This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Old Man's Journey follows a senior citizen on his travels across green hills, seaside towns, and sun-drenched shores, with the player guiding him through puzzling environments as he seeks a long lost home.
Old Man's Journey is designed to guide the player through its striking, but soothing, hand-drawn places, invoking a sense of peace and wonder as they follow the man on a trip through its puzzles and environments.
The developers at Broken Rules wanted the player to truly feel what the man was going through by looking at the world around them, experiencing the pleasure of this private road trip as they take in the beautiful places. This look, through capturing the joy, love, loss, and hope through its style, earned the developers a nomination for Excellence in Visual arts from the Independent Games Festival, and Gamasutra spoke with one of its developers, Felix Bohatsch, about how their visuals held so much emotional power.
What's your background in making games?
The story of our game making careers start with the IGF 2007, when the prototype for And Yet It Moves was selected to be part of the Student Showcase. After connecting with the game development scene and receiving such positive response to our game, we decided to take the dive and try to make games for a living. We released the full version of And Yet It Moves in 2009 and founded our company Broken Rules at the same time.
In 2010, the core team of five company co-owners was assembled and decided to make games together. Since then, we designed, developed, and published a few larger and smaller games, the most notable ones being the Wii U launch title Chasing Aurora and its PC-only follow-up Secrets of Raetikon.
However, none of those titles could reprise the success of And Yet It Moves, or make enough money to sustain a five person studio.
In 2014, we were on the verge of ending our little experiment that was Broken Rules. But we couldn’t let it die just like that. We decided to take up work-for-hire and restructure the company into a hub that would allow members to work on their own projects, collaborate with others and do contract work, while running it all under the label of Broken Rules.
How did you come up with the concept?
Old Man's Journey is the brainchild from two of Broken Rules co-founders, Clemens and myself. We just had finished various contract jobs and were requested a pitch for a premium title by a large mobile publisher. As we started to think about concepts, we had these vague ideas revolving around a space made out of layers that looks and feels like a 2d world, but lets players move into the depth of the scene.
Weeks later Felix saw a picture of rolling hills fading into the distance at a friend's place. That picture emitted a strong sense of depth, distance and essentially, of wanderlust. After talking to Clemens, the idea of shaping hills, walking on their silhouettes and switching at intersections was born.
We talked a lot about how to evolve this core idea, and it soon became clear that we needed to form a narrative that worked together with the mechanics. Using the theme of wanderlust as a starting point, we tried to find answers as to why the protagonist needed to travel - where is he (or she) going?
One of our core ideals of making games is to work on something that resonates with us on a personal level - something we can emotionally relate to. We started looking for answers within our own experiences and topics that concern our daily lives. One of those topics is that we all became parents in the past few years. The challenges that come along with following our dreams of independently working on creative projects while raising kids and taking care of our families and is a topic that ties us together.
The old man's life story became an emotional progression we want our players to experience. We want players to be able to empathize with the character of the old man, creating an emotional link between the two. This progression curve became the base of all our decisions. We designed all aspects of the game, the visuals, the music, the gameplay, etc., to follow this curve and to increase the emotional impact.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Unity, Adobe Series, Trello & Slack.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
The core team of four people has worked 6770 hours since September 2014. On top of that we have the work of our amazing composer, C. Andrew Rohrmann, also known as Scntfc, and the impressive work of Salon Alpin on the cutscenes.
Old Man's Journey moves from a quiet, pretty coastal town to other tranquil places. What thoughts and inspirations went into creating these settings for your story?
Old Man's Journey starts in a quiet coastal town but the old man will travel through a few different places on his journey. Our goal was to create places that you would want to go to on a vacation.
Again, we were looking for inspirations that are close to us personally and that invoke feelings of wanderlust and nostalgia. Countries around the Mediterranean were a natural fit, so we created fictional places inspired by France, Italy, Spain and Greece, but also places further up north, like Ireland, Scotland and Iceland.
How do you create a place that players just want to explore? What do you consider when creating a place that encourages curiosity?
The base of all places is gameplay, that is, a space that works well with our core gameplay of shaping hills and thus finding a path from A to B for the old man. This space is then iterated so it can actually work as a believable landscape and guide the player through the experience. We know where we want the player to look and where we want the character to go to before we build the place. This makes it easier to place landmarks and interesting objects around the path to tickle the player’s curiosity.
Each place has different requirements, but our ambition is that each of them supports the emotional progression and deepens the experience of the player.
Peace and calmness seemed to be central aspects of the story, and you have captured that with your art style. How did you work these emotions into the game's visuals?
We wanted to create an intimate experience, one that is different depending on the player's stage in their own life and their experience. For this we needed a style that works well for different audiences, a style that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. While we experimented with creating 3d visuals, we quickly found that Clemens' drawings were better at evoking emotions. The handdrawn quality and the bright and whimsical nature is great at transporting players to places they just want to spend time in.
Everything within the world is intentional, designed and placed manually. It's a lot of work but we do think that it is the handcrafted nature of our visuals that players get immersed in.
Old Man's Journey is about finding a way home. How did you want to shape that into the play style? How did you turn this journey into puzzles?
As well as all the other aspects, the play style has been formed by the emotional progression we designed. As the gameplay of shaping a path for the old man was the base for designing all other aspects, it already transports the game’s theme in its core.
Additionally we've been prototyping a lot of different puzzle ideas, trying to find out what we can achieve with the core idea and which elements needed to be added on top of that. Some experiments already had an emotional association inherent in their mechanic, and these were the ones we were looking for. As we knew what we want players to feel at various stages, we knew which experiments to use in the final game.
After we tested and iterated these prototypes, we connected them and designed landscapes on top of them.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Felix - I don't find much time to play games in recent years so I haven't played as many as I want to. But I have played 1979 Revolution: Black Friday and really enjoyed the way it taught me historic events I wanted to know more about. I was also deeply entrenched in She Remembered Caterpillars while playing it at Gamescom and PAX last year.
Clemens - Besides working and taking time for my family, I hardly have any time left actually playing games. When I do, I’m very selective and usually enjoy the lesser violent kind. An exception to that was Hyper Light Drifter, which I devoured within days. I really enjoyed Lieve Oma for its honesty and purity. On my lists of what I want to play is Virginia, Event, and Quadrilateral Cowboy.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
The market has matured and it takes a lot more effort to succeed. The costs to develop games that are able to stick out of the crowd have escalated and it's riskier to develop innovative titles, while the expectations to what small games can achieve have grown. These are hard times to start a games business and it's also hard work to keep a studio afloat. But if you manage to stick out there is a bigger audience than ever to play your games.