Designing the sublimely soothing mobile game, Valleys Between

Valleys Between is a mobile game about nurturing nature -- of protecting a valley. We spoke with designer Blake Wood about the challenges of capturing nature and growth with a handful of motions.

Valleys Between is a game of nurturing nature -- of protecting a valley. It’s a game that puts nature at your fingertips, having you help guide the growth of your valley by swiping up or down, growing grass and trees with a motion. Through your touch, you will bring animals and life to this place, and hopefully, balance to a crumbling world.

Gamasutra spoke with Blake Wood, game designer and artist on Valleys Between, to learn about the challenges of capturing nature and growth with a handful of motions, the importance that comes from the smallest of gestures, and soothing a player while also engaging them.

Making the player feel protective of the world

When we were designing Valleys Between, we wanted to explore how to create a sense of ownership and protectiveness of a world.

We wanted there to be a balance that needs to be found between growing your world and protecting it from threats, and the idea of the player being able to shape the land to control this balance was something we found intriguing and wanted to explore.

We knew we wanted the act of shaping your world to be something very tactile and inherently satisfying. Players only have the ability to swipe up or down to interact with the world, but small actions, such as pulling a tree up out of the ground, can actually have a big impact.

Much like the real world, one action isn’t always enough to solve larger problems, but a group of small actions can result in a big change.

This act of physically shaping the world with your fingertips allows you to build up a feeling over ownership over each world, which is something we really wanted the players to feel.

Challenging, yet soothing

By far the biggest difficulty with this has been creating puzzles that are challenging enough to keep players engaged, while not being so difficult that it subverts the relaxing moments of the game.

Finding this balance is something that we’re continuing to iterate on, and we’ve tried to ensure there are plenty of low impact decisions for players to make that complement the higher impact decisions which often require more planning.

There are certain objects that can appear in your world and threaten it, and these objects require a series of challenging decisions for a player, immediately followed by a period of low impact actions that can’t harm the player. This ebb and flow of the gameplay allows the player to feel satisfaction when they beat a challenge while also allowing them time to relax and (hopefully) feel calm.

Our initial focus for Valleys Between was actually more targeted towards making a game that would help a player relax, and less of a focus on it being a puzzle game.

However, as the design progressed, we found that a turn-based puzzle game design fit our goal of giving player the time to relax and take things at their own pace, while also keeping the engagement high.

During design meetings, we often came back to the idea of maintaining a good sense of game flow throughout a play session. Practically, this meant we often cut features that applied constant pressure to the player, and looked at how we could apply those pressures in intervals, giving players good amounts of downtime.

On exploring nature

In addition to the concepts of relaxation and ownership, we also wanted to explore the theme of nature. While early concepts of Valleys Between explored more specific environmental challenges, we decided that we wanted to strip it back and focus on creating feelings of protectiveness and nurturing of your own world.

There’s a quiet peacefulness that can only be experienced when you’re surrounded by nature, and we wanted to try bringing small elements of this to players in Valleys Between.

Designing for beauty and readability

We wanted to do our best to ensure players would have something beautiful to look at through all stages of the game, as early on we had decided on implementing full day night cycles and seasons.

As a result, it meant that regardless of the seasons, everything had to be readable, but also make sure they were distinct enough that players could easily see where they were at in terms of progression.

To help mirror the game’s calm and meditative nature, there was a big push to really make the world feel lush, tactile, and almost ‘soft’ to look at.

The idea was to have the world feel as alive as possible, which meant a ton of shader work to ensure pieces would be constantly moving and responding to not only the players touch, but to things like weather, too.

Audio was similarly designed to be calm, melodic, and understated, while also fading in and out based on the players input. A large amount of work was put into the music to make sure it never overpowered any of the natural sounds of the world, but instead accommodated it and enhanced it.

There’s a fantastic blog post by our musician here where he goes into further details around the music and the systems he created for it.

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