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Simon Flesser of Simogo outlines how his team kept controls simple, and resisted the temptation of over-complication, when designing the controls of the gorgeous action game Sayonara Wild Hearts.

Diego Arguello, Contributor

October 22, 2019

6 Min Read

Sayonara Wild Hearts is the latest game from Simogo, the Swedish studio mainly known for narrative-driven mobile games like Year Walk and Device 6.

This time the studio brought a pop album to life, the songs segmented in levels starring a young woman who receives the powers of ancient tarot arcana. She’s tasked to restoring the balance of a magical world, fighting against gangs like the Stereo Lovers in on-rails sections with plenty of quick time events.

It’s an accessible game wrapped around a vibrant aesthetic that only asks players to control the movement (either with an analog stick or the touchscreen) and use an action button to perform movements, attacks, jumps, and more. The premise is simple, but it quickly evolves and mutates into different directions throughout the game.

We spoke with co-founder Simon Flesser about reinventing the core mechanics without losing that initial simplicity, and what can other devs learn from the often depicted perspective around mobile games.

An accessible foundation

During development, Simogo mentioned on its blog how arcade games shaped the studio's initial ideas, recalling simpler times in which players didn’t need two analogue sticks, four bumpers, and several buttons to manage at the same time. They often felt easy to pick up and play, a premise that has always been on their mind, according to Flesser.

“Almost all of our games have had the same core idea for controls–we always design them so that you could put it into the hands of person who have not ever played a game before," he said. "That doesn't stop us from getting inspired by other games. But [by] thinking about controls like a total reset, you'll get something both unique and inviting.”

The allure of adding more controls to Sayonara Wild Hearts was always there, he adds, and in the end they had to include a “back” button for the main menu. But in terms of gameplay, Simogo followed a strict line of not adding more interactions, which proved to be a rather difficult limit as they were experimenting with each level.

When Simogo started playing with ideas, you'd have one button that could always do something contextual, not only on prompts, which usually involved jumping over obstacles and such. But adding the prompts allowed them for the game to feel more focused, giving them enough room to add longer fighting sequences, among other moments in the game.

In Sayonara Wild Hearts, players control the main character mainly in on-rails fashion, going at full speed throughout a set path picking up hearts to increase their score and dodging obstacles. According to Flesser, endless runners were never really thought about, and inspiration came from on-rails games like Sin & Punishment, Space Harrier, and Star Fox instead.

At one point, you might be riding a bike through the streets of a flashy and vibrant neo San Francisco, avoiding the BART and other vehicles as you travel throughout the road. But then the game changes, taking you to a trippy forest, the inside of a game machine, and lots of other surprising moments that showcase what Simogo built around a simple foundation.

“It was the simplicity that allowed us to add all these different elements. It's introduced slowly, so players understand early on that new objects don’t need new interactions, or more buttons,” Flesser said. “We shaved off interactions that strayed from the basic interactions -- both the cannons and the bow and arrow involved more interactions for a long time -- but we'd always come back to those things and remove and redesign functions so they'd always work with our core inputs and design. This allowed us to never once have a traditional tutorial during the entire game.”

Keeping simplicity in mind

There were many other sections and iterations of the levels themselves didn’t make the cut while following this philosophy. 

In a previous stage in development, Sayonara Wild Hearts had third-person segments where players could walk freely in a small environment, right before a level started, which involved simple sequential puzzles. For the later levels, Flesser said he was doing some designs that involved shooting enemies in the correct order (by that time the game starts mixing gameplay moments that reminiscence of Rez).

He found out that this slowed the tempo, while the third person exploration was also scrapped off to make for shorter levels that felt arcade at heart.

“Mine,” for example, also played differently at first. It’s introduced as the final battle against two enemies that were originally one person, but quickly get cut in half by the main character. This whole set of levels corresponding to them, which is how Sayonara Wild Hearts is fragmented, display this idea of a split reality in inventive ways. 

One of them, “Parallel Universes” showcase these two characters snapping their fingers as they follow the rhythm of the song, changing between two variants of the same level and forcing you to think memorize upcoming obstacles. Flesser said the main character was firstly meant to be cloned during the boss fight.

“The song ‘Mine’ was also more or less finished before we scrapped it. It involved getting cloned so you'd steer two versions of yourself simultaneously, dodging several obstacles. Again, we felt we needed to keep things focused, so we threw away that too,” he says. Throughout the game's development, Simogo kept decimating like this to make the experience feel as focused as possible.

Experiences that focus on simplicity and short levels often get along well with audiences that play on mobile devices, but console and PC players carry a different expectation. Flesser said the challenge of bringing this experiences out of their comfort zone is based on the perception from audiences. “I've always felt that it's kind of our mission to challenge norms and standards. There's no fun for us to do what other people are doing.”

In terms of offering simplicity over substance, and how that idea is presented to players, that coincides with how developers choose to design their games from the ground up. He explained that this doesn’t necessarily mean simplifying or dumbing down the experience for people that might not be used to playing video games, but it means that you can’t expect for someone to jump into a car and drive without a driver’s license.

“I think people should make the games they want to make -- but I do think we should all think about how we make games more inviting to people who do not traditionally play games," he said. "And that can be done in a lot of ways; using themes that aren’t seeing often, having a more diverse character line up, and thinking about designs from new perspectives.”

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