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Creating eerie investigations through snowy footprints in Gevaudan 1851

Gevaudan 1851 takes players to a remote town during the winter in France, seeking to find answers about a dangerous beast from footprints in the snow.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 9, 2023

6 Min Read
a person dressed all in white walks through the snow near an old stone building
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

Gevaudan 1851 takes players to a remote town during the winter in France, seeking to find answers about a dangerous beast from footprints in the snow.

The developers of the Best Student Award nominee, Louis Hilaire and Guillaume Leclercq, spoke with Game Developer about why footprints became the major clue and source of information in the game, the research that went into capturing this snowswept city from France in the 1850s, and the challenges that came from dealing with various skill levels while creating an investigative experience.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Gevaudan 1851?

We are Louis Hilaire and Guillaume Leclercq, and we were, respectively, the game designer and technical artist on Gevaudan 1851.

What's your background in making games?

We did five years of game school at Pôle 3D in France and Gevaudan 1851 is our graduation project.

a character looks at glowing footprints in a winter scene

How did you come up with the concept for Gevaudan 1851?

We liked the idea of building the story and everything else in the game around a simple gameplay concept.

For Gevaudan 1851, the primary idea was footprints that the player could interact with. These would show them a vision of the exact moment the tracks were made, thus seeing a part of the past.

Then, we explored many stories and contexts in which this mechanic could be used. By watching Carpenter's The Thing, we ended up with the idea of a game in which you investigate a fantastic creature in a dark and stressful setting.

Of course, Obra Dinn was also a big reference. First, it gave us the desire to place the game in a historical period: the French 2nd Empire. One thing we also were inspired by was Obra Dinn's simplicity; in Gevaudan 1851, the player can only interact with footprints, and after they do, everything gameplay wise happens in the view of the past that the footprints trigger. The characters, their performance, the environment, all of that is likely to be a clue, encouraging the player to pay attention to all of these elements to progress.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Plenty! Gevaudan 1851 was very ambitious for a student project. We had to create an entire environment and many characters with only two artists! Our game was built in Unity and we choose to use Houdini to streamline our pipeline. We automated the creation of buildings, LOD, and unwrapping. For characters, we used motion capture, automated the corrections, and re-targeted the animation to our character in Houdini.

What appealed to you about framing the clues as footprints in the snow that lead to past visions?

The most important intention we had with the game was to let the players investigate by themselves. In that regard, we decided that the game wouldn’t point [to] anything as a clue. The game makes no difference between an interesting footprint, investigation-wise, and a regular footprint. But to do that we still had to separate our narrative system from the rest of the world so the player can understand what they are able to interact with. Therefore, we chose the footprints.

a winter landscape with ice, trees, and gray skies

What interested you about creating a city-wide mystery?

We had total trust in the player to know what to do and when to do it. The open world imposed itself as the best way to let the players express themselves.

What design ideas went into designing the city itself?

The city should be completely explorable by foot, so it couldn’t be too big. Also, we wanted to immerse the player both in the game and the time period. So, we tried to make the city as realistic as possible. To do that, we asked architects and city counseling in the region of Lozère to send us historical documents that would help us depict a realistic small village in Lozère.

What drew you to this particular city and period in history?

The event of the beast of Gevaudan, the original news story on which our game is based, happened in 1760 during the royal regime. Our game takes place 90 years after in 1851 when Napoléon the Third made a coup d’état against the 2nd republic. The idea was to draw a parallel between Napoléon the Third rehabilitating a totalitarian regime and the beast of Gevaudan.

Also, the game takes place during winter in Lozere, an isolated region of France. During this period of the year, the villages were very difficult to reach, isolating the player and justifying the confined space in which the player can investigate and creating a sense of stress in our main character. You’re trapped in this village with the beast near you.

a stone building against a gray sky

What thoughts went into your solution system? Into giving players clue cards to play in order to find the answer?

From a design point of view, we wanted to allow the players to express themselves, so we had to come up with an idea where the player could easily tell a story that the game systems would understand. The idea was to let the player write sentences with keywords.

From a visual point of view, everything in our game has to be tangible. This goes with the idea that the player is investigating. We playtested the system with physical playing cards on which we wrote the different keywords and we let the players assemble those cards to create complex ideas. We felt the right sensation was there, so we translated the cards into our game.

Your system gives players a fair bit of room to figure out the solution themselves through deduction. What difficulties do you face when trying to figure out how much information to give so that players can figure out the answers, but not so much that you make them obvious?

Obviously, the main difficulty was to adjust the game to the plurality of profiles and player experiences in the genre. First, we have the opposition between players who can figure [out] what happened with just a few clues, and the others who would need many more. To solve this, we constructed our level design in a way that player with difficulties can explore the world in-depth and find clearer clues about the outcome of the investigation.

We faced another problem: confirmation bias. With the first clues, players already get an idea of what the investigation is about. Players tend to trust every clue confirming their first theory right away, but tend to see the ones that are not compatible as not trustworthy or even diversion attempts, instead of questioning the validity of their theory.

Like all games, investigation games are very hard to make, because it’s very difficult to playtest it early-on. Also, every system and clue is interconnected and tied together. Changing one element can impact half of the game narrative.

We are very grateful to have been able to learn by tackling such a difficult subject and are proud of the results and the progress we made.

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