Interactive fiction meets arcade racer: Designing Wheels of Aurelia

Italian indie duo Santa Ragione's latest aims to mix isometric '90s arcade racing mechanics with IF narrative elements and '70s-era Italian politics. Studio cofounder Pietro Righi Riva explains how.

Driving games are, as a rule, more concerned with the dynamics of racing cars than driving them. Italian indie duo Santa Ragione's Wheels of Aurelia is the exception that reveals the rule, and for its creators it's something more: an opportunity to share their cultural history through game design. 

The game is notable for a host of reasons, not least of which that it seeks to blend elements of interactive fiction into an isometric driving game that wouldn't look too out of place alongside a classic arcade racing game like Super Off Road or World Rally Championship.

Here's how it works, at least in the game's current (beta) state: One axis of your control scheme (say, left and right on the analog stick) controls which way your automobile turns; you use the other axis (up and down) to select between responses in an ongoing conversation with your passenger(s) about politics, sex and scenery as you drive through the Italian countryside circa 1978.

In doing so Santa Ragione has managed to design a game that conveys the feeling of actually driving with someone -- one hand on the wheel, the other out the window, balancing your attention between following the conversation and following the road -- more strongly than anything in recent memory.

By weaving in branching narrative arcs, Wheels of Aurelia also aims to convey its characters through the sort of journey -- both literal and metaphorical -- that defines a good "road movie."

The story of its development seems both intriguing and potentially instructive, so earlier this year I caught up with studio cofounder Pietro Righi Riva for more on where Wheels of Aurelia came from, and how Santa Ragione balanced working with a team of collaborators around the globe while trying to tie together a bunch of disparate game systems into a cogent, road-worthy game. 

What inspired the design and development of Wheels of Aurelia?

Me and Nicolò had been discussing making a game about Italy for the longest time.

We've always had trouble with how very few games are grounded in reality and reflect or relate to the creators' lives, backgrounds, and culture. I really wanted an opportunity to research what happened in my country during the generation before mine, because it always felt like we were living – as kids – in the aftermath of something important, and that this something that had happened was either concealed or forgotten.

To quote from the game's history background document: "The game takes place in 1978, the momentous year during which ex-prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and executed by the communist terrorist group, the Red Brigades. With the speculated involvement of the CIA and the Italian masonic lodge 'Propaganda 2' this event marked the peak of the Years of Lead (Anni di Piombo) in Italy. 1978 is also the year Pope John Paul II was elected, the year of the 4th Andreotti government, the year of the introduction of legal abortion as well as universal public health in Italy, and also the year of the Lockheed scandal, which precipitated the resignation of the President of the Republic, Giovanni Leone."

And this is just what happened in 1978, there was so much more going on in the socio-political panorama in the 70s, and that's without even taking into account pop culture, which is another goldmine for inspiration in terms of music, fashion, cinema, et cetera.

Of course this was not just an excuse for us to research into the past of our culture, but it was also an opportunity to let other players – Italians included of course, but more importantly international audiences – into a world they would have otherwise probably never heard of. Ideally, we'd like players to become curious about an era and do their own research into it.

Can you give me a few examples of specific games you drew inspiration from, and why?

In the '90s we had at least two great examples of arcade racers with isometric views: 1993's World Rally Championship by Spanish developer Gaelco, and 1994's Great 1000 Mile Rally by Japanese developer Kaneko. These are two game that interestingly take place in Italy and were also very popular in Italian arcades at the time. 

Aside from the nostalgic value of these games – an aspect of indie game development I am very critical of, and yet cannot seem to myself shake off – is how well they manage to make the driving feel very natural, giving an illusion of competence by auto-adjusting direction. These games let the player focus on the cars and the environments, instead of the best trajectory.

On the interactive fiction side of the game, the inspirations are way more recent, the incredible 80 Days and Versu, and the aforementioned Naughty Dog's games being the most referenced.

That's a lot of ground to cover. What sort of problems have you faced during the game's development, and how did you solve them?

I guess the most obvious design problem was to capture the feeling of automatic driving that is the base for road trip conversations. That feeling of being "in the zone", if you will. I don't think we fully captured it, but we put a lot of effort in making the driving feel effortless and making players realize quickly that they are not being judged harshly over their driving skills.

To achieve this we borrowed techniques from those arcade isometric racers of the '90s, in terms of snapping to the road and faking collisions in ways that wouldn't be too disruptive to the driving flow.

Another massive undertake was the dialogue system. We kind of wanted to blend the dynamic nature of dialogue cinematic games like Uncharted and The Last of Us with a traditional interactive fiction system with multiple dialogue choices.

To do that, Double Fine's Anna Kipnis helped us, designing and implementing a per-line dialogue system where every line is characterized by conversation topics that are set by the line, and topics that must or must not have been brought up in conversation for the line to be picked. The system then interfaces with the game which in turn sets conversation topics based on emergent situations, like player driving performance, proximity to points of interest, vehicle being driven, and randomly picks between the character's lines that best fit the situation.

"We've always had trouble with how very few games are grounded in reality and reflect or relate to the creators' lives, backgrounds, and culture."

Finally, we wanted the game to be an open window to an era and to intrigue the players without making them feel like they were playing an educational game -- and without throwing random bits of information at them. To do this, we worked closely with the game writers, Matteo Pozzi and Claudia Molinari, to shape a story that would give us the opportunity to bring up aspects of what was happening in the background, in terms of politics, society, and pop culture.

We revised each in-dialogue reference to make sure it felt natural in the context while not being too obscure for international audiences, and I think we were only partially successful at this but maybe it will spark more curiosity than it will cause alienation.

In general, the biggest challenge was to make the game come together in four months while being composed of so many different elements: a road and environment generator, an arcade driving system, a mission-based system (in the game there are races, chases, etc, tied to the story), and of course a dynamic interactive dialogue system.

We had a very strict timeline for the beta because the game needed to debut at all costs on September the 24th at Fantastic Arcade. We were lucky enough to work with a team of really talented creators that understood the project from the start and that were very dedicated to it even when we were testing the festival builds, helping us tune the game to make its pieces fit together and make the gameplay naturally flow.

Why did you think it was important to make it to Fantastic Fest?

Fantastic Arcade, the indie game exhibition of Fantastic Fest, is an awesome venue for displaying games because of how relaxed and open-minded the atmosphere is. It's a great opportunity to collect feedback both from the talented developers that attend the festival and the moviegoers that are there for film selection. 

I have to admit we tricked players a bit by disguising an IF game as an arcade game, even though there are many elements of traditional arcade games that are still present in Wheels of AureliaAfter all though, that was the idea behind the game, to see if we could make players interested in an atypical story.

They built a custom tabletop arcade cabinet to show Wheels of Aurelia at Fantastic Arcade

Given that, the response was great, with players being delightfully surprised at what this weird racing game was all about. Of course, you'd also get players looking for a less demanding, straightforwardly fun experience – as they would probably expect from playing a game on a cabinet – that would leave the game after understanding that racing is only part of the equation in Aurelia.

We had very little time to play-test the game before the festival deadline so I think we underestimated how tricky it can feel at first to choose dialogue options while driving. The game does not punish players for not driving effectively (especially in the beginning) but there is still a sense of urgency – given by seeing the car caroming against the guardrails – that detracts from the narrative experience. 

Players that are not well-versed in dexterity games would need to play through at least one or two levels before feeling comfortable in speaking while driving. Ultimately, what we wanted to achieve was a natural feeling in the combination of driving and talking, so exhibiting the game at Fantastic gave us an important feedback.

So what does the Wheels of Aurelia development process look like?

The game is made Unity. We started pre-production back in January 2014, and put together a reference document quickly, pinning down the core aspects of the experience, in terms of how it would have blended "racing" with narrative. We then moved on to other projects, such as the mobile release of our game FOTONICA, while continuing to accure reference material for Wheels of Aurelia, in terms of imagery, movies, and music that we felt captured the spirit of what we wanted the game to be about.

We started actual production only in June 2015, after the Austin, Texas collective Juegos Rancheros reached out to us to make a game for the Fantastic Arcade cabinet selection at this year's Fantastic Fest. We started by prototyping the driving and dialogue mechanics while reaching out to the artists that could capture the exact feeling that we had in mind in terms of characters, architecture, music, and of course writing.

We designed the story in the game with "indie couple" We Are Müesli, who wrote all the dialogue and gave a voice to the four main characters and the six hitchhikers that players can meet in the game. Chris Remo (of Idle thumbs and Campo Santo) helped us rewrite the dialogue to feel more natural in English, adding idiomatic expressions and helping us tune the detail of references to Italian culture and history to not be too obscure of overwhelming for international audiences.

All the environment 3D art is by Italian artist Flaminia Grimaldi -- she lives and works in Rome and has contributed her personal vision of the Italian landscape with more than 200 art assets.

The character portraits in the game are by New York-based illustrator Patrick Leger who patiently went through the Italian archetypes references we had collected, as well as brief profile descriptions we worked on with the writers, and reinterpreted them creating an unusual cast with lots of personality.

The opening song of the game was composed and performed by Gipsy Studio, with whom we worked to recreate the music and style found in Italian progressive rock. We worked with other friends to write the lyrics in Italian, trying to convey what the game was about while paying homage to Italian anime opening themes of the late 70s and early 80s. The other music in the game is by our long time collaborator Nicolò Sala.

Finally, Italian artist and illustrator Matteo Berton provided the stunning art for the promotional material and the arcade cabinet that was exhibited at Fantastic Fest. We had been following Berton's work and we used it as reference for the game perspective and color palette from early in development, so it was amazing to be able to work on the project together and see his take on the game.

How did you manage working with so many different collaborators on so many different elements of the game -- and what advice would you give other developers trying to do the same?

This is probably true for many indie studios, but all the games we made at Santa Ragione have been as much about vision and direction as they have been about collaboration. We like the idea of going into a project by first and foremost deciding who to work with, and trying to make dream collaborations come true. The idea is to give each artist (artists in a wider sense, including programmers, musicians, and writers) the ability to express themselves through the project.

We start by building a common ground of references and objectives, detailing what the game should feel like and how we expect all the components to fit together, just to give a frame of reference. But then, it is very much a process of going with the flow and seeing what the specific strengths of each of the artists are, and where to those are guiding us. We found that there is very little benefit in fighting the natural direction a project tends to take when talented passionate artists inevitably steer it with their contribution.

So I guess the advice would be to know what elements are core to the original vision and absolutely needed for the game to come together, and what elements can be kept open enough so that the artists can imprint their personality, culture, and take on the project.

The trickiest part of all this is handling production and being able to forecast problems and managing deadlines across disciplines. Part of it is of course handled by collaborating with professionals with great work ethics that understand the importance of milestones and deadlines during production. But that is not enough, especially when dealing with more experimental work, when more often than not it is necessary to try solutions and approaches whose outcomes are impossible to predict.

In this case, my (counterintuitive?) advice is to focus on cutting features and content in favor of the most unique and experimental elements. I also strive to find a place even for the failed attempts, by trying to understand if there is any good in them and how they could fit within the project – if not in the way that was originally planned.

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