Stanisław Lem on Google’s homepage

Ask me which one of the Google homepage doodles I was most proud of while on the team, and the answer might surprise you. Even though Pac-Man was the most popular one and the one that gave me most notoriety, my most favourite was a doodle I thought up, coded, and project-managed throughout 2011 to honor my favourite writer, Stanisław Lem. Sophia Foster-Dimino was my wonderful partner in crime, designing the entire doodle with me, and creating all of its beautiful visuals. The finished doodle appeared on Europe’s Google homepage on November 23, 2011.

Click and play it today:

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If you liked it, consider buying the recent gorgeous Penguin edition of The Cyberiad with the awesome stories and visuals that inspired the doodle.

For more context on the doodle itself, this is the interview Sophia and I did on the eve of this doodle’s launch in 2011:

Did you read Lem a lot? What is your favorite book?

Sophia: I had never read Lem before working on this doodle — my only experience with him was from having seen the Solaris films. Marcin brought me a stack of about 15 English translations of Lem’s books, and I’ve been working my way through them ever since. So far, I really love Eden — and also Memoirs found in a bathtub.

Marcin: I’ve read tons of Lem as a little kid, some of the books over and over again — initially drawn to the spaceships and the aliens, and only later discovering deeper themes. As far as favourites, I have a soft spot for Pirx. His entire life he had to deal with and understand machines, and that’s a little bit what I do today, even though the machines I interact with aren’t nearly as exciting.

Sophia: Lem creates these very pragmatic, earnest protagonists — often very intelligent, very well-meaning — trying to understand situations beyond comprehension, doing their best, but often running into problems. Even The Cyberiad, which is less serious, still has these themes — individuals trying to fix broken systems and make progress, only to be sabotaged by misunderstandings and complications, often to such an extent that you can only laugh at the mess. I think Lem reflects life very honestly, and I’m overjoyed that there’s still more for me to read.

Why did you choose The Cyberiad as a main theme for your doodle?

Sophia: Lem’s work can be somber, but The Cyberiad is comparatively lighthearted and upbeat, though it still addresses the philosophical themes found in the rest of his writing. Since we wanted to make a game, it seemed fitting for the subject matter to be whimsical and inviting. Additionally, Daniel Mróz’s illustrations already gave us lots of ideas for animations and interactivity… it seemed a perfect fit.

Marcin: We hope the doodle is fun and fascinating regardless of your familiarity with Lem’s work. If you already know The Cyberiad, seeing the distinctive drawing style or re-living the adventures might bring back some memories — and if you don’t, perhaps you’ll be inspired to check out that timeless classic (and some others too). What also helped was us knowing Lem himself was really proud of that book.

Was there any other inspiration you had when creating this doodle?

Marcin: I played a lot of graphic adventure games when I was younger, and even some more recent ones — for example Machinarium (which itself seemed inspired a lot by The Cyberiad). I bet we paid homage to some of them, even if unconsciously.

Sophia: As I was reading The Cyberiad and looking at Mróz’s illustrations, and how they appeared on the page of the physical book, we came up with the idea to give the doodle the same proportions. So while doodles are usually landscape format and fairly small, this one has an expanded canvas — so there’s more room to show the universe, and hopefully more of an impact.

Marcin: Big scale seemed very important to both Lem and Mróz.

How long did it take to produce such a doodle?

Marcin: About half a year ago we started routinely meeting to discuss and try to understand the universe created by Lem and illustrated by Mróz. What exists in that universe? What would and wouldn’t make sense? How can we give it justice in our unique medium of choice?

Sophia: We did a lot of brainstorming and tried many different options. Sometimes we would work separately for weeks, sometimes we would sketch together to try and solve a particular challenge.

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Some of the bugs encountered while working on the doodle

Please share some insights on the technology behind this doodle. Does it use Flash in some parts, or maybe some tricks like animated GIFs, etc. What was the hardest part?

Marcin: We always cherry-pick whatever technology we feel helps us achieve our goals. We wanted this doodle to feel unique, big, alive. We used some elements of HTML5 — for example Canvas for faster graphics, Web Storage to remember whether you played the game, or multitouch support — but also decided to not use some others. For example, CSS3 rotations gave us poor visual fidelity that we didn’t feel respected Daniel Mróz’s drawings — so we are rotating some images the old-fashioned way. (We actually spent some time talking to graphic quality experts at Google.)

Sophia: All the drawings and animations were made in Flash, but then exported to our little custom HTML engine. As a side note, the only hand-drawn elements are the lines that make up the background. I did these with a Rapidograph technical pen; I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that Mróz used something similar in his work.

Marcin: The sky and how it comments on and foreshadows events is an important part of the doodle. We’re also breaking the fourth wall in some places, for example the bird leaving the doodle canvas and sitting on the I’m Feeling Lucky button. (I think the bird was actually the hardest to program, routinely doing things we didn’t expect it to do. Kind of what creations tend to do in Lem’s stories.)

The movie I’ve seen is silent. Does the final version have any sounds? If yes — something more about them. Does the sound rely technologically on Flash?

Sophia: No, there are no sound effects. While reading Lem’s novels, I found that his writing conjured up all kinds of impressions of alien worlds — so hopefully our audience can fill in the blanks themselves too!

Was someone except two of you involved in the design process?

Sophia: We were surprised how many Googlers turned out fans of Lem; they were quick to provide feedback on our ideas and test the doodle as it was being developed. I also worked with other members of the doodle team to fine-tune the project from an aesthetic standpoint.

Marcin: From early days, we collaborated with Lem’s estate and Ms. Łucja Mróz-Raynoch, the daughter of Daniel Mróz. They were incredibly helpful and supportive of the project. It was also the first doodle we properly tested in our usability lab.

Does it include original artwork by Daniel Mróz or it is just an inspiration?

Sophia: They were all drawn by me. Some of the designs are directly taken from Mróz’s work, but some stories weren’t illustrated. In those cases I drew new designs, using the other work as reference.

Marcin: We also included one item drawn by Lem itself. It’s up to you to figure out which one is it!

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An original drawing of Trurl and its flying companion, from Daniel Mróz

Could you share some other fun facts behind creation of this doodle?

Marcin: All of Lem’s universes are rich and believable. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to pay homage to his work on this level as well. As an example, the game is never quite the same every time you play it — as we felt befitted the imperfect, arbitrarily futuristic world of Trurl and Klapaucjusz.

Sophia: When we were brainstorming ideas, we came up with many more adventures for Trurl. Lots of readers remember the robotic poet who can craft a poem about a haircut only using words that begin with S… I really loved these Oulipo-esque twists. We had access to many different translations of Lem’s work and we ambitiously planned to make complicated localized interactions — but, eventually, had to scale back. We also planned a sequence about dragons that involved shooting a probability raygun. And in our first meeting, we talked briefly about adapting a Tichy story instead…

Marcin: Our protagonist, Trurl, was famously drawn by Mróz as based on Lem’s physique. On the other hand, we know Mróz liked cats, and so does Klapaucjusz he drawn. For most, at the end of our doodle, it’s Trurl and Klapaucjusz reuniting again, but for me, I like to think of it as Lem and Mróz revisiting their awesome creation in a new setting, just seconds before — as always — all hell breaks loose.

And, as a bonus, a list of easter eggs in the doodle, which we added to mirror the richness of Lem’s worlds:

  • The brick that falls out from the first robot when it explodes is a brick drawn by Lem himself. (Everything else is drawn from scratch by Sophia Foster-Dimino inspired by the style of Daniel Mróz.)
  • The wave in the second level spells something in binary/ASCII.
  • Some of the eyes of the monster (Pugg) in the second level will follow your mouse — unless, of course, you are on a tablet (I agonized a lot about it. Eyes following a mouse pointer is such a cliché.)
  • Clicking on the bird makes it fly elsewhere (if it’s allowed at that moment).
  • Clicking on the cat will make it go away. It will eventually go away on its own, but hey, you didn’t really expect to be able to control a cat, right?
  • After some time of inactivity, the bird might sit on your mouse pointer.
  • In the second level, you can see an actual Polish scientific satellite LEM flying in the background.
  • If you finish the doodle twice, at the third time you will see something extra in the finale, based on another story we didn’t have time to squeeze into the doodle.
  • There are different N items depending on how many times you played the game, and which language you’re using.

Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards:

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