Of all of the exciting titles set to arrive in 2015, Below is among the most promising. As the latest project from Capybara Games, the development team behind the superb Super Time Force, Below has a lot to live up to, and it shows ambition to match. Its Zelda-esque mechanics might seem familiar at first, but they belie a refreshing novelty. I recently caught up with CAPY’s co-founders Nathan Vella (President), and Kris Piotrowski (Creative Director), to delve into the mysteries of their upcoming game.
[Hardcore Gamer] One of the things I noticed right away about Below, just from hearing everyone talking about it, is that it gets compared to a million different games. For me, I get shades of The Legend of Zelda, Dark Souls, Spelunky, and Journey. How do you guys feel about those comparisons, and which ones do you think are the most valid?
[Nathan Vella] I think it’s interesting. When people talk about things, they try to find ties to something they’ve experienced before because it makes it easier for them to explain it. It’s like, “We all know these things. We all know Zelda, we all know Dark Souls, so that’s a way of skipping over all of the initial banter about all of the basics about the game. I actually like it because it allows them to discuss the parts of the game that are special to it, that are unique outside of the foundation of the game itself. We know what permanent death is, we know what random generation is, we know what sword and shield combat is, because we’ve played those kinds of things. Now we can talk about the sense of scale, the weakness, the loneliness, and the isolation – the things that are crucial to the game outside of the traditional video game references.
[Kris Piotrowski] Whenever our game gets compared to Wind Waker or Dark Souls or anything like that, that’s like the biggest compliment ever. Those are definitely things that we’re thinking about when we’re making this game. Like Nathan was saying, I think that it does help us a lot because we’re trying a lot of interesting new things with the game. We’re sort of treating things in ways that they maybe haven’t been treated before, but the entry point is something that people are familiar with. When somebody says, “It’s kind of like Wind Waker,” it means that they actually understand a whole chunk of the game, and can then begin to explore it further. That’s what allows us to create this game that doesn’t really have hints, or text, or anything like that because you’re able to bring in a whole vocabulary once you’re able to frame it in a way that’s familiar to you.
[Nathan Vella] The references are so interesting to us because we started the game so long ago that, like, Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls didn’t exist. Journey hadn’t been made when we started. Zelda obviously had, but it’s very interesting because it kind of shows that there’s a space within games/games culture in which these things are not super friggin’ weird. They’re not that far out; they’re things that people tangibly and clearly enjoy, and it gave us a lot of strength knowing that we were on that right path. We’re not making something that will catch people so far off guard in its basics. Hopefully it will catch people off guard in its nuance, in the specifics, and in the approach that we’ve taken to the game.
One of the things I find most impressive about Below is the fact that you guys have developed some enemies with legitimate emotional awareness. I’m thinking of the dogs on the beach that come up and cuddle next to you, but if you hurt one of their friends they get angry at you. You’ve got the bats that come in and swarm and slow you down, but when you kill a few of them, they get scared and fly away. What was the thought process behind creating AI like this?
[Piotrowski] The main idea behind it is that we’re creating a game where the focus is shifted away from the player. It’s more about the island you’re exploring, the world you’re exploring. So, part of the way to express that is that when you walk into an environment, there’s not just a bunch of heat-seeking enemies that are there to kill you. Initially, you might approach it that way because that’s just kind of how you approach video games, right? You just walk around and swing your sword. It was very important to us to create a world that feels like it exists without you. These dogs and these little creatures are there, and they’re neutral, and they might get aggressive, but their existence on the island isn’t just to attack you. It’s not all about you. They’re just there, and you’re also just there. There is an enemy class in the game that is much more directly aggressive, but it’s just important for us to make sure the game has a natural feeling underneath all of this light fantasy,
[Vella] The way that it got framed for me when I started understanding that goal was when Kris started talking about the game as this “terrarium” you’re looking into. There are things that are alive. There is flora and there is fauna and when you remove the player from it, these things would still exist. The dogs would still be on the beach sniffing around with their homies.
[Piotrowski] If you looked at a cave there would be little drips and plants and things flying around.
[Piotrowski] There would always be something going on, and you’re just one of the little things in this environment that’s rich with little interactions, and rules, and behaviors.
[Vella] We’re trying to figure out how to turn those things into a piece of the game experience for people, rather than just like, “There’s just this stuff, and then you play a game!” We’re trying to intertwine those two, the flora and fauna, as you play more because you realize how important they are to your experience as the Wanderer, and how you play the game as a player.
Could you talk about how Jim Guthrie’s musical composition influences how you play as a player?
[Piotrowski] Let’s start that: his name’s J-Dawg now.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess just rant a little on how music influences the game. I know silence plays a huge role in Below, but how does music play a role?
[Vella] The big thing for us was, coming out of [Sword and Sworcery EP], we had such a great relationship and collaboration with Jim. It was a matter of a very short period of time after Sworcery that Kris was like, “Jim, you have to come work with us on Below.” Sworcery was built on top of Jim Guthrie’s songs, whereas Below is being built in a way where we build some, and Jim builds some, and we build some. It’s kind of like this layer cake of ideas, rather than how Sworcery actually started with music that Jim had made and got built around parts of that.
[Piotrowski] Sworcery is very much about the music. Below is also that, but we’re trying to work more in tandem, I guess. Jim’s ideas are influencing our ideas, and, obviously, we come to Jim and say, “This is the new area. This is the little narrative that we’re telling here,” then Jim would score a piece that you hear as you explore elements of that narrative. Jim is a huge part of this project, and you can feel it when you’re climbing up that cliff [at the beginning], which is the first time you hear his music come in. It just sets the tone, and it brings so much richness to the world.
[Vella] One of our co-founders, Sean, is our Audio Director as well, and Jim and Sean worked together on Sworcery. Now they have this flow where Sean can be creating sound effects and ambiances and weird sounds that are from the game but outside of the game, all while Jim is making music, and they can work together to fit. So much of the game is about the aesthetics and the audio. In a weird way, that’s just as much the story as the story of the game itself. That’s always a big focus for us. It was a big focus for us in Super Time Force, even though Super Time Force doesn’t come across the same way. So us having the chance to work with Jim, who already worked with Sean, gives us this shared experience. We can skip over all the weirdness and we can be very honest with Jim when we don’t like his stuff, and he can be very honest with us when he thinks something would work better for a piece of his music. The end result is that we can go to Jim’s studio and sit down and play the game and talk about it, and in the next days we’ll see this massive shift from one style to another. There’ll be a massive shift to the amount of layers that come to the audio, or something that gets passed over to Sean when he’s creating sound effects that builds another layer of the game-world through that piece. In a perfect world, that’s what all collaborative relationships are: it’s a give and take, and the sum is greater than its parts.
Just for some of the people who haven’t had a chance to experience Below yet, could you talk about some of the new content you’ve been working on without being spoilery?
[Vella] It’s interesting for us because we’ll put things in just to try at shows. We’re not afraid of showing people systems or gameplay that’s relatively early on in its growth. One of these things that’s in our most recent build, that’s been in and out of the game in different formats, is the idea of human survival. You actually have to eat, and you have to drink, and if you don’t, you will hurt yourself or die. That’s something that, we think, changes the game in a really great way. It makes the survival component of the game really tangible and meaningful. It’s great to see people play, and see how they react to the idea of, “Holy s***, I’ve gotta eat some dog meat!”
[Piotrowski] We’re also putting in new areas, but one of the things we’re trying to do is keep as much of the content secret as we can. It’s a treat to have people discover new stuff. One of the things we’re focusing on is that we’re branching out the game world, and there’s a lot of little nooks and crannies to find. The narrative is very silent as well, so I guess I can say that there’s a…cool room with a lot of…awesome stuff. [Laughs]
The idea of branching areas brings up an interesting question: will Below have a tangible ending?
[Piotrowski] That’s a tough question. The plan is to have multiple different endpoints, so you are trying to get somewhere.
[Vella] There is an “A to Z.”
[Piotrowski] The flow of the game is one of the things that I’ve been working on the longest, and it’s one of the most unique elements of Below. How you actually discover new areas and why is one of the bigger puzzles of the game, and it’s ongoing as you explore. As you tune into more of the details of the game-world, you’re sort of able to intentionally find areas, rather than randomly finding areas. Depending on what sort of elements you’re following, you will find different conclusions.
[Vella] It’s important to note that it’s not never-ending. It’s not a challenge to see how deep you can go.
[Piotrowski] …it might be. [Laughs]
[Vella] Our intention for Below is not to have people play it infinitely in a single playthrough. Our hope is that people will play it infinitely because there’s so much stuff you’ll miss during every playthrough.
[Piotrowski] And also the experience of doing a “run” is always different, even if you know where you’re going and what your objective is. When you play Spelunky and you’ve figured out Spelunky, you can still play it over and over and still reach the end, but that’s not the end of the game. It keeps “giving the goods.” Our goal for Below is that every time you enter one of the randomly-generated dungeons, it’s a little area with a bunch of possibilities, and you never know exactly how that little walk across the screen is going to end up. There’s that element, since Below is highly replayable, and there are goals for you to find and reach. Once you start to realize how the game works, then it’s up to you to decide what kind of run you’re going after. What is it that you want to see that you haven’t seen yet? You might know what direction it’s in and how to find it, so that might be your crystal goal for that particular run. Or you might want to do the more roguelikey straight-down shot to the big-bad monster at the end…which may or may not exist.