Magic Artist Dominik Mayer Lets Fans Tell the Tale in Nachthunger
When German artist Dominik Mayer announced Nachthunger, for many fans it immediately harkened back to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) novels of youth. But instead of pages of typeface with a few choices and page numbers at the end of a chapter, Nachthunger is a fully illustrated, community art project where anyone can help influence the outcome of the story.
In essence, Nachthunger is a series of illustrations coupled with poems and short paragraphs of description, all created by Mayer, that tell an ongoing narrative currently centered around The Unsung Hero. Fans watch in almost-real-time as the story unfolds through Mayer's art, but it isn't the artist who's in control of where the Unsung Hero's quest goes. That responsibility is on the fans themselves, Mayer said. By joining Mayer's Patreon, readers are asked to choose a faction and receive special access to Mayer's Discord server. In the Discord, fans communicate with other members of their chosen faction to plan out their next move, decide on design questions and share story ideas. There are also regular polls where followers can directly influence the path taken by the ongoing narrative.
And as Mayer paints, the fans are voting.
From Fury of Akoum to Mother of Machines
Dominik Mayer is an illustrator relatively new to Magic: the Gathering, but it hasn't taken long for him to introduce his distinctive angular, abstract style to the game, and people have noticed, propelling Mayer into a position atop many fan's lists of favorite new artists.
Mayer's from Nuremberg, an avid player of Magic himself, and he's developed his style of geometric, high-contrast art for several years, drawing influence from the medieval aesthetics of his hometown. His first pieces for Magic were released with the showcase variants featured in 2020's Zendikar Rising.
From there, Mayer's work was heavily featured in Strixhaven Mystical Archive, providing new, unique treatments for nearly a dozen spells from throughout Magic's history.
His art was utilized in a main set for the first time in Innistrad: Crimson Vow with Thirst for Discovery, Gift of Fangs, Abrade, Nature's Embrace, and Curse of Hospitality, each of those also getting the monochrome treatment with follow-up Innistrad: Double Feature. Since then, Mayer's art has been seen in every Standard release, from Spirit-Sister's Call, in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, to Streets of New Capenna's Cut Your Losses. The latter set's showcase treatments also fit Mayer's aesthetic, with the art deco influence aligning nicely with his established style.
Most recently, Mayer's been tapped to provide showcase versions for 11 cards in Phyrexia: All Will Be One, including four of the five Dominii as well as Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines herself.
To say that Mayer's been busy lately is an understatement, as in three short years Magic has seen 70 unique pieces of art created by him. But his current endeavors are two-fold: his work with Magic: the Gathering, and his personal project, Nachthunger.
Readers of a certain age likely have fond memories of CYOA novels.
In the late '90s and early '00s, the subgenre of young adult (YA) fiction reached a peak, but the concept predated that era by a few decades. The second-person tales were often centered around fantasy concepts, allowing young readers to inject themselves into tales of adventure, and many middle school libraries throughout the United States had well-worn copies that passed through the hands and imaginations of their students. The idea was popular enough that perhaps the biggest name in YA at the time, Goosebumps, branched into the subgenre with more than 40 CYOA novels betwen 1995-2000.
Mayer describes Nachthunger as a "world-building project, but a special one." Currently, there are three factions from which to choose: The Fairies, The Rhombus Knights, and The Circadian Cult. Mayer said all three factions have a different motivation, and with more time into the project they will get unique abilities. "Those abilities will be very powerful and can shape the story in a major way," he said. "Maybe like neutralize an entire path for the next vote, so there are only two left to steer the story in a direction more favourable to your faction's needs, or maybe you can go back in time and re-choose a vote from the voting before and 'correct' the history or previous events."
In addition to faction abilities, Mayer said Nachthunger will also feature occasional faction conflicts, where the factions will "fight" against each other directly. The more votes a faction gets, the more favorable the outcome will be for that faction in the battle. Even more, Mayer provides the factions with options on which to vote internally for specific things. "Designs, motivations, and other stuff that is just only regarding them," he said. "With all those ways of taking action[,] the community will have control over what comes next and how the story will unfold. There is a lot I am currently thinking about and I am so looking forward to see that implemented."
Each week, Mayer paints a new story card, so new story bits and faction voting occurs roughly four times each month. "That all is super exciting and I really can't wait to see how that all comes together," he said.
And he's not joking: Mayer himself has no idea which directions Nachthunger will take. It's purely fan-driven, with Mayer beholden to the outcomes of voting and faction clashes. "Nothing is planned out!" he said. "There is just a base from which we start off now. We have a small -- very small -- story about the knight and the cursed princess that is now the foundation upon which we will build up the rest." While Mayer's got ideas on which direction he feels might bear the most interesting results, truly there's nothing set.
Since Mayer introduced the concept on his Patreon in January, he's received an overwhelmingly positive response. Most recently, he and the faction members have released Part Nine of the first season of Nachthunger, "The Crystal Keep," with a new entry going live next week. Even Mayer's first visit to the United States, as a featured artist at Magic Con Philadelphia On Feb. 16-19, hasn't really slowed down the story.
To date, Mayer's Discord features nearly 900 fans helping steer story decisions, with more joining by the day. And with that many people, Mayer said there have already been a few unexpected results in terms of Nachthunger's direction. "It makes me so happy that people find this approach interesting and want to join in," he said. "The choices are surprising. And that is exactly what I want. I want to be surprised how the story unfolds. I want to know nothing as well. I want to think in a new direction every week, so the path will stay un-planned and un-set. Surprise and the unknown is what this project is about!"
While the story's outcome is completely undetermined, Mayer said a lot of the foundational concepts are rooted in art and storytelling of which he himself is a devotee. "I love games, history[,] and painting, so all those elements come together here. I can paint based on my inspirations I draw from ancient civilizations and events, as well as old sagas, stories and fairytales, all embedded in a game that builds a world," he said. "I just love it."
Of course, Mayer's inspirations aren't limited to history. "Music, and the art of other artists, are a major thing in that regard," said Mayer. "Playing games, going to museums or just for a walk through nature -- I see small things everywhere, that I feel could be a nice addition to the world or a cool base for a new painting. It can be anything really. I try to be open for new things all the time and observe and collect ideas in my everyday life."
The Seasons of Nachthunger
With such an open-ended concept, Mayer said there's no real ending planned, but structurally he does have a format in mind with "seasons." Each year is a season, he said, with every season representing a chapter of a larger narrative. Thus, every season will have a clear finale, with a "boss enemy" at the end for the hero to vanquish -- or not, "like in a Dark Souls level," Mayer said.
Over the course of a year, each season will see the story ramp up the tension and stakes, intensifying until the hero faces that final challenge. "If the community likes the concept and the project is received well, I can see a lot of seasons in the future," said Mayer. "But for now, I fill focus on the first one and see what comes out of that."
With a concept like Nachthunger, the only limit is imagination, much like the CYOA novels that the concept hearkens back to. Mayer said he's got "so many plans" for expanding Nachthunger beyond its current nascence -- for example, he suggested a tarot deck. "Every card will be a new addition to the deck and as soon as we have them all together I want to have it produced as a real set of cards," he said. "I can see an art book with the poems, the story[,] and the paintings from each season." Mayer said he's also planning to have a soundtrack, with a voice actor for the poems and the story. "We are currently talking to different artists and bands to see what we can do here," he said. "Very exciting!"
And that's not even the whole of it. Mayer said there's also the possibility to have miniatures created from certain elements of the story, like of the main hero or the season finale's "end boss" that confronts the hero. "There are also paintings planned which are not directly connected to the story and explain certain things a bit more in depth," he said. "So the world gets richer and richer with each piece created. So many ideas!"
At this time, Nachthunger is "the most important thing" on Mayer's plate alongside his work with Magic: the Gathering, and with 2023 he'll be devoting the "major part" of his time to the project. "I refused a lot of jobs so I finally have the time to really push this project," he said. "It really is some kind of a dream come true to have the time and the possibility to try this and see how it works and how people will join in."
Nachthunger allows Mayer to not only create the art for which he's passionate, but it also allows him to express his creatively through other mediums. "What I also really enjoy is that I can start writing more and more," he said. "I just love to add a small poem to each story bit. It is like painting with words. Super exciting as well!"
Mayer extended his appreciation to all those currently involved on Patreon and Discord, issuing a hearty "thank you" to everyone supporting him since the first paintings of Nachthunger, and before. "This project would be nothing without all you guys out there! I really mean it! And special thanks to Mimi Sperber, Spiridon Giannakis[,] and Viktor Pushkarev for all their help with bringing the project to the next level," he added. "All in all this project is a game. It is all about the fun and joy and I hope the community will have as much fun reading and deciding as I have painting it!"
To participate in Nachthunger, head over to Patreon for a description of the project and a chance to sign up.
For more information, Mayer includes Nachthunger illustrations on his website and ArtStation page and posts regularly on Twitter and Instagram with details of the project.