Entwined was one of the biggest surprises of Sony’s E3 Press Conference. The artistic, metaphor-laden title could be the start of a new trend of instant releases. Entwined had a significant emotional impact on me along with countless other gamers, but the story behind the game and it’s surprise release is still a bit of a mystery. I caught up with ten members of the Pixelopus team (Dominic Robilliard, Jeff Sangalli, Lucie Roberts, Becky Roberts, Jing Li, Eric Zhang, Jitesh Mulchandani, Ashwin Kumar, Nagarjuna “Arjun” Harisena, and Haewon Nam), as well as Sony Computer Entertainment America’s PR Manager Aram Jabbari, for an exclusive look into Entwined.
[Hardcore Gamer] For those not familiar with Entwined, could you give me your elevator pitch?
[Pixelopus] Entwined is a game about two souls who are in love, but they cannot be together. You control these two characters (one is a bird and one is a fish), using the two analog sticks.
The story discusses a fish and a bird, and in every lifetime they get reincarnated in different places and different forms (human, creature, anything). Their souls are simply represented by the fish and bird. It represents how they can’t be together because they’re separated by fate, reality, distance, or anything that’s between them as an obstacle. Every lifetime they try to find each other, and in the process they find memories of past lifetimes. They try to become closer together and become brave; when they are ready to do that, they break off and come together to become one at the end.
One thing that I noticed is that every inch of the game is drenched with metaphor. You can take the game at face value and see it just as a bird and a fish moving in unity, or you can read deeper into it. What did you put in place to allow that to happen?
We did put a lot of thought into it. We had a lot of conversations about the level of abstraction because the mechanic is quite unusual. We wanted a high level of abstraction in the storytelling and the art. Even though we’ve done a lot of thinking about this, the good thing about, and the strength of, the abstraction is that when you present something that leaves a lot open to interpretation it instantly becomes personal when gamers play the game and finish the thoughts for themselves. A lot of the challenges in getting that balance right were on how much storytelling should we put in there, and how much should we describe the relationship between the two characters in it.Did you all see the story earlier this year where the trademark filing for Entwined and Kill Strain, a game we don’t know about yet, were discovered? Obviously your announcement and release were predicated on surprise, so how did you feel about this?
To be honest, from a team perspective, it’s kind of exciting. You’re working really really hard on polishing the game and preparing for E3, and suddenly the name starts cropping up. People are talking about it and they’re speculating and they’re speculating about what it is, and there’s excitement growing about it. It’s exciting! It also helps you remember that this game is going to be out there in the public space and gamers are going to be playing it. It’s just the beginning of the process really, it’s super exciting.
We’re recent graduates, and this is the first game we are all working on. You see the game name out there, and people are discussing it; for us you can see the dream out there. It is a big thing for us, actually.
How did the reveal and release at E3 come to happen, and how did Entwined get to be that game?
A couple of us had a meeting with [PlayStation Software Product Development Head] Scott Rhode and [Director of Product Development at Sony Computer Entertainment America] Connie Booth in January and we were showing them the progress behind the game. Scott was looking at it and saw something in it, and thought that the same day release was an interesting idea. Suddenly the timelines, when we looked at them, matched up and it became a thought that progressed from our original meeting back in January.
If the “Reveal and Release” tactic becomes a common practice in the future, Entwined will likely be looked at as the game that started it all. If this continues to happen, how do you feel about creating the game that started this trend?
As a team, we feel like it’s very gamer-friendly. There’s something really accessible and exciting about being able to say, “Here’s our game. You can have a look at it; you can even play it if you’re at E3, and you can buy it and download it straight away.”
It’s also a bit scary, in a way, because every other game that any of us have been a part of is launched on the back of a campaign introducing the public and reviewers to the game. That’s part of how it’s traditionally done, and there was none of that with this. It was an incredibly fresh way of looking at it, and from a creator point of view, that makes it even more nerve-wracking. You’re literally leaving it out there bare for people to look at and make their own mind up on it.
What are your thoughts, as recent graduates and young adults, on having created a game to begin with? Your game was at E3. It’s on the PlayStation 4. It’s coming to the Vita and the PlayStation 3. What are those raw emotions like for you?
[Jing Li] It’s just very exciting for us. It’s an honor to release to the whole public at the same time, and it’s an honor for us to represent the game on stage too. It’s very exciting and a dream come true.
[Jitesh Mulchandani] It was very exciting to show it on the stage, and it was a dream come true. I never imagined that our game would be shown on such a big stage. There was also a little big of nervousness to show it among all these other big games, but it was awesome. It was an awesome feeling.
[Eric Zhang] It was a combination of excitement and nervousness together. You have something that you work on secretly for a long time, and you’re putting the whole thing out and letting people walk around and just play it. It’s great for us just to see how people people play and react to our game, and it’s super great to see players have smiles on their faces while they are playing the game. It’s just great.
[Arjun Harisena] The feeling is like seeing something you created, and no one knows about it, and you are throwing it out on the world. There are people who feel the same way about it, and there are people who feel differently about it. You see all these emotions coming, and you feel proud of your creation. I felt excited, nervous, and also really proud.
[Haewon Nam] For me at the E3 stage, it was this weird thing. It was a very unreal and surreal thing, but after we released and could see the people play our game and see the fan art, it was really exciting! It was very touching.
— the panda (@_cocominty) June 17, 2014
[Lucie Roberts] It was really exciting to put out the game, especially after seeing your review since you were the one who really got the game right away. All of us were really proud to put it out because we all put a lot of love into the game. It was really exciting.
[Becky Roberts] Along the lines of what Lucie said, we put so much love into the game that it was so rewarding to see anyone that had an emotional connection to it because that’s exactly what we wanted. The fan art that Haewon mentioned was mind-blowing; the fact that someone had that much of an emotional connection that they wanted to make more from it was great.
[Ashwin Kumar] As Eric said, we had been working on this game secretly for so long, and we had gotten so close, that for people to validate that they liked our game was the biggest reward for us. It’s just the best feeling; it’s fantastic and mind-blowing.
Could you talk about the emotional aspects of Entwined from a design perspective?
At the beginning, we had a simple mood chart with color and emotion. We want people to feel, and there are some key words (in the trophy list), like anxiety, liveliness, ambition, and all those things. We put those into the chart and gave it to everybody with a short description of what we want people to feel. After the beginning, we didn’t think it would create very specific feelings, but when we played actually played, after everything came together (art, music, etc.), it reminded us of certain memories of our own. We wanted to make it unique for every person. Also, we put in all these gameplay mechanics that created metaphors of what it would be like in a real relationship.
Your game might be the best advertisement for Music Unlimited ever. When I was replaying the game, I would play my own music in order to skew the emotional aspects of the game in a different way. I would play an upbeat song to make the game into a more intense visual experience, or I would play a slower song if I wanted to feel something else. Whether or not that was intentional, I loved it.
It’s interesting that you say that, because we actually did play around with that. We experimented with different styles for the Challenge Mode because it is such an intense version of the game mechanic. We were going on this voiced discovery of what happens when you have a skill-based gameplay mechanic. That almost takes over one part of your brain, and the other half of the game is consumed with the aesthetics of the music and the visuals. If somebody gets that, and they connect with it, it is almost like this strange, zen-like experience where you get mesmerized and completely immersed in what’s going on. We actually played around with Sam Marshall, our amazing composer, with lots of different styles because he’s so versatile. Obviously the range of emotion and feelings for the different levels was something that was going to be a big part of that experience too.
One thing that we did, is we gave Sam visual development as soon as it was created. Sam’s sound studio looked almost like our studio space that we have here, which is covered with visual development. Sam would compose music and look at our very very early development and give us feedback. It was very much a back and forth, so what makes the sound and art such a cohesive medium is that collaboration. Even from the very first pieces of artwork, Sam was involved. He would compose, and we would put it in the game, and his composition and his music would influence and affect the game development. We were really lucky to have Sam with us through the whole process. He came to daily meetings, he was part of design meetings; he was completely integrated into the team. You can see the connection between the audio and the game because he such an integrated part of the team.
We have a pretty unique process in that we check in on a daily basis at the end of the day, and since we’re such a small team, we dynamically show each other our work. This enables the whole team to give comments on the work, including the directors. It enables engineers to give feedback on the art and the composer, and vice versa. It really is cross-collaboration.
An important phrase that appears at the beginning of the game, “Always together, forever apart.” Everything in Entwined, including the control scheme, fits this phrase perfectly. Is this something you initially thought of and then tried to mold everything around, or was it something that thought of later on in development?
It didn’t come from the beginning. Basically, when we were tuning that level of abstraction, we thought that we needed a tiny bit of context to help put people in the right frame of mind. Even though it represents the theme really really succinctly, we didn’t decide to put it in until later on in production because we just felt that it needed that little bit of context.
If you think about the word “entwined,” it’s like two strings. Sometimes they are separate, sometimes they are together, and then they separate again and come together. The “together, apart” part really speaks to the title of the game. We used to have a prototype where the fish and bird fly and have a dragon to catch, and that movement of the fish and bird actually have the entwined aspect. Sometimes they are further away from each other, sometimes they are close to each other, but they never meet. We just think the quote speaks very clearly to the goal of the game and the feeling we want to deliver. At the end we reverse it; in the beginning it’s always forever apart, but what we want people to remember at the end is the always together part.
It seems, as a team, you could go in a couple of different directions with your next project. Entwined is a game with difficult, arcade-like mechanics, but it also has a deep emotional aspect. Have you guys thought about the direction you could go from here as a team? How has Entwined set the framework for your future?
We’re still deciding what we want to do next. Obviously there are things that are core to what Entwined is that we definitely want to keep doing. Doing different and unique gameplay experiences is really really important to us. We always want to make sure there’s innovation in the design, the art, and the audio, so all of those creative aspects of game-making need to be fresh no matter what we do.
It’s interesting to talk about the emotional element to the game because, obviously, the more abstract and unusual your game is, the riskier it is. That’s something that’s really exciting, and with a small team, you’ve got a huge amount of agility in how you tackle some of those key elements in making games. We’re still trying to figure that out, and it’s a really exciting part of the process. Actually, what we’re doing right now is finishing the PS3 and Vita versions and getting ready to launch the iOS and Android versions as well. As soon as we’ve done that, we’ll have some time to time to catch our breath and start playing around and processing new game ideas.
What’s been great about Entwined, and you’ve heard the team allude to this, is the team had an incredible amount of passion for this project. We really put everything we had into it. Whatever we do next, we’re going to be looking for that same kind of passion and love for the project so that we can try to continue with that energy.
Could you discuss how the structure and size of the team are assets to this project, as well as future endeavors?
[Aram Jabbari] Just having spent time with this team here, there’s the type of binary or dichotomous question that you alluded to in your previous question, that doesn’t necessarily have to apply to what the team does next. The important thing is that I could stand next to Lucie or Becky and throw and object and hit Jing in the back of the head. They all sit within feet of each other and some of them are roommates. They’re extremely close-knit, extremely creative, and the size of the team and the creative freedom means that they can basically do anything. I’m kind of excited to see what they do next, but it doesn’t have to necessarily come from one of those two qualities from the game.
[Pixelopus] The structure of the team speaks to that. The way that we make these prototypes, the way that we approach the design, there’s strong consideration for all of those things. There’s not one thing that’s ever more important than another.
Follow Pixelopus on Twitter @Pixelopus.