rules for interaction. The video game may very well become a vehicle for me to explore larger concepts in the future.

3. Tell us about your computer background and your animation experience.

Muddy Paws--how cute can a game be?

My first experience in computer programming was making simple snake maze games and music generators on a Texas Instruments console computer when I was about 10 years old. I quickly left it alone because the mechanical world was far more fascinating to me. After I graduated college in 2000, Flash was starting to show up on the Internet. It renewed my fascination for creating programming and working more with motion graphics. Since, I’ve been mostly working as a designer, programmer and artist. Over the last few years I’ve taught animation at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (Portland), and Cornish College of the Arts (Seattle). This summer, I’ll be teaching teens both animation and game design for Cornish’s Summer Program in Art and Design.

4. You have done a number of installations where the audience arrives at a certain place during set hours for the purpose of experiencing art. With Muddy Paws, people all over the world can download your work and interact with it wherever and whenever they want. Most of those folks will consider the game purely from the entertainment standpoint. What was like coding a project that’s totally accessible, 24 hours a day, to anyone with a personal media device? Did the intended world-wide distribution affect your creative process?

Yes, the potential distribution scale had a great impact on my creative process. In the game I am looking for wide appeal, and my installation art is typically a bit more intimate. Muddy Paws is currently the first version of my first iPhone game. I expect that it will evolve with free updates to add features that will make it even more fun, adorable, and engaging. I am proud that I’ve made a game that I find challenging and interesting, and my friend’s 5-year-old has fought over whose turn it is with his friends.

5. Muddy Paws features adorable animals and witty rainbow bonuses. Even the bubbly raindrops seem cheerful as they fall. Were you intending to make a mood-enhancing game? To make a statement about unnecessary violence? Neither? Both?

I sidestepped violence in the game concept simply by addressing the case of when you miss they merely get muddy. It actually plays into part of the mood-enhancing aspect because it twists an action that could be disturbing to relatively inconsequential and sweet. It is thoroughly enjoyable for me to get a smile out of everyone I show it to.

6. Is there a story behind the animals featured in the game?

After sending out a call for submissions, my friends Ariel and Dre provided a photo of their dog, Sassy. Sassy makes appearances in the game as a bonus pup wearing a slicker saying phrases like, “You take the biscuit!”

7. When you’re brainstorming about new work, do you think about technology first? Or are you setting out to answer a question? What inspires you?

While my work often utilizes high-technology, it is rarely where I typically start. Inspiration usually boils down to starting with a concept, a material (or lack of material), or an audience. One of my greatest challenges in the creative process is making productive reductions, meaning reducing some of the variables from infinite so that I can focus. Most of the work I produce is trimmed down from something that was originally far more complicated. Even Muddy Paws was originally just one piece in a larger game idea. Some ideas from the original brainstorming sessions will probably be evidenced in a future app.

While the incredibly cute graphics are still making you smile, head over to the App Store to get a copy of Muddy Paws. Or check out the Muddy Paws site,, for more information. Need a Web designer, or want to experience some of Jacob Fennell’s thought-provoking art? Visit his Web site at

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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1 Response to Interview: Artist Jacob Fennell on Game Design, Inspiration and the Challenge of Creating ‘Productive Reductions’

  1. Pingback: » Interview by author, Laura Stanfill PROTOTYPE ART BLOG

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