In a nondescript building during the recent GDC 2018 in San Francisco, Microsoft Studios label [email protected] hosted a number of promising independent games, including the sharp-looking Advance Wars-inspired Wargroove from Chucklefish, the well-regarded survival horror game Remothered: Tormented Fathers from Stormind Games, and the stylishly innovative Flipping Death from Zoink, among others.
But one game was particularly intriguing: Capy Games' "roguelike-like" Below.
A mix of Diablo, Don't Starve, and Dark Souls, Below was originally announced back during E3 2013. Other games have been in development as long or longer, but deeper scrutiny is paid to Below considering Capy's admirable track record of top-notch indie games with titles like Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP and Super Time Force, leaving people wondering just how this next effort will turn out. (And when I say people, I mainly mean me.)
I spent only about 30 minutes with the game, but it allowed me to gauge some of the design sensibilities that went into Below. The demo I played starts the player off on a beach, with no blatant direction given whatsoever. But the game world begs to be explored, unhindered by tutorials or explanations—the game designer takes a backseat to the player.
I spoke with the game's director, Kris Piotrowski at the event. After I overheard his PR rep coach him a bit on the most common question to expect from the media, I started out with exactly that annoying question, and Piotrowski took it in stride.
Kris Graft: So, why has the game taken so long? (laughs)
Kris Piotrowski: I assume that's question #1 from all press. I'm not going to get upset by it...(laughs) No, [the question is] totally expected. Well the game took a long time --
But other games have taken longer!
I think so. I hope so. I have friends who have taken a long time to make games and thankfully I look at that kind of stuff, in most cases, as encouragement. "Oh they took a long time and it turned out well and everything is fine." So, that's kind of how I see it. Also, all my favorite studios are "when it’s done" studios. So I've always held onto that mentality. I've just never had the chance to do it until Below.
It also took a long time because it was a technical challenge. It was an artistic challenge. This was our first game where we dabbled in 3D... the art style itself is difficult to work with. The tiny scale presents its own both design issues that needed to be treated on to resolve. Then just generally coming up with all the visuals and having them all play at that scale was difficult. And of course, on my end, conceptually it was the most difficult as well. We were kind of iterating the game for a long time.
How do you mean? It seems like the vision has evolved.
The game has pretty much always had the exact same vision. It's more the stuff that took a long time for me is arriving at the right doses of all the consistents. The game is primarily a roguelike in its structure. It does have Wind Waker-ish, Dark Souls-ish combat. From our end, it's not a very stats heavy game. It's more about your skill and having to actually move, and how good you are at combat. It's very high stakes, dexterity-based combat. And then there's a little bit of crafting involved. There's tool crafting and there's soup and potion crafting, stuff like that. All those little things we've been iterating on for a long time, just trying to get them to appear in the game the right way.
You mentioned technical challenges and you also said something about tiny scale. What do you mean by that?
Well the game is very zoomed out. You're a tiny, little character. As far as the art style, everything needs to be considered from a clarity perspective first. So, if we have little, tiny characters and little, tiny enemies they still need to have the right kind of readability. The art style has to be nice and crisp and readable. Every single thing we put in the game has been put through many iterations.
The actual combat, it feels nice, I'll tell you that. It feels slicey and choppy [in a good way]. And also, it's got some of the most hypnotizing grass I've ever seen in a video game.
The whole game development schedule was put into primarily just putting grass in (laughs). If you do look at the difference between our first trailer and what you're seeing now, one of the main things that you'll see is grass. The difference when we showed the game for the first time it was kind of very flat, very stark, very barren. One of the main visual upgrades is the grass.
"I think the game is primarily about being lost...The joy of figuring out what the game is and how the game plays and poking around and finding little secrets in the game world, that's what I'm really excited by."
But also, this is the first time we're showing 4K grass. We've been in development for so long that 4K showed up in the middle of it. I was a little worried about it because the art style's so specific and I wasn't really sure exactly how [it'd look]—it was either going to come off as noisy or something like that. But I was pleasantly surprised by Xbox One X in 4K—it does us so many favors. It is a tiny scale. Everything's really small, everything's really sharp. And so those little details in 4K are crystal clear. You can see the little character's peg legs. You can see blades of grass that look like you can shave your face with them. Everything looks like it's chiseled out of snow.
The 4K resolution kind of removed all the lean-in that people were doing. Most people, when they play the game, they kind of like reach in a little bit to look at it all. Then 4K is just like "boom, here's everything super small, but super sharp." I was so happy with the way the game ended up looking on Xbox One X. A lot of old decisions we made about the art style came to fruition in 4K.
The grass serves the exploration aspect of it. It's like, I don't know where I'm going necessarily, but there's all this nice grass here! It's just calming, and helps with just being okay with being a little lost sometimes.
Yeah. I think the game is primarily about being lost. The game doesn't have very heavy tutorial system. It doesn't have NPC dialogue, cutscenes, or anything. I really hope that people, when they finally get it in their living room, they just sit down and just get absorbed into this little tiny world we've been making. The joy of figuring out what the game is and how the game plays and poking around and finding little secrets in the game world, that's what I'm really excited by.
To me, that's the coolest part of what Below has to offer: just getting lost in a really mysterious dungeon crawl through a really nice map. A lot of our production time has gone into building a rich atmosphere in the game world, and just really trying to create this beautiful little space that kind of looks like nothing you've ever seen before. The scale alone I think will help it stand on its own. But that's the kind of stuff that I really like about the game.
And that's the demo you're showing here, that's actually how it begins? You show up on this ship and then you're on the beach?
Pretty much. This is an abridged version.
I just think it's interesting because I liked how there were no instructions and it's just kind of like, "you're here." And the game visually just leads you to the places it wants you to go, initially. What's your approach, your philosophy, on teaching players?
My philosophy is, well with this game specifically, I have a lot more faith in a player's ability to figure something out, but also I think human brains in general really enjoy that process. I really like games that assume I do have a brain in my head.
Also, there are some games that are built a little bit more towards people who do have a little bit of a game vocabulary already included as they arrived into this new game. There's a lot of assumptions that a player who's ever played any Zelda game or Dark Souls game or roguelike could bring into the experience alone.
"I have a lot more faith in a player's ability to figure something out, but also I think human brains in general really enjoy that process. I really like games that assume I do have a brain in my head."
I don't know, I think games in the past have gone a little too far into tutorializing and hand-holding to the point where a lot of games are pretty much, "go to this shiny beacon." And to me, that kind of takes away everything I like about games. I like looking down at the horizon and seeing, wondering where I'm going to go today, or trying to get to an area I haven't seen. And really, just having my own decision-making guiding my journey, and having a little system, like a crafting system that I have to sit down with and poke around with, where one combination might kill me instantly and another might give me invincibility. So that kind of stuff I think is interesting.
The other thing, I think it does foster community. I think when you create a game that doesn't offer much [by way of tutorialization], players have proven time and time again that they can devour a game in one day. Within a day of Below coming out, I'm sure there's going to be media that explains every tool, every potion configuration. If you don't just give that out front, players come together and actually enjoy dissecting games like this.
So, that's something we've been thinking about very intentionally, creating a game that allows the community and the players to prove themselves through experimentation and exploration and also through trial-and-error, dying, and just figuring out what things look like and how enemies play and all that kind of stuff, eventually arriving at a full understanding of the game's systems and knowing exactly [what to do]. But yeah, that's something we've been very intentionally trying to hold back in this game. Just come into this world. I've been trying to design everything so that it's not overtly complex.
For example, the crafting of the soups and potions and tools, we don't go as far as Minecraft or Don't Starve. Those are just support systems for the bigger focus of [Below], which is exploration and combat. On one hand we don't offer a lot, but at the same time, it's not a game where there's just an endless list of craftables. Everything's a little pulled back in the game to allow players to eventually wrap their head around the whole thing.
I like the idea of the focus on this intrinsic satisfaction and reward in players. This isn't really a question I guess, but I appreciate that.