Gaming Bookazine 3245 (Sampler)

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the annual THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO A YEAR I N I N T E R AC T I V E E N T E R TA I N M E N T

£6.20

2022

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KINGDOM COME

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he world is terrifying, and beautiful. In mossy, humid groves, glowing spores sway in the air; winged beetles perch on the walls like razor-mawed parrots, suckling moisture out of the lichen. Lakes of lava bubble thickly below an old town built of bone. Our footsteps ring out across a chamber lined with the husks of ancient bells – at the end of it, we spy an unfortunate creature struggling in a silk cocoon, keening softly. Eventually, we find the means to free it. And then it pounces.

Gibson says they’ve perhaps leant slightly more into detailing combat over platforming, due to heavy Hornet’s reduced “hang time” in the air, and her natural huntress proficiencies – but we see Pellen navigate tricky crumbling platforms in our demo, and the ones pictured look as though they may move as part of a mechanism

To enter into Team Cherry’s twisting worlds is to enter into a kind of dance. A dangerous one: you might put your best foot forward, only to have it gleefully bitten off. And therein lies the thrill. The sharpest warriors quickly learn to accommodate a Hollow Knight world as an unpredictable partner, whose fickle moods and sense of humour make it feel as if it’s alive –

watching your every move with quiet interest, and preparing its response. This much is certain: Ari Gibson and William Pellen are modern masters of worldbuilding. The 2017 release of the now-cult hit Hollow Knight – a Metroidvania that cast you as a tiny masked bug burrowing down into a subterranean labyrinth of hidden curiosities, unlikely friends and unforgettable showdowns – very much suggested it. And, from everything we’ve seen of Hollow Knight: Silksong so far, the sequel is set to confirm it. New location Pharloom is a ballroom of possibility, and already looks to be even more sophisticated than Hollow Knight’s Hallownest. This is a kingdom ruled by – what else? – silk and song, where weary pilgrims journey to their destination carrying bundles of the precious thread, and gates are opened through paying melodic tributes (even the language of this world, scrawled on stone tablets, is designed to look like musical notation). And this time, you’re on your way up, up, up to a shining Citadel at the very top of the world. Why? Well, partly because Silksong’s heroine just needs to stretch her legs.

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Environments are much more detailed, retreating deeper backwards into the dark and reacting to Hornet’s influence. In one area, rosaries dangling from the ceiling sway as you brush past, beads scattering if hit; in another, cables stretched between cogs wobble convincingly. Having a dedicated programmer has worked wonders

Crest that you’re using. So your attacks will change, and your healing can be modified and whatnot – but they also have functions to them.” What exactly those functions are, he will not be led on. But the flexibility of Hornet’s movesets is astounding already. “And so suddenly, because of that, you can play a game that is as long as Hollow Knight or potentially longer. The core gameplay

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experience really modifies much more significantly than the Knight’s ever did.” The ability to express herself through the flexibility of her combat is a fascinating insight into Hornet’s malleable nature – an energy that Pharloom, with its traps and webs, feels designed to try to suppress. And the idea of Crests she can try on, almost as identities from past lives, perhaps

implies the idea of her getting in touch with her lineage. For all that Hornet appears to be an outsider, we get the strange feeling that her mastery of silk also suggests a kind of homecoming. Indeed, she’s soon making herself known to the friendlier inhabitants of Pharloom through a spot of community work. Hornet, as a much more aware and communicative character than the Knight, has the ability to undertake a variety of tasks for NPCs. While the Knight certainly did its fair share of busywork, Hornet’s tasks are presented in a more organised fashion: you can keep track of the ones you’ve accepted via noticeboards scattered about the world, the first one we encounter being in Bonebottom. Team Cherry is keen to stress that these are in addition to the more organically unfolding quest lines of the first game, rather than instead of them. “You’re still encountering people in unexpected places, and there’s stuff that you might miss and encounters that might shake out differently,” Pellen says. “And then there are also these tasks that characters – or Hornet herself – will lay out for the player.” “They vary across the world,” Gibson says, “and some of them are


KINGDOM COME

On the left, Hornet throwing a charmingly customised Pharloom pin. Eagle-eyed readers will notice a drill-shaped tool is equipped; this appears to be different from another drill attack that Hornet can perform with her body, where “she becomes something like a spinning top, and descends towards enemies,” Gibson says

related to helping the residents in seeing changes and evolution to the spaces that you inhabit.” Pellen adds: “There’s more of that stuff happening this time – it’s quite a complex world.” They vary in type, too: a ‘Hunt’ task seems to suggest a combat challenge of some kind, while ‘Wayfarer’ quests imply there’s a secret location of some kind to be found out in the world. On those, we are merely supposing – but the clearest task type yet appears to be ‘Gather’, as one particular request involves rounding up those Mossberries we’ve seen around the kingdom and bringing them to the Druid of the Moss Temple. We find this curious bug in the Overgrown Village of the starting area, stirring a cauldron with a staff with a small bell (of some significance, we’re told, in addition to its ringing providing an audible clue as to where the character might be relative to you)

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attached to it. Their pot is full of a glowing, distinctly Mossberry-green liquid – perhaps they’ll be willing to share once you have completed their request? In any case, Pellen isn’t waiting around to find out, although Hornet swimming around in the cauldron doesn’t last long before she loses a chunk of health and respawns next to it.

Elsewhere, another trail of evidence leads to Silksong’s resident cartographer, much as it did in the first game. A series of golden rings juts out from a cavern floor, embedded in the ground: Pellen takes especial delight in showing how, in this far more reactive world, they jump out and roll when struck with your weapon, and may even eventually fall over – something Team Cherry programmer Jack Vine has worked hard to implement, we’re told. “That is, like, one of the best things in

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Hollow Knight composer Christopher Larkin returns with a typically atmospheric score for Silksong – heavily based on string instruments, naturally. You can head to YouTube for a sample of the wonderfully frantic accompaniment to the boss fight against Hornet’s rival, Lace. “There’s a really funny process that we’ve had with Chris, where for some tracks for some sequences, we’ve talked to Chris about, say, the lore or the narrative of a moment,” Gibson says. “And it’s often the other tracks where nothing is really talked about other than the most basic idea, that end up being the strongest.” Lace’s theme was simply a boss track Larkin had been independently working on; Gibson and Pellen feel their deep familiarity with what’s going on in the game can almost cloud Larkin’s creative vision. “David Lynch talks about ‘not describing the dream’,” Gibson says. “William and I have, through this long ongoing conversation, this complicated understanding of all the working parts. But if we try and articulate too much of that outside of ourselves, it suddenly starts to become quite mechanical.”

the game,” Gibson says with relish, as Pellen juggles one in the air with Hornet’s needle. “You can probably tell, but a lot of the big game stuff that we make is really just so we have an excuse to do stuff like this – like, make nice little details.” We are distracted by the character who lies in wait at the end of it, whose war cry shakes the very screen, and prepare to see a boss fight – but it’s a classic Team Cherry trick. This is Shakra – wearing some gold bangles that now explain that trail of rings. Although this warrior is fierce (and you may find yourself clashing with her at a later juncture) she is a friend, sharing what knowledge she has acquired of Pharloom’s layout and helping Hornet to map it out. To know Pharloom, after all, is to know Hornet – and indeed your own limits – a little better. And we see plenty worth knowing. The huge


C O L L E C T E D W O R K S G L E N S C H O F I E L D

W BARBIE: GAME GIRL

Developer Imagineering Publisher Hi Tech Expressions Format Game Boy Release 1992

GEX 3D: ENTER THE GECKO

Developer/publisher Crystal Dynamics, Midway Games Format Game Boy Color, N64, PC, PS1 Release 1998

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Developer/publisher EA (Redwood Shores) Format GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox Release 2003

JAMES BOND 007: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Developer/publisher EA (Redwood Shores) Format GameCube, PS2, Xbox Release 2005

DEAD SPACE

Developer/publisher EA (Redwood Shores) Format PC, PS3, Xbox 360 Release 2008

CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3 Developer Sledgehammer Games Publisher Activision Format PC, PS3, Xbox 360 Release 2011

CALL OF DUTY: WWII

Developer Sledgehammer Games Publisher Activision Format PC, PS4, Xbox One Release 2017

THE CALLISTO PROTOCOL

Developer Striking Distance Studios Publisher Krafton Format PC, PS5, Xbox Series Release 2022

The artist-turned-producer reflects on 30 years with very little dead space By Chris Schilling

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COLLECTED WORKS

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Developer/publisher EA (Redwood Shores) Format GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox Release 2003

I directed a Knockout Kings game [for EA]; then they asked me to come over and help on Return Of The King. For the first year, the executive producer of the game was finishing Two Towers, so I was the EP running Return Of The King, just getting people on board, getting the engine up and running, starting to do the design and work on what the screenplay would be – because you had to adapt this giant book and movie into a videogame. And then when Neil Young finished working on Two Towers, he came over and ran the game, and I was producer – I was producing the levels. So I had a huge job of designing and producing and getting the levels done – I was like the number two guy behind Neil – and getting that game out the door. And I’ve never worked so hard. I mean, we were working seven days a week, because it had to come out before the movie, and we had less than a year to make it. This was the first time we had a team of about 175 people – a giant, giant team. So I guess I was [in charge of] at least 100 people because most of the emphasis was on the levels. Oh my gosh, it took a lot of work.

It may no longer be state of the art, but back in 2003 The Return Of The King was widely praised for its visuals

“MAKING DEAD S PA C E , W E D I D N ’ T THINK OF SALES, WE DIDN’T THINK O F AWA R D S ”

DEAD SPACE Developer/publisher EA (Redwood Shores) Format PC, PS3, Xbox 360 Release 2008

JAMES BOND 007: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Developer/publisher EA (Redwood Shores) Format GameCube, PS2, Xbox Release 2005

What was great [about Return Of The King] was that it was where I made a good rapport with many of the artists and designers and guys who worked on the levels. After that, they put me in charge of Bond, which was a big feather in my cap. I was very proud to get the James Bond licence. But all these people, I started to get to know these guys really well, and we went on eventually to make Dead Space.

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But, yeah, there were a lot of licensed games. I look at the early 2000s as the heyday for licensed games. I mean, everything was in the studio: Harry Potter, Tiger Woods, just one right after the other. The Godfather! I even worked on The Godfather for a while there. After those three games, I got an offer to go to Activision. Because what happened was, they asked me to make another James Bond game in less than a year, and I was like, “This thing is going to fail.” Because there’s no way you can make a game in less than a year. But they had a contractual agreement with the Broccolis and whoever [owns] James Bond to get it done in another year. And so I was looking at about a ten-month production. I had just made one in 12 months, and got like a 78 [Metacritic] or something like that on it, and I knew that this one was bound to fail.

One of the most notable aspects of From Russia With Love is that it features Sean Connery’s last performance as Bond: the actor agreed to voice the character one more time after more than two decades away from the role

I kept saying about this Bond game, “I can’t make it. I can’t do this.” And they were like, “Yes, you can.” So I went out and I got an offer from Activision. I gave my two weeks notice at EA and they tried desperately to get me back. Which I appreciated a lot – I didn’t realise that I had been appreciated that much. And finally, the president [of EA Worldwide Studios] Paul Lee asked me what it would take to get me to stay. I said, “I want to make my own game. But in order to make my own game, I need a team of 15 to 20 people at the beginning, and you’ve got to leave us alone for six months.” Because EA was notorious for… if one game needed help, they would just go to another game and grab a bunch of people and bring them over. And that’s what led to some games coming out late and some games coming out and getting lower scores, things like that. So I just wanted to be left alone, and they kind of put me in a corner for a while. We had this small team, and we made a little demo of this scary corridor. We


were like, “We’re just going to cut off limbs – we’re just going to be about dismemberment”. And everybody was like, “That’s going to be too gross. It’s going to be too much for the public”, and things like that. But we made this greatlooking demo. The other thing I did, I worked on with my art director at the time. Because when you were at EA, and especially back then, you were competing against like, 40 games worldwide for money. You know, they had Tiburon, they had Montreal, they had Vancouver and Redwood Shores, which was making probably six or seven games of its own. So you were competing against all these games, and they would only make so many a year. So we made posters, and we hung them up all over EA. I would hang them up in the bathrooms. I remember we even made a calendar for Dead Space with this very early art. We were trying to sell it within EA, and it worked. But what really worked the best was the demo: EA saw that they had something special and they put more and more people behind it. And they gave me what I needed. It took a while for them to understand it because this was something that they hadn’t done before. ‘OK, we’ve got a brand-new IP, it’s science fiction, it’s horror – how do we sell it?’ That sort of thing. But eventually they greenlit the

Dead Space’s diegetic HUD is one of its most outstanding features, with engineer Isaac Clarke’s health, O2 and stasis meters displayed on the back of his suit. Translucent projections, meanwhile, are used for video messages and Clarke’s inventory

project, and they got 100 per cent behind it. After that, [John] Riccitiello finally came in as as the new CEO, and he loved it. He was a big advocate for the game. I think they still wondered how they were going to sell it because they were used to licensed games, but they gave us us some money and we were able to finally get the game off the ground. I remember showing it to [Shinji] Mikami. EA was always having people come in from different game studios. At the end of it, he bowed. We showed him one level, and he bowed to me and he said, through an interpreter, “You’ve got something special.” And I was so proud. I was like, “Wow, maybe we’ve got something great here – I don’t know.” You never know. You never know when you make any game what you’ve really got before it comes out. I’ll be honest with you, I still didn’t know what we had once we shipped the game. I was in Europe when the game came out. I was on a PR tour. I remember being in a hotel lobby and I started getting calls first thing in the morning, which was late the night before from the US. I was getting these emails and calls: “Are you seeing the scores?” I’m like, “No, no.” And I started looking at the scores, and I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I was stunned. When we were making Dead Space, we didn’t think of sales, we didn’t think of scores, we didn’t think of awards – we were just focused on quality and making something we were passionate about. I know that sounds weird – like, yeah, you should do that. But back then you were focused on getting the game out on time, what your sales were going to be, things like that. In this case, it was the opposite – I’d just worked on a bunch of licensed games and I wanted to focus on quality, so that’s what we did. All of a sudden it started getting these great scores and we were stunned, and then we started winning awards. The initial sales were OK – if you look back, I think it took a while for the sales to get off the ground, and of course a sequel always helps. But it turned out to be something I’m really proud of. When people come up to me, of all the games I’ve made, that’s the one they like to talk about the most.

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Hidden In Plain Sight’s blank, empty levels mean players are always under the spotlight. The slightest action can give them away instantly

CROWD COVER

ROLE PLAY Games have often been described in the language of acting, with the player taking the lead role in a piece of interactive theatre. That’s rarely felt more fitting than in the context of social stealth games, where the primary challenge is to modify your behaviour to suit the situation. Assassin’s Creed in particular has asked for different etiquette depending on who it is you’re playing. As a Black woman in Liberation’s version of the 1770s American South, for instance, an expensive disguise is necessary to pass in high society. Origins, meanwhile, doesn’t require crowd blending: cast as an Ancient Egyptian policeman, you have no business hiding.

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and fiddly. Today, the series has almost entirely stripped out social stealth mechanics in favour of hiding behind cover or stepping out into open combat. A planned crowd-blending reboot of Splinter Cell was similarly scrapped, and more recently Watch Dogs: Legion launched without the PvP invasion mode of previous instalments. “No one at the triple-A level has worked out how to make this genre work as something you can put 100 people on,” Hecker says. Square Enix appeared to agree when it dropped Hitman developer IO Interactive from its studio roster in 2017, swallowing a loss of $43 million in the process. Hitman had been critically acclaimed for its use of player disguise in busy environments, but Square Enix said it preferred to focus on “key franchises”, which could “maximise player satisfaction as well as market potential”. In other words, for a major publisher, social stealth simply wasn’t bankable enough.

Having sold the public on its potential but failed to work out the kinks, the mainstream industry left social stealth to the indies, right at a time when self-publishing had become feasible and affordable. A hobbyist named Adam Spragg read about SpyParty and was inspired, before actually trying it himself, to make his own game about players mingling with NPCs. The result was Hidden In Plain Sight, which he paid $99 to publish on the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace. It was a shrewd investment: the game’s sustained success since has funded a slew of ports, most recently to Switch, where it arrived this March. “After playing SpyParty, I was relieved to find the games are nothing alike,” Spragg says. “There is plenty of room for both games and more to exist in this genre.” Hidden In Plain Sight floods the screen with identical ninjas, almost all of whom stride aimlessly about a large hall in accordance with their basic AI. Up to four of those ninjas are players – though which is initially a mystery even to the players themselves, who must first identify their own avatars amid the herd. That done, their goal is to find and kill their fellows by analysing movement patterns.


It’s easy for players to mimic the predictable perambulation of the NPCs, so Spragg added potential win states that would tempt them to deviate from accepted behaviour: touching statues and picking up coins. “They want to do two opposite things at the same time,” he says. “I think it is exactly this tension, and its resolution, that makes the game fun.” In one mode, Death Race, players become spy and sniper at the same time, creeping towards a finish line with one hand while aiming a crosshair with the other. Separating from the NPC flock too early is suspicious and risks drawing bullets – but wait too long, and players will miss their opportunity. “People quickly discover the ‘put the gun sight on my own character’ bluff,” Spragg says. “The games tend to last longer and longer as players gain experience because people learn to reserve their shot until it really matters. This leads to a large crowd just inches from the finish line, waiting to not be the first one to run for it.” It’s messier than SpyParty, less nuanced – but, crucially, it’s funny. The genius of Hidden In Plain Sight was to turn the social stealth game social. “Once I had a working version of the game, I lugged my Xbox 360 to a friend’s holiday party to see if I could get them to help me test it once the party was over,” Spragg recalls. “Watching them play, I had this wonderful moment of realisation that they weren’t just humouring me. I left ‘early’ at 1am, but they wouldn’t let me take my Xbox home.” The game was tense enough to engender competition, but silly enough to keep things light. Spragg committed to local multiplayer only, making Hidden In Plain Sight a party game by design. “You are hiding from a person who’s literally sitting right next to you,” he says. “It took me a while to realise it, but what I finally discovered is that the fun of the game actually takes place in the physical space of the room, in the air between the players. The stuff on the screen just facilitates that interaction.” Despite the tendencies of the games it has inspired, SpyParty itself isn’t a party game. It accommodates just two players, and has a tendency to become deeply competitive.

“I was really into Counter-Strike, and I knew I wanted a highplayer-skill game,” Hecker says. Spies are given a range of actions to get to grips with, and snipers an equal number to keep track of. Hecker has even identified ‘types’ of top snipers: behaviourists, the ‘voodoo’ killers who rely on a sense of the uncanny emanating from their target; campers, who keep their scope trained on the ambassador and the statues, the parts of the map that offer hard tells; and etiquette snipers, who specialise in identifying breaks in the flow of natural conversation. “It’s really small stuff that changes all the time as I update the code, so these people have to constantly spelunk for new etiquette tells.” SpyParty’s depth lends itself to tournaments and leagues – the kind of cultures that attract hardcore players and put off those looking for casual, social matchups. There is, however, a social ‘fuzziness’ naturally inherent to SpyParty that Hecker has learned to lean into more over the years. “I thought I was making Go,” he says, “a crystalline, full-knowledge strategy game. And it turned out the game I was actually making was poker. It’s all about probabilities and suspicion, bluffing and figuring out how much you know. A big part of game design is listening to the game, and you’ve got to follow.” SpyParty may not lend itself to gatherings, then, but it does reflect social interaction in a real way. Conversation, after all, is a game in which you read another person to try to discern their intent – attempting to divine sense from words and gestures that could mean any number of things depending on their context. SpyParty is much the same. “You make a model of what’s happening,” Hecker says, “and then you do your post-game analysis.” It’s the same ruthless self-

Assassin’s Creed’s social stealth sections often ask players to rely on proximity to NPCs for safety

“I DISCOVERED THAT THE FUN OF THE GAME ACTUALLY TAKES PLACE IN THE PHYSICAL SPACE OF THE ROOM, IN THE AIR BETWEEN THE PLAYERS” 67


THE MAKING OF...

into a messy codebase. Not having much confidence in his programming skills, he found this to be one of the scariest periods of development. However, everything changed when graphics programmer Arthur Brussee joined the project. Brussee, who had previously worked on Ori And The Blind Forest, was hired to fix an issue with the game’s portal system, supposedly for just a week’s work, but his involvement expanded quickly. “To do that properly, my general impression was: ‘If I can be so bold here, let’s apply some more tech direction here and see where the thing is actually going’. That was, in hindsight, quite the power move,” Brussee laughs. “I didn’t quite intend it like that but Will was extremely nice about it. He was happy and like, ‘Yeah, sure, do your thing’.” The 3D world wrapping was a challenge for Brussee, who was misled by the game’s minimalistic art style; shouldn’t this be fast to render, particularly if it’s shipping on iPhone? “I don’t think I quite internalised that if the whole world is filled with these wraps, you’re not just rendering a bit more geometry, you’re rendering a ton more geometry,” Brussee says. This required the creation of an automated system which crunched down spaces into lower levels of detail depending on their distance from the player – replacing animated objects with static objects, for example, or simplifying geometry. Brussee built a custom rendering system in Unity for the game’s portals, and was also responsible for the smooth black outlines around objects and structures, a crucial part of the game’s aesthetic. “It took me a while, but knowing that I could rely on Arthur, that he was going to do good work and he was going to be there for me, made me start trusting other people again,” Chyr says. The team eventually expanded to a core of eight developers, including composer Laryssa Okada. Music is a huge part of the game’s emotional core and Okada hoped to evoke a feeling of scale and grandiosity. However, she also wanted to keep things calm. “As I played the game, I was sometimes really frustrated because I’m not good at puzzles, so I just wanted to calm myself down and other players like me,” Okada says. Okada’s score, inspired by musicians such as Pauline Oliveros, William Basinski, Brian Eno and Jóhann Jóhannsson, is highly responsive. Tracks evolve dynamically as you explore and interact with objects, with transitions fading slowly and seamlessly to ensure a smooth experience for the player. For a fairly structured level, Okada could

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Q&A

William Chyr Game director, Manifold Garden

How would you describe the visual style of the game? We’re very, very proud of the edgework that Arthur did – they’re very clean lines. It’s a minimalist art style with very refined details. We don’t have textures, it’s very constrained – there’s no spheres, there aren’t curved surfaces – but I think it looks good because all of the elements that are there are very polished. Were you concerned about people waiting for the game to be released? There was definitely a bit of a concern. A lot of press websites would do the games they were most excited for next year: we were on one for 2015, then we were on another for 2016 [and 2017]. After that, people were like: ‘This game’s not coming out’. It wasn’t like there was a ton of discourse, but people posted in the Steam Store page. There would be discussions about puzzle games, then someone would mention [Manifold Garden] and people would be like: ‘Nah, that game’s dead’. Those are always tough to see, especially because I was still working on it, but I didn’t know when it was going to finish. What’s in the future for you and your studio? I can’t talk much about future projects – it’s not even because I want to be secretive, but I still really don’t know. You’ll probably have seen some interviews where I said, ‘Manifold Garden is going to be my last game – I don’t know if I want to stay in the industry’ – that is no longer the case. There are parts of Manifold Garden’s development that were tough, but I still think games [are] such an exciting medium. I made this game and I am not bored – there’s still so much that I don’t know about the industry and about the medium.

write a more traditional track to match before distilling it into loopable chunks. However, more freeform levels required a different solution. “It’s almost programmatic in the approach. If you listen to a Brian Eno song, you can start it at the start or you can cut to 30 minutes in, or 15 minutes in. If you fade it in, it’ll still feel like the start of a song,” Okada explains. “I studied [Eno and Basinski’s music] a lot to understand their processes because it’s really challenging to create a subtle entrance to a layer to promote player progression.” Okada had worked as a music editor on titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Origins, but this score was her debut as a game composer. Did she feel

nervous? “I mean, yeah – I wanted it to be cool!” she laughs. “Because I was doing so much sound design, I was like: ‘I don’t know if this is going to make me look like a composer when it releases’, but I had to just shut off that doubt and insecurity and be like: I don’t care. I think it matches the game.”

Chyr’s living costs were low during development, but he’s open about having to occasionally borrow money from friends, family and roommates to get by. Late in development, he secured a bridge loan from SMG Studio. Some of the team worked for revenue share and the funding gave Chyr breathing room to pay stipends. Additionally, QA testers were brought on and Chyr estimates that up to 40 people worked on the game at its peak. SMG also helped to coordinate the game’s release on Apple Arcade, while one of Chyr’s Indie Fund contacts helped to set up his partnership with Epic for the PC release. Seven years is a long time to work on a project, and the journey wasn’t always smooth sailing. Early in development, Chyr felt a strong desire to prove himself, particularly as he neared his 30s. He remembers occasionally waking up at 4pm and working until 10am the following day. Although Chyr believed in the project, he attributes part of this unhealthy schedule to the sunk cost fallacy. He remembers thinking: “I’ve got to finish this game so that I can live my life, and every minute this game is in development is a minute that I’m not being able to have a life.” However, his mindset changed in 2015, shifting his focus from productivity to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. He downloaded Tinder, got a gym membership and started relearning French. “If I showed up, I streamed for two, three hours,” Chyr recalls. “Even if I got nothing done, to me, that was a victory. I realised half of it is just about being present, just showing up, keeping that routine and then making it consistent and being persistent. Eventually it will get done. Just take it one step at a time, really.” The game finally launched in October 2019. Celebrating the occasion on Twitter, Chyr wrote: “I’m so proud of the incredible team that made this happen.” Reflecting now, he feels that shipping the game at all was a relief and a miracle. “If you had asked the 25-year-old me, ‘Would you do a project that’s going to take seven years?’, he would have said, ‘Hell, no’,” Chyr says. “Just the idea of committing to something for seven years was inconceivable to me back then. I’ve become a very different person in making this game.”


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An early prototype of Relativity. Chyr received marketing assistance from Sony early in development, securing a slot at the PlayStation E3 booth in 2015. 3 Manifold Garden’s aesthetics were inspired by the brutalist structures of architect Tadao Ando. 4 Okada worked closely with sound designer Martin Kvale, collaborating for playtesting and sharing ideas around the project. 5 Chyr was assisted by two design consultants: Geert Nellen, who streamlined the game’s core design, and Droqen, who worked on the ending sequence of puzzles. 6 Tuning puzzle difficulty was a tricky process. Chyr: “If it’s too frustrating, people bounce off of it. If it’s not frustrating enough, then people don’t find it interesting” 1 2

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T H E M A K I N G O F. . .

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How a team of French Japanophiles cashed in their credits to revive a classic Sega series By Alan Wen Format PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Developer Dotemu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games Publisher Dotemu Origin France Release 2020

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alk down a city street you haven’t visited in a couple of decades and it’s unlikely that everything will be as you remember it. Businesses may have come and gone. The road might have fallen into disrepair. Regeneration may be attracting a new crowd these days. It’s not dissimilar to playing Streets Of Rage 4, a continuation of Sega’s 16bit beat’em-up series, which sees its vigilante heroes and a couple of new allies return to deliver their particular brand of street justice more than a quarter of a century on from the previous game. In the meantime, Wood Oak City has fallen back into urban decay. Buildings are boarded up, pavement tiles cracked or missing altogether, and even the neon signs don’t blaze the way they used to. But entering from the left side of the screen onto the same stage layout that kicked off Streets Of Rage 2, complete with a soundtrack callback to Yuzo Koshiro’s ‘Go Straight’ theme – composed by the man himself – we know which streets we’re back on. Still, things have changed around here, most noticeably in terms of visual design. Returning characters haven’t only grown older (or, in Axel’s case, chunkier), they’ve also been given a new lease of life thanks to vibrant, hand-drawn art. Lizardcube’s art director, Ben Fiquet, began drawing concepts for a modern Streets Of Rage shortly after finishing work on Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap in 2017. While sharing a drink with Dotemu CEO Cyrille Imbert, the pair discovered they both had the same idea about getting hold of the licence for their next project. Plans for Streets Of Rage 4 had failed to materialise in the past. In 2011 Sega shut down a fan remake that mashed up the trilogy into one hybrid release, while rejected pitches for an official game turned into forgettable clones such as Core Design’s Fighting Force. At the time, even with the indie-developed Sonic Mania in the works, there was no guarantee Sega would be open to reviving a long-dormant IP. That same year, the publisher turned down a pitched sequel to cult favourite Jet Set Radio, despite an attractive visual proof of concept from Dinosaur Games. When Imbert flew out to Tokyo to convince Sega, he had little more than the pitch and some of Fiquet’s artwork, although he did have one other advantage: trust. While Lizardcube had been working on developing The Dragon’s Trap with original

Music is integral to the series. Streets Of Rage 4 makes this clear – there’s even an EDM DJ boss fight on a concert stage

creator Ryuchi Nishizawa, Dotemu, as the game’s publisher, was instrumental in securing the rights, which half-belonged to Sega. “Dotemu has been working with classic Japanese videogame companies for more than ten years,” Imbert explains. “I’ve had the incredible chance to meet with pioneers in the videogame industry. It taught us the necessary humility and respect to

“WHAT MAKES THE GAME IS THE AI, THE MOVESETS, THE RHYTHM OF HOW WE CONFIGURE ENCOUNTERS” work on famous licences. Building a reputation in Japan is a long and difficult process, but little by little the word passes that you can be trusted.” That The Dragon’s Trap did well both commercially and critically was integral to pitching Streets Of Rage 4. The next challenge was persuading fans. “We had some fairly distressed reactions from long-time fans and, honestly, I don’t blame them,” Fiquet admits. He’s referring to the game’s announcement teaser from August 2018, which introduced a visual style worlds away from the original pixel art and featured a soundtrack led by rock guitar chords rather than the techno that had defined the series. “These games are so many things for so many different people. Ultimately, what we’re trying to achieve is something that will be inherently personal.” Given that Sega had been sold on the basis of Fiquet’s drawings, a pixel-art approach was

never considered, and he hoped the hand-drawn aesthetic would help the game appeal beyond a nostalgic fanbase. “I wanted to try to make a Streets Of Rage game as I envisioned it as a kid, which was not focused on the pixels but fully animated characters,” Fiquet says. “Some interesting comments we had were that people were remembering the games as dark and gritty. But honestly, those were some of the most vibrant colours you could find in a Sega game.”

The aesthetic wasn’t the only thing that was new. While The Dragon’s Trap was a remake that reverse-engineered the original Master System code, Streets Of Rage 4’s brawling gameplay would need to be built from scratch. Fortunately, Dotemu’s lead designer, Jordi Asensio, already had the perfect experience. In 2009, he co-founded Guard Crush Games in Montreal with childhood friend Cyrille Lagarigue. Together they developed Streets Of Fury, which Asensio describes as a “Guardian Heroes and Fatal Fury hybrid”. The game engine, based on MonoGame, was a perfect fit for another beat-’em-up, so it made sense for the pair to reunite for Streets Of Rage 4, with Lagarigue as the main programmer. “There were several benefits to making our own engine, as we could tailor all of our tools to the artists’ and game designers’ workflow,” Lagarigue explains. “It takes a little longer to implement at first, but it paid off in the end because we were then able to integrate and iterate on content very fast, which is paramount for a team of our small size.” Compared to an engine such as Unity, which comes with a lot of stock effects and rendering techniques baked in, it also allowed the team to experiment more, giving the game a more distinct look. “When you look at Unity or Unreal, they were built around FPSes first, which revolve around the layout of the environment,” Asensio says. “As such, you really need to tweak your geometry and collisions. But beat-’em-ups are more like encounters in turn-based RPGs: the environment is merely a backdrop to bring context, memorability or uniqueness to a stage, but won’t influence its flow. What makes the game is the AI, the movesets, the rhythm of how we place and configure those encounters.” While recreating the basic building blocks of Streets Of Rage in their engine – moving from left to right, beating up waves of enemies with 85


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1 The Sworcery team (L–R): Frankie Leung, Jon Maur, Kris Piotrowski, Craig D Adams, Jim Guthrie. 2 Most spaces invite you to linger, but if you’re in a hurry – or being pursued – you can tap on an exit to make the Scythian move quicker. 3 One of Adams’ pixel paintings from the middle stages of development. Many rooms in the game were edited several times before being finalised. 4 Blocking out the Trigon battles, which both Piotrowski and Adams say were the most complex and challenging element to get right. 5 This image of a hut with a dog nearby harks back to one of Adams’ pixel artworks from 2003, when he first started prototyping ideas for an unorthodox adventure game

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started assembling a design document. Later that year he quit his job and began working at Capy’s Toronto studio. CDA I got an iPod, the first generation, in ’02. And I was pretty convinced that the platform where Superbrothers should be is whatever the iPod becomes. Early on, my thought was, you get inspired by Nintendo and some of the PlayStation stuff. And then you try to put it into a context where an Apple customer might be intrigued by the music or the sophistication of the visuals. So that was always kind of the MO. KP At the time, the iPhone was still fairly new to everybody. As a device, it provided a whole bunch of different ways to interface. We wanted to give the player these inputs – like, pinching and zooming in and out was a novelty at the time. And we used that kind of technique for going into Sworcery mode and looking at stuff, tapping around [to move], using the accelerometer to unsheath. And then having it be connected to Twitter and stuff like that. Those were all designs that came out of this one idea of like, ‘Let’s make an iPhone game that is magical because it’s on the iPhone.’ JG It was really refreshing back then to have a game like that on that platform. Nobody had really done a ton of experimenting, I think, at that point, or had gone quite as far as Sworcery did in terms of what it was trying to do. The other driving force behind the entire project was the soundtrack. Adams wanted the game to act as “a Jim Guthrie delivery system”, reckoning that the visuals would only enhance the magic of Guthrie’s compositions. CDA We started going through Jim’s old sketches, and I found one that was a good match for walking up the foothills of Mingi Taw at the very start, which needed to be just a nice walking song. And it turned out that Jim had the sketch of one of those things lying around. When you first start in the meadow, it’s

got to be the dreamiest, most butterfly-insunlight-laden meadow that we could conjure. There was this Dark Flute song, too. It was like raiding Jim’s pantry and finding all these delicious ingredients to wrap the pixels around. KP Craig, in a lot of cases, was creating beautiful visuals and beautiful environments. And also bringing a lot of the kind of core ideas of the project to the game – the whole idea of it being synced to the moon cycles, the idea of Twitter integration, which was really novel at that time. And also just generally, the philosophy of letting the music lead the game where it wants to go. CDA Early on in Sworcery’s prototyping I [realised] it’s really hard to just come up with a videogame all of a sudden, and have it be good. So I started thinking: how am I going to move this project forward as far as it needs to go? What’s under my control that I can do? I came back to Under A Tree. And I just decided to go for it, in the sense of painting every background to match every eight-bar phrase of that song. So when that song quietens down, you get to the edge of a lake, and when it starts up again, you cross the lake, and then there’s a certain section that was always going to be [about] arriving at a big wide tree in the woods. And I was able to paint that, and that was really where the project came into focus. JG It was definitely a weird game for me to work on, because I had played videogames growing up, but I’d never done anything like this before. And Craig was treating a videogame more like a David Lynch film or something – or how you would go about trying to make a really cool piece of art. And I just remember thinking: shouldn’t there be more like car crashes in this game? Like, shouldn’t it be something more exciting? KP We had a whole bunch of really beautiful art and big, big concepts that are unique and brilliant. But we did have to stare at all the different pieces for a long time before we were able to see how we could compose this whole thing. So, yeah, a lot of that did fall back on

the Capy side of things. The combat was there from early on. We always had this idea of rotating the phone to unsheath the sword – that came very, very early. And prototyping the rhythmic combat concepts, that kind of Punch-Out-inspired approach, that was actually there pretty early. With the score at the heart of the game, Adams, Piotrowski and Guthrie spent long hours in the latter’s basement studio, refining existing tracks and putting together new songs. Integrating Guthrie’s tracks to fit the rhythm of the game’s Trigon boss fights proved challenging and time-consuming, but the soundtrackfirst philosophy remained the same. KP Jim created this epic, crazy, synth-y song that we ended up syncing the boss battle to. He came to the project with a bunch of songs and also a selection of instruments that kind of sounded like Sworcery. But we were working on [the songs] and iterating and talking with Jim pretty much all the way through. And Jim also had input on the design and art and everything. Craig, Jim and I were in a continuous dialogue for the project. JG One thing I’m hugely thankful for is that the game was in this magical world that was kind of medieval, but the soundtrack didn’t need harps or lutes or anything like that. It almost didn’t matter what it sounded like, as long as it felt right. And I guess that’s how I’ve always made music, too. From the outside, it can look like a really eccentric sort of soundtrack. It has ukuleles, recordings from 20 years ago, and it has these newer, weird PlayStation things. But what really mattered was the heart of every song, and [whether] it served the narrative intent of that moment in the game. I think that was a big win for the game overall. CDA Yeah, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, if you look at it. But it’s all tied together by the fact that you made all that stuff, I made all the art that wraps around it, and so there’s some consistency. NV An important part that gets missed in the annals of time is that none of us

NAME CHECK The game was not always called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. “The working title for the game was Poopsock,” Piotrowski says, laughing. “It was a term for a game that you sit down and play until it’s finished. And what allows you to do that is…” well, we’ll leave the rest to your imagination. “Obviously we had a mandate to replace that with something else.” The Conan The Barbarian influence explains the ‘sword and sorcery’ part. As for the extra ‘w’, Piotrowski believes it was his idea. “Though I’m not going to court defending it. But it [otherwise] would have been way too generic and didn’t fit with the unique flavour of the project,” he explains. “We also knew it would make the game more searchable,” Vella adds. “What we didn’t know was that we would unintentionally break people’s brains about how to spell ‘sorcery’.”

“ W E H A D T O S TA R E AT A L L T H E P I E C E S F O R A LONG TIME BEFORE WE WERE ABLE TO SEE HOW WE COULD COMPOSE THIS WHOLE THING” 93


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By Jeremy Peel

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Ubisoft’s overture was one part method acting, one part madness

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Assassin’s Creed Publisher Ubisoft Developer Ubisoft Montreal Format 360, PC, PS3 Release 2007

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The four colourful face buttons of a controller, meanwhile, are reimagined as a holistic representation of the human body’s extremities. Triangle handles the head, allowing you to scout for enemies or spot opportunities from a vantage point; Square and Circle are the arms, dedicated to grabbing handholds, swinging swords, and pushing guards over ledges. Cross, finally, is reserved for matters of the feet, carrying you out of trouble at top speed. It’s a control scheme that reads like a discredited medieval theory of medicine, and is truly baffling for a new player. Subsequent entries managed to ditch much of this language without fundamental changes to the button mapping, which suggests Désilets’ protagonist puppetry may not have been so revolutionary after all. But Assassin’s Creed deserves credit for introducing a generation to contextual controls – in turn enabling more complex action games that used every button on the pad and then some, knowing that players could keep up.

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istory records, with a questionable level of accuracy, that Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad hated the water. Poke even one of his toes into the Barada River, and the synchronisation bar that measures your commitment to recreating the events of his life drops straight to zero. The man would stick a blade into an English crusader in public, but a bracing swim in the waterways of Damascus? Far outside the bounds of possibility, academics agree. It’s fair to assume, then, that Altaïr wouldn’t be fond of a naval metaphor. But 13 games into a cycle of constant iteration, the Assassin’s Creed series is the quintessential Ship of Theseus. Going back now to the 2007 game that started it all, there’s almost no part that hasn’t been replaced in the years since. There’s the occasional mannerism that’s familiar: the rhythmic way the assassin shifts his weight during a climb, and his bird-like bearing on a spire. But even those with an intimate knowledge of Assassin’s Creed’s past decade would find themselves off-balance in Patrice Désilets’ strange first experiment. This is a supposed stealth game in which there are no tools for distraction; in which silent takedowns are finicky and escalating street fights the norm; in which you thunder into town on horseback then methodically work the alleys for information. It’s contradictory, frustrating, and fails to live up to its central fantasy – but is beguilingly different to the games it birthed. By his own admission, Désilets has a tendency to reinvent the wheel. In Assassin’s Creed, his first step was to redescribe it. The row of small white rectangles in the top-left corner on the screen may resemble a health bar, but they actually symbolise your tether to Altaïr’s memories. Take too many hits, or dole them out to civilians, and you’ll lose your connection. Not as a punishment, per se, but because that’s not how the man lived. Save some innocents or clamber up a church and suddenly you’re starting to resemble Altaïr as his friends knew him. Success in Assassin’s Creed is an act of roleplay – even if, for the most part, it involves simply staying alive. Or avoiding water.

This stubborn newness runs deeper still. Today, Ubisoft is known for the cross-pollination of its franchises, the autocover mechanic from one series turning up in two or three others. But Désilets’ team took almost nothing from their colleagues, to the point of self-sabotage. Critically acclaimed stealth games had been developed under the same roof in Montreal, and Assassin’s Creed could certainly have benefited from the brains of the guards in the Splinter Cell series, with their multiple levels of player awareness. Yet that learning was tossed aside. In theory, this was because Assassin’s Creed was building a new paradigm based on social stealth: a ruleset in which you relied on good behaviour, rather than deep shadows, to blend into the background. Yet in practice, your ability to meld with the foot traffic in Acre is very limited, dependent on whether there happens to be a group of white-hooded scholars passing nearby. While there are creative options for escape, such as the counterintuitive thrill of sitting calmly on a bench as your pursuers hurry by, you’re often forced to rely on stripped-back versions of traditional stealth mechanics to remain undetected in the first place. And while it’s possible to deal with an 121


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