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The charming heart of darkness: Former Spec Ops team's Curious Expedition

The charming heart of darkness: Former  Spec Ops  team's  Curious Expedition
October 17, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

October 17, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Art, Design

When we say "exploration" in games, it's abstract vocabulary -- we mean the mechanic of seeking, looking, finding. But what does it mean to be an explorer, full of adventuresome, pioneering spirit and the bravery to push onward into the unknown?

Maschinen-Mensch's Curious Expedition is not just a game about exploring, but a simulation of expedition itself. Players choose from among a long list of the 19th century's most distinguished and curious minds, from Freya Stark and Charles Darwin to Nikola Tesla and Marcus Garvey, each with a different special ability. With guides and equipment, the player clicks to move across fatiguing landscapes, balancing resources and encountering beautifully-illustrated special events in search of the Golden Pyramid.

Curious Expedition has that precise cocktail of danger and beauty, of greed in the face of scarcity, of risk and randomness, that makes for a good roguelike. As its wild frontiers slowly reveal themselves, I felt at times cheerful, at other times afraid, but always compelled for one more push into the mountains in search of a cold spring, or toward the village where I knew my animal pelts would be prized.

The brilliant little game is still in closed beta (the curious, so to speak, can join a mailing list to receive updates), but rapidly shaping up into something I'd want to play a lot of. It's the work of a former AAA team gone indie -- they formerly worked together at Yager on Spec Ops: The Line. Riad Djemili and Johannes Kristman worked together on design and coding and knew they could collaborate -- and together enjoy the challenge of wearing new hats.

"In AAA the sheer size of the projects will cause you to become specialized over time and to get stuck just working on very specific details of the game," Djemili explains. "Running our own company means that we have to wear many different hats, which is actually quite refreshing."

Kristmann says the team embraces the newfound constraints of working small. "Our goal is to create unusual games for a potentially smaller audience, and in turn be able to create more personal and intimate experiences," he says. "I cared a lot about my work in the AAA environment, but it is just very different to when you are working on your own game that you always dreamed about creating. We put all our energy and heart into it -- this game is our child."

"This is also where the downside kicks in; if this game fails, there will be no one else to blame but ourselves," Kristmann adds, "which can be very intimidating."

During the idea phase, the team discovered their mutual interest in the 19th century, a massive departure from the modern military environment of their Spec Ops work. "The feeling of a modern world that still holds mysteries to those that dare to venture into the last unknown regions has a strong influence on our imagination," says Kristmann. "We both like this aspect in the stories of Jules Verne, which are -- in addition to the stories of real expeditions -- a major influence on our work."

"Having lots of different explorers allows us to emphasize different play styles through their special skills and to add more replay value," Djemili adds. The characters also came from eager social media response from the game's early fans: "We stumbled almost accidentally on the idea of using real world characters, when Jo created a mock-up image of a combat screen and used Tesla as one of the characters, almost like an easter egg. We shared the image on twitter and the reception to the Tesla character was overwhelmingly positive. People started asking us which other famous people would appear in our game."

"In hindsight it really seems like a no-brainer and we were more than happy to put more characters into the game from all those history books we were reading," he continues. "It's really a nice example of how community feedback can directly influence a game."

Curious Expedition incorporates narrative building blocks that help in the pacing of the roguelike experience -- lovely pixel art finds explorers by eerily-lit firesides as mysterious howls come from all around them, or makes 'native villages' feel textured and lived in. It's simultaneously spirited and lonesome, and supports one of the game's central mechanics: A 'sanity' meter, and the role status effects like 'kleptomaniac' 'paranoid' or even 'alcoholic' can play on party members who ought to focus on treading with care through volatile, even sacred spaces.

"An expedition might fail due to external influences, like bad weather or dangerous wildlife. What fascinated us equally as much was the inner conflict of the party, though. How do the people of your trek deal psychologically with the pressure of the situation?" Djemili says. "So we put a big focus on this aspect, and that's why it’s important for us to have these iconic shots of the trek in the game."

"One thing we did to accentuate this was to keep the trek size somewhat small," he continues. "Instead of having 30 nameless trek members, we restrict your trek to fewer characters and give everybody their own name, personality and special abilities."

Kristmann says that whether for narrative design or imagery, the team focuses on a certain distance -- an abstraction that leaves room for imagination, and isn't afraid to use storybook-style text for some key moments. "We rely a lot on text, which has been proclaimed unusable for games many times. Still, there are so many great examples, such as the Twine community, that show how text can paint extremely rich and meaningful worlds," he explains. "Our hope is that with our combination of reduced visuals and procedural narrative, the player's mind is pointed into a certain direction; sometimes very specific, sometimes rather loose."

Both Riad and Kristmann love complex systems and procedural generation, and working with character behavior against those frameworks -- the game is set to contain a couple thousand unique types of butterflies, the discovery of which can influence certain characters. "Obviously procedural generation comes with costs, probably most importantly the fact that you, as a creator, are giving away a lot control," Kristmann suggests. "But letting go and allowing the player to drive the experience fosters the creation of personal and intimate stories. Usually this approach does not provide epic story arcs or mind blowing reveals, but the bond it creates between the player and the game is something I care a lot about as a designer."

Djemili notes that the 19th century necessarily raises some challenging issues, like colonialism, racism and exploration -- "these are aspects we're aware of and try to weave into our narrative," he says. "Some players might immediately pick up on these threads. Some may completely ignore them and just enjoy the fun gameplay.

Both is equally fine with us, but I would love it, if the game inspires somebody to Google for that famous character, or makes him contemplate on how he interacts with these uncharted territories and their inhabitants."

"In that regard the game is a little similar to Spec Ops," Djemili adds. "You could say we went even closer to the Heart of Darkness with this game."

Maschinen-Mensch aims to release the game first via its own website in an early access edition, with a first official version available for PC, Linux and Mac launching in November at a price point of about 10€. The team hopes for an eventual Steam and tablet launch, too.

"I think scoping, and not getting lost in trying to create the 'ultimate game', is where our experience as seasoned developers helps us the most," Kristmann says. "However, we hope that some players will understand our early access release as a chance to participate in shaping the final version of the game. There are still a lot of aspects that we want to work on, and we’ll provide a detailed description of our plans by the time of our early access release."

He's been fascinated by the strong community that's formed around Curious Expedition early on, even before gameplay footage appeared. Not only did this nurture the team's faith in their idea, but helped dictate their goals, noticing how imagination and story alone compelled so many.

"We didn’t approach the game from the viewpoint of any specific genre, but from the fantasy of being on an expedition and what fascinated us about it. Ending up with a few mechanics from roguelikes was the result of this process, instead of the starting point," Djemili says. "Over the prototyping phase of two years we tested dozens of mechanics. It was a lengthy and arduous process, but seeing the positive reception so far, it seems people appreciate this approach."

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